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It Came from Japan!

In honor of Canada Day, a video about Akira.

Jul 01 // Max Scoville
All about Akira:The MovieThe ComicThe Games:The Famicom GameThe Amiga GameThe Playstation 2 GameThe Cancelled Sega and Super Nintendo Games  The Music:Geinoh YamashirogumiKanye West "Stronger"M83 "Midnight City"M83 "Reunion"M83 "Wait"Other Movies:Blade RunnerBrazilChronicle  
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Because "Canada" sounds like "Kaneda"
Today is Canada day. And since "Canada" sounds kind of, sort of like "Kaneda," the hero of Otomo Katsuhiro's groundbreaking cyberpunk manga-turned-anime Akira, that's reason enough for me to put on my favorite red jacket and talk about one of his favorite pieces of media ever... Japanese, Canadian, or otherwise.

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The return of the Gentlemen's Club: Akiba's Trip edition


OH MY GOD WE'RE BACK!
Feb 05
// Spencer Hayes
Have you guys heard of Akiba's Trip 2? If you're not up on your crazy Japanese games I'll break it down for you: It's Yakuza but to defeat your vampire enemies you have to RIP OFF THEIR CLOTHES. That's right, it's like crazy ...
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Super Heroine Chronicle

Super Heroine Chronicle is one game NA will never see


Though stranger things have happened
Jan 25
// Wesley Ruscher
If it's one thing An American Tale taught me, it's to "never say never." But come on, what really are the chances of Super Heroine Chronicle landing on North American shores? It takes the mash-up wackiness of the Super Robot...

It Came From Japan! DoReMi Fantasy

Nov 08 // Allistair Pinsof
DoReMi Fantasy: Milon no Dokidoki Daibouken (Super Famicom)Developer: Hudson SoftReleased: March 22, 1996Current value: $75 - 300Fan translation: YesFor fans of: Super Mario World, Kirby, Donkey Kong CountryI started off this season of It Came from Japan! with what I considered the best possible line-up I could have compiled. And yet, I haven’t found much to love which makes discovering DoReMi Fantasy that much sweeter. It’s true that I raved about Magical Pop’n and Tetris Battle Gaiden, but I already was familiar with those titles. Though I often read about DoReMi on import sites, this was my first time playing it and I won’t soon forget its name.As I traversed DoReMi’s seven worlds and barely beat its increasingly difficult bosses, I kept wondering why we don’t see contemporary indie developers make platformers of this style and quality. I think this because DoReMi is a progressively designed game that wouldn’t feel out of place on any download service. Its lush ambient soundtrack is unlike the giddy music of other platformers, for instance. It also features a very generous amount of mechanics, with each new world building upon what was introduced in the last. You just didn’t see the sort of things in the ‘90s, though it’s commonplace now (if not expected). The large, colorful sprites, variety of  art assets, and constant twisting of established mechanics is what sets DoReMi a notch above both its 16-bit brethren and contemporary platformers. Oh yeah, and the most important aspect of all: fluidity of control. Milon stops on a dime, jumps as you expect, and controls like a dream when you acquire the boots item that let you rapidly press the jump button to gracefully glide. I almost wish the controls weren’t so good in the first world because the game was too easy at first. Once I got to the grueling levels of the third world, I was extra appreciative of the smooth controls.DoReMi isn’t all about jumping, however. You’ll do a lot of shooting as well. In fact, jumping on enemies only temporarily stuns them. Instead, you’ll need to hit them with a bubble and then jump into them. Once Milon collides with the bubble, it will go floating upward and take down any other enemies it touches. Exploring levels will unveil improvements to the bubble’s range, costumes that add health, and bubblegum that will save Milon from falling into a pit. Make no mistake, however: This is a very simple game, even when Milon learns to surf and summon ladders at will. Locking players out of content until enough collectibles are acquired is a pet peeve of mine. This often feels like lazy design which can ruin games, best exemplified in Donkey Kong Country 64. DoReMi, along with Super Mario 64, proves to be an exception. Each world contains five stars hidden in the levels, which would drive me nuts if the levels weren’t so well designed. Each level is brief, unique, and fun to explore. Thankfully, you can even quit out once you acquire a star, so you don’t have to play the whole thing again (assuming you didn’t find it on the first go-around).Each world has its own enemies, obstacles, and look that keep the game fresh during its entirety. DoReMi has the expected forest, ice, and fire worlds, but it also has some more creative ones like a candy world and toy world. The detail put into these levels really makes the concept of each world come to life. I kind of wish the entire game took place in candy world, since it’s gorgeous starry sky and delicious-looking treats paired so well with the calming soundtrack. And it made me hungry. DoReMi features some of the best graphics on the system, even if it doesn’t concede to the CG and Mode-7 gimmicks of the time. Hudson had a knack for making big, beautiful sprites and DoReMi may be its crown jewel. Even with the stellar visuals, it’s always the mechanics and smart level design that steal the show. The woods contain gusts of wind that slow your movement, the candy world features champagne bottles that blast you across the screen, and the ice world has blocks that won’t appear until you hit them with a bubble, making for some tricky platforming. Some worlds contain more elaborate elements, like the Concert Hall world that contains fake exits, demanding environmental awareness from the player.I’m not the biggest fan of 2D platformers because I don’t think there are many good ones. If I played DoReMi upon release, I may have saw things differently. Since I only just beat the game, it feels premature to rank it above or below Donkey Kong Country and Super Mario World. But, I feel confident in saying DoReMi forms a trifecta with those two titles -- sorry, never was a Kirby guy. Maybe it’s at this point that I should mention that DoReMi is a sort-of sequel to Milon’s Secret Castle on the Nintendo. I feel like I’m doing DoReMi a disservice by even mentioning that mediocre title. DoReMi barely feels like a sequel, featuring only a couple elements of the original. DoReMi is confident and whimsical in a way that the original wasn’t. It even features genuinely funny dialog and a bizarre Bomberman cameo that is sure to make Hudson fans smile. DoReMi is the full package. It would be among the very best platformers on any system, including current ones. When the game finally came to international audiences with its Wii Virtual Console release in 2008, it could have been easily mistaken for a current release. Except, you’d be hard-pressed to find one with the character and quality of this lost gem from Hudson. What are your favorite 2D platformers? Have you enjoyed the selection of games this season of ICFJ? Who the hell pays $300 for a SFC game, I mean really?
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Only in dreams
[It Came from Japan! is a series where I seek out and review the weirdest, most original and enjoyable titles that never left the Land of the Rising Sun.] There is a wide divide between Super Mario World and all platformers ...

It Came From Japan! Treasure of the Rudras

Nov 01 // Allistair Pinsof
Treasure of the Rudras [Rudra no Hiho] (Super Famicom)Developer: SquaresoftReleased: April 5, 1996Current value: $30 - 80Fan translation: YesFor fans of: Final Fantasy, Romancing SaGa, Breath of FireWith 100+ employees and millions being funneled into its next-gen Final Fantasy, Square needed something to give fans while they waited for the reason to buy a PlayStation. Treasure of the Rudras brought together key members of the Final Fantasy Mystic Quest and Romancing SaGa teams to make another RPG that borrowed heavily from the Final Fantasy template but not without mixing things up.For a developer that often gets lambasted for making games too linear, Rudras is pretty open and experimental in its approach to combat and story. Upon starting a new game, you’ll be told a fairly generic background tale about how the world is destroyed and recreated by the gods every 4,000 years. It’s happened to the reptiles, giants, merfolk, danans, and now it’s going to happen to the human race in 15 days. Oh man, that's us! Here’s where things get interesting: You get to pick which of the three main narratives you want to start first. Each story follows a different character with a different party on a separate part of the world. Sion is a young soldier who wants to prove his strength to his father, a king. Riza is a priestess who leaves home to find her mother and determine her destiny. Surlent, whose story is the most interesting of the three, is the disciple of a prophet and seeks artifacts that will save the world. Regardless of who you pick at the beginning, you’ll be able to change to another character's story whenever you load your game. To be clear, these are not recycled; these are three completely unique campaigns wrapped up into one game (and a final unlockable chapter that I won’t spoil here). You can choose to play one at a time, but part of what makes Rudras so special is the player’s ability to constantly jump from one plot line to the next. Since the game is divided into 15 chapters (for 15 days), I found myself changing after three-to-five days with one character. When you play this way, the game feels a lot like the HBO series Game of Thrones. The distant city one character talks about is the starting kingdom of another character. You’ll see locations and enemies in a new context, as you learn from a new perspective on the other side of the map. Things can get really warped when the stories are out of sync and yet you see travelers from another story in your periphery, essentially breaking the game's own timeline. The stories themselves aren’t very good, but the way they compliment each other and the freedom given to the player makes up for this.If the approach to storytelling sounds overwhelming, you may have more than a slight problem with combat. There is a Wizard of Earthsea vibe in the Rudras’ fiction and art direction, but this is especially true in the magic which focuses on words. Linguistics geeks will eat up Rudras' Mantra system which replaces spells learned and bought in town with words, prefixes, and suffixes that you gather from people, enemies, and chests. At any time, the player can inscribe new spells to their repertoire by writing them down. You can cheat and copy powerful spells from a guide online or you can write down random words and hope to get lucky. If you play the game as intended, you’ll thoroughly explore towns to learn new words to use. Here’s an example of how the system works. Perhaps you start with the healing spell “Lef”.  If you add a “na” at the end to get “Lefna” you acquire a healing spell that targets all members. Now you can take that suffix and apply it other spells with mixed results. Soon, you’ll decode a made-up language and feel like a word wizard.Here’s the problem with this system: It’s too easy to miss something important. Rudras is already a horribly balanced RPG, one ripe with weak enemy mobs and overpowered bosses. You’ll constantly worry that you missed a word or combination. Even at the start of the game, it’s essential that you have powerful spells at your disposal. A lot of times, the only way to get these spells is by talking to people in town (and, even then, you may need to talk to them multiple times). This takes away a lot of enjoyment from the system. The game would have been much better if it were consistent with how players received these words. I would prefer if word elements were given for leveling up, leaving it to the player to figure out the combinations -- but still giving players the confidence that they already have all that they need to get the job done. After the audio/visual tour-de-force of Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger, and Super Mario RPG, it’s hard not to have high expectations for a SquareSoft game that followed them and essentially served as the developer’s farewell to the system. Expect your expectations to be crushed, because Rudras is a budget game that few notable Square employees touched. The music and graphics are a significant step back. There are elements of Final Fantasy VI and Seiken Densetsu 3 in the mix, but the lack of detail and recycled assets make Rudras sound and look like second rate Square. That’s not to say it’s bad, though. Some of the music -- done by Mystic Quest’s Ryuji Sasai -- is great and the visuals will make 16-bit gamers nostalgic. Just don’t expect it to be on par with late-Square. Think Final Fantasy V instead, and you won’t be so far off.A lot of Western gamers romanticize Square’s SNES years and mourn all the games that never came out West. I have only touched the tip of the iceberg with Treasure of the Rudras, but it hasn’t exactly made me excited to play the rest of Square’s Japan-only SNES output. Rudras is game with interesting systems, but it lacks the polish, balance, and strong art direction that defined Square’s early years. If you are open-minded and ready for a challenge, Rudras may be exactly the Square game you wanted but never got. Or, it may be the Square game you never knew Square were capable of putting out -- and I don’t mean this in a complementary way. Did you worship Square during the 16-bit years? Have you played any Square imports? Do non-traditional magic systems turn you away or attract you to RPGs?
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Square's last 16-bit epic
Squaresoft was second only to Nintendo in the 16-bit era when it came to influence and a strong track record. From the genre-defining Secret of Mana to the crowd-pleaser Chrono Trigger, Square had a knack for telling a gre...

It Came From Japan! Fatal Frame IV

Oct 25 // Allistair Pinsof
Fatal Frame IV (Wii)Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture, TecmoReleased: July 31, 2008Current value: $90 - 120Fan translation: YesFor fans of: Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Rule of Rose J-horror is the least offensive of horrors. I never understood what’s so scary about an annoying, screeching pale kid that threatens to scratch your face. I mean, haven’t people babysat before? Yet, people flock to the theater to see films like Ringu and Ju-on: The Grudge which the Fatal Frame series borrows greatly from, along with the Japanese folklore that serves as their inspiration. As you can tell from the above, J-horror doesn’t do much for me. I gave Fatal Frame II a try, many Halloweens ago when I was searching for the ultimate spook. After making it through the first hour without a good scare, I moved onto Silent Hill 4: The Room where I had many satisfying spooks! But, here I am again, returning to the series for its Japan-only Wii debut, in hopes that the jump in technology and developers will do it for me. FF4 is kind of the Resident Evil 4 of the series. It features a new camera system, focuses more on action, and includes new ideas that make cinematic moments interactive. It’s not quite as big of a jump in structure, but how could it be when the series embodied the RPG elements of RE4 since its beginning in 2001? Instead of wielding a gun in Fatal Frame, you aim an old-fashioned camera, called the “Camera Obscura,” from first-person. You’ll acquire ammo, build up points from combat, and spend them on abilities. The game takes place in the spookiest of spooktacular locations: A haunted sanitarium … for children … on an island … where much abuse happened. Seriously, I dare you to come up with something spookier than that right there! The story is about five girls who were kidnapped by a serial killer and taken away from the sanitarium. Now, ten years later, the girls return to the sanitarium, alongside the detective that saved them, to dig up their past. Each of the game’s chapters puts you in the role of a different character, making for some slight variations in gameplay and novel storytelling. This is a notable entry in the series mostly because it was co-developed by Suda 51 and his studio Grasshopper Manufacture, who you may know from Killer 7, No More Heroes, and Lollipop Chainsaw. As with most Grasshopper games, very little is known about Suda’s actual input on the project but one can make some connections to his other games. Though the developer has flirted with survival horror in the past, FF4 is the closest it has come to making a full-fledged attempt in the genre. The revamped controls for Wii both add and take away from the hardcore spooks that drew people to the series in the first place. Fixed camera angles have been replaced with an over-the-shoulder camera reminiscent of RE4. The game takes advantage of this with long narrow hallways that are nerve-wracking to walk down, as you sense a spooky ghost is around every corner. You also feel more immersed in the world, thanks to there not being cinematic camera angles pointing you toward a place or upcoming event. The motion-based aiming doesn’t work quite as well. Some critics argue that the awkward controls add to the spookicity, but I found they just made combat frustrating, not slower and methodical like tank controls. There is also no good way to evade a ghost’s attack, without unlocking a cheap ability that lets you shake them off every time. Taking photos requires timing and accuracy. It’s a pretty fun system, even with motion controls, but it definitely takes away from the spook factor when numbers and exclamations flash on the screen like an arcade shooter. The new item pick-up sequences that force you to slowly reach out by holding down the A button are the best additions to the series in FF4. These scenes creeped me the hell out, as I anticipated a hot spook. But, in the end, they stopped having much of an effect because the game keeps advertising its scares. Spooks rarely happen during these sequences or while walking down narrow hallways, so the game just stops being all that unsettling after a couple of hours. I started going through the motions of acquiring items, battling ghosts, and reading story-related documents without being phased -- and I am no master of the spooks! FF4 is on rails to a fault. I enjoyed the first couple of hours, but found the spooks become far too obvious and monotonous over time. I also became frustrated with the constant cutscenes that took control away, ending all possible spookability. The atmosphere and story of FF4 is pretty neat and almost enough to continue playing. I just wish the game kept mixing things up in creative ways in the same way that RE4 did. If pale ghost kids is enough to make you scare yourself, maybe you’ll find FF4 frightening throughout. And so ends my coverage of spooky games for this run of It Came from Japan! but there are still two more entries to come, featuring two beloved Super Famicom games. Crawl out from the covers, shake them spooks off, and get ready for some 16-bit platforming and stats in November! What Japanese games give you a serious case of the spooks? Does too much action ruin a good spook for you? Does J-horror spook you or are you a tough tootin' baby like me? [Want to know more awesome Japanese games worth checking out? Visit the It Came from Japan! archive, ya dummy.]
It Came from Japan! photo
Definitely not a Kodak moment
[It Came from Japan! is a series where I seek out and review the weirdest, most original and enjoyable titles that never left the Land of the Rising Sun.] Distance has a way of making horrors insignificant. A car accident and...

It Came from Japan! Laplace's Demon

Oct 18 // Allistair Pinsof
Laplace’s Demon (Super Famicom)Developer: Group SNE, Vic TokaiReleased: May 14, 1995Current value: $5 - 25Fan translation: YesFor fans of: Sweet Home, Resident Evil, Koudelka Zombies, vampires, werewolves. No thanks. For me, haunted houses have always been my horror trope of choice. From The House on Haunted Hill to Resident Evil, there is something so special about the false sense of security that comes from exploring a haunted estate. Evil lurks around the corner, but there is a feeling of comfort that exists until you do. A haunted house, unique character classes, and incredible atmosphere. These are the things that made Sweet Home such a memorable horror adventure. Laplace also takes place in a mansion, albeit one with a portal to an even larger castle. The game has a decidedly quirky combat system, and it evokes unsettling horror elements rarely seen on consoles at the time. Though Laplace resembles Sweet Home, it doesn’t come close to approaching the genius of Capcom’s classic. Despite this unflattering comparison, there are some things I enjoyed about this more familiar approach to role-playing. Sweet Home was a narrative tour de force of its era, packing its story with twists, subtle background information, and memorable characters. Laplace is focused more on leveling and exploration. It plays Dragon Quest to Sweet Home’s Final Fantasy. Laplace starts with a brief introduction to the game’s story which involves the murders of two boys and a missing girl in a Boston mansion. You then pick your character, assemble a team, and grind through the mansion. Laplace resembles Phantasy Star and Diablo, in that you are making constant trips back to town in order to restock items, talk to locals, and level your characters. The original PC release even presented the mansion through a first-person view. Given the context and 1920s Boston setting of LaPlace, the game provides inspired alternatives to genre staples that wouldn't generally make sense outside a fantasy setting. For example, a gun-toting detective takes the place of a warrior and a psychic plays the role of a mage. Things get more interesting with the Sweet Home-inspired journalist who takes photos of enemies. These photos can be sold at the inn at town for money -- you know, because journalists make more money than any other profession. It’s a strange concept, but having to sacrifice dealing extra damage for more money is a pretty neat mechanic. You’ll rarely come across money in the mansion, so taking photos becomes important as you progress. The Scientist is another novel class that fills the role of a tank, while offering a lot of customization options. Since he uses a “machine” instead of sword or gun, the player can modify it with parts. Different combinations of parts offer different abilities, but you’ll only be able to have two abilities equipped at a time. This makes him the most flexible character in the game, since he can deal out the most damage or protect the team during a boss encounter. The last class, the Dilettante, is mostly useless. He’s a jack of all trades but master of none. I left him out of my party, unless the medical bills for my defeated members were too high to pay. You can always swap characters out by visiting the inn. Once you have your team assembled, it’s time to embark into the mansion. Getting your bearings can be a real pain at first, since there is no map provided. Even worse, you need to pay $200 (a lot in this game) for a compass that will display your position once you acquire a map. The mansion isn’t as intelligently laid out as Sweet Home’s, nor is it as well designed. Each floor is laid out with the same, dull textures that bring to mind RPG Maker. Exploring the mansion, area-by-area is where Laplace most closely resembles Sweet Home and the horror games that would follow. At the start, you are locked out of most of the mansion, but you’ll start to acquire keys, holy objects, and other items that will let you explore the three floors of the estate. You’ll need to check every bookshelf, drawer, and corpse, though, which can be a pain. Occasionally, you’ll come across a body from a previous search-and-rescue team. These become very anticipated moments, since you’ll be rewarded with a lot of experience and money in town. Sweet Home scraped by on its role-playing elements. Maybe I was just really good or got lucky, but I always had the sense that the game could become a nightmare if I didn’t handle my party correctly. Laplace not only leans much more heavily on its role-playing mechanics, it also gets rid of the puzzle/adventure elements that made Sweet Home so unique. Laplace has some pretty great ideas, such as character-specific abilities unlocked through taking damage (à la Final Fantasy VII's limit breaks). However, the game is horribly balanced. Some enemies are tough as nails, yet give hardly any experience. The opposite is true as well, which encourages players to ignore combat and grind specific types of enemies. You get more XP from moving forward in the story. It's not very fun. By the time I got to the castle and was up against tougher enemies. I gave up on Laplace. I felt I had seen everything the game had to offer. It's a neat horror-themed dungeon crawler but it's not the Sweet Home successor I wanted. Funny enough, Laplace received two much more obscure sequels, Demon Sword of Paracelsus and Masque of the Black Death. If nothing else, Laplace brought back some positive memories of Sweet Home and pushed me closer to checking out Koudelka. What other RPG-horror games can you list? Do you love haunted house stories? If so, why? Why in the hell haven't you played Sweet Home yet?!?
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The horror-RPG you never heard about
[It Came from Japan! is a series where I seek out and review the weirdest, most original and enjoyable titles that never left the Land of the Rising Sun.] There are some games that live up to the hype, but then there are a fe...

It Came from Japan! Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti

Oct 11 // Allistair Pinsof
Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti (Famicom)Developer: Now Production/NamcoReleased: July 31, 1989Current value: $30-50Fan translation: YesFor fans of: Monster Party, Splatterhouse, Boku Dracula Kun Splatterhouse is a gruesome, difficult action-platformer where you punch giant monsters in the eyeball until they explode. Wanpaku Graffiti is a game where you fart on a geisha dancer to which she responds, “Welcome to Japan!” Whereas Splatterhouse subtly cribbed from horror classics, Wanpaku Graffiti gleefully parodies everything from Michael Jackson’s "Thriller" to David Cronenberg’s The Fly. The difference between Wanpaku (“Naughty”) and other series entries includes aesthetics, controls, level design, system hardware, and everything in-between. As a result, series fans may detest it while others who never liked Splatterhouse may find this oddball entry charming. Wanpaku opens with a cinematic in which series antihero Rick rises from the dead after lightning strikes -- a rather direct ode to Friday the 13th. Alongside him is his mourning girlfriend Jennifer and Rick’s new nemesis the Pumpkin King. There's nothing scarier than a guy with a giant pumpkin head. Assuming you don’t get hardcore spooked at the start, you’ll soon run into a vampire doing the Thriller dance at the end of stage one. It’s a frightening sight for sure. It’s hard to talk about Wanpaku without making it sound awesome. This is why I always assumed the game must be a pretty fun parody, like Konami’s excellent Boku Dracula Kun and Parodius. Well, it’s not. But, it’s not awful, either. Wanpaku is just a very average platformer peppered with some inspired moments that will make both Splatterhouse and horror film fans grin. The controls feel just alright. Chibi Rick is a lot lighter and faster than his adult form, so the game focuses on platforming more than any other Splatterhouse. You also don’t have the ability to punch or kick. Instead, you nonchalantly swipe demon spawn with a meat cleaver, occasionally replacing it with the series’ iconic shotgun (which still feels great!). Seeing the little guy lug around a weapon as big as his head is simultaneously adorable and disturbing. That kind of sums up Wanpaku. Wanpaku brings some ideas of its own to the series but none of them feel fully realized, such as a leveling mechanic that increases your health bar as you defeat enemies. There are also collectible orbs that will give you an alternate ending. Otherwise, the game is a pretty straightforward and repetitive action-platformer that locks you in a room to fight books and knives one too many times. Splatterhouse managed to make a name for itself in arcades, but Wanpaku easily blends in with numerous other mediocre Nintendo platformers. Wanpaku isn’t a good-sounding game, but it looks pretty nice for a late ‘80s Nintendo release. There is a novelty in seeing signature series enemies on the system’s limited color palette. It makes me wonder if there could have even been an effectively scary Splatterhouse for the system. Probably not. Instead, we have this rather wacky one with baffling Engrish, inexplicable movie references, and bosses that are more adorable than terrifying. I’m hard pressed to think of another game that has a Tower of Druaga character and a pixelated Jeff Goldblum in it, but it’s the twist ending that really puts Wanpaku’s schizophrenic plot over the top. After defeating the Pumpkin King, it’s revealed to the player that Rick and Jennifer are on a film set and none of the game’s enemies were real. MIND=BLOWN, right? The alternate ending is a bit more grim, leaving the player at the start of the original Splatterhouse, establishing Wanpaku as a bizarre prequel. Wanpaku is worth playing for the curious horror or Splatterhouse fan. It’s short, one of the easiest games on the Nintendo, and full of quirky moments worth seeing for yourself. I can’t for the life of me understand why Namco went the route it did, but Wanpaku remains one of the oddest left turns for a game series to ever happen. Wanpaku is a time capsule not only for Namco and its beloved horror series, but ‘80s horror cinema as well. Also, you get to fight giant turds in a bathroom. Once again, WTF, Namco? Why do you think Namco made this strange offshoot? Name every game featuring Jeff Goldblum! What game parodies do you enjoy?
It Came from Japan! photo
The bizarre prequel no horror fan saw coming
It’s 1988 and Namco has just released one of the most violent, critically acclaimed horror-themed games to ever hit an arcade. Splatterhouse was unlike anything else at the time. It was a game made by horror fans, fo...

It Came from Japan! King of Demons

Oct 04 // Allistair Pinsof
King of Demons (Super Famicom)Developer: KSSReleased: August 25, 1995Current value: $175Fan translation: YesFor fans of: Super Castlevania IV, Splatterhouse 2, Contra For a seemingly cut-and-dried 2D action-platformer, King of Demons doesn’t feel like any other game. Opening with an ambitious, interactive cinematic on a bridge, the title immediately evokes a unique atmosphere. Like Splatterhouse’s antihero, Abel isn’t shy about embracing demonic powers in order to save his loved ones. The game opens with Abel’s friend Bayer betraying him by sacrificing Abel’s family in order to become ... THE KING OF DEMONS! Oh no! After some brief dialogue and fugly anime portraits, the game becomes a steadfast side-scrolling shooter that never lets up on its pace and generous -- or grueling, depending on how you look at it -- amount of boss fights. Abel is constantly running through gateways leading further into the hellish world, falling down pits, and even hopping a demon train full of demon turrets and other crazy demon shit. Abel becomes increasingly more devilish as the game continues, adopting three demonic forms. However, you’ll have to play the first stage as a fairly normal resurrected human. Abel feels like the way I imagine John McClane would feel if there was ever an awesome 2D Die Hard game. You dump on demons with a glock, have an awesome roll maneuver, and can perform a ridiculous double-jump. I’d disapprove on this break from reality if it weren’t for double-jumping being the greatest mechanic that God Satan ever gave developers. After you defeat a boss, you are bestowed a jewel that will change Abel into one of the game’s demon forms. Depending on the gem’s color, you will become a dragon, harpy, or whatever the heck the third form is supposed to be. Each character has its own pros and cons, since their attack, special, jump, and dash is different. Play the game enough times and you’ll know what form is best for which stage. There are even tricks to the system, such as using the same form to gain a more powerful version. Using all three forms will also grant a new more powerful form during the endgame. I’ve read others say the game is easy, but I have to disagree. The many bosses of King of Demons gave me grief for the longest time. It didn’t help that I had no understanding of specials or the demon transformation system, of course. The game is full of bosses with tricky movement patterns. The scale and detail of the later bosses is really impressive for the system. Even though you are meeting hell’s spawn on their own level through your transformations, I never felt that winning came so easy. King of Demons’ visuals and audio can be pretty underwhelming at times, especially for a ‘95 release. If you can look past these things and not compare it too much to Super Castlevania and Splatterhouse, you may find one of the better horror-themed 16-bit games. I can’t think of another SNES/SFC game with bosses this creepy, gross, and huge. The controls, action, and grim visuals make this an easy game to recommend to horror and action fans. What 16-bit games scared you? Is double-jumping the greatest? Y/N? Are you a fan of games with tons of bosses? Why?
It Came from Japan! photo

[It Came from Japan! is a series where I seek out and review the weirdest, most original and enjoyable titles that never left the Land of the Rising Sun. For the month of October, the series will focus on games that may make ...

It Came from Japan! photo
It Came from Japan!

It Came From Japan! Tetris Battle Gaiden


Sep 27
// Allistair Pinsof
[It Came from Japan! is a series where I seek out and review the weirdest, most original and enjoyable titles that never left the Land of the Rising Sun.] We all have that one so-called classic that we groan at when we see...
It Came from Japan! photo
It Came from Japan!

It Came From Japan! Spriggan: Lunar Verse


Sep 20
// Allistair Pinsof
[It Came from Japan! is a series where I seek out and review the weirdest, most original and enjoyable titles that never left the Land of the Rising Sun.] Nostalgia aside, examining the origins of now prevalent game concept...

It Came From Japan! The Adventures of Little Ralph

Sep 13 // Allistair Pinsof
The Adventure of Little Ralph (PlayStation)Developer: New CorporationReleased: June 3, 1999Current value: $100 - 150  (Your best bet to is to purchase on Japanese PSN store.) Fan translation: None, but no Japanese necessary.For fans of: Castlevania, Wonder Boy, Ghost 'n Goblins If I didn't know any better, I'd think The Adventure of Little Ralph is an arcade port. OK, so I did think that for a short while. There is a simplicity to AoLR’s visuals and design that recalls the heyday of arcades, which were on the decline by the game’s release year of 1999. This debut -- at least I believe it’s a debut since I can’t find any information on the developer -- recalls arcade classics like Strider, Ghosts 'n Goblins, and Capcom’s ambitious licensed platformers like Willow and Little Nemo. For those who like a traditional platformer that doesn’t show mercy on players, this late PlayStation game is worth seeking out. Keep it simple, stupid! Once developers got their hands on the Super Nintendo and PlayStation, it became hard to resist using all those buttons. When buttons didn’t mirror each other, they were often attached to useless abilities or attacks that could have been better implemented or not implemented at all. AoLR keeps its controls simple enough to not feel out of place in an mid-’80s arcade but still offers a lot of nuance. You control Ralph with two buttons: attack and jump. However, you can a number of things through timing and combining the two. For example, you can do a Zelda-esque downward strike by jumping and attacking downward. The ability you’ll rely on the most is your power swing -- achieved by holding down the attack button until the sword lights up -- which sends enemies flying into other enemies, knocking them all down like bowling pins. For a game with such simple controls, I found myself improving a lot over the course of it. Timing will always be the main factor in approaching enemies, but it’s not the only one. Is that you, Street Fighter? AoLR is chock full of amazing boss fights, but it’s the ones near the end that take the cake. Out of nowhere, Ralph beefs up and returns to his adult form that he was stripped of at the start of the game. Now empowered with ripped muscles and a giant sword, he has some new moves in his arsenal. A lot of them. In fact, AoLR inexplicably becomes a temporary fighting game. These sections aren’t exactly a blast; in fact, the last two can be downright frustrating. But, it’s kind of awesome just how random and ambitious it is. Maybe the developer was working on a fighting game before this and decided to just throw its features into AoLR? It plays decently and serves as a memorable twist. Just get ready to have your ass beat because the bosses refuse to take it easy on you. It’s best to play cheap with the jump slashes. The fructose intolerant need not apply My favorite feature of AoLR is the constant allure of the fruits. As you traverse a level, you’ll occasionally see a line of fruit tempting you to make a dangerous jump or go off the path in front of you. By doing so, you’ll spawn more fruit that will eventually lead to hearts (collect enough for a 1up) and a high score. I’ve read this scoring system originated in the Wonder Boy series, but I haven’t seen it anywhere else. It reminds me of a Cave shoot-em-up in that it rewards risky players while highlighting the best path through a level -- just make sure you don’t hesitate or you’ll die. I’m not one for high score runs -- and it’s certainly a task just to survive in this game -- but I always get excited when one of these fruit paths shows up. From the sewers to the sky As generic as it may be, the world of Little Ralph is at least a colorful and diverse one. This is a game where levels within stages are unique and unlike the levels that come before and after. One stage has you going from exploring a fortress to zipping through a cavern in a mine cart. You’ll visit sewers detailed with rats scurrying across the floor that you can chase and towns with birds that fly off into the distance. AoLR may be reminiscent of a Super Nintendo game, but it’s in these details that it surpasses what that system was capable of achieving visually. As you fall from the sky repeatedly or into spike pits, you’ll be thankful that the areas you are replaying are full of detail and character. One world It’s a small detail, but every area of AoLR is physically tied together. When the exit of one area doesn’t lead to the entrance of the next, you’ll at least see Ralph get to the next area by ship. It’s a cool little touch. The game may not be open enough to be considered a Metroidvania, but each level has numerous alternate paths and hidden bonuses. This is the type of game you can replay and get something more out of it. Though, I imagine very few players will get to the game’s true ending which can only be seen by beating the final stage on normal. Playing on easy may give you extra health, but the game ends a couple stages early. Just be aware that the final stage makes Super Meat Boy look like a cakewalk. Thankfully, AoRL has an excellent checkpoint system -- one of the best in its genre. Each level has multiple checkpoints, which always feel well balanced. When you are going through a hellish platforming segment, you’ll find checkpoints around every corner. But, when you are just going through an area of average difficulty, you’ll find checkpoints to be scarce. There are also different kinds of checkpoints. Sometimes when you use a continue, a checkpoint won’t work and you’ll rollback to a previous one. I personally love this, since it maintains challenge without being binary and frustrating. Like many aspects of Little Ralph, you get the sense that this mysterious developer put a lot of thought into the checkpoints. The game shares many simple qualities common in its genre, but it does these things with finesse and style. On first glance, you may struggle to date the game to a year or even console generation, but you’ll be able to see the timeless elements of this platformer right away. What is your favorite 2D platformer of the PlayStation-era? Do constant checkpoints annoy you in platformers? Can you think of another game that has a fighting game within it?
It Came from Japan! photo

[It Came from Japan! is a series where I seek out and review the weirdest, most original and enjoyable titles that never left the Land of the Rising Sun.] As you may have gathered from past entries in this series, there are a...

It Came From Japan! Magical Pop'n

Sep 06 // Allistair Pinsof
Magical Pop’n (Super Famicom)Developer: PolestarReleased: March 10, 1995Current value: $180 - 250 Fan translation: YesFor fans of: Castlevania, Super Mario World, Metroid The biggest question that rings in my head when playing a game as polished, unique, and downright fun as Magical Pop’n is "Why did it never make it to the States?" Call it pure speculation, but I’ll call it sensible reasoning: My feeling is that a game starring a female lead was about as popular with game publishers as the Super Nintendo in 1996. However, it’s these two things that partly make the game such a charming, good time. 16-bit fetishists will eat up the colorful landscapes of Magical Pop’n and the dwarfed princess is the perfect tour guide through it all. Metroidvania-lite If Super Metroid were an arcade game, it’d resemble Magical Pop’n. Like Metroid, you’ll frequently find yourself blocked from a certain path in each of the game’s six stages. The only way through the path is by finding a new ability and applying it to the obstacle. You’ll also encounter enemies and bosses with weaknesses that beg the player to use the recently acquired ability. The game doesn't limit your options in a boss fight like Zelda, however. You don’t have a map and aren't likely get lost, but the game has multiple paths, hidden areas, and even hearts you can collect that will permanently increase your health. If you like the progression system of Metroid but want less backtracking, Magical Pop’n may appeal to you. Princess = Sorceress Continuing on the Metroid comparison, you’ll find yourself constantly rolling back to previous abilities you unlocked throughout the game. Not only is it quick and easy to change your ability, but each of the six spells is unique and serves a purpose. These abilities range from the starting laser projectile to a Bionic Commando-like grappling hook. As you visit the sky palaces, woodlands, and other levels, you’ll acquire fire, ice, bombs, and even a Sonic-esque spin attack. Each ability costs a certain amount of stars, which you’ll collect throughout levels. You can hold up to 99 and will rarely run low. Each ability has a secondary attack that costs 10 stars that will make bosses easier but the following areas harder if you have exhausted your resources. In addition to providing the game with some nice visuals, these abilities alter the way your approach the environment and bosses. Since the weapons are diverse, you’ll find there are multiple ways to defeat enemies. It gives the game depth and replayability. A colorful world I absolutely adore the way Magical Pop’n looks. It has that bright, chunky anime look that Magical Taruruuto-Kun and Kid Dracula share. The backgrounds lack detail, but there is plenty of character in enemy and player animations. The bosses are especially memorable with some really quirky damage reactions and attacks. To some, Magical Pop’n may look like a PC Engine game, but I love it for that. The colorful anime-inspired look is something that you didn’t often see on the Super Famicom. Magical Pop’n makes me wonder why. Tight controls Right next to Super Mario World and Super Castlevania IV, Magical Pop’n is the best-feeling platformer on the system. What’s even more impressive is that it’s faster and more fluid than both. The princess has a lot of moves at her disposal, from a slide to a Zelda II-esque downward strike. Going from one to the other and moving around is always smooth. SNES games are typically slower than Genesis games because of the CPU, but Magical Pop’n somehow manages to be as fast and fluid as Sega’s best. Save the princess In the teen boy-dominated market of the ‘90s, few kids wanted to play as a cute princess with a wand. Give the game a chance, though -- you may find the main character endearing. Along with some great animation and character detail, developer Polestar was very progressive in designing her. In addition to hiring popular anime artist Takami Akai to do the box art, Polestar got softcore pornstar-turned-Japanese-idol (oh, Japan) Ai Iijima to do the voice work. Unlike other SNES games, the groans and brief audio clips sound pretty good and never got on my nerves. The princess is so fully realized in the 16-bit world that I could easily see her making the transition to an anime series or manga. Unfortunately, this would be the last time we saw the character. Pop it and lock it There are a couple Japan-only platformers that been put on a pedestal by import seekers over the years. This season of It Came From Japan will cover a couple of them, but I’ll be shocked if any of them impress me more than Magical Pop’n. The game isn’t very long or mind-blowingly unique, but it stands up with some of the best games of the Super Nintendo. Great boss fights, reasonable difficulty curve, fun abilities, and fluid controls; the game really has it all. This is the reason I love to write these articles. Every now and then, I stumble upon a game that could have defined my childhood if I had played it in the ‘90s. This is one of those times. Were you strongly averse to playing characters of the opposite gender as a kid? Did you ever read about Magical Pop'n in the international sections of old gaming magazines? What's up with evil penguins in Japanese games?
It Came from Japan! photo

[It Came from Japan! is a series where I seek out and review the weirdest, most original and enjoyable titles that never left the Land of the Rising Sun.] Magical Pop’n is the reason I do this series. I mean this figur...

It Came from Japan! Ganbare Goemon 4

Nov 24 // Allistair Pinsof
Ganbare Goemon Kirakira Douchuu: Boku ga Dancer ni Natta Wake (Super Famicom)Developer: KonamiReleased: December 22, 1995Current value: $10 - 30 Fan translation: No, but this FAQ and these videos helpFor fans of: The Legend of Mystical Ninja, Castlevania, Strider   I don't think there is a series more Japanese than Ganbare Goemon. What other game takes place in feudal Japan while also throwing in every anime and "Japan you so crazy" trope you can imagine? You have mechs, horny old men, ninjas, and more. On top of that, past entries have directly poked fun at Westerners and Catholics. It's a series that knows its audience, which only makes it seem more original and bold to the eyes of an outsider. Considering Nintendo took out a fart joke in the first SNES Goemon game, it shouldn't be a surprise that Konami didn't bother to bring over its sequels. Much like Sonic the Hedgehog's later entries, Goemon's sequels expanded on the original's format with a larger cast of playable characters and an expanded world. Goemon 2 offered a straight-forward platformer with more characters, Goemon 3 presented large Zelda-like world exploration, and Goemon 4 ties all the previous games' ideas together for one last 16-bit outing. As a result, the game is brimming with brilliant ideas, mechanics, and colorful environments. In one stage, you are using Goemon's chain-pipe to swing across platforms (a la Castlevania), while in the next, you are climbing up walls and slicing enemies with Sasuke, a robot ninja who feels like a direct tribute to Strider. It's hard to make sense of the absolute madness that is the world of Goemon, but ... Goemon 4 seems to be about Goemon and his crew's journey to save a remote planet from the threat of Harakiri Seppukumaru (typical anime douchebag) and his followers (weird marshmallow looking bosses). At the behest of Impact, Goemon's giant mech friend who randomly kicks Goemon's house over at the beginning, you are sent to four planets in disorder thanks to evil jerkface final boss guy's suppression. Each member of Goemon's crew -- Goemon, Ebisumaru, Sasuke, Yae -- land on a planet they must secure before regrouping for the final planet and boss fight. As a result, you'll have four very different worlds and playable characters that make for a more memorable adventure than past Goemon games. The basic structure of Goemon 4 is similar to the first two SFC entries. Half of the game is spent beating side-scrolling stages and the other half is spent exploring towns. In towns, you can buy health boosts, talk to people, and unlock upgrades needed to progress. These sections may frustrate Western players, since there are puzzles and dialogue sequences that require knowledge of Japanese. This game is best played with a FAQ by your side at all times, since there are many sections you'll get stuck in otherwise. The towns don't add much to the overall game and get in they way of the action. Perhaps I'd look at them more favorably if I knew what the hell everyone was saying, but they still feel like busy work. There is nothing fun about checking every house for one person or memorizing routes. On the other hand, the towns help establish the world of Goemon and make the adventure feel much more grand. I just wish there weren't so many of these pit stops. Even the platforming stages are far from normal . Most of the time, you are just jumping and fighting your way to the right side of the screen -- you end the stage by striking a rotating tanuki that gives you money or poo -- but you'll often come across many surprise obstacles. In one stage, you are falling down a pit of spikes and enemies, while in another, you are fighting upon a car falling from the sky. I can't think of another SNES title with as many unpredictable diversions as Goemon 4. From surfing against a tidal wave to jet skiing across a mountain,  these stages will keep you playing just so you can see what comes next. As a result of this ambitious design, the platforming is lackluster. Each character controls differently, but I found both Goemon and Ebisumaru too sluggish for the game's stages. One stage, "Batters' Cave," includes one of the most maddening platforming sequences to grace any 16-bit game. Part of the frustration is the camera that is so close to the the hero that you often can't see what's ahead of you. These platforming sections sometimes become a guessing game or memorized obstacle course. I often considered giving up on the game during some of the stages. The reason I didn't is because I wanted to see each world's insane boss fight. While the game does have some more traditional bosses by way of mini-bosses, the final bosses are glorified mini-games. For example, Yae's final boss is beaten by winning at a Puyo Puyo-esque puzzle game. In another, you play a timing-based game that wouldn't feel out of place in WarioWare. Not all of them are fun -- in fact, every one of them is frustratingly difficult -- but they are amusing, nonetheless. Goemon 4 is more of a spectacle than a great game. Sometimes the platforming feels okay, but it often is best thought of as filler. Goemon 4 lacks the large world of Goemon 3 or the detailed towns of Mystical Ninja, but it's a fun journey filled with weird left turns and wacky visuals. Add to that a classic Konami soundtrack, and you have a recipe for a memorable 16-bit adventure. Just be aware that this is one of the hardest games you'll ever play. You can use save states. I won't judge. ----------------------- What games have you played in the Goemon series? What is your favorite Goemon game? Why do you suspect Konami never brought most of these games over?   [Immediate climax]
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[It Came from Japan! is a series where I seek out and review the weirdest, most original and enjoyable titles that never left the Land of the Rising Sun.] When you think of Japanese gaming, you think of Konami'...

It Came from Japan! photo
It Came from Japan!

It Came from Japan! Ganpuru: Gunman's Proof


Nov 17
// Allistair Pinsof
[It Came from Japan! is a series where I seek out and review the weirdest, most original and enjoyable titles that never left the Land of the Rising Sun.] Give Link a gun, send him to the Wild West, sprinkle in E...
It Came from Japan! photo
It Came from Japan!

It Came from Japan! PuLiRuLa


Nov 10
// Allistair Pinsof
[It Came from Japan! is a series where I seek out and review the weirdest, most original and enjoyable titles that never left the Land of the Rising Sun.] When it comes to '90s beat 'em ups, there are only a few ga...

It Came from Japan! Pepsiman

Nov 03 // Allistair Pinsof
Pepsiman (PlayStation)Developer: KID Corp.Released: March 4, 1999Current value: $60-90 ($2,350+ for a new copy!!!)  Fan translation: No (It's already in English!)For fans of: Crash Bandicoot, Katamari Damacy, Muscle March Sometime in the mid-90's, Pepsi's Japanese branch decided it needed to do something spectacularly Japanese, so it contracted comic book artist Travis Charest to create a superhero mascot that could promote delicious yet affordable Pepsi. Pepsiman may look like a creepy, faceless S&M-fanatic, but Pepsi decided to further promote his image through wonderfully insane commercials and a Japan-only videogame. Pepsiman, also known as The Running Hero, doesn't have much power. He knows how to rock a skintight silver-and-blue suit (eww), carry Pepsi in his body cavities (double-eww), and run really fast. Some people use these "powers" for evil (see: Dale North), but the original Japanese Pepsiman used it for saving citizens from death-by-thirst. In accordance to the commercials, each of the game's four stages tasks Pepsiman with saving some poor individual who is in desperate need of the crisp, God-like flavor of a Pepsi. Whether it's a group of citizens stuck on a roof amidst a fire or a military man stranded in a desert, Pepsiman is on the way with a refreshing can of Pepsi. You know Pepsiman is a quality title because it's made by a developer who primarily makes adult-romance visual novels! To be fair, KID Corp. also made a beat-em-up (UFO Kamen Yakisoban) about a instant noodle mascot, so it is no stranger to making games for the consumer whore at heart. Like Katamari Damacy and God Hand after it, Pepsiman is such a gloriously twisted, charming spectacle that it's hard not to fall in love with it. That's not to say the game is in any way on the same level of playability as the aforementioned titles. In fact, Pepsiman is one of the simplest PlayStation games I've ever played -- it could easily be played with an NES controller if it were an option (which it may be these days via emulation).   Pepsiman is kind of like Crash Bandicoot on PCP-spiked Pepsi. You automatically run forward as you control Pepsiman from a third-person perspective. Since everyone in Pepsitown is an incompetent, Pepsi-crazed fool, every car, construction crane, and buffalo tries its hardest to crash into Pepsiman. You can dodge these obstacles by jumping, sliding, or sprinting, but get hit enough times and you'll have to restart from one of the checkpoints (which are generously spread out). Pepsiman hits a middle-ground between Paperboy and Muscle March, in terms of complexity and pace. The game starts off simple enough, but the later levels demand such perfect timing and precision that only the most dedicated will see the ending. Eventually, memorization becomes more important than skill and reflex. Despite having a pretty basic foundation, the game throws gimmicks that add some variety to the madness. Some levels require skateboarding or navigating the world with a steel drum over your body (forcing backwards controls on you). Additionally, every stage culminates with Pepsiman's escaping an object like in those Crash Bandicoot "boulder chase" scenes. It makes for a fun but stressful finale. The real draw of Pepsiman is the sheer lunacy that pumps through every second of the game. Much like the Japanese commercials, the game is obsessed with American values and culture. Unlike the commercials, a good chunk of the game depicts Americans as unhygienic hillbillies. Each stage is bookended by FMV footage of a fat American guy drinking unholy amounts of Pepsi while eating chips and pizza and watching TV. It's odd that the game is entirely in English, but it's the fat hillbilly's dialog that will stick with you after the game is done. It often borders on nonsensical Engrish: "Everybody Pepsi! Drink Pepsi! Pepsi only my choice!" Add some teeth rot, cocaine, and hookers, and you have a perfect depiction of what too much Pepsi can do to a mentally-addled American. It's difficult to tell if this hillbilly parody is self aware or not. In either case, it's an amusing award for completing a stage. I wouldn't say Pepsiman is a great game, but it's a highly amusing one, especially when played in a group setting. The entire premise is ridiculous, so full of little details that are easy to miss and make the game so charmingly brain-dead. I don't recommend putting up with the impossibly hard later levels, but it's worth playing while the fun lasts. It brings me back to a time when corporations had mascots, Japanese games were insane, and graphics weren't everything. Pepsi is everything! DRINK! PEPSI™ ONLY MY CHOICE! ------------------------ What's your favorite junk food mascot game? Do you drink Pepsi while you game/fap? Have you ever had PCP-spiked Pepsi? (Be honest.)   [And he entrusted them with his invented magic stick]
It Came from Japan! photo

[It Came from Japan! is a series where I seek out and review the weirdest, most original and enjoyable titles that never left the Land of the Rising Sun.] Before there was Nathan Drake, there was Pepsiman, a hero's h...

It Came from Japan! Shadow Tower Abyss

Oct 27 // Allistair Pinsof
Shadow Tower Abyss (PlayStation 2)Developer: From SoftwareReleased: October 23, 2003Current value: $50-75  Fan translation: No, and this guide is a must.For fans of: Dark Souls, King's Field, Arx Fatalis Shadow Tower Abyss was the last of its kind -- a Gothic dungeon crawler in which the player travels deeper and deeper into the darkness by every hour. Survival is based as much on skill in combat as it is on being resourceful and daring in exploration. The original Shadow Tower felt like a spin-off of the King's Field series but with a psychological horror twist (think Silent Hill's surreal, dark world). The enemies were stranger, the plot was more obtuse, and the game placed an emphasis on exploration. Very cautious exploration -- remember, these are the guys who made Demon's Souls and Dark Souls. In fact, Shadow Tower is the bridge between King's Field and Demon's Souls in that it shares many elements of both. Make no mistake, though, Shadow Tower Abyss is very much its own thing. Unlike Demon's Souls, the game takes place in one sprawling dungeon that becomes weirder the deeper you venture. I miss this aspect in modern games, including Demon's Souls. There is something unique about slowly traversing the layers of a mysterious dungeon, coming across traps, and discovering story details through random, discarded notes (not that I can read any of them in this particular case). As much as I loved Demon's Souls, its divided levels didn't capture the sense of danger and mystery you expect to find in a From Software dungeon crawler. Level hubs and checkpoints take away from the atmosphere and danger that a game like Abyss embodies. Unlike the PlayStation debut, Abyss has a decent amount of variety within its world. Through the swamp pits filled with poisonous clouds, a scenic cliff side, and the abstract neon glow of later areas, From Software provides an incentive to explore this dark, haunted world by virtue of its design and pacing. Whenever you start to grow tired of an area, you soon find yourself facing off against a boss or discovering a key to the exit. The action at the core of the game is repetitive, but that's to be expected of the genre. Whether you take to it or not will depend on how you feel about a good, old-fashioned dungeon crawl. Despite the similarities shared with the King's Field series, From Software decided to give these games a different name for a reason. They are pretty peculiar, mechanically speaking. For starters, the unorthodox controls may be hard to adjust to for some players. Looking up and down is restricted to the back shoulder buttons, and strafing is left to the front shoulder buttons. This is because the right stick is used for attacking. Moving the stick side to side registers as a slash attack, up as an overhead slash, back as a back slash, and inward (R3) as a forward thrust. Different weapons are optimized for different attacks, which also deal more damage to certain enemies. The biggest difference between Abyss and other games lies in its leveling system -- rather, the lack of one. Not really. Your strength increases through exploring and collecting defeated enemies' souls (sound familiar?), but all your other stats are completely dependent on items and weapons. You'll occasionally come across an item, usually hidden away, that will let you upgrade dexterity, endurance, and all the other standard stats. For the most part, you'll be depending on weapons to give you better stats. This wouldn't be so nerve-wracking if the items weren't always on the cusp of breaking. Like Demon's Souls, the game feels like a survival horror title during its opening hour. You creep around in the dark with very little resources, terrified of any enemy encounter. Since the enemy A.I. is pretty dumb and easy to take advantage of, you'll soon find yourself breezing through areas. Nevertheless, combat remains fun due to the variety of weapons, which range from medieval pikes to assault rifles. You can only equip two weapons at time, so choosing the right combo will go a long way toward your survival. If you are a fan of dark, moody dungeon crawlers, Abyss is a unique game that shouldn't be missed. What it lacks in detail and polish, it makes up in atmosphere and art direction. I'd love to see another Shadow Tower sequel, but sadly, I don't think we'll ever get one. The modern crop of gamers like to have their games divided up for them and conveniently sprinkled with checkpoints. The design philosophy behind Shadow Tower, or any good traditional dungeon crawler, goes against what makes modern games popular and accessible. It's too bad that Abyss was never brought to the West, despite being mostly localized. You can't blame publishers for not wanting to take a chance when similar From Software titles failed to find a market over here. Demon's Souls is a genius game for keeping many aspects of a dark, Gothic dungeon crawler intact while appealing to a wide audience. However, returning to Abyss shows that something was lost in that transition. There is something unique about being lost in the darkness of Abyss, searching for an ammo clip, that can't be replicated in modern titles. Sometimes you want to explore a game's world, and sometimes you just want to get lost and let the gloomy atmosphere consume you. In other words, dungeon crawlers are the post-punk of videogames, and I love my post-punks, dammit! --------------------------------------- What is your favorite dungeon crawler? Do you miss the days when it was possible it get lost in a large world? Would the addition of guns ruin the Demon's Souls series?   [Dale North's favorite beverage + videogames = ???]
It Came from Japan! photo

[It Came from Japan! is a series where I seek out and review the weirdest, most original and enjoyable titles that never left the Land of the Rising Sun.] Along with churros and KFC, dungeon crawlers are one of those r...

It Came from Japan! Clock Tower

Oct 20 // Allistair Pinsof
Clock Tower (Super Famicom)Developer: Human EntertainmentReleased: September 14, 1995Current value: $50-75  Fan translation: YesFor fans of: Silent Hill, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, D Although it has aged poorly, the original Clock Tower has a novelty value that makes it worth tracking down. It's like a 16-bit tribute to Dario Argento, dressed up as one of the strangest adventure games you'll ever play. Argento is one of the few masterminds of horror cinema who realized that sometimes plot just gets in the way of atmosphere. True horror comes from the unknown, so the longer the mystery stays unraveled, the better. Likewise, Human Entertainment applies a similar work philosophy with Clock Tower. As you travel from room to room, you'll gather small details of a larger picture that you will have to piece together in your head. Like the Argento films the game is inspired by -- it shares the most in common with Phenomena plot-wise -- you are given very little background information at the start of the game. You play as Jennifer Simpson, an orphan who is relocated to a remote mansion after a wealthy recluse adopts her and her friends. The children's teacher accompanies them to the mansion but mysteriously disappears after the girls enter. Since the other girls are useless, you are sent off to find her and figure out what is going on. Spooky adventure time!  Clock Tower has been around for a while. I remember renting the PlayStation sequel -- the first series entry to reach the states -- and being completely baffled by it. I have to use a mouse cursor... in a console game? I have to hide in a bathroom stall and hope I don't die? Surely, there must have been a shotgun near the entrance that I failed to pick-up! This is what I thought back then, and if this is your first time with the series, you'll most likely have similar thoughts with the Super Famicom original. At its core, Clock Tower is a very basic adventure game. You go from room to room, clicking on every notable object you can find. You'll either get an observation from Jennifer that will progress the game's narrative or an item that will be useful later. The twist on the formula, which makes Clock Tower a survival horror game, is that you are under constant threat of a strange man who is hunting you within the mansion; getting in his way means game over. As you walk/run through the mansion, you'll occasionally spot something moving behind a curtain or under a box. Sometimes it's a cat, and sometimes it's a deformed little boy with a giant pair of hedge-clippers who wants to kill you. Once you confront him (or any threat) head on, you will go into panic mode. Depending on your health, you'll be able to run past, but if you are in a less-than-ideal state, you'll start tripping, drastically slowing you down. If caught, you can rapidly press B to get out of the threat's grasp, but you'll eventually need to find a hiding space. Hearing the creepy/annoying alarm music play as you run down the halls of the manor makes for a genuinely disturbing experience when it first occurs. However, you'll eventually recognize what rooms are safe havens, which takes away much of the fear -- you just head toward one and wait the next time you come across little Bobby and his scissors. Also, since Scissorman is always triggered by certain player actions, you start to expect him whenever you click on a sketchy area of a room (uh oh, closed shower curtains!). In the sequels, Scissorman will appear randomly, making the games much scarier and more suspenseful.   What mansion in a videogame isn't haunted? The haunted mansion is the main character of Clock Tower. Each of its rooms is lovingly detailed with creepy family portraits, occult books, and the remains of a very demented family. It's impressive to see how well rendered all of it is on the SNES hardware. The limitations in color and scale give certain aspects of the world an extra haunted quality. Scissorman may look a bit goofy in this entry compared to later ones, but the characters' portraits do get under your skin. Again, the game shares a few similarities with the films of Dario Argento -- well, at least the ones he made in the '80s (the only ones that are worth watching). You have incoherent stories, distressed young girls, creepy occult stuff, and bright primary colors mixed with a dark, foggy setting. Seeing this sort of world come to life on the SNES has a lot of appeal for me, especially as an Argento fan. Discovering the hidden cave below Clock Tower's mansion and finding the dark secret beneath is a unique moment within the SNES' catalog. Unfortunately, navigating the mansion isn't very fun -- it doesn't take long before you are playing "Unlocking Doors: The Game." Resident Evil and Sweet Home have very well designed layouts that make locating rooms easy. Although Clock Tower is a 2D game, the mansion is designed with 3D space in mind, so you'll need to think of the mansion as a square instead of as a very long line. You'll go down hallways that take you from the east wing to the west wing, which can be very confusing since you are always heading left or right in 2D space. Clearly, this was designed to retain some realism for horror's sake, but it just ends up inconveniencing the player and dragging the game out. As a result of the mansion's layout, it takes longer to get to where you need to go and makes it harder to keep up with where everything is. Since you are constantly hunting for doors to unlock, this becomes a major flaw in the design. COCK TOWER!!! LOL!111!! Thankfully, the game is brief and full of little surprises that make it worth playing to the end -- well, one of its endings, at least. There are so many little decisions you can make that will alter how the story unfolds and the ending you receive . I can only imagine the excited conversations that friends in Japanese schools would have had about the game's branching scenarios and vague story. Some of the things that happen can change pretty drastically, depending on the information you discover or fail to observe. It's very much Heavy Rain before its time. As an adventure game, Clock Tower isn't very interesting. The mansion's layout is confusing, puzzles are simple, and you’ll need to pixel hunt more than once. However, the atmosphere and unique design of the game make it worth experiencing. The game can be beat in less than three hours, which makes it perfect for a a single playthrough around Halloween. It's not very scary, but the game sets such a haunting mood that it can't be ignored. Human Entertainment was at the forefront of bringing mature horror games to consoles. Along with the Twilight Syndrome series (which helped to launch Suda51's career) and Laplace no Ma (very much inspired by last week's featured entry, Sweet Home), Clock Tower is a game that helped establish survival horror as a genre and Human Entertainment as a developer. While the sequels are much scarier (due to random enemy triggers and more suspenseful hiding scenarios), there is something about the look, setting, and atmosphere of the original that makes it my favorite -- I've never played Clock Tower 3 or Haunting Ground, though. Despite its flaws, Clock Tower (or Clock Tower: The First Fear, as it was later renamed) is worth a shot. It's atmospheric horror at its most raw, for better or worse. It relies on few mechanics but still manages to tell a compelling story that will suck you in. Hopefully, you won't get too frustrated with the cheap deaths and pixel hunting to keep that from happening. -------------- Would cocks or glocks make Clock Tower scarier? Is there a mansion in videogames more confusing than the one in Clock Tower? Do mouse cursors in console games completely turn you away?   [Enter the void ...]
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[It Came from Japan! is a series where I seek out and review the weirdest, most original and enjoyable titles that never left the Land of the Rising Sun.] The key to eliciting fear has little to do with dogs that jump th...

It Came from Japan! Sweet Home

Oct 13 // Allistair Pinsof
Sweet Home (Famicom)Developer: CapcomReleased: December 15, 1989Current value: $15-30  Fan translation: YesFor fans of: Resident Evil, Silent Hill, EarthBound The only times I've ever heard Sweet Home being discussed was within the context of the survival horror genre. It's always thrown into survival horror retrospectives, mentioning its influence without really stating what Sweet Home is about or what makes it so special. I sense I am not alone in blindly accepting its placement in gaming history without looking into its actual value as a game. I had to correct this, and hot damn, am I happy that I did! If more had played it, I imagine Sweet Home would be mentioned in the same breath as EarthBound and Persona for showing what can be done within an RPG once tradition and standards are forsaken.  Sweet Home is a lot of things, but mostly it's an RPG. Or maybe mostly an adventure game? Like Clock Tower, Alone in the Dark, and survival horror games that followed, Sweet Home is hard to classify. It is best thought of as PlayStation-era, slow-paced survival horror where RPG battles take the place of third-person combat. Great, now you are thinking of Parasite Eve! See how pointless it is to describe a game this original? The game is an adaptation of a Japanese horror film by the same name, which makes Sweet Home an easy candidate for best film-to-game adaptation ever. The movie itself isn't very good, but it shares the same plot, so watching it would spoil the game. Just ignore it. The game came out the same day as the film, which makes me wonder just how long the it was in development. Nothing about it feels rushed in any way. Sure, it isn't very long (15 hours, maybe), but it feels perfectly paced and full of variety in setting and action. The game opens up with a documentary crew walking to a remote, deserted mansion. They have been sent on a job to preserve the deceased Ichiro Mamiya's paintings (or frescoes) within and come back with some photos. However, their plan is immediately thwarted when the ghost of Ichiro's wife appears and blocks the exit with debris. She's not very nice, and as you unravel the mansion's secrets, you learn she was even worse when she was alive. This introduction is done with minimal dialog and exposition. Within a minute, you are in control of the group and thrown into the game without any idea of how it works. Without looking at a guide or knowing anything prior, I was able to figure things out pretty quickly -- I imagine most players familiar with older adventure and RPG games will have a similar experience. Talking to characters, looking at objects, and grouping teammates are awkward at first, but they hardly sour the experience.  Hunt them frescoes!  At all times, you have access to five characters who can go solo or be grouped together into teams of two or three. This is important as each character has an item that you will need in order to progress. Akiki has a med kit that will heal any illness suffered in battle, Kazou has a lighter to burn away ropes that block paths, Emi unlocks doors, Taguchi photographs the paintings, and Asuka dusts them and cleans debris with a vacuum. Yeah, I'm not sure why a documentary crew brought a vacuum cleaner but HEY, VIDEOGAMES! You'll always be 15 or so minutes away from needing a given party member's ability, so you'll never want to keep your crew too far apart from one another. It takes some time to get used to the abilities and how they work, but they'll eventually click. When they do, Sweet Home becomes a brilliant adventure. Along with these character items, you'll also pick-up other items needed to progress. Figuring out their use is part of the fun. There are times when you'll have to struggle between deciding on carrying an extra potion or a pipe -- not that you have any idea when you would ever use a pipe. The game has a fair amount of backtracking, but it didn't bother me since it gave me an opportunity to level up my characters without the need to grind... EVER!!! We are talking about an NES-era RPG, people! Do you understand how crazy/awesome this is!?! Battles are another good reason to keep your party together. As you wander the mansion, you'll be thrown into random encounters that will bring up a Dragon Quest-like battle screen. You can attack, run away, pray, or use items, about as basic as it gets. Prayer, your magic attack, drains prayer points, which are also used for puzzles. The only way to recover them or your health are with tonics, which you'll find in random rooms across the mansion. Think of Resident Evil's herbs and you won't be too far off. It's fascinating to discover where RE got all these ideas from and to see how well they work within the confines of an RPG. You think surviving off a limited amount of tonics would drive you mad, but the game is so well-designed that you'll always find one when you are on the verge of dying. Like Half-Life and Dead Space, Sweet Home does such a great job of drawing out tension by providing health at just the right moment. I never ran into a problem, but I always felt like my situation was hopeless. The game gets easier by the end, but the bulk of it requires you to play smart and use tonics sparingly. If you don't, a character will suffer permanent death. If you choose to go on, you'll be able to find replacement items for the deceased character's key item (e.g. you can use pills in place of Akiki's med kit). However, you'll want to reload that save for the better ending, since you only get it if all five characters stay alive. A full party also makes the game much easier. Item management is pretty difficult with only two slots per character, so you'll want all of them alive to save you some serious backtracking. Thankfully, the game has a save anywhere feature -- I can't think of many console games that have this at all, not to mention one from the '80s. I can only imagine how spoiled Japanese gamers must have felt when they want from this to Final Fantasy IV's traditional town and item shop structure -- which Sweet Home doesn't have since it all takes place in a mansion. The game is nothing but fighting, puzzle-solving, and exploration. As a result, you'll always feel like you are progressing and just around the corner from a great narrative twist.   Sweet Homevania Sure, "Metroidvania" sounds good, but Sweet Home deserves to be recognized to be the first game to fully realize the potential of a cohesive game world that connects beginning to end (even if Metroid attempted it first). The structure of the game is absolutely amazing. Every area is full of secrets, shortcuts, and memorable "a-ha!"-moments. Even within the first area, you'll come across doors that are locked and items that you can't reach. You keep looking at them, wondering if you are doing something wrong. Meanwhile, you struggle against every enemy encounter. Eventually, you'll unlock passages back to the first room, retrieve that awesome sword in the distance, and get through every battle with one attack. I can't think of another game that so seamlessly connects such a large area together. Nevertheles, the mansion always feels unpredictable as you go farther out and into darker areas. The change in scenery and music helps give every area its own vibe while feeling part of a consistent whole. By the game's end, you'll feel like you went on one long, crazy journey. The top-down view of Sweet Home and RPG approach make it possible for the game to have an intricate layout that is superior to those of Resident Evil and Super Metroid.  Read between the lines (and paintings) The best games on the NES weren't known for their stories. In fact, other than adventure games, no games back then were. I wouldn't say Sweet Home has a particularly original or complex story, but the way it is told is innovative for its time and keeps it from feeling dated. BioShock may have popularized audio/diary logs in recent years, but Sweet Home did this way before anyone else. Most of the game's story is conveyed through secret messages, diary entries, and notes laid around the mansion. Unlike Resident Evil, each of these are limited to a sentence or two, so you won't have to read pages full of nonsense in order to get to the point. At the same time, important notes can often be vague enough to leave open multiple interpretations of the game's story. If you ignore most of the notes, you'll still be able to follow the plot, but you'll be missing out on the details. Another storytelling innovation in Sweet Home is the use of cinematic moments that restrict the player's actions. These scenes force you to play a role as you follow a character and watch events unfold. One scene has you following a strange man, while you trade lines of dialog. I was blown away by it, since I can't think of another game of its era that tried to do anything remotely similar. It's a great storytelling device that pulls you into the game's world and makes you feel vulnerable. The same can be said of the game's cutscenes, which depict some gruesome imagery -- there is a reason this never came to the West! The end result of all these elements is a story that feels believable and haunting. You'll buy into this bizarre world and its characters. I can only imagine the brilliant things the development team could have done in a Super Nintendo sequel. Yeah, that right there ^^^^ is kind of gross. Since you can't have dogs jumping through windows or surround sound audio on the Nintendo, you can't really have jump scares. Sweet Home may not be the scariest game ever (hint: this guy is playing it), but it carries a surreal, unsettling atmosphere despite the limitations of the hardware. Capcom made the most of the system and managed to craft a horror experience unlike any other at the time. The music isn't very melodic, but it sets a foreboding tone. The enemy portraits in battle are vile and creepy. Every element of Sweet Home works to build a distinct mood to make it a timeless horror classic. The game has so many clever concepts that add to the overall adventure. For example, you'll need to use wax candles in dark rooms for the first couple hours. This limits your view and leaves you susceptible to traps and other threats. By the time you turn on the mansion's generator and restore power, you'll feel a sense of relief -- one you can imagine the fictional characters sharing. Sure, Resident Evil was originally intended to be a Sweet Home sequel, and the games share many elements (even the door opening sequences). However, Sweet Home should be recognized on its own for being a damn good game with its own unique setting and aesthetic.   This is the part where I gush more about how much I like this game. Sorry, but I have to ... Unlike most other mediums, tracing genres to their origin is usually little more than a nostalgia journey within the realm of videogames. You'd be hard-pressed to find a kid now who would take to the original Dragon Quest or Metroid. Sweet Home is the exception to this train of thought. Even though Capcom's 1989 Nintendo classic is the prototype for survival horror, it is in many ways every bit as good as Silent Hill 2 or Resident Evil 2. It's a strange title that merges so many elements of games we love (Metroid, Resident Evil, Dragon Quest, Maniac Mansion, etc.) that it feels fresh even in 2011. It's a nearly flawless game that isn't only one of the best JRPGs of all time, it's also the best game to ever be released on the Famicom/NES. Who knew? Perhaps Japan. ------------------- Can you think of another game from the NES era that scared you? How bad do you want another game like this (a game that blends Earthbound with Resident Evil)? Who is grosser: Dude with boils or throwing-up guy?   [C'mon, this isn't funny!]
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[It Came from Japan! is a series where I seek out and review the weirdest, most original and enjoyable titles that never left the Land of the Rising Sun.] I love haunted house films. I hate haunted house games. They scar...

It Came from Japan! Boku Dracula-kun

Oct 06 // Allistair Pinsof
Akumajou Special: Boku Dracula-kun (Famicom)Developer: KonamiReleased: October 19, 1990Current value: $30-70  Fan translation: YesFor fans of: Mega Man, Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti, Tiny Toon Adventures  Dracula-kun is not part of the Castlevania canon, but you can think of its protagonist as a pre-teen Alucard, son of Alucard, or Alucard's brother if it makes you feel better. The elements that this platformer shares with Konami's signature Nintendo series are few and far between. For the most part, Dracula-kun is its own thing, but it borrows plenty from Mega Man, Contra, and other platformers of the time. The story of Drcaula-kun is fairly ridiculous. If the opening scene is any indication, Kid Dracula (the name given to him in America for this game's Game Boy remake/sequel) wakes up from a 10,000-year sleep to hear the Grim Reaper whine about some dinosaur who is causing havoc. So Kid Dracula sets off across the world to put devil dinosaur-thing Galamoth to rest. I'm not really sure this is the story -- I played in Japanese, so let me know if got it wrong. Either way, I'm pretty sure there is no good explanation for visiting an amusement park or beating up Spider-Man clones in New York. Instead of using a whip or robotic arm, Kid Dracula spits out fireballs. The controls feel great -- you can even shoot up or jump and fire downward. Like Mega Man, holding down the fire button will charge your shot, and you'll acquire new abilities after defeating each boss to augment your charge shot. Unlike Mega Man, the bosses don't use these weapons against you and rarely have a reason for having them anyway. These charge shots range from snowballs that will freeze your enemies to the ability to transform into a bat (used for certain platforming sections). Although you can switch between the powers with the select button, the game would have played a lot better with the Super Nintendo's shoulder buttons. You can pause the game and switch weapons during desperate moments, but it still feels awkward. To make matters worse, you need to wait for your projectiles to clear the screen before you can properly switch to a new charge power. This never caused me much trouble, however, since I mainly stuck to one weapon throughout the game.   Dracula-kun isn't a cakewalk, but making use of the homing missile weapon that you get from defeating the first boss certainly helps make it easier. Not only does the ability deal a great amount of damage, it also has a wide spread that rarely misses. Since there is no limit on charge shots, you can spam it on bosses without much difficulty. I was able to defeat some bosses without suffering a single hit, but you’ll have a much tougher time on the last stage which limits your arsenal's impact. The bosses in Dracula-kun are as random, colorful, and impressive as the game's stages. Overall, the game is one of the best-looking in the Famicom's entire catalog -- few developers knew the hardware as well as Konami by 1990. Boku Dracula-kun opens with a very traditional Castlevania-inspired stage that even borrows assets from the series, but even if you don't recognize the clock gears in the background or the swinging pendulum, you'll certainly feel at home as you climb the ominous steps to the boss fight. Since YOU are (Kid) Dracula, you can't have a proper fight against another vampire. Kid Dracula wouldn't stand for that, so who does Konami send in for Kid Dracula to fight instead? A KKK leader wearing white sheets with an embroidered swastika, of course! Although it's unsettling and surreal to see a swastika in a kid’s game, I'm not sure if it qualifies as being offensive. After all, you are defeating a Klansman! In the U.S. version of the Game Boy remake, Konami removed the swastika and unveiled the figure to be an old wizard, once defeated. That's lame, part of why we aren’t talking about that game -- not yet, anyway. Although nothing can possibly top that opening boss fight, the following ones are more visually and mechanically interesting. Other highlights include a blue dragon that loops across the sky in crazy patterns, a tall robot that you have to fight upside-down, and a hard-as-balls final boss that will make most players cry, assuming you can get past the maddening mini-boss before him. Each level is gorgeous and completely different than the one before it, along with unique enemy types that fit the theme. Once you depart the Klansman's castle, you'll fight cacti in Egypt, robots in space, and Spider-Man and Jason Voorhees clones in New York City. The game even has an homage to the airship levels of Super Mario Bros. 3! Even better, the boss of the NYC stage is the Statue of Liberty! Instead of taking you on in a direct fight, she puts you on a quiz show and asks you questions about America. This wouldn't be so difficult had I not been playing it all in Japanese! To be fair, she also asks for the name of Konami's, which I wouldn't have gotten right in English, anyway.  Boku Dracula-kun is full of little moments like these that stay with you long after the game is complete. We talk a lot about "set piece moments" in games today, but they were rare during the NES/SNES years. Nonetheless, I can think of a couple classic ones in this game! My favorite moment is a toss-up between the roller coaster and subway train rides. The roller coaster is expected, since the stage takes place in an amusement park. However, the ride itself is crazier than a shit-house rat. You are constantly in fear of losing your ground and flying across the screen, yet it never happens. As you are going through loops, you still need to battle enemies coming at you from all sides. It's extremely hectic, but it wouldn't be as much fun if it wasn't. The subway train, which precedes the quiz show "boss fight" in the NYC stage, is another key moment. It's the classic "run on top of a moving vehicle while ducking underneath tunnel ceilings"-scenario we've seen in plenty of games over the years, but I struggle to think of one that predates Boku Dracula-kun. Even if one exists, it doesn't take away the surprise of it being there or the fact that it's one awesomely intense platforming segment. I don't feel bad about spoiling these two moments as the game is full of them. Before every boss, the game will throw some crazy stuff at you that will make you fret for your life, yet it's always designed well-enough to keep you from falling into cheap deaths. Sadly, the same can't be said for some of the platforming segments. Boku Dracula-kun may not be a faithful adaptation of the Castlevania series, but it does share some annoying quirks. Like Castlevania, you'll be stunned and fall back a couple steps when damaged. Thankfully, there aren't many enemies that come right at you, but you'll sometimes step back into a chasm and yell at the screen. The same can be said of some tricky sections that remind you of the wide gap between Mario and every other Nintendo platformer  -- Dracula-kun is no exception. These are minor gripes for what is otherwise a near-flawless Nintendo platformer, which is surprising considering it's the first one of its type that Konami made. Even similar Konami games that followed, such as Tiny Toon Adventures, didn't live up to Boku's personality, level design, and soundtrack (did I mention how good it is?). The game's aesthetic straddles a unique niche between horror and childrens anime. In fact, Namco's Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti -- another quirky Japanese title that never reached the States -- is the only game that is remotely similar. To be fair, Dracula-kun did reach the U.S., but not in the form some of us would like. The Game Boy remake Kid Dracula, released in 1993, took away certain levels, weapons, and enemies, and inserted new ones in their place. That game has a more coherent story, but it lacks the charm of the original. It's also a much shorter, easier game. It's not bad, but I wouldn't recommend it over the first one. There are few older franchises that haven't been remade for current gen platforms in some way and even fewer that I'd really care to see make the transition. Kid Dracula/Dracula-kun is the exception. The game's colorful world, likable protagonist, and unique design make it a welcome candidate for a 2.5D remake for current gen systems. There aren't many games that speak to the fun of a horror-themed world without the guts and gore. I love films like Monster House and The Goonies, and I struggle to see why there aren't games of the same ilk. Well, Dracula-kun is just such a game, one well worth seeking out for fans of platforming and/or lighthearted horror. ------ Would you like to see a new Kid Dracula? Why or why not? What are your favorite "lighthearted horror" games, like Dracula-kun and Wanpaku Graffiti? Are you still recovering from the 500+ comment shitstorm that accompanied my last review?   [Those who defile my home shall feel my wrath!]
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[It Came from Japan! is a series where I seek out and review the weirdest, most original and enjoyable titles that never left the Land of the Rising Sun.] It's still the first week of October, so it's not quite time ...

It Came from Japan! Super Back to the Future II

Sep 22 // Allistair Pinsof
Super Back to the Future II (Super Famicom)Developer: DaftReleased: July 23, 1993Current value: $30-50 Fan translation: NopeFor fans of: Average mid-'90s platformers  One quick glance at the game and it’s apparent that it was made with an audience in mind, and it’s not a Western one. Love it or hate it: Marty McFly, Doc, and Biff have been anime-ized. Marty and Doc are adorable, stocky caricatures of themselves, while Biff is a hulking beast fit to be the boss (again and again). Pair this unlikely character design with a catchy soundtrack, and game design reminiscent of Sonic the Hedgehog, and you get Super Back to the Future II -- a decent, if not good, movie-licensed game. What's wrong, McFly? Chicken?  There are a lot of memorable scenes in Back to the Future II, but among the most iconic is when Marty escapes Griff’s wrath via a hoverboard. After watching him dodge between cars and float across a fountain, my eight-year-old self couldn’t wait until the year 2015 when I’d be able to ride one. Turns out I was waiting for nothing but at least I can do it virtually, now, within a game from ... 1993. In SBttF2, Marty never gets off the hoverboard as long as you are controlling him. At the end of each stage, he has an animation where he gets off and spins it, but that’s it. Despite all the game’s flaws and odd level design, it’s hard to ever hate it due to the inarguable greatness of the hoverboard. Instead of Marty running around in his red baseball cap and down-filled jacket vest throwing yo-yos at goons like a chump, he pummels them with his hoverboard and bounces on their heads like a trampoline. With a spin attack, the ability to jump, and a button for gaining speed, you must navigate the labyrinthine levels of increasing difficulty and defeat the stupid-easy bosses. Strangely, the game doesn’t always feel like it was designed with the hoverboard in mind. The hoveboard gives you speed  -- maybe not hedgehog-speed, but still -- so it makes no sense that the camera is zoomed in so close. You can’t see what is in front of you and will have to repeatedly stop as the screen scrolls. It feels almost like a Game Boy game dealing with the limitations of its resolution but this is Super Nintendo, dammit! You don’t need to be zoomed-in so close! You are making a game for screens much bigger than a Game Boy! I would feel safe in going max speed on the hoverboard, only after dying so many times on a stage that I began to inadvertently memorize the enemy placement. Otherwise, I felt like I was playing Jetpack Joyride, where any second I can and will run into an instant-death trap. Occasionally, the maps will take advantage of the hoverboard and give you some ramps to jump off but not often enough. There are also bonuses you can reach by aimlessly jumping off an edge at max speed, hoping there is an extra life on the other side instead of a wall of spikes. Pro-tip: it usually is a wall of spikes. 300 bucks? 300 bucks for a couple of dents? Collecting coins/rings/whatever in games usually amounts to nothing more than a higher score and who plays platformers for hi-scores anyway? By storing power-ups, health and 1UPs in vending machines of varying prices, SBttF2 cleverly solves this problem by giving the player an incentive to collect coins. Instead of ignoring alternative paths, you’ll find yourself searching every corner of a map if only to increase the likelihood of survival. There is nothing more gratifying then getting halfway through a stage on one heart and finding a vending machine to give you one more. And, there is nothing worse than not having the money for it. Why don't you make like a tree and get out of here?  Perhaps, I haven’t sold you on Super Back to the Future II. Well, that’s okay because it honestly isn’t a lost gem worth seeking out. It’s an average platformer that is brief and nostalgic enough to check out, if you find it cheap. The main reason I chose to highlight the game for this week’s entry is for the collector and curious import gamer.  The odd nature of the project is worth a discussion alone. Sure we’ve seen Crash Bandicoot and other Western gaming mascots become “Japanimated” but it’s different to see it happen to a popular Western film. It’s kind of unsettling, like imagining a world where all my favorite American films growing up were average Japanese platformers. I don’t want to live in that world. Besides, those Jurassic Park games weren’t so bad, right? -------------------- Do Japanese takes on American properties freak you out? Who would win in a fight Pepsiman or anime-eyes Marty McFly? Would you give up your game collection for a hoverboard? Who am I kidding, of course you would!
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[It Came from Japan! is a series where I seek out and review the weirdest, most original and enjoyable titles that never left the Land of the Rising Sun.] Games based on films have a perceived stigma that indicates the...

It Came from Japan! Rhythm Tengoku

Sep 15 // Allistair Pinsof
Rhythm Tengoku (Game Boy Advance)Developer: Nintendo SPD Group No. 1Released: August 03, 2006Current value: $65-100  Fan translation: NopeFor fans of: Elite Beat Agents, WarioWare series, Rhythm Heaven Given the wide claims of OCD-ridden children and the growing popularity of rhythm games during the early '00s, it wouldn't surprise me if Rhythm Tengoku was made in response. Like Gitaroo Man and Elite Beat Agents, Nintendo's charming rhythm game collection is memorable for its music as much as it is for its strange sense of humor. Even when the game gets difficult -- grunting starts to mask the sounds of your tapping feet, head nodding turns into aggressive headbutting --  it's hard to get angry at the charming world of Rhythm Tengoku. However, it's very easy to be upset with Nintendo for keeping it from those outside Japan. After implementing innovative vocal technology in Wario Land 4's soundtrack and redefining mini-game collections with the WarioWare series, Rhythm Tengoku was the next logical step for Nintendo. It was an ambitious project with a bubblegum pop producer and one of Nintendo's most innovative development teams. Well, maybe not completely logical, but thank God it happened! Unfortunately, Nintendo decided to forgo a Western release due to the arrival of the Nintendo DS. Like Mother 3, Rhythm Tengoku is one of the greatest games for the GBA, one that I and the rest of the Internet soon discovered through emulation and imported copies. [embed]210680:40712[/embed] Like WarioWare, Rhythm Tengoku is a series of mini-games with controls that don't get more complicated than pressing a button or two in time to the music. Unlike WarioWare, the visuals are some of the most striking of the GBA's catalog, and the mini-games are more varied and developed -- as they should be, since you'll be spending minutes (not seconds) with each one. The game contains eight "stages," each containing five levels/songs and a sixth remix level that sets a combination of all the previous level actions to a new tune. Given the format of the game, which varies from song to song (and level to level), I thought that it'd be best to give my thoughts on my top five favorite levels. Make no mistake, I could easily list ten. Even if those ten included entries from Tengoku's two sequels, the majority of the list would still be dedicated to the original.   5. Night Walk Night Walk is one of the few levels in the game that doesn't open with a tutorial because of the simple fact that you don't need one. It's as reductive as the game gets -- press the A button in time with the beat. Your reward? You get to watch your 8-bit avatar skip from box to box, as stars twinkle and scroll behind him. Although my love for this level has waned since the first time I played it, it remains a memorable one due to the music and tension it draws out in the player. Given the relentless rhythm of the song and the seemingly endless sprawl of the stage, Night Walk's challenge has more to do with fatigue than timing. I often find myself becoming self-aware of what I'm doing and suddenly freaking out, wondering if I'll be able to persevere to the end. It's also the only stage to have distinctly retro graphics that refrain from pushing the power of the GBA yet still manage to charm and create a unique atmosphere as well as any other level in the game. The recently released Japanese sequel Minna no Rhythm Tengoku even has a direct tribute to Night Walk at the end of the game!   4. Air Batter Here is another "hit the A button in time with the music" level that I love. Maybe I'm just simple in my tastes, but the reason this one sticks out has more to do with presentation. It's rudimentary in concept, but Air Batter is one of the few levels in the game that messes with your perception. It's also the first and best stage that does so. Like Night Walk, the player is tasked with pressing the button in time to the beat, although this one is more consistent in its melody and rhythm. Your avatar is a baseball player trapped in a green room floating in space. Your visual cues are baseballs that are launched from a pot and return to the infinite when struck. The mind game is in the stage's inexplicably zooming in and out, to the point where the ball is no longer visible. Succeeding based on the visual cues is no longer an option, leading to inevitable failure on your first attempt (most of the time). To add to the stage's manic quality, your character's head becomes a giant tomato or a bunny after each extreme close-up. 3. Hopping Road In addition to having wacky character-based games, Ryhthm Tengoku is filled with wonderful abstract gems like Hopping Road. Here, you bounce small balls from one platform to the next, one controlled by the D-pad and the other by the A button. The balls bounce along to a shifting tempo that makes the timing hard to predict until they are right in front of your controlled platforms -- I develop an uneasy sensation every time they get near. Soon enough, the level throws multiple balls at you, each with their own rhythm which quickly ramps up the challenge. For a game that is so much about the audio-visual response, Hopping Road is surprisingly fun despite its simplicity.   2. Bon Odori There are many categories the mini-games of Rhythm Tengoku can be filed under. For example, Bon Odori is a "clapping" game, where you clap to a song as your three partners jump up with glee or give you dismissive glances (depending on your performance). As I mentioned above, the music is what sets Rhythm Heaven apart, and Bon Odori is a shining example of this. It's one of the few songs with full vocals, which are compressed though not enough to sound grating. The track itself is a traditional Japanese song, but it's so giddy and warm that it always puts me in the right mood. 1. Toss Boys I'm a fan of tossing stuff, be it salad, balls, or salad balls(?). If you knew this, you may have suspected that Toss Boys would be my favorite mini-game on tap in Rhythm Tengoku. After all, what could be more fun than tossing some balls with adorable children? By the time you reach the fifth tier of levels, you begin to feel like you've seen all the game has to offer. This isn't far from the truth, given that the levels remaining after the fifth tier are remixed, harder versions of previous ones. Toss Boys, however, is one of the most original and jovial entries in the game, tapping directly into my love of 16-bit volleyball games. With three characters mapped to the buttons and D-pad, Toss Boys has you keeping the ball in play as you toss to the beat. The beat will frequently speed up and throw your characters into full-on volley panic mode, keeping you on your toes. It's a simple idea that's well executed with just the right amount of feedback and presentation to make a mini-game that is memorable beyond its soundtrack. [embed]210680:40879[/embed] The post-GBA years  Rhythm Tengoku's legacy has carried on, with a DS sequel reaching Western gamers in 2009 and another one for Wii on the way. However, the original remains the best for many reasons. The music and stages of the series' debut are unmatched in quality, whereas I struggle to find a memorable tune or a stage that didn't make me want to pull my hair out the DS game -- jury's still out on the Wii game. Even in their best moments, they can't capture the magic and surprise of the GBA debut -- to be fair, I haven't played all of the recent Wii sequel. It's unfortunate that many will never be able to play this lost gem due to Nintendo's lack of faith in consumers. There was also an arcade port by Sega, but that didn't reach the States either. -----  Have played Rhythm Tengoku? Do you want to dropkick me for saying the sequels are inferior? Do you enjoy tossing balls as much as I do? Leave a comment below!   [Where we're going, we don't need roads.]
It Came from Japan! photo

[It Came from Japan! is a series where I seek out and review the weirdest, most original and enjoyable titles that never left the Land of the Rising Sun.] Japanese games often possess a delirious quality that leaves some...

It Came from Japan! Harmful Park

Sep 08 // Allistair Pinsof
Harmful Park (PlayStation)Developer: Sky Think SystemsReleased: February 14, 1997Current value: $200-300Fan translation: Incomplete [abandoned?]For fans of: Parodius, Fantasy Zone, Air Zonk As a shoot-em-up fan, I often want to introduce others to the genre but constantly run into the same problem: the best introduction to the genre has never existed in America and goes for insane amounts of money online. In a genre filled with sci-fi cliches, dull mecha ship designs,and intimidating difficulty levels, Harmful Park stands out for all the right reasons. It's a game guaranteed to put a smile on anyone's face, including those who have long avoided the genre due to steep difficulty curves and stale aesthetics. All aboard the Cow Train At its core, Harmful Park is an elementary, horizontal side-scrolling shooter with easy-to-grasp scoring and weapon systems. Yet, every detail beyond the core mechanics is filled with such imagination that is rarely found elsewhere in the genre. Its closest companions are Air Zonk and the Parodius series, but that has more to do with the game's humorous presentation than anything else. After glancing at the stellar pixel art and playing the game for a couple minutes, you may conclude that this is the product of a developer seasoned in the genre. I was surprised to discover that not only is Harmful Park the first (and last) shoot-em-up from Sky Think Systems, it also is the developer's third (and last) game. Before Harmful Park, the developer made two puzzle games that are even more obscure: Kururin Pa! and its sequel Shingata Kururin Pa! (both for PlayStation/Sega Saturn). Little is known of what became of Sky Think Systems, although there are some theories that it became a business software developers due to a another company in Japan sharing a similar name. However, there is no direct link I can find between the two beyond that. If this is the case, it's pretty sad because Harmful Park hints at a developer with a great amount of passion, imagination, and psychedelics readily at hand. Although the game features lengthy intro and outro cutscenes, I couldn't grasp much of what is contained in the dialog. From what I gather, the story is about an amusement park (Heartful Park) that becomes a battleground after a mad inventor (Dr. Tequila) turns the machines against its owners and visitors. In an effort to reclaim the park, another inventor sends her two daughters to the rescue. Apparently, she is too old and lazy to battle against inflatable dinosaurs and giant wiener dogs with helicopter blades. You (and a second player) play as the two girls, piloting ships that have hands which propel gun fire and heat-seeking jellybeans. A potato and some deadly sweets A major part of what makes Harmful Park so much fun is its simplistic weapon system that is easy to learn but takes time to implement skillfully. You will always have four weapons in your arsenal, each which have an optimum tactical use. These weapons are linked to the four shoulder buttons on the PlayStation controller, making it easy to switch from one to another. In each stage, you come across power-ups that raise the equipped weapon up to three levels, drastically improving the weapon's range and damage. In addition to this, each weapon has its own special attack, which you also earn through item pick-ups. The Potato is a pea shooter that develops a four-way spread as you power up. The secondary attack summons a giant exploding potato, the least effective of the four specials. The Ice (Cream) Beam is effective at taking down multiple enemies lined up in rows. Leveling up grants access to companion beams for additional attack damage. The special attack, the most effective of the four, is a giant DonPachi-like (ice cream sundae) beam of death. On Easy mode, this can kill the early bosses in one hit. The Pie toss is the most amusing and deadly of the four weapons. Although its rate of fire is extremely low -- a missed shot can spell death for you -- it's very effective against larger enemies and bosses. Powering up makes the pies faster, deadlier, and probably more delicious. The special ability launches wedding cakes all around your ship, doing away with surrounding enemies. The Jerry throws homing jellybeans that will target the nearest group of enemies then boomerang back to you. When powered up, the increased rate of fire and damage make it an effective weapon for spam-happy play. The Jerry is also the only way to deal with enemies that approach you from behind. Its special summons a Jell-O mold around your ship, making you invincible. During this state, feel free to crash into and kill as many enemies as you please. The perfect balance  Harmful Park is one of the few shmups that offers enough difficulty options to serve as both an excellent introduction to the genre and a worthy challenge-of-the-week game for hi-score seekers. The game's default difficulty is Easy, and it lives up to its name: enemy fire is scarce, bullet patterns are simple, life extends are generous, and bosses are quickly dispatched. However, on higher difficulties, the game becomes a formidable experience that few will be able to finish with no continues. If you like to play for score, Harmful Park has a simple but addictive combo and gem collect system. You also get a Perfect bonus if you don't miss any enemies in a stage, though it's much harder than you might think. Finally, there is a Score Attack mode, featuring an exclusive level that only the most hardened shooter fans will be able to clear. It throws all of the games trickiest enemies at you in a claustrophobic stage designed to trap you against walls. Amusement parks, jungles, and beer taverns I love the explosions in Metal Slug and the character designs of Neo Geo games, but it's Harmful Park that contains some of my favorite pixel art of all time. As a player who always thrives for that 1cc (credit continue) playthrough, I often become fatigued by the lifeless backgrounds of other shooters. This is not the case with Harmful Park. Every moment of its six stages is brimming with background activity, original enemies that don't appear elsewhere in the game, and numerous memorable oddities. Pandas riding pandas, gumball-dispensing spaceships, flying kamikaze squirrels, and so much more are prime material for forum avatars.  Harmful Park is overbearingly twee, but I can't imagine that its delightful, colorful world and cast won't put a smile on anyone's face. Bosses that know how to pump-it-up You can't have a shmup without some epic boss fights. I wouldn't say that the ones in Harmful Park will push your skills to the limit, but their personality and design make them unforgettable. It'd be a shame to spoil them all, but rest assured that you will see some of the weirdest bosses of all time. There's that inflatable dinosaur above, being pumped up by two blobs, or the mopey, giant teenage girl who you fight at a drive-in theater (projecting a film displaying a teenage girl's nosebleed). Like every other aspect of the game, the boss fights are full of little details. For example, the teenage girl boss fight in Stage 4 has an ugly face unless you play on Hard. You just haven't earned it yet, baby! Even the mini-bosses are awesome, such as a giant Frankenstein's monster giving you the middle finger or a man who sobs tears of death after witnessing his crush getting married to another man. There is always something supremely wacky and unexpected to look forward to in Harmful Park. What exactly is "High-Brow Gag & Pure Shooting"? This strange phrase is pasted on the game's menus and front cover, but I'm still not entirely sure what it means. Harmful Park has funny gags but none that I'd label "high-brow." It has shooting as well, but I don't think there's anything that makes it any more "pure" than other shooters. Nevertheless, the nonsensical phrase has its own charm to it. That, and the pancake on the cover looks freakin' delicious! Before I conclude this retro review, I need to emphasize just how original the game's stages and adversaries are, not just in visual design but also in functionality. After playing through the game again a couple of nights ago, I noticed some things I missed before. I imagine the same will happen the next time I play as well. Harmful Park is just one of those games. For example, before Stage 2’s mini-boss, you must travel down a long corridor with ghosts that can't be defeated by firepower. The only way to get rid of them is to fly through a pair of floating ghost teeth, triggering it to chomp down on whatever is caught in the middle. There are tons of other neat moments like this that make the game memorable in a way other shooters aren't. I love Cave and Takumi, but moments in those games just don't stick with you like the ones in Harmful Park.  Harmful Park’s slower pace and unorthodox level design may keep it from reaching classic status with shoot-em-up fans who have mastered Cave and Eighting titles, but it still has yet to be topped as being the perfect introduction to the genre. I can't think of many other games that embody such fantastic ideas dealt with a whimsical charm and stuff them into a nearly flawless shooter. What it really comes down to is that Harmful Park is the best game to ever feature a whale that throws up Colonel Sanders clones at you. E V E R!!!! -------------------------  Are you a filthy-rich Dtoid user who sleeps on a bed of $200+ Harmful Park CDs? Do you have a game that you'd like to recommend for a future entry? Have you played this game? How much do you love it? This much, perhaps? Leave a comment below!   [This beat is non-stop!]
It Came from Japan! photo

[It Came from Japan! is a series where I seek out and review the weirdest, most original and enjoyable titles that never left the Land of the Rising Sun.]Shooting killer clowns with cream pies. Exploring a haunted mans...


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