Retro Game Of The Week: Clu Clu Land (NES)

Clu Clu Land
Clu Clu Land is a curio in Nintendo’s vast games library; it’s fun for a limited stretch, as well as an interesting snapshot of what was going on in early 80s game design.

In Retro Game Of The Week I pull a game from my collection and write about why it’s important or interesting. Or in some cases, badly dated and rubbish.

Game design ideas — and their popularity — definitely go in cycles. Have a hit game, and you can be assured that there will be clones, some more subtle than others as quickly as a few underpaid developers can be whipped into shape. In a retro sense, for the 90s that was Doom clones, a little earlier platform games building off Super Mario Bros… and before that, seemingly endless Pac-Man clones.

At first glance, Nintendo’s Clu Clu Land could seem like it’s a copy-with-the-serial-numbers-filed-off of Namco’s dot-munching chum. There’s a maze, there’s a fast moving protagonist and a handful of enemies that track you through that maze.

Clu Clu Land: If the lawyers ask, we've never even HEARD of Pac-Man.

If the lawyers ask, we’ve never even HEARD of Pac-Man.

While there’s something of an intellectual debt here, Clu Clu Land does something subtly different. It uses those maze-and-chase mechanics, but set instead as a puzzle game with a very challenging control system.

Any other standard maze game just uses up-down-left-right D-Pad controls to guide your character, but in Clu Clu Land you instead guide your arms, swinging yourself around poles to uncover what the game manual swears are “gold bars”, but what any long-time Nintendo fan will recognise as the rupees from any Zelda game. Find all the rupees, sorry, gold bars in the time limit, and you move onto the next maze.

Clu Clu Land: This mushroom pattern also feels familiar somehow. Don't tell me, I'll get it...

This mushroom pattern also feels familiar somehow. Don’t tell me, I’ll get it…

Except that Clu Clu Land predates Zelda, so strictly speaking, Link’s been collecting the rupees from Clu Clu Land all these years, not the other way around.

A momentary diversion, if I may: It wasn’t until researching for this week’s game that I realised it even had a plot at all. As per the manual:

The evil Sea Urchin has hidden a pattern of gold bars on Clu Clu Land in an underground mystery maze. It’s up to you to find the gold before time runs out. But beware – the Sea Urchin will do everything in his power to stop you. Because of some strange power that works in Clu Clu Land, you’ll find it hard to turn around freely. The only way you can turn is by hooking a hand around a turn post or bouncing off a wall. Face the Sea Urchin alone, or with a friend and try to uncover the mystery pattern.

Well, OK, then.

Also, you’re a fish called Bubbles (or apparently Gloopy if you’re playing the Japanese version), collecting rupees with your… hands.

Remind me again how games developers in the 80s promise that they weren’t on all the drugs. I promise I’ll listen this time.

Further aside: This is a terrible, terrible game to play if you have problems with flashing light patterns, because there’s a LOT of them, especially when you end a level. Basically it’s Nintendo saying “Hey, got light sensitivity, 80s kid? Well, we’re going to solve that… BY KILLING YOU.”

The reason why I didn’t bother with Clu Clu Land’s plot is that it’s not a hard game to grasp, though it is quite a tough one to play. The first level kind of suckers you in with a slow pace so you can start to wrap your mind around the controls, but then you’re off to the races, and fast.

Clu Clu Land: If you find anything at all suggestive in this image, then it's you that has the dirty mind. Not Nintendo. Obviously.

If you find anything at all suggestive in this image, then it’s you that has the dirty mind. Not Nintendo. Obviously.

A game in which you can freely shoot at your foes — they’re apparently electric shocks but this is underwater, and I don’t even want to think about how the physics of that works, or why you then have to crush them against walls like they’re cookies or something for that matter — might seem like it’s a pushover, but it’s not.

Two player mode does make things a little simpler, but this is still a simple pick-up-and-play-for-a-little-while style game, especially in a modern context.

Clu Clu Land: Gotta go fast! (and this was years before Sonic, too.)

Gotta go fast! (and this was years before Sonic, too.)

So why choose it for this week’s Retro Game Of The Week if I’m not going to talk about the Zelda connection? No, wait, I already did that, case covered.

It’s because I want to talk about my copy… and I guess that means I have to show you my copy.

Are you ready?

Clu Clu Land: MINT CONDITION!!!* (*May have some small cosmetic flaws, but still R@RE!

MINT CONDITION!!!* (*May have some small cosmetic flaws, but still R@RE!)

No, I didn’t do that to the label, though I do sometimes wonder what the original owner did to hit that particular damage pattern. The odds seem insanely low, but if this was your personal copy back in the day, drop me a line; I’d love to know.

Anwyay, amidst the current absolute hype typhoon that exists around retro game prices, common knowledge would tell you that a game like this, which isn’t particularly rare anyway, is basically worthless.

I not-so-humbly disagree. Sure, it would be nicer with a proper label on it, and I keep the price sticker I paid for it in place as it’s effectively this copy’s provenance, but when I pop it into my NES, it plays just fine. Yes, I like having a games “collection”, for sure, but you know what I like even more?

Clu Clu Land: What I like is not BEING HAUNTED BY THIS FACE IN MY DREAMS FOREVER NOW

What I like is not BEING HAUNTED BY THIS FACE IN MY DREAMS FOREVER NOW

OK, that, and actually playing games. That’s what the hobby should be about, not slabbing games away in perspex and deciding that they’re worth a million bucks or something daft like that.

How to play Clu Clu Land (NES) now

Clu Clu Land: Sudden rubber bands appearing in front of your face is apparently "normal".

Sudden rubber bands appearing in front of your face is apparently “normal”.

This one’s really easy, even though in my research I did discover that Clu Clu Land actually had an arcade release too. Huh. There’s a thing you might not have already known. I certainly didn’t.

In any case, it’s one of the titles included with the base level Switch Online subscription, so that’s your easiest route to legally playing it whenever you feel like it.

There’s also an Arcade Archives version for Switch if you felt like “owning” a pure digital copy, and a hidden version in Animal Crossing for the GameCube if you’re still rocking one of Nintendo’s lovely little handle-included boxes of joy. There’s also a GameBoy Advance version if you wanted to track that down, though you’ll need a LOT of luck not to end up with one of the roughly billion Chinese clone cartridges for that system.

What about if you wanted something you could drop into an actual Nintendo Entertainment System?

There’s a massive, and I do mean massive variance in sold prices on eBay, from around $2 for a Japanese copy to anywhere up to $80-$100 for a cart-only US NES copy. Weird.

Right now, Japanese copies are still way more prevalent (funny, that) at around $2-$8 loose, while western copies will run you around $20-$50.

Or, if you hate actually playing games, you can buy a slabbed prototype version for stupid money.

Actually, with my do-some-evil hat on, do just that and use that link — I’d get a pretty tasty affiliate cut of that price if you did.

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