Buried treasure

  • Developer: Hiroshi Ishikawa
  • Publisher: Enix
  • Original Release Date: 1983 (Japan)
  • Available on: Sharp X1
  • Genre: Action

1983 was a pretty significant year for video games. Games like Dragon’s Lair and The Portopia Serial Murder Case were taking video game storytelling to the next level, Ultimate Play the Game started putting out hits like Jetpac, Mario Bros. came out and requires no explanation (it wasn’t Super just yet!), and notable, still ongoing franchises like Bomberman and Nobunaga’s Ambition had their first entries released. A tremendous amount of history was made in this small period of time by people from all over the world, but today I’m going to shift our focus to the work of a man known as Hiroshi Ishikawa.

As a high school student in 1983, he single-handedly created one of the most impressive games on the Sharp X1 computer, Kagirinaki Tatakai. Inspired by R.A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers alongside Moon Lander and Time Pilot, Kagirinaki Tatakai was coded in the span of a month for a competition held by Enix and offered features that were unprecedented in the process – a non-mirrored sprite for the playable character, three different weapons to choose from (Namco’s groundbreaking Xevious only had two!), physics that influenced traversal and combat, and environments that were fully destructible. These kinds of features are things that even modern games and their publishers still find impressive enough to flaunt – Red Faction made its name on destructible environments, for example – so to learn that they were all present in a game on the Sharp X1, a much less popular computer than NEC’s PC-88 in Japan, was simply mind-blowing to me. According to Ishikawa, the Sharp X1 was chosen because the PC-88 lacked the PCG (Programmable Character Generator) that allowed graphics to be moved around more easily. 1983 was years before I even existed, so I naturally didn’t get to discover this game myself; instead, I read an article about it on Hardcore Gaming 101 that does a great job of selling the game’s appeal and that made me want to try it out.  The fine folks over there even managed to get an interview with Hiroshi Ishikawa himself, which is filled to the brim with interesting tidbits about him and his history as well as the information on how the game was created that I’ve already referred to. If you’re curious about that interview, check it out here.

I’ve never been much of a PC gamer at all. Aside from some StarCraft and getting roped into playing a ton of MapleStory with friends back in grade school, I always found myself drawn to consoles and the genres that were often associated with them in the 90s, games like platformers and JRPGs over things like first-person shooters and Adventure games. I never even got to play Doom until its release on Xbox Live Arcade in 2006! Something about using a keyboard and mouse for games just didn’t jive with me and since my family’s first computer was right in the middle of the house, my desire for privacy often superseded my desire to play computer games. This is something I’ve been trying to rectify over the years, but now that I work a job that has me on the computer for 8 hours a day, it’s hard to motivate myself to sit at the computer any longer than I have to. Whenever I do muster up the desire though, it’s refreshing to see everything I missed out on and just how good some of these games are. To cite some (relatively) recent examples of games I’ve tried, the original Fallout and Deus Ex really blew me away and I found myself loving their open-ended, flexible natures in short order. I even had a great time with the first Witcher game in spite of its embarrassingly juvenile approach to sex, which is a game that I’ve seen plenty of dedicated PC gamers fall off of. Part of me wonders what could have been had I chosen PC gaming over console gaming as a kid, so it’s always fun to get a glimpse of that hypothetical, alternate reality whenever I get around to trying one of the established greats and realize how special they often are.

Japanese computers are something that have been a total mystery to me until very recently. Aside from the Metal Gear games on the MSX and a rare opportunity to play Castlevania on actual Sharp X68000 hardware (which was incredible), I never had any real exposure to games from these computers beyond occasional anecdotes from videos and articles, and it wasn’t until I played the original 1983 Bomberman last year that I bothered to learn how to emulate them. I was really thankful that this one got chosen for me to play since it was the perfect opportunity to learn more about this entire scene that I missed out on. A lot of gamers in North America tend to instinctively disregard anything before the NES as well as older computers, myself included at times, and I’m quickly learning just how big of a mistake that is. There’s still so much that can be learned from playing old computer games, so many interesting ideas and experiments that just aren’t done anymore, and the thought of digging into a mysterious game like Kagirinaki Tatakai ignites the passion for discovery within me. Perhaps above all else, delving into the unknown is why I play video games, and what better place to go than a game that sold 3,000 copies, never left Japan, and was created by a single person 38 years ago?

The name “Kagirinaki Tatakai” translates to “Battle of Evermore”, and it’s an odd choice if you ask me; the game does keep going until you run out of lives, but there’s also a very clear goal to achieve, a conceptually definitive way to end this endless battle. Progress in this game is measured by the distance you go underground, much like Mr. Driller, and your mission is to make it 600m deep in order to destroy some kind of big, red core… thing. The underground is a mean place though, filled with aliens and machines that are looking to end you, so this is no easy task. You only get three lives to complete your mission, but you can earn more by scoring enough points. Luckily, your character comes armed to the teeth with weapons that have useful applications for combat and navigation alike.

Your blaster can be rapidly fired and has infinite ammo, but it isn’t able to destroy certain enemies or the surrounding environment. It can also destroy enemy projectiles, a trick that comes in handy as your main means of defense. Your rocket launcher is strong enough to destroy anything and will punch a sizable hole into the wall, but you only get ten of them per life. Shooting rockets will also push you backwards slightly, which is a clever touch that you actually do have to take into account at times. Your bombs are your most valuable tool of all; you throw them diagonally downward, which means you can use them to dig through the environment and bypass enemies, kind of like a hypothetical long range shovel. Since you only get 20 per life, bombs are constantly a factor in the way you think about the game. Should I use five bombs to get past this section I don’t want to deal with? Should I use a couple of bombs in the air to destroy some enemies firing at me? Questions like these alongside how many options you have at a given moment give Kagirinaki Tatakai a level of cerebral action that’s unrivaled compared to its peers at the time and it’s an experience that never ceases to impress.

In case that arsenal wasn’t cool enough, you also get a jetpack, which makes any video game better. You don’t have to worry about fuel or anything here either, so you’re encouraged to make liberal use of it and you’ll absolutely have to get comfortable with it in order to get anywhere. It’s possible to die from falling too far, so your jetpack will primarily be used to slow your descent in long vertical stretches. Being able to fly lets you also dodge attacks or bait enemies into following you away from their pack, so there are tricks to learn for players who stick with it. You can even use the jetpack to land on top of enemies or fly high above one and drop down until the impact of your fall destroys it! I found movement to feel a bit sluggish at times and trying to inch forward in one direction can be finicky as a result of your movement feeling like it works in half-steps rather than proper strides, but in most situations, the level of control you have really opens up the potential for improvement and improvisation. You’ll just have to get used to controlling your movement with the number pad first, which is really weird when you’re used to the now-solidified WASD control schemes of contemporary video games!

While there aren’t concrete levels or anything, the environment design lends itself to a very specific ebb and flow that conveys feelings of both empowerment and dread. Every time you start the game, you’re dropped into a large shaft surrounded by enemies manning turret-like weapons. Right here, the game flexes its design chops by teaching you how to approach situations in multiple ways. You could use your blaster or rockets to fight them directly, or you could simply try to fly past them. If you want to get creative and style on these punks, you can even fly on top of them and use your bombs to get them in their blind spot. Once you make it past them, you’re greeted with a wall of dome-shaped foes armed with anti-air projectiles that are perfect for taking you out as you fall. You immediately know you need to clear some space in order to land and get to the next part, but how do you do it? If you just fall without any input, you won’t have enough time to react if a shot approaches or if you’re about to careen into the wall. You could try throwing bombs from the air, but aiming then is tricky enough that you might waste some on the wrong target. Landing on top of one of the domes is the easiest way to guarantee an accurate hit, but they can still fire even when you’re standing on them, so you need to be careful and dispose of them quickly. This is a lot of nuance for the first minute of a video game from 1983!

Find your way past these foes and you’ll end up at what I consider the other half of Kagirinaki Tatakai‘s structure. There’s a network of tunnels beneath you filled with enemies that you clearly need to get to, but there’s no entrance in sight. This is where you learn one of the core tenants of the game: if there’s no path in sight, make one! Several of your bombs will create a staircase down into the tunnels, but now you need to pick where exactly to do it. There are a lot of enemies down there and they’re all capable of shooting at you, so the smart move is to pick a spot that gives you enough space to shoot them back without getting yourself shot full of holes like a piece of cheese. From here, the goal is to slowly crawl through the tunnels, finding vantage points from which to safely dispose of enemies while making sure you never fall too far to die. After some spelunking, players will find themselves above another void similar to how the game started. This time, it’s a lot scarier, with new aircraft flying towards you and plenty of other enemies littering the vicinity like it’s some kind of underground party you weren’t invited to. As the game proceeds, these vertical corridors get more and more dangerous to the point that they can feel pretty harsh if not outright unfair, but there’s always a way to break through. One trick that worked really well for me was luring individual enemies away from the shaft and towards the tunnels where I came from, making them easy to pick off safely.

The tunnel sections are methodical and tense in a way that the scrambling chaos of the shaft sections isn’t and it does wonders for the pacing of the game. If the game was nothing but fast paced shaft combat, it’d feel too frantic and cheap to be much fun, but by alternating the level design and giving the player tunnel sections where they get to determine the speed at which the action proceeds, Ishikawa has created a game that allows for proper player expression and mastery, something that all of the best games of the era did. New players will experiment, dying and retrying in order to figure out how to proceed in whatever way they can, whereas veteran players will know exactly how they want to tackle each situation while still having opportunities to try new ideas.

I’ve been very positive about this game so far, but there are some things worth warning prospective players about. Something you’ll notice immediately is that the music frankly… sucks. The same song plays the entire game and it’s an extremely short tune that doesn’t really belong at all. It sounds like something that’d be more at home in a spy thriller than a sci-fi action game about the terrors of the underground. It’s hard to take too much fault with it considering Ishikawa was a one man team, but you can tell music wasn’t exactly his specialty. Dying is also harshly punished, though perhaps not in the way one might expect. Whenever you die, you respawn at the middle of the top of the screen, but only after a surprisingly long melody plays to hearken your return to the world of the living. It’s not Too Human levels of ridiculous (what is, really?), but it takes a long enough time that dying becomes something that makes you want to go fetch a snack instead of bracing yourself to reenter the fray. Respawning in the same location every time can also cause problems if you’re in a spot that gets you roasted by nearby enemies as soon as you spawn. Considering that there are no continues and each life is precious, this can really suck the fun out of things if it happens and ruins an otherwise good run. This is a mean, difficult game, and even with all of my praise, if you’re not able to adapt to the rules and demands of older video games, Kagirinaki Tatakai will scare you away pretty quickly.

Kagirinaki Tatakai opened my eyes to the potential of early Japanese computer games. What was once a scene shrouded in mystery and intimidation is now something I’m eager to explore and learn more about. I’m sure there are plenty of forgotten, worthwhile games on the likes of the Sharp X1, the PC-88, and the FM-7.  There are entire Twitter accounts dedicated to showing off how cool the PC-98 is, so that one goes without saying! If you’re reading this and have any suggestions on interesting games of this particular vintage to add to the Big Ol’ List, I would absolutely love to hear them! Ishikawa would go on to make another game in 1985 called Brain Breaker, which appears to be similarly fascinating and ambitious. It’s already on the Big Ol’ List, so hopefully I’ll get to check it out someday. If you take away one thing from this writing, let it be this: explore games you’ve never heard of on systems you’ve never touched! There’s a lot of awesome stuff out there just waiting to be discovered and dissected, and for someone like me who has played a whole lot of video games but gets tired of hearing about the same handful of names over and over, going out of my comfort zone like this was the perfect way to show myself how much more there still is for me to learn within the wonderful world of video games.

For now, I think it’s time for a “Coffe Break” before the next mission…

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