Heaven and/or Hell

  • Developer: Taito Bit2 (turns out there’s evidence pointing to the developer being Bit2 and not Taito, thanks to @gdri on Twitter for pointing this out!)
  • Publisher: Taito
  • Release Year: 1987 (Japan)
  • Available On: MSX
  • Genre(s): 2D Platformer, JRPG (light elements)
  • Also Known As: Welcome to Heaven (translated title)
  • Unofficial Translation by: MSX Translations

Taito has been consistently making games since the 1970s, so it’s only natural that some of their games are going to fall to the wayside over time. Everybody knows all their stone cold classics like Bubble Bobble and Space Invaders, but I have to assume fewer people know much about their MSX lineup, especially those of us who were born and raised in North America. I was aware that they had a host of their arcade games ported to the MSX, like Kiki KaiKai, Arkanoid and The Fairyland Story, but I didn’t know much about their lineup beyond that. While not quite as prolific as Konami was on there, they made some really interesting and original stuff exclusively for the platform, including the very first Choro-Q game, a single player mahjong game called Jan Friend (since you’re just eliminating tiles without an opponent, I guess it’s more like a puzzle game with a mahjong theme…), and Sweet Acorn, a game about jiggling around to give yourself enough power to attack your enemies. Like I said, interesting stuff! Tengoku Yoitoko feels like one of their most experimental and mysterious titles for the platform in how it combines two genres that tend to not be mixed together. Despite having a high quality unofficial translation out there (with trainer options for infinite money and health if you want), it doesn’t get a mention on Mobygames or Taito’s Wikipedia page at all, which is strange. Guess that could be since the game doesn’t have any credits at all that I could find within it, but it’s still a bit of a shame it doesn’t even get a mention because it’s a really fascinating game that’s absolutely worth taking a look at.

If you want a one sentence pitch, how about this: Take a platformer, give it (very) light RPG elements, have it take place in a single “town” connected to multiple dungeons, and give it a system of progression that relies heavily upon finding the correct items while heeding the advice of various NPCs. Pretty interesting little concoction there, right? I can’t think of many games offhand that choose to combine the gameplay of a basic 2D platformer with elements of a RPG – Super Paper Mario is the only thing that immediately comes to mind unless you start including Metroidvanias, I guess – but I really like the idea and I think Taito pulls it off well here. There’s certainly room for expansion, especially in terms of the variety of foes you encounter and verbs at your disposal, but what they had here felt like a solid start for the time period. The general design and appeal of this game reminds me a lot of something like Castlevania II or Romancia, only with a smaller scope than the former and a much less sadistic level of difficulty when compared to the latter. This game even has a nebulous karma/morality system like Romancia does! I’ve endured Romancia to completion and while I would never, ever recommend someone play that game as anything more than a historical curiosity, it does have a lot of cool ideas, so I was very pleased to see Taito adapting some of the broad strokes onto something much more approachable.

The box art of Tengoku Yoitoko bills the game as a “Comical Horror Adventure”, and I’d say that mostly checks out. The premise of the plot as written up by MSX Translations sure is comical, anyway! You see, this game is about a guy named Sakichi who’s having a landlord problem. Rent for his apartment has been piling up and Sakichi is desperate to keep the landlord at bay. So, of course, opportunity strikes – a mysterious priest offers Sakichi special sake that’s guaranteed to make the landlord forget all about rent. Sakichi accepts and convinces the landlord to take a drink, but other residents of the apartment take a drink too. The sake knocks everyone out and the priest, who reveals himself to be a “death god” (or Shinigami) looking to fulfill their soul collecting quota, takes the souls of everyone who drank it. Sakichi pursues the death god to Heaven in hopes of rescuing the souls of the victims he got into this mess. It’s one heck of a premise and the game itself barely communicates this at all, so you can probably imagine my surprise when I first read this! Regardless, I love how outlandish this premise is and this game’s unusual depiction of Heaven, which ends up coming off like a town you’d see in a more typical fantasy video game (complete with perilous dungeons nearby) and not a promised paradise or place of true peace like it’s often presented as. I hate to break it to you all, but Heaven is a victim of capitalism too!

Going by what’s on offer in this game, Taito seems to think that Heaven is what you’d get if you crammed every single NPC from a game like Castlevania II (or Zelda II, even)  in one place. Every single person you talk to, whether they’re walking outside or in a building, seems to have some kind of random hint for you to use, things like “You can’t go to the River of Three Crossings without a water demon’s bowl!” (the River of Three Crossings being what is essentially the Japanese equivalent of the River Styx) and “At night, if you are at the top of the clock tower, you can hear shouts” (this never comes into play since there’s no day/night cycle, so I have no clue what they were referring to!). If you ever struggled to get anywhere in Castlevania II and have painful memories of its weird NPCs, this is gonna feel like a nightmare because it never stops! But don’t fret; if you note down each one or refer back to them as needed, deciphering their hints isn’t nearly as bad as you may think. I’m not sure if the game was always like this or the translation team just did a really good job of cleaning up the text to be more clear, but the NPCs here don’t throw riddles or false information at you. Everything they say is at least direct enough to give you an idea of what something does and it’s very possible to formulate an exact order of operations from their advice.

At the start, the amount of buildings might be overwhelming, there’s a bunch of places you can’t get into, and you could end up walking into a place called “Pincushion Hell” unprepared, but if you look before you leap, you can figure out exactly how you should get started. One NPC mentions that the Demon’s Sandals will make navigating Pincushion Hell much easier, so that immediately makes your goal obvious. The game also starts you near several shops and with just enough money to buy yourself a pair of said sandals. Put all that together and it becomes clear that Pincushion Hell is supposed to be your first target once you have the sandals. Despite all of your options, the correct solutions tend to make for a linear path through the game because the dungeon areas actually open up in a specific order; after Pincushion Hell, you can gather hints indicating that the Angel’s Robe and Angel’s Boots are necessary for navigating through the slippery floors and high ledges of the 8 Cold Hells. After that, the 8 Hot Hells require you to find Angel Wings since the area is covered in flames and has nowhere safe for you to land. A lot of references to Buddhism and Japanese mythology in this game, in case that wasn’t obvious yet! Things get more complicated from there (to the game’s overall detriment, I would argue), but we’ll stop there for now to discuss the actual gameplay since this should at least give you a good idea of what the game’s like – talk to people, gather what you need to succeed, clear out the dungeon-like areas, and repeat until you’re done.

Sakichi, as you may have surmised from that story, really is just Some Guy, and that’s reflected accordingly in his moveset. All he can do is move and jump, very simple stuff! You do get an item later on that actually adds a move to his arsenal, but it’s enough of a monkey’s paw that I’m gonna give it some time and words later on. So where does the RPG stuff come into play with a moveset that miniscule, you ask? Well, aside from how much money he’s carrying, Sakichi has three stats to his name: Vitality, Virtue, and Attack. All three stats (and money) are boosted by defeating enemies and collecting the stars they drop (every drop gives 10 of a stat based on its color). If you miss the star as it falls, then you’re out of luck! Vitality is self-explanatory (though it is worth mentioning that most attacks only do a point of damage, so you’re practically invincible with high vitality), but the other two are more interesting.

Virtue… well, I’m not entirely sure how to explain it! It’s definitely a morality/karma system in the vein of Romancia‘s like I mentioned earlier, but it’s very unclear how it affects the game and it’s only possible to lower it if you’re willingly going out of your way to do so. You’re told by multiple NPCs that Enma, the Buddhist God of Hell that judges the souls of people, hates people with low Virtue scores and another NPC straight up tells you “Don’t hesitate to raise your Virtue or you’ll regret it later on”. You do indeed encounter Enma at the end of the game, but I must have had enough Virtue to make him happy because I was never once stopped or punished as a result of it. It’s possible to lower your Virtue by killing the angels that inhabit Heaven, but doing so only lowers it by 10 points. Maybe that’s because they come back as soon as you leave the screen as if nothing happened, but it’s still a pretty rude thing to do! By the end of the game, I had 830 Virtue, so testing out what happens if you lower it would take me quite a bit of time! It’s hard to imagine a situation where you accidentally end up with too low of Virtue; it’s not a rare drop by any means and you’ll naturally be forced to kill dozens of enemies in order to have enough money to afford the items, so I’m surprised it isn’t more of a factor and they didn’t sneak in any harsher ways of lowering it. Maybe something like the infamous shop stealing in Link’s Awakening would have worked here – tempt players into stealing items to not have to grind money, only to punish them with a harsh Virtue penalty or something worse. It’d be a mean thing to potentially stonewall a player right at the end due to their past actions, but isn’t that the entire point of Heaven in a nutshell, after all? One final judgment based on everything you’ve done dictating the way your future in the afterlife goes? A bit of comedic and karmic justice would have fit the end of this game perfectly if you ask me, but so it goes.

An attack stat seems like a wildly unnecessary thing for a 2D platformer, doesn’t it? You just jump on an enemy or whatever and it’s dead, right? But Taito found a way to make the idea work in a pretty clever way. The box art depicts an enemy buried in the ground and that’s exactly what you’ll be doing to your foes in-game. Jumping on an enemy once won’t kill it, but it will push them lower towards the ground. If you let up, they’ll rise back up and go about their business, but if you keep at it, they’ll get buried and vanish from the battlefield, leaving you with a reward in their wake. The attack stat determines how quickly your jumps will bury your opponents. At first, even regular foes will take quite a few hops to defeat, but once your attack starts approaching 1000, you can bury them in a couple of jumps and it feels great! For something so simple, it can be a power trip knowing that just a single jump from you can lead to a barrage of subsequent jumps that leave the opponent helpless to your might. The reward for doing so only makes it all the sweeter! There are some minibosses like a pair of Oni and a god of poverty (or Binbogami) that are essentially just slightly beefed up foes, but the actual end of stage bosses tend to put up more of a fight. Against those guys, it becomes less of a bullying session and much more of a proper back and forth. Bosses come packing projectiles that they can fire in an upward arc in either direction, so while you’re trying to hop on their head, they can knock you away from them with projectiles. This turns boss fights into a situation not unlike riding one of those mechanical bulls at a bar, you could say; you need to maintain control and try to stay on top of them for as long as you can while they writhe around and do anything in their power to stop you. It’s a pretty fun dynamic, and I felt smart when I figured out tricks to make it easier like luring them to the wall of a room so that the wall catches you and stops you from getting knocked away by their projectiles. It is unfortunate, though, that all of the bosses fight in exactly the same way. It would have been cool if the bosses came up with different ways to get you off of them, say by moving around quickly or flying upward or something. The final boss is functionally identical to a basic enemy, so much so that I didn’t even realize it was the final boss until it was already over!

As a whole, even though it’s very much a simple thing, I think the platforming and how that’s juxtaposed with the RPG elements is the most compelling aspect of Tengoku Yoitoko. If you compare it to other RPGs around the same time, say like Hydlide and Ys, you’ll find that it’s not so different from them in some ways. The “bump combat” system has a bit more nuance and risk to it with how hitting from certain directions is more effective and how damaging everything in those kinds of games tends to be, but both systems are really accomplishing the same idea of taking a turn based RPG or a tabletop RPG and presenting its combat and calculations in a new context. Everything you do feeds into your ability to fight, and your attack is dictated both by an attack stat and your aim when it comes to jumping. Your vitality lets you make more mistakes, your attack determines which opponents are reasonable to fight, and your gear grants you access to new places to explore where you can continue the loop of fighting and improving. Action RPGs tend to be at their most successful when the real time combat and RPG statistics feel equally important, and like Hydlide and Ys, I think this game leverages that idea to its advantage and creates something that absolutely had potential to be expanded upon elsewhere. I guess you could call it the “Jump Combat” system if you need a cute name for it!

If Tengoku Yoitoko felt like it properly juggled its RPG with its platforming elements 100% of the time, that’d be great, but it does sometimes shift the scales in favor of the latter, which doesn’t always work out. To go back to where we left off earlier, after completing the first three areas, your next stop involves using pliers of some kind to open up a path to the clock tower and the mini dungeon nearby. If you go there right away, you’ll get stopped dead in your tracks by a segment with a platform that’s too high even for the high jump granted by the Angel’s Robe. It’s also worth mentioning that this area is filled with lava that’ll kill you instantly regardless of how much vitality you have, so you need to bounce on top of enemies to get across without getting hit and bounced into the lava, which is a gigantic pain! You actually get unlimited continues in this game, but continuing resets your vitality all the way down to 10, so if you’re entering an area where a boss fight or a long gauntlet of foes is expected, you’ll have to do a bit of grinding to get to a point where you’re safe enough to proceed. Instant kills aren’t an unusual thing in a platformer, but here, it’s pretty frustrating to have sections where the RPG stuff you’ve been building up for an hour or two just doesn’t matter at all. Like I said before, it’s important in any game that combines the RPG with another genre that both aspects of the genre matter equally, and they had been so good about it prior to this point too!

The endgame has a bad habit of throwing instant death lava pools at you…

But I digress; the key to getting past this section is buying the Angel’s Halo. Simple enough, but this is the one item in the game that you don’t really get a proper hint for and is in turn the most obtuse section of the game by far. Buying the halo alone isn’t enough and I can attest to that from personal experience! Instead, what you need to do is locate a particular NPC in a building. If you came here at any point earlier, you’d just get a message that tells you “it isn’t necessary to come here yet…”, but if you come here with the Angel’s Halo, they’ll enchant it with some kind of power. What power, you ask? They don’t tell you! In order to figure that out, you have to enter a hostile area and decide to press a button that you’ve previously had no use for. Do that, and Sakichi will throw his halo and create a platform that you can now jump on! Sounds pretty useful, right? Well, it is, but it’s also kind of a pain to use and the level design begins prioritizing it in a way that just isn’t as fun as what came before it. Sakichi throws it in an extremely severe arc where it’ll rise up and then drop like a rock shortly after. This creates a strange result where throwing the halo while grounded causes it to basically end up inside of the lava that you’re trying to avoid in the first place! Thus, the key is to throw the halo while jumping to actually get it to suspend in the air to some degree. Once you know that, it’s not so bad, I suppose, but a lot of these sections that require the halo also have enemies, and if you get hit by an enemy while on a halo, you’ll probably get hit far back enough that you’ll fall into the lava and die, thus having to work your way back to the same section with only 10 vitality to try again! In case it wasn’t obvious, I really didn’t like the introduction of the Angel’s Halo. With this one item, the game shifts in design sensibilities from a RPG cleverly abstracted onto the skeleton of a platformer into a more conventional platformer where some of those stats you’ve been building up no longer matter. It also feels like a sudden difficulty spike that introduces loads of punishment that didn’t have to be there at all, and every area from the clock tower onward has several halo-focused platforming sequences. It’s a shame too, because without this shift in design mentality, this would probably be one of the most approachable games on the MSX (that I’ve found so far, anyway) that retains its unique flavor the whole way through while being grander in scope than an arcade port.

…and they only get worse when the Angel’s Halo is involved!

Despite my problems with its endgame, Tengoku Yoitoko is absolutely worth trying. It’s rare to see a game with such an unusual combination of elements and a take on platforming that’s more than just “jump on enemy, they’re dead”. When it’s at its best, this game consumes your thoughts in a way that makes you eager to slowly peel back its layers and see what secrets it has in store for you. Its combination of RPG and platforming elements makes you think about them and how they manage to come together in such an interesting way and I had a lot of fun taking notes and piecing together the NPC hints to figure out how to tackle the game’s challenges. In case you didn’t already understand the appeal of bump combat, this game might even give you an idea of why those games work as well as they do since it’s kind of a similar idea! There’s a specific, undeniable thrill to games that mix with RPGs to create something where you’re always improving and always advancing. I guess that’s why RPG elements are so prevalent in modern game design! I’m sure some may tire of the idea of putting RPG elements in everything, and not everybody likes the idea of grinding or worrying about stats in types of games that don’t typically have such things, but I think having that added depth to be concerned about can really do games some favors. It works super well in something like the Kunio-kun series, and I think it works very well here, too. If this was just a platformer with nothing else to it, it’d probably be something I burn through in 30 minutes and think nothing of afterwards, but because Taito decided to get so creative with it, now it’s a game that I won’t soon forget!

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