Friday, January 6, 2012

Clueless Gaijin Gaming: CAL III (1994)

I took a look at CAL II a while back, and might as well cover CAL III this week.  Like its predecessor, this PC Engine Super CD-ROM game is a digital comic/adventure from NEC Avenue and Birdy Soft.

My general impression is that this sequel was made with a smaller budget than CAL II -- the title screen is simpler, there are fewer characters and locations, and gameplay is much more linear.  Many sections take place entirely in the dark, so while the voice actors provide some drama, there's nothing to see (or pay artists to draw.)  And the navigational map screens are gone -- all we can do is make appropriate or inappropriate dialogue and action choices to keep the story moving forward, and some menus only provide a single "choice."

As a non-Japanese speaker, I just picked options at random, repeating as necessary until something budged, and never ran into a game-ending situation.  But I also get the impression that the plot is a little stronger and more coherent this time, so what CAL III sacrifices in interactivity it may gain in storytelling.

Like the first game, this one concerns our unseen hero Wataru, who appears to be trying to cure his girlfriend of some sort of disease.

Once again he is drawn into an alternate reality, as cat girl Chezu returns via his desk drawer:

As seen in CAL II, most of the music is generated using the PC Engine's audio chip -- this keeps the disc access clear for extensive, well-digitized dialogue and artwork.  The game also saves itself periodically, so we can continue where we left off, more or less, next time we fire it up.  Autosave was not common at the time, but maybe it was cheaper to implement than an actual save menu.  And we can skip through the lengthy dialogue sequences by hitting the controller buttons.

Chezu's role is much more substantial this time -- in CAL II, she was kind of a gateway character, providing information about the quest and singing a cute little song from her arboreal perch.  This time, she accompanies Wataru, offering advice and occasionally getting mad at him when he asks stupid questions:

It appears that Wataru's loved one's illness is somehow linked to the illness of the Greek goddess Venus.  She and her sister goddesses provide most of the male-oriented eye candy -- also less prominent here than in CAL II, though it appears that Zeus overdoes it on the air conditioning:

After we arrive in what looks like ancient Greece, one of the goddesses' officials joins the group, or at least her presence does -- we never see her, but we often hear her voice chiming in with advice and information.  Then Wataru and Chezu make it to an Arabian environment, where Chezu must help Wataru steal a golden apple by distracting its current owner with her take on traditional dancing:

I'm not sure exactly what happens after this -- it appears that Chezu and Wataru's girlfriend somehow merge into the same character.  And then things start getting strange.  We next arrive in Lewis Carroll's Wonderland, where it appears some evil spirits are running amok:

The Cheshire Cat, who also appeared in CAL II, returns for a brief conversation:

Humpty Dumpty appears to be taking a bad coke trip:

Chezu seems to go a little crazy among Wonderland's plants -- perhaps some kind of mystical catnip -- and takes off her clothes, then falls asleep.  And we meet Alice herself, who is menaced by leering playing cards:

Then we visit Chezu's wealthy parents, where a wild party puts everyone to sleep and Chezu can try to steal the magical... something... to assist in the quest.  But of course, a villain of some sort shows up to prevent this... and appears to be trying to stage some sort of coup against Venus.  There's not a lot of animation in CAL III, but the facial expressions are well-drawn and often provide the most entertaining moments in the game.  We visit a pleasant, apologetic young lady:

And meet an irritable fairy:

And then a sea serpent shows up, but gets knocked out by the traitor as her follow conspirators look on.  And our heroes get sucked through a cave into a desolate land.  And as the plot thickens further... I realize I've put about three hours into this game, with little real comprehension or entertainment value to show for it, and it's time to close out my attempt to play CAL III.

There's certainly a lot of content here -- three hours plus, clearly, and that's with a lot of dialogue skipping on my part.  The acting is solid, with most of the dialogue fully-voiced, and the story is reasonably substantial. But these kinds of games were very much of their time -- the player doesn't actually get to do very much, and a clueless Westerner like me isn't going to get much nuance out of the story either.

The best I can really say about CAL III is that it's not very collectible and turns up often and cheap; it wouldn't surprise me at all if a copy is currently for sale here.

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