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Monday, September 21, 2015

Full Motion Anime at the Arcade Part 2: I Guess 80s Gamers Weren't Ready for "Interactive Movies" Yet, But Their Kids Are Gonna Love 'Em

The whole concept of the laserdisc arcade game wasn't something that really hit it big, when all is said & done. Dragon's Lair was a giant hit, but almost everything after that had no hope of even reaching a modicum of that success; even Don Bluth's follow-up Space Ace only did so well. Still, companies tried their hardest, but 1985 was the last year that these "clones" of Bluth & RDI's game saw a real push. Therefore, let's see what Japan tried to get out in this last chance year, and then see what stragglers came out following that. Luckily, I'm starting with an LD game that's generally considered one of the all-time best.

The third LD game from Data East, and the second from its partnership with Toei Animation, Road Blaster came out in arcades in August of 1985; don't confuse it with Atari's RoadBlasters from 1987, though they both involve car-on-car violence. Compared to Thunder Storm before it, this game is a bit simpler as the only prompts given are to turn left or right & to either press the brake or activate the turbo, but to an extent it really doesn't matter. Road Blaster tells the tale of an ex-police officer who swears revenge on a diabolical gang after getting horrifically run off the road during his honeymoon, which resulted in the death of his newlywed wife. Indeed, the entire game takes place from the perspective of being behind the wheel of the lead's sweet ride, and while Thunder Storm features some really nice animation, Road Blaster simply looks to be the more memorable game.

Though Hideki Takayama directed once again, the animators behind the second Toei co-production were completely different from the Studio Z5 staff of Thunder Storm. Leading the crew as "Chief Key Animator" was Yoshinobu Inano (an animation director on Mobile Suit Gundam: Char's Counterattack), and alongside him were the likes of Naoyuki Onda (character designer for Gantz, To-Y, & the Berserk movie trilogy), Hiroyuki Kitazume (characters for Bastard!!, Gundam ZZ, & Urotsukidoji), Hidetoshi Oomori (director of Dan Doh!! & Zaizen Jotaro), & even Satoshi Urushihara (of Langrisser & Growlanser fame). In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if Kitazume & Oomori's work on this game helped get them to be part of the group of directors that helmed the different parts of 1987 anthology movie Robot Carnival; Kitazume did Starlight Angel, while Oomori did Deprive. The end product features a lot of great animation & the constant movement keeps the game feeling exciting & energizing.

Much like how Data East allowed arcade owners to repurpose Bega's Battle machines into Thunder Storm, the same was doable between Thunder Storm & Road Blaster, which explains why a car-based LD game utilizes an aiming reticle to control left & right prompts; it's because some Road Blaster cabinets used a flight stick (up went left, down went right). Much like it's Data East brother & Taito's Ninja Hayate, Road Blaster would eventually be ported to the Sega CD by future Tales Series-developer Wolf Team, where it was known abroad as Road Avenger (because of Atari's game being made by then). Interestingly enough, the game would also see a near arcade-perfect port on the Pioneer LaserActive around the same time, where it would be renamed Road Prosecutor (which just sound silly). Finally, Ecseco would port it to the Sega Saturn in 1995 as a Japan-exclusive, as part of a two-pack alongside the Thunder Storm port, and Revolutionary Concepts gave it an iOS port in 2010, with remastered video & audio.

Proving how iconic this title has become among LD games, however, is the fact that this game also saw a PC port in 2009 by Jitensha Sougyou for not only Windows but also (amazingly enough) the Sharp X68000, specifically the X68030 from 1993. I should also point out that Jitensha Sougyou also ported Thunder Storm to these PCs as well in 2010, as I didn't realize that back in Part 1; these may be the last games released for Sharp's iconic gaming PC, in fact. As if that's not enough, there was also talk of a novelization of Road Blaster back in 2009 by Mary Margaret Park; I have no idea if it ever actually got finished & released, though. Without a doubt, Road Blaster is the "Golden Child" of Japanese anime LD games.

(Oh yeah, & how could I forget that Road Blaster was also "ported" [kind of] to Takara's Video Challenger VHS toy? Yeah, this game was seemingly everywhere at one point.)

While this marks the end of Data East's journey into LD gaming via the arcades, there is one more title from the company to bring up. Developed & animated in 1985 as the final title from the Data East/Toei partnership, Catching Stone would never see an arcade release, likely due to the lowering interest in LD arcade games. In 1994, however, the game would see a second chance at life as a home console release, first on the LaserActive under the name Triad Stone. Then, in 1995, the game would be ported by Media Interactive to the 3DO & Sega Saturn in Japan under the name Strahl: Himerareshi Nanatsu no Hikari/The Seven Secret Lights (simply Strahl for the international 3DO version). This game is about Alex Hawkfield, who's Good Samaritan nature winds up having him meet God, who challenges him to retrieve seven stones which are hidden away in mystical lands; should he do so, he'll be granted any way of life he wishes for. In terms of general gameplay, Strahl (as I know it best, so I'll use that name) is the most Dragon's Lair-esque of Data East's products, requiring the player to simply press up, down, left, right, or action as the proper (& visually shown) moments; the only additions are moments where you must mash the action button to fill a gauge, else you die. Where Strahl really differs, however, is how you go from place to place. Instead of a completely linear or randomized adventure, the player chooses the which stage to play next, and because of this the ending changes. Admittedly, the various endings (48 in total, one for each possible route order) are nothing more than Alex's ultimate wish changing, but it is still an interesting way to increase replay value.

Visually, all that's known about Strahl's animation staff is that Tomonori Kogawa returned from Thunder Storm to do the character designs, and that his studio BeeBow did the animation itself. In that regard, I think Strahl is Data East's best looking LD game, with lots of excellent action sequences & all sorts of various environments that Alex finds himself in. Sadly, the 3DO & Saturn ports both feature slightly washed out visuals compared to the LaserActive version, and the 3DO port in particular has no difficulty select & seems to be stuck in Easy mode, as that version isn't all too hard to get through. Still, among games that play similar to Dragon's Lair, I do find Strahl to be one of the most enjoyable, and I may review it one day on its own, because I think there's more I can bring up in terms of what it brings to the table visually.

Still, there was enough momentum for LD games in 1985 that it even caught the attention of one non-gaming company, Funai Electric (now the main supplier of electronics for Wal-Mart & Sam's Club). Working together with publishing company Gakken, which was in the midst of helping make anime of its own during that time (in fact, Studio Pierrot was originally formed only to help Gakken make the Wonderful Adventures of Nils), the two would produce their only LD game, Esh's Aurunmilla. The best way to simply describe this game is, quite literally, "Dragon's Lair meets Space Ace". The story has the heroic Don Davis try to rescue Princess Sindy from the "diabolical, evil little man" Emperor Esh, who plans to take over the Orion universe for his own gain; if you're curious, Aurunmilla is Esh's home planet. Seriously, if you thought Super Don Quixote or Ninja Hayate were outright Dragon's Lair rip-offs, then Esh's Aurunmilla stole the DNA wholesale. Don looks like a space-age Dirk the Daring & Sindy looks like a galactic Daphne, though Esh doesn't look completely like Mordroc (who, admittedly, wasn't properly showcased until Dragon's Lair II, which didn't see release until 1991).

Aside from that, the game plays just like it's forefather, with four directions & an "escape" button. Admittedly, though, the animation itself isn't bad at all (it at least also copies Bluth's knack for amusing facial expressions), and the English dub just sounds so hilariously bad that it has to be heard to be believed. The only home port for the game was on the MSX's Palcom add-on, just like Konami's Badlands, and apparently the way the game was programmed results in the DAPHNE emulator not being able to reproduce it exactly perfect. If you notice in the video above, there's almost always a frame of the fail animation shown before a successful move, and that's apparently something the emulator can't properly get around. If anything, Funai & Gakken may have simply played it too safe with Esh's Aurunmilla, because while it doesn't look like a bad LD game, it also doesn't do much else to make it notable.

In Part 1 I mentioned Sega's cancelled LD game based on Toei's mech anime Albegas, which looked to have been planned for an American release under a different name. Well, Taito did something similar in 1985, but in this case the game did see a Japanese release in arcades. Utilizing footage from 1983's Final Yamato, which was the longest anime movie ever until 2010's The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya, Taito did indeed make an LD game based on the legendary Space Battleship Yamato. Sadly, the arcade machines seem to have more or less disappeared with time, but from the footage that can be found it looked to be another shooter-styled product than the reaction-based titles that are generally thought of from the genre. More interesting, however, is the fact that the game loads up with a Star Blazers logo, indicating that Taito did plan on releasing it over here, hoping to bank on the fandom of the original English dub airing the show received years prior. What's even more interesting, though, is that Group TAC apparently made original footage solely for Taito's arcade game; some reports state that roughly 80% of the game is original footage. Therefore, this is the rarest Yamato anime footage in the history of the franchise, and will likely never see a new release.

Speaking of Taito, the company did have one other title from its partnership with Toei, and much like Data East's Road Blasters, Taito's Time Gal is looked at fondly as another of the genre's finest. While the aesthetic may be similar to that of Space Ace, the concept is completely different. The game stars Reika, voiced by Yuriko Yamamoto (Sara in Dancougar, Eagle Marin in Saint Seiya) & inspired by Lum from Urusei Yatsura, who journeys through various time periods (from the age of the dinosaurs to the then-future) in order to catch Luda, a criminal who took his own time machine to escape capture. Compared to most of the other LD games of its ilk, which were either relatively serious or mixed steadfastness with comedic bits, Time Gal is very much focused on being silly & perky. Reika goes through each time period with a sense of aloofness & playfulness, whether it's escaping from dinosaurs or maneuvering through all sorts of deadly environments. Also, instead of traditional failure scenes which show the player character taking (usually lethal) damage, Reika's fails are generally very humorous or non-lethal. As for gameplay, it mostly follows the usual reactionary gameplay, with directions & an action button, but adds in special scenes where the action freezes & the player has to choose from three options with a time limit; choosing correctly continues the scene, while choosing poorly results in a failure. The only known staff for the game are director Tetsuo Imazawa (Rokushin Gattai God Mars, Shinzo) & character designer Hiroshi Wagatsuma (Adrift in the Pacific, Shin-Ei's Sangokushi TV specials from the 80s). It's the very silly nature of Time Gal that has kept it remembered with praise among other LD games, though like Ninja Hayate it hasn't seen a release in a good while.

Sadly, the original arcade release was Japan-exclusive (likely due to lowering interest in LD games at the time & extra translation for all of the text choices), and it didn't see a home console release until the Sega CD port by Wolf Team (once again). I have the Sega CD release, and I must admit that I'm not a big fan of it, mainly because of the interface. In order to mask the fact that the system couldn't handle full-screen video for the game, Wolf Team housed it within a heads-up display/HUD, which is fine. What annoys me, though, is that the studio put the action prompts around the video rather than inside it like usual. Therefore, the player has to look to all four sides of the HUD around the video to see what the next prompt is, or see all sides blinking for a button press, and that makes it hard to enjoy the video while playing; it's either watch the video & fail, or watch the prompts & miss out of the silliness. At least, that's how I experience it, and it's a shame because I want to enjoy this game. The only other ports were on the LaserActive, Saturn, & PlayStation in 1995, and all of those options are hyper-expensive now. It's really interesting for the Saturn (by Ecseco) & PS1 (by Taito) ports, which were released as double-packs with Ninja Hayate, because the Data East double-pack for either system is relatively cheap to purchase (usually between $20-$30), while the Taito double-pack easily goes for over $120, at the very least. Seeing as Square-Enix owns the rights to the game now ever since purchasing Taito, I highly doubt that we'll ever see a remastered release of Time Gal (or Ninja Hayate). At least one can always play Castle of Shikigami III, which features a re-designed Reika as a selectable character.

Time Gal marks the end of the anime LD game mini-boom, but there are still two more titles worth mentioning, and the first came out just a couple of years later. Oddly enough, the last LD game to feature nothing but anime footage has a similar concept as the first one, Stern's Cliff Hanger from 1983. Taking footage from both Galaxy Express 999 compilation movies, Millennium Game Products released Freedom Fighter into North American arcades in 1987. Though the names are all changed around, the basic concept is getting lead 999's main character Tetsuro through a city filled with machines that want to kill him in an attempt to defeat the authority & escape with his life. Unlike most of the other games like it, though, Freedom Fighter doesn't rely on reactionary prompts, but rather is a rail-shooter, where the player has to shoot enemies that appear on screen before being shot & selecting which way to go by simply hovering the aiming reticle over the path chosen. Even more curious is the fact that, even though it uses footage from a beloved anime movie, Freedom Fighter never saw release in Japan, making it even more of an odd duck than Cliff Hanger, which was already pretty odd. Millennium didn't last long after the game came out, but Freedom Fighter did see a home console port years later... On the Philips CD-i, of all things. Released in 1992 by Fathom Pictures & Philips, the game was renamed Escape from Cyber City & had the player move a crosshair across the screen instead of using a light gun, though I hear that trackball controllers do also work. If anything, one can say that we did indeed get a Galaxy Express 999 game... You just need a CD-i to play it.

Ending this examination of anime LD games is an oddball product from Taito in 1994, released during the 90s FMV boom, though it was Japan-exclusive. Bouken-Oh/Adventure King Tupple is more along the lines games like Burning Soldier for the 3DO than any of the other titles covered here, but the fact that it does feature original animation makes it work bringing up, even if only as a footnote. Controlling the space ship of Tupple & his mouse-people as they chase a nefarious cat-space pirate, via trackball, & shooting at the ship with a cannon when possible, via button press, there are also moments where Tupple asks the player to spin the trackball to escape dangerous situations, like getting caught by a giant space octopus. There really doesn't seem to be more much more to this game, and it looks to be insanely short, but it is notable for being the last LD game made by a Japanese developer that utilized original anime footage, this time by Triangle Staff. It may not be much, but it does look to be the last arcade LD game featuring any sort of anime footage.
There are plenty of people out there who will argue that LD games, or FMV games in general, aren't "real games", but I guess the same could be said for recent "walking simulators" like Gone Home or Everybody's Gone to the Rapture; they're simply different ways of looking at gameplay. The idea of using original animation would still see an appearance or two since the demise of the LD arcade game, most infamously with Capcom's Super Adventure Rockman from 1998 for PS1 & Saturn, but none of those saw arcade release & is beyond the realm of focus of what I wanted to investigate here.

Will any of these anime LD games ever see a new release (& not solely for mobile devices)? Who knows, but I do think that it would be great to see as many of them at least get remastered & given some sort of re-release, whether it's digital via places like Steam, GoG, PSN, XBLA, eShop, etc., or even some sort of physical release (very less likely there). Taking the licensed titles out of consideration, as those are less likely to ever see new releases, G-mode has the rights to Data East's titles, though Triad Stone/Strahl is a question mark there, and you never know what Square-Enix may do with it's Taito catalog. Obviously, a third-party company would have to get the license to something like Esh's Aurunmilla or Super Don Quixote (or even Badlands, as Konami is essentially going out of traditional game development), but I think they aren't out of the realm of believability.

Highly, & insurmountably, unlikely... But not impossible.


  1. "and you never know what Square-Enix may do with it's Taito catalog."

    Hopefully not pump out another Space Invaders or Puzzle Bobble sequel (but I'm sure that'll happen)!

    "Obviously, a third-party company would have to get the license to something like Esh's Aurunmilla or Super Don Quixote (or even Badlands, as Konami is essentially going out of traditional game development), but I think they aren't out of the realm of believability."

    It would take a third party to see the potential in all this (sort of like the Shout! Factory of video game companies). I would love to do something like that.

    One title I just thought about but not covered here was an FMV title called "Don Quixote", not to be confused with Universal's title mentioned earlier. This was produced for the LaserActive player with animation provided by TMS. The gameplay is more an RPG/adventure game.

  2. The Sega CD version of Time Gal wasn't actually the first home port of the game. It was released by Victor Japan in 1986 for the MSX and Sharp X1 computers in VHD format, along with Thunder Storm and Road Blaster.