The Sixties are over, but no-one told the filthy gatecrashers of Farmer Jon's quiet little estate. Hippies, ravers and hedge monkeys are there to relive Woodstock and Monterey all over again, but they're so LSD-addled they've taken a wrong turning and mistaken Somerset for Glastonbury. Who is insulted more by that is uncertain, but one way or another, these filthy longhairs have to be removed and the seeds on the fields collected before they trample and (probably) urinate over them. They've turned on and tuned in, "man": now it's up to you to make sure they drop out!
Farmer Jack and the Hedge Monkeys (AKA Farmer Jack 2) is a version of Ladybug, a fine Pac-Man inspired arcade game from 1982 that lacked the profile and distribution in North America to give it the success it deserved. Luckily, an excellent Colecovision conversion the following year assured it a wider audience as well as proper recognition: it's one of the best second tier games of the pre-crash era. In terms of importance, it isn't a Robotron or a Galaga, but it certainly holds its own against the likes of Mr Do! or Mousetrap. The Spectrum never saw a good conversion of Ladybug, or even a bad one for that matter, so now Bob Smith has corrected that anomaly with this release, the second game in the Farmer Jack series.
As in Pac-Man, the aim is to collect all the dots (seeds) in the maze (field) while avoiding the villains chasing you, which in this version are those drug-addled Deadheads. Unlike Pac-Man though, the mazes in Hedge Monkeys have revolving gates that can be used both to bypass walls and obstruct the paths of the hippies. Scattered around the maze are bonus letters and symbols which, if collected when flashing the right colour, give additional points, lives and special prizes. There is a need to be quick about things, because every so often another punk enters the maze to chase you, and as you clear more screens, the time it takes for these rascals to gang up on you gets less and less, inducing on the higher levels a state of near constant panic.
I DROVE MY TRACTOR TO YOUR HAYSTACK LAST NIGHT
As opposed to Harvest Havoc, Hedge Monkeys' use of colour is more functional than flamboyant, but it does the job well, and there's the same neat animated truck sprite that we saw in the first game. I admit to being a little disappointed when I heard Lee Du Caine's music and realised it had been entirely lifted from Harvest Havoc. I loved his tunes and was looking forward to what he would do this time, but sadly none of the music is original. Of course, we all have to remember that this isn't a full price release in 1986 - it's freeware, and if you haven't played Farmer Jack 1, you'll certainly have no qualms about hearing Lee's impossibly jolly tunes on Farmer Jack 2.
Forgetting for a moment about the wacky storyline (so typical of Spectrum homebrews) and manic monkeys, we have in front of us a very decent conversion of Ladybug that includes most of the features of the original arcade game. The controls are good enough, with only minor grumbling when trying to quickly execute movements in the maze and getting stuck instead. The old addictiveness is still there, and once it gets going, Hedge Monkeys offers quite a challenge. If there's one negative criticism though, it would be that it takes too long for that challenge to appear. Hedge Monkeys is a fair bit easier than the arcade, and personally I would have started the game at screen four or five just to tighten things up a little and create tension right from the start, as the early stages do feel a bit loose once you've got the hang of them.
It's also a little unfortunate that Hedge Monkeys' thunder has been stolen somewhat by a brilliant conversion of Ladybug for the crumbly old Atari 2600 which was freeware distributed in the summer of 2007. An astonishing piece of coding by anyone's standards, it includes an attract screen, stage select, all the bonus fruits and three skill levels topped off with colourful sprites and only a little bit of flicker. In short, Ladybug 2600 says more in sixteen kilobytes than Farmer Jack 2 does in forty. This is not to diss Bob Smith's game so much as to spell out brutally what the difference is between good and great.
Farmer Jack and the Hedge Monkeys is a fine sequel that may well end up getting more positive write-ups than Harvest Havoc. Still though, I enjoyed the original game more as it was tougher and sharper, plus the similar main sprite and identical music of this follow up gave me an unwanted feeling of familiarity. Taken on its own terms though, Hedge Monkeys is good fun (if a tad easy) and certainly worth the free download.