Tetsuya Nomura’s Batman

July 25, 2017 // Published by Rei

Alfred spent over an hour meticulously adjusting screws and ensuring socket joints would rotate with each flex of Bruce’s neck and shoulder muscles. Bruce insisted that Alfred refer to these muscles as “the trapezes and the delts”. For the duration that Alfred worked on the suit, Bruce had to be wearing it, making Alfred’s job more difficult. Bruce would fidget his fatiguing muscles, causing the socket Alfred was fixing to oscillate, the whole mechanism then threatening to pull Alfred’s fingers into the suit’s crevices to be crushed. Each time Alfred would jerk his scarred, slender fingers away, sucking sharp slivers of air through his teeth.

Kneeling behind Bruce on aching knees, Alfred fastened an extra wing to a socket on the suit’s lower back. Bruce sat on a cushioned stool, scowling at the Batcave’s sole body mirror. Bruce’s new mask—or helmet, rather—was resting in the bend of his left arm on his lap.

Bruce cleared his throat. Alfred’s stomach muscles tightened.

“I’m sorry I chased that financier in the office building. Lots of cubicles and narrow doorways. Wings just snapped right off.”

Alfred exhaled softly. “Quite all right, sir. Just remember the limits of your new design.”

Fingers recoiled as a socket oscillated.

“I did it because you accused me of ‘punching down’, of only going after people trying to eke out a living. I had to read through hundreds of pages of bureaucratic nonsense just to make sure I could punch that financier with a clear conscience.” Bruce hung his head. “I ended up having to lodge a batarang into his calf so he couldn’t get away.”

“We all have to compromise at some point, Master Bruce. Might I suggest building up evidence in order to punch a politician next?”

Bruce did not respond.  

Alfred was absentmindedly buffing the shoulders of the suit with a cloth made from chamois hide. He had been so distracted earlier today chasing bees out of the house that he had forgotten to send the suit’s individual parts through the electropolishers and powerbuffers.

“I’m afraid you’re not going to be very shiny tonight, sir,” Alfred said.

“It’s fine. Not feeling very bright tonight.”

Alfred rolled his eyes and then felt a bit bad that he did.

“Friendship is what I need.” Bruce raised a metal fist aloft and then let it drop on his leg with a clank. “Someone to strap on these accouterments of justice and cleanse the streets of evil with me.”

“‘Cleanse the streets of evil’, sir?” Alfred asked.

Bruce did not seem to be listening.

“I get so lonely, but I know my lost friends I haven’t met yet are out there, waiting for me. I think about how we share the same sky, and then the umbrage in my spirit fades. I must be ever vigilant in my search for those who have endured darkness similar to mine, so I can convince them to wear suits and fight crime.”

Alfred tucked the cleaning cloth into his back pocket. He knew not to interrupt.

“My dark heart has always been searching for those with the keys to unlock my cardial secrets so they may then fill my shadowy recesses with light. And then, at long last, we’ll channel our hard-won happiness into fighting bad people together in a place we can belong.”

Bruce smiled as he peered about the Batcave. He had trouble pivoting his head in the constrictive suit.

It was a shaky maneuver, but after a grunt and audibly popping ankles and knees, Alfred stood behind Bruce.

“Is it time?” Bruce asked, looking down at his two-pronged helmet.

“Should I give you a tutorial on how to equip your Pope hat before we proceed, Master Bruce?”

“No way, I’ve got it,” Bruce blurted.

He tried to deftly slip the helmet over his head, only to smart his skull against the metal. He couldn’t let Alfred know. He slid the rim’s connector pegs into the appropriate slots and then rotated the helmet counterclockwise. Something clicked as something secured itself to something, and then the helmet automatically swiveled back into place. The mesh he was supposed to see through settled over his eyes. The mesh was something Bruce had cut out of one of the screen windows on the mansion’s first floor, near where Alfred practiced his apiculture.

Alfred stood several feet behind Bruce, wary of being smacked in the nose again with a titanium bat appendage.

“Let’s go!” Bruce’s shout was muffled by metal. He turned to face Alfred like a glacier bobbing in the ocean.

Alfred bowed, his unfurling arm cordially beckoning Bruce to his mode of transportation.

“Your Gummi Bat-Ship awaits, sir,” Alfred said, lifting his head to add: “Oh, and I’ll have sea-salt ice cream ready for you when you get back.”

“That’s my favorite,” Bruce replied.

“Yes, sir.”

“Make me a cool sword. But make the edges dull and wrap it in bandages and have the hilt shaped like a bat. Like the mammal, I mean.”

“First thing, sir.”

“All right!” Bruce shot a fist into the musty air. “Let’s get going!”

The metal encasing Bruce crashed each time he took a step. Alfred winced in rhythm.

Bruce thundered to a halt. “Alfred,” he began, “do you think all my gadgets and mechanized wonders are enough to match the strength of the human heart?”

Alfred’s expression was flat, his hands at his sides as he said: “Perhaps if you aimed for their chest, sir.”

The PC Engine and Hiho Densetsu: Chris no Boken

May 18, 2017 // Published by Stephen Keating

By Kitten

Before I begin, let me first talk a bit about the platform, in general:

Recently, I began diving deep into the library of the PC Engine – the Japanese version of what we know as the Turbografx-16 – a console that bombed so hard over here that it’s often considered obscure, today. The Japanese narrative for the console was wildly different than the American one, however, and it did quite well over there. Far overshadowing the only modestly successful Megadrive – what we know as the Genesis – and having a library consisting of around 700 games when you count its CD attachment (which, also contrary to American narrative, did very well over there), the PC Engine was a genuine hit far more integral to gaming history than it is often considered.

Whereas our Genesis and SNES libraries often got the cream of the crop and somewhat fairly well represent their respective, bigger & better Japanese library of games, what we got on the Turbografx was frankly piddling and missing huge chunks of both essential and offbeat titles that Japan had in genuine droves. The American narrative for classic retro gaming is deeply insular and misses out pretty significantly on both great games and interesting history commonly known about in Japan, but it misses perhaps most significantly with this console.

While the Megadrive underperformed on home turf and came out a bit after the PC Engine, and the Super Famicom (aka the SNES) was still a couple of years off, this little thing launched and built quite a name for itself. It, in fact, did well enough to directly compete with the Famicom (NES) and later the Super Famicom, having a long, successful run that spanned from 87 up until roughly about 94/95. I consider the PC Engine a truer successor to the Famicom than the SFC, and not because of its highest quality titles, which the SFC does admittedly beat it out on, but because it was a far more accessible console to develop for that much more mimicked the original Famicom’s diverse output.

The PC Engine library is filled to the brim with smaller developers pouring their hearts out, and all-in-all contains a surprisingly quality library. Despite having less excellent titles than other consoles of the time, its overall average game quality is higher, and it features surprisingly few genuinely terrible or completely forgettable games. For me, getting into it has basically symbolized exploring a totally preserved, untouched paradise of traditional Japanese game design, that which exists mostly outside of the boring trends that would dominate all too much of the SFC library.

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Throughout my years of gaming, I’ve always tried to push myself toward maintaining a fine critical edge by keeping a wide frame of reference and often playing things either outside of my boundary of taste or off the beaten path – frequently playing them extensively as to best understand them and to avoid a superficial, touristy understanding. In doing so, I’ve developed what I would at least personally consider a refined taste and a pretty good idea of when I just like something or when I genuinely consider it to be well-made and hitting its mark. For the most part, I’d say that there’s a pretty good correlation between “I like it” and “I consider it well made,” but there’s always the occasional game that lies squarely in one category, but not as much in the other.

Hiho Densetsu: Chris no Boken (one of the first games by what would come to be known as Arc System Works) is a game that perfectly exemplifies what I’m talking about, as although it’s by no stretch of the imagination a mechanical masterpiece, it manages to nail a truly engrossing appeal that I cannot find myself able to pull out of. The genealogy of its influence is most easily tracked back to Capcom’s wildly trend-setting Makaimura (Ghosts ‘n Goblins), and it tends to take multiple queues from it in trying to make a name for itself. Linear stage progression, a cartoony-but-dark fantasy theme, multiple basic weapons, item containers popping up out of the ground when you hit invisible triggers – the basis is pretty obvious.

Before I get down to the mechanical nitty-gritty, let’s first talk about what is most obviously about the game: its peculiar graphical style. The artists seem to have been intending to hit a similar kind of blend of fantasy and horror that Makaimura did, but ended up with something feeling a bit… off. Chris, herself, is rendered in an almost chibi type of styling, but the darker shading used in her sprite combined with her anxious-looking idle animation and knife weapon make her look almost like some sort of blend of Undertale’s “Chara” and Yume Nikki’s Madotsuki – two characters that are both rather unsettling, and for entirely different reasons.

The anime cutscenes that play between stages, however, represent her as an older-looking kind of adventurer in a fairly typical anime style, and this clashes deeply with the in-game graphics to the point you might not even immediately recognize her as being the same character. This is pretty consistent for about everything – detailed in-game graphics, and then somewhat average-looking (occasionally decent, occasionally quite low-quality) anime cutscenes between each stage. There’s almost no attempt to bridge the gap, and it makes the narrative feel somewhat disconnected from the game experience.

But, well, I’m honestly fine with that. It’s weird, yes, but there’s something interesting about how it’s weird. The in-game graphics are uniquely bizarre and unsettling in their mixture of cute and macabre, and this helps to create a pretty appealing visual atmosphere for the game that might not have been completely intended. Most comparisons that come to mind for similarly unsettling visuals come from much later indie titles, and it’s a bit of a ride to play something similar to them that came many years before (all the way back in 1991). The in-between anime cutscenes help further make the game’s world feel a bit off or strange, and thus ingrain the experience as memorably dissonant.

The title of the game very roughly translates to something like “Hidden Treasure Legend: The Adventure of Chris,” and – as far as I can tell from my extremely limited understanding of Japanese and the game’s general context clues – seems to revolve around a 20’s something girl adventurer raised by an aging advenuterer who found her on one of his expeditions. The manual cutely depicts him finding her as a child long prior to the events of the game, and her flipping the camera off (see far below), much to his embarrassment. For some reason or another, she sets off an adventure with her father figure that hints at her previous life as a Goddess and begins to uncover her origin. A rival adventurer betrays the old man and ends up reviving the Goddess’ brother, who then subsequently betrays the old man to begin some nefarious undertaking – probably take over the world, given the type of game this is. The rest of the game then revolves around stopping him. Pretty typical anime stuff, and you’ll probably get the gist of the story without understanding the language, too.

The game’s music is definitely a high point, and it features CD-quality audio with a bizarrely laid-back theme to it. I struggle to adequately describe the high points of a game’s soundtrack, especially one like this, but I find it reminiscent of (though not quite on par with) the excellent soundtrack featured in Akumajou Dracula X: Chi no Rondo. Occasionally mysterious, occasionally exciting and adventurous, but mostly just relaxing and filled with era-distinct synth instruments.

Mechanically, the game is a fairly standard action-platformer with linear stage progression. Each stage is broken up into two portions (with a checkpoint between each, even if you game over), and there’s a boss at the end of every second portion. Stages’ general hazards consist of various enemies and platforming elements, and they manage to squeeze a pretty surprisingly decent variety of both into the game. Despite the variety, however, both the enemies and platforming end up being a bit too dull or easy, and most of their challenge consists of surprising a first-timer. This lends the game to be a bit too abruptly mean on initial play and a tad too breezy on repeat plays.

Defeated enemies (and hidden pillars that pop up occasionally) drop coins (30 for an extra life), hearts (health restore), or one of three colored orbs. Collect any combination of the three orbs without a duplicate, and your basic knife will be upgraded to one of the game’s three weapons. There’s a short ranged slash, a relatively long-distance boomerang blade, and a quick-moving projectile. Collect the same combination a second time to upgrade the attack into having a bigger hitbox and quicker fire rate. The projectile attack tends to be the best of the three, but enemies dropping orbs at inconvenient times (and one enemy that can steal orbs and downgrade your attack) can cause you need to juggle and be talented with each of the three weapons.

The game’s pacing is pretty good and probably where it shines, and it’s helped along by a somewhat strict level timer represented by a day-night calender that cycles through days until you’ve hit your allotment. Since platforming and enemies are both basic and rigid, this is the necessary motivation given to the player to push the game out of the doldrums and into being something much more engaging. Although we never hit near the levels of deliberate cleverness as seen in its spiritual progenitor, Makaimura, you’re still treated to a fairly designed experience interspersed with a very anime story and interestingly bizarre graphics.

Although my initial play was admittedly somewhat flat and even frustrating, the fast-pacing, relatively arcade-minded design sensibilities, and overall visual appeal led me to be motivated to play it again on a single credit, and then a couple more times until I could get it down to not having a single death. Nothing about this game is remarkable enough to call it anything beyond quite decent (perhaps with exception of the soundtrack, which is great, even for the high quality many PCE CD soundtracks set), and yet everything about it came together to cast a grasp on me so powerful that I might honestly consider this a favorite game.

There’s just something about Chris no Boken’s offbeat nature, relative lack of exposure, and sincerity in its design that makes it both a memorable game and adventure that makes it a bit more than the sum of its parts. I have to strongly suggest it to anyone else out there willing to trod off the beaten path of community-approved greats and cult classics to get a taste of something outside of that sphere. And, yeah, having a non-sexualized woman protagonist in such an older game is a bit of a treasure, too.

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A couple bonus illustrations from the manual: