Today we’re taking a look at a new port of the isometric adventuring classic Head Over Heels for Atari Jaguar. This game, primarily associated with 8-bit platforms such as the Spectrum, may not be the first title you’d associate with the more powerful Jaguar, but hear me out.

The Atari Jaguar is very much an enthusiast’s machine, to put it politely. It has a small library of games, many of which aren’t considered to be all that amazing, and despite how much Atari hyped up its tech in the run-up to the system’s release, it tends to pale somewhat in comparison to platforms such as the PlayStation, Nintendo 64 and Sega Saturn in terms of performance.

Head Over Heels for Atari Jaguar

What’s interesting about the modern Atari Jaguar scene is that many modern developers for the platform are focusing less on what was supposed to be amazing tech, and instead on what many people think Atari should have done in the first place: make a games console equivalent of their popular ST line of home computers, much like Commodore did with the Amiga-based CDTV console and Atari themselves did with the 8-bit XE Games System.

With that in mind, we’re seeing a fair few new releases for Atari Jaguar that are effectively ST ports, sometimes with a few enhancements here and there such as RAM save and load, tweaked sounds and, of course, no load times. And Head Over Heels is a good example of that.

Lest you’re unfamiliar, Head Over Heels is a game that was originally released by Ocean Software in 1987. It initially came out for 8-bit home computers, but was subsequently ported to a variety of different home computers, including the 16-bit Atari ST and Amiga.

Head Over Heels

Head Over Heels was a game riding the wave of isometric perspective adventure games that had been popularised by Ultimate Play The Game, the company that would eventually become Rare. It challenged players to take control of two distinct characters — the titular “Head” and “Heels” and help them escape from a prison.

Interestingly, after you help the dynamic duo escape, you have a choice: go on and liberate a series of planets from the evil Emperor, or just escape to freedom and be done with it. Both routes technically conclude with you having “beaten” the game, though taking the latter approach means you miss out on a huge amount of exploration and puzzle action.

The two rather dog-like characters have distinct abilities. Head can jump higher, control himself while in the air and, when appropriately equipped with a “hooter” device, fire doughnuts at enemies to disable them. Heels, meanwhile, moves faster, is able to climb certain objects and can carry items in a bag. Once you’ve managed to unite the pair, you can actually stack them on top of one another to use them as if they were a single double-height character, or alternatively split them apart to use their unique abilities.

Head Over Heels

Like most games from the period, much of Head Over Heels’ challenge comes from figuring out what on Earth you’re supposed to do. There’s very little text in the game, so much of the game is a process of discovery: fiddling with switches to see what they do, discovering which platforms have a habit of disappearing at inconvenient moments, and figuring out exactly how to get the most out of both characters’ abilities.

While the game’s pixelated presentation may not exactly push the Jaguar to its limits, Head Over Heels is a timeless classic with good reason: once you get into the groove of what it expects from you, it’s an enjoyable adventure that consistently rewards a sense of curiosity and a willingness to explore. Not only that, it has an endearingly offbeat, surreal sense of humour, perhaps best exemplified by the recurring interactive element that is a robot with Prince Charles’ head.

The format works well on the Jaguar controller; the multiple buttons available make controlling the two characters, switching between them and manipulating objects very straightforward, and the on-screen action is nicely responsive; the game’s relatively sedate pace means that outside of a few areas that place a little too much emphasis on trial and error, most deaths are squarely the player’s fault rather than a lack of responsiveness from the game.

Head Over Heels

One area that definitely feels underutilised in this Jaguar version is sound. Not only does this version lack some of the music tracks heard in the original ST version, but the sound output is, on the whole, extremely quiet. For context, I run most games on pretty much all platforms at a volume setting of about 15-25 on my soundbar; I had to turn the volume up to 35 or more for Head Over Heels to be even vaguely audible. It’s definitely the game, not the Jaguar, too; other Jaguar games (and, indeed, the Jaguar’s startup sound) play at what I would consider to be a more “normal” volume.

This niggle aside, Head Over Heels is a solid addition to any Jaguar library; it presents an enjoyable challenge that taxes the brain as much as the reflexes. If you’ve never experienced the game before on one of its original host platforms, the convenience of playing it with a multi-button controller — not to mention this version’s ability to create a temporary RAM-save before you try anything potentially dangerous — is as good a way as any to explore this classic adventure for the first time.

And if nothing else, it’s a pleasingly niche-interest, bizarre sort of collectible — much like the dear old Jaguar itself.

Head Over Heels for Atari Jaguar was available from our friends at Funstock, but is unfortunately sold out at the time of writing; keep an eye on the page linked in case they get any more in. You can still nab a copy from publisher Piko Interactive here, too.

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