Crapshoot: Doctor Who travels through time to a sewer level in Dalek Attack

From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about bringing random obscure games back into the light. This week… knock knock!

What do we expect from Doctor Who? Time-bending weirdness, no doubt. Light-hearted banter. Heartwarming scenes and/or heartbreaking drama. If it followed the example of Dalek Attack though, it'd start with the Doctor saying "I use guns now. Guns are cool!" and then heading off on a universe-spanning adventure to blow up every single alien who's ever gotten in their face.

(Well, as long as they started with the Slitheen, I could probably tolerate it...)

But does spectacularly missing the point of the entire character to churn out a dreadful platform game make Dalek Attack a bad game in its own right? No, but that's OK. The jumping, shooting, difficulty, graphics, sound and everything else are all on-board to help out, as the Doctor has the kind of day that makes repeatedly getting shot by an impossible astronaut seem positively relaxing.

Why have we never seen a genuinely great Doctor Who game? As mentioned the last time we looked at one, the confusing mess that was Destiny of the Doctors, it seems like a great license. You have a character who can go anywhere in time and space, an amazing rogues gallery of both old and new characters alike, and some of the most iconic sci-fi images in the world.

The problem is that everything that makes the Doctor a great character makes them a dreadful game hero. They're meant to know more than we do, think in different ways, understanding the universe in infinitely greater ways. The Companions are firmly the audience-identification figures, with the big wish-fulfilment to tap into typically being the idea of travelling with the Doctor and having adventures in time and space, not actually being the Doctor. It's the same with other great fictional characters, like Sherlock Holmes. On the face of it, a detective game that lets you be The World's Greatest Detective is an obvious idea. In practice, having him stare for hours at a crime scene due to not spotting a giant footprint or something completely neuters his power. Much like with the Doctor, the sensible thing to do (and something some of the games have actually done) is to cast you as Watson instead.

Dalek Attack follows a slightly different path to the license—the "create a cheap platform game and put the Doctor's face on it" route that was so popular back at the time. It's difficult to tell what the most horrifying part of it is—that the default characters are Sylvester McCoy and bloody Ace, that the entire plot is only the letter 's' in the title away from being the entire storyline, or that the first level is a sewer level. 

The rules here are pretty simple. Are you making a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game? Your first level may be set in a sewer. Are you making any other game whatsoever? Then the moment you start working on a sewer level is the time to put down your keyboard and back away slowly from the games industry. These levels have precisely one purpose: to make every other kind feel better in comparison. Starting in one is never anything but an "AWOOGA! AWOOGA!" alarm siren.

It's not particularly clear why the Doctor opted for this. The intro kicks off with a group of sickly looking Daleks announcing "THIS IS ONLY THE BEGIN-NING!" and... well... you can't argue the logic there. Sadly, they don't keep showing up for the other screens to clarify "THIS IS ONLY THE MAIN MENU!" and "THIS IS WHERE YOU CHOOSE YOUR CONTROLS, DOC-TOR!" 

From there, it's on to the Dalek home planet of Skaro, complete with a little sticker that says "First To Check The Timeline To See If This Is Blown Up Is A Geek", in the 'Earth Year' 2254. Dalek creator Davros, temporarily enjoying not having his creations turn on him due to his endlessly poor pattern recognition, announces that "Over the past 100 years, we have witnessed the human race advance their scientific knowledge to the point of becoming a threat. It is time for this problem to be rectified."

"We must destroy the pods and reverse the beams before Davros turns the Earth into a Dalek production planet!!!" declares the Sylvester McCoy Doctor, as the invasion begins. I suppose in fairness, if you're already in that much shit, you may as well just jump into the sewer. Still, I'm not entirely sure it's a three-exclamation-mark level threat. Two, perhaps. But only at a pinch.

McCoy's Doctor is the official hero of this game, complete with that creepy wink he used to do in the intro as the game starts off, although you can also play as either Tom Baker or Patrick Troughton versions. A second player can walk off in a huff after being told they have to play as McCoy-era Companion Ace or a generic UNIT soldier, or take the other half of the keyboard and play too. The extra firepower is welcome, because this game is, to use the technical term, rat-bastard hard .

The first level eases you in slowly, and by slowly I mean it has you on a forced-scrolling, cramped level where everything does damage, with a sprite that takes up about half the available room, being chased by two Daleks you can't turn around and shoot, and with lots of walls you will smash right into. Your basic choice is to rush forwards and take damage, or take it slow and be shot in the back by the Daleks. Green globby things rain down slime from the top of the screen, spikes stab in from either side, and at the end, there's a two-headed boss who can kill you dead in an instant if you bumble into its major attack. It's not desperately difficult—it's no Silver Surfer for instance—but it's sure as hell a statement of intent from the game. "This is how we welcome you," it whispers. "Prepare to die..."

It does have one thing I love though: the chaser Daleks. While the intro uses what sound like authentic samples, the sewer-patrolling Daleks have a notably higher pitch to them, like they're ones who've already had the pleasure of the Doctor kicking them in the bumps on a few previous occasions. That would definitely explain why they're not exactly racing to catch up and try EXT-ER-MIN-ATEing, to the point of just slinking off when the boss arrives. "JERRY WILL TAKE CARE OF THIS," I imagine one of them shouting. "SOD IT," announces the other. "LET US GO BEAT UP VICTOR LEWIS SMITH!"

As of the second level, London, Dalek Attack really takes the gloves off and spits in your face. You start surrounded by enemies, they can often adjust their fire to hit you even if you're jumping around, your weapons are rubbish and the map is at least a bit of a maze. It's made confusing by weird things like the Doctor being able to run across the Thames, but taking damage for it like a hydrophobic Jesus, and the design coming across as having been built by people who've only ever had London vaguely described to them, and by an alien from Pluto at that. Despite being The Future, it's full of brick buildings, red phone booths and pubs called The Red Lion promising Real Pub Food, with Chubb alarms up high, Big Ben right behind a street that leads into Piccadilly tube station, neon adverts for McDonalds and Kodak in the backgrounds of the map, and large pointy signs everywhere pointing to Oxford, as if even the town planners are desperate to warn you that "London is shit! Run! Run! RUN!"

Oh, and in classic sci-fi tradition, The Times' cover story is "DALEKS INVADE LONDON". Can't argue that's probably going to be the biggest story of the day, but you do have to wonder about the priorities of the news team that wrote that, the distributors who got it to the shops, and the civilians who stopped running for a moment to find out what the pepperpot monsters chasing them were called. But then, this is an early 90s game. There's no way a modern Doctor Who would do anything so lame, right?

Surviving London isn't easy, or helped by the fact that while the Doctor has several lives, they all come in quick succession and it's easy to find yourself burning through your limited continues. If you're lucky though, you'll end up facing off against the first boss, and from there, heading off to France.

Here, things change quite a bit. Instead of shooting, the Doctor opts to go undercover as mild-mannered cafe owner Rene Artois, on the hunt for an ancient artefact known as The Fallen Madonna With Ze Big Boobies by Van Klomp. The Daleks are replaced with far cuddlier Nazi and urinating cats, though the Brigadier has sent one of his colleagues, Officer Crabtree and no wait, sorry, I'm thinking of Allo Allo: Cartoon Fun, published by the same people and very suspiciously similar looking.

From personal experience, I can't really tell you what comes next, due to completely sucking at this game. However! Luckily, the original advert is very clear on what to expect, promising enemies ranging from Daleks to Flying Daleks to... robot Sumo Wrestlers? Were they feeling nostalgic for the days when they couldn't go upstairs, or just wanted to give the Doctor a chance against them? Weird.

If you can't live without knowing how the story ends, seek help immediately. If you're merely quietly curious, here's a complete playthrough. It's of the smelly Amiga version, but the two versions are (as far as I can tell) pretty much the same. At the very least, the PC one isn't worlds better.

Where next for games about the Doctor? Will they have ever learn to actually be good games as well as good publicity? We can but hope. Really though, I'd cut them a lot of slack if they just finally gave us an official game that used funky portal effects to let you walk into the actual TARDIS and appreciate its bigger-on-the-insideness for yourself. Why has that never been done? It can only be madness, because the tech to do it has been around since Unreal in 199-fricking-8. 

[Be careful what you wish for. —Ed.]