Yeah, you’d best bow down, punk. That’s a 1CC right there.
When you nail that perfect home run in the bottom of the ninth with the based loaded, the crowd tends to forget all about your previous two strikes. Similarly, when a game company’s flagship series happens to be the second most popular of all time (with over 300,000,000 copies sold to date), it’s all too easy for its less successful efforts to fade into obscurity. That’s why I’d wager that a great many gamers would be hard-pressed to name a single non-Pokémon game by superstar developers Game Freak.
Game Freak got its start in 1983 as a gaming fanzine put out by writer/editor Satoshi Tajiri and a handful of friends, including future Pokemon illustrator Ken Sugimori. By 1987, the staff was convinced that they could design games themselves that would be just as good as the ones they covered in their publication. They successfully made the dramatic leap from game journalists to game creators in 1989 when they partnered with Namco to produce the arcade action/puzzle romp Quinty (later known as Mendel Palace on the NES). Seven additional games for various Nintendo and Sega platforms would be released between Quinty and the debut of Pokémon in 1996.
One of these “lost” Game Freak titles is the 1991 Super Famicom platformer Jerry Boy. Co-developed with System Sacom, this sophomore effort stars a young prince named Jerry who, in a clear nod to Dragon Quest, gets transformed into a grinning blue blob by an evil wizard in the employ of his jealous younger brother. The brother is, of course, named Tom. It turns out that Tom covets both the kingdom that Jerry stands to inherit and his beautiful fiancée Emi, who he promptly whisks away to marry against her will. Since this fantasy world apparently has a grossly bigoted “no slimes on the throne” policy, Jerry must chase his backstabbing brother across the land (all sixteen stages of it) if he wants to reclaim his kingdom, his girl, and his handsome human form.
At first blush, Jerry Boy comes off as a straightforward “hop and bop your way to the goal” exercise of the sort that consoles were neck-deep in at the time. What saves it from complete mediocrity is the combination of the title character’s creative moveset and some delightful art direction.
Being a sticky lump of amorphous goo, Jerry can cling to and crawl across walls and ceilings as well as squeeze through the networks of narrow pipes that criss-cross many of the stages. This helps to keep the platforming and level design consistently interesting. His means of dispatching enemies are also novel. Close range strikes are triggered by pressing up and down on the directional pad, which prompts Jerry to momentarily stretch out his body either above him or to either side, damaging anything adjacent to him. The downside is that the reach on these attacks is very short, so it can be tricky to time them in such a way that Jerry himself doesn’t also take damage. Ranged attacks in the form of red balls that travel in an arcing trajectory are a safer option, though shots are limited to the number of balls that Jerry can collect in a given stage. There are also two other special items you can pick up and carry: A jump booster to enhance mobility and a heavy iron ball that can be fired and re-collected indefinitely at the cost of hindering Jerry’s movement.
As fun as it is to control Jerry generally, there is one rather annoying quirk that takes some getting used to. Despite the fact that there are three key gameplay functions mapped to the buttons (running, jumping, and shooting), the game only uses only two of the six buttons on the controller for some strange reason. Since running and shooting are both mapped to the same button, you can’t break into a run (something you’ll need to do almost constantly) without also firing off a ball or dropping whatever special item you’re carrying, and doing so frequently wastes that item. It’s a bit like when you’re playing Super Mario Bros. as Fire Mario and you find yourself tossing out a fireball every time you hold down the button to run, except Mario’s firepower is unlimited and Jerry’s is not. You can adapt and work around this, true, but it’s ridiculous that you have to when there are four unused buttons sitting right there.
Even with the odd bit of frustration arising from the weird button mapping, Jerry Boy is a notably forgiving game that seem to have been crafted with younger players in mind. Jerry can withstand multiple hits from enemies and pick up healing items and health bar extenders within the stages themselves. 1-Up icons are also fairly common and players have the opportunity to earn even more by collecting a set of five red letters in each stage to spell out “J-E-R-R-Y.” When all else fails, continues are unlimited.
If the platforming is the heart of Jerry Boy, Ken Sugimori’s artwork is its soul. This isn’t to say that the graphics are at all impressive from a technical standpoint. In fact, I often got the impression that the development team didn’t have a particularly strong grasp of what the new hardware was capable of. The water in the ocean stage, for example, is rendered using a mesh-like effect similar to what you’d see in many Genesis games rather than with the Super Nintendo’s native transparencies. What the visuals lack in polish, however, they make up for with that unmistakable Game Freak charm. This is most prominent in the towns that you pass through every couple of stages. These settlements start out relatively prosaic, but Jerry’s journey will eventually have him visiting a desert oasis, the interior of a giant whale, and other surreal locales I won’t spoil for you here. There are no enemies to fight in these areas, just an assortment of friendly NPCs to chat with and the occasional extra life. These little breaks for the action work wonders for the game’s pacing and whimsical tone, even if you can’t read any of the dialog text.
The character designs for Jerry and his foes are all as adorable as you’d expect and several of them will be familiar to Pokémon fans. The first boss resembles a giant Pidgey and early iterations of Moltres and Zapdos show up in several stages to rain fire and lightning down on our squishy hero. Other enemies are less recognizable and a few of them are actually quite bizarre. In particular, I can’t say I’m sorry that the creepy nude men brandishing torches never made it into the Pokédex.
The game was originally published in Japan under Sony’s Epic music label, so it should come as no surprise that the score is solid. It draws on the talents of Bomberman stalwart Yasuhiko Fukuda, a pre-Silent Hill, Akira Yamaoka, and Manabu Saito, a promising rookie composer who tragically passed away in 1992 at the age of 22. None of the tracks here really blew me away or anything, but they hit all the lighthearted fantasy notes they should and sync-up perfectly with the game’s setting.
Jerry Boy did make it to North America in 1992 under the comparatively bland title Smart Ball. This version tweaked the control a bit in order to fix the running and shooting issue mentioned above. Unfortunately, it also stripped away much of the game’s personality by removing the cut scenes and town segments entirely. A clear case of “one step forward and two steps back.” I’d highly recommend you stick to the Japanese release if possible. A planned 1994 sequel that would have featured improved graphics and multiple player characters was ultimately cancelled, likely due to Sony not seeing the point in further supporting the Super Famicom while they were busy gearing up for the release of their original PlayStation. While not every cancelled game represents some great loss to humanity, I do think it’s a real shame in this case. At least the unreleased Jerry Boy 2 ROM did eventually leak onto the Internet and is playable these days if you’re so inclined. As for the original, it isn’t much to look at and it’s often a tad too simple and easy for its own good. Regardless, it brings some fun mechanics to the table along with boatloads of charisma and is well worth a playthrough.
Game Freak used Talent. It just wasn’t super effective.