Friday, February 10, 2012

Clueless Gaijin Gaming: Bakuden Unbalance Zone (1994)

Most of my PC Engine game coverage here relies on the Magic Engine emulator -- I have my PC gamepad configured to take screenshots with one of the shoulder buttons, which makes putting these posts together a lot easier than it would have been when this was current technology.  It works pretty well most of the time, but I do occasionally run across a game that doesn't run properly under emulation -- and such a game is Sony's Bakuden Unbalance Zone, a 1994 Super CD-ROM format title that's certainly one of the odder titles I've sampled.  It opens with a few corporate logos, notable mostly for the fact that Sony's own Playstation console was due to hit shelves in the not-too-distant future, but here they were, if only to send off the aging competition:

Sony's partner, Amuse Produce House, was not, as one might assume, a greengrocer, but a music and movie production company that's still around today.  This much is fairly clear, but as we get into the game proper, things get decidedly strange.  You know that part in Disney's Haunted Mansion attraction where the marble busts sing a song?  Think of that, except with scribble-bodied Japanese stereotypes: 

After this musical interlude, we get to the actual title screen:

As gameplay starts, we find ourselves in our adolescent hero's room, complete with what appear to be a Sailor Mercury poster and a Nintendo Famicom console running Super Mario Bros.:

Our man is clearly one of us -- a gamer, a fanboy, an otaku:

And then... my trusty emulator gives up, hanging on a black screen that it never quite gets past.  But I was able to run the game on authentic hardware to see what this is all about; my remaining thoughts will, however, not be illustrated.

Bakuden Unbalance Zone is basically an adventure game, though it's similar in style to a digital comic.  Our hero navigates a map -- though progression seems to be linear -- and enters a variety of "zones", each tossing him into a different hazardous situation.  The interface is quite limited -- there's no inventory or dialogue system, but when we have control, we can choose from a set of five body part icons implying associated actions (not always predictably).  The player can also summon assistance, or at least commentary, from our four overseers above by selecting the question-mark icon, and sometimes this is actually the right solution to a given situation.

If the chosen approach is successful, the story progresses; if not, the results play out with comical animation and no real consequences, as each sequence just resets to its initial state after failure.  It's actually more entertaining to pick the wrong actions, most of which result in our hero's death or mortifying embarrassment, but it's all a bit random -- it's not really possible to predict which approach is the right one in most situations.

As the game begins, our otaku friend's videogame session is interrupted by a gang of four mentors/overseers/minor deities who come crashing through his bedroom wall.  They mug and yell, and I'm sure if I understood Japanese I'd learn something about why the ensuing action takes place.  But it's clear enough that our hero will have to undergo a dangerous quest, per the usual.

The first zone of the story pits our man against an ill-tempered yellow cat, who chases him up a tree; the two then battle it out, generally by abusing each other in ways that would have made Bugs and Daffy blush.  Rocks fall on heads, characters slam into the ground and splash into the water, and our hero cheekily bares his, um, cheekilies to his foe and gets a good bite on the exposed area for his trouble.  Eventually, after we make enough wrong choices to put otaku-san into traction for an extended period, we succeed in sending the yellow cat packing, and it's off to the next zone.

The game doesn't seem to vary much from this formula -- at least, after an hour of play, I felt like I'd seen enough to get the idea.  The graphics are quite nicely done, with digitized hand-drawn backgrounds and a loose, comical manga feel that's thoroughly Japanese in style.  There's a lot of wonderfully over-the-top animation and voice work, but the gameplay is very linear.  All we have to do -- all we can do, really -- is pick icons at random until something substantial happens, and while the events that unfold are amusing enough, there's no driving reason to progress.

So that's Bakuden Unbalance Zone -- a resolutely Japanese game that would not have been high on anyone's localization list for US release.  But it's been sitting on my shelf for a while, and it was fun and refreshing to mess around with it.  Next time, I'll try to play something more accessible.

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