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Retro Gaming: Some of the Weird Stuff

We can't keep talking about all these consoles and carts that clutter and crowd my creepy crypt out here on the edge of the NRW estate. At least, not without taking a look at what the 2nd Edition AD&D Dungeon Master Guide would call “The

We can’t keep talking about all these consoles and carts that clutter and crowd my creepy crypt out here on the edge of the NRW estate. At least, not without taking a look at what the 2nd Edition AD&D Dungeon Master Guide would call “The Weird Stuff.”

You see, dear readers… on an irregular but far from unreliable basis, a game would skulk past print and TV ads and simply find its way onto the retail shelf next to the ones whose box art bore shapes and color schemes we’d already been trained to recognize. Most console gamers during the epoch between the NES and the PS1 (just to give us a life preserver lest the tide carry us off) would have a laugh while examining the box and then pursue any more meaningful end. After all, many of the category of titles in question bore trade dress best described as “either a child or a truly insane person did this.” Perhaps it even served, in the subconscious of those guilty of the game’s existence, as a warning.

Then you have the true heroes, among whom I count myself. We had poor impulse control, and brightly-hued box art lured us toward a nefarious trap. Of course we fell into it; we went out that Saturday morning to buy a video game, so why not this one?

Because sometimes the entire experience is like Pilgrim’s Progress, if Pilgrim’s Progress ended with me returning an opened product to a store while admitting to a friendly staff member that I fucked up.

I’m not necessarily calling all or even most of these games bad. To speak only for myself, the overall quality of the game barely factored in when I was confronted with the kind of non-Euclidean shit these games contained. To mitigate my own damage, many of these games clearly took a protracted and inspired effort by one or more people. A few were probably even “pretty good.”

They’re just bizarre. To grab from HPL again, the angles were all wrong, and they could even give you a headache. Looking back, though, it would be both hasty and foolish to wish they’d never existed.

 

Heiankyo Alien

University of Tokyo Theoretical Science Group

1979

Let me kick this one off by pointing out who developed this off-kilter little piece of gaming history. Read the name out loud to yourself, and tell me that doesn’t sound like the kind of brain trust that would grow fishtanks full of pineal glands or half-accidentally find out what a human-mole rat hybrid looks like.

The premise itself isn’t the troubling part. We’ll get to that in a moment. It is, however, a little incongruous. The player controls a policeman during Japan’s last “classical” period, the Heian (794-1185 AD). UFOs have landed, and the xenos (who look like big heads on noodly feet and who have a startling lack of situational awareness) have swarmed the city know known as Kyoto. It’s up to you to defend the Land of the Rising Sun from extraterrestrial terror.

Apparently with a fucking shovel.

Right fancy lookin’, but I still had no idea what was up.

The setup described above is a bit of a colorful mismatch, but your character’s method of stemming the alien tide is what forms the fulcrum of the machine. His bright idea is to dig holes – at a speed that tells me he could resort to far more direct methods – and then fill them back in when the Type-II-Civilization outsiders stumble into them and get stuck. This idea is the bigger part of Heiankyo Alien’s weirdness to me. The other thing it does, to turn the hourglass, is make gameplay way more fun than I expected. You’re running back and forth in the critter-plagued dirt streets of an early city, borrowing a shred of Pac-Man’s mortal terror as a minimum of 2-3 aliens scour the neighborhood for your ass. The nature of the game encourages shrewd digging and a cunning sense of time management. It takes a few moments to dig or fill, yet even a partially finished hole can buy you time while fleeing. A fully scraped-out one, despite my initial skepticim, will actually get rid of a xeno… if you fill it all back in before the bugger wriggles out.

My only experience with the game is the version that Meldac published for the Game Boy. I received it as a gift when I was a preteen, and had no idea what to make of it even just going by the box art. As befitting a game developed in Japan in ’79, Heiankyo Alien’s first home was the non-export PC-8801 computer. The following year, a local corporate interest called Denki OnkyŌ saw to it that H.A. Was released in an arcade cabinet. Over time, it not only trickled into other formats, but crept well beyond its home range so that even Americans would encounter it. The GB version had two iterations of the game: a simpler, no-flash replica of the source material, and a “Cleaned up” reskinning to make it more tasty to those unable to appreciate the pure poetry of the PC-8801. The updated game has a slightly richer variety of aliens, too. This is partially balanced out by the player only needing three shovel-strokes to do hole stuff instead of five.

The original. Screenshot is from an emulated PC-8801.

The Game Boy port’s newfangled makeover.

Did I just say “hole stuff” in an article about old video games? Watch, ladies and gents, as he dissolves before your very eyes. Dig a grave for my eloquence.

I’ll tell myself both “sorry” and “fuck you” by clarifying that Heiankyo Alien (at least the one version with which I am familiar) is not a bad game. It’s pretty solid, but as a disclaimer, I would suggest that potential players view it as an action-puzzle game. The TSG took a concept not too distant from Pac-Man and made it a little more dynamic. That’s nothing if not worth writing down for history’s sake.

 

 

 

Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom

Hudson Soft

1984

Because of what I’m about to say and do, I feel like I imagine Judas felt for a few minutes off and on daily during a particular part of the Bible epic. I feel like I’m committing a jet-black and cowardly betrayal.

Hudson Soft went ahead and birthed a game not unlike a text adventure in 1984, with plans to house it within the same machine that kept Heiankyo Alien safe from the pitchforks and torches: the PC-8801. Four years later, a version was released for the Famicom that relied much more on the visuals since a typical Famicom user may not have bought that attachment. Both versions had reasonable success within Japan, and Princess Tomato did not leave the island-chain until 1991. In February of that year, Hudson made sure that I wasted about 90 minutes of my late childhood renting and playing what amounts to a bunny-soft take on Shadowgate starring food.

We can make one big burst of progress by realizing that the graphics play a prominent role in the downward spiral here. I suppose “descent in to madness” would be more fitting. The bulk of the Salad Kingdom’s population consists of things you’d put in a salad, but given voice, mind, and possibly some mockery of soul and heart. All of them look really weird, and it’s a little distracting when you’re trying to track down the pumpkin who kidnapped your future arranged-marriage wife. You know what? Let me just go into my NES emulator and record the intro for you folks. I’ll spare you and myself some time we’d never get back. You are (we are) Sir Cucumber, whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean within the almost disgustingly dysfunctional domain of King Broccoli. But yes, here. Have a video. It’s short.

When this game first presents itself to you, it is an easy mistake to peg it as an RPG. It is in the outer orbit of “RPG” in exactly one way: a whole fuckin’ lot of the time you spend in the Salad Kingdom involves talking to people. Like so many adventure-bent games featuring player-interactive dialog, this is cool for a while until you realize how little help your veggie-comrades will be. At least you meet a baby on the road and just take it like someone else’s styrofoam cooler, one of many short but conspicuously creepy moments in Salad Kingdom. In a Freudian swerve I can’t even compare to anything due to its raw brazenness, this baby persimmon grows up to become your equivalent to Robin the Boy Wonder. He is about as useful as tits on a dead rooster and calls you Boss every time he says anything. You also never have to answer to anyone, let along law-enforcement or, I don’t know, the King, for just suddenly five-finger-discounting a baby persimmon and (at least in practice) him. It’s a good thing the kid’s stupid, or he’d figure out how to hate Sir Cucumber.

This is the persimmon kid. He’s in the shower, and this is what a knight does to him. This is real shit.

Salad Kingdom involves a good bit of “walking around” in addition to the boatload of talking. You meet a nonstop parade of walking abominations whose affront to plant life in the real world, OUR world, isn’t even pardoned by their manners or their use to you. As you go on, lines start to blur. If David Lynch and Hayao Miyazaki ever decided to go in on a project and they were both really into sapient food, civil court fees would have been Hudson’s undoing. The end result would be an unlicensed film of this game.

To close on this one, Salad Kingdom is probably not bad if you like this style of game, but you should probably also make sure you’re sober when you take this one on. It’s full of little things that will make you worry for reasons you either can or can’t nail down.

 

 

The New Zealand Story/Kiwi Kraze

Taito

1988

The enemy roster in PC Engine version’s manual . Spot the “beyond unfortunate” pair of racist caricatures if you can.

The New Zealand Story seems on the surface to be an innocuous, cute, even harmless little platform game starring cute little animals. That notion is safe enough that I would never disabuse someone of it by opening my whore mouth.

I would laugh when they had a go at it and saw the things I’m about to discuss, though.

I’m gonna Hit the ground running and slap one of the actual gruesome things on the table. When you press start (or whatever equivalent on your console of choice this was ported to) and first run into battle as the bow-wielding flightless bird named Tiki, it’s not hard to tell that New Zealand Story is a pretty well-designed game. The math checks out, in other words.

Then you see something that no little kiwi should ever have to see on a quest to save his sweetheart Phee Phee. It is writ large in full knowledge that you will pass it and discover it, and its possible implications in my mind were ghastly enough that I turned the emulator off and didn’t touch New Zealand Story for months.

This is comparable to finding a gigantic mass grave beneath a Chuck E Cheezes, or maybe finding out your spouse is a clinical psychopath.

 

You see, a leopard seal kidnapped Phee Phee for the purposes of Kiwi Trafficking, which leads me to think one of two things: The fucking leopard seal did this, or Phee Phee somehow did this on her own. Like beyond the veil, or with all of her own…. something. From port to port te color shifts, and this “stare into the abyss” can seem to be written in a range of hues from blood to shit.

There are also two enemy guys, Boomerang Guy and Spear Guy, and no, they’re absolutely not (totally fucking are) grotesque and patronizing racist caricatures. Compounding this situation is the admittedly vague level of detail present in any version’s sprites. Are they a jab at African-descended folks? Aborigines? Am I totally wrong? I’d like to be.

Finally, that leopard seal is shown during the intro depending on which port you have, and no matter how cutesy you make him, there’s a solid black aura surrounding that psychopath. If they were trying to offset him being a tycoon in the field of enslaving small flightless birds and keep things light-hearted, they shit the bed when they went all psy-ops with that blood/shit graffiti.

Just this big empty eyed predatory sea mammal with a disarming goofy grin forever plastered to its face. Then two minutes into the game it taunts you with your girlfriend’s pain and fear via strategically placed blood-mockery.

From a nuts & bolts standpoint, New Zealand Story is possibly the best of th three games I’ve pissed on today in terms of overall quality. It has little else to over-complicate its own twist on the platform style, and you get to ride air balloons and shit. You’re a tiny flightless bird with one thing in his hands (a pretty sick bow) two things on his mind (rescuing his ladyfriend Phee-Phee and making sure a certain vile leopard seal gets same arrows in the ass.)

 

I had no plan to rate these games in this particular article, but here’s three sets of two 1-10 scale numbers. The first one is how strange it is. The second is its quality.

 

HEIANKYO ALIEN: Weird 5/10, Good 6/10 (It won’t make sense to most people, but who cares, it’s actually pretty good)

PRINCESS TOMATO IN THE SALAD KINGDOM: Weird 7, Good 4 (I feel a lot of ways here. First off, that kingdom needs some reforms. Secondly, I can only look at so many lumpy leering fruit faces before part of me regresses as a defensive reflex.)

NEW ZEALAND STORY: Weird 4, Good 8. (This game has a lot of angles, and while only a few are scary at all, those exact ones – allegory of human trafficking, blood drawing, etc. – are all the reasons I need to call it strange. That said, it is so much fun to play!)

bryan.eddy@newretrowave.com

Review overview

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