A frolicking good time

  • Developer: Konami
  • Publisher: Konami
  • Release Dates: June 28th, 1985 (MSX), March 19th, 1998 (Playstation via Konami Antiques: MSX Collection Vol. 3, July 23rd, 1998 (Saturn via Konami Antiques: MSX Collection Ultra Pack), 2014 (Colecovision homebrew by Collectorvision Games)
  • Available on: MSX, SG-1000, Playstation, Saturn, Colecovision
  • Genre: Shoot ‘Em Up

Even with their heel turn from a beloved developer to a cutthroat, shameless, NFT-loving husk of a company, people still can’t stop talking about Konami. It feels like it’s every day that there’s another obviously fake rumor about there being a new Silent Hill that’s going to be announced “any minute now, and Hideo Kojima’s totally gonna be directing it, you’ll see!” and people still beg for new entries in Castlevania even though we have Bloodstained and loads of indie games like it, to say nothing of the fact that most of the people who made Castlevania great are likely no longer at the company. Konami does still put out games, but they tend to be mobile games, things that print money forever like Yu-Gi-Oh! and PES (or, uh, eFootball now, I guess) surprise revivals of greatly varying quality, or no-frills ports of their past work instead of things that hearken back to their ambitious glory days. This change in gears honestly makes sense to me, seeing as how the people who remain at Konami likely wouldn’t be able to live up to the standards set by the company’s 8 and 16-bit catalog (no offense to the people on the ground at Konami now, but the Konami of the past was really on a whole ‘nother level), but it still doesn’t stop people from asking for new games in their beloved franchises. With this post, I’m here to make two statements:

  1. Y’all gotta let Silent Hill go because it’s not happening, Hideo Kojima probably wants nothing to do with Konami after their feud, and even if it does happen and I look like a fool, it’s not gonna be as good as Silent Hill 2 anyway
  2. Konami has an enormous history of quality games that you should totally be checking out!

It sucks that the company that brought us so much joy isn’t what they used to be, and as a big Shenmue fan, I understand the pain of waiting for a new entry in a series that seems like it’s never going to happen, but I think it’s better to honor the legacy of the talented people that used to comprise Konami by enjoying the games they made rather than waiting for a false prophet to deliver on lofty promises. If you’re like me, you still haven’t played every Castlevania game despite loving them, so we all should probably get on that! Heck, despite claiming to be a Ganbare Goemon fan, I’ve only ever finished the two N64 games! Today though, we’ll be looking at one of Konami’s many contributions to the MSX, a platform that they were top dog on. A lot of the best and most well-known MSX games were made by Konami, but Pippols here is one you never hear anybody asking for a re-release of nowadays, though it did get four on the SG-1000, Saturn, PlayStation, and Colecovision, so that’s cool! These versions are straight ports and don’t offer anything new, (the SG-1000 version is an unlicensed Taiwanese release by a company called Jumbo and the Colecovision one is a homebrew release that came out in 2014) but it’s nice to see that Pippols remains in the memories of just enough people that it managed to be included in collections and homebrew releases alike for preservation. It’s probably not many people’s favorite game, but it’s a fun time and it does some interesting stuff as a shoot ’em up that diverges from the usual intergalactic fare.

Most notably, it’s a MSX game with actually smooth scrolling, which is just plain amazing! Since it was released in 1985, the same year as the MSX2, which was the second generation of MSX machines, it feels like something of a swan song for that first generation, a late stage contender out to prove what could be possible on the MSX and defy the computer’s reputation of lacking in scrolling capabilities. Scrolling was a rare feat on the MSX and was something that even Konami didn’t consistently do, going by how the MSX version of Ganbare Goemon: Karakuri Dochuu released in 1987 without it, so little ol’ Pippols getting it feels like nothing short of a miracle! Its visuals elsewhere aren’t exactly groundbreaking and its use of black backgrounds and mostly single color environments probably help facilitate the smooth scrolling, but they’re very cute and still hold up well enough when compared to early Famicom games. Your character, the titular Pippols, has an adorable grin across his face the entire time (as long as you don’t die) and there’s a good variety of enemies to fight like ghosts, skulls, multicolor butterflies and weird little fuzzball guys, so the game remains visually interesting enough for the first part of a playthrough (more on that later).

Pippols stands out from other shoot ’em ups by using a system that has you changing between multiple lanes to attack enemies and dodge their advances. Jumping between lanes can only be done at points that aren’t blocked off by walls, so every decision you make has a bit of commitment to it. If you change lanes and then a power-up spawns on the furthest lane, but you’re blocked off by walls long enough that you can’t get to it, then tough luck! What happens if you jump into a lane that initially seems clear until skulls start flying in from the top and you can’t react in time, you ask? Well, guess you’ll die then! Pippols can thankfully shoot while changing lanes, but it’s still very easy to misjudge a jump and land right onto something that’s outside of your shot trajectory. The game does a great job of constantly tempting you to jump between lanes to grab juicy power-ups while also trying to trick you with ever-changing enemy formations that’ll catch you right at a potential juncture. In most cases, if you’re boring, you could just stay in one lane the whole time, but some enemies are capable of swooping in from the sides and certain levels will block off lanes with walls at various points, so you’ll eventually have to move outside of your comfort zone and risk life and limb to complete your mission. At its best, Pippols is like spinning plates – you have to consider which lane is the best at any given moment, keep tabs on all the enemies, grab power-ups as they appear, destroy anything in your way, be ready to change lanes at the appropriate points, and make sure you’re in the middle lane at the very end so you can actually get to the exit. Like most computer games of this vintage, continues aren’t a thing either (extra lives actually come at a pretty fast clip, though), so you’d better get ready to practice a lot (or use save states) if you want to see the end.

Changing lanes is often trickier than it looks too because of Pippols’ deceptively large hitbox. Based on how the game works, you’d think that your hitbox would be where you stand since the flat perspective makes it look like you’re further out than you are, right? Well, the entirety of Pippols’ sprite is a hitbox, so that means it’s very easy to get caught by something slightly further ahead of you on the track as you change lanes. This is by far what cost me the most lives and I found it frustrating at times when I’d die thinking I was safer than I actually was because the enemy ~technically~ wasn’t where I landed. Those little fuzzball guys I mentioned are especially guilty of doing this, since their modus operandi is to rush you and change lanes at random points (of course they don’t have to listen to the rules like you do!). To me, it feels like Pippols would have worked even better as an isometric game like Viewpoint, which would shrink your hitbox and make your jumps between lanes feel more accurate. Such a change likely wasn’t possible on the MSX for a number of reasons, but regardless, you’ll still get used to how the Pippols we got works and you’ll learn to change lanes more cautiously and only after you’ve secured a sufficiently safe path.

You only ever have your starting projectile, a simple heart-shaped bullet, but there are at least power-ups that can help you out. As you go, you’ll find fruit that gives you points, coins that determine when certain power-ups spawn (and also give you points), and items that make defeating enemies easier. The cross will instantly kill everything on the screen and the clock will stop time long enough for you to walk up to and destroy any enemies on the screen. These are always a welcome sight, but they’re also pretty rare, whereas two of the other items, the red boots and the blue boots, can be spawned intentionally if you know what to do. Collecting four yellow coins in a row gets you the red boots, which boost your speed, whereas collecting four blue and four white coins in a row gets you the blue boots, which are pretty amazing if you can pull this off. Finding that lane changing limitation a bit too pesky for your tastes? Well, the blue boots throw all of that out of the window and let you change lanes freely for a taste of the ultimate Pippols power fantasy! Seriously, being able to change lanes at will makes you so much more flexible and so much less likely to die that I imagine the best players of Pippols try to get these boots as often as possible. It’s cool to see power-ups in a shoot ‘em up focus more on nonviolent abilities like your mobility rather than your firepower and it also happens to fit well with the game’s pleasant presentation and setting. Pippols is an undeniably cute game that isn’t trying to be cool or intense, so rather than giving you extravagant ways to murder your opposition, it instead encourages you to focus on just surviving long enough. As you’ll soon find out, the journey that is Pippols is a marathon, not a sprint.

Once you get to the end of a level, you’re presented with a branching path that leads you left or right. It’s up to you to decide which path is better since both paths lead to completely different levels with different environments and enemies to deal with. Imagine my surprise when I picked the path that led to a level covered in moai heads! Konami really did love those things, didn’t they? I typically enjoy mechanics like this since it gives you a reason to replay the game and provides a basis for more interesting watercooler-style conversations with other people who have played the game, but I’m not a fan of the implementation here. Mechanics like this aren’t supposed to have a “correct” answer since the whole point is to facilitate player choice and expression, but Pippols very much has a correct path that it wants you to follow. To provide some context, Pippols is the story of the titular boy’s journey to find the “Holy Gem” (amusingly misspelled as the “Holly Gem” in-game) in order to return light to the world of magic that he inhabits. The enemies you fight are fairies of darkness that have stolen the light, you see, which also happens to be a very clever justification for the black backgrounds. I like it! It’s also worth nothing that this is a rare example in the genre that makes your mission one that only contains violence out of necessity. You’re not here specifically to kill the fairies of darkness despite the trouble they’ve caused the world of magic, you’re really just defending yourself as you try to save the world. In ideal circumstances (or in a world where Pippols came out years later), there would be a way to complete this game without fighting anything, to really solidify it as something nearly if not one-of-a-kind, but alas. Unfortunately, this story premise also gets in the way of the branching paths system – in order to find the Holy Gem, you need to find the specific level that contains it, and that specific level is a field of flowers similar to the one that you start in. You’re not guaranteed to find this level, though, so if you make enough “wrong” choices, you can end up looping and repeating levels that you don’t actually need to play. I got pretty lucky with my choices and it didn’t take me long to find the Holy Gem, but I can imagine this being really frustrating for people who aren’t so lucky. The bottom right part of the screen has a map of sorts that may or may not be related to finding the correct path, but I honestly wasn’t able to make any sense of what it was showing me.

Eventually, you’ll make it to the Holy Gem and all will be well. Or so you think… until you realize that you still have to get the Holy Gem back home! That’s right, Pippols is one of those games like Ghosts ‘n Goblins that expects you to complete it twice to see an ending! On your journey home, your objective is to once again find the flower field level (since that’s where you started), but you’ll be playing through the levels in reverse with enemies coming from the bottom instead of the top. This is slightly novel and the game does remain challenging even after you make it back to earlier levels, but this whole thing just feels unnecessary and like a dirty trick to double the length of the game without providing anything new. I can see this being a useful and practical idea back in 1985 when development teams and budgets were much smaller, but considering that Pippols really could have used just a few more enemies and a few more level ideas, it’s a shame that the game intentionally drags itself out and rubs that fact in your face as if it’s trying to wipe away some of that goodwill it earned up until now. A complete run really doesn’t take long at all, but even so, you’ll likely lose interest during the return trip and be more prone to making mistakes. As you’d expect, there’s very little to the ending as well, so don’t feel bad if you don’t have the desire to make it back.

It doesn’t have much “meat” on its bones and it still finds a way to overstay its welcome, but Pippols is an overall enjoyable romp that feels pretty fresh even in a genre as crowded as shoot ‘em ups. The lane changing mechanic adds a lot of strategy to what would otherwise be a simple game, and the aesthetics and premise give the game a unique identity that still stands out for its procurement-based mission compared to the majority of its contemporaries that purported eradication as the only solution to their conflicts. Konami was at their absolute peak during the 8 and 16-bit eras of gaming, and this game serves as but one of many examples of why they were one of the big names to look for on the MSX. With fun gameplay and impressive technical flourishes for its platform, Pippols is one of those games that you could bring out and show off to get people interested in the ol’ computer that could. I was too young and in the wrong country to have grown up with a MSX, but games like this make me very interested in exploring the system’s library further. Konami’s history is extremely well covered when it comes to their output from the Famicom onwards, but it still feels like there’s a lot to be rediscovered within the depths of their MSX library. If you’re like me and you really want to dig deep, consider trying out Pippols – it’s a frolicking good time!

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