14/11/2011

DROP ROCK HORA HORA / DROP OFF (PC ENGINE)

One of the great things about playing all these retro videogames is that most of the time, they don't need a story. Pac-Man never tells you what horrible tragedy befell Inky, Pinky, Blinky and Clyde, condemning them to a spectral afterlife of pellet-guarding. Space Invaders' plot is contained entirely within the title. Even as videogames matured throughout the 8-bit era they didn't need plotlines - but, and here's the part I love - they were given them anyway, often wildly nonsensical ones about boys hopping into a high-tech tank to rescue their pet frogs or disembodied samurai heads saving the USA from an alien menace. I get a lot of pleasure from these baffling, bolted-on stories, and sometimes a game comes along with a story so unusual or unrelated that I can't help but play on, just to find out if the plot eventually makes a smidgen of an iota of a microscopic grain of something even vaguely resembling sense. Today's article is about just such a game.

Drop Rock Hora Hora is the title, and it was released in 1990 for the PC Engine by Data East, purveyors of such wildly-varying games as Night Slashers (excellent) and Dark Seal (bad, but with hilarious voice acting). Pictured above is the sinister opening screen. The title is apparently so macabre that some of it had to be written in blood, although the second bit isn't quite as terrifying and gets away with a mere drizzling of the red stuff. So, a spooky opening: maybe we're in for a lost proto-survival horror gem? Something in the vein of Sweet Home, perhaps?
Well, I'm sure the introductory cutscene will give us a clue.

Yes, Izumi's relentless campaign of harassment against Gary Lineker is starting to worry us all. It started off with a request for a signed photo, but now she's mailing mutilated cats to anyone he's ever been romantically linked with and plotting a murder-suicide which culminates in their lifeless bodies floating down the Thames on a burning replica of the Match of the Day studio.

The stress of all this celebrity stalking has put poor Izumi in a coma - not the regular kind, but one that will eventually see her soul being overtaken, condemning her to an eternal sleep. How do I know all this? Because a helpful fairy lady showed up and told me so.

"Her soul world be enticed out him, she woldn't be waking up forever." says the fairy, and it's about as much sense as you're going to get out of this game. Despite her sub-par grasp of the English language, the fairy somehow convinces a young lad called Takashi that the only way to save Izumi is by entering her dreams via some magical fairy brain-portal. Thus, Takashi slips into Izumi's mind in order to save her from her obsession with Gary Lineker. Are you following all this? I think I've just about got it straight...

... Nope, I've lost it again. I feel like I'm in some Japanese version of They Live, and I've just put on my magic sunglasses to reveal that everything around me is plastered with words like GIRL and DREAM and FRUIT.
So, given the effort the Data East put into developing the plot - an evil force invades a sleeping innocent's mind, you're implanted into her dreams to save her - what kind of game do you think we're looking at here? A psycho-horror influenced graphic adventure? A disturbing action-RPG set amongst the twisted fragments of a dying girl's nightmares?

It's a Breakout clone. Yup. All that set-up for a rehash of a block-breaking game that already felt ancient in 1990 and nowadays might as well be fossilized. You know the drill: a ball bounces around the screen, destroying any blocks it hits. You control a moveable paddle, and you have to stop the ball from falling off the bottom of the screen and dear God I'm boring myself to tears just describing it.

Luckily for us, Data East realised that the standard Arkanoid gameplay wasn't going to cut it in the radical and x-treme early Nineties, so they added some new gameplay gimmicks. The easiest way to describe DRHH is "Breakout meets Puzzle Bobble", with a little Inception thrown in to flavour the story. Unlike most block-breaking games, the blocks (or apples, or whatever the hell they happen to be at the time) in DRHH gradually move down the screen. If your paddle - and by paddle, I mean that blue orb - collides with a block, it is destroyed. So, your goal is to use your bouncing ball of dream-energy to smash a path through the blocks, allowing your orb to make it through unscathed. Get past the rain of deadly apples and you'll move on to the next stage, rinse, repeat and keep going until you save the girl's brain.

Also unusual is your paddle itself: as you can see, it's an orb. A frustratingly small orb that twitches around like an electrocuted goldfish if you so much as breathe on the pad, careering right past the ball at the slightest touch, only to explode on contact with a watermelon. It also has two "modes", which can be switched between with a button-press: when the orb is "closed", the ball ricochets at a vertical angle and when it's "open" it bounces more sideways. This is presumably to make up for the fact that because your orb is so small, you can't use the standard technique of moving the paddle as the ball touches it to generate a more shallow bouncing angle.

However, the most radical departure from the standard Breakout gameplay is that you can't lose your ball off the bottom of the screen right away. The yawning pit that is your sole enemy in most Breakout clones is blocked off at the start of each stage, sometimes for the whole stage, by a bar that runs along the bottom of the screen. For some stages this bar is solid and you cannot lose your ball at all, but more often than not this bar is broken in smaller segments that change colour when they're hit. If they're hit four times, they cycle from blue to green to yellow to red before finally disappearing and creating (if you'll excuse this rather painful-sounding description) a hole you can lose your balls in. If you're lucky, a little man will drive along the bottom of the screen in a steamroller, repairing the damaged blocks and forcing me to question where he comes from. Does Izumi regularly dream about heavy road-surfacing equipment? Is summoning leprechaun-sized construction workers part of the Fairy's powers? Is he tiny, or are these watermelons of truly colossal proportions? I haven't wondered about a game this much since I spent days pondering the implications of Shark Vader from that bonkers NES Star Wars game.

And that's all there is to Drop Rock Hora Hora, really. Bounce the ball, try to stop the floor crumbling beneath you, escape to the top of the screen. There are a few power-ups to complicate matters, such as temporary invincibility and a stronger ball, but the one you'll be using most is the "rewind" power which lets you scroll the blocks backward by about half a screen to buy yourself some precious time. You can only hold three of these rewinders at once, and to replenish your stock you have to collect the arrow icons that are scattered amongst the regular blocks. However, Data East though it would be a jolly wheeze to make these power-ups destroy your orb-paddle on contact, killing you outright and teaching you a valuable lesson about greed. Oh, and they made it so they fall straight downward at high speed if your orb passes underneath them, making them a rare example of power-ups that also act as suicide bombers. You've got to hit them with the ball to collect them but honestly you should just try to stay out of their way.

Aside from reaching the end of the stage, the aim of DRHH is to score as many points as possible. In an interesting touch - interesting within the context of a dull, outdated block-breaking game, at least - if your ball hits the barrier of the bottom of the screen it turns red and scores you no points for any blocks it breaks, and it remains red until you hit it with the paddle and return it to its usual soothing blue colour.
You can also get bonus points for removing a clump of blocks at once by separating them from the main stack, much like in Puzzle Bobble. That's what's going on with the cats in the above screenshot: when you complete a chain the orbs briefly transform into something else, like the Maneki cats you see here. It's not like I was just destroying cats by crushing them with my soul-orb, you know. No, that'd be disgusting.

Eyeballs are fair game, though. Also much easier to squash than cats.
Just when I'm getting bored, a nonsensical, almost David Lynch-esque bit of text appears and suddenly I'm curious once again, my attention is grabbed, and I'm filled with a depressingly strong desire to see what happens next.

What I'm saying is, to me at least, DRHH has a much more compelling plot than GTA IV. To keep me interested, Nico should've randomly screamed a vague and badly-translated message about girl's dreams every now and then.
Now, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking "this game could sure do with an appearance from the fuzzy testicles of a semi-mythological woodland creature". Well, if you were thinking that, you're a worrying individual who should probably be monitored by the government, but you're in luck. About halfway through the game, there's a bonus round where you can break some bells open to reveal fabulous prizes like extra lives. If you're lucky, that is...

If you hit the wrong bell, you'll summon the terrifying scrotal wrath of a giant tanuki who descends from the heavens and crushes you with his massive bollocks. Between this and Hana Taaka Daka, tanuki are really starting to come across as a group of vengeful bastards.
If you can put up with the tedious gameplay for long enough, and you don't wander off to do something more entertaining like weaving a miniature noose from your own underarm hair, you'll eventually reach the final (and only) boss.

You must battle this chubby lightning-flinging devil to reclaim Izumi's brain. It is a long and tedious fight. If there's one thing a battle with the devil for a woman's soul most definitely should not be it's tedious, but Data East are wild rebels forever trying to overturn these boring, preconceived ideas. He's simple enough to destroy: hit him roughly seventy thousand times with your ball while avoiding his attacks, all the while trying to stifle your jaw-crackingly huge yawns. Kill the devil, save the girl, enjoy the ending sequence.

"Helped"? What do you mean, "helped"? I did everything!
Drop Rock Hora Hora is over, and for that I am glad. The thing is, it's not a particularly terrible game: the graphics are decent, the story is weird enough to be of some interest and the gameplay is solid enough even if your orb does seem far too small for the task at hand. I suppose Data East could even be commended for trying to add something new to the Arkanoid / Breakout format. In the end, though, DRHH's problem is that it's just so pointless. It's an instantly forgettable piece of fluff, competent enough in its own unambitious way but utterly lacking in anything that would make you want to play it over almost any other game unless you have a fetish for being smothered to death by a tanuki's vast gonads. Again, government watchlists required there.

If you still want to try DRHH out, it was actually made available on the Wii's Virtual Console. Yes, DRHH actually received a western release for the TurboGrafx under the title Drop Off, and in a tragic miscalculation they fixed the translation so the story makes (a little) more sense, thus removing the only thing that was even vaguely interesting about Drop Rock Hora Hora. What I'm saying is don’t buy it - just go to the local greengrocers and throw a tennis ball at some fruit. At least you'll be getting some exercise.

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