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Column: The Gaijin Restoration

COLUMN: 'The Gaijin Restoration' - Chair Chasers

March 26, 2006 4:26 AM |

Label Art Work["I often import games from abroad and play them. On such occasions, my imagination is sometimes stimulated more as I don't understand the language.” – Fumito Ueda, creator of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. 'The Gaijin Restoration' is a weekly examination of underappreciated Eastern games that never cross to Western shores. This week's title is Konami Computer Entertainment School Osaka Laboratory's Team Wife of Estate's Chair Chasers [UPDATE: Here's the download link], which was made available on the interweb in 2002 for the PC and is a mouthful to present.]

You Had Me At Chair

Nintendo has Digipen. Their students slave away each year, and maybe we'll get a Rumble Box or two. A nifty aesthetic, a cool idea, a winning design; but I ask where's the heart? It's in Japan. Konami has their Osaka school, whose tutelage berthed The Time Wife of Estate, a most excellent moniker, and an excellent developer with the vision to bring the world the much needed Chair Chasers. A lengthy, narrated tale unfolds of a slain CEO, a battle for power, some sort of tie in with ancient Egypt and a simple warning that one's butt must not leave the chair. From there the game let's you choose from several protagonist - elderly salary man, secretary, company mascot, etc, and it's off to race!

Ancient Egyptians made the pyramids because they were in a congolmerate.  And they sat on chairs

Now to be fair, the narration is muted (and spoken with an odd, effected English,) the story ridiculous, the textures simple and the game short, but like a three legged canine at a dog show, this baby's got heart. In spades.

When Feats of Strength Are Not Enough

chair5.jpgChair Chasers is to be taken at face value: a kart racer, a student project made with love and polished with apple sauce for the teacher. With games like Stretch Panic being called glorified tech demos, I'm not sure how to pigeonhole something like Chair Chasers. It's very short at three tracks, but each follows golden threads of game design, adding more complexity and perfect little moments, that will bring back the smiles. Level one is fairly simple and lets you get used to the control for your character, as their feet kick around corners, and race towards power-ups including homing AIBOs, force fields and fan propulsion systems. The second stage features the dreaded staircase. The butts don't leave the seats, but each character has their own unique and humorous way to make it up the flight. Level three, the final race, is labrynthine in design and nefarious in implementation, with office doors blocking paths, shutting and opening at random. The highlight is a massive ramp that gives way to a 180 degree camera sweep as the avatar and competitors take to the air and strike some poses, with chair in tow. It's reminiscent of Sonic Adventure's first level race with the whale. Non interactive, but seamlessly intergrated, quick, and overly pleasant. Again, I'm smiling.

Each would-be CEO has a unique control scheme. Some make wide turns, others stop on a dime. Some clamber up the staircase fast, others plod on. When they wipe out, get pummeled by an exploding poodle or what have you, they each act accordingly, my favorite being the mascot having to make like the exorcist girl, and turn his head completely around. It's these little touches that we take for granted in big studio developed games. There is a near Miyamoto-esque attention to wonder.

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Still, In The End...

...it's a little game about racing chairs. While I still marvel at all the little touches, and how it just makes me smile. It takes a certain type of PC game to really feel console-y, and a lot of them are Japanese games. The consummate Cave Story, another Japanese developed PC game, is the last one that truly gave me that feeling. There's something accessible, and magical. When was the last time you actually thought about how down right weird Super Mario Bros. was? On the reverse, a lot of US developed console games are starting to feel like PC games. Did anybody play Sudeki? Well, no matter.

[UPDATE: Thanks to commenter Trifle, we've found a download link to grab Chair Chaser. In addition, we also have a video containing an edited open and some gameplay, as well as the CESA info page for Chair Chasers, a game that guarantees a smile and the obvious wtf.

chair4.jpgchair3.jpg

[Ryan Stevens is the associate producer on the various Cinematech shows on G4TV, which showcases many of the games written about here. He's been known to do the collaborative blog thing at That's Plenty.]

COLUMN: 'The Gaijin Restoration' - Asmik-Kun Land

March 19, 2006 12:28 PM |

Label Art Work["I often import games from abroad and play them. On such occasions, my imagination is sometimes stimulated more as I don't understand the language.” – Fumito Ueda, creator of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. 'The Gaijin Restoration' is a weekly examination of underappreciated Eastern games that never cross to Western shores. This week's title is Asmik's Asmik-Kun Land, which represented on the Famicom in Japan in 1991, a palindrome.]

And Now For a Personal Anecdote

Kwirk kicking back with the guy from NARC, Wizards and Warriors and some dude from Double DribbleOnce, when I was little, I chose two Game Boy games. One was Kwirk, which featured a punk rock, shades wearing Tomato who solved puzzles. It was boring. Kwirk later found himself on the Acclaim TV show Video Power. There may be a reason that Acclaim went out of business. The other game was Boomer’s Adventure in Asmik World. The cover featured a pink dinosaur rendered in a carefree illustrated manner, with overlapping eyes, thick black outlines and colors that refused to be contained within. Hopefully, this was to be a gateway to some sort of Doodleville. It ended up being a poor puzzle hybrid. Oh, to buy games based on their box art…

Warp forward to 2006 with various Hong Kong-ish sites offering dual Famicom/NES compatible clones (of questionable legality.) A Famicom cartridge appears with said little pink dinosaur. This is the game I wanted.

Fond Fossil Found

Great SceneryAsmik-Kun Land was Asmik’s late, 1991, entry into the 8-Bit mascot war in Japan. (Now, why they wouldn’t release Boomer, a pink dinosaur who attacks with what appears to be gentle flatulence [OK, it’s a tail-whip] to a generation of strapping young lads who were mesmerized by Sonic’s ‘tude escapes me.) It does give entry to Doodleville, my translation for Asmik-Kun Land. The pastel skies are filled with band-aids, eggs, cutlery, crayons and their sketches that cement the game’s artistic nature. Environment effects include pollen that makes poor Boomer sneeze, interrupting whatever he’s doing, and tomato juice pools that turn him all red and disallow him the use of his items until he washes in some water.

Items can be purchased at any time via the select button using the egg currency Boomer picks up from enemies he’s tail-whipped/farted on. Boomer’s repertoire is a varied, if typical, skill set including rolling attacks, flying, time freeze, an air bubble and the very useful ‘1-OK’, that allows a preventative hit point before a premature ice age. Now, with Boomer being a light weight one-hit kill, coupled with game’s ur-physics (inertia and gravity playing token roles), you get an uprooted 2D platformer where the control approaches the uncanny. Enemies are as bizarre as the surroundings, and are plentiful, with each having their own unique trick to master. Combined, there is definite challenge with the little pinko dino.

Attack of the Band Aids boomer6.jpg

Random Rock Paper Scissors

The game unfolds on an island map, where you can pick which stage you want to play. Each stage is 2 levels long and usually consists of the age old “go as far right as you can” progression, with some horizontal challenges, an underwater level and one in the air. Each stage ends with a boss battle. Boomer doesn’t appear to be capable or willing to take these guys head on, so they play games of Ro-sham-bo (aside: easily the worst minigame in The Rub Rabbits), mixed in with a game of Mother May I and some other random elements hidden in those Japanese glyphs. Pro-tip: stick with scissors, feather the run button, and save your eggs; messing up depletes your stock and when you hit zero, it's back to the beginning of the stage. With luck, perseverance, and some big ovaries, you can clear all the bosses to unlock the challenging final stage, and finally the disappointing all-text ending.

Crayon Sky Power Ups

In the end Asmik-Kun Land is a unique platformer with a clever aesthetic style, a fossil of the popular cel-shading we see today. The somewhat random and anticlimactic boss battles are a barrier for those lacking in Japanese knowledge, but there is a wave of satisfaction in wrestling through this black box’s internal logic into victory. Not an upper echelon title that the West missed out on, but worthy of inspection and play.

[Ryan Stevens is the associate producer on the various Cinematech shows on G4TV, which showcases many of the games written about here. He's been known to do the collaborative blog thing at That's Plenty.]

fart.giffartpoof.gif

COLUMN: 'The Gaijin Restoration' - Notam of Wind

March 12, 2006 7:31 PM |

Notam1.jpg["I often import games from abroad and play them. On such occasions, my imagination is sometimes stimulated more as I don't understand the language.” – Fumito Ueda creator of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. 'The Gaijin Restoration' is a weekly examination of underappreciated Eastern games that never cross to Western shores. This week's title is Artdink's Notam Of Wind, released in Japan in September 1997.]

Up, Up And Away?

A good friend of mine had taken several hot air balloon lessons, and at one point was studying to get her hot air balloon license. She passed on 2 notes of interest to me. One, hot air balloons gets priority above all other flying vehicles at airports, and this fact, perhaps, fueling the second: you have no direct control over the X or Y axis planes of a hot air balloon. All you guide is the Z, with instruments and instincts for the prevailing crosswinds for compensation. But its pretty much all up. And down. (She never did get her license, but did go on to make flying robots.)

Notam2.jpgKaze no Notam is a game about going up and down. It's a vaguely realistic hot air balloon game from designer Artdink, the proto-masters of the none-game-game (Tail of the Sun, A-Train, plus the recently GSW-covered puzzle title No One Can Stop Mr. Domino.) This 1997 PlayStation release lets you design your balloon, choose an exotic location, time of day, music and weather for three different scenarios. Try to hit a target on the ground with a limited amount of green sandbags or drop three of these green slugs in a triangular formation and see how much surface area was covered. But if hitting stationary targets and, uh, surface area, don’t float your balloon, you can go ‘wolf hunting’ as you try to peg down floating kappa, penguins and other Macy’s Day Parade floats gone awry.

Drifting Through The Skies

If you just want to tread the air, the visuals will keep you company, as well as the gentle music selection. Though presented with first generation graphics from a 1997 game, the fluid 3D world and capable camera gel nicely with the leisurely pace. The weather effects and subtle use of the sun also bring a serene, naturalistic atmosphere to the blocky cities and football fields you pass over. I could almost see the terrain populated by MuuMuu. A first person mode is activated when you decide to drop some sandbags. And above all, the CD case is the real design winner, with the beautiful Engrish phrase “Did you luxuriate in the wind?” written on the flat end of the spine.

On a language front, Notam is an easy entry for import. The menus have copious amounts of English, and the controls are what you would expect: you can flame on to rise and release some of the hot air to lower yourself. Your instrumentation shows you the current wind directions for particular altitudes (and your balloon's altitude) on the right hand of the screen, while a compass sits at the top and a mini map on the left. A more detailed map gets its own dedicated button. The compass responds to how you position the camera, so if you want a keep a direction as relative North (and you will) there enters a bit of dexterity with a dash of cinematography.

notam3.jpg

Surf The Wind, But Mind The Time

Despite the charming and leisurely flow of the game, a constant time limit is always taunting, dogging and failing you. For such a laid back experience, where you literally expect to go wherever the wind takes you, it’s really a sadistic feature, especially for the Rounds option which asks for more specific goals within the three tasks. The Wind itself is a harsh mistress, that will repeatedly beat you mad north, northwest when all you want to do is go south by southwest and listen to some music.

It's an interesting entry in Eastern game design that would never fly (hover?) over in the Territories. Still, with the exception of the Rounds' requests, I’ve put hours into conquering all of the challenges through snow, sleet, and sunset as the games holds up the mirror of nature with the unforgiving wind, and the tenacity of man with the damnable time limit. In all, a zen-like amusement that won’t let you reach Nirvana.

[Ryan Stevens is the associate producer on the various Cinematech shows on G4TV, which show videos of many of these games. He's been known to do the collaborative blog thing at That's Plenty.]

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