Enter the ChalkZone

  • Developer: Affect
  • Publisher(s): Seta (North America), Datam Polystar (Japan)
  • Release Date(s): November 21st, 1992 (Japan), 1993 (North America)
  • Available On: SNES
  • Genre: Action, Puzzle (Qix Variant)

Qix variants are like car commercials: you think they’re for something else at first glance and then, BAM, they reveal their true identities once you’ve bought into whatever narrative they’re putting down. That’s not a bad thing in this case since Qix is fun and much cheaper to get into than buying a car is, but it’s kinda weird, right? Just look at any game that takes notes from Qix or follows up on it; Libble Rabble just has some cute little rascals on the cover, Zolyx on the ZX Spectrum and other computers looks like a pinball game what with its ball-filled (heh) cover, and even the follow-up to Qix from Taito themselves, Volfied, looks more like a take on Tron’s Light Cycle mixed with a shoot ’em up. Rockstar’s Bully apparently has a whole heckin’ Qix minigame hidden in its art class section! Oh, here’s another good one: when you see Dino Master on the Nintendo DS, do you think, “yeah, this is obviously like Qix”? Well, you’d better start thinking that because it totally is! The point is, these games are sneaky and Cacoma Knight is perhaps one of the sneakiest of them all. This box art doesn’t exactly make you think of Qix, does it?

I dunno about you, but nothing about this says Qix to me! Well, the characters are holding the chalk they use, but you kinda need more context to understand that’s what that is supposed to be, right? The Japanese box art better captures the game’s visual style and actually shows off the line drawing mechanic, so it’s definitely the winner of the two (both images sourced from Gamefaqs)

Before I played the game for this post, I had no idea it was a Qix variant. What’s a “Cacoma Knight” supposed to be, anyway? According to Wikipedia, Cacoma Knight is supposed to be a play on the phrase “kakomanai to” (囲まないと), which means “must surround”. If that’s the case, the hint that this is a Qix-like is actually in plain sight if you know your Japanese better than I do! Based purely on the cover and the general application of knights in video games, I expected this to be a platformer or something. Not such a ridiculous guess, if you ask me, considering that one of the developer’s most “well-known” games outside of Japan is Kendo Rage, a Valis-esque SNES platformer that leverages its stylish aesthetic to help mask its rougher edges. They also had Phix the Adventure on the PS1, a game with mysterious box art that haunts me to this day, and Finger Flashing, another interesting PS1 game that got a US release, but not until 2012 via the Playstation Network. Better late than never, I suppose! Affect definitely had some interesting stuff under their belt despite not being a particularly notable developer in the eyes of most people, but a lot of their stuff never even got released outside of Japan, so you have to wonder if things could have been different. Maybe their more eccentric ideas would have gotten love from the right Youtubers or something if they had come out with more marketing; I mean, Chaos Heat occasionally gets attention for being cool and they co-developed that with Taito, so it’s possible, I suppose. Their last credited game on Mobygames was 2006 (GDRI mentions a game from 2007), but their website indicates that they at least stuck around until 2018 by pivoting to other things like mobile puzzle games, business apps, and various gambling games, a direction that was pretty common around the late 2000s/early 2010s when mobile games were seemingly threatening to take over console games. As one of their earliest games (it’s not even mentioned on their website!) Cacoma Knight is very much in the same vein as Kendo Rage and came out in the same year as it did, too; it’s a perfectly fine take on Qix mechanically, but I think its visuals and sense of humor are what give it any chance of remaining with people after they’ve played it.

Like some of their other games, Cacoma Knight puts a surprising amount of effort into its plot despite the low expectations for its genre to do so. Bizyland is a prosperous place where everybody works hard and contributes to society to keep the country alive and well. Everything’s going so well that the king spends most of his time golfing! However, things get turned upside down when Wagamama, the leader of Lasyland (yes, the game spells it like that), uses the power of a magical mirror to swap Lasyland with Bizyland in exchange for giving Bizyland’s princess to it (it’s a sentient magical mirror like the one in Snow White). In his desperation, the king searches far and wide for heroes to help him save the kingdom and the princess (even taking to the skies and searching underwater!), only to begrudgingly settle on our three playable characters: Jack, a boy with a rather patriotic mindset, Jean, a girl who fights for love and beauty, and RB93, a robot that wants to shake off his rust and prove his usefulness in a world that’s working to leave him behind. What really pushes this beyond mere context for the gameplay is the amount of additional flavor sprinkled throughout. Cacoma Knight is a funny game and it exudes confidence from the get go. After the introductory dialogue, the king immediately laments the situation he’s in, thinking that the heroes he just sent out on a mission are too lazy to actually get the job done. Whenever you lose all your health and are faced with a 10 second countdown, the princess will plead with you to continue, changing her tone from desperate to derisive when she sees that you’re not tapping back in right away. Between her frenzied expression and biting words, the turning of the culturally ingrained expectation of a demure princess on its head, and the vacant expression on the face of your chosen character, it makes for one of the most entertaining “Game Over” screens that I can think of!

The story only takes place at the beginning and end like most games that don’t lean on their narratives as a foundational pillar, but that didn’t stop Affect from going the extra mile with what they had. Though the story beats remain the same, your choice of character actually alters the intro and ending dialogue to match with each character’s motivations. If you’re playing in co-op, your characters are referred to as “Duo”, which is a nice gesture that acknowledges that both characters exist instead of making player 2 feel like player 1’s shadow. Each character has different feelings and reservations about the plan that are brought to the king’s attention, and when the king offers a reward at the end for saving the kingdom and princess, each character gets a different wish. Jack wants nothing more than a house and a field to work on and use to provide to Bizyland, his desire to give his all to his country superseding any hypothetical personal goals. RB93 wants nothing more than to go to a different country where he can feel safe from the possibility of getting scrapped as a result of his outdated existence. It’s kind of tragic, seeing the poor bot so cognizant of how the world treats technology as an easily disposable stepping stone toward shinier and newer things, but he’s sure as heck not wrong to be concerned!

Jean’s ending is perhaps the most surprising of them all; as a result of her general sense of love and compassion, she wishes for Wagamama to be free from any potential punishment because they were just doing what they thought was best for their declining country. It’s actually very similar to how the ending for Twinkle Tale shakes out, and considering how simple most non-RPG stories were at this point in time, I was pleasantly surprised to see another game asking valid questions about the conflicts they present. Realistic conflicts aren’t arbitrary, they come from places of fear, concern, desperation, and so on, and even if someone understands that what they’re doing is wrong, they may not see any other choice in the matter. Renaming the game’s locations to Bizyland and Lasyland from “Fieldland” and “Hatarakan” (I think it’s a play on the word “Hataraku“, which can both mean “to work” and “to commit a crime”) in the English release brings to mind the potential for an ignorant rant on how “lazy people are bad, only true hardworking patriots are worthy of respect!” or something groan worthy like that, but Cacoma Knight shows respectful restraint and proper reasoning with regards to the actions of a disenfranchised country. Wagamama gets little more than a minute or two of screen time in full, but this ending alone gives their character more nuance than what the average game was putting down in the 80s and early 90s. Qix variants really are full of surprises, huh?

As for actually playing the game, there aren’t as many surprises as what the story has to offer, but Cacoma Knight still has a trick or two left in its pocket. Once you’ve picked your character and set out on your journey, you’re tasked with going through seven areas with three levels each. In each level, you need to use your magical chalk given to you by the king to draw lines and flip enough of the playing field back to Bizyland. Things start off all barren and depressingly desolate as a result of the change to Lasyland, but as you create squares, the areas you encase will flip back to the beautiful vibrancy of Bizyland. This contrast is something they clearly wanted to emphasize – Lasyland looks nigh uninhabitable and even channels a bit of demonic imagery in the lategame, but Bizyland has gorgeous backgrounds that are so bright and painterly that they’d be right at home in one of Square’s Mana games! Each level asks you to return a percentage of the board back to Bizyland, which starts off lenient enough that you can get it done in a move or two, but becomes much more strict as the game goes on. Drawing lines is both your goal and the only way you can actually get around; at the start of a level, you can only move along the border of the playing field, but when you hold the button to draw a line, you can go wherever within the four cardinal directions. Drawn lines remain for you to use for the rest of the level, but drawing also comes with significant risk. Whenever you’re mid-draw, if any enemy comes into contact with you or your line, you’ll take some damage. You can pick up right where you left off, but you don’t get much invulnerability time, so if you act stubborn and try to force a line at the wrong time and/or place, you can easily find yourself wasting a continue. It’s this balance of knowing when to make big moves and when to use smaller squares and gradually work towards your goal that makes Cacoma Knight mechanically interesting, and it reinforces this idea in different ways than Qix did.

Specifically, Cacoma Knight has a much larger focus on crowd control and knowing how each of your foes operates. Qix had the titular Qix as well as the Sparx, which were constant and consistent threats, but Cacoma Knight mixes up its rogues gallery on a regular basis. Each world introduces enemies that generally operate in one of two ways. Some, like the owls, spiders, airplanes, and the hands holding cymbals (there are some weird enemies here…) will move around the center part of the screen and try to either ram into you or shoot you with a projectile. Other smaller enemies prefer to move along the edges of the field and across your lines just like you do. Individually, neither threat is too notable, but that’s precisely where the catch lies – they’re always together! As you’re going about your business, you’re gonna have to contend with being chased while you draw and avoid projectiles at the same time. It’s Qix, but it’s also part maze game and part shoot ’em up, making for a blend that feels distinct despite its obvious inspirations. This design is so intentional and thought out that it heavily influences the “ideal” strategies for the game and thrusts specific expectations upon the player. Early on, you can be aggressive and go for big plays to clear levels fast (this makes it hard to appreciate the music!), but as things ramp up, and this game ends on quite a difficult note, you need to start getting more and more conservative, drawing smaller squares while being more conscious of your movements and every opponent in play. Cacoma Knight is a game of deceptive appearances, and if you’re not careful, you may find its charming exterior hides a fair but demanding challenge.

Said challenge is actually more customizable than at first glance, too! You know how there are three different characters to play as? Well, the game doesn’t outright mention this, but each character has different qualities that serve as another difficulty modifier beyond the traditional easy/normal/hard difficulty choice. Jean is the fastest with no drawbacks, which just makes her the best, really, but Jack isn’t too far behind. RB93, on the other hand, is not who you’ll wanna play as in most circumstances. He’s by far the slowest character, especially when drawing a line, and he gets no benefits in exchange! I expected it to be a case of sacrificing speed for resilience, but nope, all characters go down in three hits. This might sound like a bizarre design choice, but it’s actually clever in more ways than one. Not only does RB93’s relative uselessness tie into his story (an outdated, rusty machine trying not to get scrapped), it also serves as an option for expert players to really challenge themselves. The manual even says RB93 is intended for this exact purpose! There’s actually another mechanic that seems like it was intended to increase the game’s short length and replay value, but it doesn’t pan out the way I expected it to. As you draw lines and make boxes, you’ll reveal treasure chests that give power-ups like speed boosts and extra lives. Sometimes, you’ll get pieces of a mirror that reveal more of an image of the princess to you in between areas. I expected this to be something like Bubble Bobble and Rainbow Islands where you need to collect specific hidden items in order to get the real ending, but the image of the princess is purely for flavor. Regardless of how many you have at the end, the entire image gets revealed to you after the final boss and the princess is always saved! You have to wonder if the original idea was to do as I thought and it was just scrapped for one reason or another…

Collecting enough mirror pieces is supposed to reveal the full image of the princess, but…

Beyond playing through the game with each character, Cacoma Knight also offers a versus mode that’s a pretty novel idea for a game like this. You’re essentially playing the game together like you would in co-op, but instead of just trying to survive, you need to survive better than the other player. Getting hit three times will end the game and declare the other player the winner, but the game is also decided by whoever meets more of the level’s qualification condition faster. This makes Cacoma Knight into even more of an aggressive game, encouraging a blitz of offensive pressure as you rush to take over the limited amount of playing field before your opponent does. I think it’s a pretty neat mode, all in all, but it does highlight something that I think is a bit unfortunate about the game. Cacoma Knight is a high effort game, full of lovely visuals, successful ideas, and creativity in a very specific niche that’s hard to stand out in mechanically, but it’s also one that’s set up for you to blaze through it as quickly as possible. Levels are really small, there aren’t many of them, and the earlier ones are all easy enough to clear in just a couple of moves, so it ends up being something like a 20-30 minute experience. Now, that’s certainly no reason to dismiss a game outright, but it just feels like all of these lovely visuals and fun mechanics are going to waste, you know? Most puzzle games aim for like 50-100 levels, which makes sense since such a number gives you plenty of time to play with and master the mechanics. I really like just about everything that Affect was putting down here and if there was more of it that was designed in such a way that didn’t encourage getting it over with as quickly as possible, I think I’d enjoy the game even more than I do!

Realistically, I don’t think Cacoma Knight is going to blow anyone’s socks off. It’s a solid iteration on Qix with a fair amount going on mechanically and a juicy flavor to appreciate, but once the novelty wears off, I have to imagine the endless replayability and challenge of Qix will always win out in the end with diehard fans. Even so, I find Cacoma Knight to be one endearing game. I love the way it looks and I really appreciate how it takes a puzzle game formula and expands on it in such a way to make it feel like a proper adventure. Its increased emphasis on storytelling and cooperative play definitely give it a distinct identity, and even though people don’t exactly play Qix for the story, the effort is absolutely appreciated nonetheless. More “boss fights” beyond the final one would have done a lot of good, I think, and it really seems like there should have been more levels, too, especially since what you have leaves little time to try and fill out that image of the princess that doesn’t even matter in the end anyway. Affect is one of those developers you can’t help but root for because they always managed to make their games have a ~vibe~ that allows them to age gracefully even if they aren’t the most mindblowing or polished of affairs. I’ve been so fascinated by Phix the Adventure for so long and in a way that most games can’t replicate, so there’s gotta be something there, I just know it! I really should just play that darn game, huh?

More Screenshots


Follow ME ON:

Cohost: https://cohost.org/EphemeralEnigmas

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s