It's always interesting to return to a game that you haven't played since your childhood. Before you develop qualitative reasonings behind "good" vs "bad", games are simply games: digital challenges you're meant to overcome. Sure, some of them are harder than others, but you don't yet have a nuanced understanding to differentiate between a carefully curated difficulty and a RNG-based one. Generally, stuff you can beat is fair, and whatever you can't beat is unfair. Later on you might return to realize that what you thought was impossible or unfair is actually wisely balanced, and what you thought was fair—just because you could beat it—may be far from what you'd label as "good."
Enter Frogger, the rad 1997 reboot of the old arcade game. I'm not quite sure when I got it on PC, but I was at least 10 or 11 years old—and Frogger was tough. It wasn't tough like Doom 2 on Nightmare or the Starcraft campaign, but it was challenging enough to stump me... primarily because I didn't know how to rotate the camera. I returned a few years later to it and beat it, cementing it as one of my favorite platformers that wasn't a 2D sidescroller. My fondness for it was such that every time I saw the cover image, my heart would soar and I would think, "Man, I should play that again." Now at over double the age I beat it at, I've returned to complete Frogger once more...
... and uh, let's just say I am ambivalent.
First off, I love how this game looks. It's bright, peppy, and always vivid, even in dark or murky areas like the caves and sewers. Every locale feels distinct, housing unique platforms and foes, though all either does is follow a predetermined loop around the stage. Still, as a big fan Super Mario Bros 3 and Mega Man, the focus on strongly-themed zones is right up my alley, and in a way Frogger might've helped shaped that. I also like how quick and snappy the green amphibian feels, allowing you to effortlessly zip past enemies if you see a gap in their pathing. For a game that looks so kid-friendly, you might be surprised at how fast you can move—and how fast you'll need to move.
That's because Frogger is ruthlessly challenging. The game takes roughly 8-10 hours to beat, though a single stage's playtime rarely runs over five minutes. With only 28 stages total that means there's about 6-8 hours that you're going to spend dying over and over and OVER. Deaths will come suddenly and without mercy; should the faintest sliver of Frogger's hitbox brush against an enemy's leg, that frog's as dead as roadkill. If there's another thing I can commend the game for, it's that the starting arcade-throwback zone is the perfect indicator of how mean-spirit the game will soon become.
A big part of Frogger's difficulty lies in the fact that the game is unabashedly oldschool, valuing your patience for trail and error far more than quick reflexes or clever thinking. Every level has five frogs you'll need to rescue strewn somewhere across it, and while you can get a handful of them without foreknowledge, expect to discover most while making a suicidal dash through the stage. You'll be hemmed in by three aspects that make the world of Frogger a menace to explore: a strict timer, asynchronous patterns, and a camera that's glued to your slimy back.
The timer is the most threatening aspect that, ironically, won't actually kill you most of the time. It can be absurdly tight on some stages, pressuring you to barrel through the level without delay—and as you can imagine, this will often send you straight into the jaws of doom. Yet while I can appreciate a game with a no-nonsense timer, the asynchronous patterns are a massive headache to deal with. Crisscrossing foes or parallel platforms fall in and out of sync as stages drag on, and neither dying nor rescuing a frog will reset them. On a decent number of levels this is somewhat manageable, but when your path narrows down to a one-way road, expect an unavoidable death to pop up most of the time.
Adding salt to this wound is the camera, which will zoom in and out whenever it pleases. Sometimes you'll be riding a single-space platform, unable to see where you're going—and Frogger isn't shy about tossing you off a cliff. Other times you'll be trekking down that dreaded one-way road, unable to observe if the crisscrossing enemies are in sync until it's too late and you're sandwiched. The stage that exemplifies this problem the most is Big Boulder Alley, a monstrous experience that took me a good two hours to finally beat, requiring a level of memorization and planning that would make Battletoads jealous. Seriously, a full day later and I still remember it clearly: go east, hop over two bugs, north, hop over one bug, east, then south, double hop two bugs, double hop two bugs, east two spaces, hop, east two spaces, hop, north, hop two bugs, north until wall. That's only half of the path to a single frog and a fraction of a second worth of delay will ruin the entire run.
The cherry on top of this devil's dessert is that there's no "retry" option when you pause the game; as you die, your muscle memory becomes useless as the entire level is out of sync. For the easier levels this doesn't pose a problem, but there's a number of difficult levels where you absolutely can't see what's coming up ahead of you (Retro Level 5, Frogger Goes Skiing, Resevoir Frogs), making it feel like you're playing blindfolded. And on top of this you're booted straight to the main menu whenever you game over, despite that the game uses a level select system that can take you right back to where you were. Why no "retry stage" options? What was the reasoning here? At times Frogger just feels plain mean-spirited for the sake of it, as if it's harkening back to the arcade days where the layman was given no quarter (or rather, gave all their quarters, ba-dum-tss)
In the I end, I still enjoyed my time with Frogger. The game is embedded so firmly in my nostalgia center that I could never hate it. But the simple premise and warm colors belie a game with an unaccommodating design, one that really needed to use the brake pedal more often. At times it's interestingly and fairly designed—the final level is a well-balanced obstacle course—but Frogger's worst offenders drag the game down considerably, reverting you back to a red-faced child about to toss their controller. On one hand I'm impressed that I managed to conquer Frogger at a young age, but on the other I can see why it fell through the cracks and was forgotten post-adolescence.
Images obtained from: arcadingonline.com, myabandonware.com