In the early days of console video gaming, there seemed to be little embarrassment at exploiting broad, rote story arcs in service of a few hours of electronic soothing. Nintendo, in particular, has this reality stamped and branded into their history — what the story of Mario (who I think it’s safe to call Nintendo’s Jesus) questing to save a kidnapped princess lacks in creative artfulness it makes up for in accessibility.
This is not to suggest the modern era doesn’t have a share of such simplicity (and, sadly but understandably, a similar tendency to minimize female characters while exalting the men standing opposite). The level of raw technological prowess present in our gaming devices has soared so improbably high since the late 1980s, however, that a developer may feel much harsher expectations. Excepting a flurry of independent games over the last few years (The Impossible Game unavoidably springs to mind), the consumer’s expectation of basic, competent and worthwhile use of modern computing power makes it more challenging to keep things light.
There was a whole generation of very modest, endlessly pleasurable (or when they were less than pleasurable, rewarding) games, back in that limited, 8-bit age, and they deserve to see a little more sun. With few moving parts, a brief intro, and no character development beyond what the player brings to its titular protagonist, The Adventures of Lolo stands out as a true, glimmering gem of early puzzle gaming. It was produced by HAL Laboratories, they of subsequent Kirby fame, and was released in North America on April 20th, 1989. Based on the Japan-only Eggerland series, it stars Lolo, a little ball of blue with two legs, arms, and enormous eyes. The introductory scene shows Lolo from a top-down perspective, reaching with an outstretched arm for that of his pink colored, physically identical girlfriend Lala,* who is being pulled away by an unseen assailant, crying all the while.
As the perspective moves behind Lolo, looking upwards, the full horror is revealed; the Great Devil, presumably the chief scourge of whatever realm it is where these critters reside, has captured her, and blasts off through the air, landing in a distant castle on the horizon. That castle — the Great Devil’s home turf — serves as the world’s singular notable location, rendered in rusty brown and surrounded by dying trees as Lolo approaches down a long path. This isn’t a sequence that is exactly well or broadly known, but there is a peculiar sort of artistry to it, so much so that it was extensively recreated in sensational indie game Super Meat Boy, in 2010.
The music is one of its few demerits, sadly — while the jaunty theme that accompanies you as you play isn’t offensive in and of itself, it’s the only background music you’ll encounter throughout the whole thing. Especially considering an accomplished player could forge through the game in a few hours, that’s a long time to listen to a minute and a half or so of looped music, and you may find yourself opting to mute it. The graphics are simple, but pleasing, and Lolo himself has charm. His invigorated thumbs-up as he climbs to a new floor, or his frenzied, garbled death-cry are inimitably his.
The Great Devil’s castle is divided into ten floors, each consisting of five rooms. Each room features what’s essentially a grid puzzle, with creatures or objects littered about the room that need to be moved or manipulated just so to unlock the door and move on. Varying amounts of pink blocks bearing white hearts on the side are scattered in each room, all of which Lolo must snap up to open a treasure chest. Inside each chest sits a pearl which when grabbed obliterates any potential threat in the room, and opens the passage onward.
This extra step is very crucial to the full conceit of the Lolo experience. It isn’t enough to simply grab all the hearts and scamper to the exit, having no doubt been forced to dodge any number of environmental hazards (notably the Medusa, a stone figure of the mythological monster which kills you instantly should you cross its gaze). You then retrieve the pearl, the true key, and then escape the room, sometimes while plagued anew with deadly skulls and flame breathing lizards.
The game’s core mechanic is pushing blocks, called emerald boxes, around the room to deflect various attacks, the Medusa and fire lizards in particular. Lolo is sometimes buoyed by collecting hearts, and awarded a special power – be it a hammer to smash an obstructing boulder, a bridge to cross a river, or a projectile attack that traps an enemy inside a movable egg when fired on target.
While trying to describe actual puzzles from the game in any detail would be pointless and counter-productive, suffice it to say that the progression of difficulty throughout the game is scaled nicely, in a way that both child or adult could encounter struggles, but with practice overcome them. With fifty puzzle screens, the game is a joy the first time through, but doesn’t have a terrible lot of replay value — if one waited a decade and picked it up again, maybe they’d have forgotten enough that it’d stump them once more. But as a raw brain twister on the NES, in the waning days of the 1980s, Lolo was about the most thorough mental workout a console game had to offer.
*Worth noting for fans of HAL Laboratories and their Kirby series, Lolo and Lala occupy that universe as well, though renamed Lololo and Lalala. In series progenitor Kirby’s Dream Land, the duo are less heroic — they’re working in service of Kirby’s arch-nemesis, the corpulent King Dedede.