24/12/2016

LABYRINTH RUNNER (ARCADE)

Hello, all. It’s been a while! I won’t bore you with the grim reasons for my absence, but I’m back for the moment and I’ve brought you a festive gift. What could be better, at this most joyous time of year, than an obscure Konami arcade game? Well, lots of things, as it happens. We’ll get to that, though. It’s the 1987 (or possibly 1988) half-baked-em-up Labyrinth Runner, also known as Trick Trap!

Neither title fits the game very well. There aren’t enough tricks and traps for Trick Trap to make sense, and while there are a few mazes the word “labyrinth” implies a scope and grandeur that they most certainly do not possess. I’d have called it “Shootman Jog-Around” but then, as you can tell from the name of this website, I’ve never been good at titles.


You get a little information before the game kicks off, in the form of this image. Evil fiend, dark castle, kidnapped woman. My First Game Plot, got it. That villain looks a little Dracula-esque don’t you think? Maybe I’ve gotten lucky and Labyrinth Runner is actually an ultra-obscure part of the Castlevania mythos. If only there was some more information!


Thanks, Konami. That’s very helpful. So, it’s not Dracula, then? It’s just Devil. No word on whether that’s just a devil or the Judeo-Christian ruler of Hell himself, but we do know that he’s abducted Princes Papaya. Princess Papaya is the ruler of the Vegetaria kingdom, despite papaya being a fruit and not a vegetable. Maybe she’s a puppet ruler placed there after Vegetaria’s annexation by the neighbouring nation of Fruitopia.
The best thing about this image is the “CASTLE” label. Its sheer pointlessness got a laugh out of me, anyway.


The game begins, and we get our first proper look at the hero we’ll be controlling. That’s him on the left, with his trusty shield, his bright green cape and, perhaps surprisingly, his ruddy great gun. I was expecting, I dunno, magic powers – a crossbow at most – but no, he’s got a gun. As he’s mostly green and he hails from the kingdom of Vegetaria, I think I shall call him Cabbage.


So, Labyrinth Runner is a top-down shooter. You move Cabbage around with the joystick, and he can fire in eight directions (although not at the same time, sadly.) He can collect two other weapons as you play, and you can switch between them whenever you like. His shield? Completely useless. He dies in one hit, so the shield must be more of a ceremonial thing. Maybe later there’ll be a stage where he uses it as an impromptu snowboard in order to make a daring mountainside escape, but I highly doubt it.
As for what he’s shooting at, I’m not entirely sure. Some kind of sand-worm, maybe? They pop up from under the ground and spit slow-moving projectiles at you, that much is clear, but beyond that they’re an enigma. They do kinda look like they’re wrapped in tiny duvets, though.


The enemies only get stranger as you progress through the stage. At the bottom-right of the screenshot above, you can see an ambulatory Christmas tree advancing towards Cabbage, ready to slap him about using naught but its pugilistic baubles. Looks like it’s finally fighting back against the War on Christmas. Stranger still are the creatures on the bridge, which appear to be a cross between a crab and a turtle with a human skull perched on top. The Lesser-Spotted Skull-Bearing Crable, if you will. They feel strangely familiar, probably because I’ve fought so many similar creatures in Final Fantasy games over the years.


You’re also beset by a swarm of angry potato people, traitors against the kingdom of Vegetaria. After years of being called vegetables but not deemed “good” enough to count as one of your five a day, they have risen up in rebellion, hoping to carve a better place for themselves in society. It’s a shame none of Cabbage’s weapons are a flamethrower, really. Everyone loves a baked potato.


The three weapons you do get are the default pea-shooter style gun, a laser that fires more slowly but can penetrate multiple enemies and ricochets off walls, and bombs that travel in an arc and cause a large-ish explosion wherever they land – a side-effect of which is that the bombs are useless for hitting enemies right in front of you, because you throw them over the monsters. Your weapons can also be powered up by collecting, erm, power-ups, and as you do so they’ll gain more projectiles in a very helpful spread-shot style.
Here I’m using the laser against the game’s first boss: a pair of Dungeons and Dragons Beholders that have escape their tabletop roleplaying world and found themselves facing a courageous young knight with a laser gun. I would recommend using the laser, too: while your other weapons can also destroy enemy projectiles, the laser is much better at it. Plus, if you miss there’s a chance your laser will bounce off the wall behind the boss and hit them anyway. You can even pretend you meant to do it, like whenever I pot a ball while playing pool.


Stage one is over. The beholders weren’t much of a challenge. Things that are ninety percent eyeball tend to struggle against projectile weapons. Or non-projectile weapons. Or bright sunlight. Anyway, the between-stage map screen promises that many dangers lie ahead, which wasn’t really true of the first stage. The “runner” in Labyrinth Runner’s title is definitely the most accurate part: Cabbage moves at a fair clip and the monsters don’t seems that bothered about stopping him, so you can run past almost everything in the first stage. It’s a very short stage, too, and you can finish it in about thirty seconds if you don’t stop to say “what the hell is that, a walking potato?” like I did.
It was an okay start to the game. Weird enemies aside, there was little to excite the imagination, but the action was smooth and the music was good – not quite the top-tier Konami tunes of something like Haunted Castle, but a solid B. One touch I did like is that you can see the shadow of the castle on the floor while you’re fighting the first boss. Let’s see what stage two holds, shall we?


I was hoping that Labyrinth Runner might kick on from a relatively promising start and turn out to be fairly interesting, but that’s not how things panned out. The second stage is a short series of aggressively grey parapets, linked by bridges and patrolled by giant spiders and non-giant knights – so even the enemies are less interesting than in the first stage. Surely it can’t be that Konami splurged all their creative juices (oh god, what a horrible phrase to use) on the first stage, because while that was pleasant enough it was hardly brimming with exciting new ideas.


Then you reach the boss. This does not take long. The timer for the whole stage is two minutes and I still had well over a minute left when I got here, which goes to show just how short Labyrinth Runner’s stages are.
The boss is a wall. I somehow manages to be even more grey than the stage that preceded it, and that looked like the book of paint samples the Navy uses when it’s choosing a colour for its latest battleship. Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with the concept of fighting a wall. I can think of a few memorable boss battles against walls. The first stage of Contra, for starters, and the Demon Wall from Final Fantasy VII. No, the problem with this wall is the execution. To damage it, you have to hit the gem in its forehead… except you can’t can’t reach that target with the normal shot or the laser. You have to use the bombs, and of course this is a Konami arcade game from the mid-eighties so you lose all your power-ups when you die. It’s the Gradius problem taken to an extreme, because in Gradius you’re reset to the default when you lose a life but if you’re good enough you can still survive and make progress. Here, you’re shit out of luck if you don’t have the bombs, and you have to spend most of the fight waiting for it to slowly spawn some regular enemies that you can shoot and pray they drop the bomb power-up. It’s a colossal pain in the arse, made more aggravating by the fact that boss takes about seven seconds to defeat if you do have the bombs.


Stage three is a maze. According to the map screen, anyway. I’m not sure you can call it a maze when it’s small enough that you could map it out on the back of a postage stamp. I was having trouble parsing where this is supposed to be taking place – it is a maze carved from stone that’s somehow hovering over a well-manicured bowling green? Possibly. It’s not grey, which is nice, but it’s still not much to look at, and Labyrinth Runner in general lacks the graphical flair you might usually associate with Konami’s arcade game. It’s all just a bit bit boring, frankly.
At least the enemies are a little more interesting here than in the last stage. Demonic whelks and the titular blob from A Boy and His Blob are a step up from the tired concept that is giant spiders (unless you’re playing an EDF game, in which case giant spiders are great). Unfortunately that ice cream is not an enemy, it’s an item you can collect for points. An enemy that’s nothing more than a man-sized cone of soft-serve would have been very appealing to me.


The exit seems to be randomly placed in one of several spots, which I suppose is at least mildly interesting, although the idea of someone wanting to play Labyrinth Runner more than once is a little hard to believe. Oh, and this stage has no boss, either. Konami wouldn’t want you getting too excited after such a thrilling maze, after all.


Oh look, another maze. I think this is actually part of the same stage, which is why there wasn’t a boss. It’s far more blue than the previous maze but no more interesting. “Shrieking, giant-winged bat-head” is a good look for an enemy that haunts an underground catacomb, but other than that it’s basically the same as the last maze.
The most notable thing about the mazes is that they’re so much easier than the rest of the game. The narrow corridors mean there are fewer directions the enemies can attack you from, and if you’ve picked up even one of the weapon power-ups your shots will spread out enough to fill the entire path ahead of you. It makes it feel like you’re walking down the pathways with a large broom simply sweeping the monsters aside as you survey the maze for the thirty seconds or so it takes to spot the exit.


This time there is a boss, and it’s a distant relation of Krang from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I appreciate a horrible blobby tentacle monster that looks like someone drew a face on a particularly disgusting medical diagram as much as the next man, but I’m struggling to remember anything about this battle. I’ll hazard a guess and say that the boss fired some projectiles at me, but I avoided those projectiles and shot the boss with my laser gun. That must be what happened. If it had been different, I would have remembered it.


Next up is the seldom-enjoyable mine cart stage. Are there any good mine cart stages? The ones from Donkey Kong Country aren’t bad, I suppose. They’re very tense, certainly. Feel free to let me know your favourite mine cart stages, maybe I’ll remember one I enjoyed.
I doubt anyone will submit Labyrinth Runner’s mine cart stage as a particular favourite, because it’s pretty terrible. The actually rolling around part is fine, it's just like the regular stages except you’ve got no control over your movements while you’re fighting the monsters. The problem comes when you’re forced to make a decision about what track you want to ride. You can switch between them at junctions, but some of them are dead-ends that result in unavoidable death. If you’re on the wrong track, tough luck, you’ve just lost a life. Oh, and you only get five continues, so if you want to make it past this stage you have to basically memorise the layout of the tracks, or cheat. I did one of those things. I’m sure you can figure out which. If I wanted to spend my time doing lots of boring memorisation and still not coming out of it with much reward, I’d go back and re-do my physics A-Level.


Yes, let’s. That would be a nice change of pace.


The final stage is the clearly-labelled castle itself, the front gate guarded by another pair of bosses that can only be damaged by the bomb weapon. The bosses appear to be half man, half spark plug but somehow less cool than Spark Man. There’s a conga line of strange humanoid creatures that you can kill if you need to collect the bomb weapon – and after the frustrating tedium of the mine cart stage, you probably will – and they might even drop one of the lightning icons that gives you a screen-clearing smart bomb.


Here’s the castle’s… foyer? Lobby? Whatever, it’s this room, where weird soldiers that look like phone books with heads on top repeatedly spawn and chase you around the room. I killed quite a lot of them, using the ruined pillars to funnel them into the path of my projectiles, but nothing much was happening, so I killed a few more. “Maybe it’s some kind of puzzle,” I thought to myself. The geometry of the room and the symbols on the floor and walls have sort of a “videogame puzzle” look to them, don’t you think? But no, they didn’t seem to do anything, so I shot some more monsters. Then I realised I could walk through the doors at the top of the screen and just, like, leave. I’m not sure what it says about me that my first instinct was “this problem must be solved through mass slaughter.” That I’ve played too many videogames, probably.


Just beyond lies this room that only avoids being totally bland by having the Blockbusters board for a floor. It’s also home to the game’s best enemies: fat, turd-like clouds that wear sunglasses and attack by sucking on big cigars and blowing smoke at Cabbage. They’re Slimer from Ghostbusters, if he was less into food and more into emphysema, and I kinda love them.


There’s also a giant centipede to fight. You’ve got to shoot it in its glowing weak point – in this case it’s the arse, traditionally the most vulnerable area of all insects. Unfortunately for the centipede it can only attack by running into our hero, so the fight quickly devolves into Cabbage running in a circle, chasing the boss’ backside while the boss chases Cabbage, forming a perfect loop of extremely forgettable gameplay.


At long last, it’s the game’s final boss! I say “at long last”, it took me less than fifteen minutes to reach this point but it feels like so much longer. The boss is a very angry meatball, which makes sense. You’d expect meat to be the natural enemy of a place called Vegetaria. The boss has large smashing fists, although he doesn’t really use them, electing instead to throw what are either green pumpkins or large bell peppers at our hero. Actually, no. On closer inspection they appear to be unlit green candles, a shade of green that implies they’re scented like lime jelly.


Oh, it’s a robot meatball. Of course. Is this what Twinbee looks like underneath its external shell? They’ve got the same arms, after all.


After applying enough lasers to the boss’ exposed core it will explode, freeing Princess Papaya who was right there the whole time, apparently. She’s so pleased to see Cabbage that she bestows upon him a shower of human hearts, which she has developed a taste for during her time as a captive of the evil Meat Empire.


And that’s it. The game closes with a picture of Cabbage – who is apparently a prince, or possibly the late Prince himself – and Papaya, along with a text epilogue that states they’ve got to travel back to their kingdom and that “another long journey has begun.” For a moment my blood ran cold at the prospect of Labyrinth Runner having a second loop, but I’m happy to report that it doesn’t and it really is over.
Labyrinth Runner started out looking like it might be okay but gradually got worse and worse as it went on, so if nothing else it’s a good metaphor for 2016. There’s just no sparkle to it, no joie de vivre and certainly nothing like the level of quality Konami were capable of releasing at the time. It’s a competent if uninspired gameplay base, smothered by layers of boring scenery and poor design decision, the mine cart stage being the mouldy, fluff-encrusted cherry on top of the cake. It’s not truly awful, and I’d even say it’s more fun to play than Black Panther or Battlantis, but it’s only real use is as a cure for insomnia. Oh well, merry Christmas, I guess. At least the soundtrack was okay.

17 comments:

  1. Good to see you back. Happy holidays. If I can be awkwardly sincere for a moment, in dark fucking times like the ones we're currently entering, your articles really are one of those things that provide a distraction and help one keep body and soul forever. On one level they may be frivolous (not that that should be perceived as an insult--hi, I'm a guy who blogs about Disney comics!), but they also have deeper value.

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  2. Merry Christmas! Great to have you back.

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  3. I too have missed your posts, even those about subpar arcade games. here's to 2016 being finally almost freaking over!

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  4. I agree with the above. I don't comment, but reading your back catalogue has really helped me get through the last month and it's great to see you returning with a new article again. Hope you're well.

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  5. Merry Christmas like others I read but don't really comment but found your blog after searching Gourment Sentai on the Snes and read it ever since good to see another fan off scrolling fighters..

    I own this on X Box live arcade I'm sure It has a different name (Kaos) which made me wonder if it's a prequal to Konami Halls of Kaos where you go round punching mirrors to release Children.. I remember finishing it and thinking how the last boss looked nothing like the dude who appears in the intro just some blob.. Think the intro was the only good thing about it..

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  6. Sweet, you`re back. Now I can point out typos again.

    I somehow manages to be even more grey

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  7. I really like the mine cart level in "Rocket Knight Adventures", or at least the gangly-armed robot train boss.

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  8. We missed you! If there'should anything we can do for you, let us know. :)

    And thank you for all your work on this blog, it'seems my favorite reading material out there.

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  9. Wasn't there a minecart stage in Gunstar Heroes?

    Welcome back, glad to see you. I hope things are going okay for you.

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  10. Those screenshots of the first level remind me of Chaos Engine on the Amiga a lot

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  11. So the Devil from the introduction was actually a giant meatball?

    That makes sense.

    The Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom arcade game had a minecart level which I remember fondly, although I haven't played it in almost 30 years.

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  12. Welcome back, I hope all is well.

    The last mine cart level I played was Taz Mania on the Megadrive, and it was horrendous.

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  13. The mine level called "Truck". Bad try, Konami
    Nice ranting as always. Cheers

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  14. This was an interesting read, never heard of this game before.
    I hope things are better by your side!

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  15. I'd like the echo the sentiments above and say that I'm immensely glad to see you posting again, as your blog has provided a great amount of joy, however fleeting, in the past year that I have discovered it. Wishing you well, cheers

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  16. Yaaay! Welcome back Mr Junk! I'm sorry to hear things have been grim, but at least you had a devoted fan base waiting with bated breath for your return!

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  17. Thank you all for your very kind comments, it's all rather humbling. I'll be doing as much VGJunk as I can, when I've got the chance!

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