Back in 1989, I encountered the Japanese PC Engine for the very first time as a cover story in Video Games & Computer Entertainment magazine. And the first screenshot I ever saw was from an unidentified game pitting a little boy against undead monsters -- the graphics were impressive, clearly a couple of notches above the NES standard. I was always disappointed that I never got to see that game in action, as it never came to the US, and in fact I never knew which game it was -- until I picked up an imported copy of Youkai Douchuuki.
It's a HuCard format game by Namcot, Namco's home division at the time, based on a coin-op original. Wikipedia tells us that an English-language version of the arcade game called Shadow Land exists, but was never released in the US; a version was also released in Japan for the 8-bit NES.
A further sense of deja vu ensued when I started up the game -- the PC Engine City podcast has featured the game's musical themes, so the tunes were familiar. There's a fair amount of Japanese text here, but the game can be played without understanding everything that's being said. The gameplay and themes, however, are quintessentially Japanese, which may be why this title never found its way West despite its obvious popularity in the East.
We start out with traditional boy-vs.-monster platforming action -- our hero can hit enemies with his boomerang-like weapon and jump up hills and across floating cloud platforms. Running jumps enable him to leap higher and farther than normal, although his jumps never gain much altitude, perhaps because the action is confined to the lower 60% of the screen. He can also charge up his weapon through several levels of power by holding down on the control pad, then letting loose and taking out multiple enemies. Some enemies can't be taken out (at least not without wandering into their clutches) and operate more as obstacles, like the lost souls filling the chasm below:
The enemies are varied, with different attack styles and levels of resistance. And there are no continues, so we have to fight carefully if we hope to make any real progress on the world map in the upper right-hand corner. Trying to take on too many enemies at once usually leads to the inevitable:
There are also doorman monsters along the way who lead to optional gambling minigames, where we can win or lose the currency of the realm:
Each level ends with a demon boss -- we don't necessarily have to fight the demon, as if we've earned enough money along the way, we can choose to just pay him off and gain passage to the next level. If we try to bribe him but haven't got the cash on hand, our finances are drained and we have to fight anyway. The battles have a uniquely Eastern twist -- our hero stops fighting physically and kneels at a mini-shrine to pray, while a female spirit character takes over, sending floating attacks at enemy demons and spirits.
Once the first big demon is defeated, the weirdness continues, with deformed crawling priestesses and giant demon monks, as if we've stumbled into some sort of hellbound Mardi Gras:
Youkai Douchuuki is reasonably fun, and quite challenging, but it's undeniably old-fashioned, from that period where "challenge" meant that with the home version, where buy-in continues aren't supported, you might not get to experience everything you've paid for. And it's not as faithful to the arcade version as some of Namcot's other PC Engine releases; much of the animation is simplified or missing, and the level layout has been flattened to simple side-scrolling, without the original's vertical paths (which, oddly, are retained in the 8-bit Nintendo Famicom edition.)
I admit I had a good time with this one for a few hours, but it was mostly for nostalgic reasons; there are better PC Engine titles out there.
Interested collectors and gamers may be able to find a copy for purchase here.