It’s Halloween season, and what could be more bone-chilling than a Famicom game developed by TOSE? How about one that’s mixed up with the terrifying power of Jaleco to release extremely mediocre games? Ohh, spooky! So, here we go – it’s TOSE and Jaleco’s 1987 Famicom game Youkai Club!

Here’s the title screen, rendered in English thanks to the fine work of some fan-translators. Not that there’s much text in this one to translate, it’s very much focussed on the platforming and the monster-slaying and vast reams of prose are not Youkai Club’s style.
Youkai, of course, refers to the panoply of Japanese ghosts, spirits and monsters that are known under that umbrella. There’s also a youkai that is an umbrella, although sadly that particular creature doesn’t pop up in this game. Nowadays youkai are probably most familiar to people via the runaway success of Yo-kai Watch, but there aren’t any cuddly cat friends in this game. What it does have is the Grim Reaper, floating around the title screen like someone trying to remember where they left their car keys. The Grim Reaper isn’t a youkai, which is a good sign in my book. I like a good mix of monsters. A monster mash, if you will.

Youkai Club is a game concerned only with rip-roaring high-stakes action – I assume that was the intention, at least, even if it doesn’t exactly pan out that way – and so it doesn’t bother with anything so banal as an intro. Instead, when you hit start you’re only shown a screen telling you what level you’re about to enter. I wonder why it’s called Face Mansion?

Oh, right, all the faces. Not the wallpaper choice I would have made, but perhaps I’m too parochial in my interior design tastes. The face part of the name is accurate, but the mansion part is way off, because this is just a big, blocky tower with the odd small room sticking off the side.
As you can probably guess, Youkai Club is an action-adventure game, full of platforming and throwing projectiles at monsters. You play as Akira, a hot-blooded young man wearing a red tracksuit, and his special power is the ability to throw three knives at a time about six feet in front of him. It doesn’t sound all that impressive, but it seems to be doing a good job of eliminating these bats and snakes. You will notice that bats and snakes are not youkai. Three screens in, and I’ve already been lied to. I bet they’re not even in a club, either.

Ah hah, that’s more like it – this room is haunted by a floating female ghost. I think she might be a yuki-onna, but Japan has such a wide and varied buffet of creepy ghost women that it’s difficult to narrow it down. She might be a ghost, but for some reason she’s still vulnerable to the cold steel of Akira’s knives, so she’s hardly the most menacing foe I’ve ever faced.
When you kill pretty much any enemy in Youkai Club, they’ll drop an item, almost always a small red pellet. These pellets add to your experience meter. That’s what I’m told they do, anyway, because I collected a lot of them during the game and never once did I see my experience bar move after grabbing one. Oh yes, Youkai Club has an experience system, because finding a Japanese Famicom game that doesn’t have “RPG elements” attached to it is a surprisingly difficult proposition. Later on, I’ll find something that actually get the experience bar moving, but for now I’m stuck picking up the pittance offered by the red pellets. One problem is that a lot of the enemies in this game can float through the scenery, what with being ghosts and all, and you’ll often end up killing them while they’re in the walls and thus you can’t grab the items they leave behind.

There’s not much else to the rest of the first stage, just Akira bouncing his way up the tower and stabbing the various monsters he finds. This small goblin is trying to get his stabbing in first, but he’d have to run right up to me and frankly I’d already decided to ignore him. Goodbye, stabby goblin. You can go and tell your goblin friends that you have emerged triumphant in a great battle, if you like.

Waiting at the top of the tower is this blasphemous wizard, and to perpetuate a tired old joke, that’d make a great name for a metal band. Anyway, the man with the cross on his chest is your typical first boss, not doing much besides waddling around at the bottom of the screen, cursing his lack of peripheral vision and flinging the odd fireball in Akira’s general direction. Fortunately the wizard has installed some shelves but hasn’t got around to filling them with his evil knick-knacks, so Akira has somewhere to stand where the boss has trouble hitting him.

Stage two is the monster forest, packed with flying oni / tengu things and what appear to be sponge fingers sticking out of the ground. Hopefully there’ll be a twist at the end of the stage that reveals Akira’s been fighting his way through a giant trifle this whole time.

The first miniboss in this stage is a ghostly woman who pops out of a well, so it looks like we’ve got a prequel to Ring on our hands. Obviously Sadako Senior here can’t sit Akira down and force him to watch a cursed videotape, so instead she throws lots of… things at him. What are those things, anyway? Pebbles? Severed human ears? Let’s go with ears, because it’s the spookiest option. Of course, that doesn’t explain why the ears hurt when they hit you. If ears were painful to the touch, the sides of your head would always be sore.
As for actually beating this boss, I found the best way was to jump up right next to her on the well and attack as fast as possible. She’ll run out of health before you do. This turns out to be the best way to beat most of the bosses in the game: find the spot that lets you take the least damage and stand there chucking knives.

These rock monsters are pretty adorable, bumbling around in a manner the brings to mind marshmallows rather than time-worn boulders of granite. I’d say the enemy designs are the best thing about Youkai Club, with a wide variety of small, simple but charmingly drawn creatures. Certainly, they’re a good enough reason for Youkai Club to appear in this year’s Halloween Spooktacular, even if the stages themselves aren’t all that sinister for the most part.

For instance, check out this grotty ghoul. I have no idea if it’s supposed to be anything specific – it looks a bit like a Zora from Zelda that fell into a basket of mousetraps – but it’s so endearingly ugly that I almost felt bad about sticking knives in it.

Sadly not every monster can be a hit, and the boss of the monster forest is this angular leonine vampire thing that stands in the middle of the room and gets various monsters to do his dark bidding, the lazy sod. You have to shoot him in the eyes to damage him, but as you can see his eyes aren’t always there so you’ve got to spend most of the fight avoiding the flaming dogs and such. It’s not much fun, truth be told, but happily I’d managed to get Akira’s experience bar up far enough that his knives have been replaced by small projectiles I can only describe as “energy croissants.” That sped things along a little.

The next stage begins with a more platforming-focussed area, with narrow pits and jets of flame waiting to knock you down said pits. In true Jaleco tradition, Akira’s controls and jumping physics are resolutely “decent enough.” Your jumps are a little floaty, especially at the top of your arc, and sometime Akira interacts with the scenery in a slightly strange manner. It’s especially noticeable when you’re jumping through a narrow corridor, because Akira’s head will “stick” to the ceiling and you slide along for a while in defiance of gravity. It’s not terrible, though, and it’s at least consistent. The bigger issue is that Akira slides so far backwards when he takes damage, and unlike Castlevania (the game Youkai Club most resembles in many ways) there’s no way to mitigate the knockback. I’d estimate a good eighty percent of the deaths I suffered in this game were caused by a floating skull or some other nasty thing bumping me off a one-block-wide pillar.

I should make it clear that the stages in Youkai Club aren’t linear, but there’s not much exploring to be done because the stages are mostly one big, “main” area with smaller rooms to explore at various intervals. As the game progresses, the entrances to these smaller rooms become less and less obvious, but the stages never really get confusing or anything. There are a few strange moments where you can’t progress until you’ve been into one of the side rooms, but there’s no visible obstruction: you just can’t scroll the screen until you’ve stood in the right place. All in all, it’s an unusual way to gate progress but thankfully it doesn’t lead to much frustration.

The final section of this stage is a jaunt across the clouds. You jump between the clouds, and sometimes an orange cloud appears. Beware of the orange clouds, because they’re made of that really dense water vapour that can push Akira off the platforms. There’s also the tengu to watch out for. That white thing up there, the thing that looks like a diagram of a uterus turned on its side, is actually a gust of wind that the tengu has wafted at me by swinging his fan. Given what I said earlier about falling off narrow platforms, it should come as no surprise that these tengu gradually got bumped up from “annoying” to “hated nemesis” during the course of the game.

The boss of this stage is the Japanese Shinto god of wind Fuujin, complete with his big sack of wind. Feel free to insert your own Donald Trump / Nigel Farage / politician of choice joke here. A bag seems like terrible receptacle for wind, doesn’t it? It’s going to be difficult to keep airtight, you need a jar with a screw-on lid or something. By the way, I was looking up Fuujin and it’s theorised that he was originally, before a long period of cultural assimilation thanks to ancient travellers on the Silk Road, the Greek god Boreas. I’m telling you this because it’s far more interesting than anything that happens in this fight.
With Fuujin defeated, Youkai Club prepares to take Akira to Bone Town.

Because everything’s made out of bones, you see. Why, what did you think I meant?

Oh, neat, a classic western-style witch has appeared to increase the Halloween mood. You know, I’ve come to appreciate witches – both the cute variants but more specifically the traditional hag-like kind – as Halloween monsters a lot more in recent years. I put it down to spending so much time with old people. Anyway, the witches are a good example of what I mean about Youkai Club’s monster sprites being particularly enjoyable. If you look closely at the witch’s face you can see it’s just a white shape with a single diagonal line of black pixels, but that’s all it needs to create the hooked nose and pointed chin of a real cauldron-stirring, newt-de-eyeballing witch.

It’s the Grim Reaper from the title screen, having become so fed up of waiting for the other monsters (or gravity) to finish Akira off that he’s come to the mortal realm to do the job himself. It’s a shame for him that he’s not very good at it, then. You know the standard battle against Death from most Castlevania games? Imagine that, but slower and without all the small projectile sickles flying around the screen, and you’ve got a good idea of what this fight is like. Stand on one of the platforms, tap the fire button, hope you’ve got enough health. The best thing about the fight is that the Reaper always moves towards Akira with his back facing towards his target, so it looks like he’s moonwalking everywhere.

Next up is Dharma Castle, and I’ve got to be honest, it’s a boring stage. There’s nothing new to it and it’s mostly made of haphazardly-arranged blocks in various shades of grey, the colour of excitement. So, instead I’ll take a moment to talk about Youkai Club’s power-ups. There are two kinds: ones that you use as soon as you grab them, and some that you store away as inventory items to use when you need them. The regular power-ups cover the usual run of effects: health refills, temporary invincibility (complete with a hideously ugly palette-shifting effect), a speed-up, books that give your experience bar a big boost, that kind of thing. Then there are the four inventory items. You’ve got a flashlight that stuns all enemies on screen for a while, a bomb that deals damage to all enemies on screen and is best saved for boss battles, a pair of stylin’ sunglasses that let you see and kill a certain type of semi-invisible monster, and the hand. As soon as I picked a hand up I tried it out, naturally. It didn’t seem to do anything, but it did disappear out of my inventory. Oh well, I’m sure it’s not important, he foreshadowed.

The stage is guarded by this walking daruma doll. His main method of attack is sending smaller daruma dolls to roll along the floor after you. He generates these mini-minions by grabbing his midriff and pulling it apart to reveal a gaping orifice from which his children are nightmarishly disgorged. This makes the daruma the creepiest boss in the game by far. The Grim Reaper can’t compete with the self-generated flesh portal, can he? Aside from that, though, I think it’s fair to say that the developers had run out of ideas, motivation or both with this battle. “A square box will do for this boss chamber, I think. Don’t want to get the player too excited, not after daruma has birthed all over the arena floor.”

The final stage is the Labyrinth, (or at least that’s what this fan translation calls it,) but it’s not much of a maze. A few of the entrances to other areas aren’t marked at all and you’ll likely only trigger them by stumbling blindly into their vicinity while trying to fend off a mummy, but I never managed to get lost and my sense of direction is shocking. Also, mummies! If you can call that ugly, motionless boss a vampire, we’re only a werewolf away from getting all the big Halloween monsters on board. Oh, and a Frankenstein, I suppose.

Youkai Club has been doing a good job of gradually ramping up the difficulty as the player progresses, and unsurprisingly this is where it starts getting really tough. There are far more enemies about, for one thing. The problem is that Youkai Club suffers from a milder version of Gradius syndrome – when you die, you lose a chunk from your experience bar. This can cause your attacks to revert to a weaker state, which means it’s harder to get through the stage, so you die more, rinse and repeat. If your attacks get too weak, you’ll have trouble getting through the stages before the time runs out. Your experience bar also acts as your lives: once it’s completely drained, it’s game over and there are no continues. It’s not that harsh, but it’s something to be aware of. No, the real frustration comes later in the stage.

Here is a block, living up to its name by blocking Akira’s progress. You need to move the block, and the only way to do that is to use the “hand” power-up when you’re nearby. There are two of these blocks in the final stage, and there are two hand power-ups in the game. In the entire game. If you happened to miss either of the hands then you can’t move the blocks and you are, as far as I can tell, thoroughly screwed. Go back, start the game over again, pay more attention. There are codes that let you start on later stages – weirdly they take the form of push-button cheat codes rather than passwords – but they only go up to stage three, so you’ll always have to play through at least two-thirds of the game. To make matters worse, the first time I played through this stage I reached the second block, used the hand… and nothing happened. Okay, that’s not quite true. The hand did disappear from my inventory, but the block sure as hell didn’t move.  What a god-awful thing to include in your videogame, and one that has the potential to ruin what is otherwise a perfectly mediocre game.

Your “reward” for getting beyond the blocks is a battle with a clown. A good choice for an honorary youkai, and it’s nice to fight a videogame clown that’s not a scary clown. Just a regular, normal clown seething with the bloodlust endemic to his kind. His attacks are all clown-based, too, which is fun: he walks on top of a big ball, he throws juggling pins and he’s got a fiery hoop. All in all, an enjoyable fight and the chance to hurl fireballs at a clown. What more could you ask for?

Even the evil of a clown isn’t enough to claim the position of Youkai Club’s final boss, an honour which goes to this large pink blob. Presumably it’s some kind of elder creature from a distant star-scape, but mostly it's just there. Rather than doing the fighting itself, the boss summons a load of other bosses from the game to do his dirty work. I mean, it’s nice to see the Grim Reaper again but it doesn’t exactly make for an interesting fight. You might notice that this is basically the same as the fight against the vampire thing, a boss that you have to fight twice during the game, so this glob of chewed bubble gum makes it three interations of the same battle.

This is new, though: the boss creates a clone of Akira that you must defeat. Having played as Akira for the whole game, I was fairly confident that this wouldn’t be a difficult battle. Turns out it was even easier than I anticipated, because clone-Akira only has the un-upgraded knives to attack with.
Once you’ve dispatched all his minions, the boss opens his sleepy eyes and lazily tosses a few fireballs around, which gives Akira the chance to throw his fireballs into the boss’ now-vulnerable ocular region. This damages the boss, because apparently he’s got asbestos eyelids. If he’d just gone back to sleep I’d have been stuck, but as it is I can finish the job and bring Youkai Club to a close.

It’s a good job I wasn’t expecting a lavish ending sequence. Nobody likes to be disappointed.
For the most part, Youkai Club falls snugly into the usual furrow occupied by games that have Jaleco’s name attached to them – an overall feeling of mediocrity, with one inclusion that’s bafflingly awful. There’s nothing wrong at all with the core gameplay: it’s a little loose and floaty, but perfectly acceptable and certainly no worse than a lot of other low-effort 8-bit platformers. The stages are mostly bland, with some peaks and troughs in visual quality but nothing too extreme in either direction, and the soundtrack is above average but only slightly. The monster sprites are easily the stand-out part of the game, for me anyway. All in all, Youkai Club is okay, the complete bullshit of the missable hand power-ups not withstanding, but it’s never going to tear you away from playing a Castlevania game.

A solid seven out of ten on the Halloween-O-Meter for Youkai Club, almost entirely thanks to the selection of monsters and the vague suggestion that Akira might be wearing Michael Jackson’s leather suit from the Thriller video. It would have received a higher score had the backgrounds been spookier, but aside from the faces in the first stage they mostly look like an unfortunate acid flashback in a tile warehouse.

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