During the late 1980’s, every game company wanted a game as big and great as Super Mario Bros. With good reason – it sold millions, kids loved it, merchandise was flying off the shelf and it help push the Nintendo Entertainment System into the homes of many families. While most developers and publishers would be content just to make their own thing and hope for the best, one in particular decided to outright clone Super Mario Bros., for better or worse.
The Great Giana Sisters
Year: 1987, 1988, 1993
Developer: Time Warp Productions
Publisher: Rainbow Arts
Platform: Commodore 64, Commodore Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, MSX, PC (DOS)
The Commodore 64 was an incredibly popular system in European territories. The NES never gained a massive amount of users in the region due to Nintendo handing everything off to Mattel, who didn’t exactly do a great job of marketing it to users or developers. Even so, Super Mario Bros. was a big thing no matter where you were in the world. Time Warp Productions, lead by programmer Armin Gessert, wanted to bring Super Mario Bros. to the leading European platform and put together a prototype to show Nintendo, who were not interested in having the game on any platform but their own. Time Warp were not the last company to try this tactic – in 1990 id Software, later the creators of Commander Keen, Doom and Quake, attempted the same but for IBM PC. Likewise they were turned down and their game, with a lot less lifted wholesale, became Dangerous Dave. Time Warp, not terribly disheartened, continued to work on the game with a change in graphics and some level layouts. In 1987, Rainbow Arts released The Great Giana Sisters, a game that’s “just like Mario“.
The Great Giana Sisters, if the name didn’t give it away, is unabashedly a Super Mario Bros. clone. The first level, second level, and a fair few after lift their stage designs wholesale from Nintendo‘s classic. The graphics are reminiscent, the core gameplay is essentially the same but far less polished or refined. The premise is one of the few things that separate the two games: Young Giana (and her sister Maria, should you choose to play with a friend) falls asleep one night and finds herself in a weird dream land. She somehow knows that if she finds the big blue “dreamcrystal” she can awaken and return to the real world. Regular dreamcrystals scatter the land, an obvious stand-in for coins.
There were graphically impressive games released for the Commodore 64, despite the system’s low cost and rushed design/production, but The Great Giana Sisters is not one of those games. There are few colours, not many background objects or decorations and not much variation at all. There are only a couple of types of enemies, including owls that happen to simply shuffle across the floor in your general direction, fulfilling the role of a goomba in Nintendo‘s platformer. Enemies are generally spread out across the level – it’s rare to have more than one on screen at once. The game does run smoothly and without graphical glitches, but lacks any real character or charm aside from the splash screen which is an almost nightmare-inducingly rendered image of Giana. The graphical artist, Manfred Trenz would go on two years later to create the incredibly impressive Turrican for Rainbow Arts.
The Great Giana Sisters‘ music was composed by SID (Sound Interface Device, the Commodore 64‘s sound chip produced by MOS Technology) superstar Chris Hülsbeck and is probably the game’s greatest claim to fame outside of its controversy. The game’s songs, though few, are memorable and well composed. Combined with his work on Turrican in 1990, The Great Giana Sisters is largely why Hülsbeck became a name often spoken of by enthusiasts, both when the Commodore 64 was active and now. The title song was popular and well-loved by Commodore enthusiasts, so much so that in 2001 Machinae Supremacy, an industrial/alternative metal band in Sweden gained visibility by covering the theme song and putting it up on their website as a free download – an unprecedented move in an age where bands such as Metallica were doing their best to make people pay for music.
The gameplay of The Great Giana Sisters leaves a lot to be desired. It’s easy to encounter issues such as sticking to the inside of a block, for instance. There’s a power-up that allows you to shoot a fireball as a projectile attack just like Super Mario Bros., but it doesn’t grant you any protection, you will still die in one hit. Some stages have a boss that just like the boss stages in Super Mario Bros., can either be attacked and defeated with projectiles, or run under/over and avoided. However the hit-detection on these bosses is incredibly awful and the area they are in is very cramped, making it near impossible to run under them. Likewise, if you get hit by them you lose your powerups and die, and the continue point is always right before the boss, without any powerups on the way. In that sense, dying once to a boss all but guarantees you a game-over. Unless you happen to know the continue cheat-code (hold the letters A-R-M-I-N at the title screen) that means starting the game from scratch. The platforming feels loose and awkward – it’s very easy to slip off of a platform during an area where you need to make pixel precise jumps. Once the initial novelty wears off, there’s very little reason to continue playing the game.
The game’s incredible likeness to Super Mario Bros. lead Nintendo into strong-arming Rainbow Arts into removing the game from sale with a threat of legal action if they continued to sell it. A common internet rumour is that Nintendo took Rainbow Arts to court, however this is entirely untrue. Before being removed from sale the game had been on store shelves for a short time and ported to several other computer platforms.
Amstrad CPC (1988): The game has a considerably different look on the CPC – it’s much more colourful than the original though the viewable area is smaller. Unfortunately Giana moves incredibly slowly and also on a grid. There’s also no sound at all. This version is probably best forgotten.
Atari ST (1988): Visually almost identical to the Commodore 64 version of the game, except that for some reason the game doesn’t actually scroll. Instead, when you get to the end of the screen, the right half is shifted to the left, the left half discarded in the process and whatever is ahead of you is drawn to the right half. There’s a noticeable delay when this happens and it’s absolutely unforgivable in a game that requires you to make long, precise jumps to areas you can’t immediately see. There seems to be no reason for this to happen, as the Atari ST can do hardware scrolling.
Commodore Amiga (1988): This version ends up being better than the original. The graphics are more vibrant and detailed, the controls are more responsive and the sound is much cleaner. The jumping physics are also altered so that you get more air-time, making the game a good deal easier to get through.
Sinclair ZX Spectrum (Cancelled):The Spectrum port was cancelled due to Nintendo‘s legal pressure. While it was reviewed in several Spectrum magazines shortly beforehand, all that exist of it today are some screenshots, showing that it lacked any colour whatsoever and looked more akin to a Tiger LCD game than anything else.
MSX (1993): A seemingly unofficial, years late port, by a company in the Netherlands called Sunrise. The MSX system lacks any scrolling capabilities, but Sunrise worked around this far better than the Atari ST port did, having one column to the left disappear and everything else shift over to match. While it’s at first a little jarring, it doesn’t interrupt the game at all and before long it’s hard to notice it happening. The hit detection and controls are much better than the original game, and the music is different but quite good. Bizarrely, the owls are replaced with what appear to be Super Mario Bros. goombas, and another enemy is replaced with suspiciously familiar turtles.
IBM PC DOS (1998): Another unofficial port. Originally released as part of a competition in Germany, called Mekka & Symposium, where the goal was to create visually and audibly impressive bits of software in tiny amounts of space. As one of the entries, the game only takes of up 32 kilobytes of space, which is roughly the amount of text in this article up to this point multiplied by four. As such, there are a few things missing, such as Giana’s powerups. Another version of the game with these omissions and some extra additions such as sound effects from the Amiga version was released later in the year. There’s yet another version that features some Christmas levels. Generally this version plays well, though it is possible to lodge yourself into some walls accidentally.
Due to the legal issues surrounding the game, there were not many copies produced – most people played the game due to rampant piracy on the Commodore 64. Legitimate copies of the game are rare and few in number; when they do show up on auction sites they tend to be very expensive. However, the DOS version is freeware, runs on modern systems with the aid of DOSBOX, plays well and as such would be the suggested way of experiencing The Great Giana Sisters.
A sequel to The Great Giana Sisters was originally in development, but the legal pressure around the original game facilitated a change of name and an entirely new set of graphics. Thus, Hard’n’Heavy was released by Time Warp and Rainbow Arts in 1989. It plays similarly to the original game, but with original level designs and slightly more responsive controls, though it is visually bland and nearly colourless.
Twenty years later however, a proper sequel to The Great Giana Sisters was announced. Hilariously it was for a Nintendo platform, the DS.
Giana Sisters DS
Developer: Spellbound Entertainment
Publisher: DTP Entertainment/Destineer
Platform: Nintendo DS, Android, iOS
After leaving Time Warp in 1988 Armin Gessert eventually founded his own company, Spellbound Entertainment, in 1994. Spellbound produced the Desperados series and Airline Tycoon, which were well liked, as well as some contract work such as later entries in the Gothic series, but didn’t have many hits of their own. Giana Sisters DS was somewhat of a risk, and certainly a labour of love.
Almost a remake or reimagining, Giana Sisters DS has the same story as the original game. Giana falls asleep one night and winds up in a dream world, her only chance of escape being the large dreamcrystal. The gameplay is relatively similar, though Giana’s “punk” power-up now gives her an extra hit as well as giving her a fireball attack and changing her looks entirely.
Giana Sisters DS‘ visuals are vibrant and smooth. The art design was done by Alexander “Pikomi” Pierschel, who had previously worked on animating some German direct-to-video cartoons, but is better known for his softcore pornographic drawings. Pierschel‘s in-game art has a lot of character and colour, making a good match for the dream-like tone of the game. There are only five ‘types’ of stages, grassy plains, watery caves, castles, a fiery underworld and a snow covered field but they are distinct and rotated around enough to not be a problem. Cleverly, one late game stage is an extended, snowed-over version of the first stage, complete with a sign instructing you to press the A button to jump.
The game’s levels are a bit on the short side, but this winds up making them much easier to digest as well as not blocking your progress too much if you hit a particularly tough level. While stages start off almost offensively easy, the game builds and maintains a good level of challenge as it goes on. The later levels are properly difficult without resorting to cheap obstacles. In some of these levels, Giana acquires two items to help her progress – a shaken up bottle of carbonated drink and bubble gum.
The drink is humorously used to destroy blocks that impede your path with a high pressure stream coming out of the bottle, though it can’t be used to hit enemies at all. The bubble gum is used to encase Giana in a bubble and float over obstacles. Pressing the jump button raises the bubble slightly before it floats back down, making navigating these sections tricky, as hitting a wall or obstacle will pop the bubble and send her downwards, most often into a set of spikes. There’s an option to blow into the DS‘ microphone to raise the gum bubble, but in practice this doesn’t work well at all and is easily set off by other noises. Thankfully you can disable this on the pause menu.
Using these items is a slight pain, as you have to press large buttons dedicated to them on the touchscreen while the game itself only uses one of the six action buttons the DS has. Still, they break up the standard platforming quite well.
Each level also has an amount of red gems, often hidden in alternate paths. Collecting all the gems in a world unlocks a bonus level. While there’s no real reason to do this, the game’s short levels make doing so a bit more fun, particularly if you only missed one or two on the first run through. Unfortunately, one area where the game falters is bosses. Not every world has a boss, but even for those that do it’s only ever the one boss. Each time he’s slightly more aggressive and takes more hits to go down, but he’s generally very easy.
Musically, the game featured Chris Hülsbeck working with Fabian Del Priore, who got his start in the industry by sending Hülsbeck a demo tape and then being employed by his studio. Del Priore‘s resume includes other European titles like Worms 2 and the X: Tension series, making him a good fit for Giana Sisters. Obligatory remixes of the original game’s music aside, the game has a tone that perfectly suits its computer game roots – it sounds like a DOS game with really good audio, or a late Amiga title and it works fantastically with the rest of the game.
While Giana Sisters DS was released in Europe and Australia in 2009, Spellbound had no end of trouble trying to find a US publisher. In 2011 it was finally picked up by Destineer – a company founded by the former Vice President of Bungie inc., who mostly ported PC games to Mac OSX as well as putting out lower budget games on consoles. The US version was only released at certain stores and Amazon, making it slightly difficult to find, but not expensive. Furthermore, the DS is region-free, so importing a European copy is not a problem.
A port of the game was released for iOS in 2010, then Mac OSX, Android in 2011 alongside a ‘HD’ version for iOS again. These versions feature much more detailed graphics and touchscreen controls where applicable, though the Android version does also support controllers where available. Also included in the game is an entire bonus section accessible on the main menu containing perfect renditions of the original Great Giana Sisters levels made with the new engine, which makes it much more enjoyable. It’s also stupidly cheap, being only a dollar on Android/iOS, and $1.99 on Mac OSX, with an additional level pack available as an in-app purchase for another $1.
Sadly, Armin Gessert passed away due to a heart attack in late 2009, and in 2012 Spellbound Entertainment went into administration and closed. The majority of the staff started a new company, Black Forest Games, taking all of Spellbound’s assets and IP, with the intention to make a wide variety of games. Their first game was another follow-up to Giana Sisters.
Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams & Rise of the Owlverlord
Developer: Black Forest Games
Publisher: Black Forest Games/bitComposer Games
Platform: PC (Steam, GOG), Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii U
Twisted Dreams had a rough initial life. Born from the ashes of Spellbound, Black Forest showed prototypes and concepts to various publishers, who all insisted on heavy changes and content cuts that didn’t sit right with the developer. Wanting to move away from Giana‘s Mario clone roots and not be at the unreasonable whims of publishers, Black Forest saw the opportunities granted by Double Fine‘s paradigm shifting Kickstarter campaign, it was decided that then-named Project Giana should be crowd-funded and self-published, also managing to be one of the first games selected and released via Steam‘s Greenlight programme.
The story is again familiar, yet different. The Giana twins are playing in their room one night when an odd crystal flies in the window. Curious, they both grab for it and fight over who gets to hold it. The crystal shatters and creates a vortex that sucks one of the sisters in. As the vortex closes on itself, the remaining sister jumps in after the other, landing in an odd world where she finds she has the ability to change herself and the surrounds at will, and sets off to find her missing sibling.
Twisted Dreams is starkly different to the previous Giana games. Instead of being a standard platformer, it becomes a genuinely hard almost puzzle oriented game that requires and rewards finesse. The name belies the ‘twist’ in the gameplay – at any time you can press a button to have Giana twist between her “cute” and “punk” forms, which grant a different move each and twist the world around you to be different. Punk Giana can rocket forward like a fireball and bounce off walls and enemies, while her world tends to be upbeat, naturally colourful and filled with somewhat friendly looking enemies, such as the familiar owls from the previous games. Conversely, Cute Giana can twirl in mid-air, allowing her to safely reach new heights and distances and slowly work through vertical mazes while her world is dark, oppressive and swarming with impish demons.
Using these two different powers is the key to progress. Using Punk Giana’s fireball technique to break blocks and Cute Giana’s twirl to drop safely from a height is initially easy, but later obstacles and levels require combining the two sets and twists themselves. For example, for Cute Giana, there might be a piranha jumping out of the water that she can’t jump on, and an out-of-reach platform above. Switching to Punk Giana, the piranha changes to a harmless turtle that sits in the water. By waiting until the piranha is in mid-air, then twisting to Punk Giana, you can fireball into the turtle, bounce off it and safely reach the new area.
World twists also have other effects, such as reversing the direction of moving platforms or inverting the rotation of obstacles. There are collectables that can be gathered by either Giana, or a particular form of her, which often leads to hectic falling mazes where you rapidly switch back and forth between the Gianas in an attempt to get all the crystals you can. Some larger crystals also exist, usually in optional areas, which will unlock concept art in the main menu.
Twisted Dreams doesn’t drop everything from the prior two games, though. As well as bringing back the bubble gum and recurring boss from Giana Sisters DS, though he is only fought twice here, the game is – in true Giana Sisters fashion – difficult. Levels are long and tough, checkpoints tend to be a fair distance from each other and aside from a relatively rare powerup that grants you an extra hit from enemies, Giana will die easily. However, it never feels unfair – the game just wants you to get better. A later patch introduced an “Easy” mode which adds more checkpoints and shield powerups, as well as changing bosses to be less difficult. At the same time, there are two harder difficulties. Hardcore mode has you start the level over if you die, and is unlocked by beating the main game. Clearing that unlocks Uber Hardcore, which requires you to restart from level one if you die and is purely for masters of the game or masochists.
One more major thing that changes with each twist is the game’s music. Punk and Cute Giana each have their own music tracks – the same songs but with different performances and instruments as well as tone. Technically both are played at the same time, when you change to another form, the game seamlessly crossfades between the songs to further drive home the change. Cute Giana’s music is somewhat dark and oppressive, yet reminiscent of its Commodore roots and arranged by Chris Hülsbeck and Fabian Del Priore. On the other hand, Punk Giana’s music is upbeat, full of overdriven guitars and energetic. Returning to what helped them become known, the Punk tracks are performed by Machinae Supremacy. Both sets of music work wonderfully well together and play off each other cleverly, though if you like one set over the other there is a menu option to force a particular style.
Twisted Dreams is also a technically and artistically impressive visual experience. While the game uses the basic designs Alexander Pierschel made for Giana Sisters DS, the game is entirely in 3D, in order for the world to seamlessly twist to its alternate form. Bright colours and high detail bless both worlds, and the game runs very smoothly though it requires some decent hardware to run at higher resolutions.
When Black Forest ran the original Kickstarter campaign, they had stretch goals – that is, goals for tiers of funding received past the minimum amount they had set for themselves – such as additional levels, a new boss, new enemies and the previously mentioned Hardcore modes. While the campaign didn’t reach any of these milestones, it sold well enough on Steam for Black Forest to add these things. Halloween and Christmas levels, as well as the Easy and Hardcore modes were added as free updates later down the track. In 2013, a budget priced stand-alone expansion pack titled Rise of the Owlverlord was released, containing the aforementioned levels, enemies and boss. The Owlverlord in question shakes things up from the base game’s bosses by being able to twist himself between a pirate lord owl and a ninja owl, and using his own twists against him is the only way to win. Alone, the expansion is only USD$5 and USD$17 with the original game bundled in, making the the total package a worthwhile purchase if you happen to like platform games or a good challenge. In a year that also saw the release of two different New Super Mario Bros. games alongside other well-liked platformer games such as Mutant Blobs Attack and LittleBigPlanet PS Vita, Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams manages to stand out on its own.
Early 2013 saw Twisted Dreams‘ release on the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade services, published by bitComposer, and it later appeared on the Wii U eShop as a self-published title. While the console versions perform identically to the PC version, though at a maximum resolution of 720p, they did not receive the Rise of the Owlverlord content, and are a little bit more expensive.
While The Great Giana Sisters started off in much the wrong way and wound up little more than a historical curio, Giana Sisters DS and especially Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams became their own rightfully great games that are certainly deserving of playing. Twisted Dreams especially proves that the innovative games are often the ones that entertain the most, rather than sticking to a known concept. Though Black Forest Games haven’t shed any light on their next project, Twisted Dreams‘ success has hopefully given them the confidence to create a sequel with just as much creativity, if not more than they’ve already shown.