13/03/2017

RECALHORN (ARCADE)

At VGJunk today: a game with a title that sound like someone being ordered to remember a brass instrument. It’s also an unreleased Taito arcade game, so that’s got to be worth a look, right? It’s the 1993 Dr.-Doolittle-em-up Recalhorn!


I only understand fifty percent of “Recalhorn” as a title. The main character can attack with a musical instrument so I guess that’s where the “horn” part comes from, but as for the “Recal” bit, I haven’t got a clue. Does he have to recalibrate his horn after every attack? Was his horn recalled from the market after the mouthpiece was found to be made of asbestos and used bandages? We may never know. The logo’s constructed from musical notes, which might leave you to believe there’s a musical theme to this game, but there really isn’t besides the main character being so bad at playing the horn that the sound can kill animals.


There’s nothing in the way of plot at the start of Recalhorn, although I suspect that might be down to the game’s prototype status. There are a couple of screens of information about the game’s various pick-ups and mechanics, but they’re very dryly presented on a plain green background which suggests to me they’re more of a placeholder than anything. So, we’re left to imagine our own plot for the game. Why is this kid – let’s call him Horn – setting out across the world of Emerald Forest? Obvious contenders would be kingdom-saving and princess-rescuing, but let’s give Taito some credit and say they mixed up the usual formula by having Horn travel to a music shop so he can buy a horn that doesn’t murder wildlife. A noble goal indeed, so let’s get into the action!


The game begins, as is only reasonable, with round one of area one. The game is split into four “worlds” that each contain a couple of stages, and for this exciting introduction to the adventure of Recalhorn, Taito have gone with… a forest stage. Maybe they’re saving all their innovation for the later stages.
Of course, there’s not much Horn can do while he’s up on this cliff, so how’s he going to get down into the fray?


He’ll just jump right off the sodding cliff, that’s how. It’s an easy way of informing the player that they don’t have to worry about fall damage, I suppose, and it gives Horn a bit of character. That character is that he’s a reckless idiot, sure, but there’s nothing wrong with that when it comes to videogame heroes.


Now that the game’s underway, we can see that it’s a platformer, and a very platformer-y platformer at that. Horn can run and jump through the fantastical landscape of, erm, trees and rocks, collecting gems and defeating the hostile animals by either tooting his flute at them or by jumping on them. I’d recommend the latter, for several reasons. The horn is a little difficult to aim because it doesn’t travel horizontally and, as we shall see, you won’t be in a position to use it for much of the game anyway. Jumping on things, however, is much more fun and also allows you to bounce up off the enemies to reach higher platforms and treasures. It’s a perfectly acceptable system, even if Horn does feel a little heavy especially in this horizontal movement, and while my immediate impressions were that things seemed a little generic so far, I was cheered by the really lovely flock of flamingoes that fly past in the background when you reach this point. A prototype game this may be, but it’s almost entirely complete and the developers obviously lavished a lot of time on it.


The rest of the opening stage is a pretty by-the-numbers affair. You ride some hovering platforms, you bounce on some springy mushrooms, you get chased down a hill by some falling debris. I reminds me of a slower-paced Sonic the Hedgehog more than anything, right down to the hero wearing pointy red shoes. I say “the hero”, although I’m not convinced that Horn is in charge of this situation. You see that rabbit-thing he’s wearing on his head? If you look at the lives counter at the bottom-left, it clearly indicates that the rabbit-thing is actually the player, and he’s merely controlling Horn’s body like a fuzzy-wuzzy cordyceps infestation.


Things get a bit more interesting at the start of the next stage. Horn spots something in a cage, and precedes to beat the everloving shit out of said cage in traditional cartoon melee style. Whatever’s inside that cage, it has caused Horn to fly into a violent rage, unless he’s simply infuriated by the very concept of cages.


Oh, there’s a monkey inside. Now it makes sense. The rabbit-thing has ordered Horn to break open the cage so it can spread its parasitical infection to a new host species. This is why the monkey is now under my control and can be summoned to do my bidding. However, monkeys are a notoriously mercenary genus of animal and will only cooperate in exchange for either bananas or gold coins. Luckily I have collected a large gold coin, so I can not only summon this ape to aid me, but I can ride him around!


This, then, is Recalhorn’s true gimmick: the ability to befriend and ride a few different animal companions, starting with this monkey. You can switch animal whenever you like by hitting a button to open a menu and choosing to spend one of the gold coins you’ve accumulated during your adventure. This is why the “horn” part of Recalhorn’s name quickly becomes redundant, because you can’t use your horn when you’re riding and after this point in the game there are very few situations when you won’t be riding an animal because their advantages are too useful to ignore. For example, the monkey can jump far higher than Horn can on his own, and it can hang from certain vines and ropes and carry itself along hand-over-hand. When you’re on the monkey your horn might be useless but the monkey can still attack, with a spinning vertical jump that’s excellent for taking out the game’s many airborne enemies. All in all, the monkey represents a significant increase in Horn’s abilities, even if the increased bulk of a rabbit-thing riding a kid riding a chimp means it’s now a bit more difficult to land on platforms accurately.


I thought it was very rude of Sonic the Hedgehog to show up and try to stop me collecting this monkey coin, though. You’d think he’d have a bit of solidarity with a fellow platforming hero, but he seems to be in a foul mood. Maybe it's because Horn has copied his trademark footwear, or maybe he’s pissed off that Horn gets a capable, dependable monkey helper and all Sonic gets is Tails.


With the help of my simian companion, the rest of the stage was a breeze, even if I did lose a bit of health trying to get a closer look at those bootleg Sonics. It’s appropriate that those hedgehogs make an appearance, because as I say Recalhorn definitely has strong Sonic the Hedgehog vibe to it. The way the stages are divided up feels a lot like Sonic’s Zones and Acts, and take this scene at the end of each stage – you run past these flowers, and for every flower bud you touch a new blossom blooms and you get some extra points. Even better than that, though, is that if you time it so you’re doing an attack or jumping around when the clock stops, you get bonus points for your cool posing abilities. I loved it when when you could do it after bosses in Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance and I still love it here.


The next area takes place in some flooded caves, and just after the beginning of the stage where you push a boulder into a spike pit so you can use it as a stepping stone – something I’d hesitate to call a puzzle because the solution is “walk right” - Horn meets his second animal friend. It’s a seal, and I’m sorry, monkey, but you’re out on your ear. The seal’s main advantage is, unsurprisingly, that it can swim. This comes in very helpful in later underwater stages. It’s not that the monkey can’t breathe underwater or anything, it’s just easier to get about when you’re evolutionarily honed for aquatic action. The seal also has a low-to-the-ground horizontal spinning attack, useful for ploughing through groups of land-based enemies and traversing narrow passageways alike, and I might be wrong about this but the wider horizontal “base” of the seal seemed to make it easier to land on top of enemies. Plus the seal is the cutest of the animals, so I feel confident in naming it my favourite.


The seal’s pretty handy out of the water, too. It can’t jump as high as the others, but all the platforms in this (very nicely drawn) waterfall grotto are low enough that it can flop between them easily enough. It should have any trouble dealing with the combined threat of the blobfish and the armadillo you can see above. I say “combined” threat, I think the blobfish offers exactly zero percent threat to that particular equation. That armadillo, though – those are the eyes of a creature with nothing left to lose, and there’s nothing more dangerous than that.


No sooner had I got a handle on seal-wrangling than a spout of water spat me out of the cave and into the first boss battle. It’s a bull. A bull wearing green leggings? Quite possibly. It’s good that it could find some leggings with space for its tail. Anyway, to defeat the boss, you have to jump on its head a bunch of times. Not too difficult, considering all the boss does it run back and forth across the screen. The only challenging aspect is reacting when you do jump onto the boss’s head, because there’s no telling which direction you’re going to rebound in. Maybe you’ll continue bouncing in the direction you're travelling, a la Super Mario. Maybe you’ll bounce straight up and can land on the boss’s head again without touching the ground. Or maybe you’ll hit the narrow area of contact that causes Horn and his steed to rocket across the bloody screen in an almost horizontal arc, usually sending you straight into the dangerous bramble patch at the edge of the screen. It’s a mystery I certainly never managed to decipher, and by the end of this game I’d had plenty of practise.


With the bull defeated, Horn is showered with a wealth of points items that show Taito are still obsessed with giant fruit. From Bubble Bobble to Rainbow Islands to Liquid Kids, you can always rely on Taito for a level of dedication to oversized produce rarely seen outside the world's most hardcore allotment owners.


World two of Recalhorn begins one a treacherous mountain pathway, where Horn meets a lion. Not a mountain lion, oh no, that would make too much sense. It’s your regular old plains-of-Africa type lion, and it’s the third and final of your animal friends. The lion’s strengths are speed and, well, strength. It’s got a lunging bite attack that makes you almost invincible while you’re using it, and it’s got the foot speed to outrun any hazard that might be chasing you. However, the lion’s most prominent feature is that the horizontal distance of its jumps are ridiculous. If you’ve built a bit of speed up, you can jump across multiple screen in a single bound. That sounds great, and it does have its uses, but mostly it makes the lion an absolute nightmare to control. Trying to get a large animal that moves like buttered lightning to traverse any series of platforms is far more hassle than it’s worth, especially with a stack of monkey coins burning a hole in Horn’s pocket, and consequently I used the lion far less than the other two.


That’s not to say the lion is all bad: its charging attack means getting through groups of enemies is a complete breeze, for one thing. It also has a cheerful expression of very cat-like contentment, plus it’s braided its mane and put beads in there so you know it’s a stylish lion. Still, once I’d endured multiple failed attempts at getting the lion across these collapsing pumpkin platforms I knew it was time to switch to a different animal.


As an ice cave was up next, the seal seemed like a good choice. It certainly seems to be effective against this moose, I’ve jumped on that poor thing so hard that its head appears to be exploding like Hitler's at the end of Bionic Commando (only less satisfying.)
The best thing about this stage (which I sadly missed getting screenshots of) is that you’re harassed by a group of weird-looking snowmen with slightly inflated faces that aren’t entirely dissimilar to the blobfish from earlier. If you jump on these snowmen enough times to knock them apart, a cutesy little fox emerges from the pile of snow, looks shocked for a moment and then scampers off into the depths of the stage. It’s a lovely and wonderfully pointless creative flourish, and for a game that was (as far as I can tell) never released beyond location testing Recalhorn is packed with moments like these. There are things like the aforementioned points bonus for posing at the end of the stage, or the way the seal does a little flip when it jumps out of the water, or that the flowers that act as mid-stage checkpoints have an air bubble around them in the underwater stages. There’s a level of polish to Recalhorn that really sells the action, which is mostly above average but rarely excellent.


Now I’m going to ruin all those pleasant vibes by showing you what the monkey looks like when you ram a massive ice spike up his ape-hole.


The boss of this world is a mammoth with a monk’s haircut. You might think having the same hairdo as Francis of Assisi is the weirdest thing about this mammoth, but then you look down and realise it’s got human feet. It’s Frankenstein’s Mammoth! No amount of human appendages can protect it from the lion’s ferocious assault, however, so I just jumped into the mammoth’s face repeatedly. It’s the same fight as the previous bull battle, except that the mammoth can sometimes make icicles fall from the sky. The lion can jump though those, too. Looks like you should have stayed extinct, pal.


Now we’ve reached world three, which begins with a seaside feel. Lots of big blue skies, the gently lapping waves, the convenient grabbable rope bridges for the monkey to swing along. As with the rest of the game thus far, it’s jolly enough and quite good from a gameplay perspective but I still can’t shame the feeling that it’s all a bit… underwhelming. Animal-riding aside, Recalhorn is just a hop-n-bop platformer, and while Taito have clearly devoted an endearing level of care and attention to it, that doesn’t stop the game from being the usual round of jumping on the bad guy’s heads in a forest or an ice cave or at the beach.


This stage is also working hard to justify my comparisons to Sonic the Hedgehog.
Actually, having said that, Recalhorn also reminds me of Bubsy. No, really. Imagine if you can (and I don’t blame you if you can’t) a version of Bubsy that isn’t a frustrating, tedious mess to play. Recalhorn shares a similar sense of speed, a similar fondness for slightly awkward jumps between small, densely-packed platforms, a similar sensation that you’re playing a game that owes perhaps a little too much to its earlier competitors. It’s probably just me that thinks this, and don’t get me wrong: Recalhorn is a much, much better game than Bubsy, but that’s what it reminded me of.


Most of the rest of this world takes place underwater, so it’s a good job I’ve befriended / enslaved a seal. There are narrow passageways of sharp coral to navigate and dive-bombing manta rays to deal with, and it’s just the change of pace the game need to keep things interesting.


Obviously the seal is very helpful in this stage, but it’s not like you have to ride it. The lion’s probably not worth the hassle of flying off the screen and into the automated spike traps of a sunken pirate ship, but the levels are designed so that the monkey is perfectly capable of making it through the stages. One thing Recalhorn does well is providing the player with multiple alternate routes through each stage, most of them tailored to the strengths of a particular animal, and even when they’re as simple as “the higher-up route has fewer enemies but more challenging platforming” it helps to make the stages feel more expansive and enjoyable to explore.


Then you get to the sunken pirate ship’s interior, and that’s where Recalhorn reached the point that made me think “oh yeah, this game’s starting to get kinda difficult now.” Not in an obnoxious way or anything, there are just a lot of enemies about and traps that require a bit of patience and forward planning to negotiate. The only problem with that is that I nearly ran out of time. I nearly ran out of time! In an arcade game! I can’t remember the last time I played an arcade game that wasn’t specifically about beating the clock where I nearly ran out of time. The timers in most game, and especially games like Recalhorn, almost never have any bearing on the gameplay, so that came as something of a shock.


The next boss slops and slithers into view, and it’s an octopus with the cold, dead eyes of a postal worker in the week before Christmas. Do you bounce on it’s face to defeat it? Of course you do. Recalhorn’s not one for providing much variety in its end-of-world boss battles. Because the octopus is constantly birthing a stream of smaller, flying octopuses, if you’re good enough you can get through most of this fight without even touching the ground by bouncing off them. I was not good enough to do this – probably because I felt guilty about battering this octopus during the magical experience of childbirth – but I still didn’t have any trouble beating it and moving on to the final world.


It’s time for Horn’s assault on the hitherto unseen villain’s castle stronghold, a labyrinth of mechanical moving platforms and spiked death-traps, patrolled by axe-throwing knights whose martial prowess is no match for a seal belly-flopping onto them from a great height. You enter the stage by jumping into a fountain just outside the castle and sliding down through the plumbing until you reach the castle itself, and you know what? It reminded me a lot of Castlevania, and not just because I wrote the word “castle” a bunch of times in this paragraph.


I mean really, I cannot be blamed for having this music pop into my head when I reached the “ridiculously overcomplicated clock mechanism” part of the stage.


Honestly, I pity the clock repairman who has to navigate through a million cubic miles of utter mechanical madness, only to find out that the cause of the problem is a long-dead monkey wedged between two gearwheels.


There’s a miniboss in this stage, which I wasn’t expecting. I was expecting any future bosses to be a large animal. I wasn’t expecting it to be a bear with a deadly extending morningstar. It’s been a real rollercoaster of expectations, I can tell you.
To beat the bear, you have to use your animal’s special attack to knock the spiked part of the mace back and forth like a deadly game of tetherball, taking into account the position and momentum of the mace’s oh who am I kidding, you just jump on the bear’s head a bunch of times.


I don’t want to harp on about this stage’s similarity to a Castlevania level too much, and I’m sure some of it is down to me liking Castlevania so much I want to see Belmonts where there are only kids riding monkeys, but as I approached the final boss’s chamber by climbing a long, red-carpeted staircase high into a moonlit sky such comparisons become inevitable.


And here is the final boss. The bastard is stealing all my animal coins! That’s right, for the final battle Horn is stripped of all his money and therefore must fight without his animal friends, thus proving that they were only in it for the cold, hard cash.
As for the boss himself, I haven’t played Undertale yet but as I hang around in the videogame part of the Internet I’ve seen plenty about Undertale over the last couple of years. Apparently some people think the goat lady is very sexy. Well, more power to ya, pal. Anyway, the final boss of Recalhorn sure does look like Asgore from Undertale, right?


An evil version of Asgore, admittedly, but I think the similarities are there. I’m sure it’s nothing more than coincidence, but I thought it was worth mentioning.


As for the fight itself, it’s more head-bouncing. Horn has something of a one-track mind when it comes to this sort of thing, and giving this boss the ultimate flattop is the only way to free the kingdom(?) from this villain’s (??) evil schemes (???). Without the power of your animal friends to call on, Horn can’t actually jump high enough to land on the boss’s head, but fortunately there’s a flying skeletal hand in the room that you can use as a platform. It is never revealed why the hand is helping you. Maybe the boss has been using it to carry drinks around or something and it simply wants revenge.
As expected from the final battle in an arcade game, beating this boss is no easy feat. I wasn’t doing too badly during the first half of the fight, but once you’ve pummelled him for a while the boss will start setting fire to the floor, making it very difficult to achieve a safe landing when you’ve spanged off his head along some unpredictable trajectory.


I got there in the end, though (by cheating). Horn’s reward: a do-it-yourself fruit salad kit big enough to feed the entire population of mid-sized city.
Now that Recalhorn is over, we can sit back and enjoy the ending, which will hopefully explain something about what’s been going on this whole time.


Hmm, yes, I see. The empty castle represents Horn’s feelings of abandonment and isolation after he realised the animals were only helping him so they’d get paid. Or the ending’s broken. Yeah, it’s definitely the latter. There’s definitely supposed to be something going on, but all the graphics that are supposed to be on the “front” layer of the screen are actually placed “behind” the background, so all you get to see is a sequence of various location shots and the occasional flicker of sonmthing happening in the distance. I have no idea whether this is down to an emulation error or because, as a pre-release version of a game, Taito simply didn’t fix the ending because they assumed no-one would ever see it, but it means that the mysteries of Recalhorn may never be solved.


The biggest mystery about Recalhorn is why it was never fully released. As far as I can gather it performed poorly during location testing and was subsequently quietly shelved, which is a shame because this is a well above-average platforming adventure. It suffers a little from occasional bland patches in both the theme of the stages and the level design itself, but it’s mostly very enjoyable. The animal helper system is a welcome addition, and the game does a great job of providing alternate routes for whatever situation you find yourself in – I know I wasn’t keen on the lion, but if you put the time into really mastering how to use it I bet there’s all kinds of game-breaking pro strats that could be squeezed out of having a big cat that can fly across stages like it’s been fired out of a howitzer. On top of that it’s a nicely polished game, with tons of charmingly pointless flourishes and a good soundtrack. The only reason I can think of that it might have fared poorly during focus testing is that it very much feels like a console game. You could easily imagine a SNES port of Recalhorn, and I imagine that it all felt a little pointless to arcade players as a result.
I’d say that Recalhorn has to go down as a real missed opportunity, then – close to, if not greatness, then at least very pleasant fun times. Unless you’ve got a real problem with jumping on animals’ heads, that is.

11 comments:

  1. I'm kind of amazed this game was never released. Everyone that spent time making it just to get a "thanks anyway" from Taito. Guess it shows how competitive the market was for this game back then.

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    1. Yeah, there were a lot of cames just like Recalhorn coming out around this time, so I guess that's why it never got a wide release.

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  2. I suspect the bull was meant to be a bison, with the woolly mane accounting for the difference between the front and back halves. I can't account for the green coloration, though!

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    1. Hmm, that would make more sense. The bison bit, it still makes no sense that it's green!

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  3. I'm amazed...that there wasn't one horn innuendo in your whole article.
    That must have been very hard

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  4. If the R was changed to an F, they could have made a game about a man who plays the trumpet with his arse. What a missed opportunity.

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    1. Absolutely disgusting, would play.

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  5. What an interesting game! It seems more like a console-style experience than an arcade one, though. Perhaps that contributed to its cancellation.

    As for the boy's name, the seal appears to be addressing him as "Recal," so you were almost right.

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    Replies
    1. Oh, that's good to know. Maybe they should have called it Recal's Horn.

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  6. What's that little angel that appears in some of the screenshots?

    ReplyDelete

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