Ardy Lightfoot's Dark Side

It’s tempting to swiftly set aside Ardy Lightfoot. You might give it the same fleeting glance you’d give any other semi-obscure Super NES action game with an animal protagonist, side-scrolling stages, and a higher level of difficulty than it might be worth. Yet there’s an uncommon sense of ambition about this one. The opening titles promise “A Team Ardy Film,” as though its overalled fox hero is a cinematic star in the making, and the cutscenes get surprisingly detailed as he gathers ancient crystals and contends with a rival treasure hunter, a wicked monarch, and some vicious level bosses.

One might assume that Ardy Lightfoot is all harmless, but the game takes a grim turn in the sixth stage. The ninja-like Catry appears in the previous levels, swiping a forest village’s gem and tying innocent citizens to trees. Ardy and his blobbish sidekick Pec navigate the wood, curiously without freeing a single hostage, and confront the feline kunoichi in a maddening duel of switches and spring-loaded boxing gloves.

Upon defeat Catry begs for mercy and flies off with a gem. Ardy pursues, and both of them are swallowed by a giant Arrakis-grade worm. Seriously, there's a big Dune desert creature in the middle of a cutesy Super NES platformer. Ardy makes his way through the depths of the beast’s digestive system to find Catry and the jewel.

Here the game differs with its region. In the Japanese release, all that remains of Catry is a pile of bones. Despite her recent ingestion, she’s already been gruesomely skeletonized by acid dripping from the roof of the creature’s stomach. Ardy is distressed not a whit beyond his brief stock exclamation point of surprise, and he carries on after cheerfully nabbing the crystal. 

In the North American and European versions of Ardy Lightfoot, Catry’s fate is less clear. She’s lying there, unmoving but undigested, and there’s no acid falling on her. Ardy once again seizes his coveted gewgaw and bounds along, not bothering to check if Catry’s alive or not. This is the last the player sees of her.

It’s a curious moral shift. The Japanese version renders her demise unsettling, but there’s clearly nothing Ardy can do to help. The other releases of the game try to soften the scene but actually make it worse. With Cathy’s condition left vague, Ardy is now a cold-blooded bastard. Sparing not a glance to see if Catry survived, he leaves her to presumably perish within the worm’s innards. 

Strangely, the English versions of the game also remove any captive villagers. It was a potentially upsetting sight for young players, especially when Ardy didn’t rescue them, but excising that plot point makes Catry even less deserving of her fate. Her only offense is an awkward boss battle, but that's more the fault of the game's controls.  

Of course, all of this is blatant rebellion against the cliches of the genre. If Ardy had a typical action hero’s code of honor, he would rescue Catry no matter what harm she had visited upon him and others. This act of kindness would in turn drive her to question her loyalties and perhaps, at the author’s discretion, develop romantic inclinations or a respectful rivalry (or both) toward the protagonist. But Ardy Lightfoot is unencumbered by such strokes of mercy.

Granted, a death such as this isn’t uncommon for generally lighthearted stories. Children’s films occasionally delight in opaquely bumping off villains under the supposition that they deserve it, and even casual side characters, like a conceited squirrel from The Enchanted Journey, might meet unpleasant fates. Yet the protagonists usually react with appropriate shock and horror. Ardy and Pec just merrily bound along. Many years before people questioned the tonal clash of Nathan Drake’s quips and his violent methods in the Uncharted games, Ardy was a cheerful adventurer who left a helpless foe to die. Let’s just hope it was over quickly for Catry. 

Then again, things were over quickly for Ardy Lightfoot. There were no sequels or remakes, and the game gets discussed so seldom that I can’t locate interviews or developer insights regarding ASCII’s intentions for a possible series. Team Ardy never got to make another film. 

Today Ardy's quest is a high-priced curiosity, though not an easy game to enjoy. The stage design is often clever and the characters boast more personality than usual, but it's all burdened by frustrating gameplay. It fact, Ardy's methods of tossing Pec and stomping enemies resemble the awkward moves that Vic Tokai used in Kid Kool, Magical Hat, and Psycho Fox. Perhaps they were an inspiration in several ways, since Ardy is both a fox and a psychopath.

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