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: