Ganbare Goemon! Karakuri Dōchū (Famicom)

Goe Goe!

It’s high time I checked in with that one and only shaggy-haired Japanese Robin Hood, Goemon! I was introduced to this venerable folk hero (or at least Konami’s decidedly silly take on him) back in 1992 via the superb Legend of the Mystical Ninja for Super Nintendo.  As much as I love that game, it wasn’t until last year that I finally took a proper look at its immediate sequel, the equally excellent Ganbare Goemon 2: Kiteretsu Shōgun Magginesu. These are far from the first entries in their long running series, however, so I thought I’d travel back a bit further this time and see where the wackiness all began.

Well, maybe not quite that far. The saga technically opened with 1986’s Mr. Goemon, a simple side-scrolling action game for Japanese arcades that I don’t have any way of properly playing at the moment. Instead, I went with Ganbare Goemon! Karakuri Dōchū (“Go For It, Goemon! A Tricky Journey”) on the Famicom. Arriving later in 1986, this was the first game to bear the Ganbare Goemon name and is much more representative of how the series as a whole would ultimately progress. I played it with the English fan translation by Spinner 8 and friends. Although this isn’t strictly necessary to comprehend or complete the game, it did allow me to enjoy a few extra chuckles courtesy of the goofy NPC dialog.

Karakuri Dōchū was a huge release for Konami in more ways than one. The cartridge was built around a massive two megabit (250 kilobyte) ROM chip. Puny as that obviously is now, it dwarfed the previous year’s biggest Famicom smash, the 31 KB Super Mario Bros. It also moved over a million copies, making it one of the best-selling Konami titles for the system domestically. It was popular enough that Nintendo released a version for the Game Boy Advance in 2004 as part of their Famicom Mini Series (better known as the Classic NES or NES Classics Series in other markets). Karakuri Dōchū may be obscure to you and me, but it was a cornerstone of Nintendo’s 8-bit library for an entire generation of Japanese gamers; easily on par with a Mega Man or Castlevania in that respect.

Our story takes place in the Edo period of feudal Japan. The noble class has grown insular and selfish, ruthlessly taxing the common folk to the very brink of destitution in order to fund their own decadent lifestyle. Goemon, kind-hearted outlaw and hero of the people, can stand it no longer. He sets off on a journey across the province to confront the lords face-to-face in their own palace and convince them to repent their wicked ways and govern more humanely.

As you can gather from that relatively down-to-earth synopsis, there are no bunnyman armies, flying peach battleships, or Goemon-shaped mecha this early on in the franchise. The wild surrealism that would come to define the later Ganbare games required a few more goes to really ramp up. Everything is depicted in cartoon style and you do get the occasional anachronistic reference in the form of townspeople proclaiming their love for Konami games, for example, but that’s it for now. Also absent are the gang of supporting characters Goemon accrued over subsequent outings. Ebisumaru, Yae, Sasuke, and the Wise Old Man were all still waiting in the wings at this point.

Goemon’s odyssey spans fourteen individual stages. True to the game’s subtitle, the majority of them are anything but straight dashes to the goal. Most require Goemon to scour a sprawling environment for secret underground passages and collect the three passes needed to open the gate to the next area before a timer runs down. How does Goemon go about discovering this hidden stuff? By jumping around like a madman! Leaping over the baskets and pots that litter the landscape will produce money and power-ups. Hopping in the vicinity of a secret passage will cause it to become visible. None of this makes any sense, of course, but you’ll still be tapping that A button like mad throughout your playthrough if you want to have any hope of finding those all-important passes. It’s the Karakuri Dōchū equivalent of bombing every wall and floor in Metroid or shooting bubbles everywhere in Milon’s Secret Castle.

In other words, this is yet another early Famicom action-adventure with a heavy emphasis on ferreting out invisible secrets through repetitive means. This, in conjunction with its overhead perspective, leads to frequent Legend of Zelda comparisons. These aren’t very useful, in my opinion. Karakuri Dōchū certainly has exploratory elements and a large game world for its time. At its heart, though, it’s more of a traditional action experience than anything else. It offers limited lives, no continues, no passwords or other way to record progress, and a linear level structure rather than one huge, continuous play space. Come expecting Zelda with old-timey Japanese trappings and you’re only setting yourself up for frustration.

If you’re familiar with the town gameplay from Legend of the Mystical Ninja, Karakuri Dōchū is probably best understood as an entire game built around the concept. Most levels are set in a city or village, complete with numerous shops, inns, and other buildings that Goemon can hit up for items and health replenishment. When he’s not doing that, he’ll be wandering the streets fending off a never ending supply of police, pickpockets, and other pushy types with his iconic kisiru pipe and throwing coins. Whatever you do, don’t forget to stop in and play the 3-D maze games. For a modest fee, Goemon can explore a first-person dungeon straight out of Wizardry and plunder its many treasures. Not only does the timer halt when Goemon is in a maze, there are no enemies or other threats to hassle him there. He’s effectively free to poke around at his leisure for cash, extra lives, and gate passes. Each maze invariably has more cash stashed inside than it costs to enter in the first place, making me wonder how the people running them manage to stay in business.

The flipside to the towns are the handful of wilderness zones that see Goemon traversing rugged mountain ranges and island chains. These are far and away the most difficult sections of the game, since fatal plunges off cliffs or into the sea are a constant threat and facilities where Goemon can replenish his health and defensive gear are few and far between. Treat yourself to a well-earned pat on the back anytime you manage to squeak by a wilderness stage without losing a life.

After twelve levels of this, Karakuri Dōchū wraps up with a pair of climactic stages set in and around the daimyō’s palace. There are no gate passes to worry about here, just a gauntlet of the game’s strongest enemies standing between Goemon and his quarry. There’s no final boss, either. Reaching the lord’s inner chamber simply triggers the ending cut scene and then ships Goemon back to the very first stage with his score, lives, and items intact. Looping the game like this a total of eight times in a row supposedly rewards the player with an extended ending. Considering that beating it once takes the better part of an hour even when you know what you’re doing…Yeah, I’m good, thanks.

So what did I make of Karakuri Dōchū? I’ll say that if you’re a Goemon fan hoping for more of the familiar characters and absurd situations so common to later games in the series, you’re likely come away disappointed. Similarly, you may find its sheer difficulty jarring if you’re accustomed to saves and continues. The ideal audience for this is someone with an open-minded interest in the history of the Goemon series paired with an established fondness for rough, challenging mid-’80s action-adventure games. That is to say, me. Yes, I had myself a fine time on this tricky journey. While some boss battles would have been nice and the need to jump everywhere or risk missing out on important items is indeed obnoxious, Goemon and his world are still appealing, even in embryonic form. Above all, I found scrambling to survive and gather everything I needed in each stage before time ran out stimulating and satisfying.

Karakuri Dōchū is a classic in its native land for good reason and things only get better, and weirder, from here. Bring it on!

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DoReMi Fantasy: Milon no DokiDoki Daibouken (Super Famicom)

Having just weathered the savage trials of Milon’s Secret Castle, I figured I may as well stick around and see what was next on the agenda for Hudson Soft’s bubble shooting wunderkind. Secret Castle had been a strong seller. The box cover of the North American version boasted “over 3/4 million sold in Japan.” It’s surprising, then, that Hudson allowed the character to lie dormant for an entire decade after his 1986 debut. He would finally re-emerge on the Super Famicom in 1996’s DoReMi Fantasy: Milon no DokiDoki Daibouken (roughly, “Milon’s Heart-Pounding Great Adventure”).

Much has changed. Beyond the drastic audiovisual upgrade that comes with the leap from early period Famicom to late period Super Famicom, our boy Milon is now operating in an entirely different genre! If you’re one of the many who loathed Secret Castle’s cryptic exploratory approach, you’ll be please to hear that DoReMi Fantasy is damn near its polar opposite: A simple hop-and-bop platformer in the the Super Mario tradition. I admit, I didn’t know what to make of this at first. I’m weird enough to have rather enjoyed Secret Castle for what it was, warts and all. Would this radical shift prove to be an overcorrection on Hudson’s part? Fortunately, any doubts I had dissolved on contact with the tidal wave of sheer charm that is DoReMi Fantasy.

The game opens with a lovely cut scene of Milon and his woodland pals frolicking on a sunny day. Next thing you know, some creepy horned demon guy named Amon appears and abducts Milon’s fairy friend Alis. Whatever Amon wants her for, Milon is having none of it. After a quick trip home to bid farewell to his parents, he’s off to rescue Alis with the help of his magic bubble blower. It’s a simple setup executed well, a tendency that really defines DoReMi Fantasy as a whole.

Milon has 43 linear stages to tackle, organized into eight distinct worlds based on a mix of common (forest, water, ice) and uncommon (food, toy) themes. The levels themselves are typically straight dashes to the exit, although you will occasionally come across a locked door that requires a key to open. Most also contain a star and Milon will need to collect all the stars in a given world before he can battle its end boss and move on. Fortunately, they’re usually either right out in plain sight or just slightly off the main path, so I never got hung up star hunting.

The action is pure pick up and play. Controlling Milon is responsive, accurate, and should feel instantly natural to anyone with 2-D platforming experience. As before, the endless supply of bubbles he blows are his sole method of defeating enemies. DoReMi Fantasy seemingly takes inspiration from Taito’s Bubble Bobble this time, however, as the bubbles merely trap the bad guys instead of destroying them outright. Milon will then need to touch the bubbled foes to defeat them for good. He can jump on most enemies without receiving damage, but this will only stun the opposition for a moment as he bounces off. This technique is occasionally useful for reaching higher platforms and crossing certain gaps. That’s about all you need to know. Milon does gain a handful of new abilities as the adventure progresses, such as swimming and creating ladders made of music notes at specific spots, but their usage tends to be highly situational. Running, jumping, and bubbling are your true bread and butter throughout.

While Secret Castle was deceptively intense beneath its cutesy façade, DoReMi Fantasy dials down the difficulty big-time. The common enemies never seem to grow too numerous or aggressive and the platforming hazards, though nicely varied, are far from deviously placed most of the time. Extra lives are plentiful and Milon is a durable little fellow to boot. He’s able to withstand three hits before losing a life, with his current health level cleverly indicated by the color of his clothes. Oh, and there’s a password system to record your progress this time. Thank God. The only real difficulty spikes are a couple of the later boss encounters. The anthropomorphic sun and moon you face at the end of world six both deploy some tricky attacks, for instance. Still, most will likely find DoReMi Fantasy to be a tad easier than Super Mario World and drastically less challenging than stuff like the Donkey Kong Country trilogy or Plok. I was able to finish my first playthrough without running out of lives and needing to continue at all, something I can almost never manage with an entirely new game.

I realize I haven’t made the strongest case for DoReMi Fantasy thus far. A dry rundown of its plot and rules paints a picture of a reasonably lengthy game with solid fundamentals and an easygoing approach to challenge. And that it is. Yet this isn’t actually why you should play it. Not in the main, anyway. Fact is, you’re much more likely to be won over by the designers’ supreme attention to detail in bringing Milon’s world to life than by anything directly related to the level design or play mechanics.

Just look at Milon himself. Every move he makes is smoothly animated and packed with personality. He teeters on the edge of platforms, bugs his eyes out during long falls, grits his teeth as he charges his super bubble attack, and does his best to hold onto his hat in windstorms. His enemies are nearly as lovable. The all have unique shocked or dismayed expressions for when they’re stunned or trapped in a bubble. Half the fun of the game for me was seeing what sort of hilarious face each new baddie would pull when I stomped or bubbled it. Even the platforms themselves are memorable here. Milon trods colossal cakes (ideally avoiding the equally colossal silverware carving them up), the growing noses of Pinocchio lookalike puppets, and my personal favorite, adorable mice that poke their heads out of holes in the walls. Aww. All this is accompanied by a lush, diverse score courtesy of Bomberman composer Jun Chikuma.

I’m not about to tell you that DoReMi Fantasy is the ultimate 16-bit platformer. The gameplay here is highly competent from top to bottom, but only just. It doesn’t showcase anything on par with the cool power-ups and hidden levels of a Super Mario World or the speedrun-friendly movement physics of a Sonic the Hedgehog. What I will tell you is that fans of cute games specifically are pretty much guaranteed to be delighted by its top notch presentation. It’s also a great choice for genre neophytes, younger gamers, and anyone else interested in a brisk, low pressure experience to unwind with. It’s plain to see why so many have praised it as the redemptive sequel to the opaque and grueling Secret Castle.

Sadly, Hudson never would follow up on this bold new direction for the character. Milon’s next outing, which doubles as his last to date, was the obscure 2006 puzzle game Milon no Hoshizora Shabon: Puzzle Kumikyoku for the Nintendo DS. The company’s eventual extinction in 2012 and the subsequent transfer of its intellectual properties to Konami would seem to render any future Milon releases extraordinary unlikely.

Farewell, brave bubble boy. There’s a spot at Gaming Valhalla’s kiddie table with your name on it, I’m sure.

Cocoron (Famicom)

 

It’s a tale almost as old as the business itself. Artistic types feeling stifled by the conservative corporate culture of the larger game studios strike out on their own to bring their unadulterated visions to the world and hopefully win more recognition and compensation in the process. Thus did Activision spring from Atari, Treasure from Konami, and so on. Around 1990, the newly-minted Takeru (aka Sur de Wave) similarly represented independence and creative freedom for Capcom alum Akira Kitamura, Irem’s Takashi Kogure, Tecmo’s Tsukasa Chibana, and more. They released their first game, the text-based adventure Nostalgia 1907, in April of 1991 and their last, none other than NES super rarity Little Samson, in June of 1992. In-between came the Kitamura-helmed Cocoron. That’s three games over fourteen months before the company eventually folded due to dire financial straits. I guess they can’t all be winners.

The tragedy of Takeru is fascinating and all, but the real reason I wanted to cover this particular 1991 action-platformer so badly is much simpler: Cocoron has a tapir in it! Anyone who knows me know I’m utterly obsessed with these adorable odd-toed ungulates. I love their twisty noses, their stubby tails, their incongruously high-pitched squeaking noises, everything! Best animal ever! They also happen to be closely associated with sleep and dreams in Japanese myth, as evidenced by Hypno and Drowzee from the Pokémon games. Accordingly, the tapir that appears here (who’s actually named Tapir, at least according to the fan translation by Akujin of Dynamic-Designs) is a dream wizard. He appears one night to the game’s unseen protagonist (presumably meant to represent you, the player), introduces himself, and offers to send you on a journey into the dream world to rescue a princess from mysterious “evil forces.” Hell, yeah! If it’s a cute tapir asking, sign me up!

Since you’re entering a dream world, Tapir informs you that you’re able to assume any form you choose. This allows you to start getting acquainted right off the bat with Cocoron’s main gimmick, its character creation system. You’ll need to construct your own custom avatar using pieces from a “toybox” containing 24 heads, 16 bodies, and 8 weapons. It doesn’t sound like that much, but that’s still 3072 possible player characters. Ambitious indeed for a Famicom game. In keeping with the established tone, most of your options are pretty wacky. You could opt for a clown with a giant spring for a body that shoots deadly pencils or a jack-‘o-lantern with dragon wings that hurls flower bombs. It’s all good.

The main thing to mind during this process is your character’s bulk. Every part has a specific weight associated with it and the final total will largely determine how your creation controls. Heavy heroes boast great durability at the cost of sharply limited walk speed and jump height. Light ones are quick, mobile, and extremely fragile. You can also aim for a balanced approach, of course, which is recommended for newcomers. Complicating matters is the fact that stronger weapons (like the shuriken) and parts that offer special movement abilities (wings, jetpacks, tank and boat bodies) tend to be heavier than average to offset their advantages.

Cool as it is, this system is far from perfectly balanced. Heavy characters seem to have a much easier time staying alive than light ones, flight abilities trivialize much of the game’s platforming, and the shuriken is by far the strongest weapon. Thankfully, you won’t suffer too much if your first draft isn’t all you’d hoped for, since you’ll have the opportunity to make a whole new dream warrior each time you finish one of the first five levels. Mega Man creator Kitamura clearly took inspiration from his prior work here, except instead of just gaining access to a new weapon when you beat a boss, you get to add a whole new custom character to your eventual stable of six. You’re given the option to switch out your active hero every time you complete a stage or return to your house at the center of the game world.

The layout of this world itself constitutes another new twist on an old formula. Although you can challenge the initial set of five stages in any order per standard Mega Man rules, they’re all interconnected here. Instead of just transitioning back to a stage select menu after you clear an area, you’ll actually have to walk to your next destination in real time and the terrain you’ll traverse will vary depending on where you start out and where you’re headed. There’s a unique stretch of level linking the Milk Sea and the Fairy Forest, another one entirely between the Milk Sea and Star Hill, etc. This doesn’t make Cocoron a true exploratory adventure game like Metroid, but it does manage to lend the progression a very different feel from Mega Man while still maintaining the same emphasis on player choice.

Cocoron’s core gameplay consists of  running, jumping, and shooting your way through a mix of horizontally and vertically-scrolling environments. At the risk of beating a dead horse, the most generally useful point of comparison is once again the director’s own Mega Man. While each custom character’s precise movement and attack parameters will vary, the game engine as whole still feels like you could insert the Blue Bomber himself into the action and not have it feel too out of place. That said, there’s one prominent aspect of Cocoron’s platforming that wasn’t present in any NES Mega Man installment: Sloped surfaces. Characters that lack tank treads are prone to slide down these inclines, which can be a hassle when bottomless pits are lurking nearby.

Between the flexible character creation and the complex, unorthodox level design, there’s more than enough going on mechanically to make Cocoron worth a look for old school action-platforming aficionados. What really puts it over the top, though, is its weird, whimsical atmosphere. Between this game, Little Nemo: The Dream Master, and Kirby’s Adventure, it seems Famicom developers could do no wrong when they went for this sort of child-like dreamland theme. Cocoron’s backgrounds are bright, colorful and packed with quirky details like the gigantic overturned milk cartons dotting the shores of the Milk Sea, the grinning pink whales hovering in the skies above Star Hill, and the furnished penguin houses of Ice-Fire Mountain.

The enemy designs are also interesting. Many of them are animals like penguins and armadillos, but there’s often more to them than meets the eye. Despite appearing identical, armadillos might toss their armored bits as projectiles in one stage, roll along the walls in another, and glide through the air in a third. You need to stay on your toes because can’t always be sure how a foe will behave based on appearance alone. Clever.

Finally, the music by Takashi Tateishi (Mega Man 2) and Yoshiji Yokoyama (Little Samson) doesn’t disappoint. It captures the peppy, playful tone of the adventure perfectly. It’s not Mega Man 2’s equal by a long shot, just an overall above average 8-bit soundtrack.

If there’s one thing that hinders Cocoron as a pure action game, it’s all the damn eggs. The experienced team at Takeru somehow made the rookie mistake of overthinking something as basic as grabbing items in an action-platformer. It should be a simple two step process. Step one: Dead enemy drops item. Step two: Player character touches item to pick it up. Cocoron adds a pace killing intermediate step by hiding all items inside speckled eggs which then have to be shot, sometimes three or four times in succession, before the goodies inside are revealed. Every enemy in the game drops an egg. Every egg has to be shot multiple times if you want to get at the health refills, weapon power-ups, and extra lives inside. Given that eggs aren’t known for fighting back, all this extra button mashing gets really old really fast.

As long as you can forgive this one its handful of character balance issues and pointless egg cracking fixation, I think you’ll find it to be a true highlight of the Famicom’s Japan-exclusive library. Its novel gameplay, ample charm, and unusually high replay value are all proof positive that Takeru’s failure to thrive was in no way owing to the quality of its output. Cocoron is a dream well worth pursuing. After all, if you can’t trust a friendly tapir, who can you trust?

Majou Densetsu II: Daimashikyou Galious (Famicom)

1987 was quite the experimental year for Konami. Chunsoft’s Portopia and Dragon Quest had recently touched off a mania for adventure and role playing games that persists to this day among the Japanese public. Meanwhile, Nintendo’s own Legend of Zelda and Metroid were setting new standards for action-adventure gameplay on consoles. It was a digital gold rush and Konami wanted in. Following in Metroid’s footsteps, they produced a total of four side-scrolling action-adventure/RPG titles for the Famicom over the course of the year. Of these, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest and The Goonies II are both well-known to NES owners, while Getsu Fūma Den and my subject today, Majou Densetsu II: Daimashikyou Galious (“Evil Castle Legend II: Great Demon Bishop Galious”), never left Japan. I’ll be using the English fan translation by Manipulate for convenience here, but this one should be playable in the original Japanese with a minimum of outside help.

Like Castlevania II and Goonies II, Majou Densetsu II is an adventure-infused sequel to a previous pure action release. Knightmare: Majou Densetsu wasn’t a side-scrolling platformer, however, but an overhead shooter released for MSX computers in 1986. Talk about a departure! The only other example of this I can cite offhand is Konami’s own Pop’n TwinBee: Rainbow Bell Adventures from 1994. Knightmare was about Popolon, a warrior out to rescue his lover Aphrodite from the demon Hudnos. Majou Densetsu II reveals that this was all a ploy by Demon Bishop Galious to distract Popolon while he somehow kidnapped the soul of Popolon and Aphrodite’s unborn future son, Pampas. Yes, you read that right. I’ve recovered plenty of princesses before. I’ve even been a bad enough dude to rescue the president. But saving some weird spirit baby that doesn’t technically exist yet? That’s a new one on me, Konami. Congratulation, I guess.

Popolon and Aphrodite (Venus in the fan translation) must act in tandem this time to recover their spawn-to-be. You can swap between the two at will and they each have their own health bars as well as slightly different innate abilities. Popolon is a bit better at jumping, for example, and Aphrodite can survive longer underwater. Both rely on a short range sword attack to deal with the castle’s many monstrous inhabitants, supplemented by a selection of arrows and other projectile weapons that consume ammunition with each use. Despite the experience meter along the top of the screen, there’s no leveling these two up as in a true RPG. Instead, all permanent power boosts are derived from items found or purchased. The only purpose experience serves in this game is healing. Every time you manage to fill the meter, the active character’s health will be completely restored. Managing this becomes an important strategy in the tougher levels, where it may be advantageous to hold off on killing monsters for a bit if your health is already full so as to not waste a refill.

Speaking of dungeons, there are a total of five and they’re all accessed from the starting area of the castle, which functions as a hub and contains the all-important password dispensary and resurrection room. They have to be completed in a set order and most have some sort of complicating gimmick that makes this easier said than done. These detrimental effects are nullified by specific inventory items, provided you can find them. I never was able to locate the “magic wear” that prevents the fourth level from scrambling my controls, so I was forced to adapt and complete it with my directional inputs reversed. That was something.

One highly unusual game mechanic encountered in the dungeons is boss summoning. Simply reaching the final chamber isn’t enough to trigger a battle. Only after you’ve performed a sequence of button presses specific to that boss will it actually appear and give you the opportunity to kill it. You’re given these codes by NPC characters tucked away elsewhere in the maze. If you’re lucky, you’ll stumble across the code before you get to the boss room and things will play out like they would in any other game. If not, you’re going to have to head back the way you came and do some more searching around. So you might say this flourish adds either nothing or more backtracking on a case-by-case basis. Either way, it didn’t impress me.

Although I compared this game to Metroid above, its fantasy theme, stiff controls, and exceptionally cunning puzzles also suggest a simplified take on Nihon Falcom’s Dragon Slayer. This venerable series of Japanese RPGs is best known in the West for the NES port of its fourth entry, Legacy of the Wizard. Another key element Majou Densetsu II shares with these early computer action RPGs is its relentless difficulty. It’s by far the most challenging of the four similar Famicom games Konami published in 1987. Dungeon layouts are fiendishly abstruse and key items are well hidden, making death about the only thing you’re likely to come by easily. These punishing design choices are compounded by the frankly absurd omission of a proper continue feature. This is one of those games that forces you to enter your most recent (32 character!) password each and every time you die just to keep playing. You’ll be returning to the hub for new passwords often and likely using them multiple times over the course of a single play session. It’s an uncharacteristically sloppy oversight by Konami and enough to give me traumatic Shiryō Sensen – War of the Dead flashbacks. Nobody deserves that.

Riled up as this password debacle got me, I still wouldn’t call Majou Densetsu II fatally flawed. It looks decent (apart from the excessively blocky environments) and we get a couple of great Kinuyo Yamashita themes to accompany the action. It’s ultimately no more engaging than the other games in its class from the same period, though. Metroid, Zelda II, Rygar, Faxanadu, Battle of Olympus, Castlevania II, Goonies II, and Getsu Fūma Den all have better visuals, smoother action, and are generally more user friendly and approachable. As with Legacy of the Wizard, I can only recommend Majou Densetsu II if you’re actively interested in a more hardcore take on the genre. It may not be good for your blood pressure, but there’s a certain visceral satisfaction to be found in overcoming its sadistic roadblocks to finally reach that ontologically confounding hypothetical baby.

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.

Hi no Tori Hououhen: Gaou no Bouken (Famicom)

Bird is the word!

My quest for ever more obscure Konami content continues. If these last few years spent covering at least one vintage console game per week have taught me anything, it’s that there’s seemingly no end to this powerhouse publisher’s Japan-exclusive deep cuts. This week, it’s Hi no Tori Hououhen: Gaou no Bouken (“Phoenix Chronicles: Gaou’s Adventure”), a strange and incongruously silly little action-platformer based on one of the most serious and critically-acclaimed manga epics of all time.

It would be absurd of me to attempt to weave a proper introduction to the life and works of the late Osamu Tezuka into the preamble of a game review. Whole books have been written on the “father of manga” and the immense impact of his four decade career on world culture. What follows is simply the bare minimum needed to understand this Famicom game’s origins. I encourage anyone with an interest in visual storytelling to make their own acquaintance with this amazing artist’s legacy.

Best known for his more child-friendly series like Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy) and Janguru Taitei (Kimba the White Lion), Tezuka considered the more mature Hi no Tori (Phoenix, lit. “bird of fire”) to be his life’s work. He would labor on it steadily from 1967 all the way until his death in 1989, producing a a total of twelve volumes in the sadly unfinished saga. Hi no Tori’s scope is tremendous. It follows numerous characters over a period of thousands of years, from ancient Japan to the far-flung interstellar future. The running theme is the quest for the mystical bird of the title, whose blood is said to confer immortality. Hi no Tori has strong Buddhist themes. Eternal life is often seen as a mixed blessing or even a curse, particularly when it’s sought as an easy way to cheat karma and escape the wheel of rebirth.

Gaou no Bouken is based on the fifth Phoenix volume, Hō-ō (Karma). More specifically, it seems to have been intended to piggyback on the animated film adaptation of Hō-ō released one month prior. I actually sat down and watched the film in preparation for this review. Wow, was it a doozy; a heart-rending tragedy about two men (one a naive young woodcarver with big dreams, the other a murderous bandit) drawn together by an inescapable fate of their own making. Bracing, thought-provoking, and beautifully animated, Hō-ō just about moved me to tears. I was astonished I’d never heard of it before.

How on earth do you adapt material like this to the Famicom? If you’re Konami, you essentially don’t. You put out a typically lighthearted 8-bit side-scroller in which Gaou, the one-armed ex-bandit and master sculptor, journeys across space and time to recover the missing pieces of his lost phoenix statue by throwing chisels at dinosaurs. The tonal dissonance between this game and its literary/cinematic inspiration is surreal to say the least. A bit like discovering someone made a Grave of the Fireflies tournament fighter.

That’s not to say Gaou no Bouken is bad per se. It has the excellent graphics and catchy tunes you’d expect from Konami as well as a couple of novel gameplay features. As a platforming hero, Gaou doesn’t come off so impressive at first. He can’t jump particularly high and his chisel weapon is adequate at best. The real hook here is his ability to place blocks adjacent to himself by pressing down and B together. These can be used as steps to reach higher platforms or as impromptu barriers to hold advancing enemies at bay. If your reflexes are quick enough, you can even save Gaou from a fatal plunge by deploying a block directly beneath him when he’s in mid-leap. You technically have a limited supply of blocks available, but I never found myself running low, especially since defeated enemies are transformed into new blocks that add to Gaou’s stock when collected.

The second major twist here is the level structure. Eight of the game’s sixteen stages take place in the present. Well, Gaou’s present of 8th century Japan, anyway. The remaining eight are divided up into past and future sub-sets. Travel between time periods is accomplished via secret doors. These are usually uncovered by using your chisels to destroy the bits of scenery concealing them, though you may occasionally need to push a large object aside or destroy some terrain directly below you by holding down and jumping on it repeatedly instead. While this hardly constitutes exploration on par with The Legend of Zelda or Metroid, it does add a welcome scavenger hunt element to the proceedings and makes Gaou no Bouken feel like more than just sprinting from left to right sixteen times over.

The differences between time periods are primarily aesthetic. The backgrounds in Gaou’s native Japan are presented in a style reminiscent of classical Japanese paintings. An inspired and attractive choice. The past and future are much more standard Konami fare, with the future areas looking like they could have been lifted straight out of Contra, for example. Your goal in every stage is to reach the end and claim a piece of the phoenix sculpture. This requires either fighting a boss to the death or making your way past a bombardment of falling stones, rockets, or other hazards to reach the statue piece sitting on the far side of the screen.

Interesting as it is, this open level progression means Gaou no Bouken lacks anything resembling a traditional climax. The ending scene triggers instantly when you collect the final phoenix piece. As this could potentially happen on a number of individual stages, there’s no true final area or boss to serve as the ultimate test of skill. It’s actually possible to end the game on a stage which doesn’t include a boss fight. In that case, you just walk right, grab the final piece of the statue, and win. It feels abrupt and rather hollow.

Combat is another underwhelming facet of Gaou no Bouken. As stated, Gaou fights by hurling an unlimited supply of chisels at his foes. These have decent range and can be fired upward in addition to right and left. They get the job done, no doubt, but they’re the only weapons available. There are a handful of power-ups to refill or enlarge Gaou’s health bar, confer temporary invincibility, and award extra lives and bonus points, but nothing that changes up or enhances his offense in any way.

Gaou no Bouken is a ultimately a competent platformer built around a pair of neat gimmicks. Fans of Konami’s mid-’80s output in general should be able appreciate it for the breezy thrill ride it is. It’s also highly importable, with no Japanese text appearing after the title screen. That said, it’s still unlikely to be mistaken for one of the company’s best efforts. Jarring estrangement from the source material, shallow combat, and the absence of a proper finale all mark it as the quickie contract work it is. I do have it to thank for introducing me to one of the better movies I’ve seen in a quite some time, however. I certainly can’t say that about many other games.

Tōgi Ō: King Colossus (Mega Drive)

Whoa, what’s this? A 16-bit action RPG? From Sega, no less? How have I never heard about this one until just recently? Probably because 1992’s Tōgi Ō: King Colossus (literally, and rather redundantly, “Fighting King: King Colossus”) is a text-heavy Japan-exclusive release. Not even the 2006 English fan translation by M.I.J.E.T., professional as it is, seems to have been able to drum up much awareness of it in the West. It’s our loss. King Colossus is good fun while it lasts with the caveat that its strict linear progression and single-minded action focus may leave some fans of the genre wanting more.

A major selling point for King Colossus in Japan was its director, manga artist Makoto Ogino. He’s best-known for his long-running Kujaku Ō (“Peacock King”) series. Dude’s all about the kings, I guess. Kujaku Ō has received multiple video game adaptations of its own over the years, some of which (SpellCaster, Mystic Defender) would see release outside Japan. Do actually you need to know anything about Kujaku Ō to understand King Colossus? No. The latter seems to have been a wholly original, self-contained project. I’m just dropping some trivia here for my fellow oddballs who enjoy following these little creative breadcrumb trails.

King Colossus casts the player as a strapping orphan lad (with no specific default name) who’s apparently been raised in a shack in the middle of the woods by a grumpy old hermit. A routine errand to retrieve a sword owned by said hermit from a nearby blacksmith brings our sheltered protagonist into conflict with the cult of the Dark God Gryuud, whose twisted servants have seized control of the land and are ruling it with the proverbial iron fist. Anyone remotely acquainted with basic fantasy clichés can see where this is going. Could it be that our hero has a special destiny related to his shrouded origins? One that makes him the only man capable of sorting out this whole Gryuud situation? The game doesn’t go out of its way to show fans of the genre anything they haven’t seen before and the broad strokes narrative feels perfunctory at best. One point in King Colossus’ favor, at least for me, is that its world has a gritty pulp swords and sorcery edge to it. We get dark gods, human sacrifice, pit fighting, and plenty of other trappings that would be right at home in a classic Conan yarn. You won’t find any cutesy monsters or wacky anime hijinks here.

If the storytelling favors style over substance, the gameplay goes to even greater extremes by remorselessly paring away every shred of the standard overhead action RPG formula that isn’t beating up on bad guys and leveling up. There’s no overworld to explore, no towns, no currency to collect or shops to spend it in, and the gear you’ll acquire is limited to weapons, armor, stat-boosting magic jewelry, and healing herbs. King Colossus teases you with glimpses of a world map on occasion, but this is more akin to the stylized level diagrams that appear between stages in Castlevania or Ghosts ‘n Goblins than a real navigation tool. Instead of gathering clues and forging your own path, you’ll be ushered directly from dungeon to dungeon with none of that pesky thinking required.

The dungeons themselves don’t offer much in the way of puzzles and are primarily “hack your way to the boss” affairs with a side of basic platforming. At least the combat itself is fairly well-realized. You’re able to bring the pain with an assortment of swords, spears, axes, chains, crossbows, and magic staves. Each weapon type has its own distinct feel and is quite useful against the enemy horde, with one glaring exception: Swords. The swords are bloody awful in this game. They have virtually no reach, which makes getting close enough to land a hit with one a significant, yet completely unnecessary risk. This flaw would be easier to overlook altogether if the game’s plot didn’t make such a big deal out of one specific magic sword with a special connection to the main character’s backstory. You go on a quest to get it, another quest to power it up, and you’re still likely to let it sit in your inventory unused. If I wanted to be a real highfalutin’ game critic for once, I could totally call ludonarrative dissonance on this one. In the interest of not asphyxiating on my own farts, however, I’ll stick with declaring it a missed opportunity.

There’s a small selection of magic at your command, too; five spells in all. You have a couple of direct damage dealers, an energy shield, a utilitarian warp back to the start of the current dungeon, and, most importantly, Time Stop. Time Stop makes for an auto-win against pretty much anything, allowing you to pile hit after hit on the defenseless opposition. It even works on bosses! Take it from me: Whenever you’re given access to a time stopping power that works in boss fights (Kick Master, Astyanax), you save all your magic points for that if you know what’s good for you. Strangely, you have access to all five of your powers from the very start of the game. While you do earn more magic points as you level-up, making it possible to cast spells more frequently, you’ll never learn an entirely new one. Instead, your character growth is purely numeric, which is another missed opportunity in my book. Fighting your way through dungeons feels about the same at level twenty as it does at level one.

Those last four paragraphs may read like one huge extended windup before I finally come down hard on King Colossus and tell you that it’s just not worth your time. Hardly! Sure, the story is trite and the RPG gameplay has been simplified to the utmost. Thankfully, though, the core hack and slash dungeon delving still makes for a decent enough ride on its own and the game’s brisk pacing suits it well. After all, the obvious upside to never having to wonder where to go or what to do next is that you’re effectively guaranteed to always be making steady progress. You can even save at any time, a rare luxury in a console game of the era. Basically, King Colossus knows exactly what it wants to be and doesn’t overstay its welcome. As previously stated, it also gets major bonus points from me for managing to look and sound every bit the part of a grim saga from the pen of Robert E. Howard himself. The soundtrack in particular strikes just the right balance of eldritch mystery and pulse-pounding danger, proving (as did Golden Axe, Alisia Dragoon, and Gauntlet IV) that the Mega Drive sound chip could be as effective a delivery vehicle for blood and thunder fantasy anthems as it was for the heavy metal of MUSHA or the techno of Streets of Rage 2.

So King Colossus earns a moderate recommendation. It won’t exactly strain your brain, but it is a game that knows what’s best in life: To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their pixels!