[“Might Have Been” is a GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, concepts, and companies failed. This edition looks at Seta's Battle Bull, released for the Game Boy in January 1991.]

When Seta Corporation breathed its last in January of 2009, many in the gaming press didn’t know how to mourn the company. It deserved to be remembered for something, but what was the standout Seta classic?

Most resorted to pointing out oddities like the non-racist Tom Sawyer NES game (not to be confused with Square’s hysterically racist one), the mediocre yet amusingly localized Kendo Rage, or Seta’s library of semi-pornographic mahjongg titles. Some even brought up the sad tale of Bio Force Ape, canceled just when it was about to deliver the best game ever to feature pro-wrestling cyborg simians. Yet the best Seta game might be a neglected Game Boy puzzler called Battle Bull.

Futurepunk Pengo

We must assume that Battle Bull is set in a future where the public is entertained by mechanical crane-tanks dueling in mazes, since there’s no real plotline to be uncovered. In fact, there are barely any characters aside from the anime-lookin' woman who winks repeatedly on the game’s password screen. Battle Bull is all business: your tiny shovel-tank is dropped into a labyrinth of blocks, which you push around to crush foes and avoid their own attacks.

It’s the exact same idea that Sega and Coreland used in the arcade masterpiece Pengo, though it’s enhanced for Battle Bull. The enemies show a little more variety, ranging from scuttling, block-pushing bugs to missile-firing tanks to viciously quick refrigerator robots. The blocks themselves include standard pieces to be shoved across the screen, plus stationary squares and boxes that disappear unless they’re pushed in the right direction. Battle Bull even adds pits that open and close, making it possible to lead enemies to their demise.

There was no lack of Game Boy puzzle games at the start of 1991, so Battle Bull stood out by making its lead dozer-tank a customizable beast. Before even the first stage emerges, the player is taken to a shop offering an impressive arsenal: engines increase speed, claws shove blocks faster, springs let the tank jump, and top-mounted guns actually let you shoot at foes. And nearly all of them are far too expensive for players just starting out.

Each component has three increasingly expensive upgrades, revealing new features as they’re acquired. For example, the lineup of vulcan guns, grenade launchers, and artillery pods fires the same missile, but the strongest will destroy an entire line of blocks and the enemies behind them. There's no spectacular destruction to watch, as the game’s graphics simply get the job done, sparing little personality for the enemies and only a fleck of super-deformed appeal for the player’s jumping tank. The soundtrack is rhythmic and pleasing, yet it never sticks. Game Boy action-puzzle games didn’t need such frills.

Slow to Start

Battle Bull’s greatest flaw is its stiff first impression. Even if the player spends the initial $500 on an engine upgrade, the main battle tank still putters around mazes at Zamboni-grade speeds. It’s up to the player to earn money by destroying the required number of enemies in each level. Stay alive and the cash piles up. That creaking little golf cart of a tank gradually turns into a sleek combat machine, tearing through mazes, launching missiles down alleys, and hurling blocky destruction at slower, dumber opponents.

It’s this sense of steady accomplishment that puts Battle Bull ahead of countless other Game Boy puzzle titles. While the levels are quick, cleverly arrayed challenges, the careful tank-work is a strategic keystone. You’ll get only enough prize money to buy a new part every few stages, so it’s best to be careful about where that cash goes. Building up a good engine should come first, while jumping lets your tank evade enemies.

The weapons, the most expensive of all the accessories, are the most satisfying. In effect, acquiring them completely changes Battle Bull’s focus. You’ll spend a dozen or so mazes running from buzzing masses of diodes and treads, with shoved blocks and trapdoor stratagems as your only real weapons. Then, with your first weapon purchase, you become a perpetually ravenous Pac-Man in a maze of flashing blue ghosts.

Block Party

There’s a point where Battle Bull loses some of its draw. By the time you near the middle of the game’s 48-level climb, you’ll have all of the upgrades, the weapons, and a stockpile of lives. The game still cranks out taxing little labyrinths and some new enemies, but it no longer has the allure of the shop and its overpriced selection.

There’s no maze-building mode and no reward waiting after stage 48. There’s only the sight of an anonymous pilot and the password screen’s equally nameless woman gazing upon the game’s credits. Like most of the games Seta published, Battle Bull likely wasn’t an in-house creation. The staff roll suggests that it was made by Jorudan, a little-known developer that recently got back into creating games.

Whether it’s an unknown triumph for Jorudan or a fitting memorial for Seta, Battle Bull gets surprisingly little attention. Like a lot of third-party Game Boy games from late 1990 and 1991, it was lost in a web of competition, as publishers scrambled to release just about any games they could find for Nintendo's new portable wonder.

Seta isn’t remembered fondly, and there are reasons for that. Seta canceled Bio Force Ape. Seta made filthy mahjongg games. Seta published Castle of Dragon for the NES. Yet Seta also gave the Game Boy an impressive puzzle-action hybrid called Battle Bull. Seta did at least one thing right.