Review by Bloomer

"A Girl's Garden is no place for wimps."

Bees and bears today
they're chasing me, oh no!
Play in my garden
I love to watch the flowers grow.
Such a sunny day
there's something you should know, and that is
Life's a girl's garden after all!

Yes, it was I who wrote these lyrics to accompany the terminally cute theme song that plays over and over as you enjoy Girl's Garden. I tell you, the chorus is just screaming out, 'LIFE'S A GIRL'S GARDEN AFTER ALL!'

This is not a game for wimps. You are going to play a pigtailed little girl, running around your garden in your best pink dress, picking flowers to give to your oh-so-fickle little beau. The cuteness factor is stunningly high, more so than most humans can deal with, and at the very least will cause your eyeteeth to hurt. If you can't unstick the shards of cynicism from your heart at the prospect of this game, you'd best run screaming for cover now. But for everyone else who is strong enough, prepare yourselves for the earnest charms of

Girl's Garden!

Sega released 'Girl's Garden' in 1984 for one of the Master System's predecessors, the SG1000. Were they really aiming just at young girls? Well, the most obvious answer would be 'YES!'. But Girl's Garden is a sorely challenging little number, and frankly, girls were not big gamers back in 1984. Frankly, most gamers of either sex playing this game now will be struggling after they pass round five. This game was also the first programming effort for Sega by a certain Yuji Naka. Who's he? This is the man who created both the original 'Phantasy Star' and more crucially, who was the chief conceptualist for Sonic the Hedgehog! Yes, the game which single-handedly reversed Sega's fortunes. So this is where he started...

Imagine a lovely garden portrayed in charmingly garish colours, vivid yellows and pinks and blues and greens. There's a fenced off little house in the centre with eyes and a mouth frozen in 'surprise' for the door. There's a sign on the house that says 'Wellcome', and no that is not a typo on my part! Now, let's change things a bit. When I said the young heroine was running around in the garden, replace the word 'garden' with the phrase 'deadly wilderness obstacle course worthy of a series of Survivor', and you're getting a more realistic picture.

The garden is about four screens wide horizontally, and scrolls 'endlessly' left and right with a wraparound effect. The view is one of those quasi-overhead quasi-sideways ones. The garden is filled with obstacles which merely impede progress, such as tree stumps and boulders, as well as ones which kill you - lakes and narrow bridges over rivers that you can fall off. There are numerous cute (but deadly) bears scampering about the wilderness, and contact with one makes you lose a life. Well, your life meter is actually called 'Love', and your lives are represented by little hearts that flutter up and break when you lose one. And when you lose a heart, the girl bawls her eyes out. We can't let that happen now, can we!?

You also have a time limit, which is hilariously depicted as a scale with you at one end, and another little girl (the RIVAL for your boyfriend!) at the other, with - get this - outstretched arms! As time passes, the little boy wanders more and more towards the other girl. She may have red hair and outstretched arms, but look, we have PIGTAILS!!! I don't know what the little guy is thinking. All characters, by the way, are presented in that very cute Japanese kiddie style. Think of the kids in Pokemon on the Gameboy and you're there.

The time limit doubles as your bonus meter. The faster you clear a level by picking ten flowers for a bouquet, the less distance the boy has to walk back to you, and the distance he walks is subtracted from your end level bonus. Clever!

Fortunately, growing amongst all of the hazards are scores of flowers. And this is the most innovative part of the game - they constantly bud, bloom, wither and die before your eyes in an accelerated life cycle. As the little girl with the pigtails, you have to dash about the hellish wilderness, er, garden, picking the fully-grown flowers. When you have the ten you need, you can return to the house where your pint-sized boyfriend will accept your bouquet with great ceremony. They even play the wedding theme! A little prematurely methinks. Somehow I don't expect this relationship to last, given that I'm falling off bridges, drowning in lakes and being ravaged by wild animals every ten seconds.

The end-of-level romance is quite short-lived anyway. As the heart symbolising the love wafts up into the air, an arrow fired mysteriously from offscreen (I suspect that other girl, the little siren!) hits the heart, which I guess means your beau is smitten with her again and you'll need to go pick more flowers to win him back! (Sheesh, I wish he'd give us some flowers sometime.)

Picking flowers that are under or over-grown in general still nets you points, and clears those flowers from the garden, prompting new growth elsewhere. But BEWARE! Picking an entirely dead black flower before it has disappeared destroys half of all the good flowers you have picked. As does losing a life to a bear or obstacle. This is quite harsh.

To ward off bears, you can dodge behind obstacles and flowers, and you also have a limited number of honeypots you can drop. Bears are distracted by the pots and will run over and slurp them down. You can safely walk past a bear who's eating. There's also a decent amount of strategy you can employ in choosing not to pick certain flowers so that you'll leave places to hide from the bears (who can't walk over the flowers.)

Generally, it's not easy! Bears fumble about a little, but they're always making for you in beeline fashion. They fumble less and are faster and more numerous as you complete more rounds. Your urge to hug walls to avoid bears will frequently see you tumbling off a bridge or into a lake where you will have a little cry before losing a life. You'd think in a kids' game they'd make the walls safe! Losing half your flowers is a major setback. At times you'll be forced to pick the dead 'bad news' flowers as you escape from bears, too. For a romp apparently aimed at little girls, this is one rough ride. But for regular gamers, it's really good stuff and highly addictive!

Fortunately we do have one ally too, the honeybee. This oversized critter glides back and forth over the playfield, dropping bonus items occasionally and perching on flowers. In a very nice touch, if you tag the honeybee while he's sitting on a flower, you get some more honey. As for his items, there are Pacman style fruits worth bonus points, clocks which restore time, a heart to up your Love meter, a bouquet of flowers to fill your flower meter instantly... and a skull, which SLAYS YOU INSTANTLY. Once again, I don't think the little girl players would have appreciated the inclusion of this last item.

Sure, the regular rounds are no pushover, but after every second round, there's the 'Challenging Stage'. When I see these two words appear on the screen now, I think, 'No kidding.'

You're running across a plain towards screen right in platform style, and packs of wild bears lope towards you, over whom you must jump. When I first hit the button my eyebrows bolted northwards as the tiny heroine flew thirty feet into the air. The whole thing doesn't even move particularly fast, but your jumps are so enormous and uncontrollable after you choose an initial direction that it's really difficult to avoid collisions. I mean, the bears need to have crossed about half the screen before you can determine the next best course of action. Reflexes and judgement are OUT and pattern memorisation is IN, as the bear formations don't change. And you'll still have a hell of a time trying to leap the twenty bears necessary to get some extra love. Yes, the reward for success is to rendezvous with your boyfriend again for a few seconds, as well as the bonus points.

'Being mauled by wild bears could not drag me away from you, my sweet!'

Most of the time you won't survive three bears.

With the wacky Challenging Stages aside (and they don't cost lives, so that's a relief), the core flower-collecting bear-dodging action is great fun. This challenging game, with its emphasis on your score and trying to increase it every time you play, is really addictive. It also has a wonderful mid-80s arcade feel about it, from the endearing but repetitive music to the bright fields of pure colour, to the character and animation styles and the mazey gameplay. You have to be smart on the stick to dodge the bears and weave through and about the blooming flowers whilst dodging the dead ones.

Just getting back to your house can prove to be a major strategic adventure. You need to choose when to wait around for flowers to grow, when to hide, and when to bolt for freedom! If you're like me, you'll always forget to drop the honey in time as you bravely try to duck and weave your way out of some impossible situation. There's both a high degree of skill and a pleasing dash of luck involved, as you cross your fingers hoping the honeybee will soon come bearing gifts.

And as I've said, the cuteness factor in this game is beyond the experience of most people. The dozey bears, the pigtailed girl in her pink dress (anyone pick up that I like pigtails?), the blooming flowers, the fluttering hearts, the 'Love' meter, and the joyous theme music. It's dumb and wondrous in a way that will cause cynics to implode. Let's forget about the hilarious implication that girls should run a gauntlet of wild bears for love, and forget that this game is plainly too hard for its intended audience. This is Charm City as well as being a highly playable and challenging game that will keep you chasing your highest scores. I'm also utterly thrilled that the creator of a game as insane as this one went onto such greatness in Sega gaming history. For a dose of 80s arcadia which is both rigorous and ultra-cute, in the vein of such games as 'Pooyan', come and have a play in this Girl's Garden now!

As for the target audience, I just hope that all those little girls who played this in 1984 turned into pro gamers and not basket cases.

-- Girl's Garden -- 7/10 --


Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 03/31/01, Updated 08/11/02


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