If I was putting together a list of animals most suited to defending a planet from demonic, interstellar invaders, I’d imagine I’d put the humble rabbit somewhere down near the bottom. When the Carrot People of Brocculon 7 start getting belligerent then sure, it’s rabbits all the way but otherwise I’d go with, I dunno, gorillas with guns. However, if you make the rabbit a flying mechanical suit with destructive fists and a rapid-fire laser gun then hey, now you’ve got the concept of today’s game: it’s Video System’s 1987 arcade shooter Rabio Lepus!

Yes, it’s Rabio Lepus, with a rather nice calligraphic logo and the words “Rabio Lepus” written below a second time, just in case you forgot the title of the game after reading the logo. Lepus is, of course, the Latin word for “hare” and helps make up the taxonomical name for bunnies, and Rabio is… well, it’s a made up word but it definitely feels rabbit-ish. It also sounds like Scooby-Doo meeting Fabio.

On the rabbit planet, where the inhabitants are human and merely dress as rabbits to varying degrees, the king and the two princesses have been kidnapped by the bad guys. Why? Who knows. All I know is that the villains are leaving behind a perfectly good castle, and I find it more amusing than perhaps I should that this fairytale castle has a paved asphalt road leading up to it.

Off goes Usagi, the robotic rabbit fighter, to save King Fursuit and his daughters Wedding Rabbit and Playboy Bunny. That’s who we’ll be playing as. If these character looks familiar to you, you might have spotted them in other Video System games such as the Sonic Wings series, where Rabio Lepus’ characters pop up in playable or cameo appearances. Space-travelling robobunnies feel very much in keeping with Video System’s slightly weird design philosophy. I think the last Video System game I played was Lethal Crash Race, and that definitely had its fair share of weirdos.

You know what I love? When videogame map screens mark locations with extremely redundant labels. “Spaceship”? Thanks, for a second there I thought it was vinyl copy of the Elvis Costello album Armed Forces.
Don’t be fooled by this map: it might look like there are only three stages (spaceship, asteroid base and planet) but there are a lot more than that, as we shall see.

Here we go, then. Rabio Lepus is a side-scrolling shooter that I’m going to compare to Gradius, even though I feel a little bad that I always compare side-scrolling shooters to Gradius. I know there are other shooters out there, but the way the first conga line of enemies flew towards Usagi genuinely did make me think of Gradius.
As with most side-scrolling shooters, you shoot the enemies with your weapon – in Usagi’s case, a relatively fast-firing laser cannon - and try not to collide with the bad guys or their projectiles. So far so typical, although Rabio Lepus does give you a health bar rather than having you explode into rabbity chunks at the slightest mishap. That’s what the red blocks at the bottom of the screen are. Each block represents one of your three lives and acts as an individual health bar.

Onwards flies Usagi, pew-pewing his way through an enemy armada composed mostly of nondescript robotic lumps and more interesting scuttling creatures that look like walking microchips. It all plays out much as you’d expect. Usagi handles quite well, although he is something of a marshmallowy target, being fairly large and with a hitbox I never really managed to get a concrete handle on. Then a voice sample shouted “Destroy enemy master!”

A boss? Already? Blimey, that was quick. I’ve barely warmed up my trigger finger; stage one had only been going about a minute and a half before this robotic bull appeared. Usagi’s powers of flight give him the advantage in this battle, with the boss being confined to the bottom half of the screen, although Usagi’s main weapon can only fire straight ahead so you will have to get in front of the boss to damage it. That’s dangerous, because the boss has the ability to fire a deadly plasma beam ahead of itself, as well as charging head-first along the bottom of the screen. Look, you don’t build a robotic bull and not give it the ability to gore things with its titanium horns. Erm, unless it’s one of those mechanical bar-room bulls that were popular for a while. Maybe this boss is an early prototype of one of those things, banished into outer space for trampling the more tone-deaf patrons during karaoke night.

So, stage one was very brisk and the rest of Rabio Lepus follows the same template of short stages – never more than a couple of minutes long – with a boss at the end. Stage two is no different. Another mechanical background as we fly through the big spaceship from the map screen and more uninspiring robot shapes to shoot at. For a moment I thought these things were supposed to be I Ching mirrors but no, they’re just pissed-off octagons. So far I’m not really feeling Rabio Lepus’ visuals – the graphics themselves are quite nice on a technical level, considering this game is from 1987, but so far they’ve been a little generic and if they were going for an amusing contrast between stark metal militarism and Usagi’s undeniable cuteness it’s not really working for me.

The fact that this stage’s boss is “three robots” isn’t exactly changing my opinion. I like robots as much as the next person who grew up watching Transformers and Voltron, but these aren’t even especially interesting robots. They’re… Gundam Lite, I suppose. They also threw a lot more lasers at me than I was expecting, which is why Usagi is dying in the screenshot above. Eventually I realised that the quickest way to beat this (and any other) boss battle is to fire all of Usagi’s secondary weapon ammo as fast as possible. At the very bottom-left of the screen you can see a row of icons that represents the ammunition for your missile launcher, a limited-use subweapon that fires a barrage of homing missiles in a manner that would feel quite Macross-esque if they weren’t spewing out of a rabbit wearing little red bootees. The missiles are extremely useful and will eliminate even bosses quickly and efficiently, but their limited ammo makes them a valuable resource so I’d recommend saving them for the end-of-stage battles.

This is more like it – some interesting enemies, at last! These morose grey faces definitely caught my interest, although I couldn’t stop think about the way they’re facing out of the screen meaning that Usagi is destroying them by pouring hot laser death directly into their ears. They also remind me of Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov. And if you thought these disembodied faces were fun…

… then get a load of this chap. I like his expression of mild consternation, a remarkably subdued reaction from someone who’s been cracked open like a boiled egg at breakfast time. “Did I just see a flying robo-rabbit, or was it merely a side-effect of my exposed brain matter?” the face seems to be wondering. What I’m wondering is whether this face is based on Peter Weller in RoboCop, because that’s the vibe I’m getting from it.

This battle combines the “animal” and “multiple robots” theme of the previous two bosses to bring us multiple robot panthers. They’re reminding me of the Konami arcade game Black Panther, which is a shame because that game is not very good. I’d better launch all my missiles at them, then.

That plan rather backfired when I moved on to stage four, which is purely a boss battle. A boss battle I don’t have any missile ammunition for. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if you could upgrade Usagi’s main laser, but you can’t. Unlike almost every other shoot-em-up ever made, you’re stuck with the same piddly blaster for the entire duration of the game, with no power-ups to change to a new weapon or even increase your firepower. This does mean that you avoid the common shoot-em-up problem of losing all your power-ups and being woefully underpowered whenever you die, but that’s the only advantage to a system that keeps the gameplay very samey and quite dull for the duration of the game – and by this point, Rabio Lepus has become difficult enough that you feel woefully underpowered anyway.
As for the boss, it’s okay. It looks a bit different, at least. I assume it’s the spaceship’s central computer and the figure sticking out of the side is the hyper-advanced mainframe equivalent of a hood ornament.

The Playboy Princess is saved, so even should Usagi fail in his mission the royal bloodline will live on. I’m half-tempted to call it a day here. Playboy Princess seems like the most level-headed of the three royals. Sure, she’s wearing a bunnygirl suit, but surely that’s better than the king’s mascot costume or the other princess eternally wearing a wedding dress like some long-eared Miss Havisham?

Now we’ve moved on to the asteroid base, where the Rabio Lepus thrill-ride continues with exciting new backgrounds (rocks) and equally exciting new enemies (also rocks). During this lull, I’ll take a moment to explain Usagi’s third weapon – his pummelling fists. If you get close enough to an enemy, pressing the fire button won’t launch a laser but will instead cause Usagi to punch. It’s a very powerful attack, but obviously the range is extremely small. So small, in fact, that I didn’t manage to get a decent screenshot of it because I kept flying into the thing I was trying to punch and dying. The punches are an interesting concept (and a spaceship with arms was presumably “inspired” by Konami’s TwinBee) but the execution is sorely lacking. If your punches had a little more range, that’d make them far more enjoyable to use; if they were activated by a separate button, they’d be even better. However, the punches do not work like that and later in the game there are so many bullet-sponge enemies that you have to punch your way through and it all gets rather frustrating. That didn’t stop Bally-Sente renaming the game Rabbit Punch when they localised it for overseas release, mind you. The pun was right there, it’s not like they could ignore it.

The boss is More Rocks, this time with additional demonic head. If you've seen one shoot-em-up boss where your target is surrounded by a spinning circle of destructible objects, you’ve seen ‘em all.

The next stage is caves again, but this time they’re a bit more interesting thanks to the leaping mecha-piranhas that jump out of the water. As we all know, a school of mecha-piranhas can strip a robo-rabbit down to the endoskeleton in minutes, so it’s annoying that they’re located right next to all the power-ups I need. That’s what the can on the bottom-right of the screen is. Shooting the cans open reveals items such as missile ammo, health-ups or temporary invincibility, but if you touch the cans without shooting them they fall off the screen and the power-up is lost. This feels like a particularly mean addition to a game that has already become very difficult thanks to the density of the enemies, their tendency to appear right next to you with no warning and Usagi’s limited offensive capabilities, and it’s hard enough to feel at odds with Rabio Lepus’ often cutesy art-style. When combined with the “my first shooter” power-up system, I ended up with the impression that Rabio Lepus’ developers couldn’t decide whether they wanted to make a game for a slightly younger audience or regular arcade shooter fans.

The stage – and perhaps the entire game – is redeemed by this boss, a hovering sheet ghost with a variety of expressions scrawled across the (possibly literal) canvas of its face. The boss doesn’t do anything especially interesting – it summons formation-flying turtles and spits the odd projectile – but just look at that goddamn face. I think it’s those eyebrows. They look like my eyebrows, or at least they would if I ever trimmed my eyebrows.

Well I’m glad someone found the time to gussy up this asteroid base a little. Can you even call it a base if it isn’t decorated with bikini angels? I think not. The ceiling-statues showing the T-1000 morphing into an octopus in what could have been Terminator 2’s greatest scene are a nice touch, too.
Please also note the diamond-shaped blocks, because they deflect your laser at a ninety-degree angle when you shoot them and in a better game that could have provided the impetus for some fun semi-puzzle shooting. In Rabio Lepus, however, they just get in the way.

The boss is a black-and-white photocopy of a yoga master, hovering around on his mystical boulder and spewing forth a barrage of fire from which there is no escape. Of all the bosses in the game, this is the one where “fire all your missiles and pray” felt like the only viable tactic, so I did that.

The rock demon from the earlier boss fight is back, only now he’s got an extreme intestinal parasite that can’t wait to pop out and say hello! After the bullshit fire wizard this fight is a nice change of pace and the last respite you’ll get before the end of the game, so take a moment to enjoy it. Then shoot the demon in its mouth. I assume it will be glad to be put out of its misery.

The king has been saved. Sorry, Princess Playgirl, but you’ve just been demoted back down to second in line for the throne. A typical aristocrat, the king starts whining and expects the common man – erm, rabbit – to solve his problems without even attempting to help. I’d watch out, your highness, I doubt that fursuit is guillotine-proof.

We’ve now reached the planet’s surface for another round of fairly generic shoot-em-up action. I just wanted a few cool guns to use, but that was apparently too much to ask. So we shoot some more stone faces and flying robots and avoid the background elements like the pillars. The most interesting thing about this stage is that I had to pause it for a couple of minutes, because it was bothering me that I couldn’t remember what game it reminded me of. Then it hit me: the background was making me think of classic Amiga graphics showcase Shadow of the Beast.

Oh dear – won’t someone please help this unfortunate dragon? It’s managed to get itself stuck inside a bin bag, which as we all know are to dragons as plastic beer rings are to seagulls. It probably crawled into the bag looking for gold to add to its hoard, the poor sod. Never mind, noble creature, I will set you free. After all, lasers shouldn’t have any trouble cutting through a plastic bag.

By the time I reached the ice level, I must confess I’d about had enough of Rabio Lepus. It’s kinda boring, that’s the thing. Enemies are being recycled, the stages aren’t adding any new mechanics or exciting set-pieces and I’ve been using the same laser gun for the entire game. It’s reached that combination of genericness and annoying difficulty that you often find in sub-par shoot-em-ups, although I admit part of the problem might be that I simply don’t enjoy shoot-em-ups all that much. There are a few I like – Lifeforce / Salamander on the NES springs to mind – but on the whole it is not a genre I get much pleasure from. That’s one of the reasons I don’t write about many of them, I suppose.

This boss is an evil elephant. If it wasn’t constantly firing energy pellets at me, I’d have a hard time believing it wasn’t just a regular elephant. It’s kind of a shame that elephants can’t fire deadly projectiles in all directions, honestly. Poachers would really have to step up their game.
On the subject of the elephant’s projectiles, I’d like to meet the person who thought having them turn light blue against a light blue background was a good idea so I can give them a firm handshake around the neck.

It is with a real jaw-breaker of a yawn that I must report the penultimate stage is a boss rush. At least I get to see the ghost again, this time wearing the same facial expression as I was when I got hit by the elephant’s barely-visible projectiles. Apparently this boss, whose name is Tenukie Chaudo, appears in a bunch of other Video System games and that’s great, because he definitely deserves better than Rabio Lepus.

Now we face the final boss: an enormous axe-wielding demon whose lower extremities (or lack thereof) are begging me to make a Rob Liefeld joke. The demon wants to chop Usagi with its axe, so I fired all my missiles and blasted away with my laser while avoiding the demon’s fairly clumsy swings, only to find that nothing was happening. No damage was registered, I ran out of missiles and despite landing hits on every part of the demon’s body – yes, including right in the loincloth – I couldn’t make a breakthrough. Then I noticed the cracked wall in the background, and you don’t play though all the Zelda games without learning what a cracked wall means.

Surprise! There’s a shrivelled, robe-wearing cadaver slumped in a chair behind the wall. Aside from the “bricked up behind a wall” part that’s as good a description of me while writing this article as you’re likely to see, but I didn’t let our common ground stop me from blasting the boss. No, instead I was stopped by the screen-filling diamond blocks and deadly projectiles that were constantly spewing, wave after wave after wave, from the back of the room because I took too long figuring out how the boss fight worked. In the end I simply had to die a few times and use the brief period of invincibility to get right up to the corpse and shoot it as fast as possible. That did the trick, and Rabio Lepus comes to an end.

Everyone is saved and the kingdom is restored to normality: Usagi goes back filing his teeth down by gnawing anything he can find, the king changes into his fancy, jewel-encrusted bunny suit to meet a visiting head of state, that sort of thing.

Usagi gets a statue. Because his front limbs aren’t touching the ground, I believe that means he died in battle.
Rabio Lepus, then. Not a great game, in my humble opinion. A good game? No, not that either. It’s definitely a game, let’s go with that. It feels like a test run for Video System’s wackier (and much more interesting) later shoot-em-ups, and you should probably play those games instead because outside of a few interesting moments like the ghost boss and exposed-brain-maybe-RoboCop wall decorations if feels like there’s little to recommend Rabio Lepus. I might be wrong, though. I often am, and as I said I’m not a big shoot-em-up fan so I don’t feel as qualified to judge Rabio Lepus as I might if it were a beat-em-up or a Halloween-themed hidden object game. I will give it one further bit of praise, though: “Rabio Lepus” is really fun to say out loud. Go on, try it. Now stop, you look weird.

1 comment:

  1. I actually played the arcade version of this in a store. It was sitting right next to fellow gameplay-challenged obscurity Mikie, the game where you're a high school jerk knocking your classmates out of their chairs so you can sit down before you get caught by the teacher.

    Er, anyway. I liked Rabbit Punch, but it does wear out its welcome after the first two stages. The core of the game is solid, but there's really not much more beyond that. As for the art direction, they probably should have started out with something cute and colorful, then slowly shifted to the disturbing science fiction as you progressed. That way it would feel like you were leaving the safety of your home planet and traveling further into unfamiliar, dangerous territory.


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