Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Might Have Been: Nuts & Milk

Nuts & Milk has a small place in the equally small history of video games. It made the rounds as a simple maze-based game on various Japanese computers, but when Hudson remodeled it for the Famicom in 1984, Nuts & Milk became the console's first title released by a third-party publisher. Considering what else was fighting for space in the Famicom’s early years, Nuts & Milk wasn’t a bad game—it just had an unfortunate title for English speakers.


When one stops snickering and actually plays the game, Nuts & Milk reveals itself as an entirely harmless imitation of early ‘80s arcade culture. Players control Nuts, a pink blob who traverses levels of planks, pipes, and brick in search of his girlfriend, Yogurt. To properly rescue her, Nuts much collect all of the fruit in any given stage while avoiding his rival Milk, whose blue skin apparently brings instant death to Nuts and his kind. And Nuts must do this in 50 different levels, harried by multiple clones of Milk.

It’s all very simple, but it’s not quite as cleanly programmed as appearances suggest. Just like Donkey Kong and its legions of single-screen imitators, Nuts & Milk works against the player in many little ways. Nuts has trouble jumping when he's on wooden floors or against a wall, and a lot of his fruit-gathering solutions involve properly calculated falls. Particularly frustrating are the springs that bounce Nuts up to greater heights, but only if the jump button’s pressed at exactly the right nanosecond.



The game also looks very much its age, though there’s some appeal in the characters. Nuts and Milk are early examples of the blob-with-eyes design trend that would mold countless characters and corporate icons in the Japanese game industry of the 1980s. The finest little touch comes when Nuts falls from a decent height and lies immobile for just a moment, with a look of perfect befuddlement on his barely extant face.

There are few bonuses in Nuts & Milk. As in Donkey Kong, Hudson offers A and B games, but the only difference is the presence of hot-air balloons (which kill Nuts) and helicopters (which award points) throughout the stages. The real extra is a level editor akin to that of Lode Runner. It’s rather easy to use with a stock controller, and the basic tools of Nuts & Milk provide some clever layouts. The game also gives you a “ROUND ERROR” if you try to trap Nuts and his foes in some twisted, unwinnable 8-bit hell. Hudson wanted this to be a happy game, so don’t make it anything else.



Nuts & Milk was never released in North America, perhaps because it seemed basic and cliché by the time the Nintendo Entertainment System launched in 1985; indeed, games like Nuts & Milk became downright ancient with the advent of Super Mario Bros. If Nuts & Milk was to have a place in the NES lineup, it would’ve come in the first wave of titles, alongside Kung Fu, Clu Clu Land, Wrecking Crew, and, of course, Donkey Kong. A renamed Nuts & Milk could’ve had early Nintendo owners across America spelling profanities with bricks and pipes.

Yet Nuts & Milk went no further anywhere in the world. Hudson re-released the Famicom version for cell phones and the GameBoy Advance, while the game’s often found in those 1000-in-1 pirate game consoles hawked at mall kiosks. There has been no sign of a Nuts & Milk sequel.



There is, however, this curious blue blob seen in Mickey Mousecapade, a mid-'80s NES game developed by Hudson (and published in the U.S. by Capcom). Give it feet, and you’d have Milk. Even if it's not the same character, it’s still a sign of how rapidly the NES library evolved. Fifty single-screen levels became a meager offering by 1987, and one game’s main villain could easily be another game’s lowly stooge.

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