Saturday, May 15, 2010

Darkstalkers and the Enigma of Trouble Man

There’s a special procedure to follow whenever I mention Darkstalkers. First I have to explain that the series started out as Capcom’s second fighting-game venture after the success of Street Fighter, which Darkstalkers briefly eclipsed in popularity among Japanese fans. In America, though, the monster-filled Darkstalkers never really caught on to that extent, and Capcom shut down the whole thing after three major games.

Then I have to explain that this is a terrible waste, because the Darkstalkers games are excellent. Marvelously animated and highly amusing, they shed the few realistic traces of Street Fighter and build a cartoon world where chainsaw-legged zombie rockers moon over Chinese ghost-girls, mummified kings turn werewolves into wiener dogs, and a bee-woman dies after she stings an opponent, only for her clone to burst anew from her foe’s honeycombed flesh.



Anyway, the PlayStation port of the original Darkstalkers isn’t very important. It was scheduled to ship near the system’s launch and show that Sony’s new console could handle a heavily animated 2-D Capcom fighter. Yet the game was delayed until March of 1996, a month after the generally better sequel, Night Warriors, came out for the Sega Saturn. By that point no one cared that Darkstalkers was on the PlayStation or that it had a weird, awful, and strangely catchy theme song.



Instead of the arcade game’s introduction, the Japanese PlayStation port of Darkstalkers (known over there as Vampire) has grainy footage playing along to “Trouble Man,” in which somewhat notable J-rock singer Eikichi Yazawa declares that he’s gonna be trouble, ‘cause, baby, he’s a trouble man. He proves this by accepting a challenge for a rumble. Toniiiiight. This would be nothing out of the ordinary for Japanese pop carelessly in search of English lyrics, but these lines were actually written by Andrew Gold, who’s had a storied musical career that stretches from hit ‘70s singles to the theme music for Mad About You.

Capcom removed this intro for the North American release, but “Trouble Man” clung to Darkstalkers. The song pops up in the brief credits for the American syndicated Darkstalkers cartoon, which is horrible enough to shame even its Street Fighter cousin. A longer version of “Trouble Man” also blares over the closing for the four-part Night Warriors anime series, which is just plain boring after a slightly promising first act. Someone clearly paid for “Trouble Man,” and dammit, they were going to get their money’s worth.



It was never clear why Capcom wanted Darkstalkers to have a completely unrelated theme song full of guitar hooks and nonsense, and no other Capcom fighters had anthems until Street Fighter IV’s “Indestructible.” Perhaps someone at the company just liked Andrew Gold.

When Capcom rolled around Darkstalkers 3 (known as Vampire Savior in Japan and among American kids who owned Saturns), “Trouble Man” was nowhere to be found, and the series went under not long after that. Would it have survived if Capcom had given it another theme song? And if Capcom greenlights another Darkstalkers, will it have another rousing opening number about trouble, men, and various combinations of the two? We’d better find out.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Conquest of the Bio Force Apes

Is Bio Force Ape the most popular NES game never released? I'd say so. It drifted into obscurity after Seta canceled it in 1991, yet this past decade gave rise to a geek subculture that hunts down canceled games, and Bio Force Ape was always pursued. At first it was only one of several sought-after lost games, squabbling for space with Bandai’s Ultimate Journey, Capcom’s Black Tiger, and such planning-stage pipe dreams as New Kids on the Block and Hellraiser. Yet one amazing prank and its buttery residue shot Bio Force Ape to the top of the list, so much so that fans started making their own version of the game.



Then the real Bio Force Ape showed up. It appeared in a Yahoo Japan auction, and the game quickly made its way to 1up.com’s Game Night, where the public saw it played for the first time in 19 years.

And it’s amazing. Well, it’s no rediscovered masterpiece, but it’s great fun in that absurd, clumsy way that middle-grade NES games often stumbled into. There’s no question that Bio Force Ape makes the most of a game about a monkey who grows into a pro-wrestler ape and bodyslams bee-men, monstrous sumo wrestlers, and mutants with crocodile jaws for legs. It’s also technically impressive for an NES game, with a well-animated simian hero and some dizzyingly fast rides on moving platforms and mine carts. In another world, perhaps Seta released Bio Force Ape and built it into their Battletoads, with its own toy line and terrible cartoon special.



Then again, Seta would’ve needed to actually finish the game. This version of Bio Force Ape is as far as things got, but it lasts only three levels, and they’re noticeably incomplete when it comes to the enemies and overall design. It’s believed that this game was built as a demo, but someone went through the trouble of giving it a grueling final stage and a shocking twist ending that we ask the audience not to reveal.

Despite the rampantly bizarre scenes in the game, my favorite thing is the ape’s rolling move: he can drop to the ground at any point and just tumble forward at insanely high speed. It doesn’t damage enemies, it doesn’t get him past many obstacles, and it doesn’t really serve much of a purpose. It’s just fun to screw around with it. And that’s the legacy of Bio Force Ape.