The ADV in Adventure #4: Snatcher

It is Pre-Programmed. So What? Who of your Friends is Not?

 

Snatcher

Developer: Konami

Format: PC88/MSX2, PC Engine, Sega CD, Saturn/Playstation

Release Date: 30 November 1994 (Sega CD)

In a Nutshell: Homicidal Commie Androids invade Japan while one man and his robot buddy learn the true meaning of Christmas.

It’s 2046 and Neo Kobe is about to E-X-P-L-O-D-E! A vicious army of androids are bent on taking in strip shows while eating buffalo and making everybody have allergy attacks--all while wearing sunscreen! In winter?!

Yes, it’s Snatcher, the infamous cyberpunk detective thriller from auteur Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear Solid). First debuting in 1988 for Japanese microcomputers before a more-realized director’s cut dropped on the PC Engine the following year, Snatcher was Kojima’s first story-intensive game coming off the back of his work on the groundbreaking stealth-action adventure Metal Gear. The game finally reached western audiences in 1994 in the form of a US & EU-exclusive port to the ill-fated Sega/Mega CD, where it was a critical success but a commercial flop. Kojima didn’t have his trademark reputation in the west yet, causing Snatcher to go unfairly ignored by mainstream audiences.

Its low print-run in both territories didn’t do it any favors either; one can find a Japanese copy of Snatcher for PC Engine for as low as a dollar, but an English-language Sega CD version runs for several hundred, making this rare release difficult to get hold of for anybody but the staunchest and richest collectors. I was one of the lucky ones who snagged the game during its original release (as inappropriate for a ten-year-old as it was), but today I just attempted to check its current status on eBay and found that some joker is trying to sell a copy for $2000. But enough depressing money talk, let’s spend some time looking at the game itself.

Snatcher begins on June 6th, 1996. A biological weapon fittingly named Lucifer Alpha has accidentally been released in Chernob̶y̶l̶ton, Russia. Half of the world’s population dies. Eurasia is uninhabitable for the next fifty years, at which point Lucifer Alpha metamorphs into a non-lethal form. Just as it seems that things are about to calm down, a plane crashes in Siberia and the remnants of an android lifeform are found among the wreckage. Before long, a number of prominent VIPs in Neo Kobe City are found to be androids who all promptly explode upon discovery. Indistinguishable from humans, these androids have been killing high profile targets to “snatch” their identities. The reason? Unknown, but undoubtedly nefarious.

The Japanese government quickly quarantined Neo Kobe to contain this “Snatcher” menace, setting up the JUNKER task force (“Japanese Undercover Neuro-Kinetic Elimination Rangers”, or “Judgement Uninfected Naked Kind and Execute Ranger”, before anybody who spoke English got their hands on it) to tackle the threat.

Fast forward to December 2047: The Snatcher menace is at an all-time high; Preferring to operate under the cover of darkness, the long nights of winter allow them to move more freely than ever. Here we join the newest JUNKER recruit, 31-year-old amnesiac American dude Gillian Seed who, along with his wife Jamie, were both found wandering dazed in the Siberian Wasteland before being brought to Neo Kobe, because Japan is the center of the universe.

After a tearful meeting with his wife in which the two agree to separate due to the complications of their amnesia, Gillian reports to JUNKER HQ, which rents a floor in Konami’s skyscraper. The team is operating as a skeleton crew; There’s administrator Mika Slayton, engineer Harry Benson, runner Jean Jack Gibson and chief Benson Cunningham. Gillian’s set to be a runner himself to back up Jean Jack, whose fellow field agents have all been killed pursuing Snatchers.

Gillian’s partner comes in the form of navigator robot Metal Gear MKII (nicknamed Metal), a little guy who fluctuates between wisdom, smart-assedness, exasperation and outright absurdity, giving Snatcher the feel of a bizarre buddy cop comedy at times. Can these two knuckleheads get along for long enough to solve the case? Tune in Thursdays, 9.30/8.30 central!

Before long, JUNKER HQ receives a frantic call from Jean Jack, stating that he’s cornered a Snatcher in an abandoned warehouse and requesting backup. Thrown into the thick of things on his first day, Gillian hops into his department-issue turbocycle (an auto-piloted three-wheel hovercar) with Metal in tow to catch some badbots. Things just go downhill from there, as the story spirals into a fairly well-plotted cyberpunk noir.

The bright lights of Neo Kobe’s facade quickly give way to the city’s seedy underbelly. Gillian and Metal will find themselves mingling with the patrons of sleazy nightclubs, following leads at the black market district and having some tense interviews with unsavory individuals who may or may not be robots in disguise.

Snatchers are essentially vampires, operating exclusively after dark or during winter in an attempt to stay out of the sun. Unlike their gothic cousins, they won’t turn to dust when hit with the sun’s rays; Instead they are prone to melanoma due to flaws in their artificial skin, forcing them wear sunscreen even in the dead of winter. As a result, Gillian and Metal will find themselves snooping around private bathrooms to find out who’s hiding some off-season SPF-100 in their medicine cabinet.

The game excels at building atmosphere when it needs to; Investigating Neo Kobe’s many suspicious locales always tends to be a tense and uncomfortable affair. The evidence you gather becomes more disturbing, the music becomes more menacing and the anxiety of hoping that an unwanted guest will not show up reaches fever pitch.

This chilling atmosphere is due in no small part to the excellent work carried out by the game's localizers, a Japan-based team led by Jeremy Blaustein (Metal Gear Solid, Silent Hill 2). Snatcher, alongside Lunar: The Silver Star, was one of the earliest titles that proved that Japanese games could achieve high-quality localizations when placed in the right hands. Snatcher could be campy, but it was rarely unintentionally so. The game contained a previously unseen amount of self-awareness and wit, not to mention being well-written and compelling in its own right. The game is unafraid to poke fun at itself, so players will be treated to scenes of Metal Gear eating pizza, becoming paralysed with fear in the face of danger or expressing excitement at the prospect of “investigating” an exotic dancer. It’s undeniably cute.

The voice acting was equally competent, standing head-and-shoulder above many of the CD-ROM games that preceded it. Jeff Lupetin and Lucy Childs make an excellent team as Gillian and Metal, bickering back-and-forth during the story’s lighthearted moments but able to turn serious when required. Stage actress and comedienne Susan Mele does an excellent job as Jamie, perhaps giving the most human performance in the game, while Ray Van Steen, voicing Cunningham, Harry and numerous other characters, is delightfully hammy and steals every scene he’s in. Making the voice cast even more special is the fact that, with the exception of Lupetin, many of them never worked within the medium again. As a result, Snatcher’s acting remains unique in the vast sea of union-dominated game casts.

Written by Kojima when he was in his mid-20s, Snatcher wears its influences plainly on its sleeve: The world is an amalgamation of The Terminator, Blade Runner and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with a little bit of Bubblegum CrisisAkiraRaymond Chandler and a whole lot of William Gibson thrown in for good measure. By this point you’re probably thinking that Snatcher is just a rip-off, and while that’s technically true, it’s also an extremely detailed and loving homage to a few of Kojima’s favorite things.

Calling Snatcher “half-assed” would be a grave mistake: It’s undoubtedly one of the most in-depth ADVs ever crafted. Kojima spares no details when it comes to world-building. Although often choosing to tell rather than show, Snatcher tells you everything you want to know with great relish. JUNKER HQ contains a computer database called JORDAN that is bursting with facts about the world’s history, events, its key players and the infrastructure and politics of Neo Kobe. Want to read about STBO, a super form of AIDS plaguing Snatcher’s dark future? You can! Air Surfing? Pocket Pets? Whatever those are, they’re all there too! You can even look up members of the game’s staff, and in some cases, take their vidphone numbers and call them in-game for some amusing fourth-wall breaking conversations.

Aside from its vast database, the adventure itself is also filled with hundreds of lines of optional flavor text. There’s even voiced characters hidden for the player to uncover: Many fans know about the “Neo Kobe Pizza” scene that takes place at Plato’s Cavern, but far fewer have returned to Alton Plaza to encounter a fortune teller who bears more than a passing resemblance to Nina Hagen, sampled the local ramen in a scene that’s straight out of Blade Runner, or rescued the sick homeless man collapsed in South Itayado. There’s even a running joke involving flying bugs coming up on Metal’s motion detector that you can stumble upon if you poke around enough during the game’s tenser moments. These scenes and ancillary characters may not have any bearing on the main plot, but they exist to make Neo Kobe truly come to life in a way that other fictional settings do not. It’s very easy for the observant player to find something new each time they play.

The game is frequently unafraid to break the fourth wall, something that would go on to become something of a trademark for the director. Aside from the aforementioned calls to the game’s staff, a memorable early sequence involves Metal advising Gillian to “turn the volume up on the TV” so he can hear a strange beeping noise better. When it is discovered that the beeping is coming from a time bomb, which subsequently explodes in a loud fashion, Metal admonishes Gillian for “leaving the volume turned up”. These moments keep popping up throughout the story, with a phone sex operator making allusions to being censored by the ratings bureau, and Metal reassuring Gillian that they “fit right in” in a bar full of patrons dressed as Konami characters, among other scenes.

But Snatcher isn’t all reading. OK, most of it is, but on occasion you’ll find your investigation interrupted with a shootout. It’s very much an arcade shooting gallery affair: The screen is split into nine segments in which you aim and fire at targets as they appear before they have a chance to shoot back at you. The Sega CD version actually had support for Konami’s Justifier light gun: You’d plug it into the second controller port and pick it up when an enemy was encountered, much like Gillian pulling his gun out of its holster. It sounded like a pretty cool idea, but unfortunately I never got my hands on a Justifier to try it out myself.

The shootouts are few and far between, but they prove to be a nice shift to the formula. Interestingly, the difficulty changes depending on how proficient you are at the Junker’s Eye training machine at HQ. If you’re a poor shot, the battles will be easier. If you’re a good shot, they get harder. The problem is that the game doesn’t actually tell you this. Careful not to ace the machine too many times, or you may find yourself facing a nearly unwinnable encounter at the end of the game.

Snatcher starts to wilt a bit in its final act, which, in true Kojima fashion, is largely told via long expository cutscenes. This is especially disappointing as the act that it follows is the strongest and most surprising in the game. If it feels like a tacked-on epilogue, that’s because it actually is; the original microcomputer release ended on a cliffhanger at the preceding act’s conclusion. This final act’s extensive walk down a hallway to have a conversation feels largely anticlimactic in comparison. You’ll meet the mastermind behind the Snatcher menace, but their motivations are contrived at best and it’s somewhat difficult to care about. That said, it’s the journey that matters more than the destination. Regardless, many of the dangling plot threads find themselves neatly tied up, and the door is left open for Gillian to return in an action movie-style sequel that, frankly, it’s probably a blessing that it failed to materialize.

Thematically, Snatcher is not without its issues, many of which stem from its political attitude and its portrayals of race. The game is prefaced with a dedication to “All those cyberpunks who fight against injustice and corruption every day of their lives”, but the game’s themes tend to run directly counter to this statement.

 

Warning: Spoilers Follow.

 

 

Unlike authors such as Dick, Vonnegut and Gibson who Kojima shows obvious admiration towards, Snatcher fails to challenge authority in any meaningful way or, arguably, at all. The status quo is the Macguffin that must be retrieved in Snatcher.

Gillian, an agent of the Japanese government, is tasked with transforming chaos into order; JUNKER HQ representing ultimate good and the Snatchers ultimate evil. Eventually, when JUNKER Chief Cunningham is revealed to be corrupt during the story’s climax, it is not due to any inherent flaws that come part-and-parcel with a position of governmental power, but because he was killed and replaced by an evil Snatcher. JUNKER HQ and its policies are never wrong, except for when they find themselves hijacked by their nefarious rival faction in an attempt to dismantle them from within.

Taken as an entity, the Snatchers are equally as black-and-white: During his James Bond villain-style speech in the game’s second act, high-ranking Snatcher Dr. Chin Shu Oh explains the Snatchers’ plan: “In the same way as the Nazis, our strategy begins with the overpowering of the spirit ... We will strike at your weakest point, your suspiciousness and fear.” Chin goes on to inform Gillian that the Snatchers’ ultimate goal is to snatch all of the world’s leaders in an effort to “Take control of human thought and achieve worldwide racial unification.” Yikes! Why an army of androids want to rule the world, starting with Japan, is beside the point; they’re here to disrupt the dominant ideology and they must be stopped.

It all comes across as a dense and disappointing take on the cyberpunk genre, content to complacently revel in uncontroversial and unchallenging themes that its forebears did not. But Snatcher’s conservative nature takes a slightly uncomfortable swerve into xenophobic territory if we examine the origin of the killer robots. This is a foreign threat; in particular, a Eurasian invasion.

The Snatchers themselves are revealed to be Soviet in origin, while some are from Soviet-allied countries, notably China. They seem to exhibit some humanity in that each major Snatcher encountered has a framed photograph of 20th century Moscow mounted somewhere in their home. Unfortunately, any deep pondering on the “humanity” of the Snatchers or their political leanings are left unexplored outside of their comic book villainish motivation to take over the world.

Created at the end of the Cold War, the game lacks any meaningful examination of communism or Russia’s sociopolitical climate: The Soviets and their allies were obviously chosen as convenient bogeymen for the story, just as Al Qaeda or North Korea would be likely be chosen without hesitation today.

While it’s quite humorous that a faction of robots from the USSR would directly compare themselves to the Nazis, it’s also revealing: No faction in 20th century history was as evil as the Nazis, so what could be more evil than an army of deadly androids harboring Nazi sensibilities? Yet another bogeyman; It’s an easy reference point to make.

Earlier I wrote of Chin’s motivation of “racial unification”, which brings to mind Japan’s anxieties over shrinking birth rates and, in particular, immigration. Indeed, Snatcher’s narrative comes across as slightly hostile towards immigrants. You wouldn’t think so from a cursory glance: Neo Kobe is portrayed as a multicultural haven, and not a single Japanese character is encountered throughout the story save for Mika, who is half-Japanese-half-Jewish. Even our hero Gillian is an immigrant, but Snatcher raises some interesting questions on what it deems to be an “acceptable” immigrant.

If players do some digging, it’s revealed that Neo Kobe has a problem with Chinese immigrants that it is struggling to keep under control. Many of these immigrants are criminals, or in Japan illegally, or both. The situation isn’t given that much screen time, but the game contains two notable Chinese characters who must be addressed.

The first character we’ll look at is the aforementioned Dr. Chin Shu Oh, one of the game’s more formidable antagonists. A dodgy character even before his identity was snatched, accessing Chin’s file on the JORDAN database shows a string of violations related to eugenics experiments that ended with his medical license being revoked. Eugenics? “Racial unification”? Is Chin trying to commit genocide against the people of Japan? That’s not immediately clear, but it is clear that he’s a mad scientist. Put together with his race, motivation and especially his appearance, we construct a character who is little more than a stand-in for Dr. Fu Manchu. Even his name is similar. The “Yellow Peril” fiction of the early 20th century seems like an odd inspiration for a cyberpunk adventure, but Dr. Chin is there plain as day.

The other Chinese character featured, Napoleon, is not a villain but rather an informant for JUNKER Jean Jack and later Gillian. Napoleon shows us a much more benign and likable portrait of a Chinese man, but one that is no less racist. Napoleon aids the heroes but he does so from the shadows. He moves through Neo Kobe’s underbelly, working for strip clubs and black markets, where he gathers his information. A character who’s not entirely on the up-and-up, Napoleon frequently shakes Gillian down for bribe money before offering any information of his own volition. Appearance-wise, he has stereotypical Oriental buck-teeth and a hint of a Fu Manchu moustache of his own. He’s frequently played for comic relief, sneezing away in an exaggerated fashion while Gillian comments on his ugly face, poor hygiene and body odor.

While Snatcher’s Chinese characters are not as overtly hateful as those of nationalist manga pundits such as Kobayashi Yoshinori or George Akiyama, it is important to note that they adhere to “Yellow Peril” stereotypes, both in personality and appearance. In Snatcher, the Chinese people are either to be feared or to be laughed at, and they’re certainly always ne’er-do-wells. Chinese culture itself is mocked, too. When Gillian asks Metal to translate Chinese, Metal responds that his strongest knowledge is in egg foo yung and wontons, boiling Chinese culture down to a joke about popular take-away dishes.

Does this mean that Hideo Kojima is racist? Personally, I do not think that he is, but I do believe that the racist narrative of Japan’s previous colonization and subsequent demonizing of the Chinese people had a subconscious effect on him. You’d think he’d be slightly more open-minded due to his influences, and it’s disappointing that he chose to adhere to these easy stereotypes.

Ode to Kirihito, by Osamu Tezuka

There was undeniably a lot of racist pop culture and media around during Kojima’s youth; To the right I have included two pages from Osamu Tezuka’s 1971 manga Ode to Kirihito, a story in which a Japanese man, Kirihito, is transformed into a dog. Tezuka is held up as the “Godfather of Manga" due to his memorable characters such as Astro Boy, but Tezuka has shown some ugly attitudes towards race in many of his works.

On the first page, we are introduced to the antagonist Mahn, a fat and ugly Chinese millionaire who curates increasingly shocking freak shows for his friends, in the search for ultimate decadence. Here, his evil is illustrated by feeding a baby to a snake.

Ode to Kirihito, by Osamu Tezuka

On the second page, we see that Mahn has captured Kirihito, and is about to force him to have sex with a dog in front of an audience. Why? Because he can. Mahn is the evil other, here to conquer Kirihito and break his spirit. This showcases Japan’s anxiety towards being subjugated by its Asian neighbours.

I’ve brought up Ode... for two reasons: Firstly, as stated previously, this is not a work by an overtly nationalist artist, but by a man who is heralded as the “Godfather of Manga". The themes in Kirihito were accepted within Japan, and it is still a critically acclaimed work today, not just in Japan but worldwide. You’ll find very little criticism towards the Chinese characters in Ode.... Secondly, Mahn and Dr. Chin have a lot in common. They are powerful Yellow Peril depictions of Chinese villains who seek to destroy our heroes simply because they can. They cannot be reasoned with and they lack humanity--literally, in the case of Dr. Chin. In both Ode... and Snatcher, Japan’s position has been rewritten from that of the colonizer to that of the colonized; Invaded and unfairly subjugated by a sinister force. This is shown on a personal level between Mahn and Kirihito in Ode..., while Snatcher shows us a literal invasion of Japan by the Eurasian android army.

Snatcher's references to Liquid Sky, Frank Zappa and Joy Division (the Japanese name for the Plato’s Cavern market) show that Kojima is no stranger to actively subversive art, and yet the themes of Snatcher are anything but.

Well, if nothing else, at least this means that Kojima has watched Me and My Rhythm Box in its entirety.

Snatcher would find itself re-released in the late 90s to both the Sega Saturn and Sony Playstation. These versions were not only Japan-only, but also lacked the involvement of the original team. As a result, many of the female characters were redesigned with a “cute” sensibility in mind, much of the gore would find itself toned down or mosaic-ed over, while the attractive minimalist intro would be augmented with a terrible CG sequence that looked dated at the time of release. The soundtrack suffered from some unfortunate changes as well; Konami no doubt wanted to utilize the new sound technology of the 32-bit consoles, but what they put together sounds like MIDI files from a Sierra FMV game. Seeing that Japan missed out on the Sega/Mega CD version, it’s understandable that the game would receive a wider re-release, saving it from being doomed to obscurity as an exclusive PC Engine title, but it’s a shame that the game was altered in so many detrimental ways.

Despite its problems, Snatcher remains an outstanding work of postmodernism that still holds up today. Seeing that Konami don’t seem to have any plans to rerelease it (and they likely never will due to their recent split with Kojima), go hunt down an ISO if you need to, because Snatcher is a truly wonderful work of interactive fiction that deserves to be experienced.

Selected Music

One Night in Neo Kobe City

Criminal Omen

Creeping Silence

Pleasure of Tension

Joy Division

Theme of Jamie

The ADV in Adventure #3: Kujaku-Oh

Priestly Perils.

Kujaku-Oh

Developer: Graphic Research

Publisher: Pony Canyon

Format: MSX / Famicom

Release Date: 21 September 1988

Fan Translation: The Snark (Link to Translation Patch)

 

Sassy spirits abound in Kujaku-Oh! That’s right, it’s yet-another-ADV adaptation of a manga. These things are a dime a dozen, aren’t they? So it goes.

I must admit I’m not overly familiar with the source material; Makoto Ogino’s long-running shounen comic never received an official English release. I once attempted to rent the 1988 OVA but the tape was so badly degraded that it was completely unplayable. The closest I ever got was renting Sega’s Mystic Defender for the Genesis, which I only found out later was related to Kujaku-Oh due to its English localization’s efforts to hide the game’s origins by renaming protagonist Kujaku to “Joe”. So yeah, I’m no expert!

From what I gather (and I expect somebody will tell me how wrong I am), Kujaku-Oh is about the exploits of the titular Kujaku (“Peacock”), a young Buddhist monk of Mount Koya. When Kujaku’s not hanging out doing monk things, he’s vanquishing demons as a member of a secret task force of exorcists. Set in the present day, the serene countryside and religious tradition of Mount Koya is played against the hustle, bustle and (spiritual) corruption of Japan’s dense cities. Kujaku straddles the line between the two; excelling at exorcisms during crises but enjoying pornography and fast food during his downtime.

The first few volumes of the manga followed Kujaku as he battled against his monster-of-the-week, but later volumes show him facing off a shadowy organization called The Teachers of Eight Leaves who, for nefarious purposes (natch), conspire to resurrect the peacock god Mahamayuri who resides within Kujaku. Oh and for good measure Lucifer’s inside of him too because why not. So yeah, it’s just like every other endless boys’ adventure you’ve ever read, but with a monkish flair.

Although Kujaku-Oh never really caught on in America, it was popular enough to spawn three games, two of which were ADVs. We’ll be looking at the first ADV, a 1987 effort for the MSX and Famicom by Graphic Research and Pony Canyon simply titled Kujaku-Oh.

Graphic Research seems to be a fairly obscure outfit; I've played many of their games but I hadn't heard their name. The folks over at GDRI paint a portrait of them as a TOSE-style developer that covertly had their fingers in many a pie throughout the 80s and 90s, working on B-list oddities such as Widget, Psycho Fox, Bomberman Fantasy Race and a whole bunch of very Japanese games while rarely taking credit.

The publisher, on the other hand? Ahh yes, Pony Canyon. This record label-cum-game publishing giant is linked to dozens-upon-dozens of games of dubious quality, many of which were based upon established intellectual properties. Pony Canyon thrived during the MSX and Famicom eras, publishing games based on everything from Dungeons & Dragons to Koneko Monogatari (a heartbreaking bastion of animal cruelty that you may remember repackaged as Milo & Otis). Whenever a shoddy port of Ultima to Japanese microcomputers was required, Pony Canyon was sure to be there with bells on.

A bad old time.

Much like its publisher’s pedigree, Kujaku-Oh is a pretty lousy game. The opening depicts a nighttime scene of a temple being struck by lightning, and then Kujaku is summoned before his Master. The Master tells us that this was the sanctuary at Mount Hiei that was struck, and that he has lost contact with the scouting team sent to investigate. Ordered to locate the missing scouts, Kujaku promptly departs from Mt Koya due north...and arrives at Wakasa Beach, overshooting Mt Hiei by a good 40 miles. Wrong turn at Albuquerque, I guess?

It is at Wakasa Beach that the game begins proper, and in true ADV style the player is presented with a menu of different investigative options. No matter what the player chooses initially, Kujaku will find himself thrust into an encounter with an evil spirit! It is through this encounter that Kujaku-Oh reveals that it contains a JRPG-style battle system replete with random encounters (and an ear-splitting battle theme, to boot).

Like, really bad!

Kujaku-Oh’s battle system is about as basic as it can get. You can fight to trade blows, use items, pray to invoke magic spells or turn tail and run away. There’s not much strategy to it; some prayers do more damage than others when it comes to certain enemies, and as far as I know enemies don’t have any special abilities of their own, so you’ll just be wailing on each other until somebody’s hit points run out, and that’s usually the enemy’s. Kujaku-Oh’s battles aren’t meant to challenge the player insomuch as they are a cheap attempt to pad out the length of a relatively short adventure. The game doesn’t want you to die, so when your hit points get low, enemies that previously hit hard will start to whiff. In the unlikely event that you do lose a battle Kujaku will find himself revived by his master, no worse for wear other than a bruised ego.

That's one way to save on an aquarium.

Once the spirit is dispatched, Kujaku is free to investigate the beach, where he learns that the local sailors are being picked off by a huge fish. The trail eventually leads Kujaku to a battle with a sea siren who, upon defeat, tells him to go to Mt. Hiei. And so Kujaku promptly departs south...back to Mt Koya to report to his Master, this time overshooting Mt. Hiei by a whopping 93 miles, only to travel the 93 miles back immediately after checking in. This guy, I swear.

Eventually, once Kujaku goes where he’s supposed to go, he gets swept up in a plot by the Iwato Clan of Izumo to revive the great serpent Yamata no Orochi. Kujaku must retrieve the legendary sword Kusanagi to put a stop to their plans once and for all. If you know your Shinto mythology, you’ll recognize that the game is basically a simplified retelling of the story of Susano-o.

The command "Look at hole" would have sufficed, rather than slowly pointing at it. But hey, Pony Canyon.

Simplistic as its engine is, Kujaku-Oh still manages to be clunky as hell. Simple menu navigation is never enough to make progress with, so more often than not the player will be required to investigate individual parts of the scenery by moving a small, slow-moving cursor around the screen. Kujaku’s hit points and stats are not on screen during battle, requiring the player to press select if they care to keep track of them.

25 squares of this. Choose wisely.

And, in true 80s ADV style, the game contains not one but two confusing maze sequences! The endgame is capped off with a huge pyramid maze, but a smaller maze is encountered early on in the form of sailing around Shimonoseki Bay. The game is merciful enough to provide in-game maps for both of these sequences, but it’s a small kindness, especially in the case of the sailing sequence: The sailing map itself is a 5x5 square grid on the open waters, but the player is tasked with diving into the sea at specific points to uncover three buried treasures. The map gives no indication as to where the player should be diving, and random encounters plague Kujaku at nearly every step of the way. Have fun diving into any one of 25 possible spots! And by the way, winning random encounters doesn’t net you any experience or items in this game. Fun stuff!

Prolific fan translator The Snark released many patches for obscure Famicom ADVs throughout 2008 and 2009, but Kujaku-Oh isn’t one of their stronger pieces. Sentences are short and occasionally somewhat nonsensical, but this could be due to constraints in the size of the ROM. Regardless, I’m thankful for their hard work translating so many weird little games, several of which we’ll be looking at in due course.

Additional Screenshots



Spellcaster


Kujaku-Oh was also released on MSX in 1988. The colors are a bit more vibrant and the music far more tolerable in that version, but the game is more-or-less identical. What’s not identical, though, is Sega’s port to the Mark III/Master System that same year. This version actually got released in the west under the name Spellcaster, with all references to the source material scrubbed away, and “weird Japanese stuff” like yakisoba neatly localized as spaghetti.

That old inseparable duo Stigh and Engy are back for another wild adventure.

Due to Sega’s bizarre insistence on programming virtually every Master System title themselves, Kujaku-Oh was rebuilt in-house from the ground up, sporting all new graphics and music. The game follows the same general plot but with a key difference: Instead of JRPG-style battles, the ADV scenes are punctuated with side-scrolling action sequences, not unlike Kenseiden. The end result isn’t very fun, but it’s certainly more enjoyable than the shallow battles of its siblings.

When in doubt, go Italian. With a bear.

Sega’s reimagining does make some changes to the game’s general progression: For example, Kujaku bypasses the unnecessary side trip to Wakasa Beach in favor of heading straight to Mt Hiei. As well he should, but I must admit I was slightly saddened to see this bizarre chunk of story completely excised. The world itself comes across as slightly blander, too; gone are the present-day cities of the Famicom/MSX, it’s all temples, rural villages and wilderness here. The end result feels more like a period piece than a story set in modern times.


So! Famicom, MSX, Master System, Kujaku-Oh, Spellcaster. No matter what way you slice it, it’s a pretty bland licensed ADV.

The ADV in Adventure #2: Maison Ikkoku

I Was a Pre-Teen Japanophile.

 

 Nobody got my pre-pubescent motor running quite like you, Cham.

Nobody got my pre-pubescent motor running quite like you, Cham.

Gee, I bet you’d never have guessed that. Growing up as a video game-obsessed kid in suburban America, a lot of my favorite media was Japanese in origin. I didn’t really know this at first, but I knew there was something different about my favorite games; something about the art style that made them more appealing than that of western animation. Maybe it was the sharp features and the bright colors, or maybe it was because of my crush on the girls from Valis III when I was 5-years-old. ANYWAY…

I finally put two-and-two together around 1993 when EGM ran an article on the upcoming SNES fighter Ranma 1/2 Hard Battle. I thought the character designs were really unique and exciting. Mousse with his morningstar and duck-shaped training potty, Genma the giant panda, whatever the hell Pantyhose Taro was supposed to be, etc. Eventually my wish to know more about these weirdos led me to discover the Ranma anime series, and my adolescent obsession with all things Japanese began.

Anime and manga were pretty hard to come by in Kansas circa 1994. I had to take what I could get, which was mostly released by Viz and mostly expensive. With only a limited amount of spending money, unless I was renting something I often stuck with what I was familiar with, purchasing other comics by Ranma author Rumiko Takahashi. I fell in love with the bawdy interstellar antics of Urusei Yatsura, and terrified myself with the explicit gore of Mermaid’s Scar.

And then there was Maison Ikkoku, a comics series that obviously wasn’t aimed at a 10-year-old American boy. I didn’t fully understand it, but I still managed to enjoy it, much to the bafflement of my friends.

From left to right: Mrs Ichinose, Mr Yotsuya, Akemi Roppongi, Yusaku Godai, Kyoko Otonashi, Kentarou Ichinose, Mr. Soichiro (Wikipedia)

Running from 1980-1987, Maison Ikkoku (lit. “Living with Assholes”) is the story of depressed 20-year-old rōnin Yusaku Godai who, too embarrassed to go back home after failing his college entrance exam, moves into the eponymous boarding house in an effort to cram and re-do the test the following year. Ikkoku-kan is populated by an odd bunch of characters who constantly intrude on Godai’s life. Staying in Room 5, Godai is sandwiched between polite-and-formal pervert Mr Yotsuya in Room 4 and Room 6’s lackadaisical cocktail waitress Akemi Roppongi. Below them in Room 1 lives middle-aged lush Mrs. Ichinose along with her rarely-seen salaryman husband and their young son Kentarou.  The tenants descend on Godai and invade his room, drinking and partying all night while he’s trying to study, and eating all of the food from the care packages his grandmother sends him. He’s not pleased about the situation, but he’s too much of a pushover to do anything about it.

Rounding out the residents is Ikkoku-kan’s beautiful caretaker Kyoko Otonashi, a young widow who Godai’s head-over-heels for. Although she obviously likes him too, he can’t seem to tell her how he feels. Kyoko is joined by her big Samoyed dog Mr. Soichiro, named after her late husband.

A fairly straight-laced romantic comedy, the unresolved romance between Godai and Kyoko serves as the crux of Maison Ikkoku’s story. Its characters, while often hysterical, are slightly more believable than those found in other popular manga of the time period. Their character designs reflect this, featuring none of the outrageous outfits or hair colors found in Takahashi’s other works in favour of contemporary 80s-style fashions.

 

Micro-Cabin's Maison Ikkoku (PC Engine, 1989)

This all sounds like a solid enough concept for a comic series, but it’d make for a pretty unlikely video game. Despite this, developer of obscure masterpieces Micro-Cabin rose to the challenge, creating a Maison Ikkoku ADV that was first released for Japanese PCs in 1987 before being ported to the NEC PC Engine and Nintendo Famicom in 1989. For the sake of my inadequate Japanese skills, we’ll be looking at the PC Engine version, which was fan-translated in 2008 by the lovely and talented duo of Matthew La France and David Shadoff.

Getting in to some dark territory right off the bat.

Maison Ikkoku

Developer & Publisher: Micro-Cabin

Release Date: 4 August 1989

Format: PC Engine Hu-Card

Fan Translation: Matt La France & David Shadoff (Link to translation patch)

The game puts players in the position of Godai who, upon hearing that Kyoko has a secret photograph, immediately goes out of his way to take a look at it. The game leaves its concept in the instruction manual, choosing not to waste any time with exposition by dumping you unceremoniously in Room 5 with a menu of available actions. From here, you’ve virtually got free reign to explore Ikkoku-kan at your leisure. You can check in on the other tenants who are up to the sorts of things: Yotsuya is using a hole in Godai’s closet to peep on the scantly-clad Akemi while she sleeps, while Mrs. Ichinose is on the shakedown for a bottle of booze. Kyoko’s minding her own business in her room, Soichirou sleeps in his doghouse outside, accompanied by a listless Kentarou.

Notably, you can get a game over within the first ten seconds, by choosing for Godai to commit suicide by leaping from his window. Grim enough on its own, this is made all-the-more dark by the fact that the command “jump out” is top of the list in any room with an open window, or when out on the balcony or on top of the roof. Hang in there, Godai!

Yotsuya in his element, turning Godai's closet into a peeping parlour.

Well, this is par-the-course for 80s ADV, isn't it.

The first task is to be invited in to Kyoko’s room to take a look at her photograph, but this is easier said than done, as Godai’s housemates are sure to get in the way. A core tenet of Maison Ikkoku is the fact that you have to constantly bribe Godai’s housemates in order to get anything done, or suffer the consequences. Often these are rather benign, such as Ichinose refusing to leave you alone with Kyoko, while other instances can be game-ending, such as being locked on the balcony or stranded on the roof by an irate Yotsuya. You can get these goons off your case by giving them any number of food items purchasable at the supermarket, or sake purchased at the ChaCha Maru bar.

Hey, I know her!

Even after you’ve gotten everybody to leave you alone, you need to buy flowers to present to Kyoko for a chance to be invited in. All this purchasing is made more complicated by the fact that money is a finite resource in Maison Ikkoku. Reflecting Godai’s status as a poor student, he begins the game holding 5000 yen ($50/£30) with a few one-time loans available from his friends, and a fee received for tutoring Kyoko’s niece late in the game. The player is forced to carefully consider their purchases and gifts lest the game end up in an unwinnable state. Many of the items are expensive red herrings, and you’re best off just buying cheap ramen to bribe with.

Once you gain access to Kyoko’s room, your chance to steal the photo will be interrupted by Akemi requesting that Kyoko repair the bathroom door. And thus, the cycle repeats; bribe your housemates to leave you alone, give Kyoko flowers, and get kicked out by another coincidental inconvenience. This happens three more repetitive times, until you’re suddenly tasked with collecting photos of the other tenants to show Kyoko in order to get a look at hers. Naturally, the game only gives vague hints on how to achieve this.

All my friends are jerks: Now a hit RPG.

Maison Ikkoku, unlike Oishinbo, cannot be brute-forced simply by interacting with everything. The game has a bit of a puzzle aspect that comes in to play when managing the needs of your fellow tenants, but the solutions are so poorly communicated that it quickly becomes an exercise in frustration. It’s also quite easy to work yourself into an unwinnable state. For example, after going to visit Kozue and her family, Kyoko, in a fit of jealousy, will refuse to speak to Godai. She can be placated by returning her bra, which blew up on to the roof. That’s all well and good, unless Godai is goaded into visiting Kozue a second time; With no bra to give back, I couldn’t find a way to placate Kyoko, and had to use a 67 digit (!!) password to reload an earlier state.

Kinda sweet, in a delirious sort of way. 

Gameplay faults aside, the game’s graphics are attractive for a 1989 Hu-Card release, doing an admirable job of recreating Takahashi’s unique character designs in pixel form. The music is particularly lovely; the relaxed theme that plays within Ikkoku-kan will certainly stay with you long after you finish the game. The visuals and audio work together to evoke a slight melancholic feeling that is right at home with the manga’s theme of a penniless student struggling with unrequited love (creepy photo-stealing invasions of privacy notwithstanding).

Most importantly, Maison Ikkoku provides a rather intimate portrait of the source material’s world. Exploring Ikkoku-kan from top to bottom, interacting with its tenants, and even the boring minutiae of supermarket shopping and tutoring a child; all of these actions serve to immerse the player in the world of Maison Ikkoku, something that is arguably more interesting and valuable than the completion of the game’s tasks. Even dealing with the pesky tenants, shallow as it can be, sometimes really makes you feel like the put-upon Godai. This type of intimacy is something you don’t often find in video games based on licensed properties, and it’s quite charming.

 

There are overt hints of an avant garde experience here. I can only imagine how this ADV could have turned out if Micro-Cabin had decided against playing it safe, eschewing the goal and endpoint in favour of something more akin to a slow-paced life sim that took place in Maison Ikkoku’s world. Hey, it could work.


Micro-Cabin released a sequel in 1988 called Maison Ikkoku: Kanketsuhen (“Maison Ikkoku: The Final Act”) that supposedly follows the last few volumes of the manga up to the final chapter. However, this was released solely to Japanese PCs, so English information is scant. Perhaps we’ll take a look at Kanketsuhen if I’m able to track down a copy in the future.

 

Trivia

Maison Ikkoku's Famicom port was handled by BOTHTEC, a company that boasted Yuzo Koshiro and Yasumi Matsuno amongst its alumni. In 1990, BOTHTEC became Quest, who went on to develop Ogre Battle and Tactics Ogre, among other unique titles.

Additional Screenshots



The ADV in Adventure #1: Oishinbo

In the Best Possible Taste.

Think of a popular 1980s manga. Any one will do. Chances are that it probably got a video game adaptation, regardless of the genre or how effectively its themes may be tailored to an interactive medium. No action? No problem! Just make an ADV. No example is more obvious of this rule than TOSE’s 1989 Famicom adaptation of Oishinbo, the long-running food manga of the same name by Kariya Tetsu and Hanasaki Akira.

Running since 1983, Oishinbo (lit. “The Gourmet”) chronicles the culinary adventures of Tozai News journalist Yamaoka Shiro and his quest to compile “The Ultimate Menu” at the behest of his editor for the publication’s upcoming centennial anniversary. Partnering up with his fellow journalist (and eventually, wife) Kurita Yuuko, Shiro travels all over Japan in search of local delicacies. He frequently faces adversity in the form of his estranged father, Kaibara Yuuzan, a famous artist and a snooty gourmand who treats his son with nothing less than constant derision and hostility.

The manga may sound boring to some but it’s actually rather enjoyable, especially if you have any interest in food or cooking. Shiro’s journey sees him evolve from a disinterested and sleepy layabout to a sleepy layabout who also happens to be an excellent chef. Though it is kinda strange that Shiro has been working on Tozai’s hundred-year anniversary menu for 32 years now. Perhaps Tozai News is his Limbo, where he will remain until he can come to terms with his feelings about his father Yuuzan. Deep as that analysis may be, perhaps it’s best left explored in a different article by somebody else.

Anyway, this feature is about ADV, so enough about the comic and on to the game!

Oishinbo: Kyukyoku no Menu Sanbon Shoubu ("The Gourmet: Ultimate Menu Three-Course Showdown")

Developer: TOSE

Publisher: Shinsei Bandai

Release Date: 25 July 1989

Format: Famicom

Fan Translation: Snark (Link to translation patch download)

Torture has never been so delicious.

Oishinbo puts us in the role of Yamaoka Shiro as he helps brainstorm for Tozai News’ upcoming VIP banquet. He meets with a trio of gourmands visiting his publication, one of whom extols the culinary merits of foie gras. Shiro is dismissive due to its ugly appearance (never mind the animal cruelty), causing a heated argument between the two. Filled with rage, Shiro heads back to his desk to try and come up with a dish that will blow foie gras out of the water.

It is here that the game begins in earnest, and the most familiar hallmark of the ADV genre begins to rear its head: busywork. The player needs to look at and interact with everything they possibly can if they want to make any progress, often multiple times. The lengths of which the game goes to to pad itself out is often ridiculous, such as when Shiro is only able to visit his own workplace cafeteria after reading a sign that informs him that it exists.

Office of the Damned

Shiro has a hell of a time navigating his office in search of culinary clues; Even though it’s the middle of a work day, everywhere he goes is deserted. The cafeteria is closed, the library is closed, his partner Yuuko isn’t at her desk and his boss Tanimura is AWOL as well. There are some staff working away at their desks, but these lost souls are so useless that they don’t even have faces, let alone anything to tell us.

Oosato you useless pustule.

 

After making enough circuits of the building, the cafeteria chef pokes his head out to throw in his two cents. Unfortunately, all he can tell us is that he slept through his college foie gras class. Channeling the player, Shiro shakes his head at how Kafkaesque the situation has become and leaves the chef to his devices.

Trust me, you'll need a stiff one!

After a hard day of achieving nothing at all, The Chimes of Westminster echo through the office to signal that the working day is at its end and Shiro can go home. He runs into Yuuko outside and the two go for dinner at Tenmoku, a local sushi restaurant. Listening in on their fellow diners, Shiro and Yuuko learn that monkfish liver is currently the hottest delicacy on everybody’s lips. The only problem is that monkfish is out of season and unavailable to purchase. That won’t stop Shiro though, who drags the long-suffering Yuuko on a trip to the port to try and catch some straight from the source!

Oishinbo, like many of its fellow 80s ADV, is often frustrating with its constant efforts to drag out the game as long as possible by wasting the player’s time. In an early sequence, Yuuko has something important to tell Shiro, but no matter how many times you attempt to speak to her, he won’t listen until you’ve looked at absolutely everything you can. This includes Yuuko’s empty desk, when Shiro knows she’s waiting for him in the hall! Most of these inane examinations have no bearing on the plot, and their vapid descriptions can’t even be described as flavour text.

Someone's got to be.

Later, Shiro’s editor Tanimura sends you off to see Tozai’s owner Oohara, but Oohara promptly sends you back to Tanimura, who then informs you it’s Oohara’s birthday. So it’s back to Oohara to wish him a happy birthday, at which point he tells you to go visit a crotchety old man named Mr Sugiyama. But Sugiyama won’t talk without a letter of recommendation, so it’s back to Oohara to get one! These repeated chains of interactions serve no purpose other than to stretch what should be a thirty second task out to five to ten minutes.

Despite all of its time-wasting and padding, Oishinbo is a miniscule adventure that a patient player can easily complete over the course of a rainy afternoon. There are two more acts following the monkfish adventure, hence the subtitle "Three Course Showdown", but each shouldn't take more than an hour or so. The game generates a password when the select button is pushed, just in case you need to come back to it later.

Even if you’ve got plenty of time, it’s important to keep frequent passwords because ishinbo contains a high number of unexpected and unlikely game overs. Attempting to peep through the window of Restaurant Tenmoku after closing time results in an inescapable encounter with an overzealous policeman. In a parody of Dragon Quest, the player is presented with the option to fight, flee or chant a magic spell, but all three of these end with Shiro being carted off to jail.

Oishinbo: Where the story's concept is enough to warrant a game over.

Later situations arise in which Shiro must avoid a game over by determining how much sake he should allow Captain Genzo of the SS Centipede (?!) to drink while sailing the open waters. Too little sake and he’ll turn the boat around, potentially ending the game if the player has wasted too much time. Too much, and the game will end, declaring that Shiro’s dreams of monkfish drowned in a sea of sake. I guess this means Genzo wrecked the ship and they all died at sea, which is pretty morbid!

Think of this as a boss battle.

2nd form...

This gruesome metamorphosis is the most challenging! Hit while the tail is up!

These are all fairly amusing fail-states, but the most entertaining of the lot are when it’s time to cook the monkfish liver. The player is given a variety of options to prepare and cook the fish, many of which will end the game outright if selected. Choosing to beat the fish will inform you that you’re too limp-wristed to have any effect as Shiro cowers in shame. Similarly, choosing to drop the fish from its hook is taken too literally, and the game ends as Shiro “drops out of society”. It’s weird, it’s cute, and it’s worth keeping a  password (or a *cough* savestate *cough*) so you can mess around and see them all.

♫ Stuck a feather in his hat and called it methamphetamine! ♫

More-than-likely created on a small budget, Oishinbo's soundtrack consists entirely of chiptune versions of public domain music, both Western and Japanese. This ranges from Mozart’s Turkish March to the folk song Sakura, Sakura and everything in between. This makes for some wonderfully hilarious music for certain scenes; There’s nothing quite like scouring the town in search of culinary leads to the 8-bit tune of Yankee Doodle.

 

And you will, too.

ishinbo is not a "good" game, and it’s difficult to determine who it was made for. The source material, though family-friendly, is obviously not aimed at children, and I can’t imagine Oishinbo fans would be excited to play a game based on it. But despite its many shortcomings, it may be one of my favorite Famicom ADV titles. It plods along at a lazy pace, the stakes are low, the whole thing just feels very relaxed. The extra layer of weirdness provided by its ill-fitting music and many bizarre game-overs brings a lot to the table, transforming what would have been a mediocre adventure into a very entertaining romp. It’s obvious that TOSE had a lot of fun making the game, and you’re sure to be laughing with them when their surreal sense of humor starts peeking at you through the game’s cracks.

Because he was there!

Oishinbo: Fish, Sushi & Sashimi, Viz 2009

If you’re interested in reading Oishinbo's manga for yourself,  Viz published 7 English-language “best of” volumes in 2009, which are still fairly easy to track down. Each of these volumes contains a different recipe featured in the book with full-color instructional photographs. It’s fun and informative!

Shiro depicted suffering a nosebleed after visiting Fukushima.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interestingly, Oishinbo recently faced backlash from the Japanese government when the comic dared to provide speculation on the negative aftereffects of the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011. Angered that a popular comic dare sabotage their fastidious whitewashing campaign, numerous governmental offices put pressure on Oishinbo's publisher Shogakukan to halt publication of the comic in early 2014. As of May 2015, publication has sadly yet to resume.

Thank you for reading, and join us next week for another installment of ADV in Adventure!

The ADV in Adventure: Introdcution

                                                                                                                                   Kujaku-Ou

Adventure games! They were a thing! Whether they be Sierra, LucasArts, or one of those weird mid-90s Myst knock-offs, if you did any computer gaming in `80s or `90s you’ve probably played at least one of them.

What you may not have played is a Japanese adventure game, or ADV. How are they different, you ask? Rather than employing point-and-click interactivity, many ADV feature menu-driven systems to navigate their worlds. This choice stems from the genre’s beginnings on 1980s Japanese PCs such as the Microsoft MSX that did not utilize a mouse, as well as consoles such as the Famicom, but eventually this became a stylistic choice.

                                                                                                                                      Oishinbo

While adventure games are often puzzle-based, ADV are instead narrative-based. The items and text are not present to give hints on how to solve the game, but to instead provide insight and immersion into the world of the story. In this way, the ADV could be considered more akin to an interactive comic than a traditional game.

                                                                                                                                          Snatcher

Though the occasional ADV has found its way to America, most notably Hideo Kojima’s Snatcher, many of these unique titles have been left in Japan and doomed to obscurity. Over the next few months, I will be using this serial feature to showcase a number of different ADV and talking about their merits, flaws and what makes them so interesting. Let’s put the ADV back in Adventure together!