You can all stop looking–the most 90’s game has been found: Choujin for the X68000

Choujin came into the world in a relatively unusual way – rather than a normal box-on-shelf release like most other X68000 games it was instead vending machine software! From what I can gather you’d go into a store, pop some yen into a machine and it’d spit out a few discs with your chosen game on it. Whether it wrote the data onto some blank floppies on demand or if the discs were shipped to stores pre-recorded I can’t confirm, but seeing as those Famicom Disc System store machines were around at the same sort of time and they wrote discs to order it is probably safe to assume these did too. Whatever the specifics were, the important thing to remember is that Choujin was released via what was considered the ultimate budget software method, not even worthy of a box and manual. In terms of anticipated quality we’re broadly in the same sort of territory as PD Amiga software, the sort where you’d mail away a blank disc and a bit of change to a random address you found in the back of a magazine and hope you’d get more than one level of a bad R-Type clone made in Shoot Em Up Construction Kit.

Thankfully Fix’s Choujin is a much better tribute to both nineties gaming and even then Amiga itself than those wastes of floppy discs, with this bright and brash one-off playing rather like Smash TV, only without the ability to strafe.

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Each of Choujin’s fifty levels all take place within a large rectangular arena, with the only layout changes coming from the initial enemy placement and the occasional object (they look like - but don’t act like - pinball bumpers to me) arranged to grant a bit of cover or form a short wall. Luckily the eponymous Choujin, AKA Most Nineties Action Man Ever, has a regenerating shield that will protect him from all enemy shots – although as it’s activated manually by the player and any enemy shot kills instantly it’s an essential tool to master rather than the beginner’s crutch it could have easily become. As you may expect from an older arcade-style game the Choujin’s only other defensive option is to kill enemies before they kill him, using his trusty infinite-fuel flamethrower. At first I thought they picked that weapon just because it looked cool (and it does), but the lack of range compared to just about any other weapon type they could have used means you have to keep getting in close and taking things on pretty much face-to face instead of hiding behind cover and taking a few shots from the other side of the arena. The good news here is that contact with any enemy body - including bosses - doesn’t hurt at all so as long as you’re either dodging bullets or using your shield at the right moment you can wade right in there and stay on the offensive. You’ll  need to in any case – each stage has a unique bonus points value that’s constantly counting down, and once it hits zero you have just thirty seconds left to finish the stage or die and start over.

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With the arena differences throughout the game being entirely cosmetic (and often bizarre) it would be easy for the game to start feeling repetitive very quickly – a trap it avoids thanks to a combination of unique enemy behaviour coupled with almost puzzle-like stage design.

Every enemy type has its own AI pattern and shot type, and learning exactly how they all behave and then correctly prioritising targets is an essential part of the Choujin experience. There are tough-but-slow grunts, turrets that fire homing rockets, spiders that dart across the floor before firing a spread of bullets and many more. New enemies are added to the mix throughout the entire game, keeping things fresh and adding another layer of strategy to what could have been a very simplistic game. New enemies don’t replace older ones either, instead they add another option to the developer’s fiendish toolbox and are used together to create memorable levels with their own individual challenges – it’s not just a case of “like last time, but harder and with more of them” – kill off the abundant faster enemies first and you might be leaving a dangerous cell-type to happily divide away in a corner, leaving you with an army of blobs to fight through when you finally get around to tackling it. Remember, you’re on a timer! You have to think and act fast!

Every tenth stage brings a one-on-one battle against a unique oversized boss as well as a change of arena scenery. Bosses range from vibrantly coloured cartoon snails and caterpillars to more sensible sci-fi ships, with not one of them matching the arena designs or each other. On a more professional game this might matter, but Choujin’s happy to revel in the freedom being an almost-doujin-arcade-like game provides, and you soon become accustomed to its enthusiastic charms.

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As with the standard enemies bosses aren’t mindless bullet sponges, and they often have multiple points that can be taken out or some unique quirk that needs to be considered. For example “mutant-stone-dog” boss has two “arms” that can be destroyed – however this will cause it to start firing randomly in all directions, meaning that more carefully placed shots are the better option here. The “caterpillar” boss will split into smaller bosses if you attack anywhere other than its head is another one. As with the rest of the game a good strategy is just as important as Ikari Warriors style offense, especially after a bit of practise when scoring starts to become more important than survival.

Surviving will definitely be first and foremost on your mind for a good while though so it’s nice to see that while Choujin’s a tough game it’s also a fair one, with a level select showing up when you continue that allows you to start from any stage or boss you’ve already reached, including the very last one. High score and 1CC fans will be pleased to learn that doing so completely resets your score, meaning it’s an excellent way of leaving it up to the player to decide if they want to start from the very beginning, practise a stage they just scraped through, or simply want to get through the game as fast as their skills will allow.

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I felt right at home here from the very first level – probably because the credits reveal the developer was a huge Amiga 500 fan. But unlike my beloved Amiga’s wonkily endearing games Choujin is a tightly designed affair that knows exactly what it wants to be and is only concerned with doing it well. It’s a pity this was Fix’s only game but that’s probably because Choujin’s a damned hard act to follow, and the X68000 should feel honoured to be graced by its presence.

If you’d like to try this game out for yourself it’s available to buy on Project EGG - link

Diggin’ through the bookcase: Xanadu Dragon Slayer Densetsu

You really can’t beat a bit of 80’s manga, and this… “imaginative” interpretation of Falcom’s record-breaking, genre-pushing, RPG is probably the most 80’s thing I’ll ever come across and is all the better for it.

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You might recognise the cover of this 1987 manga from the MSX version of the game, released in the same year. Kazuhiko Tsuzuki’s art promises some proper fantasy action with spikey-haired heroes and a lady with her buttocks almost on display, and you may or may not be pleased to hear that the story within delivers on both counts.

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Like 1988’s Romancia manga, also published by Dragon Comics, this interpretation plays fast and loose with the source material – which is a damned good thing because when you really look at Xanadu’s plot… well, it’s just not there is it? Still, the author’s managed to get in all the really relevant stuff which in Xanadu’s case is a fantasy setting, Falcom’s multipurpose Dragon Slayer sword, and, uh, the game’s logo. After that we’re firmly into 80’s manga territory, which includes lots of pretty gorey fighting, the odd boob shot, more fighting (this time on motorbikes), cool lo-fi mechs, and tentacle monsters. In the hands of a lesser author this checklist could have turned out to be a real mess of disconnected ideas, but Xanadu is such an energetic tale that you find yourself happily whisked along for a simplistic but spectacular ride that starts with NATO soldier Fieg on earth in the year 2035 and ends with Dragon Slayer-weilding Fieg bashing an evil man with a spider-crab-beard on his face. The story is quite happy to mix up the ultraviolence with a bit of comedy, the relentless pace of the story stopping you from thinking too hard about what would otherwise be a jarring shift in tone.

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This lack of thought applies equally to the characters too, with the entire plot hinging on what amounts to “Ooh cool vision! Fancy an adventure?” and then before you know it there’s airships and squirrelbirds and people getting shot/kidnapped/rescued and a million other things in this breakneck 250-ish page story. This style of storytelling is absolutely fine, and a lot of fun. Xanadu Dragon Slayer Densetsu is a triumph of style with just enough of substance to keep you hooked from beginning to end, with every last panel showing you something that is directly relevant to current events. There’s no real depth to the characters or the world they inhabit, but at the same time there’s no filler either.

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The giant “1” on the cover and the two page MAYBE A NEW PERSON WILL BE EVIL NOW loose thread at the end of the tale would imply that Dragon Comics intended for this to be the start of an ongoing series, but sadly no further issues were ever produced. Don’t let that put you off though (as it did me), as the story here is entirely self-contained and has a definite beginning, middle, and a satisfying end.

If all this reading malarkey seems like too much hassle you might want to check out the 1988 OVA adaptation which follows the manga very closely but isn’t half as pretty (not that it ever could be, considering the detail on display here). It was released officially on VHS and apparently VCD in Japan, which means that a quick trip to YouTube is probably best for pretty much everyone that’s not a hyper-nerd with a direct neural link to Yahoo! Japan’s auction site.

I’d highly recommend this Xanadu manga to anyone who can get their grubby mitts on it – it’s a gorgeous book and a lightweight but enthralling read that makes for a fantastic hour or so’s entertainment. It’s the sort of story you can read again on a whim just for the fun of it, which is something I’m looking forward to doing again soon!

Takara’s Dead Heat Fighters series: Real Bout Garou Densetsu Special

So we’ve looked at the first game in Takara’s Nettou series, and the first Garou Densetsu Game Boy port, now it’s time to fast forward to 1998 and Nettou Real Bout Special – the last of their mini brawlers!

The first thing you’ll probably notice is that this final Nettou title is definitely less cute than previous works, but not in a bad way - it thankfully doesn’t feel like they’re trying to mindlessly squish the beautiful arcade version down to Game Boy size, just that they’ve gone for a different look. As we’ve come to expect as standard from the Nettou series the sprites are well animated, clear, and expressive with lots of frivolous animations and even possess unique poses for facing each other when they’re on opposite plains – yep, they managed to keep the line system in there too! These remarkable battles all play out on animated backgrounds with some basic parallax scrolling, making for what has to be one of the most spectacular fighters on the system.

The one downside to all this visual extravagance is that they’ve had to cut out an awful lot of characters to keep the cart size down with the arcade’s basic playable cast of nineteen reduced to just twelve of the most popular pugilists and Geese and permanently knee-belted King of Fighters character Iori showing up as both as secret bosses and unlockable playable characters. You could argue that perhaps these last two slots would have been more sensibly filled by some of the missing Real Bout characters, but it’s hard to grumble too much – when are Geese and Iori ever not welcome in an SNK game? Not to mention that if they had been swapped out the roster still wouldn’t be close to complete and there’d be no reward for beating the game without continuing or any extras to look forward to either.

These guest characters become especially important when you consider that the game is so cut down that there’s no intro, no endings bar a generic CONGRATULATION screen, and post-battle screens are nothing more than a reused character portrait accompanied by a single win quote. Takara simply had to make best use of the space available to them, and they sensibly went with the option that gave players a bit of unexpected drama and some extra characters to make use of.

But why even try porting Real Bout Special to the Game Boy at all when even the mighty Saturn needed a 1MB leg-up to play the game? It all becomes clear when you look at the release date – March 1998. At this point the Game Boy Color, Neo Geo Pocket, and Wonderswan were all at best months away from launching, and the Game Gear wasn’t exactly the go-to format if you wanted to make a game that’d sell more than a handful of copies. So the options open to Takara were Game Boy or Game Boy, and I think they did a fantastic job with the hardware available to them.

If you’re looking at this as a portable Real Bout then you can only come away disappointed, as there’s too much missing. However when judged on its own merits an original Game Boy game that looks and plays as well as this does - with a whopping fourteen characters to choose from, two player support, and some impressive Super Game Boy enhancements too – Nettou Real Bout deserves to be praised for being one of the most technical and rewarding fighting games on the system, one that can even hold its own against SNK’s Neo Geo Pocket efforts and a fighter that rises above just about any other port you’d care to mention.

SHINJU FOREST BONUS ROUND: Want to access Geese/Iori without beating the game first? Highlight the soundtest on the options screen then press left+A – success! A wild soft dip setting appears! The first one toggles the bonus characters (press start over Billy or Krauser’s portraits on the character select screen), and the others do other nifty things best explained by TCRF.