Well, now that the (unusually hectic) festive period is done with and 2010 is over, it's time to get back to writing nonsense about videogames. I thought I'd ease myself into the New Year gently, so I've chosen a nice, jolly game to start 2011: Taito's 1991 PC Engine-based tactical cuteness strike Hana Taaka Daka!?
Yep, like Cotton 100%, Hana Taaka Daka!? takes us deep into the dark heart of Kawaiivania, featuring more fuzzy animals than a pet shop inside a Hello Kitty factory. I must warn you now: Hana Taaka Daka!? (like 95% of all PC Engine games) is a horizontally-scrolling shoot-em-up, so if the idea of blowing woodland critters into a fine pink paste with thousands of megatons of high-tech weaponry doesn't appeal to you, then you are a) probably not going to enjoy this, and b) a better human being than me.
From what I can tell, the story of the game is that an adowwwable anthropomorphic fox chap has his equally adowwwable anthropomorphic fox girlfriend kidnapped by a Tanuki. If you don't know what a Tanuki is, it's a mythical (but based on a real animal) japanese creature that's sort of a raccoon-lookin' thing. They're know as mischievous, jolly little creatures who can transform themselves into any shape and enjoy playing tricks on us dunderheaded humans. Actually, that's nonsense. As anyone who has ever seen the Studio Ghibli movie Pom Poko will know, Tanuki are know for two things: testicles. Great big bollocks are what they are famous for, and Tanuki are generally depicted with a giant, swollen scrotum on proud display, which they can stretch to huge size and transform into things like mattresses, hang-gliders and full-scale water desalination plants. Super Mario, you may remember, can wear a Tanuki suit in Super Mario Bros. 3, which makes me wonder things that I had hoped I would never wonder.
The fox, realising he's not tough enough to rescue his missus, prays at a little shrine and his prayers are answer by (dun dun duuun) a Long-Nosed Goblin, or tengu. Said tengu flies off to kick ass, take names and rescue the (literally) foxy girlfriend with no hesitiation or thoughts of reward. So HTD is based fairly heavily on Japanese folklore, but it doesn't matter if you don't know anything about that kind of thing. It's not like it's important to the gameplay, is it?
And what of the gameplay? As mentioned HTD is a side-scrolling shooter, so you've probably got a fair idea of what the gameplay entails already. The weapon system isn't quite the standard Gradius-style system: if fact, it has an almost Super Mario approach. There are certain power-ups that, when collected, make you grow bigger like a super mushroom: when you get hit, you shrink back down, thus giving you some protection against the single-hit death bullshit of most shooters of the era. Also, I may have exaggerated a little earlier, as our flying goblin friend doesn't really have high-tech weaponry. He has a pink magic shot than can be charged up, and you can also collect two other weapons to go with it. There are projectile attacks, like tiny homing goblins, electricity blasts that hug the walls and my personal favourite, giant spinning tops that mercilessly grind your foes beneath their pulversizing, dreidely points. The other type are bombs that range from smoke bombs to ninja-style caltrops, although they aren't nearly as useful as the projectile types.
Right, time to shoot some stuff, I guess! What do we have first?
OH GODDAMN IT IT'S FIRING EGGS AT ME. The last game I talked about had this, too, although this is nowhere near as distressing as Ninja Clowns' Sexy Chicken. The chicken in HTD just looks deadly serious, like she means business. Firing eggs out of her... egg-pipe to kill a flying goblin is just a job to her. Nothing more, nothing less.
As you can see, the graphics are very cartoony, and personally I think they're really nice. Big, colourful sprites that are well animated and quite charming a lot of the time. It's like playing a cartoon, which is always an effect I enjoy and is something that you don't get too much anymore.
After a while spent flying across the countryside, you head into a cave. At this point, the game offers up a few different routes that you can choose to take, a nice touch that is always welcome as a potential replayability booster.
The cave has platypuses! Vicious one that throw hammers at you, the little pricks. A quick blast of magic pink plasma settles their hash. When you kill an enemy, they generally turn into a Tanuki and fly off screen, which I imagine is supposed to show that they were Tanuki shapeshifting into the shape of whatever you killed. Why they would try and defeat a tengu by turning into a platypus with a hammer I'm not sure. Maybe the Japanese have a whole legend cycle about the Tengu-Platypus war. As Platypuses are still around and tengu aren't, I'm going to assume that the platypuses are responsible for the genocide of the tengu race. The platypuses are Nazis! It all makes sense, and now you're justified in killing them. Perfect!
No sooner have you killed the platypuses and other assorted enemies, the boss turns up, and he's an odd one:
A potato made of flesh? A huge thumb with a face drawn on? A failed attempt to clone Nick Griffin? I'm not certain, but it's probably that last one. (Update: kind reader Emerson pointed out that this freakish fleshlump appears to be based on former wrestler Abdullah the Butcher, right down to the scarred forehead.) Deform-o-Griffin here waddles back and forth, shooting what is either spit or sweat at you in a spread pattern, and it's here that a small but important nuance of the game crops up for the first time. The more powerful you are, the bigger you are and therefore the harder it is to avoid attacks, so you get hit and shrink, making it easier to dodge but making your attacks weaker and taking you one step closer to death. It almost (but not quite) makes the game a risk-and-reward balancing act, which I thought was rather interesting. Then again, I'm quite sad.
Anyway, the racist flesh-potato isn't very tough, and soon the first stage is complete. You get a little cutscene where the goblin meets the fox.
You get a little scrap of paper for completing the level, which will eventually make a picture of... something? I dunno, I missed a bunch of them, as I will explain later. Now it's time for stage two, which takes place at some kind of Japanese festival.
The first thing to notice is the schoolgirls. Their method of attack? Throwing buildings at you. They're pretty hard to avoid too, so you'll be wanting to kill those schoolgirls as fast as you can. Wow, that sentence could look bad out of context, huh? It's not all young girls here though, there's also an appearance by someone who is friendly and lives in your neighbourhood:
Spider-Man! Spidey has fallen victim of the Health and Safety police, who have forced him to wear a hard-hat if he insists on swinging from a thread and running off to wherever there's a "bang-up", whatever that means. He's so angry about the whole thing he's taken to throwing webs at anyone that wanders past. Maybe he's mistaken our hero for The Vulture.
The boss is testicles. No, wait, I mean a Tanuki.
No, I meant testicles. Look at his expression. He is not the kind of mythological shapeshifting racoon-dog to be fuckin' with. He's a stone-cold killer, he's an executioner, he's a pair of testicles that could double as a stylish beanbag large enough to seat a family of five. He's got a magic hat that flies around trying to kill you, but all you really have to do is concentrate on not getting sucked in by the gravitational field of his gonads.
Stage three is set amongst the clouds, and features further proof that the Platypuses are Nazis:
Only evil people fly zeppelins, just like only men with tiny penises drive humvees. The music here is very nice, sounding (perhaps unsuprisingly) like it has been taken straight from some long-forgotten anime series. Soon you come to a floating castle, bedecked with standard-issue gun turrets and not-so-standard witches riding vacuum cleaners.
Unlike the Taunki's testicles, the Hoover-witches really can suck you toward them. The witches look like they're based on a witch from another anime or something: if you think you know what they might be based on, let me know in the comments.
Something strange happened a little further into the level. I shot a random enemy, and rather than dying, he teleported me to a different level full of numbers, clocks and Alice in Wonderland-style white rabbits.
Each stage seems to have one of these smaller stages hidden within, and to get out again you have to find the hidden Tanuki and shoot him. For doing so, you get an extra piece to add to the picture between levels, and because I didn't find all the sub-levels, I didn't complete the picture. Still, it's another reason to replay the game, and that should always be welcome.
Once you've found the Tanuki and escaped the nightmarish number vortex, you're pretty much at the boss.
The platypuses have given up their doctrines of racial purity and the right to lebensraum, and have embraced Buddhism. Sadly, they cannot control their warlike tendencies and soon they are attacking you withe a giant statue of the Buddha, thus missing the point entirely. Also, I don't think the Buddha had an infinite supply of hammers to throw at goblins.
Once he's defeated, the lady fox is rescued and reuinted with her... boyfriend? Mate?
Whatever, they're back together. As you can see in the picture, he greets his lost love by giving her a big lick on the face. Goddamn furries. No rest for the tengu, though, and he's straight back out there to find the kidnappers.
This stage pulls out all the stops for maximum Japaneseness: Mount Fuji, cherry blossoms, the works. There's a little locomotive to fight, and more caves to navigate. There's also another secret stage I found, this time based around sugar.
Ants with explosive strawberries patrol a landscape made of pink wafer biscuits, something that I didn't think existed outside Britain. Pink wafer biscuits I mean, not ants. Finding the exit Tanuki on this stage is, frankly, a pain in the arse. He's hidden inside a breakable piece of floor, which is in no way marked as being out of the ordinary, so you have to shoot every single bit of scenery until you find it. It wouldn't be fun in a free-roaming game, but in a scrolling shooter it's particularly irritating, especially when you miss it and have to wait for the stage to loop around again.
Once you've escaped, it's time for a truly terrifying boss battle amongst the falling cherry blossoms. It's time to fight... This Guy!
He's an ancient Japanese fella with big baggy sleeves. I CAN HEAR YOU YAWNING, YOU KNOW. And well you might, because he's not that interesting. Shoot him a few times, though, and his mask comes off to reveal...
Another mask! Jason Voorhee's mask, to be precise. 80's horror icon in Japanese likeness-theft shocker! Okay, maybe it's just a mask that looks a bit like Jason's hockey mask and it's a coincidence. Let's see what happens when we shoot him a little more...
That's no coincidence, no siree. We've got Freddy vs Jason vs Ancient Japanese Courtier going on here. He even fires the famous Kruger gloves at you. Considering this game has so far had a cuteness rating of around 3.8 giga-d'awwws, seeing Freddy and Jason is a shock, but a very welcome one. All too soon the battle is over, and it's on to the next stage.
Stage five is a watery one, with icebergs and even the chance to fight underwater. I went the undersea route, because it has the best enemies.
Strangely rotund skeletal paperboy! Inflatable octopus! World's happiest whale! I've got to say, I think the octopus is my favourite. He starts off tiny, and the more you shoot him, the more he expands. Eventually he bursts, no doubt showering the surrounding area with delicious fried octopus.
The stage's boss is also an octopus. He's supposed to be blowing a whistle in that picture, but it looks much more like he's vomiting out a fried egg. It might not seem it in the picture, but this fight is actually pretty good fun, with you having to dodge underneath the waves he fires as you chase him along. Once he's dead, it's on to the final stage.
The last level is set in a very nicely-drawn Japanese castle, complete with the best kind of guards:
Kimono-wearing wind-up Godzillas with authentic Atomic Breath action! I bet that was an easy sell when the King Tanuki was looking for a home security system.
The rest of the level is filled with many of the enemies from earlier in the game, plus some ninjas and riflemen with very nice (and adorable) sprites. For a final stage, it's not all that tough, and you can reach the final boss with not too much difficulty.
TESTICLES. I may have mentioned this before. Being as small as possible is an advantage here, as Tanuki-Suit Man causes a rain of junk to fall down when is impossible to dodge if you're at full size. I can't really think of anything else to say about this boss, because his sheer bizarreness has overwhelmed me. It is quite a nice reminder that off all the forms of entertainment out there, videogames are probably the most bizarre of all. I don't think even David Lynch would make a film about a man dressed as a woodland creature with grossly swollen genitals dancing under a disco ball whilst being shot at by a long-nosed demon.
Once he's dead, the leader of the Tanukis runs out to berate him and is crushed beneath a falling ceiling. And that's Hana Taaka Daka!? finished. Hooray! The ending consists of a series of pictures, with sections covered up by any scraps of the picture you failed to find in the various sub-stages. I don't really feel like I was missing out on enough to make me play through it again, though.
I like HTD. The graphics are lovely, very well-animated and drawn and, despite the avalanche of cuteness, it never gets overwhelming. The music is good, the gameplay is fun and smooth, and it isn't claw-your-eyeballs-out hard, which is great for me because I'm rubbish at shooters. It gets big bonus points for the enemies, almost all of which are fun and interesting, with an especially big tick going into the box marked "Can your fight a giant Freddy Kruger wearing the costume of an ancient Japanese courtier?", which is always a bonus. So, overall, Hana Taaka Daka!? is definitely recommended if you want to play a shooter that isn't set in space, as long as you have a high tolerance for seeing giant cartoon testicles.
Bonus! Here's the music.
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