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jeffrud

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HuCARTography III: The End of 1987

The PC Engine's launch year comes to a close! We're gonna cover the last two games today. This is done in large part because one of them is horrible, and I'd rather this coverage year (and this calendar year) end on a less dismal note.

*****

Kato-chan & Ken-chan/J.J. & Jeff

Developer/Publisher: Hudson | 27 November 1987 (JP) / 13 March 1990 (NA)

Foreknowledge

When I try to conjure the early PC Engine game with the worst energy to mind, J.J & Jeff is what appears every single time without fail. What a cursed thing this game is.

No Caption Provided

I guess Hudson and NEC nabbing a somewhat “hot” license, that being the contemporary Kato-chan Ken-chan Gokigen TV program, was an early coup for the platform? Kato and Ken’s program was a variety/comedy show with sketches and bits and gags and quite a bit of humor in the scatological vein. I’m talking the pee pee poo poo stuff, folks. The program also had a running segment built around laughing at home video footage, a format which was noticed by American television producers and spun in the America’s Funniest Home Videos format. ABC still pays royalties to the Tokyo Broadcasting Company to this day for use of this format.

But, as you know, television is a shitty and dying medium that we should all be in a great hurry to put into the ground. Bury it next to film, I say. Games are the future, and nothing says “current and respectable state of the art medium” like J.J. & Jeff.

So, this is a platformer. To be as kind as possible, Kato-chan & Ken-chan is a jump-about game in the vein of Super Mario Bros. The main differentiators are its toilet humor-based gags – the original version straight up uses flatulence as a mode of attack – and a reliance on more exploration of levels rather than linear runs to a goal line. In that respect the KK/JJJ game here has a little adventure game DNA, perhaps? Maybe, even, a little Sonic?

This is trying to kill me, isn’t it?

Hindsight

Right at the jump, the template here is certainly Super Mario Bros.-ish. Specifically Super Mario Bros. 2, aka The Lost Levels, considering that the two gentlemen depicted herein are made unique from one another by their physics. J.J. runs and jumps not unlike so many Italian-Americans in red shirts, while those inclined to sliding around and having a horrible time should go with Jeff.

Not that I want to conflate these two games much more than that, however, as this is easily my least favorite game on the platform thus far. It might actually be, just bad!

My goodness, such mirth. I am sore with laughter. My poor sides.
My goodness, such mirth. I am sore with laughter. My poor sides.

Generously an exploratory platformer, J.J. & Jeff starts you off by selecting one of These Guys, both of whom are A Kind of Guy, that being A Guy Into Poop Jokes. The Guy of These Guys who you don’t Guy as to start, winds up going from a Jumping Around Guy to a Show Up In Levels in Sight Gags guy for the rest of the game. These appearances range from hanging out in public lavatories to dispense hints about the game, to hanging out in bins throwing rubbish at the player until they are righteously kicked in the mush. Meanwhile your Jumping Around Guy becomes a Kick Everything Guy, as well as a Wonder Boy Clone Guy, because what this series needed already was more Wonder Boy-adjacent content.

To the latter point, J-Chan & Jeff-Chan cribs Wonder Boy Prime’s trademark “player has hummingbird DNA” mechanic, whereby you must constantly be eating fruits and other floating foods in the environment to stave off the depletion of an endlessly draining health meter. You aren’t dying quite as fast as Wonder Boy/Takahashi Meijin/whatever the hell protagonist is portraying Wonder Boy in a given game, but it is enough to compel you through the levels without spending endless time wandering about.

You’ll spend your time in these levels engaging in roughly tolerable platforming stuff, though the enemies in this game are bastards. The worst of these, generally speaking, are the birds. However, the real issue is their effluent. This is a game about shit. You get shit upon by birds a lot. There are stray piles of shit on the ground that must be avoided. There are other platformer vintage appropriate foes, bugs and dogs and the like, but avoiding divebombing birds is of immediate import if you want to otherwise engage with this title.

And by otherwise engage, I mean run around in ratchet scrolling levels kicking everything in sight. Attempting to kick everything in sight, including the open sky in some areas, is essential to finding hidden coins and, in due time, keys that are required to advance through the game. It’s a hidden object platformer. Jesus. I don’t want this at all.

God bless the noble attempt to localize this game, I guess.
God bless the noble attempt to localize this game, I guess.

I can at least appreciate, from a distance, the attempt to capture the mad cap nature of a single sketch bit from a 30+ year old Japanese variety program. That bit, one built around the premise of two bumbling detectives, is somehow preserved in the North American release of the game. It’s not “ha ha” funny, but it is non sequitur funny. I guess. I also think the music is alright. This HuCard had the widest variety of tracks released so far, riffing genres ranging from rock to muzak and even a little samba.

Otherwise, this is one for my bin. Likely yours as well. The TurboGrafx-16 is not the first place I turn for platforming action, but even on that list there are better options than J.J. & Jeff. They’re just a while down the road from here.

Volume Number listed on the box art: 6. They do eventually get this sorted out, I swear.

Turbo Ratio: Roughy 1:1. A good and reputable source for such figures has loose Japanese HuCards going for about half the complete price, but this is a medium that really needs protection from the elements. Also what are you doing, don’t buy either of these for $40.

Here's what Chris had to say!

******

Victory Run

Developer/Publisher: Hudson | Release: 28 December 1987 (JP) / 29 August 1989 (NA)

Finally, some decent fucking food video game.

At the end of 1987, the first year of PC Engine commercial availability, Hudson elected to release the system’s first pretty good original game. Victory Run is a point-to-point racer in the vein of Rad Racer/Highway Star, and despite its arcade sensibilities was created whole cloth here for this platform. It has a few frustration points and doesn’t really rate compared to OutRun, but on this particular platform it absolutely hangs.

Understated but very good box art.
Understated but very good box art.

Sega’s classic scaler is absolutely the inflection point here, though there is some differentiation. The game is based on a loose, approximate version of the Paris-Dakar Rally, broken up over eight different legs. At the outset, the player is given the opportunity to buy a handful of replacement parts for their vehicle. You will be made to live on these parts for the rest of your run, as there is no other opportunity to shop. And you will be using them, as your car will take a beating during these rally runs. Most of these are your typical Sega scaler fare, with off road obstacles and traffic clogging up the road. Special props must be given to the semi trucks in this game, which take up a ton of real estate and will drive you mad. There are also jumps along the way, and not approaching these with care is a sure way to wind up splattered all over the rocks on the periphery.

A difficult game then, but I recall my last few times playing it with fondness. Compared to our dear friends J.J. and Jeff this is a bonafide masterpiece. Or is it?

Hindsight

This is far and away the best game to come out in the PC Engine’s launch year. Wonder Boy in Monster Land by way of snack foods notwithstanding, this is the first game I’d recommend checking out without hesitation. It’s a fun little racer!

If you’re familiar with OutRun, you’ve got a good working framework of what goes on in Victory Run already. The differences lie in some long term planning that is required in this game over the former arcade masterpiece. As mentioned before, your choices in buying 20 units from five different car parts are crucial. You’re going to lose a lot of rounds of Victory Run before you learn what parts you tend to bust up during play. Managing your supply is a push-pull between racing conservatively while also battling against time. To that end, you are dealing with eight point-to-point races with a finite pool of reserve time to get you through to the end. If you are driving past a segment’s par time, you’ll begin to eat into your reserve pool. Chew through that, and it’s right back to the title screen. No hidden continue codes to speak of here, just a kick in the pants. That is also quite OutRun-esque as well.

Just had to get a still image of one of these semi trucks on here. Still images don't do justice to this game.
Just had to get a still image of one of these semi trucks on here. Still images don't do justice to this game.

Victory Run also differentiates itself by the minute-to-minute gameplay. Yes, there are scaling vehicles which swerve around the road to make your life miserable. But there are also bumps and dips in the road which will send you flying, generally into obstacles on the side of the road if you are not careful. Managing these is a risk-reward calculus between dwindling time and dwindling parts, rewarding skilled play as you get better at identifying these upcoming risks. There are also different road surfaces and obstacles which require actual braking and gear shifting mid-race, meaning you will not in fact be dropping your rally car into top gear and leaving it there for the entire leg of a race while you veer through the course. It’s a surprisingly technical game for its vintage, and it’s this depth that I believe elevates it so far beyond the previous four games.

This is all bolstered by a decent little soundtrack. It doesn’t have the range of genres that J.J & Jeff had before it, but everything here makes for a good driving experience. I wouldn’t say it torches OutRun at its own soundtrack game, but in a world where OutRun hadn’t yet shipped on the platform (that would happen about three years after Victory Road hit shelves), the included tracks make for great nodding along while driving experiences.

My main identifiable gripe with the game is how the track segments end. All of them conclude with a straightaway which you can take at a dead run. There is a point where the car is basically yanked away from you by the computer as you coast across the line to get your time checked by a nice lady. However, the clock is still rolling during this offboarding portion, and you can in fact get ganked right then and there as you are inches away from success. Losing in this brutal fashion, particularly as you get deeper into the game, is rough stuff. Then again, given the genre expectations of the day and the simple reality that you can grock the whole thing inside an hour with experience, it’s hard to get that upset.

So, Victory Run rules. I don’t even care that this is somehow labeled as “Vol. 3” in the top right corner of the Japanese box art, silly as it is. If China Warrior/THE Kung Fu gets a reserved recommendation for its “charm” as an early PC Engine showpiece, Victory Run gets an unreserved recommendation as the platform’s oldest immediately fun game. It has a measured depth to it, looks and sounds great for a 1987 home console game, plays well, and will take a few attempts to master. To borrow phrasing from that program about cooking in some islands off the coast of Europe, it’s something of a triumph.

Tires used to reach level 5: 3. Tires are your friend.

Engines used to reach level 5: 1. Unless you’re bashing into rocks constantly you’ll probably be fine on engines, and if you are there’s a good chance you won’t make it far enough to need to swap parts anyway.

Turbo Ratio: Roughy 1:1. This was a well received game and is incredibly common in bulk lots of PC Engine games, but can also be found in its North American variant for the same $20 or so. At that price it is easily one of the first games I’d recommend you pick up if you have been so far enticed into collecting for this platform.

Finally, here's what Mr. Bucci had to say on the subject of Victory Run.

******

Next week, we'll do a final send off to 1987. It occurred to me, somewhat later than it should have, that all of these posts just about align with the 35th anniversary of the PC Engine aka TurboGrafx-16's original release. What I'm suggesting is, next week you better show up with appropriate gifts for a video game console.

<---HuCARTography II: THE Kung Fu

HuCARTography: Year I Round Up--->

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