Start warming up your vocal cords for lots of high-pitched cooing noises and squeaking out words like “precious” and “fuzzywuzzycuddlekins,” because today’s game is so sugary-sweet that spending too long looking at it can cause incurable eyeabetes. It’s Nova Games’ 1992 Super Famicom flop-em-up Shounen Ashibe!

Or Shounen Ashibe: Goma-chan no Yuuenchi Daibouken, to give it its full title. That translates as something like Young Boy Ashibe: Goma-chan’s Big Amusement Park Adventure, and I’m sure you’ll be shocked to learn that this game is based on a manga series. Created in the late eighties by one Hiromi Morishita, Shonen Ashibe is the story of a primary school kid (the Ashibe of the title) and the adventures he has with his pet seal Goma. That’s right, his pet seal. What, was the pet shop all out of puppies? Ashibe’s family must have a ridiculously large fish budget, but Goma seems happy enough to be their pet and it’s this lovable marine mammal that you’ll be playing as in this game. There he is on the title screen, flopping around outside a bootleg Disneyland which I guess is supposed to be the titular amusement park – although, as we shall see, the amusement park angle seems to get dropped pretty damn quickly.

Okay, we’re in. Presumably Ashibe told the people at the ticket desk that he’s blind and Goma is a seeing-eye seal, because I can’t think of any other reason you’d be allowed to take a seal into a theme park. Okay, maybe at Sea World. What we’ve got here is a world map of sort, with Ashibe and Goma wandering around, talking to the other visitors and entering the gameplay stages by walking up to the doorways scattered around the place. Let’s begin by heading to that strange domed building, shall we?

Here we go, then. Shounen Ashibe is a platformer, as you can see. Floating logs, collectible items, it’s got the lot. That bear may look painfully cute, but it is an enemy that must be avoided at all costs... and it’s just occurred to me that it might actually be an amusement park employee in a bear suit. Whatever it is, the bear must be avoided as you guide Goma through the stage. To reiterate, Goma is a seal. I’m struggling to think of a less appropriate animal to based a platforming-jumping, bear-avoiding, land-based action game around. All I can come up with are “slugs” and “even larger aquatic mammals, maybe a minke whale or something.”

But a seal is what we are, and while Goma doesn’t have the same jumping skills as the Super Marios of the world he can gracelessly hurl his lumpen form from platform to platform. All this movement is required to clear the stages, naturally, but Shounen Ashibe has a slightly different spin than the usual “reach the exit” objective. You do have to reach the exit, but you can’t leave until you collected eight items that are hidden throughout the level. Okay, maybe “hidden” isn’t the best word. Scattered, let’s say. Or “deposited.” Whatever the description, Goma must find the eight objects before he can move on. In this case, it’s apples. Here’s one on this platform. Thrilling.

Not all the items you need to find are sitting in plain sight. That would be too simple, too easy, for a seal of Goma’s talents. You’ll have to hunt out the hidden ones and the main way to do that is by headbutting the scenery. Goma has two moves – he can jump, and he can perform a sideways headbutt that will shake certain background elements like trees and houses. Sometimes, this will cause a collectable object to appear. For instance, in the screenshot above Goma is smashing his skull into a tree, and by the looks of it he’s not much enjoying the experience. An apple then fell out of said tree in an almost perfect recreation of Newton's revelations about gravity.

Just like in real life, going around sticking headbutts on everything you see can backfire. Whacking this tree made a bear fall out, which wasn’t helpful, although it provides a good opportunity to mention that Goma is invincible. He has no health bar and cannot be killed by anything in our physical reality. He can get hit, and if that happens one of the items you’ve collected pops out of Goma’s body in a manner akin to Sonic the Hedgehog losing his rings – except you can always go and pick the item up again, because if they disappeared forever then you wouldn’t be able to finish the stages. Getting hit is little more than an annoyance, although potentially a very frustrating one when something you’ve collected flies out of Goma and falls all the way to the bottom of the stage, a problem that’s compounded when there’s no way to tell if an object contains an item or an enemy before you headbutt it.

It didn’t take long to find all the apples once I’d figured out how to headbutt things. Once you’ve finished a stage, you can move “through” its icon on the map, allowing you to wander around a little and enter another stage, with there usually being a couple of locations available so you get a choice of areas to tackle. I went for this forest stage, because the idea of playing a game where an almost-spherical seal wanders a moonlit forest smashing its head into trees as though it’s been hypnotised into thinking it’s a woodpecker is so ridiculous I can’t help but want to experience it. There are small anime children roaming the woods at night. You might think this shows an alarming amount of parental neglect, but don’t forget that the colossal eyes of the anime children allow them to see perfectly in low-light conditions.

The anime children are also dangerous enough that nothing in the woods is going to mess with them, if the way they grab Goma and try to squeeze the life out of him is anything to go by. Death by smothering is the one of the dangers you face when you’re unbearably adorable, I guess.

There’s also a bit in this stage where you get apples by playing hippopotamus basketball. The little hippos spit out basketballs and you have to headbutt them back into the big hippo’s mouth. Why? There’s seemingly no reason but that’s what makes it so much fun. More hippo basketball, please. (Spoilers: there’s no more hippo basketball after this, which sucks.)

I must admit, I didn’t have much of a clue what I was supposed to be doing while I was playing Shounen Ashibe. Like, what’s my end game here? There’s a castle in the centre of the map that you can’t enter and I presume that’s Goma’s ultimate goal, but what with the whole game being in Japanese I had no idea how I was supposed to get in there. Obviously that’s down to my linguistic failings and not the game being bad, and I’m sure that the people you can talk to on the world map will tell you what you’re supposed to be doing (as well as giving out passwords, which they also do.) After checking out a few YouTube videos, I came to the conclusion that I needed to talk to a certain number of people and play the minigame they offer before the castle is available, so let’s get to doing that by talking to this half-salaryman, half-trout creature.

It is truly astonishing to me that in this game I am playing as a seal and the controls are somehow worse when the seal is swimming than they are when it’s on dry land. Goma’s movements are loose and floaty while he’s in the water and even though the goal of this stage is simply to reach the top of the screen it feels like much more work than it should be. It’s like trying to steer a shopping trolley with a wonky wheel and some mysterious sticky substance all over the handle – not a rewarding challenging, just annoying.

And that’s what you do in Shounen Ashibe. Work your way through a few very lightly puzzle-based regular stages, traverse the world map to find the person who’ll offer you a swimming challenge and then repeat until the final castle is unlocked. The areas of the map are loosely divided up into themed “zones,” like the forest world at the beginning or these none-more-typical platformer caves.

Some stages feel less “official” than the others, like these levels that are set high in the clouds and revolve around traversing huge flying cakes. Of course there are stages where everything’s made of sweets, Shounen Ashibe has to keep its sickeningly high cuteness ratio up somehow and having stages that are somehow so (literally) sweet they make your teeth melt just by looking at them is a familiar go-to for cutesy games.
I say these stages feel less “official” because they aren’t mandatory. I know this, because I finished the game but I couldn’t clear this flying cake stage. I spent a long time in here, jumping around in Goma’s heavy, belly-flopping style and performing so many headbutts that the game was in danger of turning into Super Glaswegian Fighter: Old Firm Derby Edition, but I simply could not find the last couple of birds. This is a little embarrassing given that the overwhelming feeling that you get from Shounen Ashibe’s gameplay is how easy it is. Make no mistake, this is a very easy game, and I most certainly don’t mean that as an insult. It’s very clearly aimed at young children, and unlike so many other “aimed at young children” games I’ve played – your Tweenies and Rugrats and the like – it manages to be easy enough for the nippers without ever feeling patronising or undercooked. There’s a game here, a fully-realised videogame and not a quarter-arsed smattering of awful minigames, and the developers must be commended for landing Shounen Ashibe squarely into the comfort zones of its target audience.

The developers must also be commended for including some spooky haunted house levels, complete with little jack o’lantern ghosts. Are these poltergeist pumpkins cute? You bet your backside they are! Now, clearly I’m a large, gruff Northern man whose machismo is second only to the lustrousness of his beard but it’s not like I’m immune to the charm of cuteness and that’s something Shounen Ashibe’s graphics possess in abundance. I think part of why I’m enjoying the look so much is that Goma, being a rotund little blob of an animal, is infinitely cuter than the kind of saucer-eyed anime kids you’re often playing as in games like these. Those kind of anime kids creep me out a little, if I’m honest.

Goma rides a skateboard at one point, which is fun and by fun I of course mean “radical” or possibly even “tubular.” I think my biggest criticism of Shounen Ashibe is that there just aren’t enough of these little set pieces and mini-challenges. Most levels follow the same formula of straightforwardly platforming through the small stages and headbutting everything in sight, with things like the hippo basketball being few and far between. There’s a delicate balancing act to be managed in keeping the game in that “suitable for very young players” zone that it does a good job of occupying without overburdening it with fiddly minigames, but a little more variety would have gone a long way.

Coming at Shonen Ashibe from the position of someone who’s far older than the target audience, I have to say it does drag on a bit toward the end, even in what is a pretty short game. Take the obligatory ice stages, for example: they’re basically the same as the caves, except the floor is slippery and the bears are now equally adorable polar bears. Those definitely aren’t men in costumes, those are actual polar bear cubs. You’d think a seal would be more worried in this situation, given a polar bear’s diet.

There are a few underwater stages, and once Goma is free from his human oppressors and back in his natural habitat it’s a relief that he controls far better than he did in the other swimming stages, although even in the briny deep there’s no escaping from anime children. I suppose Goma controls fairly well for the most part, or at least he controls better than I expected him to when I first saw his large, legless sprite. He’s a little slow and sometimes he has trouble with the edges of platforms, especially when you’re trying to get him to drop down and doubly especially when it’s a narrow gap that his blubbery frame won’t fit through easily, but on the whole controlling Goma isn’t as frustrating as it could have been. One quirk of his movement is that the headbutt moves you horizontally faster than simple “walking” does, so you’ll eventually reach a point where you’re moving Goma through the stages by having him flop face-first across the floor like a freshly-landed halibut.

One of the four surface-swimming stages I found includes Goma rescuing a stranded kitten, which I feel I have to show here because I know some of my readers will definitely appreciate this tiny pixel cat.

Eventually I made it into the castle, and boy, what a disappointment that was. It’s just a very slightly longer-than-usual stage with little to suggest it takes place in a fairytale castle, even a fairytale castle from an amusement park. It’s a big building and it’s got a few chandeliers, but it’s hardly lush with magical opulence. Mostly it’s got floating logs. A rather anticlimactic end to the game, but an end it is and so Shounen Ashibe: Goma-chan no Yuuenchi Daibouken comes to a close.

That’s right, Goma, you enjoy your little dance. You’ve earned it, I’d say. Shounen Ashibe might not be a ground-breaking game or an especially thrilling game or even a game that’ll live long in my memory, but by ‘eck it wasn’t half cute. Thumbs up on the graphics, definitely. If the cuteness in this game appeals to you,then you might be interested to learn that Shounen Ashibe received a new anime adaptation this year, so for once I'm accidentally timely with a review.
For a game aimed at kids it pitches its difficulty level at an appropriate level, so that’s a nice surprise – it’s got just enough challenge to it to be rewarding, but forgiving enough to stop a six-year-old getting frustrated. Plus it’s not often you get to play as a seal. Or the singer Seal, for that matter, unless “Kiss From a Rose” being on the soundtrack meant that he appeared as a secret character in the Batman Forever games. I’m going to assume that he did. Please do not correct me.

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