Famicom Mini-Review Showcase: Takeru/Sur-De-Wave Pt. 2

February 2, 2017 // Published by Stephen Keating

By Kitten
Takeru was a small developer that only ever put two games out for the Famicom under the Sur-De-Wave label. It was founded by a small group of industry veterans who largely felt stifled by their previous employers. They went bankrupt not terribly long after formation, mostly due to their overly ambitious adventure game, Nostalgia 1907, not meeting expectations.

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Seirei Densetsu Lickle (Little Samson)
(JP – June, 1992; US – November, 1992)

Given the relatively minimal space between release dates, it can be assumed that shortly after finishing off Cocoron, Takeru began work on their next big Famicom game, Seirei Densetsu Lickle – or, as it is more commonly known, simply “Lickle.” While not commonly considered such, perhaps due to Cocoron’s relative obscurity and Lickle mostly being known for the desirability of its very rare US release (known as “Little Samson” over here), it can be looked at as a spiritual successor to Cocoron when considering its mechanics and multi-character theme.

Cocoron felt much like a branching evolution in the growth of director Akira Kitamura’s design sensibilities that began with Mega Man, and Lickle, despite the baffling absence of Kitamura from the credited staff, feels like it continues in that same vein of design. Back again are the simple jump-and-shoot mechanics from Mega Man, but gone is Cocoron’s defining feature – its character creation. Instead, the game allows you to choose from a cast of four different, premade characters, all with different strengths and weaknesses that tend to complement each other.

As discussed in the previous article, despite Cocoron’s most central feature being its character creator, it prevented you from swapping between the multiple characters you’d created during a level and shoehorned you into sticking to one the entire game because of the upgrade system. To help curb a repeat situation with character favoritism in Lickle, you can now switch between your available characters on the fly. Character upgrades are now also reduced to a life extension rather than an attack bonus, which is relatively common and caps out at either two or three pick-ups per character (versus Cocoron’s need to pick up well over a dozen to max out just a single character).

Lickle initially has you complete a brief introduction stage with each of the four characters before you’re able to switch, but minus a completely optional and easy-to-miss secret stage, otherwise lets you switch freely for the remainder of the game. Each introduction stage helps accustom you to the characters’ unique qualities. Lickle, the eponymous human boy, is fairly well-rounded and can climb on walls, but lacks any obvious specialty. Gammu, the golem, is the slowest character in both his movement and attack, but has incredible health, and can walk over harmful terrain without penalty. Kikira, the dragon, is capable of flight and has the highest jump, but has a slight health handicap. And last but not least, Ko, the mouse, can both climb on walls and move at incredible speed, but their powerful attack is difficult to land and they’re the most fragile member of your party.

Having 4 characters with different attacks and mobility options accents the game’s variety in level design without ever feeling like it’s forcing you to play one way or another. While Cocoron would occasionally have a section that would be a little easier with a character who had flight, or a ledge you could only reach with a character who could jump higher, it could never commit to making the levels more interesting, because it had to accommodate for the slowest, weakest conceivable character to always be able to make it through.

While every level in the game after the introduction is technically able to be completed by just Lickle, there are brief paths in the level that can be approached with greater control over the situation by playing someone else. For example: while Lickle could climb the ceiling over the spiked floor and Gammu could simply trod over it, Kikira’s flight and unique arc to her attack might allow her the best avenue of approach given which enemies and what platforms might be available between the ceiling and spikes. It might even be that Ko’s small frame and quick movement could get them through easier, provided you can flex a little finesse.

The choices on who to use during the level are made even more complex when taking into consideration each character’s independent health bar and the boss that waits at the end of most stages. Health for characters only refills on the occasional pick-up or at the end of a stage, so your decision on who to use during that stage is further tempered by who you think will ultimately be best to use against the upcoming boss. Overuse a convenient favorite during the level, and the damage you take with them might prevent you from safely using them against that end hurdle. Kikira’s flight might trivialize a difficult platforming segment, but those hits you take during it could ultimately render her unavailable for a boss against whom flight would have been a paramount advantage.

Lickle’s balancing could easily be thrown out of gear by engineering situations where one character is forced to be used, but by instead gently urging situations where one half of your team might be better than the other, player agency becomes positively accentuated. Character death will wipe them from the party until the end of the level (with the exception of Lickle, who cannot be disabled) or until you use a rare potion to revive them, so the consequence of failure is always looming over your shoulder and the possibility of temporarily backing yourself into a nearly unwinnable corner is always a threat (you can always continue, which will revive the party, but you’ll lose their health increasers and need to find more).

While rewarding player skill and ability is a key feature in most action-platformers, it’s rare that one manages to carefully weave in some higher-level decision making like this to such an effective level. Lickle does not skimp on its difficulty, so both elements feel equally important and perhaps even symbiotic to the game’s overall identity. There is fluidity in your choices, as well – personal skill is never perfectly consistent, so you’re often asked to roll with the punches when a character you’d planned on using becomes too weak to risk leaving exposed. It’s in moments like those, which naturally and frequently crop up, that Lickle manages to shine its brightest.

The game’s stage design tends to be fairly great in terms of its geography and hazards forcing the player into thinking more smartly, but the common enemy design does unfortunately leave something to be desired. Variety falls somewhat flat, and there are a few too many moments where the designers rely on a corridor filled with infinitely spawning simple enemies to substitute cleverer placement and deliberate design. It doesn’t fully detract from the mostly enjoyable levels, but does end up being a fault that is a little bit too common.

Unlike Cocoron, which is non-linear and in relatively innovative ways, Lickle opts to be an almost purely linear experience. Though the player can play the four introduction stages in any order and potentially find a hidden, optional stage (that sidetracks the narrative, just briefly), everything else is otherwise played in a completely straightforward manner. This allows the game to have a relatively generous curve in its difficulty, with a few earlier stages featuring easier bosses or being mere intermissions completely lacking in a final hurdle to allow you to more safely experiment with the multiple characters.

Despite the relative smoothness of the curve, however, bosses later in the game have attacks that kill even Gammu in one or two hits, and the wildly ranging damage values from them are often surprising to the point that it can result in a trial-and-error death or two. This unfortunately seems like a natural end point to maintaining a high difficulty in a game where you’ve got four independent health bars, but comes at the cost of initial fairness and can make the game unnecessarily tough to those not intimately familiar with it.

The last level – only accessible by playing the game its highest difficulty, normal, since easy mode is pretty much just a training wheels version of the game – also introduces some incredibly unfairly paced bits to it. Losing a single character at any portion of the stage’s 3 tiers (and among its six boss fights) will result in them being disabled until a game over, or you’ll be given a chance at a revive if you managed to have a potion on them before hitting your last checkpoint. Given that two of the bosses have instant kill attacks, it’s a pretty high likelihood on your first run to lose somebody, and that can be a severe disability in being able to take care of the final boss. Once you’ve gotten a game over to get them back, you’re more or less forced into the tedious job of farming enemies for health increasing pick-ups to get them back to top shape, which the last level is definitely balanced around.

One of the reasons that Lickle is most commonly celebrated is for its high visual quality, and it is frequently cited by those familiar with it to be one of the best-looking games available for the console. It features some of what is arguably some Utata Kiyoshi’s (of Strider fame) finest work on a game, and the pixel art done for it is highly detailed in both animated characters and deely complex environmental work.

However, I still struggle to necessarily consider it among the very best on the console, despite that all it has going for it. Why? It struggles to come to terms with the Famicom’s limitations as a game console, primarily in terms of palette limitations and consistency in detail. Most of the game’s basic enemies and your characters are vibrantly animated, but their features are simple and cartoonish. In contrast, the game features numerous, massive bosses with incredibly high detail and comparatively basic animation and incredibly simple color schemes.

The sheer inconsistency in visual direction, here, can be staggering. Lickle, himself, is a simple 3 colors (the size of a Famicom palette – you get 4 available palettes, which can be cycled, and a sprite may contain one palette and the background color. Games like Mega Man work more than 4 colors into their player character by using multiple sprites – his face is actually an extra sprite!) with many frames of animation, but exercises color contrast in his simple design. A flesh tone contrasts vividly with the green of his outfit, and a brown is used to detail both his basic features and general outline. Despite being so simple, all 3 of his colors are used in smart ways.

Many of the game’s larger bosses, on the other hand (the serpent, the dragon, the grim reaper), are fought against a black background, and use 3 different shades of brown or beige and then black for relatively extreme detailing. The reason the background is vacantly black is because the boss is technically the game’s background, just being moved around to imitate a large sprite. This is a common trick used for larger bosses in Famicom games, but the comparative Mega Man 5, released in the same year, managed to have giant bosses that were more animated, colorful, and nearly just as detailed.

Lickle ends up with bosses that are bizarrely detailed, but largely static and monochrome… And you’re fighting them with color-contrasted simple characters, who are constantly animating themselves. The more animated bosses still refuse to use contrast or incorporate a second palette into their visual design, opting to instead use their 3 available colors for different shades for increased detail – making them look almost like unpainted toys from colored molds of plastic. Environmental work can be similarly confused, and lock up variety in the palettes for shading and detailing, thus sometimes forsaking the appeal of variety and contrast. Slavish attention to admittedly incredible detail can often make the level go without any animated background elements, as well, which are common features in many of my most visually admired Famicom games.

Ultimately, this prevents Lickle from ever being as colorful, animated, and excellent in composition as some of what is ultimately at the top. Individual elements are frequently at the very highest level of competency you’ll see, but they are disparate and often refuse to co-operate with everything else. Lickle feels, at times, that it would have been nearly straight improved on something like the PC Engine or Super Famicom. It’s why I struggle to consider it a visual masterpiece along the lines of something like Gimmick! or Kirby’s Adventure, which both feel perfectly at home on the device and ultimately better for embracing their limitations.

Sound-wise, Lickle’s composer pulls out much of the same degree of high quality work that he did for Cocoron. Unfortunatately, though, the game makes a rather asinine decision in how it chooses to play that music. Rather than giving each level a unique track, each character has their own personal theme that plays when they’re selected, instead. A few later levels have unique themes and there are a couple of boss themes, but this makes it so that almost the entire game is a basic four tracks. To make matters worse, the themes each start from the top when you switch characters, and you tend to switch characters very frequently.

This strips away a huge amount of identity that many of the game’s levels could have potentially had with their own music, and makes you sick to death of your crew’s highly upbeat tunes – particularly their opening few seconds – very quickly. I can somewhat understand why they chose to do this, but it was ultimately a very poor design decision and ends up being one of LIckle’s greatest flaws. I feel like the four primary tunes would have been pleasantly memorable if used more wisely – it’s not as if they’re not good, it’s just grating to not only hear them constantly, but hear them restarting constantly, as well.

In terms of narrative, Lickle tends to come in strong among its peers. Its story is told through brief bits of character pantomime and natural play of the game, and it ends up feeling like a much more memorably told tale because of it. It’s not just expressed cleverly, but succinctly, and manages to get the full breadth of its narrative across without forcing you to read a manual, watch an overtly extended opening or ending, or sit through mid-game cutscenes. The game simply cuts back to a world map in-between levels to give you a sense of placement in the world (which highlights your characters going far off the beaten path for a while), and then throws you right back into the action. This, combined with the game’s quality learning curve, provides an excellent sense of overall pacing, at least when not counting for a few bumps in the road due to potential struggling with the difficulty.

Overall, I feel like Lickle, as a game, never quite manages to fully peak out into the territory of excellence. It manages to get very close, but is held back by a few shortcomings and inconsistencies into being just short of the cream of the crop. It’s almost entirely an improvement over Cocoron, however, and showed incredible promise for future platformers from Takeru. Unfortunately, the losses from their other games (particularly Nostalgia 1907) were too high, and Lickle was ultimately just a minor success in Japan, at best, and a near-total failure over here in the states as Little Samson. They disbanded not long after, as a result.

Lickle, of course, didn’t fail to sell due to being short of excellence. It was near-entirely a result of a lack of advertising and consumers being largely distracted by the bigger, more powerful hardware starting to really take the stage. A little-known, new property like this never really stood a chance, and even genuine masterpieces released this late in the console’s lifespan were sometimes doomed to commercial failure and obscurity. I feel like Takeru could have gone far, under the right circumstances, but were just cut tragically short. Some of the staff disappeared entirely into the wind, and games like Lickle stand as monuments of their last big effort. It’s sad, when you think about it, that games like this never really got to be widely appreciated, and are largely discussed today simply for their value among those who just want to brag that they’ve got a copy on their shelves.

Famicom Mini-Review Showcase: Takeru/Sur-De-Wave Pt. 1

December 1, 2016 // Published by Stephen Keating

By Kitten
Takeru was a small developer that only ever put two games out for the Famicom under the Sur-De-Wave label. It was founded by a small group of industry veterans who largely felt stifled by their previous employers. They went bankrupt not terribly long after formation, mostly due to their overly ambitious adventure game, Nostalgia 1907, not meeting expectations.

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(May, 1991)

Directed by Akira Kitamura – the director of the first two Rockman (Mega Man) games and perhaps the man most deserving of the title of father of that series – Cocoron is a game that tends to take after Rockman while trying to provide its own unique twists on the formula. Despite the fact that Kitamura was almost undoubtedly significantly more responsible for Rockman’s beginnings than Keiji Inafune, the artist who popularly came to be incorrectly known as the father of Rockman, his hand in the series was little known for many years due to the fact that early games in the Rockman series’ credits used nicknames rather than actual names. This led many to wonder exactly who “A K,” the man credited as planner in Rockman’s credits roll, actually was.

Leaving Capcom during the development of Rockman 3 due to creative differences (and leaving that game in turmoil – despite some common love for it, it feels unfinished, poorly thought out, and rushed in many aspects), he went on to form Takeru with a few other veterans, including the director of Strider. This leads one to believe that Cocoron was more the game that he wanted to make after Rockman 2, given that it happens to contain many similar mechanics and the basic jump-and-shoot type of play, but a vastly different setting.

In Cocoron, you take the role of an unseen child who has been visited in their sleep while dreaming by a mysterious tapir with a parosol and polka-dot pajamas. This tapir, fittingly calling himself Tapir, asks you to help him find a missing princess in the dream world. To do so, you must first create an ally to act as your avatar in the world, and this quickly puts you into a surprisingly robust character creation menu.

You’re able to choose your character’s head, body, and weapon from a wide array of choices with no restriction on what combinations you can come up with. These pieces consist of many fantasy and sci-fi bits evocative of popular entertainment for boys at the time, such as dragons, robots (one resembles a Gundam), cyborgs (including ones resembling both Astro Boy and Cyborg 009 – popular inspirations for Rockman), and silly things like jack-o-lanterns or smiley faces. Put a skull on a dune buggy, make a bird-headed submarine, criss-cross a tough looking fighter with a cloud – there’s a lot of fun to be had, here.

Unfortunately, one of Cocoron’s immediate failings is in tying stats to these pieces. Each piece has a certain weight and amount of hit points to it. The hitpoints unsurprisingly act as your in-game health bar, but weight is a little weird – higher weight means slower movement and shorter jumps. However, the stages in the game have their platforming balanced around the idea that you should be able to complete them with minimum jump height and slow movement. In addition to that, many enemies and bosses deal a ridiculous amount of damage, and both of these elements work together in skewing the usefulness heavily in favor of pieces with higher HP. Sure, there are a couple of points where if you could jump higher, you might get a recovery item or 1up, but this does almost nothing to mitigate the game’s extreme jump in difficulty for a character with minimum weight versus its opposite. You’d think a character with high weight would be irritatingly slow, but they’re instead roughly as mobile as Rockman.

Some body types also have unique behaviors, such as being unaffected by inertia on slopes, floating atop water, or short bouts of flight. This game is still a platformer like Rockman, however, and flight becomes far and away the most useful ability when considering it allows you to ignore many of the game’s challenging elements by simply hovering right over them. There are two tiers of body types that allow for flight, and the obvious choice is the heavier tier that has greater HP, unless you’re for some reason playing for fast completion time.

Shoehorning your freedom even further, the selection of weapons also has different weight and damage values in addition to different behaviors. Would it surprise you to learn that one option far and away outclasses the others? How about that it’s the heaviest option, again? The shuriken not only deals 50% more damage than the next most powerful weapons (and double most other weapons), but also travels quickly and in a straight arc, making it ideal for rapid-fire and quick kills on enemies and bosses.

Upon creating your character, you’re released into a stage select screen with a small house in the center. This screen allows you – much like Rockman – to select where you’d like to start your adventure. Although this might seem completely similar, at first, one of the ways in which Cocoron comes alive is in having a unique stage for every conceivable combination of points to travel between. For example, traveling from the woods to the castle will be a different stage than traveling from the woods to the pirate ship (though traveling back from the pirate ship to the woods would simply be the same level played in reverse). Although some say that levels simply have “entrance” and “exit” portions that remain the same, but combine in ways to create the illusion of additional stages, this is actually false – try the specific two combinations I just mentioned to observe the woods having two different “exit” portions for both combinations.

Many of these stages do recycle copious visual elements, but some may feature unique portions and will always have different enemy placement. While you might see repeat enemies, like the skunks or armadillos that litter the game, they may now have unique behaviors. Like with the character creation, however, the game tends to once again overextend its boundaries. The stages are relatively short, and the enemy placement and level geography is largely uninteresting. If you’re familiar with Rockman’s incredibly tight design, this slips up almost tremendously in comparison and will not provide you with a similar quality experience in its mechanical design. Enemy health and damage values are often nonsense, and every enemy drops an egg with a random item in it upon death – usually small amounts of health – as if to act as some sort of very poor substitute for actual balancing.

Beating a level rewards you with a bit of story advancement and prompts you to create another character. While this seems like it would possibly become a way to tie the game together and have a cast with various useful abilities, you can only play as the one you choose from the beginning of a stage all throughout it. In addition to that, enemies drop weapon upgrades that require a total of 25 of to fully level your weapon, which heavily encourages you to stick with your first character and never change, as those upgrades only apply to the character who picks them up. Balance even further untethers itself by weapon damage values never changing, just the size or number of projectiles on-screen. Most weapons fire in multiple arcs as they level up, which hilariously reduces their effectiveness, as this makes it harder to rapid-fire them due to a limit on the number of projectiles that can be on screen at once.

Once you’ve cleared all available stages, every single character you’ve created but your first is then abruptly stolen from you as you’re forced to go on a multi-tier stage to the final boss. Characters are returned to you one by one as you advance, but die just once on this stage and you start it from the first tier with all the characters stolen again. Although the stage is relatively low difficulty with a flying character, it can be immensely frustrating without. You’d expect design to tighten up near the end of the game, but it stays roughly as bland as it did all throughout the rest of it.

What Cocoron cannot save in its mechanics, it tries desperately to make up for with brightly vivid, colorful visual work and a mesmerizingly delightful soundtrack (which you may have heard before if you’ve ever played the flash game Eversion, which steals much of Cocoron’s music). The visual work in the game is great and the music is genuinely superb, both featuring highly distinctive flavors that both help to set this game apart as a real stand-out in the library and give incredible life to the dream world the game takes place in.

Beyond the quality of worksmanship put into the visuals, the subject matter helps to make the game feel more appropriately part of a dreamscape. Seas made of milk and cheese, skunks on UFO’s, little homes for penguins built into icy terrain, math equations floating in empty space – all appropriately silly or bizarre enough to feel as if they would pleasantly work into a dream. The levels changing based on your paths and character creation options also help to further make this game feel as though it’s but a dream, itself. Despite the game’s poor balancing not always accentuating it particularly well, the changing heroes and landscapes make the entire experience surprisingly fluid and fun to come back to.

While many famous directors often find themselves unable to escape the sheer weight of their most popular work – and Cocoron’s relatively minimal success did little to escape Kitamura from this in the public’s eye – the effort put on here to make this not just another Mega Man game is both endearing and admirable. He does not simply take his masterwork and play it out again with slightly different trappings, as Inafune found himself helplessly doing into infinity, he dares to do something new and exciting with his work, even if it didn’t turn out quite as hotly as you might have wanted it to.

I do ultimately find Cocoron a bit hard to recommend to the action game enthusiast turning over stones and hoping to find another Rockman 2 somehow lying under one, but it’s an easy recommendation to those with an enthusiasm for the Famicom who don’t mind trying something that’s a bit offbeat and are willing to suffer a potential disappointment in favor of the excitement of its unique flavor. The bittersweetness is undeniable, but there’s something that has brought me back to completing it over a dozen times, the game repeatedly finding itself lovingly nestled in my Famicom for another go, time and again.