The legend of Momotarou, the Peach Boy, is as well known in Japan as the tale of Hansel and Gretel is in Europe and the US. It has all the traditional mythic fairy-tale elements -- an aging laborer is served a peach by his loving wife, and to the couple's great surprise a boy hatches out of it. The boy, named Peach Boy for obvious reasons, grows up, grows strong and sets out to liberate a demon's treasures, armed only with a sword and some dumplings made by his adoptive mother, and assisted by some animals he meets along the way.
Several Momotarou-inspired RPG games were produced for the Japanese PC Engine, but Momotarou Katsugeki took a different tack -- it's an excellent little platformer made by the system's creators at Hudson Soft. It plays reasonably well without knowledge of Japanese, and comes highly recommended. Even if you don't speak a word of Japanese, like me, the title screen says it all:
This is a HuCard game, not a CD-ROM effort, and the relatively tiny cartidge is packed with snappy chiptunes and vintage platforming goodness. There's not a lot of room for storytelling, and that's fine -- this little intro is enough to send Momotarou on his way:
The game features a cute Super Mario 3-style map, although progression is linear, so there really aren't any decisions to make unless we want to backtrack to earn coins in less dangerous areas:
And the platforming action is fairly difficult -- as he starts out, Momotarou can only take a handful of hits before he floats skyward with angel wings and full frontal nudity:
What I like best about Momotarou Katsugeki is its sense of cartoon humor -- the animation is expressive and full of personality. There's not a lot of room on the cartridge for graphical variety in the backgrounds, so the designers wisely chose to make the characters as comical and lively as possible. These dancing demons, for example, are so engrossed in their routine that they don't even notice as the Peach Boy picks them off, one by one:
There are powerups and checkpoints available, though with the relevant announcements in Japanese it's hard to figure out what some of them are meant to do. Note the attention to era-specific detail here, as the text is written vertically in the classical Japanese style:
The bosses are comical, but tough -- this loincloth-clad devil robot moves so quickly he's hard to get a bead on before we have to jump over him to avoid serious damage:
Would you believe I STILL hadn't made it past this first miniboss when I started drafting this post? My platforming skills are clearly fading with age. But I played some more, and discovered that, despite the spiky-looking horns on the machine's head, Momotarou can stand up there quite safely. So the trick is to fire a few shots as it heads our way, jump on its head, jump off again, fire a few futile shots at its rapidly retreating side, and repeat.
Of course, that's NOT the end of the level. There's considerably more depth to Momotarou Katsugeki than is at first apparent -- we can visit towns to restock our health-restoring supplies, and purchase odd powerups like gassy foods that give Momotarou a temporarily bidirectional mode of attack. And if we've earned sufficient funds by mugging demons along the way, we can upgrade our weapons courtesy of the cutest arms dealer ever:
There are also random gambling minigames in huts scattered through the levels, hosted by colorful characters, all of whom seem very annoyed. I never did figure out what this cantankerous fellow actually wanted me to do:
After some tricky cloud platforming, we get to face the end-of-level boss, a cute, cannonball-upchucking demon:
A little white cat is liberated from its demon captors, cherry blossoms burst into bloom, and there is great rejoicing:
Of course, things don't get any easier for Peach Boy in the second level, although if he dies the continue option will let him start there instead of all the way back at the beginning of the game. New enemies join the established cast -- pirouetting yellow demons are invulnerable until they spin themselves sick and collapse on the ground, and fire-breathing demons have a much greater range than Momotarou's standard weapon. Irritable bunny rabbits hop across the land, sowing destruction wherever they bounce:
The dice minigame secreted within a mountain doorway is hosted by a scantily-clad parlor girl who seems annoyed at her lot in life:
There's an astonishing amount of variety crammed into this little HuCard -- even an homage to Nichibutsu's arcade game Crazy Climber:
And the design keeps up the pace, with fresh, inventive challenges appearing on a regular basis. It's too bad that Momotarou Katsugeki never came to the West -- Peach Boy could have been another Bonk for NEC's TurboGrafx-16 in the US, but sadly it seems to have been deemed "too Japanese" by the American marketing department.
I suppose it could have been worse, though -- they could have brought it over here and Westernized it into some sort of violent cop game to compete with Sega's more mature Genesis lineup. Peach Fuzz, anyone?
This Japanese PC Engine game really is worth owning and playing if you have the equipment to take it on. And it's common enough that it can often be found at a fair price, at places like this.