Six unlucky victims of a plane crash somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. One island full of hunger, secrets, indigenous peoples, and more. No rescue in sight—just the hope of salvaging the wreckage and radioing for any help out there, or somehow completing one of a few viable vehicles to escape in. It's a rough life, surviving on a deserted island leagues away from home, but Mujintou Monogatari (or "Deserted Island Story") livens up this cute Crusoe-de with raising sim tropes and an optimistic aesthetic. Years before the Survival Kids and Lost in Blue series (plus The Sims 2: Castaway Life!), KSS & Open Sesame produced one of classic Japanese PC gaming's best strategy adventures, and I've played enough to say that with confidence. Its lack of exposure and fan translation, even within the PC-98's Anglosphere fandom, saddens me.
| Marooned in Blue |
The story begins like any good disaster movie: a Boeing passenger jet drifts through stormy weather, doing fine until its systems fail for some reason. With pilots scrambling to avert the worst and the civilians on-board panicking at their descent, it's a small miracle that the player-named protagonist awakens intact on a sunny summer beach. Guiding our high-school boy across the coast, we bump into a motley band of castaways: young and precocious Ayase, girlboss sophisticated flight attendant Erina, overbearing but helpful team dad "Professor", talented college-level computer diva Rika, and dependable tomboy student Saori. Teamwork ensues! They set up a simple shack, promise to put aside their misgivings and differences, and set about collecting the food, water, tools, and know-how to thrive here and eventually return home. As I mentioned earlier, this involves drafting plans (blueprints, in fact) for a few potential vessels, from a sail-less boat to a MFing zeppelin! Story scenes happen as you explore more of the island, earn enough trust with your co-habitants, and inch ever closer to the fateful day.
Where to begin with all the systems Mujintou Monogatari throws at you? The game largely revolves around a top-down view of your current location, usually the beach camp where you'll need to return to for rest and planning. Moving the cursor's pretty much required, some hotkeys aside, as you select commands from a sidebar and then many deliciously decorated menus. KSS wisely avoided any minigames or sequences revolving around reflexes, let alone the typically awkward numpad key controls of contemporary PC-X8 software. Instead, players just have to manage a wide variety of stats, both for characters and the camp's resources. Collecting potable water and fruits becomes a daily ritual, even for the exhausted. Raw materials needed to craft even basic tools, like machetes and rope, require extensive forays into the jungles, streams, and plains of this seemingly untamed land. Everyone can build up new and current skills over time, but at the cost of temporarily lower yields or wrecking someone's mental state. It's the kind of careful juggling act you'd expect from Princess Maker 2, with just as many variables for thankfully more predictable outcomes.
| Deserted Island Foibles |
Unlike in Gainax's iconic raising sim series, though, KSS and the developers offer more plot and cast interactions to maintain the opening's strong pacing. For example, I met the island's major tribe a bit before halfway through the game, a pleasant encounter with locals just as curious about us as we are about them. The Professor gets giddy at the sight of seemingly unexplored ruins; Erina struggles to adapt to a life without Western amenities; Ayase and Saori both vie for the title of Genki Girl, if only to mask their loneliness; and an aloof Rika, seemingly the most capable of the bunch, confides her self-doubt with the protagonist she's starting to fall for. There's enough crisscrossing threads and details that the often repetitive tasks and ventures into unknown territory remain intriguing. As the player nears any of the endings they're pursuing, Mujintou Monogatari also starts to probe interesting ideas—mainly the discomfort of both living here and soon having to depart and leave this tight-knight, caring group of people. Additional interludes like a drunken going-away party (which the whole band participates in, concerningly), plus evidence of WWII-era Imperial presence on the island via a long marooned serviceman, enrich the narrative.
All this gets reinforced in the game loop itself, as you must set up search parties with each person's compatibility in mind. Pair the wrong two characters up and they'll fail spectacularly! On the flipside, smart combinations can lead to discovering secret areas or items earlier, and these dynamic duos also do better at item crafting. Almost every aspect here conveys the importance of communication, compromise, and cooperation in desperate circumstances. The group hardly avoids conflict, but they work through these ups-and-downs in a naturalistic manner, which matches the occasionally silly but serious tone of the story. And this really helps because Mujintou Monogatari, though not brutally hard, is still a demanding piece of software. Players have to not just understand the island, its residents, and where you can forage from, but they also need to raise the "civilization" rating back at camp to progress further.
Crafting becomes increasingly important even before you've fully mapped out the island, and it's the clunkiest system for sure. Every team member can equip various items to aid in exploration, most of which are only accessible after checking out enough hotspots or surveying a given range of the wilderness. Once you've found key items in the wild and added them to a ramshackle crafts shop, then the manufacturing can commence! This involves a lot of less-than-satisfying fiddling around in menus, flipping between screens to assess resources needed for creation vs. what's available at the moment. Still, this spate of poor user interface design didn't bother me for too long. Arguably the trickiest section in this game is the opening hour itself since you've only got a lifeboat's worth of rations and liquids to work with. Moving quick and taking a few risks early on pays off.
| All the Pretty Sights |
Beyond how well it plays and immerses one in this torrid scenario, Mujintou Monogatari has lush, memorable audiovisuals and style to accompany players through their journey. I think people had to work harder than usual to make an ugly PC-98 pixel art experience, and KSS certainly succeeds at visualizing a gorgeous, inviting tropical realm. So many UI windows, land textures, and background CGs pop out in their 640x400 resolution glory, working with the platform's system rather than against. Maybe the music could have been catchier or better developed to match, but it's still a nice set of tunes, ranging from poppy marches to pensive background orchestration. A lot of people clamor to these mid-'90s "aesthetic" PC-X8 adventures and xRPGs for the character designs, among other often pervy reasons. I'm glad to report that the characters here are distinctive and as fashionably dressed as expected from the genre; illustrator VOGUE renders all the men, women, and woodland critters in glittering detail, yet still portrays them in dirty and less flattering situations without issue. So much thought clearly went into how the game looks, sounds, and portrays its subjects, more than I'd expect from a '94 raising sim targeting a largely male otaku audience.
And that's another area in which this excels: a general lack of pandering to any one market. There's a couple raunchy moments (yes, there's the Obligatory Hot Springs Episode), and something of a romance towards the end with one of the leading ladies, but it's tame compared to even KSS' other raising sims back then. We're far from blatantly erotic Wrestle Angels or sussy Princess Maker stuff, for better or worse. Sequels to Mujintou Monogatari would dabble with more fanservice, sure, but it wasn't until Mujintou Monogatari R and then a separate 18+ series that KSS and the remaining developers settled for easy money. The original game acquits itself nicely, balancing the occasional red meat for otaku gamers with no-nonsense, respectful treatment of each heroine's agency and complex characterization. (It's kind of weird how the Professor gets the least development here despite his age, but at least he's not just an oji-san stereotype played for laughs. Cold comfort, I guess.) I'd hesitate to deem this entirely wholesome, yet I'd be more justified in recommending this to anyone curious about PC-98 ADV/proto-VN soft than, well, a bit under half the commercial library which sits firmly in NSFWville.
KSS had found a strong niche by '94 thanks to intimidating but rewarding sims like Mujintou Monogatari, and they wouldn't be going anywhere awful for years to come. They remained one of the last well-balanced publishers releasing PC-98 exclusives into its waning years, and their exploits on Sony's ascendant PlayStation proved even more fruitful. While the first sequel to this desert-island fantasy largely reused the premise and tried out a different set of tropes, Mujintou Monogatari 3: A.D. 1999 transplanted the gather-craft-escape format to an earthquake-ravaged Tokyo, evoking the majesty and it-can-happen-here horrors of kaiju media and certainly the '95 Kobe quakes from that period. Sadly, like many once acclaimed but overlooked Japanese PC game franchises, this one ended up in the easy-horny pit, a victim of cash-grabs and hastily made ero-anime from KSS' own in-house animation firm, Pink Pineapple. Let's not allow that to become the legacy of this obscure series out West. Rather than settle for that or the downgraded (though admirable) Super Famicom port, I hope communities like this endeavor to try out and appreciate the PC-98 original, and ideally get some fan translators interested. Mujintou Monogatari earned a kind of prestige few other sims on the system could, hence its console successors, and it'd be a shame if this didn't get the historic reappraisal it deserves.

Name's right, I love me so googly-eyed Giger bois. Video pinball should try to be this homoerotic more often. I mean, we're whacking balls around in a dungeon, what more can I ask for?! The Crush Pinball series has this almost sexual energy to it, an addictive game loop I find hard to resist. You quickly understand all that's possible, desirable, and repeatable with just one main table and a few mini-tables to spice things up. It's the familiar rhythm of the plunger, flippers, bumpers, and multipliers throwing the odds across screens, from 0 digits to 999 million, threatening us with imminent loss but also the possibility of success. And I think there's something delightfully sleazy about the thrill of it all. Forget the joysticks, the video nasties, the banes of "concerned parents" and the policymakers who answer to them with curfews and dress codes. We want the real thing!
Whether you're just giving it a 15-minute try or aiming to counter-stop, Alien Crush remains as fun and relevant to the genre as it must have been in 1988. This was the best pinball romp of the '80s, stacking up to ye olde Black Knight 2000 and Pin-Bot in presentation and execution. The counter-cultural, tongue-in-cheek pairing of eldritch horrors with a well-balanced table design allowed developers Compile and Red Company to take risks other microchip adaptations hadn't. Unlockable "boss" stages and multiple ways to nab new balls, or toggle safety zones amidst the chaos, makes for a very fair experience overall. Most importantly, though, the pinball physics here are impeccable. Rarely does it feel like sloppy coding's the source of a failed run, and there's almost always some way to recover by smartly timing flips and tilts to control your trajectory. This may not have the sheer amount of stuff that Devil's Crush and its progeny brought, but this inaugural entry in the "not quite pinball" style has held its own against those successors.
| Lunar Eclipse |
Whoever at Compile led development on this, Devil's Crush, and an ever-overlooked Jaki Crush clearly loved post-WWII pinball and similar amusements. (Interviews with ex-Compile staff suggest that Takafumi Tanida was the Crush Pinball games' lead developer, supported by his work on The Pinball of the Dead a decade later) (Szczepaniak 2018, 112). Arcades, dive bars, movie theaters, and other third spaces benefited from the blaring clangs and klaxons these four-legged monstrosities put out. Before our age of eye-straining, dexterity testing shooters and eSports curricula, skill-based bagatelle was the next best way to hone one's reflexes and proudly scream to the world "I'm a creature of leisure!" with enough carpe diem to make Robin Williams blush. It's fitting that pinball video carts and disks would struggle to replicate, let alone enhance, the electromechanical stimuli and complexity of contemporary tables from Bally, Williams, Stern, Gottlieb, and other manufacturers in and outside of Chicago. Few console or micro-computer examples of the genre had much success until the late-'80s, when the likes of Pinball Quest and then DICE's Pinball Dreams showed how upgraded ROM chips and clever design could allow richer, more complex tables and player progression than even the priciest cabinet competitors.
Ironically, though pinball has always had more presence in the U.S. and other parts of the Global West, it's mainly Japanese video game creators who pushed the limits of this style of arcade staple for home audiences. I'm not downplaying the revolution that was Pinball Construction Set, either. Bill Budge's proto-amateur game dev toolkit offered many options to players, from building layouts to tweaking gravity, but it strictly adhered to the possibility space of mid-1900s pinball. Replicating the flashy LED banners, sampled audio, and exuberant light shows popular in '80s arcade-adjacent spaces wasn't going to work on an Apple II, not without compromises. Even virtuosic pseudo-replica tables in releases like System Sacom's Moon Ball still fell prey to wonky physics or a lack of variety. It's telling that the earliest signs of video games advancing pinball tropes came via genre hybrids like Toru Iwatani's Bomb Bee, combining Breakout into the formula to some success. Realistic pinball recreations, on the other hand, wouldn't arrive in force until the '90s, when works like Little Wing's Tristan from '91 became popular on various PCs (Fujita 2010).
Though Sacom and their star coder Mark Flint brought Moon Ball Magic to the Famicom Disk System, expanding the original into a multi-level adventure with some deft, it was a nascent Naxat Soft who'd publish the first majorly acclaimed contender to the video-ball throne that same year. The newborn publisher contracted Red Entertainment, then working on other big PC Engine projects like Far East of Eden, to design and produce an action-packed crowd pleaser alongside technical staff from the ever-reliable Compile. Even if Red was still just as inexperienced with making their own games as Naxat was to publishing, they clearly made a lot of smart decisions. Tanida and co. needed roughly a half-year to craft and gold-master Alien Crush, which gained a global cult following unlike Sacom's product. It may not have been a launch title in Japan (though close enough in concept and legacy), but the Turbo-Grafx 16 localization was a boon for the platform, already struggling against the NES despite its advantages.
| Demon's Undulate |
Alien Crush boots into a minimalist, fleshy-formed splash screen with ominous HuC6280 waveforms purring in stereo. Tap Run, choose Fast or Slow, and then choose one of two music tracks to regale you as the ballistics begin. The opening pull-and-plunge does a proper job of introducing players to an otherwise troublesome quirk, its fade-to-black flipping between halves of the table. Split-second blanks take a bit of getting used to if you've only experienced newer full-scrolling pinball games; any fading here feels unobtrusive after a minute or two, thankfully. Despite the busy visuals, it's easy to keep track of the silver ball leaping from corner to corner, top to bottom, at least on the main table where one can actually lose it. Two sets of flippers, multiple point indicators baked into a grotesque root system, portentous open aisles leading to either the motherlode or the next ball down…it's plenty to take in, but never too much.
The core loop takes our metallic traveler around a circuit of enough cybernetic guts and gnasties to make Ridley Scott proud. In the center-bottom rests the phallic-formed demiurge, with its retinue of x-number panels and fallen angels in the gallery for you to strike down. Contrast this with dual brains and their head henchmen on top, vying for control and kept at tendrils' length by the standard four pass-thru switches. It's the very model of a modern major pinball table, corrupted and reshaped into a torture device for completionists. "Beating" this nets only the most barebones of endings and bragging rights expected from a big-budget machine, the kind you'd just walk away from to find something else worth playing. Playing this with today's content-first mindset is a trap. While there are innovators like Flipnic: Ultimate Pinball and Yoku's Island Express which effectively meld scoring and completionism paradigms, Alien Crush works as much as it can from its limited but compelling set-up. Some would call this a "vibe game", in fact, which is close enough to describing the thick atmosphere roping me back into this hellscape.
Activating each nib, greeble, ramp, and gargoyle nets you some numbers, but also access to a few interesting "secret areas" which break up the pacing in ways a non-console table can't. I wish Tanida and the rest had gone even farther with this idea, which is why I suspect I'll enjoy the sequels more for doubling down on them. These diversions all use the block kuzushi style of ball-and-paddle play that Breakout had popularized in Japan a decade earlier, just using proper pinball physics. It's crunchy and satisfying to bounce skulls back into their hidey holes, or figure out how to juggle between sets of bumpers without the ball jumping down right between the flippers. Unlike the main table and its perpetual endurance tests, players can actually complete these side areas for a perfect score bonus, plus a hidden extra ball in one of the rooms. It'd take Devil's Crush and beyond to really iterate on this concept, but everything works here despite the repetitive, somewhat underwhelming amount of unique bosses and baddies to bop.
| The Best Five |
Most of the PC Engine and TurboGrafx-16's initial lineup suffered from stinkers and well-meaning but flawed software. I can't think of many out there clamoring to play Victory Run or Keith Courage in Alpha Zones nowadays, except myself maybe. Hudson Soft and NEC did their damnedest to make this platform work, though, and their third-party talent scouting paid off with classics like Alien Crush, Blazing Lazers, Cyber Knight, and CD-ROM extravaganzas like, uh, J.B. Harold Murder Club. OK, not all of these are so prestigious, and rarely did the most well-received games venture out of genre norms. (Hudson's own catalog did well enough to avoid obvious blunders, even if they also weren't rocking the proverbial boat with Bonk's Adventure or Nectaris.) Still, if you had to get any of the original four TG-16 HuCards back in '89, this once cutting-edge take on pinball was the smart choice. What better means to showcase the advanced spriting, scrolling, and thematic exploring one could create on this new hardware?
For reasons both selfish and convenient, I wanted to start my PC Engine journey off with a Certified Hood Classic™. All the Crush Pinball titles would have worked, so starting with the original made too much sense. But imagine how difficult a sell this would have seemed in '88 or '89. Who needs video pinball when high quality tables are available at every laundromat, community center, etc.? The highest achievement this series reached was justifying its genre's relevance beyond the realms of coin-boxes and carnival barkers, largely by hooking players with what the big pinball companies refused to provide. I love me some blockbuster '80s cabs from Williams, followed by the lofty heights Stern reached heading into the '90s, but they couldn't sweep the main-table ideal off its feet like Alien Crush did. This underdog of a printed circuit soon had its own imitators, like the oft-maligned Sonic Spinball and similar mascot pinball-ers. It showed to a developing enthusiast press that even the most seemingly impossible of genre hybrids weren't just possible, but laudable! Just as the PC Engine/TG-16 had to prove itself against Nintendo and SEGA's status quo from start to bitter end, so too have creations like this needed to justify their relevance from one era to another. I think everyone working on this at Compile, Red Company, and Naxat Soft outdid themselves.
Fujita, Yoshikatsu. “Tristan.” LittleWing PINBALL Official Website. LittleWing Co. Ltd., November 2, 2010.
Accessed via Internet Archive.
Szczepaniak, John. “Takayuki HIRONO & Satoshi FUJISHIMA.” The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers Vol. 3, 112–113. SMG Szczepaniak, 2018.

Citizens! Look around! Can you hear that fearsome sound? It’s that corpse of a game done dirty, killed off by the 3DS' closing! Enjoy the meme, that so-called Code Name S.T.E.A.M.~! (Load up your drive to fight back the reductive menace) What a dream~, why hate on Code Name S.T.E.A.M.~?! United they stand with every Valkyria, XCOM, and—[record scratch] erm, just those two and Fire Emblem mainly.
| Trouble Brewing |
I speak of Intelligent Systems’ 3DS character strategy experiment that debuted alongside Splatoon yet couldn’t have had a worse fate. It came a long way from rocky origins and launch reception, yet now so few are interested. At best, physical copies go on sale at different stores, retailing far cheaper than any other evergreen Nintendo titles I know. Then people pay attention, or remark that the game deserved its bomba-stic fate. With the death of the 3DS eShop and any pull the system had outside its fans and retro enthusiast press, there's an increasing risk of this becoming a mere footnote, something misunderstood back in 2015 and only a bit less so now.
Code Name S.T.E.A.M. deserves better, both because it plays well and because it’s a great example of the developers' ambitions, even as the Awakening/Fates gravy train steamrolled all in its path. We’re talking about an alternate late-1800s steampunk Earth where Lincoln’s alive, everything looks like pulp fiction, and public-domain American literature heroes work together to defeat Lovecraftian horrors before everyone’s dead. Yes, the premise sounds as bonkers as it gets, including a multi-stage trip to Oz and invading Antarctica with the likes of Tom Sawyer and Tiger Lily in your crew. Compare this to the florid, but often predictable, heightened medieval exteriors of most Fire Emblem worlds. Int-Sys gets extra mileage from fresh settings like late-Victorian London, the bowels of Miskatonic University, and what might as well be the Schwarzwelt from Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey.
This wargame’s more puzzle than adventure, but it feels like both. Due to challenges like relying on units’ sightlines and exploring every nuance of each map to progress, I had to really apply myself in ways I'd expect mainly from a classic Jagged Alliance title. Here’s a game where replaying missions becomes more comfortable and advantageous because nearly every character and strategy can become viable. Want to turtle through long maps, abusing overwatch during the enemy phase while moving across every inch? How about rampaging through on the first try, surviving close calls and leaving collectibles untouched for a replay? It all works! The final set of maps epitomize what’s great about this mix. Elevation conflicts, alien baddies acting in cycles, sightline control, and clutch aiming for weak points are all so satisfying to juggle. Intimidating, also, since your lack of a top-down view, or any map really, enforces a fog of war linked to your guys' individual and combined vision. (Those who hold this decision against Int-Sys when it's clearly a way to solve the age-old problems associated with FoW in Fire Emblem's paradigm will always amuse me!)
I have to admit the game’s pacing isn’t all there, same with do-or-die motivation to complete it (and I only completed this a few years after buying it full price…). The problem almost everyone had around launch—enemy phase speed, which got patched up not nearly quick enough to cool down the anti-hype—didn’t help at all. I think waiting around to see enemies move, take position, and wreck my last move keeps my interest, but it doesn’t appeal to everyone. Beyond that, it’s hard to get in the mood for maps featuring constant reinforcements or intimidating boss encounters. Adding the ABE mini-game at story intervals makes a bit of difference, though, as do the shorter, more puzzle-slanted maps. Code Name S.T.E.A.M. strikes a good balance of map types, mission designs, and introducing new element when needed. Maybe they could have tightened up the mecha mini-game's controls and given it a lot more substance, though.
S.T.EA.M.’s strengths take a bit to properly describe, likely the reason why this will remain a cult classic. The game’s frustrating but rarely unfair, presenting a ton of maps where you find new ways to abuse your party’s advantages. It’s got excellent replayability thanks to later character introductions (meaning new ways to replay earlier maps) and extra modes like Merciless or multiplayer. Eschewing traditional strategy game tropes, like an overhead map or the inability to extend visibility and movement for a unit, gives this game a strong identity. Peeking around corners, hoping to not aggro a counterattack or worse, means there's almost always some healthy morsels of tension to feed on. And the presentation’s quite excellent: catchy progressive rock, the comic-book story sequences, and a short but very memorable eldritch-invasion steampunk story works so well for me. (Shout-out to the voice acting! I loathe Adam Baldwin’s involvement, but everyone fits their roles perfectly, especially James Urbaniak as Randolph Carter.)
| Deadly Dance |
Here’s a list of awesome things you can do in Code Name S.T.E.A.M.:
•Launch bomb aliens onto mines (using John Henry or another explosives user) to create a domino effect of explosions that tears through spawners and enemy lines
•Stun literally every enemy, then have a scout fighter pick them off thanks to extra damage on stunned foes
•Jump from wall to tower to behind the enemy’s weak point using Lion, picking up Gears and plenty of extra steam packs along the way for maximum damage in a round
•Explode enemy squads from afar with penguin droids; waste them with specials like Queeqeeg’s harpoon
•In general, do ridiculous stunts with North American literary legends (plus Abraham Lincoln) that are super silly yet serious—you might call this camp, even
| Intersection: Me vs. You |
I highly recommend trying this bad boy out if you want something like Intelligent Systems’ 3DS puzzlers, wrapped into a wargame premise that’s rather unlike the games it’s frequently compared to. Yes, you have interception fire and squad-level combat like in XCOM or Valkyria Chronicles, but this game emphasizes exploring very precisely-designed environments with stakes changing a lot of the time. Reinforcements, too, are a big No to players who tried or wanted to try this, but I think they’re more manageable here than usual because of your skill pool. Knowledge of character skills, shot-to-hitbox detection, and the foibles of managing your steam gauge makes for a satisfying feedback loop.
Quick note: play this on a New 3DS for maximum enjoyment. That system gives you a 3x enemy phase speed toggle for situations where you really need to skip enemy actions or replay a mission. I used an OG 3DS + Circle Pad Pro to get analog camera movement, so consider that if you want to minimize stylus or face button use. Consult a guide when necessary to find all the Gears so you can get different steam boilers early on. Getting better equipment up through mid-game helps a lot later on while pushing you to understand each map in depth.
In oh so many ways, Code Name S.T.E.A.M. was Int-Sys' attempt to prove they could bring their wargame design chops outside the Fire Emblem mold, synthesizing many well-appreciated aspects of other big-name character tactics games into a unique whole. Woeful release-period impressions. and a lack of retrospective coverage from outlets that ought to have one or two writers interested, basically sunk this title's reputation and left it unable to resurface. It's hardly the fault of some conspiracy of journalists or FE fanboys as some will resort to suggesting. Nor is this (or any) Nintendo software exempt from incisive critique, as I can understand where the detractors are coming from WRT no map, slow between-turn waits, and an emphasis on puzzle solving over constantly improvising to hobble through the campaign. Yet I'm hopeful that this and other 3DS-era experiments like Rusty's Real Deal Baseball can eventually attain some prominence and reevaluation in the system's library, an era of tumult and risk-taking uncommon for the publisher.
(In case you couldn't tell, I wrote this review a few years before joining Backloggd, hence the somewhat different style. Alas, ResetEra wasn't too interested in *Code Name S.T.E.A.M. at the time, and anyone wanting to give it a go now might as well visit a certain website rhyming with "ache chop" to get a digital copy for Citra or their homebrewed 3DS. Thankfully the game runs and plays like a dream in emulation, as this detailed r/FireEmblem poster can testify. I'm sure a replay would reveal some bullshit to me, but also various things I couldn't appreciate at the time.)

hoi peeplz, I'm bak 4rom da ded, hapy eastah ig [proceeds to whack you, me, and everyone else reading with the Biblically Inaccurate God Stick] blessed be thy shit, now go, my angle frens are dragon me to Scotland cuz we gotta piss on maggie thacther too
Once upon a time, Koei made a video game of the greatest story ever told. It wasn't Nobunaga's Ambition; that guy was about as far from sacred and pious as you could imagine (boy did Mitsuhide make him pay for it). And it certainly couldn't have been Do Dutch Wives Dream of Electic Eels?, not unless you worship at the altar of ancient erotic adventures. Rather, the company's non-sim game division in the early-1980s, dubbed Comix, released a very loose adaptation of Christ's struggles towards salvation in '84, utterly unlike the rest of their output. This side-scrolling, arcade-style action thing for the relatively underpowered (but surprisingly capable) PC-6001mkII didn't have much presence in its own market. Koei would soon pour the lion's share of their talent and resources into complex, richly themed grand strategy and military simulations over the coming decades. Somehow, though, I think Chrith: Ai no Tabidachi (or Journey of Love) perfectly represents the studio's origins, which were far from prestigious and instead reflected the anything-goes attitudes of early Japanese PC games.
Jesus ain't living on Earth here, but the alien planet Lourdes, ruled by an evil crown prince and ravaged by famine. Now this guy's still prophesied to become humanity's guiding light, working miracles before all is lost, and so this child of peasants finally gets the gig many years later. His katakana name is actually "kurisu", a nod to how this isn't really Christ but a weird alternate universe version Koei's using to get out of trouble with the few Christians in Japan who'd even care. Players control Christ as he must move west across the land, blessing every lost soul in sight with his holy staff while avoiding snakes, soldiers, and other manifestations of the devil. If this sounds pretty simple, that's because it is. Chrith tends to resemble a reverse-direction MagMax or Seicross, as the play area auto-scrolls from right to left with peasants and pests moving in different lanes. Just move onto each lost soul to save them, ending when you've hit 50 people or have lost all your lives. I guess resurrection's a limited-chance offer on this world.
So we're playing not-Christ on not-Earth and it's totally not got a lot going on. Stages all look the same, with the barest of details like silhouetted mountains and a starry night sky. Check out that sick wireframe ground, though. Someone would peg this as an '80s throwback game if released today just because of the grid! It serves a purpose here, though, since a lack of sprite scaling means the developers had to convey depth perception somehow. Chrith hardly plays that bad in the moment thanks to considerations like this, but the choppy, all-in-software scrolling and lack of any music or audio design means this feels limp from start to finish. It's as shallow and repetitive as many players today think the Golden Age arcade classics must be. All I have to do for high scores is run wild around the track, racking up as many worshipers as possible while avoiding one-hit deaths from baddies. No secrets, no hidden mechanics, no nuthin'. Any potential this had to integrate miracles, sermons, aphorisms, and other New Testament-themed nuances just wasn't on the dev team's to-do list, I suppose.
Chrith: Journey of Love has a certain je-ne-sais-qois, mainly due to how it distorts bubble-era Japanese pop perceptions of Christianity (also influenced by U.S. media exports like Cecil B. DeMille's lavish Hollywood epics). Players will immediately notice and likely laugh at the voice synthesis dialogue during stage intermissions. This was possible on PC-6001 models thanks to an add-on chip which a select number of software used, including games like this and NEC's graphic adventure Colony Odyssey. And what you'll hear sounds worse than the best lines from Evil Otto in Berzerk, let alone the iconic taunts of Sinistar. But this at least adds character and a sense of mystery to the game's aesthetic, where an unidentified light (God? Heaven? Some angels?) briefs our hero on principles and goals before heading back into the moral melee. The spartan color choices, typical for this system and akin to early CGA graphics on DOS PCs, also render this ersatz pilgrimage as uncanny as possible. Sitting down with this disk for even a few minutes gives me the heebie-jeebies, like some creepypasta's about to happen right on screen. Bewildering stuff, I tell ya. Just watch Umbrella Terms' review and play this with her fan translation patch for more strangeness!
While this is the first PC-6000 series game I've covered here on Backloggd, it's definitely an outlier in that library, a dying gasp of Koei's origins as this hobbyist venture Yoichi Erikawa started to supplement his family's chemicals business. You'll never hear this mentioned in any official histories beyond maybe a mention in some timeline graphic. And the next Christianity-themed effort by the corporation came nearly a decade later with Tamashii no Mon - Dante's Odyssey, an Xmas '92 adventure platformer sticking closer to its source material than Chrith ever bothered. I enjoy the contrasts between these reverent but stylistically opposed translations of religious lit into mainstream games. Whereas Dante's Odyssey seamlessly blends its game-y bits in with recognizable moments from the original poem, Chrith salvages the surface-level trappings of a generic Christ biopic or children's book for the sake of camp. Neither approach is that faithful, nor sacrilegious. Syncretism among different Japanese faiths predisposed these products' creators to treat Western-import religions and iconography very similarly. It is entirely seemly for a Japanese micro-computer game riffing on Jesus to take liberties via this inter-cultural mangling. In the author's death, all things appear fair. (Wait, that's the Iliad, not the Bible…)
Koei quickly crafted a veneer of majesty, attention to detail, and historic fidelity throughout the mid-/late-'80s, something which they've let go of recently but can still point to and say "we know what we're doing". Yet Chrith: Journey of Love remains a sobering reminder of when this wasn't the case, a period when the Erikawas and co. just messed around, producing whatever silly idea could work on whichever PC they were targeting. This was the same company behind the very first eroge, after all. If you ask me, I think the C-suite and tastemakers at Koei-Tecmo are cowards to deny their beginnings and heritage. Unless this really was a troubled production or something they need to disavow for legal or sensitivity reasons, I think it'd help them to show a little pride for their first efforts. What would Chrith do? Probably send me to the pearly gates with his superweap—er, uh, I mean holy staff, yes, but the King of Kings would have enough love in his heart for even an homage this mediocre and misguided. This wouldn't even be the last time Kou Shibusawa himself diverged heavily from a known mythology just to make a fun enough game, yet I don't hear Imperial scholars complaining about all the inaccuracies in Kamigami no Daichi's version of Onamuchi's labors in primordial Japan. I dunno, maybe Koei should cut itself some slack.

WHEN_ON_HIGH_THE_HEAVEN_HAD_NOT_BEEN_NAMED, reads the remote terminal prompt, beamed to you across the wastes of a forgotten earth. These radio waves, and the data carrying your scout bot's readings, struggle to reach you intact, hampered by signal interference and the irreproducible context of these ruins. Like uncovering the mounds and errata of ancient Sumeria, this process of scouring and understanding takes time and rigor—how much can you really glean or comprehend from this dustbin, flooded and mangled as it is? But a new history beckons deep within the underworld, where Tiamat again surfaces from Abzu and the answer to old apocalyptic riddles presents itself. The post-mortem of lost millennia can finally begin. You're just the first observer.
I've yet to try June Flower's previous games, exercises in minimalism and conjuration dabbling in archaeology and the unknown. Their pixel art and music, both just as mystifying yet inviting, got me interested while scanning Twitter for shareware found off the beaten paths. (Plus Thyme's short blurb!) June describes Gunkprotocol as a way to learn coding with Godot, an experience they found vexing and of questionable utility in the end. Even if this didn't work out as hoped, the game itself confidently about the author's artistry and ability to coax fascinating stories from so little. What I've seen of Remnants and Washout Spire, two longer and more ambitious releases, still doesn't seem nearly this economic in size and design. This 15-minute romp through a walled-off world lasts much longer in the back of my mind than expected, and for only good reasons. Going from Samorost to this, a 20-year gap between either program, showed me how far the quote-unquote "walking sim" has evolved without losing sight of minimalism and prodding the imagination.
All you're obligated to do in Gunkprotocol is wander around, exploring and piecing together a simple data transaction between "blobot" and you, a far-off observer investigating these caves. Exactly what happened to this forsaken city, sitting abandoned among gardens and tunnels, becomes clear at the end in a cute moment of meta-fiction. As you sink into the pulsating trip-hop reverberations, June's inimitable pixelated artwork conveys the grit, murkiness, and alien atmosphere of each environment. Much of the visual style harkens back to eye-searing, captivating limited-palette graphics found in ZX Spectrum or Amstrad CPC games from the '80s like Go to Hell. (Given the use of Manic Miner-like room names in Remnants, I suspect this resemblance has precedent.) We're tantalized both by buried wonders and fear of what lies around the corner, though the only horrors here are existential. There's no one down in these depths left to greet us, just crusty legends and vestiges of the almighty.
What closure players get at the end of this very short explore-a-thon also dodges explication, almost like any "lore" here has become garbled beyond recognition. Is this all the work of divine intervention sometime in our near-future, or the result of an AI lashing out at human hubris? Can new life and new memories bubble into being from these grounds, or is our protagonist's belated tour merely an appraisal of what was and no longer can be? Gunkprotocol maybe spends more effort on obfuscation than I'd like, but I won't doubt it succeeds at that. It's a bit repetitive to actually play through due to non-persistent keyboard inputs, meaning you'll have to tap the cursor keys a lot to navigate around the map. Still, something this intriguing in bite-sized form has me excited to try June's other works, let alone what they've got in mind next. Entrancing presentation and a thought-provoking final report, tucked away in a password-locked .zip archive outside the game, has me sated and ready for more.

ngl tho, the Puyo Puyo/Madou Monogatari cast have the drip, like they actually resemble their personalities. Of course Arle wears baggy pants, Schezo is the maracas himbo, Satan's our fishnet sexyman, and Rulue hangs out at Hot Topic. I'm sure someone at Compile just got hammered one night and asked "why don't we just dress the gang in American urban wear and have them dance like PaRappa?" That's one big problem with bosses taking you out to drink: you never know what random thing you'll say that later becomes a 1999 PaRappa the Rapper-like.
| The rise and fall of Puyo, Madou, Compile, and more |
There's both little to say and so much to cover with Puyo Puyo DA!, one of Compile's final releases. It's a hastily made, simplistic rhythm title bandwagoning on the hip-hop dog's success. There's a scant eight songs for eight minimally different characters, with only the most basic single-player and multi-player modes. And the actual rhythm game part of this package isn't much to speak for, either. I can sense that the devs generally matched distinct notes, rhythms, and other musical bits to the button charts they designed, but the laggy input processing means you're always tapping a bit behind the beat. Must I explain why that's frustrating and should have gotten at least a week to test-fix? Neither are the charts and songs varied enough to compete with its direct inspiration, let alone so many BEMANI series which trounced it in content and playability. The crust is real, folks—presentation and a great soundtrack save this from the trashcan, but how'd Compile go from one of Japan's most consistent self-publishers to…whatever greenlit this?
Prior to folding and its IPs scattering to the winds, the company had dug itself into a corner in every way. Masamitsu "Moo" Niitani and other leaders had drastically shifted Compile's direction away from their varied arcade-y shooters, puzzlers, xRPGs, etc. which brought them critical and commercial success. These still existed and even thrived on Disc Station subscription disks/CDs for various PCs, but on consoles and in arcades, Puyo Puyo and its parent series Madou Monogatari were the cash crops de jour. [1] Puyo Puyo did so damn well in game centers, rivaling many popular versus fighters in popularity, that Niitani centered most of the studio's resources around sequels and spinoffs. And all those largely similar Madou remakes for different machines proved fruitful, for a time. I mean, sure, they've effectively spurned their STG developers away by throwing all their resources at excuses to spread le smug Carbuncle face everywhere, which is why talent like Yuichi Toyama left sometime in 1992 to form Raizing (8ing). That's not a bad sign, right?
You bet it was. Things went far worse in other market sectors that Compile soon targeted. Though various Puyo-Madou merch sold well during the series' heyday, like the Puyoman manju candies, the cooling (though not dead) interest in these combat puzzlers left the corporation and its partners saddled with inventory and frustrated distributors. [2] Both an ill-advised new office in Fukuoka and a dead-on-arrival business software suite called Power Acty tightened their slim wallets even further. Worst of all, though, Compile just didn't have the mainstream console and PC presence they used to. Cash-cropping Puyo-Madou to such degrees hurt not only their blockbuster action games, but even the smaller faire reserved for Disc Station and handhelds. Difficulty courting new talent, insubstantial series entries sent to die on nearly dead consoles (all those late-stage Mega Drive carts!), an unwillingness to experiment with MMOs or get more involved with their surprising Disc Station hype in South Korea…I could go on. Compile found Incredible New Ways to Bleed Money seemingly every quarter from around 1996 to 1998, which eventually had them filing for bankruptcy and promising Puyo-Madou's rights to SEGA if unable to pay them back by 2002.
With some fresh cash from restructuring, Compile had precious few years left to use the Puyo-Madou IP intact before ceding them to the new owners. So, not learning any lessons from this outcome, they doubled down on the franchise even harder. Their lack of confidence in starting new big properties, let alone bringing any non-Puyo games to the PS1 while it was hot, led to quick, often copycat products on the SEGA systems they were overly familiar with. Wait, that's a great idea: have our Puyo-Madou guys make us some hit DC software! I'll admit that a Puyo spinoff's still got more immediate appeal to our Western eyes than something wholly new or remade from the Disc Station catalog. Except the latter's what happened anyway. Puyo Puyo DA! exists partly thanks to an earlier PC-98 minigame called Broadway Legend Elena. Now both games can be done dirty for the good of getting Compile off its bruised back! And I'd even be fine with that if this GD-ROM had sold well enough to save at least the development studio. No dice. Our beleaguered company limped along until 2003, with very few games releasing that late except on PC and handhelds. Zanac X Zanac and Guru Logic Champ deserved better than this, as did Wander Wonder, After Devil Force, Geo Conflict…argh. IGDB doesn't even many of these games listed yet, a telling sign of the studio's late-stage irrelevance.
We live in one of the timelines ever, and this one sadly saddles us with Compile Heart, SEGA arguably mishandling the Puyo-Madou war chest over time, and most other IPs receiving basic re-releases by the Project EGG people. Quite the downfall from the company's mid-'90s apex, back when you could find ads and broadcasts showcasing their swag and software on major networks. [3] You'd think that a Compile flush with cash would have tried bringing way more of their products out West during this time, a wise investment that would have made banks and investors plenty happy. Of course, why take that risk when you could just hire the army of staff needed to draft up a Puyo-Madou theme park, buy the land, and start construction? [4] Genius planning there, guys. It's almost like chasing trends which were clearly fads ended up kneecapping this corp in no time flat, a pattern as old as the consumer electronics industries in Japan, the U.S., etc. going back to the '60s. Localization efforts to broaden their market beyond this domestic audience wouldn't have seemed as glamorous, sure, yet they could have kept Compile going on its own terms for a long time.
| Grooving out like there's no tomorrow |
Oh, right, where does Puyo Puyo DA! factor into all of this? I doubt this game exists in place of some unknown better project (though I won't rule it out), yet it's still bittersweet to try out today. One could get quite a bit of fun from this if they're a fan of the genre, and/or love to watch these Puyo masters dabbing on each other for an hour. There's also Elena (or Ellena, IDK), no longer having a funny story mode like in her original game. She's not even one of the easy characters to play as, getting harder charts than Arle or Suke-T despite having subtitle spotlight on the game's cover. As I booted in, skipped the minimal options menu, and started a regular game using Ellena, this was beginning to look dicey. At least the window dressing's cute; chunky lower-poly modeling on this platform almost always looks nicer than it should. Each level is colorful, readable, and thematically appropriate. Everyone on stage has a hypnotic cadence, and
I keep bringing up Ellena's game because it did, in fact, predate PaRappa and other Simon Says-style rhythm classics from that hardware cycle, a legacy which the game loop in Puyo Puyo DA! neither advances nor matches in quality. Broadway Legend Ellena didn't have the combo chaining mechanic you can mildly synergize with here, yet that still felt like a dream compared to this. Set aside the aforementioned lack of music-input sync and we're stuck with a very limited set of commands to dance with. Face buttons and that blistering DC d-pad let you tap all four colors of Puyo while shoulder buttons handle the sun Puyo—where the fuck's the analog stick?! Every instance of tapping three or more 16th-note Puyos, wondering if input lag or my fingers would mess up first, has me wishing I could instead twist quarter-circles to accomplish the same. Better yet, having to use both Puyos and analog-based dancing motions would have added something meaningful to the pace and diversity of charts. All the characters feel too same-y without that extra layer, and the most engagement I found here came from executing some downright evil split-second segments.
Puyo combos are a minor mix-up to the formula, too, which I noticed mainly when the tide of duels went against me. Like in a classic Puyo match, nailing all your inputs in a row showers the opponent's "junk" bar with evil blobs. However, this presents a false sense of strategy; either player, real or AI, will lose the match if even one junk Puyo remains on their side. Compile could have added scaling thresholds of how much trash you can take on before toggling that lose state, but no, it's truly all or nothing, and the final rounds against Satan and Rulue on Hard become needlessly evil. Hell, the main series' concept of a filling, claustrophobic playfield is absent here, which makes death-by-grey-goo feel even weirder. It really grinds my gears to witness this much potential being squandered for reasons I have no way to verify. Did the team run out of time or money later in development? Was this always a cheapie, recycling nearly its whole soundtrack from Compile's own albums while tasking their few 3D modelers to do the real work? One day we'll uncover the truth; I've known the Puyo Puyo fandom long enough to vouch for their dedication and persistence.
| When all's lost, shout from your soul! |
All these grievances haven't overshadowed the main reason I can still play this, thankfully, which is that perverse delight of watching Compile's mascots gyrating to, as the kids call them these days, Absolute Bangers. The studio's sound team, like so many from Japanese developers in this period, had their own in-house vocalists and live band, performing and recording many catchy tunes throughout the '90s. Taken this way, Puyo Puyo DA! unironically succeeds as a sampler disc and playable jukebox in one, entertaining less for how it plays and more through its curated set of discotheque-grade jams. I bring up disco because, relative to the aggressive IDM booming around Y2K, what's offered here might seem tame, cheesy, or downright laughable at times. Maybe I'm a sucker for MIDI synth-brass, karaoke bravado, and canned drum loops, though. Pair this camp soundscape with suitably stiff but charming animation and we've got a winner! Even good 'ol Niitani sings on some of the tracks—good for him.
For all its shortcomings, plus misreading a market moving on to Dance Dance Revolution and other rhythm innovators, I kind of love Puyo Puyo DA! the way only a video game historian can. This absolutely was not the kind of game that could save Compile, and I wonder if it managed to break even considering the Dreamcast's abysmal performance in Japan. Still, it's a hoot for any self-styled Puyo-Madou heads, which I am one of. From those awkwardly easy opening moments to the trial-and-error irritations later on, I still bopped along to Katsumi Tanaka's cheery vocals, no less powerful than Takenobu Mitsuyoshi when you need him. And glancing at my avatar's comical reaction to missing a chain, or the very same from an opponent, kept me going well past the point of dropping this in disgust. Little details here and there tell me that someone at Compile had fun and passion while developing this, even if it started life as yet another hail-Mary from a dying soft house trying to avert disaster. At the very least, we'll have learned more from this event than Moo Niitani ever did—seriously, does he think he can capture lightning in a bottle twice, or are Puyo-style puzzlers the only thing he has left to pitch when starting a new doomed company? What a cursed franchise. Pardon me, it's closing time and I gotta pour one out for Kazunari Yonemitsu and the gang (don't worry, he and the rest at Sting are doing alright).
Completed for the Backloggd Discord server’s Game of the Week club, Apr. 4 - 10, 2023
| Bibliography |
[1] discstation. “コンパイル@DiscStation Wiki.” コンパイル@discstation wiki. アットウィキ, November 19, 2022.
[2], webmaster @, ed. “Puyoman Products -FOODS-.” Compile. Compile Corporation, November 1, 1996.
[3] Iwaki, Toshiaki, and Yoshito Onishi. “Tokyo Game Show: Puyo Puyo.” Broadcast. Tonight 2 1996, no. August 28. Tokyo, Kanto: TV Asahi, August 28, 1996.
[4] さん blitz753challenge, ed. “貴重 ゲーム ぷよぷよ 魔導ランド 直筆絵画 コン...” ヤフオク! Yahoo! Japan, August 17, 2022.

The chad Jakub Dvorsky and the virgin Doug TenNapel—not that I actually have anything against The Neverhood so much as its asshole director, but it's nice to know the "funny guys on forested rocks in space" sub-genre found life elsewhere. Amanita Design's first entry in the "self rust" trilogy promised, and delivered, a smaller-scale successor to the bizarre scenes and ambling of a certain mid'-90s cult classic. And unlike that bust, Samorost led to tangible influence and prestige for the bourgeoning indie games scene. This was exactly the kind of Flash-era, outsider art game happy to just invite you into its odd little world, where every screen our gnome reaches has miniature delights and obstacles to overcome. Right as the very notion of "indie game" was coming into being—a reaction against a decline in shareware and rise of industry consolidation—this became an unlikely herald for things to come.
Actually playing the original 2003 game is a bit of a task. Internet Archive's in-browser version breaks after the intro, meaning I had to run the game in Ruffle offline via command line! Otherwise it's as simple as clicking around the screen, presented first to players as a beguiling, fantastic planetoid defying physics and graphical consistency. As I watched our protagonist scope around the void before panicking at the sight of an oncoming world just like theirs, I couldn't help but notice the odd juxtaposition of, well, everything here. Low-res nature photos blown up into scenery; flat-colored munchkins living in and out of more shaded structures; very short music loops, seemingly pulled from anonymous sources and libraries like junk in orbit! Many multimedia CD-based adventures from years before this used far more space to achieve this kind of uncanny valley, yet Dvorsky triumphs in a far stricter filesize.
Our white-frocked fellow's journey from home to hell and back hardly lasts longer than 15 or 20 minutes. Patience, observing the environment, and learning each inhabitants' patterns makes for an engaging time despite its simplicity. An itinerant laborer smokes the herb before throwing away the pipe-key needed to activate a ski lift. The fisherman tosses out a skeleton which the hawk snatches, proudly exhibiting it long enough for us to climb aboard and reach the badlands. What few scenarios Samorost offers feel like forgotten or mangled tall tales, making it fun to solve each puzzle in hopes of something cool. I'll admit that the last couple of screens are less interesting, though. Dvorsky and co-creator Tomas Dvorak wring most of the potential possible from this simple click-action paradigm a bit before the game ends. I hope the sequels introduce just enough verbs and structural changes to freshen things up. Still, this remains as elegant and intuitive as it must have been back in the early-2000s, a pared-down gallery installation in LucasArts form. (Compared to The Neverhood's often overdone riddles and backtracking, something this linear isn't too unwelcome.)
Later stories by the Amanita team(s) would delve into less enigmatic, more overt themes and messaging. Here, the focus is squarely on how one can both explore and interact with alien environments without corrupting or exploiting them in the process. This little world has no prince, yet bears the burden of its own ecosystem and hierarchies which we must acknowledge and work around to save our own land. Yes, one could say it's just a whimsical avoid-the-collision plot with lots of oddities and sight gags, but there's an optimism hiding in plain sight too. Accidents will happen, but a courageous and respectful response to natural disasters like this can work out in the end. As an invisible hand of fate guiding the gnome, we play the most important part in continuing the circle of life, perpetuating predation, survival, and creation in turn.
That's a lot of words to say that I had a good laugh watching the disgruntled man-squirrel finally getting peace of mind after the worms burrowing around him fall prey to a blobby bird. Or how about spooking the goats into the chasm, over and over again, waiting for the angler and some lizards to finish their meal? Samorost indulges maybe a bit too much in these clickpoints at the expense of a meatier adventure, but the commitment to displaying this world's arch antics and irreverence is very endearing. Coupled with unsettling yet comforting library music, the lounge jazz you'd hope to hear in any Eastern European animated film, this clash of styles makes the experience unforgettable. I was sad to leave the suddenly eventful lives of this lil' fella, and everything and everything they chanced upon, but this was one surreal trip I'll think back on fondly.
Seeing as this was one of his college projects, Dvorsky likely had no reason to expect Samorost would win a Webby Award. This led to Internet advertising work, the start of a career making similarly weird but wholly considered interactive media. Amanita Design would eventually ride the wave of indie games popularity via storefronts like Steam and the Wii Shop, plus enthusiastic press coverage, driving this kind of entertainment onto peoples' screens. Machinarium and later point-and-click odysseys shared the limelight with oh so many other author-driven darlings up through the turn of the 2010s, and the rest is history. It's fun to revisit the origins of these big cultural movements, back when games like this, Seiklus, and Strange Adventures in Infinite Space were innovators and standouts in an age of crowded big-box gaming. The era of bedroom coders never truly died, transitioning into browser games and then the digital distribution market we know today. Whether we call it "homebrew", "indie", "doujin", or whatever makes more sense in context, that ineffable David vs. Goliath effort of making one's own interactive art shines through in Samorost. Labor of love indeed.


•Wanted to score higher anyway for a laugh? We had a tool for that: It was called "SPACE INVADERS"
•"Yes please give me SERIES of minigames. Please give me CLOCKS with it"- Statements dreamed up by the utterly Deranged
LOOK at what Yamauchi has been demanding your Respect for all this time, with all the Ultra Hands & other toys Yokoi built for him
(This is REAL handheld gaming, done by REAL Gamers)
judge manhole donkey kong hockey
"Hello I would like virtualized clownery please"
They have played us for absolute fools
I love these funky little handhelds, but Ball is as basic and, frankly, redundant as they ever could have been. It exists purely as a tech & market demo for the concept, which Fire and the aforementioned Octopus effectively iterated on. Memes aside, I hardly have any strong thoughts on this inaugural Game & Watch unit, just sighs when I remember it exists for the sake of what came later.
The old twisted nematic tech for LCD displays is legit cool to read up on. Chemistry is still a lot of black magic to me, but there's a kind of Rube Goldberg-ish complicated engineering behind these monochrome flat panels from the period. Miniaturizing and economizing LCD displays to the level Nintendo needed for Game & Watch in general must have been difficult. They're marvels of consumer design to this day and the necessary stepping stone towards the Famicom's own blend of capability and commodity. So all respect to Ball, its deficiencies aside. We salute those who serve.

funny how the one MOBA I've ever played only caught my eye because the devs conceived it as a modernized Herzog Zwei, except that's something they kinda got away from over time...
I played this back during its alpha phase, before Ubisoft brought it to consoles. Nothing tells me what pushed these guys into trying silly things like a VR port when they could have changed up the core modes, or anything to make this stand out from the crowd. Granted, someone more active in the beta and release periods would know more about whether or not this ended up and remained fun to play. This was also the only time I ever played a Chrome Store game, something the IGDB/Backloggd page won't tell you about its origins. That period of web-based free-to-play games seems to have waned, or just folded into the background as everyone and their mother does that stuff via Roblox instead. Funny how these trends come and go, only as prescient or permanent as the market and its manipulators demand.
Basically, imagine the aforementioned Tecno Soft RTS for Mega Drive, just with distinct factions and heroes + the usual mess of loadout management and heavy micro associated with this genre. Something tells me that I gravitated towards AirMech to fill the gap in my soul, not having a Windows PC good enough for StarCraft II and having no idea (at the time) how to get classic Blizzard online games going. The ease of matching with relatively equally skilled players early on helped here, as I generally won and lost games in that desirable tug-of-war pattern you'd hope for. Quickly managing unit groups, keeping up pressure in lanes and the neat lil' alleys on each map, all while doing plenty of your own shooting and distraction using the hero unit-meets-cursor...this had a lot going for it.
There's a bit of a trend with very beloved and played free-to-play classics getting, erm, "classic" fan remasters years down the line, e.g. RuneScape or Team Fortress 2. But because AirMech was always closed source and never had that level of traction (some would argue distinction in this crowded genre), there's no way for me to revisit the pre-buyout era and place my memories on trial. What I've seen from AirMech Arena, meanwhile, seems more soulless and bereft of unique or meaningful mechanics and community. It's very easy to just play Herzog Zwei online via emulators or the SEGA Ages release on Switch, too, and that's held up both in legacy and playability. So the niche this web-MOBA/-RTS experiment tried to address is now flush with alternatives, let alone the origins they all point to.
Maybe this just sounds like excuses for me not to download the damn thing and give it a whirl. All I know is this led me to playing Caveman 2 Cosmos and saving up more for my 3DS library at the time. The beta didn't exactly develop that fast, and when it did, the general concept and game loop started favoring ride-or-die players over those like me who just wanted to occasionally hop in and have a blast. Balancing for both invested regulars and casual fans is a bitch and a half, yet I also can't imagine this would have been fun if imbalanced towards skilled folks constantly redefining the meta. The extensive mod-ability and "anything goes" attitude of classic games definitely wasn't and isn't a thing for AirMech, nor do I suspect the developers ever wanted that. If it's a focused, overly polished RTS-MOBA you're looking for, I'm sure there's worse out there, but this no longer has that scrappy, Herzog-like simplicity that I crave.
The premise still has a lot of potential, even if Carbon Games seems content with where they've brought the series so far. I'd love to have a more story-focused, singleplayer-friendly variation, something which spiritual predecessors like NetStorm surely could have used. Until then, eh. This one's just here, sitting in the back of my community college neurons, taunting me with what could have been.

The very first "realistic" arcade racing video games started off simplistic and barely evocative of what they promised players, but Speed Freak, the first example using vector graphics, does the night-racer concept best out of them all. It must have seemed like a huge leap forward upon release in 1979, three years after Atari engineer Dave Shepperd and his team used Reiner Forest's Nurburgring-1 as the basis for Night Driver (and then Midway's close competitor, 280 Zzzap). Representing the road with just scaling road markers zooming by, in and out of the vanishing point, was impressive enough in the late-'70s, yet Vectorbeam saw the potential for this concept if brought into wireframe 3D. Without changing the simple and immediate goal of driving as fast, far, and crash-less as possible, the company made what I'd tentatively call the best commercial driving sim of the decade, albeit without the fancy skeuomorphic cabinets of something like Fire Truck.
One coin nets players two minutes total of driving, dodging, shifting, and hopefully some high scorin'. Like its stylistic predecessors, the cabinet features a wheel and gated stick shift, giving you something tactile to steer and manage speed with other than the pedals. And that vector display! This expensive but awe-inspiring video tech debuted in arcade format back in '77 when Larry Rosenthal from MIT debuted a fast yet affordable Spacewar! recreation using these new screen drawing methods. Whereas Dr. Forest's early '76 German racing sim drew a basic road surface and lit up bulbs placed towards the glass to fake road edges, Atari and Midway used very early microprocessors and video ROM chips to render rasterized equivalents. Here, though, vivid scanlines of light emanated from the screen at a human-readable refresh rate, with far more on-road and off-road detail than before. Clever scaling of wiry objects on screen gives the impression of 3D perspective, and crashing leads to a broken windshield effect! All these features would have made this feel more comprehensive and immersive for arcade-goers than its peers, even compared to the most luxurious of electromechanical racing installations.
Speed Freak itself, though, isn't a big leap in complexity and depth of play, nor does it use the extended-time mechanic found in 280 Zzzap. You just have to reach and maintain max speed without crashing either off the course or into oncoming objects, like other cars or signposts. It's all about speeding down the darkness with reckless abandon, nabbing those top scores over drivers who keep bailing within this strict time limit. Momentum's a little funky at first, but no more unlifelike or difficult to work with than in Night Driver and its direct precursor. The game does let you know if you're in danger of an accident by sounding a tire squeal, among other small details that build an illusion of world-building here. I wish there was not just a way to extend play, but also see recommended cornering speeds for upcoming turns, rather than having to guess at a glance how far to brake and/or shift. That's one aspect 280 Zzzap has over this and the Atari game, for what it's worth.
Vector-based 3D driving faire like this had a brief heyday in '79 and the following year, but it wouldn't be long until both SEGA and Namco fought back. Their jaw-dropping third-person racers Turbo and Pole Position proved that colorful, "super-scaling" raster graphics were just as much a match for the relatively spartan but flexible vector stuff. In fact, more players cottoned on to these Japanese competitors, both for the added skill ceiling and game loop variety which developers at neither Cinematronic nor Vectorbeam could match. Still, despite how much more I love those Golden Age 2D and pseudo-3D skidfests from the industry titans, I think there was a lot of potential explored in Speed Freak, something more akin to military simulators but for the masses. Affordable home computers and their game creators wouldn't touch this genre for years to come, and the closest you could get on VCS and competing any-game consoles never stood a chance at reproducing this experience. Rosenthal's brief stint running Vectorbeam, a bright light of innovation and visual achievement in the industry, ended the same year this came out, all because Barrer bombed and its manufacturing costs fatally wounded the company. If they had found more market success and iterated on vector tech as fast as he'd introduced it, who knows if the Vectrex and similar projects might have fared better?
Today you can only play Speed Freak on a properly maintained real-life board or, thankfully, through MAME. It's a guilty pleasure of mine, easy to rebind for controllers and a neat subject for screenshots. Maybe the likes of Digital Eclipse, Night Dive, or another prestigious studio could figure out the licensing situation for these formative vector games and get all the experts in one room to make an Atari 50-caliber collection one day. Or maybe that window's passed, given how many industry people from the time have passed on or simply become unavailable. Give this a try regardless! It's simultaneously the start and end of an era, hiding in plain sight among its own kind.

The stuff dreams and nightmares are made of. Earthbound's cosmic horror climax sitting right next to Mavis Beacon touch-typing exercises. A critique and celebration of Dragon Quest not unlike Itoi's Mother series, just more spartan and deadpan. And it's finally translated in English, a privilege few PC-98 games enjoy even today (let alone most '90s East Asian PC software). Kumdor no Ken, or Sword of Kumdor, was creator Michiaki Tsubaki's most popular, well-regarded work during his short stint in games development, an edutainment staple for NEC and Mac computer labs. Many kids and young adults grew up with this, a story-driven word processing trainer for the JRPG age. Its story of exploring a strange land, overcoming bizarre obstacles, and indulging the frivolous but endearing people of this planet resonates with those same players today. Just imagine if Mario Teaches Typing had earned the kind of legacy and following a 16-bit Final Fantasy entry has now. Yet, until very recently, seemingly none in the West knew or cared about this.
| A typing tutor for all seasons |
Maybe I'm just built different, but Sword of Kumdor caught my attention several years ago while I was buzzing around decaying Japanese homepages and fan sites from the pre-Facebook days. It's almost pointillist visual style, learning to touch-type through turn-based combat, and bizarre sense of place and verisimilitude (or sekaikan) beguiled me. The closest Anglosphere equivalents to something this well-made, distinctive, and beloved across demographics are classics like Oregon Trail, or The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis. Whole petitions exist simply for reprints of the game for modern PCs, encased in the same unique book packaging ASCII & Tsubaki used back in 1991. Though my attempts to play through this adventure then were thwarted by the language barrier and poor keyboard skills, I could tell this was no mere fluke, forgery, or overhyped victim of nostalgia. Nothing on consoles, Western PCs, or the PC-98 and its competitors resembled Tsubaki's RPGs, almost all of which taught players about computing, typing, and other subject matter through idiosyncratic RPG stylings and structure. This was something special, and I had to know more. That's why [DISCLAIMER] I ended up being the beta tester on lynn's translation project, now having no excuse but to see this through.
Sword of Kumdor starts off unassuming, with barebones titles and a scrawly tutorial briefly going over controls. Using the F, J, and space keys to move forward, use the menu, and rotate your protagonist sounds weird and unintuitive, but comes naturally as you start the game in a galactic rest stop, waiting to board a rocket towards the titular world. Tsubaki describes our hero(ine) as a "Master of Blind Touch", a keyboard champion who's risen to the top but is bored, desperate for deeper understanding beyond their success on Earth. So we've traveled to a beleaguered, backwater planet calling for help, invaded by strange spellcasting monsters and sudden environmental disasters. It's not long before our own interplanetary trip to Kumdor goes awry, with the spacecraft malfunctioning and crash landing right into the starting town. With our keyboard keys and experience gone, no one recognizes us as the same touch-typing maestro promised to them. It's time to regain our equipment, master those typing skills once more, and figure out the cause of and solution to Kumdor's maladies!
As I've implied, most of the game loop involves exploring towns, overworlds, and dungeons, fighting random battles and collecting key items. This also entails the usual fiddling with inventory and managing your money, but Tsubaki challenges players to do something unique for a JRPG: play the whole game with touch-typing controls. I really cannot imagine how one would get through Sword of Kumdor on a gamepad, nor would it make any sense. From the most basic resting wrist fingerings to rapidly and precisely completing difficult sentences later on, this journey tries to make an avid typist out of anyone, even if its approach can get exhausting. One menu option brings you to a full keyboard HUD displaying your inputs, something I found necessary due to some PC-98 keys not natively mapping onto my US Windows layout. Another menu gives players a summary of their word-per-minute rating and trend over runtime, plus their WPM target which matters most at endgame. Teachers likely needed and asked for these tools the most, but anyone playing this to completion should find 'em useful too. I had to make a new .txt file in my Neko Project II emulator directory rebinding some keys to in-game equivalents, which made the virtual key-map important.
Forget years of button-mashing wearing out your gamepad—this game occasionally had me wondering if I'd finally feel some mushiness from my spacebar! (Not the case, thankfully, but then again my keyboard has faux Cherry Blue switches, designed to remain punchy.) I've long wondered if the Art Academy series could help me unlearn my chickenscratch handwriting and drawing, and parts of Sword of Kumdor did a lot to correct bad typing habits I've built over the ages. Everything centers around your muscle memory here, with slow and clumsy typing punished with Game Overs in combat and puzzles. Battles are all 1-on-1 affairs, as are "gates" which you unlock using the same system. Enemies shout prompts, you type them back as fast and accurate as you can, and this deals damage based on your EXP points total. Increasing max EXP requires visiting practice areas, usually within towns, which check if you've bought the right keys and then test you with them. Completing prompts fast with no errors leads to either an optional prompt at the end of fights—which reward the lion's share of an encounter's EXP as long as you don't mess up once—or a higher raise in max EXP during the aforementioned tests. These slight variations on the same repetitive exercises keeps most of the game feeling fresh despite what it demands from players.
| Old tales, new travails |
Another boon for us all is the Dragon Quest-like game progression, which involves finding and using movement items to proceed further. Though there's only one real "dungeon" stuck in the endgame, crossing each overworld section means talking to the right NPCs (which rarely feels tedious) to acquire the right stuff. For example, a mid-game fog valley barrier proves insurmountable until one locates the compass needed to navigate it. Diving into and out of lakes or ponds? Better snag a snorkel! And because there's no way to passively heal, Sword of Kumdor punishes players who forget to pack restoratives, either found throughout the realm or bought in towns. There's both consumable items with various properties and magic scrolls which only work if you have all the keys needed to type them. (Early on, you won't even have an Enter key with which to submit the spell name.) All this could easily be too simplistic or convoluted like in many contemporary JRPGs, but Tsubaki does a good job of balancing frequent typing with visiting new locations and people often.
If anything, Sword of Kumdor incentivizes its digital stenographers to chat up as many of the locals as possible. So much dialogue between villagers, scientists, and plot-critical individuals goes for light, often ironic or self-effacing conversation, the kind you'd expect from modern Earthbound-inspired xRPGs and adventure (ADV/VN) faire. Lake divers kvetch to you and one another about how the monsters plaguing their lake have left them with nothing good to do. Kumdor-ians complain endlessly about their inability to learn touch-typing and fight back, often resorting to increasingly absurd solutions. Hermits and dilapidated robots muse about the mysterious Dreampoint, which seems to be corrupted and responsible for the planet's septic response to its inhabitants. Sword of Kumdor starts you off as a detached observer of their foibles, humor, and resignation to what fate has in store for them. Only much later on do major NPCs recognize you as the purported "keyboard warrior" they asked for, and even then everybody's too busy trying to live, survive, and enjoy themselves to notice. Nothing in this pre-Mother 2 odyssey from 1991 ever gets as nakedly comical or referential as the usual suspects today, but all the signs are here from start to finish.
Most of an average playthrough (about 6-7 hours prior to endgame) goes by with little issue, intuitive and freshly paced as it is, up until endgame. Trudging through lava flows to reach safe land, or hopping across pits and solving gates, takes a bit more time, but that's far from the worst Tsubaki throws at you. It's the long-awaited final stretch, the Dreampoint, which turns Sword of Kumdor from an occasionally tricky edutainment JRPG into a brutal marathon of skill and carpal tunnel risks. The dungeon's gimmick? Find those warp points and save up enough dosh to buy the house they're hidden inside. While you can safely run from any battle elsewhere in the game, only suffering minor damage or easily healed status conditions if unlucky, most of the baddies patrolling this place can do terrifying things to players. Some render you invisible before curing, others saddle you with an unhealable darkness of vision (only fading if you can escape the Dreampoint), and a couple outright steal one or more keys if you run for it! My strategy evolved towards hoarding restoration food, saving very rare teleportation magic for emergencies, and then trying to brute-force through these oppressive mazy floors until I reached the next warp. Once I'd vanquished the "final boss", this conclusion felt more like the second half, taking as much time as events leading to it (if not more).
This difficulty and investment spike risks spurning players entirely. Indeed, I began to play less, making what progress I could in short sessions to avoid burnout. But it's also exactly the kind of grueling test that Tsubaki (and I presume his friends at ASCII Corp.) had in mind for budding touch-typists. What qualified as dungeons and side-areas before pales in comparison to this crawl, and I think it ultimately works out for the better. I'd reached just shy of 2000 EXP by the end, relying more on my typing skills than just pushing up numbers in the practice rooms when I could two-shot most enemies already. Previous emphasis on building muscle memory and character status gives way to the player themselves embodying their male or female avatar's struggle to save the world. Like the best finales in ye olde Phantasy Star or Ys saga of the era, strategy and self-pacing count more than grinding to a sure victory, and so the push-pull of tension and relief becomes so much stronger in turn. It recontextualizes most of the rest of the game as a cleverly-disguised series of quizzes and reviews, preparing us for this cram school's worth of battles, conundrums, and focused sprints to safety. And, being the masochist I am (not unlike '90s Japanese students here), I was hooked.
| Mysteries of the inner globe |
The Dreampoint itself summarizes many of the story's most interesting themes and oddities, a labyrinth of disfigured memories and boogeymen foreshadowing the big twist. So far, Sword of Kumdor has presented its planet as a microcosm of Showa-era Japan, with its polite but passive-aggressive populace and a strong bystander effect despite the unforeseen consequences of the planet's sentient core being invaded. Just like how the gravy train of real estate speculation and over-lending led to the bubble bursting not long before Tsubaki made this, Kumdor's palace royals and courtiers' fascination with the Dreampoint, a crossing point of everyone's conscious and subconscious thoughts, led to an ecological apocalypse of sorts. As a decorated yet anonymous outsider to these problems—the "Westerner" in the equation, not knowing local history, problems, etc.—it's just as problematic that we have to bail the leaders out of this predicament. Even as we help citizens and eventually the ultimate victim of the Dreampoint, what gratitude we receive comes mostly from observable touch-typing mastery. Think about whenever your boss or workplace values you most for results and business contributions, more so than just being, having that humanity and empathy we desire yet undervalue.
Beneath all the hijinks, calamities, and talking to sentient key-trees and key-fish lies a critical but optimistic set of messages for kids and adults in modern life. Through talent, determination, and side-stepping structural barriers whenever/wherever possible, one can recover from setbacks and prosper in ways previously unfathomed. By understanding one's environment and believing in your abilities—not taking things for granted or falling into impostor syndrome—you can convince the world around you of your worth, even if it shouldn't need such arguing. I appreciate what Tsubaki successfully communicates here even more because it does so without any hint of didacticism. Each ending, based on your endgame WPM target, reflects somewhat upon what comes after this arduous journey, be it the "bad" ending having Kumdor's king advocate for consuming oneself in fantasy (the book he wants to get back to instead of talking more with you), or the best ending having a couple of royals earnestly ask for you to tutor them in the touch-typing ways. Key NPCs only realize you're the Master of Blind Touch after your actions and progress prove that so, and the ancient non-Kumdorian inhabitants of the land, from wisened tree and fish folk to the mangled but salient denizens of the Dreampoint, comment on how far you've come without overselling the point. On the contrary, that "regular guy in the street" in Kumiel, the capital, doesn't pay players any mind, instead encouraging us to think about their relative privileges while other, more talkative folks escape volcanic eruptions or watch their jobs stagnate.
—————Ending spoilers below!—————
Something tells me Tsubaki was nonetheless reverent towards the principles of Yuji Horii's work on adventures like Portopia Serial Murder Case and, of course, the inescapable Dragon Quest franchise from '86 onward. Our protagonist's trip from wrecked ship to the neural nexus of this world both mirrors and reimagines Loto's quest in the original JRPG. Rather than starting in an open, hospitable castle with its jolly version of Lord British, we only reach the palace later on, just to be turned away because the real Master of Blind Touch would have solved everyone's problems already. Instead of a charismatic Dragonlord tempting players with a chance to join his side, the Dreampoint itself has parasitically merged with Mido, the prince of Kumdor whose own fears, flaws, and insecurities have bequeathed indescribable terrors upon the realm. Here the choice isn't whether or not to join evil, but to let yourself down at the bitter end, leaving this game's Loto to fester as a figurative child of Omelas.
Key moments in the original Dragon Quest's progression are rearranged, malformed, and presented to players no doubt familiar with JRPG cliches as something genuinely new. Bosses aren't cartoony Akira Toriyama drawings, but huge text prompts mixing in text from sources as wide as fairy tales (Snow White), journalism (a summary of '80s US-Japan relations and the Plaza Accord), and other unsettlingly real or familiar subject matter. Hotels go from quaint to multi-floor behemoths, medieval-garbed shopkeepers to lumpy blanks, and soundtracks from cheerful tunes to bright but ominous interludes. Even the biomes are now hostile: white fog traps you in a loop of encounters, water rapids destroy you underwater, and the undulating "void" of the Dreampoint's penultimate room can swallow you whole. In this messed-up but discernable reconfiguration of Dragon Quest-isms, much like the non sequiturs posed to players in something like Space Funeral, we're asked to rethink how much these tropes matter. After all, in a universe where the keyboard's mightier than the sword, what defines a hero's journey, the stakes in general, and how others perceive it all?
—————No more spoilers!—————
Shigesato Itoi often gets a truckload of credit in modern video games discourse for this kind of effortless, trenchant conveyance and literary game design. I think it's sobering to encounter other examples of such creators, working with their own restrictions and life stories, achieving much the same but to far less acclaim and/or recognition. Sword of Kumdor treats its participants with so much intelligence, no matter where you're from or which stage of your lifetime, that it can implicitly pass for an alternative-universe Mother series entry with such ease that I'm a little jealous. Here's exactly the kind of iterative yet unconventional trip through engaging systems, encounters, and heartwarming moments which I hoped existed somewhere in the Japanese PC games library, knowing its breadth and variety. Yes, this is far from a perfect game, what with its harsh dexterity requirements and cliff wall of an ending gauntlet. The audiovisuals, though very striking and identifiable, also play to the 16-color, high-resolution, FM-synthesized hardware in abrasive ways. Not everyone's gonna love eye-searing monsters, pulsing percussion-less and alien aural textures, or the Eisenstein-like use of strong colors to denote sleeping at inns or dying ingloriously in battle. But it all comes together to make something truly "PC-98" for me, a defining piece of entertainment which defies current assumptions about what one can and should expect.
| A sword for Kumdor, my axe for J-PC games scorned |
Years of Tumblr visual blogs, jokes about Sex 2, and the understandable but oft misleading characterization of the PC-98 as an erotic adventures platform makes Sword of Kumdor stand out that much more. It's definitely on the extreme, experimental end of the system's library, but quite the counter-example to explain how differently Japanese users perceived NEC's dominant PC up until Windows 95. True, otaku subcultures and reliable sales of horny soft to those audiences prevailed from the turn of the '90s to today, but the PC-98 catered to so many niche markets, like wargaming and fantasy JRPGs. Reductionist, convenient portrayals of this platform, both in and outside its original regions, downplay or even eliminate the chances that iconic games like Kumdor get the appreciation they deserve. And this isn't a close-and-shut case of Tsubaki's RPGs being the exception to the rule, as many other sims, ADVs, and RPGs didn't rely on any erotica to sell and stand out, ex. Yougekitai's occult detective premise or Tokio's satirical comedy of bubble-era economy and politics. It's a shame that the kind of enthusiast press and institutional promotion that all-ages games like Zoombinis gets in the US hasn't extended to Kumdor in its home country, working against all the fans' nostalgia and agitation to bring it back into the mainstream like it's the early '90s again.
For me, the critical burial and mere rumblings of relevance emanating in Sword of Kumdor's wake seems unjust. (Yes, I know life isn't fair and that these are just first-world problems, but gimme some slack here.) Writer, designer, and programmer Michiaki Tsubaki came from an outsider background in art design to iterate on the popular Dragon Quest mold in ways no one else accomplished. And it makes perfect sense he'd choose the PC-98, simultaneously a bastion for the business world and close-knit interest groups, to house these beguiling, often subversive adventures of learning. Yet so many out West (as well as in Japan, though much less so among uses/players from its heyday) can simply say "the PC-98 is for porn, or Touhou, or mahjong", etc. and leave it at that. I'm not going to say they're bad or wrong, given the large amount of eroge and "weird Japan" software you can find for the system, but Tsubaki didn't dabble in weirdness or exotica for its own sake, let alone fashion or vibes culture. His interactive media seeks to enthrall and unsettle people as much as help and inspire them, using these super-deformed, cute-yet-not elements and methods. In a sense, what he did with Kumdor, the INSIDERS duology, and Toki no Shirube adheres more to a traditional fully-fledged aesthetic than some superficial trend. And that's something I see with a general majority of PC-98 games, even some eroge ADVs.
In short, there's so much more to the PC-98 scene (and PC-88, and MSX, and…better stop here) in terms of daring, diverse, and dare I say important gaming experiences which Sword of Kumdor exemplifies. We can't settle for placing YU-NO or Rusty atop curated, canonical lists of the platform's greats and also overlook ambitious/art works like this, not unless all that matters is just ogling these games and their histories at a glance. (Again, I love quite a bit of eroge and better-known PC-X8 darlings, but they're not the end-all-be-all.) Tsubaki was just one talented bedroom-coding polymath among many in that milieu, pushing unwieldy hardware to its limits and daring players to keep up. Our unlikely Master of Blind Touch journeys from the end of one life into the beginnings of another, reassembling a broken world's hopes and dreams from above and within its core. That reconstructive mentality resonates with me, someone who's always willing to give these old, janky but often great PC games their due. You could find all kinds of ideas, stories, genre hybrids, different design paradigms, and truly unique fantasies and realities across East Asian PC games like this, complementing the console/arcade landscape with what those couldn't or didn't provide.
That said, it's not super easy for me to recommend this to anyone starting out with PC-98 emulation or using a real machine. I can think of very few notable games on the system which need this much keyboard configuration to feel all that great to play in long bouts. But it's still one of the most interesting xRPGs on the system—hell, in these genres' history! Not many stories can wield weirdness with purpose and the right amount of restraint like this. Not many edutainment titles dare their players to head into dangerous, troubling circumstances either. And not many are willing to risk players' attention and comfort for the sake of a tonally consistent, draining final act which wraps all loose ends, game loops, and story motifs into one. I have nothing but respect and admiration for Tsubaki's efforts here, and his lack of presence and biographical info even within Japan just saddens me. Regardless, I deem Sword of Kumdor the best way to get into this designer's catalog of bizarre yet relatable JRPGs, with the more computer science-based INSIDERS and Gaia-themed Stellar Sign comprising the rest of these PC-98 tomes. Of course, one might argue we're not getting the whole experience without translations of the dense hintbooks provided with each Tsubaki release, something ASCII Corporation did to help players and persuade educators to include the games in their curricula. But this first translation patch will definitely suffice!

Jet Set Trick-or-Treat: How the Anti-Establishment Halloween Gurrl Liberates the Means of Fun-duction via Xtreme Sports and Magic
It's a 15-to-20 minute demo of the best indie arena action-meets-skateboarding games yet to be made. That fact really doesn't mesh well with the program's filesize, a whopping ~8 GB freeware package courtesy of the DigiPen Institute. (For a student project, they've already nailed their industry's tendency towards comically unoptimized assets and downloads!) Don't be fooled or alarmed by that short runtime, however. Witchpunk comes with a simple, nifty ranking system based on how well you score against its limited waves of baddies, mini-bosses, and the big bad herself. And reaching that top rank means playing as fast, tight, and smart as one would hope for in a character action classic, now condensed into a small but expertly interwoven skate park of horrors.
The premise explains itself: a villainous girlboss has invaded your local grounds with an army of silvery Halloween battle-bots, seeking profitable victory over the festivities. It's up to our heroine to stop this uncool reign of terror, bashing the bots into junk heaps before taking on the aggressor herself. I didn't go in expecting any Trenchant Insight on class warfare, capitalism, or punk ethos and attitudes in general, but Witchpunk does a good job of embodying these themes in spirit. Your swagful attire, zesty cat familiar, and resilient set of wheels do a lot to instill confidence, as does the excellent audiovisual style found and heard all throughout. I could easily compare it to the aforementioned graffiti-spraying blockbuster from SEGA, or even something recent like Friday Night Funkin', but I think this manages to stand out on its own, even in a sea of other dalliances with cel shading and angular, colorful designs.
While I wouldn't say Witchpunk is style over substance, it can come a bit too close to that for comfort. The main issue stems from a relatively limited moveset: no button-combo tricking, advanced melee or magic options, etc. It counterbalances this with an emphasis on boosting, going faster and faster around the map to increase your damage multiplier and dodge enemy fire. This feels like a meld between precision action-platformers and the extreme sports genre, albeit a bit simplistic in areas. Controls are thankfully quite responsive and fine-tuned to make this game loop work, with tons of space to maneuver and herd squads together for juicy combos. It's always satisfying to master different racing lines and hopping between tiers of elevation, defending through evasion and attacking with just the right amount of hesitation.
A lotta love went into this undergraduate effort, but I really wish it had a level editor for us to mess with, or an outright "full" version at all. Much like Narbacular Drop oh so many years ago, this feels like an ambitious but rushed DigiPen showcase that can surely become something great, with better fleshed-out boss fights and missing essentials like gamepad controls. It's a decadent vertical slice even compared to its peers from the school, brimming with "the vibes" as some would say; I'm legit surprised there isn't a soundtrack release for this yet! We're living through a renaissance in Jet Set Radio-inspired experiences, each honing in on different strengths which that series pioneered or refined to a sheen, and I'm glad to say these guys are already mostly there.
Why this hasn't blown up on streams the way other DigiPen-borne releases like FPS Chess has is beyond me. Like, who wouldn't want to hop around, get down, bop clowns, and clean up town in an urban fantasy like this? Witchpunk answers this question quite ably, and I only wish it had more examples with which to demonstrate its proof of real skate-bonking sorcery.

Signs Your Man is Gay and Does Crimes: (a) hijacks military-industrial weapons to fight the oppressors, (b) defends the marijuana anarchists of America, (c) must rescue his big '80s-haired goth boyfriend, (d) stars in three Golden Age throwback arcade games reimagining '80s classics as thinly veiled socio-political satire, and (e) was once lost to time like other Macintosh oddities (straight and otherwise), only to get re-discovered decades later
There's a lot to say about Foobar Versus the DEA, a mid-'90s Macintosh vertical shooter outweighed by its messages, subcultural themes, and historic context. Cadensia's review focused on the larger anti-Reaganite/-Clintonite background, while I'm captivated by this game's vision of an alternate history where queer super-heroics could exist in the local pizza parlor, accepted no matter if it fits our definitions of quality. In the words of developers Richard Cross and Tom Cruse: "The game plays like Xevious. We have music, sound, and fun graphics. What is the story behind Foobar? Foobar has been pushed too far. His boyfriend, Ned, has been captured by the DEA." [1] See? It's just like those arcade icons of yesterday, but with something more to say, a reflection of real-world problems that transcends the usual power fantasies. And in this earnestness, I think it mostly succeeds. Moments like grabbing the missile-shaped condom with a US flag, or our hero holding Ned in his arms like ye olde damsels in distress, put a fun, barbed spin on my shoot-'em-up expectations.
In the larger Macintosh software world, this must have felt like a kick in the pants to whoever played it. Let's recall that Apple and Macs in general were limping towards an ignominious demise at the hands of Windows hegemony. All the best shareware releases of the day, like Mighty Mike and Escape Velocity plus big-box legends like the Marathon series could only hold back the inevitable. Foobar Versus the DEA sends an extra potent message as such, a defiant assertion of pride in a dying platform and the voices it emphasized over the status-quo products making waves on most PCs of the era. Sure, I sincerely doubt Ambrosia Software would have published anything as brazen as this—look to their later Mars Rising for an example of the typical Mac retro shooter—[but this kind of interactive media found a home on usergroups, newsletters, and early World Wide Web sites evangelizing the Mac experience.]( [2]
The word "Foobar" derives from hacker culture, a corrupt of military jargon ("FUBAR") and signal terms used at MIT's model train club starting in the late-1950s. [3] And it's fitting, if disappointing, that this game's as DIY and ersatz as the name itself. Nothing here feels good to actually play. I wouldn't call the sluggish ship movement, imprecise hitboxes, molasses scrolling, or generally repetitive game loop bad, but it's a far cry from what else had arrived in the Mac scene. You've got 4 levels of predictable, seemingly interminable waves of missiles, turrets, and weird lil' enemies gunning at you. There's just one weapon power-up, the usual extra life and score "yummies", and it's very easy to accidentally destroy these items via your own shots! Neither the comically short musical loops nor early Flash-game visual designs are distinctive or laudable, either. At least the game's nice to let you save between levels on any difficulty, plus retaining the upgraded shot speed between deaths. It's just frustrating that most of this game feels like a prototype that Cross and Cruse slapped a compelling set of themes atop, rather than something more holistic.
For all that negativity, I still think it's worth giving this a try if the idea of playing a bog standard, forgettable yet memorable Macintosh oldie fascinates you. Foobar Versus the DEA has a neat anarchic, subversive atmosphere whenever the narrative comes back into focus. Fighting supervillains like the corporate sellout scientist Marlboro Man and NSA-like mainframe AI NOSEY matches the comic-book onomatopoeia shouting at players during each level. My Camp-O-Meter hits dangerous readings whenever I look at our hero's lantern-jawed physique, or the completely sincere use of google-eyed smiley faces as enemy artillery. "Irreverent" is the best descriptor here, and I'm glad that the two-man duo behind this romp didn't take themselves too seriously. That seems to have been the goal for two yet undumped sequels—Foobar Versus the FCC & Foobar vs. His Local School Board—which each have their own evil tetrumvirates to defeat in fabulous fashion.
Sadly, this milestone in the Mac community truly almost faded into the annals of obscurity, not helped by Cruse's unfortunate death in a car accident a year after making this series. We now have projects like the LGBTQ Video Game Archive compiling primary info and resources on this, thankfully, but it remains a footnote in daily discussion of pre-Y2K indie gaming. Simply playing this at all, without compromise, takes a bit more work than giving it a glance on Internet Archive, as the game requires you to use the Apple command key, bound to Windows and other OS-specific keys in emulation, which can be a technical hassle. I ended up running the program in Mac OS 8.1 via Basilisk II just to have as pure a 68k-based environment as I can currently use! So I won't blame any of y'all for skipping over this despite its short 15-30 minute runtime (at least on Easy, the default setting).
Foobar Versus the DEA falls into something of an uncanny valley. While it's certainly queer and emblematic of late-night hacker sessions (and other precursors to game jams), there's plenty old-fashioned aspects to it as well. Multiple difficulties and lenient checkpoints clash in style against enemy spam hemming players into the middle, all while they destroy power-ups due to a lack of time and space to collect them. And though it does okay enough in most areas for me to deem it playable, there were already much better, much more impressive genre throwbacks and evolutions leading the freeware and shareware markets on Mac back in '96. Following in the wake of fully confident titles like Caper in the Castro, I just find this game lacking as a countercultural remnant of a pre-Obama milieu. Regardless, we ought not to let this early LGBTQIA+ game disappear into the word-of-mouth ether. Let's do it for Tom Cruse. Do it for Ned.
[1] Cross, Richard, and Tom Cruse. “The FOOBAR FAQ.” Foobar FAQ. Richard Cross, October 2, 1999. Retrieved from Internet Archive via Wayback Machine, March 31, 2023.
[2] Cross, Richard. “Info-Mac Digest V14 #251.” Info-Mac. Info-Mac, October 30, 1996.
[3] Eastlike, Donald E., Carl-Unro Manros, and Eric S. Raymond. “Etymology of ‘Foo’ (RFC 3092).” The Internet Society, April 1, 2001, 1–14. Internet Requests for Comments (RFC).

So, that's it for the 3DS eShop, another graveyard of cherished exclusives and flash-in-the-pan experiments which Nintendo will unceremoniously move on from. Not us who lived through it, of course (and we're still able to redownload our libraries, which means even the corp's data centers are holding on). The Big N counts on its newer audiences never fully realizing what they're deprived of, but that's where retrospectives and critical writings both on Backloggd and elsewhere can do some good. Countless years of platform history, and the less lionized parts of developers' histories, would otherwise get lost in the shuffle of countless new systems and software libraries. Pushmo is a perfect example of something once notable but now more at risk of broad indifference or revisionism than ever, aided by its publisher's aversion to curating its legacy in a post-Iwata world. And that's a damn shame because Intelligent Systems' puzzle-platformer played an important part in buoying the 3DS' launch year, with an addictive game loop and plenty of replayability even now thanks to level editing and QR codes.
Pushmo strikes me as a peek into an alternate timeline where the Fire Emblem franchise simply didn't recover from its downturn. Int-Sys likely saw the writing on the wall, given all their staff interviews expressing a real fear of, and resignation to, Awakening being the last true entry in that series. They needed what Jupiter Corp. has with its endless Picross series, a forever repeatable puzzle concept appealing to just about everyone in just about any context, keeping their paychecks secure despite the seemingly inevitable death of their prestige IP. So we got this, a modest but meaty killer app which the eShop sorely needed in lieu of upcoming blockbusters. All seemed going to plan, with critical acclaim and constant word of mouth giving Crashmo and Pushmo World on Wii U the greenlight. But then a funny thing happened: that 3DS Fire Emblem game Int-Sys doubted could resurrect that series? It outperformed the previous FE releases combined, setting a new mandate for the company. The Puzzlemo segue suddenly looked a lot more out of place (alarmist, even) than anticipated.
So today we have seemingly no end of Fire Emblem, Paper Mario, and WarioWare goodness from this long-time Nintendo partner, but nothing like their mid-2010s experiments with these cute block-em-ups, let alone anything as out there as Code Name S.T.E.A.M.. It sucks because, unless you're willing to sail the high seas, this part of Int-Sys' back catalog might as well not exist. What precisely does a spate of throwback logic and jumping exercises, set to orchestral chiptunes and a family-friendly exterior, offer to anyone better acquainted with Three Houses or The Origami King? I'd argue that Pushmo represents the developer's talents in their most pure form, though. It's that very lack of frills, thrills, bombast, and grandiosity which this small series proved it could do without, squaring up to the tentpole stuff with such ease and elegance. One might argue there's not much new here beyond the 3D gimmick, but I digress.
The player's goals of rescuing little sumo wrestlers from sabotaged contraptions in a park is simple enough for Int-Sys to launch players through tutorials before they get bored. Yet it's still flexible by the time this game reaches its proper tier of challenge—those later rounds where one must carefully view the puzzle, backtrack from mistakes, and think multiple steps ahead of danger. I definitely wish all of these Puzzlemo installments offered experienced users the ability to skip earlier worlds via some kind of test/exam mode, just to save me some time on replays, but I don't mind the early stages. They stimulate my small pathetic monkey brain every time I hear that wonderful "clear!" jingle, after all. My main issue with Pushmo comes from the lack of added mechanics towards the end, which lets repetition and a feeling of sameness creep in. Solving pixel art murals is fun much like in Jupiter's nonogram paradigm, but not quite enough.
Even with its limited scope and novelty, I find it super rewarding to revisit Pushmo on Citra today. Quite a few WarioWare staffers led development on this and the rest of the series, hence its ease in activating that "one more turn!" sensation. Each world's paced and sequenced appropriately, feeling like a gentle upward climb vs. the difficulty cliffside that Crashmo provides. This linear mastery of pushing and pulling, navigating tight jumps, cutting off your escape to proceed higher…it all adds up once you reach the bonus worlds, full of homage to Nintendo icons and classic puzzling. Another important piece of the progression is unlocking new options in the level editor, a very relevant feature given how well the game teaches you to recognize and reproduce smart designs. I never got the full experience of building puzzles and sharing them with friends via QRs, sadly, but I can't imagine the lack of said feature here and in the sequels. That same joy that kids made and shared with Lode Runner and Excitebike in the '80s lives on in forms like this, all true to that Family Computer and Game Boy ethos of uncomplicated play.
Much of the game's appeal to me now comes from the aesthetic it promotes. Now, I'm typically not a fella with a penchant for twee or adulterated audiovisuals in my media diet. Anything that feels desperately cuddly, or unwilling to settle on a distinct audience, just seems cowardly to me most of the time. Pushmo avoids this by pairing its Saturday-morning-edutainment look with unassuming but involving brain-teasers, the kind that even adults can sink effort into. This visual style accomplishes a couple things: (a) keeping all elements distinct and readable even when complex, and (b) making me feel like a dumb lil' kindergartner again when I eventually mess up. Some other Nintendo releases from this period went too far in acting cute and patronizing to players—think Skyward Sword or Freakyforms—which is why I think Int-Sys' success here is commendable. [Shout-outs to those lovely melodies, too!]( They're an effortless mind-meld of Famicom-era bleepity bloops and lush orchestration that complement each other maybe too well.
Questions like "where did Puzzlemo go?" bug me for lack of an easy answer. Maybe it's simply the sequels being either too hard for most (Crashmo) or too blithely derivative (Pushmo Worlds). Perhaps the glorious revival of Fire Emblem has shareholders far more excited than safe, profitable but unexciting puzzle ditties. Or it could just be a matter of key people leaving Int-Sys, i.e. the Chao Garden programmers no longer at Sonic Team, and now the developer can't trust itself to live up to this series' high standards. I doubt there's anything nefarious behind them abandoning these scrimblos to the eShop wastes, though it's examples like this which add credence to fan theories about Humble vs. Arrogant Nintendo. Whatever the case, I still hold out some hope for anything that can recapture the impact this underdog achieved. Some will say Pushmo only did so for lack of anything better at the time, but the series' absence on Switch feels like a gaping wound. Nintendo's big enough to shove endless employee prototypes into the trash, yet they somehow can't produce any meaningful iterations of this, or Pilotwings, or F-Zero like they once did? Things aren't adding up, and that wouldn't make Mallo or Papa Blox happy. Until this issue's resolved with more 'mo, I'm just glad to find the originals so approachable now. There's always indie-scene puzzlers if I really need something new, albeit rarely as polished and fine-tuned as this.

SCP-JUMPBUG-LOGGDHerbie Hopperheap
Object Class: Safe
Standard Containment Procedures: SCP-JUMPBUG-LOGGD is to be contained within a regular MAME installation or period-appropriate arcade video game cabinet and PCB board. This housing must always be enclosed in a small human-sized room, with all surveillance from beyond one-way mirrors to prevent radiation of vibes onto observers. All personnel must interact with and stimulate the entity via a digital-to-physical interface such as a keyboard, joystick, console controller, etc. Familiarity with similar arcade-based media from the 1970s and early 1980s is advisable. Please use remote robot arm to insert coins and otherwise tamper with specimen. As ever, we enforce these rules to protect you from dangerous hazards—even those cloaked behind the façade of an appealing interactive media apparatus like this.
Temporary "lives" structure of play can be bypassed for purposes of experimentation via preserving machine states in memory, but is advised against following past anomalies and accidents. Researchers and security must wear quote-unquote "Cool '80s VR Shades" when in presence of SCP-JUMPBUG-LOGGD at any time to prevent sensory damage. Using on-site equipment ensures safety of multiple tests upon subject without damage or evidence tampering for personnel. Bear in mind that these measures are not fool-proof and remain subject to review and risk evaluation as we continue to study the subject. A prior outbreak, SCP-4163 [Not unlike the fabled "Tetris Effect", but worse — Ed.], and its transmission of sub-anomalies to similar interfaces sets precedent here, hence the supervision of all control devices and, if needed, isolation and disintegration of them.
Description: Sales sheet refers to initial development contractor, Hoei Sangyo. Creator attribution is yet unknown, but the subject was born from multiple minicomputer environments operated by Alpha Denshi Corporation on behalf of Hoei Sangyo and distributor SEGA Enterprises. This electronic printed circuit board (PCB), plus accompanying means of human interaction and presentation, was first sold to game centers, movie theaters, and other recreational venues sometime in 1981, starting in Japan. Ever since, dwindling units of "Jump Bug" have appeared in the hands of collectors, or idling and decaying within landfills or warehouses. Wherever found, the entity's reported to occasionally entice, entrance, haunt, and finally consume its players' faculties through processes still undetermined.
Upon receiving power, subject board device activates and transmits binary-encoded signals to cabinet housing and attached monitor, displaying series of vibrant, colorful animated worlds on black background. Inserting coinage of proper weight (ex. Standard U.S. quarter) into designated slot one or more times to prepare subject for testing. So far, all our tests conclude with a "Game Over" prompt on-screen, after which one can feed the thing more cupronickel currency or proceed to power it down. Successful adherence to procedures and methodology have so far spared our rotating teams from falling into purported existential traps laid out by the software and its means of conveyance.
Addendum [author's subtitle: THE ACTUAL DAMN REVIEW] The following journal from Dr. [REDACTED] is a useful summary of knowledge gained from "1CC"-ing the provided experience:
"March 26, 2023, 1732 hours: I've finished a few so-called "loops" of this odd video game, a demon in disguise if I may conjecture. The side-scrolling progression mostly resembles Konami's Scramble from earlier that year, at least until one reaches the dungeon section which doesn't auto-scroll. Because the eponymous Herbie-like vehicle can't stop bounding, the driver has to control its air velocity and direction, all while shooting down various monsters and collecting money bags for score and extra chances. In short, it's got a devilish game loop, hooking me whenever I let down my guard and haven't any TPS reports or other busywork to distract me.”
"…Wait a minute, this thing's what's been distracting me! Excuse my irreverence towards Foundation duties, but that's just one side-effect the subject can displace upon its witnesses. Other phenomena this machine expresses, like its psychedelic graphical changes demarcating new sections of the game world, threatens to overcome me with delight, a microprocessor prescribing desertion of my daily worries. Come to think of it, I don't understand why the Council keeps putting me on this project every time I politely back out and work elsewhere. Do they want me to let my guard down and become a true victim of something this fun, replayable, and unique among all those innocuous arcade pastimes?"
"Never mind that I can truly see the appeal here. It's a deft fusion of Donkey Kong and Scramble which could attain a cult-classic reputation where it re-released to market at the level of those games. This was Alpha Denshi's most notable early product, which I can both respect and disfavor given its tantalizing qualities. Reigning in this spirited VW Beetle across cityscapes, wastelands, castles, and seas takes a lot of dexterity and memorization, but gives players much reward as they uncover hidden tricks and strategies for skillful play. There's an anarchy here which dares you to get as high on life as it does, albeit a seductive, ultimately slight and repetitive reality limited by ROM storage."
"In their later ADK years, Alpha Denshi would remake a couple vintage hits like Crush Roller, but not this for some reason. Damn shame, really. The DNA of something as formative as Pac-Land or even Super Mario Bros. goes back to clever genre hybrids like this, a known quantity and charting arcade release in its era. Jump Bug is also more transparent with its challenge and means of mastery than almost all of its competitors in '81, with the bags-for-1ups system and ability to brake and reposition mid-air making this very fair for the era. Anyone prone to deeming these Golden Age cabinets as "coin-munchers" ought to give this a try and see if that generalization holds up. Well, only if they take all necessary preventative measures—I'm not suggesting one should expose their minds to this subject with such fervor as I've contemplated."
A couple days later, Dr. [REDACTED] was nowhere to be found on the containment facility premises. Our preliminary search-and-rescue operation turned up no trace of his body, belongings, or other data. CCTV facility at the site was also corrupt and unreadable, and a forensic autopsy of the entity revealed its contents had been copied to external storage. Until further notice, we are taking even stricter precautions regarding access to and use of SCP-JUMPBUG-LOGGD, so as to prevent losses of human resources. In the subject site manager's words: "That darn Herbie Hopperheap whatchamacallit really bugged him out, 's all I can gather."