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Thursday, September 17, 2015

Full Motion Anime at the Arcade Part 1: The 80s FMV Hype Hits Japan

I won't hide that I have a fondness for the FMV genre of video games, & that interview with American Laser Games' Robert Grebe has gotten me looking more & more into full motion video games again. So, to bring this subject back to the majority of this blog's focus, let's go back to FMV's first mini-era of popularity in the mid-80s, back when they were called laserdisc/LD games, & see how anime got involved in it... Because there's a lot more of it out there than most would think.

While Sega technically did it first with Astron Belt, which itself spawned numerous shooting-based FMV imitators, it was Advanced Microcomputer Systems (later RDI Video Systems) & Cinematronics' Dragon's Lair that really made people look at the laserdisc as a new way to make video games. Even though it wasn't exactly big on overall gameplay, as the reliance on nothing but animated video resulted in the player only being able to react to specific moments in each scene, it was the sheer beauty of Don Bluth's animation, combined with the fact that it was a relatively simple game to play, that made Dragon's Lair a giant hit in arcades when it came out on June 19, 1983; it was more than worth the 50 cent charge (the first to do so & double what games of the time asked for). The success of this title didn't simply stay exclusive to North America, however, as another country was inspired by it, and it was the country where the very Pioneer laserdisc players that the game used came from: Japan. Seeing that gamers were interested in playing interactive animated features, a few Japanese game developers decided to try their hand at making their own Dragon's Lair-esque arcade games, and with the country being home to numerous animation studios of its own there were plenty of companies to choose from. The best way to start off, though, was to keep it simple... Why make brand new animation when you can simply take footage from a movie that's still in the minds of the populace?

Now, to be fair, this game was not influenced by Dragon's Lair, because it came out the same month as that game; it was inspired by Astron Belt (which came out in Japan first). Still, Bega's Battle by Data East is worth mentioning, if only because it is the very first arcade game to utilize Japanese animation. In Japan the game was given a much more direct title, Genma Taisen, because this game utilized footage from Rintaro & Madhouse's movie of the same name, better known abroad as Harmageddon, which came out in Japanese theaters just a couple of months prior. In Bega's Battle you play as the lead character of the same name, better known as Vega now, with the player essentially playing an odd type of shooting game that uses a still background from the movie to set up where each stage takes place. The actual animation itself is reserved for nothing more than cutscenes that take place between each stage. While games like Pac-Man & Space Invaders Part II were the first video games to use cutscenes between stages, though only as comical interludes, Bega's Battle is generally considered to be the very first game to utilize cutscenes that actually advance the story, something that is now looked at as the cornerstone of video game storytelling. There was also a variant machine called Genma Tarot around the same time, which used the movie footage to tell people's fortunes, but that's moving even further away from the idea of this history lesson. So, if Bega's Battle is the first game to use anime in general, what is the first to use it in the same vein as Dragon's Lair?

Interestingly enough, the first anime imitator actually came from North America, and it used a movie that's now considered an all-time classic. In December of 1983, just half a year after Dragon's Lair, Stern Electronics, of Berzerk & Frenzy fame, released Cliff Hanger into arcades, hoping to ride Cinematronics' wave of success. Obviously, six months is nowhere near enough time to make original animation, it took Bluth & his staff seven to make theirs, so Stern seemingly took a page from Data East & just utilized footage from an already existing anime movie: 1979's Lupin the 3rd: The Castle of Cagliostro. Though a couple of scenes were also taken from 1978's Mystery of Mamo, namely the helicoper scene & a shot of Lupin being supposedly hanged (so that there's a death/fail scene), Cliff Hanger was the very first time Hayao Miyazaki's debut theatrical work ever came to North America dubbed, predating Streamline Pictures' original release in 1991 by eight years; TMS did give the film festival screenings in 1980, but it gained no traction at the time. While Bega's Battle only used its anime footage for cutscenes, Cliff Hanger was all anime footage, with the player having to press either a direction or a "hands" or "legs" button to properly advance the footage without failing. Interestingly enough, this game did see a Japanese arcade release by Taito in 1984, which makes it a bit of an odd duck, as it's an LD game made entirely from Japanese anime for American audiences, only for it to eventually go back to Japan. Sadly, the game did little to help Stern Electronics out, and the company would go out of business in 1984, transitioning into Data East Pinball, later Sega Pinball, and then eventually turning into Stern Pinball, which still exists to this day. Discotek Media, in its attempt to try to offer as much sheer quantity to its products as possible at times, did try to include Cliff Hanger into its recent Blu-Ray special edition release of Cagliostro, but was unable to find the contracts that specified who exactly the rights to the game belong to now; kudos for trying, though.

In March of 1984, Sega planned to release its only anime-reliant LD game, which was based on Toei Animation's recently-ended mech anime Kousoku Denjin Albegas. It was a shooter-styled arcade game featuring footage from the show, but in the end the game never seemed to see actual release, even though Bally-Midway was already on board to release it in North America under the name Cybernaut; the most that's out there is a proof-of-concept video. Anyway, that May saw the return of Data East, who entered a partnership with Toei to produced some LD games that utilized completely original animation, and the first product was Thunder Storm, also known as Cobra Command abroad (not to be confused with Data East's 1988 side-scrolling shooter of the same name, because I guess Japan liked the localized name that much). If there's one major thing about what Data East brought to the table for LD games, it was doing things differently from the rest of the pack. First there was the use of cutscenes for the the purpose of advancing the story in Bega's Battle, something that would be imitated via live-action in Gottlieb/Mylstar's Us vs. Them in 1984, and for Thunder Storm designer Yoshihisa Koshimoto (who would go on to create the Kunio-kun & Double Dragon franchises) essentially bridged the gap between the styles Astron Belt & Dragon's Lair each utilized. Like the former the game was basically an LD shooting game, but instead of game-produced enemies the targets were part of the footage, and like the latter the player would have to move the right direction at certain points to advance. Putting all of this into a walk-in cockpit arcade cabinet, complete with a flight stick to control an aiming reticle, that also works in place of pressing directions for movement, likely made Thunder Storm a real trip to play back in the day. Since the game essentially uses the same tech as Bega's Battle, an arcade operator could simply repurpose one into the other, and that's a big reason why Data East's first LD game is so rare to find now; only 700 were apparently made, and a number of them were altered into Thunder Storm.

What's even more interesting about Thunder Storm is that Toei didn't take the animation for granted. Much like how Dragon's Lair was done by Don Bluth & his team of former Disney animators, Data East's second LD game featured the work of numerous animators from Studio Z5, who would go on to make notable work, with each of them working in individual stages of the game. Leading the crew was Hideki Takayama as director & animation director, who has mostly stayed as an episode director but is most well known as the director of the first three Urotsukidoji productions. Mech designs & animation for stages 1 & 3 (as well as the attract mode) were done by Studio Z5 co-founder Hajime Kamegaki, who would go on to be director of titles like Fushigi Yugi, Sonic X, & Kenichi - The Mightiest Disciple. Other animators include Takeshi Shirato (director of Kinnikuman & Space Battleship Yamato Resurrection), fellow Z5 co-founder Hideyuki Motohashi (character designer for Fushigi Yugi, B't X, & Zenki), & Tomonori Kogawa (character designer for Space Runaway Ideon, Tekkaman Blade, & Aura Battler Dunbine). The amount of talent behind this game resulted in a title that's still looked at fondly by fans of these games, and alongside ports to the Sega CD in 1992, by Wolf Team (which would later create the Tales Series), & the Saturn & PlayStation in 1995, by Ecseco (Japan-only), the game actually managed to find its way to iOS devices in 2009 by Revolutionary Concepts, complete with remastered video & audio (why only iOS, though?). The next month saw another big name game developer try to enter the LD game market, but while Data East tried to expand on the gameplay, the next game went for a simpler approach... Much simpler.

It's almost surprising to see a company like Konami try its hand at using laserdiscs, but the company did indeed try in June of 1984 with Badlands. Taking a surprisingly darker approach than anything before it, Badlands is all about Buck, who swears deadly revenge on all of the outlaws who burned down his home & killed his family while dragging him around with a horse, leaving him helpless to save his wife & kids; remember, this all happens no real reason whatsoever. The idea behind this game is an extremely simple one: Shoot. Indeed, the only button on the entire arcade cabinet to press, aside from Start, is a giant red button labeled "Shoot". There is one trick, though: Shoot someone too soon, or simply shooting an innocent, will result in Buck being hanged for cold-blooded murder, but taking too long will result in Buck's death. Sadly, the general consensus on Badlands is that the timing for when to shoot can be too frame-exact, resulting in a pretty short game, even for laserdisc standards, taking much, much longer than it would normally need. Also, even among other games of its ilk, Badlands may be just too simple to for its own good. Still, the dark nature of the game, mixed with some of the jarringly silly ways to "die" & other Japanese kookiness that sneaks in, makes the game worth looking at as a video, at the very least. Konami didn't really see any success with Badlands, though it did "port" the game to the MSX computer's Palcom add-ons (which used LDs), making this the company's only attempt at making an LD game; there were plans for a game called Max Mile (or maybe Mac Smile?) for later in 1984, but it likely never got made. Still, even with Thunder Storm & Badlands being more like Dragon's Lair than Bega's Battle or the planned Albegas game, they still weren't exact "clones" in terms of gameplay. That would change in November of 1984, which saw two games released that not only copied Lair's gameplay, but also the general story.

The first one I'll bring up comes from Taito, which also entered into a partnership with Toei to produce LD games with original animation, the first of which was Ninja Hayate. Possibly considered a spin-off of arcade classic The Legend of Kage, as the leads for both games look similar, Ninja Hayate is about our titular ninja having to save a princess that was kidnapped & brought to a giant pagoda/castle... Or, in short, "Dragon's Lair, but set in feudal Japan". The similarities also stretch into the gameplay, as Hayate plays exactly like its inspiration, with the only controls being four directions & an action button, and the player has to press the right ones at the right moments. The main difference here, however, is that Taito's game outright tells you exactly what to do, with the real challenge coming from how good your reaction time is. While this simple change should make Ninja Hayate a much easier game, from what I've heard this game is insanely tough, with the prompts generally coming up right before you have to react; also, instead of smaller rooms, Taito's game has longer stages (15, in fact). Finally, the game does allow for some multiple path choices, resulting in Hayate going to slightly different places for repeat playthroughs. Sadly, much like Badlands, there is no info to be found on who exactly worked on creating the animation, outside of it being a Toei production. Just like Thunder Storm, Ninja Hayate did see a port to the Sega CD by Wolf Team (released here as Revenge of the Ninja) & the Saturn & PS1 by Ecseco & Taito, respectively, but nothing else beyond that. Since then Taito got purchased by Square-Enix, who now own the rights to this game... Yeah, it's screwed.

The other LD game from that November comes from Universal Entertainment, best known as the company behind the Mr. Do! arcade games of the 80s. Quite honestly, though, this may be the LD game from Japan that I have the most interest in & would love to play without having to resort to the DAPHNE emulator, and it's solely because of the name: Super Don Quixote (or Quix-ote, if you want to be technical). Seriously, there's just something about the name that draws me in, and I can't quite explain why. Well, as the title indicates, the story is vaguely inspired by the classic 17th Century Spanish novel by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra... Kind of. You control the reactions of Don, a young knight who has to rescue Princess Isabella from being sacrificed by an evil witch, and he travels by way of a donkey & his partner Sancho. Also, there's a giant windmill somewhere in the story, because of course there's a windmill in a game based ever-so-slightly on Don Quixote. Anyway, Super Don Quixote is probably the most blatant of these LD games inspired by Dragon's Lair, because it looks to play almost exactly like it, but with the prompts that Ninja Hayate also used. There aren't any alternate paths or no little additions to gameplay, but from what I've read, the game is completely bonkers in a way that probably only the Japanese can do.

Really, though, I can't blame Universal for outright using the same exact gameplay idea as what RDI did; Universal was the Japanese distributor for Dragon's Lair & spiritual successor Space Ace. Sadly, though Universal did have plans for a standardized laserdisc game system, called Universal System 1, that would have resulted in a new LD game every six months or so, Super Don Quixote was the only product for it. The most info about any of the other games is very basic, like two Top Gear games (which would be LD racers), a space adventure called Captain Zap, The Adventure of Mr. Do (bringing the arcade icon to the genre), & something called Space Dracula... Oh, do I hope that these planned games at least saw animation made for them, especially the last one. Sadly, we'll likely never know, as Universal switched over to slot machines & wound up being purchased by Aruze in 2005; Aruze then changed its name to Universal in 2009.

Finally, just to clarify, do not confuse Super Don Quixote with the LD game Don Quixote: A Dream in Seven Crystals for the Pioneer LaserActive; they are completely different games.
That is the end of Part 1 of this look at the short time when anime got mixed together with the laserdisc arcade mini-boom of the mid-80s. Check back later for Part 2, where we look at everything that came out in 1985 (or didn't...), and a couple of later products that showed that the idea did live on slightly after the hype died down.

1 comment:

  1. "Though a couple of scenes were also taken from 1978's Mystery of Mamo, namely the helicoper scene & a shot of Lupin being supposedly hanged (so that there's a death/fail scene), Cliff Hanger was the very first time Hayao Miyazaki's debut theatrical work ever came to North America dubbed, predating Streamline Pictures' original release in 1991 by eight years; TMS did give the film festival screenings in 1980, but it gained no traction at the time."

    Despite the fact the dubbing on that "Cliff Hanger" footage was basically turning down the audio and voicing over the Japanese dialogue. I guess Stern couldn't get anything better than a regular master from TMS without and extra music/effects only track. Here's promo vid by the way.

    What makes Bega's Battle and Cliff Hanger unique I guess is merely the fact that anything anime related was seen n American arcades, whether or not the customers playing the games knew what they were or wondered if they were part of something bigger. Those are the stories that interest me in all this. These merely showed up without anything to stand by them and we accepted them without question. You had to go out of your way to find out more about them.

    "the game actually managed to find its way to iOS devices in 2009 by Revolutionary Concepts, complete with remastered video & audio (why only iOS, though?)."

    There's never love for Android. :-(

    Seriously, there's so many developers who never go past iOS it annoys me. It's always some exclusivity with Apple and their products.

    Bothered being curious about it and I see neither Cobra Command or its follow-up "Road Blaster" are on iTunes now. Missed out (though I'm sure someone saved those files anyway on their jailbroken devices). And this "Revolutionary Concepts" seems to have went the way of the dodo too. I don't expect these companies to live long at all, though it is a shame nobody has since picked up the license to port these to Android's OS at all. It's capable of as many classic titles as they're are on iOS (or have been). I'm better off waiting for the day someone can get DAPHNE working on Android myself!

    "Since then Taito got purchased by Square-Enix, who now own the rights to this game... Yeah, it's screwed."

    Shame if they wouldn't do much with their back catalogue like that. Incidentally, the footage of "Ninja Hayate" you linked to was from a "Special Edition" made by some fan a while back, who also did the same or "Time Gal" as well.

    "Sadly, we'll likely never know, as Universal switched over to slot machines & wound up being purchased by Aruze in 2005; Aruze then changed its name to Universal in 2009."

    Mr. Do! deserves a reboot for mobile devices, at least the classic titles if they can. I'd do that.