Not your dad’s Rampart
I once described the SNES version of Rampart as not “the most faithful” but “the version that best fits on consoles.” I maybe stand by that, but I have a contender for the least faithful. While the NES got a decent version of Rampart, the Famicom, for whatever reason, got a completely different one. This isn’t the only time this has happened. The case of the NES/Famicom disparity of Maniac Mansion is another one. An equally confusing one.
Rampart on Famicom was developed by Konami by most of the team that would go on to create games like Lagrange Point and Batman Returns. A talented team to be sure. It’s clear that the development team played Rampart, but they didn’t seem that interested in replicating the gameplay.
We’ve got to protect grandma’s house!
Rampart is an Atari arcade game about building fortifications out of Tetris blocks. In single-player, the goal is to defend your castle from invading pirate ships. Rampart on Famicom is about a variety of things, none of which involve ships. For example, easy mode has Little Red Riding Hood fortifying her way to grandma’s house. Medium is fantasy medieval, so you’re fighting dragons. Then finally, hard mode is Sengoku-era Japan. Weird.
But while the modes are labeled by difficulty, make no mistake, each one is its own unique, short campaign. The objective of each one is largely the same, but through clever level design, you’re given little wrinkles to deal with.
There are various ways to win each of the stages. You typically battle two types of enemies; big ones that destroy your fortifications and small ones that get in your way. One way to win is to destroy all the larger enemies, as the smaller ones can’t break down walls. Another is to gain points by capturing as much territory within your walls as possible. Some levels push you to one type of victory in particular by, say, setting the goal score way too high to get in the limited number of turns you have.
Stop giving me ‘S’ blocks
There’s also a story told in cutscenes between levels; something else that I haven’t seen in any other version of Rampart. Once again, each difficulty level gets its own individual storyline to go with its unique aesthetic. Considering the arcade version of Rampart was developed as a three-player adversarial title, I can’t say I’ve ever considered narrative to be a possible path for improvement, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.
It’s amusing to me that, instead of just choosing one aesthetic and sticking to it, Konami decided they’d give us multiple flavors. None of them really match the medieval Europe of the original, and while the gameplay is almost restrictively similar, they all have their own progression and design. It’s almost a demonstration of how Atari limited themselves by sticking to one theme. An example of how the Rampart series could continue. In a sense, it’s the sequel we never really got. Rampart on Super Nintendo may have taken the formula and made it more fit for consoles, but on Famicom, they just dumped a whole lot of sugar into the recipe.
As I mentioned before, gameplay is somewhat limited. Not that it wasn’t in its original incarnation, but at least there, it had the excuse of just being a quarter muncher. I think a lot of this comes down to what they could fit on screen. While the arcade original was a single-screen title, the SNES version added scrolling to allow for bigger levels. On the Famicom, everything feels a lot more snug. There doesn’t feel like a lot of territory to conquer or battle on. It makes the game almost feel cheap.
This carries through to multiplayer. Although the rules are largely the same as most two-player versions, the fact that the maps are so condensed really affects the strategy. You can definitely do better in terms of multiplayer Rampart, though most won’t let you choose your aesthetic.
More could have been done with the ideas that were used to mutate Rampart, but it doesn’t feel like it was much of a priority for Konami. While there were obviously plenty of talented people on the project who poured their love into it, there are hints that the company saw it as nothing more than an arcade port that might sink or swim. It wasn’t even put on Konami’s usual custom cartridge, instead using the generic Famicom style. It’s all right, Rampart; you’re still loved.
Completely off script
If you didn’t like Rampart before, the Famicom version isn’t going to change your mind. However, if you like or even love Rampart, then you should do yourself a favor and check out this flavor. It’s interesting to see a developer look at a game that they were porting and decide they wanted to do something different. Normally, I’d attribute this to the limitations of hardware not being able to replicate the experience, but Jaleco managed to do it just fine in the Western version.
There is a translation if you want to enjoy the cutscenes or at least navigate the menus. There’s a surprising amount of text when you consider there was no story at all in the original versions.
As for whether or not we’ll ever see an actual localization, I wouldn’t count on it. Considering it was a licensed port, you’d probably need to get Konami and Rampart’s current rights holder (I believe it’s WB) to work out a deal. Even then, how much demand is there for an obscure port of Rampart. When was the last time we even saw a port of Rampart in any of its iterations? Midway Arcade Origins in 2012? Yeesh.
For a final note, I’m not done with my Rampart exploration. Apparently, Jaleco did a Game Boy port and went pretty off script with it, as well. Japan-exclusive, as well. Why did we only have to deal with pirates in the West?