Holes and Ladders

  • Developer: MIA
  • Publisher: MIA
  • Release Years: 1983 (individual cartridge), 1984 (via the “Rapid Machine Language Game Collection” book, more on that later)
  • Available On: MSX
  • Genre: Action, Puzzle
  • Also Known As: Tomboyish Becky’s Big Adventure
  • Unofficial Translation by: Sargon, hap, Rieks

I feel like making single screen games was and still is more challenging than it looks at first glance. Nowadays, things like Frogger, Q*Bert, and Missile Command will seem quaint at best to those that didn’t grow up with them, but if you think about it, it’s really impressive how different all these games were despite having so little to work with. The idea of only having one screen, one chance to make an impression and convince people to stay and give you money is probably a very scary thought to developers! Such a restriction probably limited the kinds of ideas you could implement and I imagine many a fledgling developer had to hold back some of their ambitions until the tech was able to properly support them. You didn’t have elaborate stories to keep people interested nor could you patch games remotely to fix mistakes, so aside from the occasional cool arcade machine gimmick, you had to rely purely on first impressions, eye-catching graphics, tight gameplay, and fresh ideas to keep peoples’ attention. Games like Donkey Kong and Bubble Bobble used screen transitions, multiple levels with new challenges, tweaks to the environment, and hidden secrets to keep people coming back despite all those things being laid out on the same sized screen each time, whereas some games just had ideas and gameplay so good that no iteration or shake ups were needed. It’s easy to dismiss games that followed in the footsteps of giants as imitators or copycats, but really, their job was even harder! That’s why I find games like the one we have here today so interesting to examine: given extreme limitations, stiff competition, and a pocket full of dreams, what’s the best you can do?

Otenba Becky no Daibouken (translates to something like Tomboyish Becky’s Big Adventure) is a real interesting one, alright. It’s not a life-changing experience or anything like that and it’s not one that I think most people will stick with for long, but it has ideas, and those ideas are quite clever and different from similar games. At first glance, this game looks like it’d be a simple Donkey Kong or Burgertime clone, what with the platforms and ladder setup, but in practice, it’s actually closer to something like Heiankyo Alien or Lode Runner. Lode Runner is probably the game most will compare this one to, since your only means of doing anything is by digging holes to trap enemies and it all takes place on a horizontal 2D plane with plenty of verticality, but the more I think about it, the more that Heiankyo Alien seems like the primary inspiration to me. That game hit Japanese arcades in 1979 and was apparently a pretty big deal, being one of the top ten highest grossing arcade games in Japan in both 1979 and 1980 according to Game Machine magazine, so it stands to reason that a lot of games would take influence from it, Lode Runner chief among them.

Lode Runner itself came out in 1983 for Apple/Atari/Commodore computers and then came out in December of 1983 for the PC-8801 in Japan, four years after Heiankyo Alien left its mark. Otenba Becky no Daibouken supposedly also released in 1983 as an individual cartridge, and though the exact date doesn’t seem to be available on the internet, that range of 1983 doesn’t give this game much time to have been made at all if it was inspired by Lode Runner unless one of its developers were aware of Lode Runner’s western release and had played it themselves, which is a possibility. This game isn’t exactly super complex, so I suppose it’s possible that the team at MIA could have programmed it pretty quickly; I actually found a Japanese review from a website called Tagoo (written by Mackchie), and if I understood it correctly, it mentions that they didn’t buy the game but rather coded it themselves using a program listing in a book called “Rapid Machine Language Game Collection”. This book, as described in this blog post by parupu, was released in 1984 and featured seven of MIA’s games with the code and additional information needed to make them yourself, all at the low cost of 1,500 yen (much cheaper than the game by itself for 4,800 yen), which would mean that the game could probably be built pretty quickly by an experienced programmer if it was being assumed that anyone who picked up this book could eventually code the game with enough time and interest. Though there’s no way to know with absolute certainty what MIA was inspired by without any kind of developer interview or something, this little rabbit hole was really interesting to look through, so I’d say that this was a pretty rewarding bit of conjecture!

Finding that book also helped me learn just a bit more about MIA, which is nice because information on them seems rare to come by. Mobygames cites this game and an adventurous looking game of frog and mouse called “Adven’chuta!” (great name) as their only works, but the existence of this book proves that they had at least seven games under their belt before they went… MIA (sorry, I had to). According to parupu once again, the book contained the following games aside from Otenba Becky no Daibouken: Final Mahjong, Lonesome Tank, Nyorols, Jumping Rabbit, Adven’chuta, and Jigsaw Set. All of these games are quite simple (understandable considering the point of the book), but they’re a fairly diverse batch. In one cheap book, you’ve got mahjong, a tank game like Namco’s Tank Battalion, an Atari Adventure-like, a jigsaw puzzle, a platformer, whatever Nyorols is supposed to be, and good ol’ Becky. Between that and the educational experience of programming itself, that book was some seriously good value! This website here adds some extra games to their resume, such as Stone Ball, Enterprise, and Pascom Tower, but it seems that they didn’t make anything past 1985 regardless (Gamefaqs backs this up as well). Still, they managed to get a fair bit done in just 3 years, so that’s worthy of note, and I imagine the rest of their catalog is worthy of further exploration someday too.

The title screen, if you can read it or use the unofficial translation from Sargon and hap (the readme also mentions a contributor named Rieks), lays everything out in a straightforward fashion. As the titular Becky, you need to somehow fend off aliens using only your ability to move and dig holes. Wait… digging holes, aliens? That’s extremely Heiankyo Alien! Kinda makes my whole paragraph above feel like a bit of an overcomplication of things, but hey, that’s part of the fun, isn’t it? Anyway, each given level provides platforms and ladders to use to get around the level, and the level doesn’t end until every alien is eliminated. Should you die, they all come back, so you’ve gotta get it done in one proper go. To eliminate an alien, you obviously need to dig a hole, but the process has a second step. After you’ve dug the hole and lured your foe into it, you need to loop back around and step on them in order to push them down and turn them into an… apple? Yeah, dead aliens apparently turn into apples, who knew? Collecting the apple gives you points, but doing so isn’t explicitly necessary (and is often hard to do since you’re frequently being tailed) since it’ll vanish in a few seconds anyway. The goal sounds easy enough on paper, but what makes Becky’s adventure so difficult is just how outnumbered she is. The first level only features a few aliens, but levels 2 and 3 ratchet that up to five and six aliens! In most video games, a handful of aliens wouldn’t be the biggest deal, but aside from her hole-creating ability, Becky is completely defenseless and perishes after one touch from any alien. She also can’t create holes on the ground floor, so if you get trapped at the bottom of the level, there’s nothing you can do but accept your fate. And I didn’t even get to the trickiest part yet!

In Becky’s world, an apple a day doesn’t seem to keep anything away

When you think about digging a hole, you’re probably thinking about doing it with a shovel or something, right? It makes sense, after all – you get to dig faster than you would normally and you get to keep your distance from said hole so you don’t fall in or get your hands dirty. Well, Becky had different plans when she embarked on this adventure. Instead of bringing the right tool for the job, Becky has only herself to rely on, so she digs holes by removing the floor directly underneath her and dropping through! Not only does this force you to reposition every time you dig a hole, it also takes her a second or two to get up after the fall, which could be all it takes for an alien to catch you. This one choice, this one idea, serves to make this game a radically different experience than anything it may have been inspired by. In games like Heiankyo Alien and Lode Runner, you’re encouraged to stay on the move while you plan out your means of attack, luring unsuspecting aliens in while maintaining control like you’re some kind of string pulling puppet master, and in the case of Lode Runner, defeating foes isn’t necessary unless they have the gold that you need. Becky still needs to stay on the move whenever she can, but every single time you decide to fight back or set a trap, you’re putting Becky at risk of failure. Successfully defeating an alien will cause the tile you deleted to regenerate, but if an alien never steps into it, that hole will remain, which can lead to situations where you accidentally doom yourself. During the actual alien-stomping process, if you step on the alien and fall too quickly along with it, you can actually touch the falling alien before it’s considered “trapped” by the game and get yourself killed! Every single facet of the gameplay loop comes at a risk, whether that’s a risk of falling to a disadvantageous spot to catch one enemy or getting tapped by one of your opponents that was smart enough to follow you from below, and that constant risk makes this game a harrowing experience.

I like the way Becky sits and looks slightly confused every time you dig a hole and she falls through it

The way this approach to digging holes works also means that there’s no good way to take out multiple enemies quickly, which gives way to some problems with the level design in general. Let’s say you’re being chased by two enemies that are right next to each other; if you dig a hole to catch one, you get to fall through safely and the first alien is trapped, but the second alien gets off scot-free. Depending on the layout of the level, it’s entirely possible that the second alien will simply backtrack to follow you and climb down the nearest ladder, trapping you and forcing you to either find an escape route or risk your life by making another hole. That first alien will also hop out of the hole if given enough time, so if you can’t work your way up there safely, you just put yourself in a bad spot for zero reward! Since being forced down to the lowest level is the worst thing you can do, that means that getting to the highest point is the best time to begin eliminating aliens. When you have ample space to work with and multiple ladders to use to run circles around your opposition, everything goes rather smoothly as long as you’re smart. However, there’s just one big catch that makes this much more difficult than it sounds – the level designs are randomized every time you play!

That’s right, you can’t even rely on learning the levels here because you’ll have to adapt to different circumstances each time. I noticed this the first time I got to level 3 since I was absolutely stuck with no clue on how to proceed. Using a save state, I tested the start of this level dozens of times and just could not find a way to climb higher or get past one or two aliens before getting trapped. My desperation led me to watching a Youtube video in which the player managed to get past level 3, but I immediately realized that their level was different from mine. They had more ladders to work with, whereas I only had a couple of ladders (including one that didn’t actually reach the floor above it, thanks for that…), so I was unable to get past the level no matter how much I tried. I don’t know if it was actually impossible, but it sure seemed like it was! I restarted the game and sure enough, levels 1-3 were different this time. I still got stuck on level 4 for similar reasons to level 3, but the levels leading up to it were at least doable. According to Mobygames, after level 4, the number of aliens resets to how it was in level 1, but speeds them up accordingly, but I wasn’t able to get to that point because I kept running into seemingly impossible level compositions. I’m not alone in this problem too because that review by Mackchie mentions the same issue as well. I really like the idea of randomized levels, especially in a game from 1983, but it just doesn’t feel like it works well at all here considering how fragile Becky is and how reliant the game is on having enough space and ladders in the right places to get anything done with her weird way of digging holes. Still, if you needed your gaming purchase to last you longer back in 1983/1984, banging your head against this until you get an agreeable level layout is certainly one way to do that!

The name “Tomboyish Becky’s Big Adventure” feels like a misleading one because the scope of this game is really quite small once you get your hands on it. Perhaps there was a manual that provided a story of some kind or maybe you were just meant to make it up in your head based on the box art, but the title could lead people to think that this is something that it’s really not. The fact it’s not truly “big” isn’t a bad thing, though, because what we do have is plenty interesting on its own merits. The idea of a maze game or having to deal with pursuers using indirect attacks wasn’t new at this point, obviously, but the way that the game’s protagonist is intentionally dis-empowered in most cases and only given true control in the most ideal of circumstances is genuinely creative and unusual to see. The randomized levels and variable speeds of the aliens can create a lot of problems that aren’t the player’s fault, but doing your best to work with what you’ve got can be engaging in its own way. Because of the constant disadvantage that the player faces, achieving victory becomes all the sweeter and it’s easy to gain an appreciation of every aspect of the mechanics because of how much thought has to go into every action. This isn’t a game you can save state or mash through, this is a game that demands you not give up and keep tackling it head on to eventually find a way further in. Between the levels that get increasingly harder and the nebulous scoring system that seems to award bonus points arbitrarily (at least to my untrained eye), there was probably just enough here to chew on that people in 1983 could have had a good time with if it ended up in their possession. As part of a book that offers multiple games, it’s even better – imagine going through hours of tricky, painstaking coding in order to create this game and have it entirely at your fingertips in a way that most people couldn’t have dreamed of? Oh, how exciting that must have been to achieve! This is one of those games that you have to look at from a different perspective like that to really appreciate, I think. Compared to the millions of games you could play right now, it’s probably not going to hold your attention for long and you’ll probably prefer Heiankyo Alien and Lode Runner since they’re more approachable and have more to offer with subsequent versions, but as a reward for patience and determination in 1984? Now that’s an easy way to understand how Otenba Becky no Daibouken is likely special to someone out there!

More Screenshots


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