Hameln no Violin Hiki (Super Famicom)

Looks like I inadvertently set myself up for a manga double feature. Unlike Osamu Tezuka’s Hi no Tori last week, Michiaki Watanabe’s Hameln no Violin Hiki (“Violinist of  Hameln”) is far from a world-famous critical darling. Don’t let the manga’s relative obscurity fool you, though, because I found this 1995 Super Famicom puzzle platformer/child abuse simulator by Daft to be much more interesting and successful than Konami’s take on Hi no Tori. Note that I played it with the unofficial English patch by J2e Translations, although the game is still pretty self-explanatory without it.

Hameln no Violin Hiki made its print debut in 1991 in the pages of Enix’s Monthly Shōnen Gangan. If you’re like me, you probably had no idea Enix (now part of Square Enix) even had a hand in the manga game. Turns out their Gangan Comics imprint is still active today, so they must be doing something right. The gist of the series is that everything takes place in a vaguely European medieval fantasy world where music has magical powers. The central figure is the violinist himself, a self-centered wandering “hero” named Hamel who travels the land with his two sidekicks, a teenage girl named Flute and Oboe the talking crow. Their ultimate aim is to defeat the Demon King Chestra and his assorted evil cronies. Chestra’s name keeps with the music motif, too, as the Japanese rendering of “King Chestra” is “Ō Chestra.” Cute. I can’t say this sort of thing is really my cup of tea, but I’ll give its creator credit for not just serving up more ninja or giant robots.

What makes the Super Famicom Hameln no Violin Hiki so compelling is its unique style of puzzle platforming. The player controls Hamel and the computer-controlled Flute and Oboe follow along automatically. Hamel’s repertoire of moves is quite basic. He has modest jumping ability and attacks enemies by firing deadly notes from his oversize violin. The level design makes it clear early on this won’t be enough. There are stone barriers, high platforms, beds of spikes, and other seemingly impassable obstacles between Hamel and the exit of each stage. Enter Flute and her many costumes!

Yes, if Hamel wants to swim, fly, climb walls, cross spikes or do pretty much anything other than walk forward and shoot, he’ll need to instruct Flute to don one of sixteen humiliating costumes and then employ her as a beast of burden to physically carry him wherever it is he needs to go. She might need to dress up as a duck to cross a lake, an eagle to fly, a monkey to climb, etc. There are also some walls that can only be bypassed by having Hamel lift the protesting Flute over his head and hurl her so as to smash through the obstruction. All the while this is going on, poor Flute will be pulling a variety of shocked, pained, and indignant facial expressions. Conceptually, of course, this is all horrible. In the actual game, the cartoony animation of Flute and the sheer absurdity of her various sports mascot style getups renders it utterly hilarious. Hamel’s callous in-game treatment of his young ward also does a much better job of conveying his nature as a selfish jerk than standard cutscenes or dialogue would.

Thus, the typical stage involves Hamel taking the lead on order to clear out as many  enemies as possible and then summoning Flute in order to bypass any obstacles that require the use of a particular costume, all before the timer runs down. While you can never control Flute directly, you can tap a button to have Oboe instruct her to either stand in place or do her best to follow Hamel. This comes in handy for situations where Hamel and Flute need to trigger switches at the same time. Both characters need to reach the level exit in order for you to proceed. This isn’t as a big a challenge as it seems, due to the fact Flute can’t be killed by enemies or environmental hazards like Hamel can. Touching them will only result in the loss of some money (unless you bought the wallet accessory in the first town) and negatively impact her mood. Keeping Flute as happy as possible grants you access to bonus stages where you can stock up on extra lives. The game provides unlimited continues, however, so missing a bonus stage because she ended up getting knocked around too much is no real tragedy.

This gameplay is unlike anything else I’ve played on the system. Given your main hero’s reliance on a transforming sidekick, I suppose its closest antecedent would be David Crane’s A Boy and His Blob: Trouble on Blobolonia for the NES. Start with Crane’s game, up the combat and kiddy cruelty quotients significantly, and presto: You’ve made Hameln no Violin Hiki! The setup works very well in general here, as the levels are good about feeding you a steady drip of new costumes and ways to use them throughout. The lovely art and music are also worth mentioning. I’ve already praised the character animation for its scope and expressiveness and there’s no shortage of painterly backgrounds for it to play out against. As expected for a game with an overarching musical theme, a great deal of care was lavished on the score, too. It’s expansive and very catchy. You can argue that Daft cheated somewhat by basing many of the tunes on existing classical pieces, but it’s not as if it doesn’t fit the material.

So in terms of both its core gameplay and overall presentation, Hameln no Violin Hiki is the real deal: A bona fide Super Famicom hidden gem that’s long been rightly prized by savvy import enthusiasts.

Now that we’ve established that, kindly allow me to serve up a last minute buzz-kill by making you aware of this game’s two major flaws. First and foremost, it’s a very late example of a lengthy console release that doesn’t include any sort of save or password feature. Though fairly common in the ’80s, this design choice was downright archaic in 1995. While it’s great that the game’s four chapters (called “movements,” as in a symphony) each have a lot of content, having to push through them all in a single sitting can still be an unwelcome commitment. A complete playthrough of Hameln no Violin Hiki takes the best speedrunners over an hour. A more typical player will require anywhere from two to four, depending on how much prior experience they have. By this point in the history of gaming, there was simply no good excuse for a setup like this.

Hameln no Violin Hiki’s second failing is a purely narrative one. Despite apparently building to a final showdown with Demon King Chestra, the adventure actually culminates in an underwhelming tussle with another of his many lieutenants, followed by a cliffhanger ending teasing a sequel that would never be. I guess if you care how everything works out in the end, you can just go read the manga? Weak. Enix could have at least given us Hameln no Violin Hiki 2: Flute’s Revenge. Lord knows she earned it.

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Super Back to the Future Part II (Super Famicom)

Biff receives his just desserts, 16-bit style.

I’m home sick in bed today, so I figured I’d do something I haven’t done in a while: Play through a Japanese exclusive game. In this case, it’s Super Back to the Future Part II for the Super Famicom, published by Toshiba EMI in 1993. I picked this one up at a gaming expo last year and haven’t gotten around to it until now.

This is a really weird one, which I’m guessing accounts for a lot of why it was never released outside of Japan. The character designs and humor are quintessentially Japanese and games with these sorts of aesthetics rarely saw localization back then, despite some awesome exceptions like Konami’s Legend of the Mystical Ninja.

Super BttF is a side-scrolling platform game based entirely on the famous hoverboard sequence from the film, which is genius if you ask me. I certainly never would have gotten off that thing. You play as Marty McFly and travel through time to stop the now uncomfortably presidential Biff Tannen from changing the future.

I found the game to be a pleasant romp for the most part. It took me four hours to get through the first time, which is about what I expect from a typical platformer. There are six levels, each of which consists of between one and three platforming segments followed by a boss battle. Each individual stage and boss encounter has its own password in the form of a four-letter word like BACK or KING, so it’s easy to resume a play session at a later time where you left off, if you so choose. Marty begins with three lives, but continues are unlimited, so the only consequence of losing them all is that you lose all your collected coins and will have a harder time purchasing health and power-ups from the vending machines scattered throughout the levels.

The core platforming is solid, but has some strange quirks. The controls are one of them. Only two of the controller’s six main action buttons are used here, in the form of a jump button and an acceleration button. You’ll be holding down the acceleration button most of the time, since Marty crawls along at a snail’s pace without it. In fact, Marty won’t even be able to build up enough momentum to jump any direction but straight up without using the accelerator. You’ll need to hold it down to jump between platforms and also get used to releasing it each time as you land on the smaller ones or else Marty’s momentum will carry him right off it. It’s odd and takes some getting used to, but it can be adapted to. Imagine Super Mario Bros. if Mario had to rely on running much more than he does just to get by.

Marty can kill enemies by jumping at them while spinning on his hoverboard and he’ll gain a little height on his jump with each enemy he kills. This makes for some totally gonzo sections where Marty has to ascend vertical sections of the level with no platforms by continuously shredding on his board up a cascade of falling boulders or other dangerous debris. Very fun.

The game does have some outright flaws, too. Marty is very, very fast on his board, but the view is very zoomed-in. Much like in the early Sonic the Hedgehog games, you want to have the exhilarating feeling of flying forward through the level, but the lack of warning you get of incoming hazards makes a patient, methodical approach more advisable much of the time.

There’s also a lot of slowdown when many sprites are on the screen. This is pretty common on the system, but it’s especially severe in this game, which can throw your jump timing off considerably.

One final thing worth mentioning is that the levels in this game can be quite huge and none of them have any checkpoints. Patience is definitely a necessity. From level four onward, making it all the way through a stage on Marty’s three hit points will require some focus.

Although Super BttF is short, simple, and a little rough around the edges, it’s far from the worst way you can spend an afternoon. The graphics are cute and colorful, the music will get you pumped, and the weird factor is a constant source of amusement and befuddlement. It’s a good option for Western gamers who don’t know the language, but still want to check out some quality Japanese imports.

Now why don’t you make like a tree and get out of here?