I seem to have become a little obsessed with the games of Japanese developer Jaleco in recent weeks, probably because all their games seem to fall into that "interesting but flawed" bracket that fascinates me so. The Astyanax was bland to play but lovely to look at, 64th Street was a solid if unimaginative brawler enlivened by a bizarre in-game universe, Best Bout Boxing was a pretty good boxing game that never reached the heights of the Punch-Out series... and then there's today's game: Jaleco's 1987 arcade title Ginga Ninkyouden.
I'm sure many VGJunk readers will be familiar with kusoge, but if you aren't then kusoge is a Japanese term that means "shit game". It's also a phrase that means different things to different people, but it doesn't necessarily mean that any really bad game is kusoge. While some kusoge are completely irredeemable slabs of digital garbage, like the baffling Famicom RPG Super Monkey Daibouken, games can also fall into this mysterious category for other reasons. They might have neat ideas that are woefully implemented. They might have appalling graphics and sound. Some games are considered kusoge due to their sadistic difficulty level, a trait seen at near-legendary levels in Spelunker. Then there are games that actively set out to claim a place in the kusoge vaults, like the infamous Takeshi no Chousenjou, by being as willfully unfair, obtuse and downright stupid as possible - for example, in that game you can only progress by singing karaoke into the Famicom controller's built-in microphone for a full hour.
Hopefully that'll give you some idea of what constitutes kusoge, and you can (and should) check out Hardcore Gaming 101's weekly kusoge feature for more.
I'm telling you all this because I'm going to forego my usual "play through the game and discuss the results at the end" approach and tell you now that Ginga Ninkyouden is kusoge. You'll see why as I play through it, but this is a title that definitely fits the bill of a "shitty game". And yet, it just about held my interest until the end, despite the painful gameplay and general lack of redeeming qualities.
The plot is straightforward, at least - your girlfriend is kidnapped by an alien overlord wearing a Hallowe'en vampire costume and a robot tiger mask. Pretty fearsome, especially when you add in the floating tea-tray that carries him about. Our hero doesn't see any of this but still knows who's responsible, so I'm presuming that these two either have history a la Mario and Bowser, or the villain left him a note like when you have a parcel delivered but you're not in to sign for it.
Time to rescue your lost love in the only way our hero (or any arcade hero, really) knows how: by travelling through a series out side-scrolling, platform-filled environments, punching anything and everything that he happens across.
I was a little worried that the first enemy I fought was Godzilla, but our hero must have something about him because he can defeat the King of the Monsters with a single punch. I think 'Zilla's holding back, though, there's no atomic breath or anything, plus he's tiny. Maybe it's actually a horde of Godzukis that I'm sending to whatever the kaiju equivalent of the afterlife is, and that's such a nice thought that I think I'll hold on to it.
A little further on, and hey that guy with the machine gun sure does look like Rambo. Huh, two characters I recognise already and I'm only a few screens in. Well, I'm sure it's just a coincidence.
Oh yeah, the gameplay. Well, somehow Jaleco managed to take an incredibly simple gameplay style and fuck it up royally. Ginga Ninkyouden is your standard arcade action-adventure, like Adventure Island but minus most of the fun. Your only moves are jumping and attacking or a combination of the two, but the main character goes about these actions with a kind of stiff-legged clumsiness that reminds me of myself after about eight pints. Our hero is lumbered with Castlevania-style jumping with no mid-air control but yet none of the precision of Konami's classic, and if you touch a ceiling while jumping you bang your head and fall straight downwards.
You're also screwed over by the art direction, because Ginga Ninkyouden's characters are in that super-deformed style that means big heads, hubcap-sized eyes and stubby little limbs. As your primary attack is a punch and your arms have a range that can only be measured by high-power electron microscopes, to hit the enemies you have to get so intimate with them that I'm surprised a porn company hasn't shown up to film your battles, and it's nigh-impossible to defeat more than one bad guy with them running into you and doing you some damage.
Just time for a quick break to leer at a young woman taking a bath. It even plays a speech sample of his perverted laugh. Our hero, ladies and gentlemen.
Here's the first boss. It's an old man who obviously went to the same costume shop as the main villain, which is going to cause some embarrassment at the EvilCo. company Hallowe'en party. He attacks by... well, I'm not sure, actually. Some white strip flies out and hits you, you get hurt, he laughs. I think he's whipping me with a towel. Once you've beaten him - and that's no easy task, given the pathetic range of your attacks - you're free to jump on your turtle and fly into space.
What's that? Everyone knows turtles can't fly and certainly can't survive in the harsh vacuum of space? Well shit, you're right. Better transform him into a robot, then.
The turtle becomes a robot and Ginga Ninkyouden becomes a (really bad) side-scrolling shooter. As far as I can tell Ginga Ninkyouden translates to something like "Legend of Galactic Heroism", so I guess this is where that comes from. It's a short stage and I'm sure you can see how it works - like Gradius, if Gradius was designed by someone whose only prior experience with computers was operating a pocket calculator. Everything's too big and too fast so you're constantly taking damage, and the stage it just one barren starfield filled with UFOs. I'm fed up with it already, but at least it's very short.
Your arms look plenty long enough there, champ.
Back on solid ground for the next stage, where you are instantly beset by an army of jiang shi. If Godzilla and Rambo aren't cutting it for you, you might as well try Chinese zombies, I guess. The theme of this stage appears to be a festival, complete with lots of food stalls.
Footstalls manned by Kamen Rider and Captain Okita from Space Battleship Yamato. Poor Rider, fighting evil pays so badly that he's had to branch out into the yakisoba business. If they don't tickle your tastebuds, maybe you'd prefer something prepared by Gamera or one of H. R. Giger's Aliens?
I think I'll pass on the xenomorph chow, cheers. I've eaten enough food from enough funfairs to know that it'll make your chest feel like it's about to explode without any additional space-monster fetuses.
You've probably figured out the reason that Ginga Ninkyouden fascinates me by now, and that's because it's got more cameos than a Victorian jewellers that specialises in the mass production of brooches. Pretty much every major anime franchise from the 70s/80s puts in an appearance, sometimes slightly disguised but usually not, like when Joe Yabuki from the boxing manga Ashita no Joe turns up and hits you with his famous cross-counter.
This is Ginga Ninkyouden's only real value - as a sort of I-Spy book for people like me who spent too much time watching this stuff.
Oh hey, another boss. This time it's a girl in a pink leopard-print dress who appears to be beating me up with a hammer. I'm sure she's from something else, although I don't recognise her. Notice that the villain is hovering nearby - he's gotten cocky, and after seeing how bad I am at this game it's hardly surprising. Time to defeat this poor, vulnerable, extremely powerful young girl and head to the next stage.
This time it's a building site, and right off the bat I'm confronted with probably my favourite enemy in the game. If you're like me and you used to be (or still are) obsessed with aliens, UFOs, The X Files and all things otherworldly then you might recognise these guys as the Flatwoods Monster. The Flatwoods Monster was a "real" extraterrestrial that was witnessed by several people in West Virginia in 1952, although it seems highly likely that what actually happened was an owl scared the crap out of them and they ran away. No judgement from me, owls can be pretty creepy. Anyway, Flatty here became one of the more famous alien sightings and he seems to be particularly popular in Japan, where he pops up in quite a few videogames.
Also found in space but definitely not real (yet...) are these Zakus, the cannon-fodder mechs from the Gundam universe. The one at the bottom is hitting me in the face with an axe. How rude.
Continuing the giant robot theme, the boss of this stage is, erm, Giant Robo. Giant Robo is a franchise created in the Sixties, and I'm sure you can figure out what it's about even if you're not sure why said robot is wearing a Pharaoh's headdress. I'm sure there's an explanation given in the manga that makes perfect sense and isn't daft at all. Speaking of daft, the live-action Giant Robo series was broadcast in the US under the wonderfully stupid title of Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot. Whoever came up with that title deserves a medal.
Another shooter stage follows. Correction, another really dull shooter stage, with the only difference from the last one being that the UFOs are replaced by flying hands. The boss is a Dr. Wily type riding the ubiquitous hover-disc, and in a game rammed full of appearance by characters from other franchises this guy stands out because his weapon literally fires cameo appearances at you. Instead of bullets, it launches tiny versions of famous Japanese robots. Here, take a look.
On the left we've got Mazinger, Astroboy and Getter Robo, and the ones on the right I don't recognise. Actually, the second one down on the right might be the Guncannon from Gundam. If you know what they are, let me know in the comments so that I don’t end up spending hours going though every super robot show I can think of in order to satisfy my pointless curiosity. (EDIT: mystery solved in the comments, thanks Reynaldo!)
Unfortunately for the boss, tiny robots aren't as good ammunition as, say, rockets, and soon you'll have either beaten him or become bored of this game and turned it off already.
Some kind of moon base is the setting for this stage, and there's really nothing much to report other than to mention that the enemy pictured above is a robot high school delinquent with a pompadour and a cyber-visor. It breaks my cold, black heart that I'm stuck playing as Mr. Flipper-Arms. I want to be a robo-punk. Is that so much to ask? Just one videogame where I can live out my dreams of squatting outside convenience stores, fighting the bosses of rival high school gangs and planning the destruction of the inferior flesh-beings who have enslaved my mechanical brethren, that's all I'm asking. I should probably email that description to Suda 51.
The boss is inspired by Sukeban Deka, a series about a delinquent schoolgirl who fights crime using a yo-yo. That is, she uses a yo-yo to fight crime. There's no criminal gang whose M.O. is to only perpetrate yo-yo related heists, like some Batman villain who was horribly scarred by an Around-The-World trick gone terribly wrong. Her yo-yo attacks are extremely effective - I can attest to the fact that getting clonked by a yo-yo really hurts, and she also has a huge range with that thing. Our hero can actually increase his attack power: killing a few enemies gives him a tiny knife, and after a few more kills it becomes a sword. This is great and all, but the moment an enemy touches you you lose your power-up and there are so many enemies swarming the screen that I don't think I ever had the sword for more than five or six seconds. I wish I had a yo-yo instead.
Oh good, the final stage. Just in time, too, because there's only so much that seeing a character I recognise from a different, better piece of entertainment can do to keep me interested in wading through these endless hordes of enemies.
Still, this stage does include some of more interesting (to me, at least) cameos. In the screenshot above you can see a couple of Jigens from Lupin the 3rd pottering about and looking pretty uninterested in the whole affair, and above them is Kenshiro from Fist of the North Star. I think Ken's supposed to be a mid-boss; he takes a few hits to defeat and there's only one of him in the whole game, but he's less of a challenge than every other bit of the stage so calling him a "boss" seems a bit much. On the plus side, when you kill him he inflates a few times before exploding in traditional Fist of the North Star fashion.
Kenshiro and the Flatwoods Monster in the same game, I never thought I'd see the like. Shame it had to be in a game as ropey as Ginga Ninkyouden, really. And look, I've caught up to the head villain!
This time he's not just hovering nearby to keep an eye on how his elite troops - you know, yo-yo-wielding schoolgirl, old man with a towel, those guys - are doing. This is a real fight, as long as your definition of "a real fight" includes standing right in front of him, jumping straight up and hitting him in the face a few times. Easy as you like, but to my disappointment and presumably the disappointment of anyone who ever made it this far (there can't be many) the bad guy has another form. A space-faring form, and you know what that means!
Ginga Ninkyouden really goes out on a high with another ponderous shoot-em-up segment, this time a single battle against the boss in his stone space dragon form. Just die already, you great grey sack of crap! Why do you even want this girl so badly, anyway? Actually, probably best not to know. He probably wants to make her... cosplay. Shudder. Maybe that's been his plan all along, he's just rounding up people for use in his giant cosplay-themed amusement park. That's why all the enemies are from other franchises, they're all the people he's already kidnapped, brainwash and dressed up. It's a good job I'm here to put an end to his evil designs, really.
A few shots from my robot turtle later and Ginga Ninkyouden is over, presumably with the hero and his rescued girlfriend heading back to Earth or wherever the hell they're from. I don't know because they don't bother showing that, just a picture of a sword (that I never used) sticking out of a brown asteroid (that I never visited). Good riddance to 'em, I say.
So, this is kusoge. A shitty game, but shitty in a way that doesn't feel like the hollow corporate nothingness of something like a Transformers: Dark of the Moon tie-in. The people making this obviously had fun doing it, sprinkling in appearances from their favourite characters and trying to make the whole thing feel like an anime series in game form. Unfortunately, they forgot to include any fun while they were at it.
The big thing that ruins the game for me is the difficulty level. Make no mistake, this is a damn tough videogame. Enemies constantly stream in from all angles, often taking more than one hit to defeat and quickly swamping you with sheer numbers. Even if you try to fight them cautiously, chances are you're going to get hurt due to the pitiful, infuriating, hair-tearingly small range of your attacks. It's not just the enemies either - one fun example is the turtle that carries you away after each boss. You have to jump onto the turtle, and that's fine. The turtle moves back and forth. Okay, a bit irritating straight after a boss battle, but whatever. However, the turtle does not move on a set path. He slides left and right at random, guided by whatever whims float through his thick turtle head, and it seems like every time you try to make the jump he moves juuust out of the way enough for you to fall to your (instant, of course) death. Factor in the awkward jumping controls and you've got yourself a recipe for fun not matched since that time I combined nitric acid and the contents of my boxers.
The only thing that got me through Ginga Ninkyouden was that fact that there's a dipswitch setting you can change to make yourself invincible. Even Jaleco realised that this was an over-difficult, frustrating, tedious mess of a game to play and so they built in a god mode. It's a good job too, because there's no way I would have stuck it out if I'd been dying every five seconds.
Not even the presentation can save it. The graphics are primitive even by 1987's standard, especially when you compare them to The Astyanax which was released only two years later. They're not terrible, I suppose, but they are a bit tiring on the eyes. The sound is okay - some of the music is decent but most of it is just "there", chirping away in the background. There are quite a lot of speech sample, which is pretty impressive. Overall, though, I'm sticking with my earlier claim that Ginga Ninkyouden is only enjoyable as a kind of digital Japanese pop-culture safari: just turn on god mode, play through it once to catch as many cameos as you can and never go near it again.
Then again, it does feature both Kenshiro and the Flatwoods Monster. Okay, ten out of ten!