Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Can You Dig It? Heiankyo Alien... and Friends!

Image courtesy of
Before we begin, I'd like to introduce you to the glorious print ad for the GameBoy version of Heiankyo Alien, published by Eastern media giant Meldac. Back in the 1990s, when video game advertising was an embarrassing cavalcade of poor taste and focus-tested rebellion, Meldac's ad was a refreshing break from the status quo. So wonderfully bizarre! So uniquely Japanese! So different from the butts, nuts, guts, and smut other game companies were using in their own ads! It must have been marketing suicide for Heiankyo Alien, but you've nevertheless got to admire Meldac for its stubborn refusal to pander to a pubescent American audience.

"Knock it off, dillweed! Hey Butthead,
gimme some help over here!"
(image courtesy of Arcade Flyers)
So, what kind of game would inspire woodblock prints of half-digested samurai? That would be Heiankyo Alien, which stars a feudal lawman defending ancient Kyoto from aliens by burying the hungry invaders with a shovel. (Hey, it's not any less dumb than the ending of Signs...) This game was originally designed outside the video game industry, at the Theoretical Science division of the prestigious University of Tokyo. After it was brought to arcades by electronics manufacturer Onkyo, Heiankyo Alien was quickly embraced by the Japanese, inspiring dozens of home ports and knock-offs. Here now are a few of the more memorable ones...


Forgive the huge, off-center border. For
reasons that still remain a mystery, VIC-20
games force the user to adjust its position
with the function keys. It really was a
good game system, honest!
Be it ever so underpowered, there's no place like your first computer. Commodore's VIC-20 was mine, and it still has a place in my heart despite barely being more powerful than the breadbox it so strongly resembles. The little computer that couldn't struck a chord with the Japanese as well, with HAL Laboratories publishing its first handful of games on the system. One of these games, a Galaxian clone called Star Battle, was designed by Satoru Iwata, the current president of Nintendo.

The VIC-20's popularity in Japan meant that a conversion of Heiankyo Alien was inevitable, and this one is a dead ringer for the arcade game, aside from a different color scheme and the system's extra-chunky font. Unfortunately, since the VIC only supports single button joysticks, you'll have to hold down the trigger and press up to dig holes, or down to fill them. Alternately, you could tap A and D on the keyboard, but who uses a keyboard to play video games in this day and age? (Shut up, first-person shooter fans.)


The game doesn't get really hard
until the Sleestaks arrive...
This game is way too similar to the later TurboGrafx-16 title Cratermaze to be a coincidence, and indeed, there are family ties. The original game, Kid no Hore Hore Daisakusen (Hole Hole Kid's Big Scheme), was released in arcades back in 1987, and is extremely similar to Cratermaze, albeit with different level designs and a lot more enemies. Booby Kids is one of those console-friendly rewrites that were aggravatingly common on the NES... it's got the same characters but an entirely new setting and lengthier stages.

This time, the titular Booby Kid (I'm sorry... I'm really, really sorry. Please stop hitting me!) has to scoop up oranges in a prehistoric setting while dodging hungry dinosaurs and club-wielding cavemen. The stages are more open than they were in the game's arcade and TurboGrafx-16 cousins, but that just makes it harder to bury your foes... and if you stumble into a monster, you'll have to start your fruit harvesting from the beginning. Did I mention that the levels are kind of long...?


"Oh God, it's even more painful
than it looks!"
This game could have been a disaster of epic proportions and I still would have loved it thanks to Meldac's unapologetically Japanese ad campaign. The company let its freak flag fly at a time when Japanese culture hadn't yet been embraced by an American audience, and I have to appreciate that audacity. Plus, just try to tell me that a samurai beating an alien to death while being devoured by it isn't outrageously awesome. You can't, and if you did, you would be a dirty, dirty liar.

Anyway, Heiankyo Alien on the GameBoy offers two styles of play. The first is your usual vanilla Heiankyo experience... you guide a skirt-wearing stick figure through a simple maze, digging holes to trap the abstractly drawn aliens hoping to sink their teeth into you. However, the real fun's in the New mode, which takes the graphics and sound out of the 1970s and beyond what you'd expect from a GameBoy launch title. Distinctly Japanese details litter the landscape and the feudal music lends an air of authenticity to the action. The gameplay's not much changed from the original, but it's easier to appreciate when it looks and sounds this nice.


"Here I come to save the day!
Uh, somewhere else."
The origin of this game is a little confusing, so bear with me. Originally designed as merchandise for Japan's cartoon cat robot Doraemon, Cratermaze was also based on a Japanese arcade release... and was turned back into that game when it was released here in the United States. The fact that this cute and colorful game was brought to America in any form is a little surprising, but NEC had a bad habit of releasing games that had no hope of finding an audience outside Japan. The TurboGrafx-16's pack-in was Keith Courage in Alpha Zones, based on a cartoon that never aired in the West. 'Nuff said.

But back to Cratermaze. It's an overhead view maze game that's a few generations removed from Heiankyo Alien... instead of flat rectangles separating the pathways, there are brightly colored buildings and stone walls, and instead of relying solely on digging to defend yourself, you've got a wide variety of weapons at your disposal, including a yo-yo, bombs, and a freeze beam. In fact, the odds are stacked a little too heavily in your favor, so you'll want to pick the higher of the two difficulty settings to give yourself an honest challenge.


It's Nichibutsu's turn up to bat with the Heiankyo Alien franchise, and as usual, the company bunts for first base. In all fairness, Nihon Bussan's first Arcade Classics release was impressive, a collection of their two best arcade games (and Frisky Tom) with special enhanced modes. However, the sequel was schlepped off to an outside developer named Syscom, which had no idea how to bring the game to the Super NES.

Heiankyo Alien and Bomberman: Two
great tastes that taste great together!
Like peanut butter and barbecue sauce!
There are three modes here. The first is, naturally, a straight port of the arcade game, and it's about as good as other home ports if you don't mind slightly sticky control and misplaced digitized sound. The second is an odd hybrid of Heiankyo Alien and Bomberman, with wooden blocks scattered throughout each stage. Smashing the blocks could result in anything from a faster shovel to more aliens to a deadly rain of logs, which is a pretty good reason to avoid them entirely. 

Finally, there's the versus mode, which takes the "new type" mode, splits the screen down the middle, and puts a player on each half. Burying monsters sends them to the other side of the playfield to harass the opponent. This new wrinkle to the gameplay would be brilliant in a fiercely competitive, Twinkle Star Sprites kind of way... if you had any room to dodge the hungry beasties. Maybe "three strikes" would have been a better baseball metaphor for this game...

Okay, okay, I'm goin', already!
(Special thanks to Wikipedia for providing valuable information for this article, as always.)

1 comment:

  1. Great post! Sadly, I don't remember seeing that wacky ad for the GB release back in the day, although I'm sure I came across it at one point or another. I've actually considered picking up the Japanese version of the game once or twice, but I've yet to do it for all sorts of reasons. Maybe sometime this year I'll finally get around to it?