💾Bubble-era cannonball
boy🖥️ (pls comment on lists/reviews, I don't bite)
I play just about everything, but especially Japanese, Korean, & Chinese PC games which the West has overlooked or underappreciated. These range from the turn of the '80s to current day, from classics to kusoge, spanning the earliest JRPGs to the most experimental visual novels. Every month I like to hop between the decades, reviewing games across the medium's history.
If you're interested in classic Japanese PC (J-PC) games specifically, I cover them on Twitter & soon on my website/YouTube channel. You can hang out with me & other East Asian PC enthusiasts on our public Discord server, too:
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Favorite Games

The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
Doom II: Hell on Earth
Doom II: Hell on Earth
Xanadu Next
Xanadu Next
OutRun 2006: Coast 2 Coast
OutRun 2006: Coast 2 Coast
The House in Fata Morgana
The House in Fata Morgana


Total Games Played


Played in 2023


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Half-Life: Blue Shift
Half-Life: Blue Shift

Mar 19

USS Darkstar
USS Darkstar

Mar 19


Mar 19

Half-Life: Uplink
Half-Life: Uplink

Mar 18

Narbacular Drop
Narbacular Drop

Mar 17

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"The Great Escape" has inspired quite a lot of prison-break games, or even just sequences of that sort across the medium. Who doesn't have fond stories of humiliating those Nazis just to get some fresh air outside Castle Wolfenstein? How can I forget Codemasters' own Prisoners of War, a game all about playing a chronic escapee? Just as interesting are the more arcade-y translations of this premise, from Silas Warner's genre codifier to SNK's P.O.W.. Conveying the gravity of this scenario while still entertaining players is no small feat. I wish I could say Carry Lab's Daidassou was more successful at that, but it remains one of the best early puzzle action games for FM-7, PC-88, and similar Japanese PCs. It eschews realism in favor of fun farce, giving players just enough means to dash in, liberate each camp, and shoot or explode guards along the way.
Rather than playing a POW ready to break out, you're an outside operative instead, trotting into each stage with a pistol, scarce ammunition and grenades, and just a few lives. The game loop's simple: dodge or remove German troops on their patrols, nab their keys and other collectibles (either ammo or score items), and unlock cell doors to gather up GIs. Then you've got to escort one or more trails of POWs back to the starting point—think Flicky and other maze games of that vintage. Every level tries its best to iterate on this simple premise, with layouts becoming increasingly Escher-like and full of surprises. The isometric perspective both adds useful depth to the mazes and works against players in a frustrating but meaningful way. Just having the top-down view would equate this to Wolfenstein and other game center faire; this skewed angle instead makes you work to decipher these layouts, planning and improvising the further in you go.
Carry Lab usually wasn't the type to develop distinctly Golden Age-like arcade games for PC users. At most, they'd done third-person racing titles like F2 Grand Prix, or technically impressive pseudo-sprite scaling stuff a la SEGA's Buck Rogers. Nonetheless, I think Daidassou became a cult classic for good reason. It handles its fake sprites very well, with nary any slowdown nor worsening input delay. Controls are as clunky to learn and master as you'd expect from a mid-'80s numpad-based game, but the measured pace of play, and emphasis on routing to avoid enemies when reasonable, makes this easier to overlook. Whoever coded and/or designed these stages and systems had a grasp on what keeps players like me coming back. One's never powerful enough to just gun all the Nazis down, but on the flipside, a little bit of ingenuity and stealthy action goes a long way here.
This odd mashup of genres can lead to some fun scenarios. For example, the worst thing that can happen is when a guard recaptures one of The Boys you've just saved. Usually they just get thrown back in their initial quarters, but sometimes the enemy will instead place them inside a pink-doored cell which one can't just unlock. Now you gotta blow it open with a grenade you might not even have! Chasing those high scores (of which the default is already substantial) means using resources wisely and anticipating the worst, be it German reinforcements or snagging on corners long enough for them to catch you. Waves upon waves of mazes, soldiers, and wild goose chases start to blur together—the banality of war seeps into even a supposedly heroic effort. Should you finally fall in the line of duty, all one gets is a spot on the score table, nothing like a Purple Heart or Medal of Honor. But then again, it's the journey that counts, and Daidassou does well with its fundamentals no matter how slight it is elsewhere.
Many won't even touch this game once they see its art style, a garish blend of tans, browns, greens, and pinks befitting the 8-color high resolution video mode. And there's no cute, memorable audio to speak of, just tinny foot-taps, gunfire, and beeper jingles. I can describe Daidassou's aesthetic in one word: spartan. What's here is a no-frills, inglorious trudge through castles of combat and collect-a-Joe, with only these silly deformed caricatures of U.S. and German soldiers exuding any charm. The aforementioned depth-bending level designs also lend identity, but aren't as impressive as the game's pre-Cannon Fodder irreverence towards the Great War era. I can't accuse Carry Lab's product of lacking in content, as there's a huge amount of levels to complete, but I won't blame others for bouncing off once the repetition sets in. PC players back in the day got their money's worth here, assuming they weren't spending their days editing levels in Sokoban or Lode Runner, or just trying to solve the ordeals of xRPGs like Xanadu. This kind of anti-Great Escape must have seemed odd then, let alone now, yet it found an audience back when weird but compelling premises like this were commercially viable.
I'd ultimately love to say Daidassou got a worthwhile console or arcade port. Sadly it remained exclusive to these 8-bit J-PCs, with no follow-up titles to speak of. Carry Lab themselves got involved with Famicom development via their Disk System releases under Square's Disk Original Group (DOG) label, but they still didn't make a sequel while they had the chance. Like many once notable self-publishing developers of the early J-PC days, this company lasted up till the end of the '80s before financial woes led them to bankruptcy. (Entering a legal fight with dB-SOFT over plagiarizing their JET dictionary products for word processing didn't help, nor did a staff exodus around '87.) The game's designers at tabletop company Ad Technos are even more anonymous, much to my dismay. It's funny how the slow fade-out of Carry Lab and its classic games led to the founding of Alfa System, well known today for so many JRPGs, ADVs, etc. Still, I recommend this '85 prison action ditty despite getting lost in the shuffle of its creators' history and the more impressive games releasing around that time.

Eons of memes and bantz about many portrayals of, and commentaries on, gods and religion in Japanese pop media all threaten to frame Quintet's debut as a schmaltzy creation myth. The last thing I expected was a translation of Japan's cosmogony into a commentary on the monomyth, hiding its version of the pre-Imperial hero god Okuninushi (or Onamushi) behind a Judeo-Christian façade. But that's the level of creativity and innovation that the studio's founding staff and contractors strived for. Set aside the simple yet subversive premise and you'll still have one of the most fun and clever hybrids in console software history. ActRaiser's influence never traveled as far as it ought to, largely materialized in series like Dark Cloud, yet it's more than earned its cult classic reputation. Not that I'd call this the Velvet Underground & Nico of xRPGs, but it's a valid comparison. Few if any video games marketed for a wide audience tackled such a broad, charged set of themes and sensations in such a formative period for the medium, no matter the imperfections.
As unwieldy as it sounds, this fusion of two strongly contrasting genres—side-scrolling action platforming and the primordial god simulator—likely couldn't have been bettered in 1990. Bullfrog's seminal Populous had only arrived on Japanese PCs in March, and I've found no evidence of PC-98 developers working with Peter Molyneux's blueprint. We know, however, that the founding members of Quintet, having left Nihon Falcom during the development of Ys III, had finished 70% of what became ActRaiser before having second thoughts. Whether or not they'd seen or played a certain PC-based god game is yet unknown. (Ironically, their former employer's own Lord Monarch shows Yoshio Kiya's own infatuation with Western imports like Populous, though that game's an early real-time strategy wargame.) The group's growth and frustrations while working on Ys and related PC xRPGs might have pushed them to do something risky for a console audience they hadn't yet catered to. Why not bring the essence of a complex Japanese PC simulation title to a workmanlike action platformer a la Dragon Buster or Castlevania?
The waxing and waning divine works its wonders amidst spirits and sovereigns. It takes on forms both distinct and recondite, like shadow to light. Beyond the waking minds of souls freed into a bourgeoning world lives the idyllic hero, desirable yet unknowable, a paragon which leads through belief up until that faith is no longer needed or traditional. Such tales of good versus evil, or many shades past, endure across time, often as aspirations, warnings, and the subject matter of popular art and entertainment. It's this fascination with mythology, and what it means to people and their worldviews, which anyone playing ActRaiser (among other games letting you "play god") must engage with.
Now the goal was to evoke that feeling of playing god, a paradox given the player's inability to shape the game outside those possibilities which developers set for them. They compromised with a dual-avatar story, where both a chiseled holy warrior and boon cherubic messenger shape separate but linked sections of the world. Main writer and planner Tomoyoshi Miyazaki wisely chose to represent this god's duality of presence. In the sky castle, we are without form, and the angel merely a presenter for this abstract interface set among the clouds. But it's not long before the player descends, their guiding light inseparable from the extra-textual, animating a statuesque warrior into action, all to smite and vanquish the dark. On the flipside, the winged child soon becomes our vessel with which to reinvent this realm we've conquered, swapping out fantastic inhabitants for mundane, moldable men and women. Both characters exemplify the almighty in ways we can bond to, but never deny questions about the powers, limits, and mysteries behind what's sublime and what's imagined. To "play god" is also to probe one's identity and ability in context.
Though we're ostensibly the alpha and omega, mortality still matters to us, as The Master incarnates on this Earth in a limited extension of being. Nothing in this game holds back from trying to kill you, whether it's insta-death pits and lava or just an odd thing flying from the side of the screen. ActRaiser plays nice, though, particularly in its NA and EU versions with reduced difficulty and added extra lives. Most levels have smartly-placed checkpoints, letting you learn each segment without running out of time that easily. There's only a few collectible power-ups, either for score or health and 1-ups, but finding those breakables and wisely rationing magic use for the tougher fights is critical. Even if you can't ever Game Over for obvious reasons, starting the action stages from scratch can feel crushing, the good kind that encourages skill and concentration. The "fail state" in sim mode comes from your angel losing all their health to enemy attacks or collisions, at which point you can't fire any arrows. Overworld nasties will take advantage of this temporary vulnerability, snatching up residents, destroying homes, and even razing all your hard work with earthquakes (damn those skulls!). All these challenges and setbacks mirror those of the families we're fostering, or even the monsters one slaughters for that juicy high score. It's a piece of humble pie to counterbalance these grand themes.
All this came to mind as I flew from one region to another, enjoying the safe game loop that ActRaiser makes the most of. On their own, neither the action or sim sequences rank with the best in those genres, even at the time. The Master's stiff controls and lack of mobility options (my kingdom for a Mega Man-ish slide!) often don't match the severity of enemy attacks and zone control later on. I'd be hard-pressed to call the town management engaging just on its own, with very few means to affect what villagers build and very straightforward terraforming puzzles. If one really wanted a top-notch, side-scrolling action game for SNES, let alone other systems and arcade boards, then there's no shortage of options. SimCity might not exactly classify as a god game now, but it fit the earliest definitions back when most started playing it on PCs or, of course, Nintendo's enhanced port. It's the mutual interactions between these modes, simple to understand and swap between, which creates that vaunted positive loop of advancement. The game's main coder and director, Masaya Hashimoto, had figured out with Ys that you could mix even a decent graphic adventure and Hydlide-like action RPG to create something special. No wonder it works here!
The salad of once contradictory, now inter-weaving ideas continues with ActRaiser's locales and cultural tropes. Fillmore's mysterious, metamorphic forest of foes gives way to a city-state in the making, with one of the shrine worshipers playing oracle and then martyr for The Master's cause. Way later on comes Marahna, a Southeast Asia-like region whose darkest jungles and ornate temple of evil clashes against the hardy, pragmatic people you guide to self-sufficiency. Enemy and boss designs range across typical European and Asian fantasy faire, from dwarfs and lycanthropes to serpents and tengu, with big bads like the centaur knight and ice dragon playing to regional theme. These entities would seem banal and rehashed from competing games, but regain some staying power when framed via this conflict between them and amorphous monotheism which you embody. One can sense the sensory and conceptual distance between this god and its subjects, either those it subjugates or the civilizations it cultivates. No one prays to you from the comfort of their own homes; all must congregate in shrines to communicate with the great beyond, something they can imagine but never fathom. Only by your actions does the world change, reflecting values of nurture over nature and other Abrahamic virtues. Any dialogue between this universe's denizens necessarily involves upheaval.
In this way, the final level, a boss rush much like any other from the era, becomes more than just content reuse. It's the cataclysm of God vs. gods, a refutation of polytheism. But it's just as likely a nod to the religious lore Miyazaki would have been most familiar with, the Kojiki and its narrative of Japan's beginnings. Following in the wake of Susanoo, that hero of chaos, Okuninushi emerged from exile in the underworld to defeat his evil brothers who had forced him there. In its manual, ActRaiser draws a direct parallel, with The Master having fallen in battle to Tanzra (or Satan in the JP version) and his cunning siblings. Only after a period of recovery does our god return to the world, long forgotten but ready to reassert a moral order of society and positivity. The Master and Onamuchi both face trials, personages, and climactic battles to unite their lands and usher their peoples from prehistory into history. As such, the dynamic between The Master and Tanzra, already Manichean and inextricable by definition, is also a less than didactic allegory for the national myth Miyazaki & co. (and players) were familiar with.
Quintet uses these devices, both subtle and obvious, to motivate your journey as expected, and to pull the proverbial rug out from underneath. Imagine doing all this hard work, slicing and jumping through obstacle courses, then sparing villagers from demonic intervention as you pave new roads and fields for them, only to become invisible, beyond recognition. Onamuchi himself acquiesced to this fate, ceding the earthly kami's rulership of Japan to Amaterasu's heavenly lineage. The concept of divinity you brought to these societies was once pivotal to their survival and eventual growth, a uniting force transcending the chaos surrounding them. But in a stable, almost arcadian state of affairs, this godly example now has each and every human finding faith in themselves and others, not in The Master and its herald. ActRaiser ends with a striking inversion of the game's most iconic cinematic tool, the constant Mode 7 zooming in on each action stage you visit. Finally, after the bittersweet revelation that no one visits any shrines anymore—that your own creation has moved on from you, emotionally and ritualistically—the game zooms out, the continents shrinking into nothing as this reality ceases to consider you, or vice versa.
I was genuinely agape when this happened. The game had shown some forward-thinking use of video games' formal elements, mainly to emphasize the uncanny gulf between the clean user interface and what diegetic actions/consequences the buttons led to. But this moment went well beyond those little touches, demonstrating how Miyazaki, Hashimoto, and others at Quintet sought a novel style of storytelling, moving on from the face-value imitation of manga and anime in previous works. For all its issues and missed opportunities, ActRaiser nails these once one-of-a-kind twists that shake you up, simultaneously indulging in new audiovisual potential while using it to the medium's advantage. These surprises aren't as common as I'd hope for throughout the game, but when they happen, oh do they succeed! Moments like Teddy's bad luck in Bloodpool, the archetypal albatross appearing both in Kasandora and Marahna, and the implied Sigurd-Gudrun couple reincarnated by the world tree in Northwall all stick out here. Everything of this sort is still all too simple compared to ye olde Disco Elysium of today, yet effective as a kind of heightened fairytale in-between the melee and management.
The word I'm looking for is alchemy, the transmutation of ordinary elements into a greater whole. It describes the very compound term ActRaiser, a portmanteau I'd expect to see in a game jam ditty. What distinguished this amalgalm of systems from others around the turn of the '90s was this focus on story, not just another player-fellating genre hybrid for its own sake. It's because this adventure makes a micro-critique of our indulgence in power fantasies, and their relation to founding myths, that the individually unpolished bits you interact with remain fun and worthwhile. Perhaps the harvesting and trading of offerings between the cities is a fetch quest underneath, but it rarely feels that meaningless. I just want to gift the Kasadoran a far-off tropical remedy for their troubles, or clothe the citizens of icy Northwall in wool from Aitos. And yes, the final platforming gauntlet might as well be a greatest hits of the adventure's most irritating design quirks, but damn does it push all your skills and patience to the limit. This potion Quintet's concocted leaves a mysterious aftertaste.
Debut software on vintage PCs & consoles could often vary wildly in robustness. Every developer getting something to market on Day 1 has to learn a newly enhanced architecture as quick as is feasible, a feat many can't achieve. ActRaiser stands toe to toe with ritzier, more sophisticated SNES classics that were still on the drawing board in 1990. Koji Yokota and Ayano Koshiro of Telenet & Falcom heritage, among a host of talented artists, go ham with color schemes that the PC-88 and Famicom could merely have dreamed of, enriching the greebles and decorative patterns of dungeons and biomes. Tasteful use of parallax scrolling, alpha-blending transparencies, and other visual effects works in tandem with clean yet florid art direction, bearing the hallmarks of paperback book covers and Dungeons & Dragons. Ayano's brother took up the mantle of music and sound design, a daunting role considering the SNES' new sample-based sound chip. I'm more a fan of Yuzo Koshiro's orchestral work within the confines of FM synthesis, another tall order for musicians and programmers of the day. But this remains one of the system's most memorable and defining soundtracks, with melodious militant marches and more pensive ambiance in abundance. Figuring out how to cram so many instruments, pitch and volume bends, etc. must have been an ordeal for him. My ears tell me it was worth it.
It's a shame, then, that the Koshiro siblings only helped Quintet again for this game's long-debated sequel. The rest of the company continued to evolve, recruiting new talent to develop more ambitious xRPGs dealing with stories and personalities both grandiose and relatable. Hashimoto and Miyazaki's startup had firmly diverged from their old employers' conservative milieu, and future triumphs like Illusion of Gaia, Terranigma, Brightis, and Planet Laika are testament to Quintet's longevity. Us players, having embodied the holiest in both mortal and supernatural ways, can only look back on the studio's works and progeny, subject to critical reverence and dismantlement alike. Somewhere, out in the cosmos, The Master could be liberating new planets, or perhaps dooming them to the curse of civilization we're all too familiar with. That builder's spirit, a lathe of heaven…it's rarely if ever about reaching the end, but savoring the stops along the way, those flips in perspective. ActRaiser toys with players and the perspectives offered to them, engrossing us in the champion's cause while suggesting that this isn't the best of all possible worlds—just the one we must cherish.
Suffice to say, I'm not looking forward to all the gratuitous changes I'm spotting in ActRaiser Renaissance. The most I can gather is that its deviations can't harm the original ex post facto. Until next time, I'll just be listening to Fillmore's FM-synth beta version in the green room.

A duck walked up to a lemonade stand, and he said to the man, running the stand, "Hey, got any grapes?" (CW: old YouTube Poop humor) MECC, those pioneers of edutainment software from the former Silicon Valley of the Twin Cities, had a difficult task in the early-'70s: getting kids familiar with computing before the rise of personal computers. Their earliest and best known work, the perennial favorite Oregon Trail by Don Rawitsch & co., managed to spread across the United States over the decade—first in Minnesota, then in magazines and BASIC program publications. Meanwhile, this 1973 business game wouldn't have as much luck until later. Lemonade Stand remained a regular offering at local MECC-serviced schools until the consortium ultimately chose the new Apple II platform as their flagship microcomputer standard in '78. It took only a year for Charlie Kellner to port Bob Jamison's soft drink sales simulator, and Apple was so impressed they began bundling the game with new units via Applesoft BASIC catalogs.

Lemonade Stand
became a staple on Woz & Jobs' iconic people's computer, either as an activity for one classroom to a PC, or just another doodad at home. It's the first notable translation of Hamurabi's numbers game into a simpler, more immediate package, among many others up till today. While that '68 precursor evolved over time through successors like Santa Paravia en Fiumaccio, Jamison's take on the concept meant distilling its profits-and-losses text interactions and formulas to their essence. We're not planning for the survival and growth of a Mesopotamian city, just trying to run daily profits and manage assets for the local beverage counter. All the player's worried about are how many drinks to make, how many ad signs to buy, and how much to charge customers for a cup. It's as straightforward as it sounds, with only the occasional thunderstorm or street market threatening your sales.
Yes, this sounds as simplistic and repetitive as it is. Maybe that's the point, though. Running shop isn't as glamorous as it looks, even in this most accessible form. Players merely need to hunt and peck some keys, then watch the results fly by. There's some cute lil' intermissions for each new day (or inclement weather), accompanied by beeper sound arrangements of tunes from Singin' in the Rain and other classics. By and large, though, the game's beaten once you eliminate obviously bad or sub-optimal mathematical choices, eventually finding the optimal sales formulas for each scenario. Doing this on your first go, all within 12 days in most versions, is a bit more of a challenge, but irrelevant when it's so easy to just start over and steamroll past the RNG for a high cash total.
Back then, even this all-ages rendition of the resource management experience first digitized in Hamurabi would have seemed tricky, or at least addictive. It promotes a 1-to-1 narrative of modern capitalism as rational, mostly predictable, and viable at any rung of society. After all, if a mere kid can solicit this much money from passers-by on the sidewalk during a heat wave, then what's stopping you from making it onto Shark Tank, huh?! Well?! Let's just overlook any possibility of, oh I don't know, selling a bad product while your competitors run you out with any mixture of better or more cunning practices. Lemonade Stand doesn't wants its K-6 audience to consider bad guys robbing your startup business, or the HOA banning this (and garage sales, and solar panels, and [insert cool thing here]) entirely. Nice sentiments are nice, but trying to sugarcoat capitalism only works for so long. It's one thing if I'm playing a hyper-detailed and demanding economy sim, of course. I never expected any trenchant critique of, or answer to, the social-economic hierarchy failing us for the benefit of a few. MECC themselves would do that way later with Logical Journey of the Zoombinis, thankfully.
It's no secret that the lemonade stand's been a trojan-horse metaphor normalizing the American Dream to kids for who knows how long. The concept, its connotations, and all that pop culture imagery was practically inescapable for me, growing up in sunbaked suburban Texas. I never ran such an establishment, being too shy and awkward to exercise that entrepreneurial spirit still reinforced today. Moreover, it seemed increasingly irrelevant—theoretically sound, but way harder than it looks in practice. Girl Scout cookies are the closest equivalent I see in my area nowadays, and it's telling how the most successful kids only sell those thousands of batches because it's their parents' side-gig. The myth of the all-American lemonade stand and its variations dates back to a pre-Internet, pre-9/11 era of good feelings and busy neighborhoods which I've only had the smallest taste of as a late millennial.
Emulating this now is easy-peasy thanks to the Internet Archive. I played this on lunch break, even knowing pretty much exactly how it would go. The more interesting thing is to imagine those coat-swaddled students piling into class, early on a snowy Midwestern morning, expecting the same 'ol usual as their teacher introduces this odd monitor and keyboard to them all. The CRT's green glow fades into view, the floppy disk drive whirrs excitedly, and this impressionable set of youngsters get their first peek into the Information Age at their fingertips. Lemonade Stand always worked best as an educational tool, letting everyone share this technology which you once needed a teletype and printer to enjoy. By selling these games and Apple IIs to so many faculty, MECC themselves promoted a unique edu-tech model that itself mirrors the allegory of the kid's streetside booth. I'm glad to see that history's vindicated the story-driven, more ambiguous paradigm of Oregon Trail and other adventurous software, but I think this game represents the organization's classic era best. Pixel pedagogy would only go up in design efficacy and ambition from here, not that it's bad place to start—just one that's happy to date itself, a self-deprecating lesson if any.