This article was originally published at Another-Castle.com
The Brothers Are History
Back in the mid-90’s, I was given a Commodore 64 by family friends. It included joysticks, a disc drive and a whole lot of (mostly copied) games. Many of these discs were either mislabelled, unlabeled or contained multiple games; so I spent a lot of time going through them and making a note of the ones with great games. Even though I was used to the then cutting edge games on Nintendo 64 and PC, I still got a lot of enjoyment out of classics like Commando, Law of the West and Paperboy. One of the games I found during that time was The Great Giana Sisters, a game which while entertaining was also blatantly derivative of the original Super Mario Bros.
At the time I had no idea of the games background or history. With all the information available now, what once was confined to print gaming magazines and word of mouth can easily be learned. The Great Giana Sisters, like Commander Keen started out as a computer port of Super Mario Bros. that was unsurprisingly rejected by Nintendo. Unlike Commander Keen, Giana Sisters (at least superficially), didn’t do a whole lot to distinguish itself from its inspiration and a cease and desist from Nintendo saw it off store shelves very quickly. The remaining copies were soon copied and spread among enthusiasts, perhaps making the game more popular than it would have even been otherwise. Over twenty years later and with the full story available to all, the original designer was able to bring a reimagined game on to the Nintendo DS in 2009. Ironically, the company that inspired and then commercially killed the original, was able to bring the series to audiences old and new, the success of which led to the more recent Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams.
The original games title, art design and early stages were so obviously taken from Super Mario Bros. that it is hard to appreciate how much of an achievement the game actually was. For a start, there was nothing quite like it available on the Commodore 64 or most other gaming systems at the time. Secondly, the soundtrack was original, excellent and is now some of the most fondly remembered Commodore 64 music. Lastly, while the initial stages were certainly very similar to its inspiration, the power ups and the latter levels in Giana Sisters did distinguish it somewhat from its inspiration. Enough so at least, that it is not hard to understand how it became such an underground hit or that it spawned so much fan-made content and unofficial sequels right into the 2000s.
With a new art design, levels and a soundtrack featuring a mix of old and stylistically similar new tracks: Giana Sisters DS stands on its own merits. Yes, Giana Sisters still sounds like Mario Brothers, there is still a power-up that lets you shoot, you can smash blocks with your head, collect things and jump on enemies and platforms. This applies to an awful lot of games in the genre though and with how misused the word “clone” has become, it seems all the more trivial today. Giana Sisters DS also features an overworld, autosaves after every level and checkpoints. These features all make the game a lot more forgiving than the original in which you were unable to save or farm lives.
Most levels are quite short – often less than a minute if focusing only on getting to the end. The gameplay is extended by the red gems found in the majority of levels. Collecting all in each level of a world will unlock a bonus level. Even casual players wanting to see the game through to the end will likely want to do this as it adds both challenge and in later levels – a lot more exploration. As an added incentive, the bonus stage of the eighth world is a marathon run through the original games 32 levels. Seeing these levels late in the game had me appreciating the vertical gameplay not present in the original.
Giana Sisters DS also has a few DS specific features. There is touch screen support for the menus and also to activate two new power-ups. There is a bubblegum power-up that lets the character float. This is controlled by blowing the microphone but this can be thankfully switched to button taps. There is also a cola power-up to that can be used to destroy blocks. This one is far more gimmicky but there are a couple of levels that make good use of it. Both power-ups add some variety and are used sparingly enough that they remain unique.
Giana Sisters DS is not a particularly lengthy or difficult game but in my experience the gameplay remained consistently engaging right through to the end. That’s not to say there weren’t challenging stages, just that most were generally easy to get through. With the inclusion of the originals 32 levels and over 80 original stages, the game is a solid recommendation for platforming enthusiasts. This goes especially for those interested in the history of the genre. There also aren’t a whole lot of great platformers on the DS outside of the Castlevania series and New. Super Mario Bros. The game is also available on mobile platforms though I haven’t played those versions. Giana Sisters DS is simultaneously a fun piece of gaming history and one of the most unlikely games Nintendo has ever licensed.