05/10/2018

SEIKIMA II: AKUMA NO GYAKUSHUU (FAMICOM)

They say that heavy metal is the Devil’s music, which I’ve never really understood: Satan is supposed to be the great deceiver, so favouring very loud songs about how great sin is seems like it’d go against his MO. But what do I know? I’m not a theologian. Perhaps for answers we should turn to someone more knowledgeable on such matters, like the star of today’s game - and that game is ISCO’s 1986 Famicom ghost-grabber Seikima II: Akuma no Gyakushuu!


The first part of the title is pronounced “seikimatsu” - “seikima-two,” you see – a pun on the Japanese word meaning “end of the century.” Seikima II is also the name of Japanese metal band, and yes, what we’ve got here is a Famicom platformer based on a Japanese metal band.
Seikima II formed in the early eighties and enjoyed a lot of success until 1999 when, in a display of real commitment to their “end of the century” bit, they disbanded at the stroke of midnight as the millennium arrived. Their whole shtick was that they were demonic emissaries from an alternate universe who came to Earth to work as Satan’s hype-men, and they seem to have stuck to this concept rigidly and with a straight face so again, you can’t fault their commitment. Having checked out some of their videos, I think the best description of Seikima II is “Japanese Kiss.” They even had a guitarist called Ace.
You can see the band pictured at the bottom of the title screen. In the centre is Seikima II’s front man and this game’s playable character, Demon Kogure. So, is Kogure out to topple the golden throne of heaven and establish Satan’s dominion over the Earth?


Of course not, this is a videogame from 1986. Demon Kogure’s task is to rescue all his kidnapped band members. I suppose it makes a change from rescuing princesses.


The first world is a haunted forest. Those logs on the right certainly seem to be haunted by their past regrets, that’s for sure. Demon Kogure is down at the bottom, represented by what I’d say is a rather good sprite. Kogure’s wide slicks of black eye make-up and his towering blonde hair make for an easily-caricatured look, which helps.
As for gameplay, Seikima II is a platformer with a very arcade-y feel. Each world is split into several short zones that are one screen tall and three or four screens wide, and your goal is to collect everything. The exits won’t open until Kogure has grabbed every last apple, money bag, severed head and curiously placid upside-down-cross-displaying ghosts. Yep, those ghosts are items rather than enemies, which makes a kind of sense. You’d expect the forces of evil to be on Demon Kogure’s side, after all.


There are enemies to fight, of course, and in this first world they take forms as diverse as floating moai statues, smiling sea urchins and that most terrifying of all creatures, the remorseless butterfly. Kogure can defeat these foes by chucking rocks at them, because if there’s one thing that says “you’re in control of the demonic vanguard of Beelzebub’s unholy army” it’s throwing pebbles at butterflies. Not quite the devilish powers I was expecting to command, I must confess.


It didn’t take long to encounter something truly hellish in Seikima II. Unfortunately the nightmare in question is the game’s jumping controls, which were surely concocted by Lucifer himself during a particularly fertile creative period. You press the jump button to jump, which is fair enough, but Kogure’s airborne movements are twitchy and inconsistent to say the least. Holding left or right while jumping performs a sideways hop with very little vertical height, so to jump up to higher platforms – an action that makes up a good eighty percent of the gameplay – you have to hold the button and then press left or right while you’re in mid-air. However, even the faintest contact with an obstacle during your jump cancels your upward momentum and you fall back down. As a result, all the platforming in this game is a constant struggle with the jumping mechanics, with you inevitably using the wrong kind of jump half the time, a problem compounded by the constant waves of respawning enemies and the fact the many of the stages are set up ass a one-way system so if you mess up a jump and fall down you have to trek the long way around rather than just jumping back up to where you fell from. It's difficult to convey how horrible all this feels in words, but if it was a sound that sound would be "huuurggghlle."


While trying and failing to get a handle on the jumping mechanics, I accidentally touched an ominous hovering eyeball. Normally touching an ominous hovering eyeball results in being stricken by a terrible curse or unintentionally bringing a demon over to our dimension, but in Seikima II’s case it’s a shop. Of course it is. Inside you can use the moneybags you’ve collected to buy red potions that restore some of your health, a knife that upgrades your projectile attack and a guitar. The guitar has no gameplay function, more’s the pity, but you only get the “good” ending if you manage to get all your bandmates’ instruments out of hock.


Despite the best efforts of the jumping mechanic to convince me otherwise, Seikima II is very straightforward game. Grab all the items like some demented version of Supermarket Sweep, avoid or defeat the enemies, spend your hard-earned cash on musical equipment. There are a few caveats to this simple format, mind you; for one, your health is constantly draining at a rapid rate and not just when you collide with an Easter Island statue gone walkabout. The other is that there’s a minor element of exploration to be done, because the areas within each world don’t follow a linear path. There are seven areas in each world to empty of items before the eighth and final area opens up, and you might be able to travel from zone one to zone two but not from zone two to zone three, so you have to go back to zone one and find another exit (in this case “exit” means a hole in the floor). They’re not hugely complex labyrinths so you’re unlikely to get lost, but the result is that Seikima II feels like it’s stuffed with pointless, energy-sapping backtracking.


Once you do make it down to the final zone, you’ll encounter a boss of sorts. Go on, see if you can spot it in the screenshot above. Give up? There’s a tiny knight standing in front of the cage holding the imprisoned member of the band. I was expecting a more imposing foe from a game with a subtitle that translates to “Demon’s Counterattack,” but instead we’re tasked with defeating a living Playmobil figure that’s hopelessly out of its depth. You can only harm the knight by hitting it in the back, because it blocks your attacks with its shield otherwise, and the knight can attack by throwing arcing rings of sparkly magic into the air, but overall it’s very easy to defeat if you remembered to purchase the knives.


Seikima II’s commitment to tedious busy work continues, because defeating the knight isn’t enough to free your bandmate. You also have to make your way around the zone and touch all of these floating objects, which are either tombstones or very gothic surfboards. The last one will have a key inside. Once you’ve picked that up, then you can open the cage and move on to world two.


Given how much of a pain in the arse it was to manoeuvre Kogure through the first world, I would strongly suggest that the band slim down from a five-piece to a duo.


My suggestion was not taken on board, so here we go with world number two. I know, I know, it’s not very Halloween-y. I was disappointed too but hey, at least Kogure gets to fight some more thematically-appropriate enemies in the form of these lil’ angels. Granted, they appear to be the angels of deceased gingerbread men, but I’ll take it.


Visuals aside, world two is very similar to world one and indeed the entire game follows this template. You’re still collecting all the items, with the ghosts and money bags returning but with the addition of the latest abducted band member’s disembodied head and also pot plants. Given the dark, sinister themes of Seikima II, I must concluded that they are spider plants.


Along the way I managed to upgrade my weapon again, and I gotta say that throwing battle axes at angels is definitely more what I expected from this game that flinging stones at insects. You know what else I expected from a game based on a band? In-game music that didn’t make me want to squirt a tube of decorator’s caulk down each ear. Yes, I must sadly report that the music in this game is utterly terrible, with each world having one track of squeaky, unmelodious noise that repeats on a four-bar loop. Now that’s the Devil’s music.


The boss is, once again, a very small knight. There he is, hiding amongst the foliage. His guerilla tactics don’t make him any more difficult to defeat, although because the platform he’s walking back and forth on is longer than in the first encounter he does spend longer stretches of time with his shield facing towards you. He's still easy to beat, and while my pleasure at my victory was momentarily wiped away by the reminder that, oh yeah, I’ve got to touch all these gravestones to find the key it was soon onwards to world number three.


I don’t think I need to tell you how this one plays out. The pot plants are swapped out for candles and the environment has a much more Halloween-appropriate “ancient ruins” theme, complete with spiders and snakes. Kogure still jumps like his boots are filled with vicious robot crabs. The music? Heinous.


As the game progress, the areas are set up more and more often to be single-route challenges. They often look quite open at first glance, but appearances can be misleading. For example, you can only head to the right here, because Kogure can’t crouch and he’s two “blocks” tall, making him unable to squeeze through either of those gaps to his left. I suppose it’s not a terrible design decision, but a bit more freedom to approach each area might have been nice. More aggravating is Seikima II’s tendency to place items in such a way that you have to climb up to reach the topmost one and then fall back down to collect items that are hanging in the air, forcing you to repeat the same bits of platforming to collect all the items. My top tip for countering this is to take advantage of Kogure’s Mega Man-like ability to stand on empty space so long as at least one pixel of his toe is touching a platform: this can sometimes help you to wriggle up though platforms that otherwise might force you to go the long way around.


I was starting to feel a bit sorry for the tiny knight by this point. Then I remembered how horrible the jumping feels and I lost all ability to feel compassion for others, so that was fun.


Now we’re talking – the final world has that real Halloween je ne sais quoi, as landscapes made entirely from human bones and patrolled by mummies tend to. It’s amazing how much more amenable to Seikima II’s gameplay I was feeling once I was scaling Skull Mountain. I suppose that having gotten as used to the jumping controls as possible was also helping.


When a bat hits a priest and he ends up deceased, that’s Kogure. Yes, I’ve purchased the strongest weapon in the game and it’s an endless supply of throwable bats. The developers really shouldn’t have hidden this particular light under a bushel, should they? If you’re making a game where you’re playing as a guy who calls himself Demon Kogure who can throw trained bats at the priests who have presumably come to exorcise him, that stuff should be front-and-centre, stage one gameplay.


There’s an area in the final world where the platforms and items spell out “CBS SONY,” who produced the game. Stay turned to VGJunk for more fascinating videogame tidbits like this. Look, what else do you want me to say, “then Kogure fights that bloody knight yet again?”


Guess what, that’s exactly what I’m going to say. Then Kogure fights that bloody knight yet again, although at least this time we can actually get a good look at him as he patrols his platform, flanked by priests. Yep, that’s definitely a tiny knight with wee little matchstick legs that would surely buckle under the weight of full plate armour. No wonder defeating the knight is the easiest part of Seikima II.


The band’s back together, but before they can get back on stage and resume their mission to corrupt the minds of humanity, there’s one last mission for Kogure. He must travel to the Zeus Zone and engage in the final battle against Zeus. The Greek god Zeus. Zeus.


Except that is quite clearly Jesus Christ. He’s got a halo, he attacks by throwing glitter in the same way as the knight rather than the more impressive and more Zeus-ian method of massive great lighting bolts. The game might be telling me it’s Zeus, but think about it this way: who do you think Kogure, Satan’s best pal and avowed devil-worshipper, is more likely to be fighting - Zeus or Jesus? I rest my case. What’s that? The programme for Seikima II’s 1988 “The Greatest Black Mass” tour specifically says the band were imprisoned for thousands of years by the mightiest god Zeus? All right, fine, it’s Zeus. I still think the Jesus angle makes more sense, though.
As for the actual fight, it’s basically the same as the battles against the knights except Zeus will jump over your attacks if you throw them at his body. Jump and attack and they’ll be too high for Zeus to leap over, though, so do that. If you’ve managed to purchase the bats – and why wouldn’t you, because the game gives you plenty of cash to buy all the instruments and every weapon upgrade - it only takes about eight hits and Seikima II: Akuma no Gyakushuu is over.


The ending sees the reassembled band play a show for an audience of appreciative ghosts, which is about as good an ending as I could have hoped for. Shame about the horrendous music, but there was an updated MSX version of the game that featured actual Seikima II songs, so I probably should have played that version. Whoops.
Seikima II: Akuma no Gyakushuu is a game I don't hate, even though I think I probably should. It certainly isn’t much fun to play, thanks to the stiff, frustrating controls that are only exacerbated by the back-tracking and the constant health drain. In a game where the monsters are forever respawning right above your head, it’d be nice to be able to take things slowly and cautiously but you can’t do that while your health’s dwindling away like my will to live during a long dental procedure. It’s very much a game that missed its time, still beholden to the early arcade game design philosophies: considering it was released after Super Mario Bros. forever altered the playing field, it didn’t really stand a chance.


Yet there’s still something about it that charmed me. it’s probably just the concept of playing as a Satanist who has to take time off from his black crusade to rescue his band, throwing bats at priests as he goes. There’s something very appealing about that, especially when Demon Kogure’s in-game sprite is such an adorably chubby little lump. And hey, I learned something else: Kogure had a character based on him in the Fist of the North Star anime, so he must be cool.


I’ve given Seikima II a six on the Halloween-O-Meter, which is a shame because it was close to getting a much higher score. If only the enemies had been more monsters and ghouls than butterflies and birds, but alas. The final skull level definitely earned it an extra point, that’s for sure.

2 comments:

  1. I love the band's little sprites! Their pixelated KISS-alike facepaint is just adorable.

    ReplyDelete
  2. If you showed me this and told me it was a rom hack I'd believe you. Kinda wild it's an actual game that's the same age as I am.

    ReplyDelete

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