If you had to choose the genre most representative of the NES, you could make a strong case for the platformer for a variety of reasons. The hardware allowed for fluid graphical scrolling, the Super Mario games came as close to perfection as eight bits could handle, but mostly there were just so god damn many of them that if you if threw a dart into a sack of NES games chances are you'd puncture some form of side-scrolling, vaguely cutesy hop-n-bop adventure. Without wanting to imply that's how I choose what games to write about, here's Now Productions and Asmik's 1990 Famicom-only deadpan-visage-of-complete-disinterest-em-up Jumpin' Kid: Jack to Mame no Ki Monogatari!
There's Jack now, the tattered ragamuffin at the bottom of the screen. He's about to embark on a grand adventure, but his face has all the expressiveness - and a strange resemblance to - a plug socket. Maybe he's wondering where his shoes have gone. Surely you can't be thinking about completing your mission in bare feet, Jack?
"Screw you," says Jack as he hops over a cartoon mouse. "No shoes, no masters." The title Jumpin' Kid is an accurate one, because that's most of what you'll be doing in this game, leaping through a cartoony landscape and avoiding the usual bunch of critters that look like refugees from a Hello Kitty game. You can throw small white pellets at them too, if you so wish. This either stuns them or kills them, without much rhyme or reason that I could discern, sometimes seeming to affect the same enemies in different ways.
I reached a boss. What, already? Yep, this first area is about four screens long and because I hadn't exactly had long to familiarise myself with Jumpin' Kid's physics I ran straight into this chubby grey mouse with sunglasses. Hang on...
He's carrying a bit of extra weight, but it's still nice to see Mouser getting work after Super Mario Bros. 2.
My incompetence aside, this boss was barely a boss at all, content to waddle back and forth amongst these many bricks until I'd hit him with the required amount of pellets. It didn't exactly take long.
As soon as I'd I killed the ineffectual mouse I was thrown into a bonus game with a completely different playstyle. A playstyle rather reminiscent of Konami's mid-eighties arcade game Pooyan, in fact, with Jack moving up and down in order to fire at the mice that emerge from the holes on the right. If you let the mice wander for too long, they'll climb the rope and steal your treasure. Replace Jack with a pig, the treasure with her piglets and the mice with wolves and yes, that's pretty much just Pooyan.
I don't remember Pooyan letting you meet any angels, mind you. Jack looks as impressed with the unexpected appearance of the Lord's celestial messenger as he does with everything else in his life, which is to say not in the slightest. Maybe the next stage will pique his interest.
As you can see from this between-stage information panel, Jumpin' Kid takes place on a beanstalk and is in fact telling the story of Jack and the Beanstalk via the medium of jumping and killing rodents. The essentially text-free gameplay, marketable platform mechanics and the fact it's based on a western fairytale make Jumpin' Kid seem like a shoo-in for US release, and indeed work was apparently underway to bring it to the west as Jack the Giant Slayer. In the end that all fell through and Jumpin' Kid remained a Japan-only release. Were we in the West denied access to a forgotten platforming gem? I guess we'll find out as we climb up this beanstalk, huh?
Thus follows fifteen or so short stages of platforming action as Jack traverses the beanstalk. The immediate difference between this and most other NES platformers is that you're mostly moving in a vertical fashion, as opposed to the horizontal gameplay of most other titles of this ilk. Simply climb the beanstalk by leaping between it's leafy vines, trying to avoid colliding with the birds and other nuisances that flap around you. I mean really trying to avoid the enemies, because you've only got one life and I can't fathom the continue system: one time when I died I had nine continues, the next time I had none and it was back to the foot of the beanstalk for me. Jack never should have traded his cows for those magic beans, I'd be having much more fun with a game about cows. Harvest Moon taught me that if you brush a cow for long enough, you end up getting pretty attached to it.
Sadly I remain cow-less, stuck with this overgrown pot-plant and a hundred thousand snails for company. The actual jumping part of of the gameplay is okay, if a little floaty, a feeling that's only increased when you collect the "spring" power-ups that make you jump higher. You can also pick up beans to increase the power of your ranged attack. I guess that means Jack is throwing beans at the enemy? It explains why they only briefly daze most enemies, and I suppose it means he'll always have plenty of ammo. I wonder if he planned that to coincide with the sprouting of the giant beanstalk or if he was just some weird, emotionless kid who has always chucked legumes at people.
This screenshot isn't important, I just wanted to say that this bat is adorable. One aspect of Jumpin' Kid that I will unreservedly praise are the enemy designs. They're simple and hardly bursting with originality, but they're cute as heck.
Even this big dopey frog looks like something you should be hugging rather than throwing beans at, but he's one of the various bosses that wait at the top of certain stages and so his fate is sealed: Death By Legumes, which is also the name of the vegan restaurant I'm going to open. I got really attached to those cows, man.
Defeating the frog is a simple matter of standing on this platform and jumping up to shoot it while it's facing away and thus spitting acorns (I think) in the other direction, but then none of the bosses in this game put up much of a fight and all the challenge comes from the regular enemies. They don't butt out while I'm going mano-a-mano with whatever cartoon frog or bouncing fungus is blocking the exit, oh no - they continually appear on screen to harass you, diverting your attention and turning every boss battle into the gaming equivalent of rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time. Except I can do that, but can I avoid roaming snails whilst also trying to kill a frog with beans? Can I bollocks. I makes every boss fight feel lazy and pointless, because without the smaller enemies around you might as well be fighting an empty cardboard box for all the opposition they put up, but with the enemies around it's just annoying, especially when a single hits means you lose all your power-ups. Fortunately, many of the boss can be ignored completely by simply jumping past them and into the exit door. It's a strategy I suggest you make full use of.
Suddenly I'm amongst the clouds and the gameplay has switched back to a more familiar horizontal style, a change which makes the game much, much easier. I'm not sure why that is: perhaps I'm just more used to playing this style of platformer, maybe the enemies are still designed around fighting on a vertical plane. There seems to be more space, which helps. While the horizontal stages are easy, they also cast Jumpin' Kids shortcomings in a starker light because once you're here the comparisons to other, similar games are inevitable and Jumpin' Kid doesn't match up. It's very simplistic, with controls that are just loose enough to be occasionally frustrating and (cutesy enemies aside) the whole enterprise is soporifically bland, as the above screenshot shows.
A quick note on the enemies pictured above: no, Jack is not being attacked by a rosy-cheeked flying washcloth. It's a teru teru bozu, a Japanese charm for good weather that takes the form of a little bald doll. On the right is a Japanese-style thunder demon guy wearing shades and dungarees. Maybe he's a cool plumber, not a demon. Either way, I have no idea why these very Japanese characters appear in a game based on a European fairy tale, but no matter. My version of Seven Samurai where the samurai are played by Robin Hood and his Merry Men will redress the balance and foster a sense of international harmony.
Another minigame. This time, Mouser drops coins from above and Jack has to catch them by standing underneath them. This explains why his hat is knackered, but it doesn't make for a thrilling gameplay experience.
Back to the beanstalk, which now has beans growing on it. What else can I say? You jump upwards, there are beans, some of the beans are ambulatory and want you dead, others are part of the background. Oh, I know what I can say about it - I can tell you about the game's most bizarre mechanic. If you're jumping towards a platform - something you might find yourself doing once or twice in a game called Jumpin' Kid - and there's an enemy in your path, what do you do? You throw a bean at them, right? Well, yes, but enjoy attempting that jump again because if you press fire in the air all your forward momentum is instantly cancelled and you fall straight downwards. You either go through with the jump and take the hit or fall down and do it again, and it feels horribly unintuitive because you can jump forwards and fire in pretty much every other videogame ever where jumping and shooting is an option, and you don't just un-learn that kind of deeply ingrained reflex for the purposes of playing a sub-par NES platformer. It's an extremely aggravating mechanic, and probably the worst thing about the game unless you have a terrible fear of vines.
A boss will cheer me up, because who can stay grumpy in the face of a peanut in sunglasses? Well, the peanut can, I guess. He looks as fed up as Jack does disinterested. Also, was this game sponsored by Ray-Ban or something? Was this all just a promotional tie-in in with their Pissed-Off Peanut and Mario Mouse ranges of eyewear? There's not going to be a goose that lays golden eggs at the top of this beanstalk, just a pair of sunglasses sitting on a plinth, bathed in a single shaft of light.
Hey, you know what was a really fun game about jumping and climbing upwards? Rainbow Islands. Maybe you should take some inspiration from that game and put it in this game?
Oh, you did that already. I see. Well, carry on.
To be fair to Jumpin' Kid and its developers, they didn't really copy the gameplay from Rainbow Islands here - the rainbows are stationary and unbreakable, there are no enemies and you're actually heading downwards. I wish they'd copied Rainbow Islands' gameplay, because anything would be more interesting than this, but they didn't.
The beanstalk is a bamboo stalk now. It makes a nice change visually, even if it's still predominantly green. However, this bit is a real pain in the backside because as far as I can tell you're required to have two spring power-ups to make the jump to the next platform. This means you have to farm some enemies for a while, as though you were playing an RPG, in the hope that they'll drop the springs you need. I'm sure you don't need me to tell you that including a section that requires you to grind for power-ups in your hitherto fast-paced action game is a bad idea, but I guess I did just tell you that, and I'll do it again. It's a bad idea.
Hey look, I rescued a princess-y, shrine maiden-y type lady from being pecked to death by the vast flock of birds that swarms around the bamboo tower. Normally this would be where a retro game ends, but Jack isn't interested in female gratitude or women or men or anything, not one single stimulus will faze him, and so he plods onwards, blank-faced as ever in his quest to find whatever the hell it is he's looking for.
The beanstalk is now suffering from a fungal infection. You can get creams for that at the chemist, but while we're here let's enjoy the fact that this screenshot isn't greener than a frog eating a lettuce on a snooker table. The warm orange soothes eye a little, and in his pink ensemble Jack is still clearly visible. It's technically competent, is what I'm saying.
You might have though that the switch to mushrooms would have given the developers a chance to expand the gameplay a little - after all, mushrooms don't feel like bamboo and it might not be original but you could make the mushroom caps springy or something, but no. They're the same as every other platform in the game, and changing from plant to fungal life will not disguise the fact that Jumpin' Kid is getting tedious and repetitive despite each stage only being five or six screens tall.
Am I wrong to keep comparing Jumpin' Kid to other games? Am I alone in having my thoughts turn directly to Super Mario Bros. 3 when I'm playing a platform game and I'm tasked with traversing a flying wooden battleship that's bristling with cannons? Because that's all I can think of here. I'm humming the music from SMB3 as I type this. "But wait," you cry, "didn't both these games come out in 1990, making it unlikely that Jumpin' Kid ripped off SMB3?" Well yes, Mario 3 was released in 1990... in the US. The Japanese original came out in 1988. We poor Europeans didn't get it until August 1991, the same month that Super Mario World was released in America. It was tough being a videogame fan in Europe in the nineties, but my original point was that there was plenty of time for Now Productions to play Super Mario Bros. 3 and decide that those airships were totally rad enough for their game about shabbily-dressed urchins climbing magic beanstalks.
The final set of stages take place in the giant's castle, which is full of crabs and a wide variety of different brickwork styles. It feels like the developers were getting as tired of making this game as I am of playing it, because the size of the levels is rapidly dwindling and after a mere four or so screens of crab avoidance I reached a boss.
It's a succubus! I think - years of playing Darkstalkers have conditioned me to assume any character with bat wings and a bustier is a succubus, but I suppose she could just be half-bat, half-woman or a fairy going through a goth phase. Whatever she is, she doesn't pose much of a threat, lazily swooping down from the ceiling on a path that's easily avoidable by calmly walking past her, providing ample opportunity to kill her by throwing beans at her back.
Despite their lack of menace, the giant is so confident in the castle-protecting abilities of these pseudo-succubi that he employs two more of them to guard the following stages. One's got a big scalpel, one's got a pitchfork. The one on the right is more "devilish," which is probably why she looks more cheerful. The devil has the best tunes and the most enthusiastic minions.
They're no more of a threat than the first bat-winged lady, fighting with the same attack pattern and only slightly more aggression, but as always in this game it's the minor enemies that cause all the problems, with the actual boss feeling like an afterthought as you concentrate on dodging the crabs and fireballs that litter the screen.
I wonder if these bosses are one of the reasons that Jumpin' Kid didn't make it out of Japan? I can't imagine Nintendo being too keen on releasing a game with "sexy" devil-women in it, what with their famously strict content policies and all.
At last, a reward for all this beanstalk-climbing and succubus-shooting - the chicken that laid the golden egg! Not a goose, then? No, that's fine, geese are evil honking hate machines so I'm much happier with a chicken and happier still to just collect the giant 24-carat egg it just popped out. I can buy my cows back with this!
Once I picked up the egg, a dragon started chasing me across a series of pillars in one of the only bits of gameplay I actually enjoyed. It's more focussed, with the simple goal - avoid the dragon and don't fall - being uncluttered by the usual hordes of critters or need to plan an upwards route. Just run and jump. It's been done before by much better games, but in Jumpin' Kid it makes a nice change.
That's the giant? He's not very, well, giant, is he? Pink, most assuredly pink, but hardly giant. This is the final boss, and he can throw balls of fire from his hands. Sadly for him, he can only throw them at forty-five degree angles and so if you get right up next to him he can't throw them at a shallow enough angle to hit you. That bat will probably do me some damage, but as I somehow reached this battle with an almost-full health bar my strategy was to stand right next to the giant and just keep jumping and throwing beans, hoping that his health would run out before mine. It totally did.
My reward is a massive harp. It's far too big for Jack to carry, so I guess he's going to have to leave it behind. Bet you're glad you struggled through the entire game just for that, huh Jack?
Never mind the pointlessly large harp, there is a far greater prize that Jack has won through his noble efforts: the prize of love. The giant was holding a princess captive, as giants are wont to do, but now that he's in a bean coma Jack is free to whisk this fair maiden away, back to his farm where they will live happily together forever on the bounty of his golden egg and their deep, abiding love for each other.
If you're having trouble believing that they're in love despite having only just met, this screenshot proves beyond doubt that Jack and this princess are one hundred percent in bona fide love. They're like Romeo and Juliet, except Romeo has no shoes and the relationship hopefully won't end in a double suicide. If the heart is that big, it's a love that's destined to last. Isn't that right, Jack?
"Yes, I am very much in love with this person."
Aww, that's sweet. You must be very happy!
"I have never been happier in my life."
Well, that's good. And I'm happy too, because Jumpin' Kid: Jack to Mame no Ki Monogatari is over. Is it a terrible game? No, I suppose not, it's just dull and uninspired. I always like to look for the positives, so I'll happily admit that I like the enemy designs and at least they thought about trying to mix up the platforming status quo with a game about going upwards rather than sideways, but once you factor in the repetitive stages, annoying enemy patterns and the impossibility of performing jumping attacks, Jumpin' Kid is one that I'd say you should probably avoid. I mean, Jack didn't look like he was enjoying it, so why would you?