An LJN Wipe Out that Could Represent Their Best Work
Licensed games are a strange rabbit hole. From bad games based on short-lived game shows to video games starring food mascots, the world of the licensed product tie-in is as broad as it is awful. There are games that break through and maintain a certain degree of longevity, however. One surprising example of this sustained notoriety is T&C Surf Designs: Wood & Water Rage. This may be the most polarizing of all of LJN’s titles and has many people saying it was the only good game released under the Rainbow of Death. So, is it good? Is it bad? Or, does it rest somewhere in between?
I have somewhat of a history with this game that goes back to the 80’s. A friend of mine owned this title and it became a vendetta of our’s to not only beat the cursed surfing stages, but finish the greater game entirely. Eventually we were successful, but it was a long, frustrating process. The reality is this is not a fun game, and there are a number reasons as to why playing through Wood & Water Rage is more of a task than an exciting leisure activity.
The first thing anyone who picks up Wood & Water Rage will likely notice is that the look is repetitive and ugly. Granted, for an NES game of its time, it does not look bad at all on a technical level but it is the redundant and lazy aesthetic that lacks focus and appeal. The industrial skateboarding stage looks as though it could have come from anywhere and the blue-washed wave of the surfing levels invokes a sense of hopelessness as you surf across the waters, as if to declare “you will never see anything new.” And with little to drive you forward besides the hope for progress, seeing the same stages on repeat grates on the senses.
This all goes to the game’s overall tone, which was obviously meant to have a fun, 80’s bent to it, but what we got instead is a surprisingly unpleasant visual experience as the “vibrant” hot pink, teal and yellow palette creates a pastel visual dystopia, like a year-old roll of SweetTarts found in a grimy crevasse in the deeper pits of Malebolge. Adding to that the droning, thumping, minor key music and the near-lack of other discernible sound effects besides the slide-whistle jumping noise makes this one a hard game to stomach. The artistic aspirations of this game do not extend past the candy store title screen that more resembles a Lisa Frank nightmare than anything from a major video game, leaving us trapped in a perpetual Limbo of ugly, blank menus and repetitive level design.
Mechanically, T&C Surf Designs: Wood & Water Rage suffers from both over-simplicity and a lack of clarity in its gameplay. The skateboarding levels offer no more challenge than the careful navigation of obstacles with poorly-defined hitboxes and jumping over a variety of pits and hurdles. Jumping on some moving objects, grinding the rail in the background, picking up coins and completing the stage with lives to spare earns you points as you are transported to the next stage, which is nearly-identical to the last with maybe a few variations in the pitfalls before you. One such addition to what this game would likely call a “difficulty curve” are the sentient baseballs that become increasingly more difficult to avoid (inconsistently-so). Another factor of annoyance is that jumping locks your Y position on screen for the duration of your airtime, which makes avoiding some obstacles a chore and also often results in you missing valuable scoring opportunities. There is also the requirement to hold back when jumping pits or obstacles to grab your board. This would be a nice touch except back also slows you down, meaning every single ollie over a piece of road furniture leads to you being dragged slowly back and losing precious momentum. When I pick the skating up, I could feel motivated to beat my high score for a time, but after a short investment of effort into the game, it is not uncommon for me to lose interest entirely. Devoting the time to “master” this game can only be described as “a waste thereof”.
Now, as bad as the skating levels are, the surfing stages actually manage to be worse. The confusing, inconsistent controls and lack of any interesting gameplay elements makes this the worst of the two parts. This is the result of separate-yet-equally-annoying components. First is the fact that any movement straying too far from perfect will send you hurdling backwards into the pipe and ultimately into full-wipeout mode or into a slow drift further and further to the bottom of the screen, the leaving of which also results in a loss of lives. Secondly is the lack of motivation to do any sort of tricks as airing off the crest of the wave can earn you points but is so inconsistent as to feel almost too much of a risk to be worthwhile. It can be learned overtime so that your air becomes more reliable and score-worthy, but there really is no point in executing tricks outside of breaking the monotony, netting a few more points and maybe earning a few extra lives to help get you to the end of the wave. Moving back and around in a loop can reset your position, but this requires doing so between traps that fly or float your way so while it is a necessary element, the fixed circumference of movement when looping around makes it easy to become the victim of purely bad luck. Because of these factors, if beating the stage is your goal, it is much safer to simply try to ride the wave out in a very vanilla, yet still-imbalanced straight run to the end.
Playing this game is an exercise in frustration and any fun to be had in arcade-style high-score attempts is lost after several runs through this gauntlet of repetition. There simply isn’t enough in the can to make this even really qualify as a complete game experience. There were games from that very same period that can require dozens of hours to complete that are far more fun and timeless than this, a game that can be mastered but only so while requiring heavy investment of time and patience into what ultimately amounts to a shallow experience. There are better arcade “quick fix” titles on the NES that will be far more gratifying than this weak, monotonous game.
Lastly, an interesting note about T&C Surf Designs: Wood & Water Rage is that it was “ghost written” in a sense by Atlus before being published under the LJN brand. Atlus would later go on to publish a number of quality sleeper imports in the U.S. and is still active to this day. They are most widely known for the Snim Megami Tensei series (which includes the Persona games) and has a released a number of classic must-play fighters such as the excellent PS2 title Arcana Heart. That said, with all of the illustrious history behind Atlus, when Wood and Water Rage was released for the NES, they were mostly known for their handy work on other LJN messes such as Friday the 13th and The Karate Kid.