It's not all forgotten Jaleco games here at VGJunk, you know. Oh no, this time I've got a game from Sega that you've probably never heard of. I know I sure as hell hadn't, but then I haven't really been on the lookout for primary-coloured tricycle simulators. Was that a mistake? Have I been missing out on a hidden gem? Well, let's find out as I take a look at Sega's 1984 arcade title Sanrin San-Chan - Tricycle-San!
San, if you didn't know, is the Japanese word for three, as well as being an honorific suffix. The star of this game rides a tricycle. Sega have shown commendable commitment to the punning opportunities presented by this linguistic quirk. Of course, none of this would make sense to a non-Japanese audience, so when Sanrin San-Chan was released overseas the title was changed to Spatter.
Yes, Spatter, as in to cover something with droplets of liquid. I spent enough of my youth watching bad slasher movies that the only thing I can think of when I see the word "spatter" is gore-soaked axe blades, although I find it unlikely that this is the association Sega was shooting for. So, it's called Spatter and I have no idea why. Mind you, around this time Sega also released a platformer about baby chicks and called it Flicky rather than Cute Bird Move and Jump so who knows what they were thinking.
Spatter belongs to that most venerable of arcade genres - the maze game. As such, it's easy to describe the gameplay because everyone's already played Pac-Man and Spatter shares the same core mechanics. Move through the maze, don't touch the enemies and collect all the items, which in this case are bouquets of flowers. Once you've picked up the required amount of flowers you move on to the next stage in a seemingly endless quest to score as many points as possible.
A deafening collective yawn rings out. Why should anyone be interested in yet another maze game, aside from it's unusual Western title? Well, for starters anyone who yearns for blue skies in gaming should get a kick out of it. Well, not skies, because you're actually in the sky, each maze floating above the land below, but the water down there is a brilliant azure blue and the grass is the colour of an especially cheap energy drink and it's all very, well, Sega.
San-chan her / him / itself also seems to carry a fair amount of Sega's character design DNA and even feels like a possible precursor to some of Sega's later, more mascot-y characters like NiGHTS and especially the Chao from Sonic Adventure. Of course, because this is a maze game from 1984 San-chan doesn't have much in the way of personality. Her big immobile eyes give her an air of resignation. Collecting flowers or being crushed by a steamroller, it's all the same to San-chan.
So the presentation is sugary-sweet enough to strip the enamel from your teeth and turn your eyeballs into everlasting gobstoppers, but for a rugged manly man like me that's not enough to hold my interest when I could be out wrestling bears or weatherproofing my garden decking. Happily, Spatter managed to reel me in by adding its own twists to the maze-em-up formula. The first and most important of these is bendy fences.
Tricycling though a narrow maze means that sometimes you're going to come face to face with your enemies. What to do? The high-calibre machine guns that I assume San-chan has attached to her tricycle must be out of ammo or something, because there's no fire button. Your only way out is to jump, except jumping doesn't work like you'd expect. You don't go up, you go sideways. See those grey-and-black fences in the screenshot above? Pressing the jump button when you're alongside one of those will move San-chan "into" it and around any enemies that are on the same side of the fence as you. Any enemies on the opposite side - that is, where the bendy fence bulges outwards - will be temporarily destroyed for a points bonus, only to respawn moments later as they crawl out of a maze-side toilet.
That's definitely a toilet, right? It's got water in it and everything. Maybe that's why the game's called Spatter.
Anyway, that's the bendy fence mechanic. Learn it, live it, love it and definitely don't struggle through the first five or so stages without realising how it works like I did, because that's a bloody nightmare. Once you've figured it out, though, the first few rounds should be a breeze and after clearing a couple you're treated to a bonus stage.
Apples float in a blue brick room while baseballs are fired out of two wall-mounted lorry exhausts. A woman in a rocking chair sits above the madness. San-chan's trying to take her some flowers. It's not the most cohesive piece of world-building I've ever seen in a videogame, that's for sure.
So, a bonus round, and obviously it's not a maze. You have to jump - properly jump, not via a bendy fence - between the platforms, collect as many bits of fruit as you can and make you way to the lady's platform. The baseballs make you slide out of control for a moment if you touch them, but as it's all just for points anyway success is not something you'll be straining yourself too hard to achieve.
You get a "Happy Bonus" for reaching the top. It might sound like something you'd get at a dodgy massage parlour, but I'm sure it's all totally innocent. That lady's just really grateful I brought her some apples.
That's how Spatter goes from here until whatever stage you decide to call it a day - a few mazes, a fruit-gathering platform minigame, repeat until the enemies finally overwhelm you. Let's talk about the enemies, actually, because they must be real dicks if they've dedicated their lives to stopping someone who's only crime is gathering flowers. There are three kinds of enemies:
The most common are these go-kart driving duck wizards. Maybe not wizards, exactly, but ducks in voluminous hoods. There is at least a strong duck-ish element to them and even if I'm struggling to decipher exactly what they're supposed to be then I can at least be confident in saying that when I look at them I see a duck. A duck in a go-kart. Also Oil Man from Mega Man: Powered Up.
The Oil Ducks may be the most numerous opponents but they're also the easiest to deal with, as they can be destroyed by either whacking them with the bendy fence or launching a breezeblock at them.
Next are these flying robot things, which are immune to the bendy fence but can still be destroyed, as so many things can, with the precise application of a slab of concrete. They also seem a bit more intelligent than the go-kart ducks and probably accounted for more of my deaths than both the other kinds of enemy combined. I blame this on the fact that they're shaped a bit like an electrical plug. Have you ever stepped on an upturned plug? It's bloody brutal.
Lastly there are steamrollers - remorseless, unstoppable killing machines that laugh in the face of concrete and bendy fence alike. They're slower and less common than the other enemies, though, and you can still jump past them if you're near a fence, so any worries about them are less to do with them killing you and more to do with abstract thoughts about what the hell San-chan must have done to deserve being crushed by a steamroller.
I mentioned breezeblocks, so I suppose I'd better explain how they work. You can see the two varieties, silver and pink, in the screenshot above. The only difference between them is that the pink ones have fruit inside that you can collect when they're broken, while the silver ones contain the much more valuable diamonds.
The blocks, along with the bendy fences, are what give Spatter that little bit of edge in the gameplay department. You see, the blocks provide the player with choices, offering much more strategy than you might have expected from a game like this.
For example, the most obvious use of the blocks is for bashing enemies. If you drive into a block, San-chan will push it along until you press jump, which will make the block fire forwards and destroy any non-steamroller enemies in its path. All well and good, a perfectly acceptable mechanic, but it's worth bearing in mind that, steamrollers aside, the enemies can't move past the blocks. You can also push the blocks without firing them. This allows you to use the blocks as barriers, giving yourself some protection by blocking off certain paths while you go and collect the flowers.
What to do with the breezeblocks, then? Do you try to kill the enemies with the blocks, clearing your route and earning points both for the slaughter of the Oil Ducks and the treasure inside, or do you leave them behind for defensive purposes? The choice is further expanded by the fact that bricks take a while to explode and you can't tri-cycle past them until the animation is over. This lead to many occasions where I was chased into a short corridor with an enemy behind me and a brick ahead, thinking I could just fire the brick to remove it, only for the enemy to catch me as I waited for the block's crumbling animation to finish. So, you have another decision to make - whether you try to save the bricks and hope they come in useful later, or clear them out of the way so they don't impede you during a hectic moment. It's hardly Total War, but Spatter offers much more scope for strategy that you might have thought just from looking at it.
Speaking of looking at it, let's do that! Actually, I'll mention the music first. There's only one track for every maze in the game. Spatter has one hundred stages. I have absolutely no recollection of this music, not one note or even the general feel of it (I'm guessing "cheerful bounciness"). That's kind of incredible, really. One hundred stages and the music might as well have never caressed my eardrums. Sega either managed to write the blandest piece of music in human history or my brain realised what was coming and shut down my memory banks to save me from having it stuck in my head for the next three months. If that's the case, then good work, brain. Have a biscuit.
The graphics, then. They're nice. Colourful, sweet, crisp and clear. The backgrounds are really the only things that change, and I didn't notice at first but they show San-chan's adventures getting higher and higher, starting above green fields before heading up into the clouds, then the upper atmosphere before landing on a distant moon. I love those neon-bordered stars embedded in the moon's surface, they're a really nice touch.
Just in case you were wondering, the graphics in the bonus round don't change. Well, the fruit's different, but it's still about avoiding baseballs in the same blue room.
Those watermelons look kinda appetising. I don't even really like watermelon. Between this and the non-existent music I'm beginning to wonder whether Sega were using Spatter as some kind of mind-control experiment. I'll let you know if I inexplicably buy a tricycle in the next few days.
If Sega's goal was to brainwash me into enjoying Spatter, then I guess it worked because I came away from it pleasantly surprised. I am not especially a fan of maze games, but Spatter has more than enough to keep it interesting for a lot longer than something like Fast Lane. It's fast-paced, it requires a good mix of forward planning and quick reflexes and something I'm particularly fond of is that it's rare you'll find yourself in a situation that you can't escape from. Unless you get unlucky in one of the areas with no bendy fences - the most dangerous areas of any map, and something that Sega was remarkably restrained in using by not sticking them all over the place - you can usually wangle a way to freedom.
It's also a strangely satisfying game, especially when you're being chased by a group of enemies and you manage to jump at just the right time in order to get round some of them and smash the others out of the way, or when you're dashing towards the last flower and an enemy is heading right at you, a sudden game of Chicken briefly popping into Spatter's world of mazes.
Naturally it all gets a bit repetitive, literally repetitive after stage forty or so when the backgrounds start being recycled, but this isn't a game for putting a long shift into. Not that that stopped me, mind you. I played all the way until the end. I thought I was getting near the dénouement at about stage seventy, because by then even the layouts of the stages were beginning to repeat but no, there are one hundred stages.
Here is the last one. It is so advanced that the counter on the bottom right cannot handle it. Also it's surprisingly easy. I mean, I wasn't expecting a Final Fantasy-style boss battle or anything but if you'd told me this was stage ten I'd have believed you.
I am Great Player, it's true. The ending screen was a nice surprise, I didn't think Sega would have bothered, but that good will was immediately squandered when the game didn't let me put initials in the high-score table. Here's million point bonus, kid! No-one will ever know. Yeah, it just dumps you back to the title screen.
As you can see, the TOP score is shown at the upper right of the screen, but not on the scoreboard. It seems like a strange oversight for a game that's all about collecting points, but then again I don't suppose Sega ever expected anyone to finish the game. I know I didn't, not once I'd reached stage eighty-five with no end in sight.
I made it in the end, and I enjoyed doing it, too. Sanrin San-chan / Spatter might not be the most imaginative or thrilling game, but it's fun and simple and you can smash an oily duck's head in with a breezeblock, only for said duck to re-emerge from a toilet moments later. Yep, I'm going to recommend this one.