Friday, February 3, 2012

Of Import: Knight Rider Special (1989)

I play Japanese games partly because it's fun to experience an entirely different world of pop culture -- the differences are as striking as the similarities, especially with a few decades' perspective.  And once in a while I'm reminded that this East-West cultural exchange traveled both ways, enriching people on both sides of the ocean.  But while we were being introduced to fresh, charming anime properties like Gunbuster and Urusei Yatsura, PC Engine gamers got saddled with American television circa 1982.  I'm speaking, of course, about Pack-In Video's Knight Rider Special, released in 1989 on the HuCard format.

Usually I start these posts with a screenshot, but for Knight Rider Special I'm going to focus on the manual first.  I am doing this primarily because the best thing about this whole game is this page, featuring a Super Deformed chibi-Hoff ready to take on the bad guys!

The game itself features the official Japanese voice of KITT, though this is a cartridge game so the futuristic car's utterances are limited to brief phrases along the lines of Hai, Maikeru!  (Maikeru Naito, that is -- Michael Knight in the West.)  And in-game we get to see pixelated versions of the show's major characters -- here, Devon and Michael discuss the mission ahead:

With a cameo from Bonnie thrown in for eye candy, of course:

Poor David Hasselhoff.  I always feel bad for him because I once went to a movie theatre that featured celebrity name-scramble puzzles on the big screen prior to the trailers.  And some mean-spirited slidemaker decided to use Mr. Hasselhoff's name as one of the puzzles.  I'm sure I wasn't the only person who found myself picking out an A... and an S... and another S... and an H...  So I'm kind of glad he got to appear on the PC Engine once upon a time.

Knight Rider Special is basically a driving game in the OutRun mold, though the license imposes some odd limitations.  It opens with the official Knight Rider musical theme playing over the title screen:

It's different from the NES/Famicom Knight Rider game that was released in the US, also developed by Pack-In Video, which featured a first-person cockpit perspective, rather small-scale enemy vehicles and no boss battles to speak of.  But the gameplay is similar -- we drive along, avoiding enemy vehicles or shooting them with KITT's machine guns, and then we take on a boss, fighting our way toward the big bad at the end of the game.

One assumes that licensing restrictions had something to do with the game's odder characteristics.  KITT can take no visible damage, nor can the car or its driver die -- we can run down the damage and time gauges, which means we fail, but KITT just vanishes from the screen.  And the controls are odd too -- we can accelerate, and leap into the air for extended periods when we hit 201 kilometers per hour, but there's no way to brake unless we run into something and slide to a stylish stop.

I guess Michael Knight and Kitt just never slow down, no matter what.  (Note also, above, that the road rendering engine freaks out on occasion, smearing the opposite side of the road onto the screen if we go too far to the side.)  We tool along through the repetitive levels, with the customary varying landscapes, blowing other vehicles off the road using KITT's weapons even though they never really try to attack us or even get in our way.  The levels are punctuated with boss battles -- we go off-road into roadless but obstacle-strewn fields to take on enemy cars, motorcycles, copters, and other craft including this weird crab/dune-buggy thing:

And there are some tougher enemies during the levels proper as well, including what appears to be a cameo by Airwolf's Jan Michael Vincent:

The airborne battles are just silly, because we have to keep KITT in the air for extended periods, and unless there are some hydraulic rockets mounted under the chassis there's just no way this is feasible.  Fortunately, the game is also very short -- after six or seven levels on the road, we finally invade a desert city, where there's no driving to do -- we immediately run up across this strange robot-cat-clown boss, who seems to have wandered in from another game altogether:

We blow this boss away in extremely short order, Michael rescues the girl and escapes the city, and the credits roll:

Knight Rider Special is so careful with its license that it offers little real risk, or substance; it's possible to finish the entire game in under an hour.  (I should note that it's not quite as easy as the captured emulated screenshots above imply -- the ROM image I found online appears to be hacked, as the timer and damage gauges don't count down at all.  It's quite a bit tougher using the real HuCard on real hardware!)  If not for Chibi-Hoff, I'd think this was a complete waste.

This one may have a certain collectible pop-culture appeal.  If you wish to enjoy the adventures of Video Hoff, you might be able to fire one off here.

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