Thursday, October 20, 2011

Dreaming is Free, Games are Not

I haven't collected games in a while. I was into it thick and stupid for a few years when I lived in Ohio, because that's how your early twenties usually go. You want everything you didn't have when you were a teenager, and you finally have enough money and free time to enjoy it all. I gave up collecting upon realizing several things: most games weren't worth owning, I was just as content with emulating them, and amassing a huge library would turn me into the sort of person who regularly posts on forums like Digital Press and Atari Age without self-awareness or contempt. Yet I remember what it was like to visit flea markets and mom-and-pop stores, picking over crates of old NES games just in case there was a rare title or, better yet, a prototype of a canceled game.

Well, that's exactly what I dreamed of last night. I was at a flea market, in a game vendor's stall that had inexplicably sprung up in the ruins of a gas station. I was looking over a massive bin of NES cartridges. I was also telling myself that I was over this, that I didn't collect games any longer. But a small part of me still said "What if there's an unreleased game in all this? What if it's something no one's ever heard of before, like that Sunman thing? You can preserve it and put it online so everyone can play it! You'll be famous in a small niche of the Internet." So I kept looking, albeit with a slow, feigned casualness. Me? Oh no, I'm just glancing over these old Nintendo games out of passing interest. I'm not a huge nerd or anything. Not me, never.

Then another shopper, roughly my age, wandered up to a section of the bin I hadn't yet checked. He pulled out a cartridge and yelled in excitement, and I knew he'd found something amazing.

He held it up, and it was indeed rare: an NES game based on Operation Dumbo Drop.

I was left standing there, wondering just what lesson I'd been taught. Had I lost out because I hadn't been a good and devoted game-scavenging nerd? Had I let this previously undiscovered piece of history fall into the hands of someone who might never share it with the world? Did I even care that a game based on Operation Dumbo Drop was possibly lost forever? What if it was actually a good game, some unexpectedly decent piece by Natsume or Compile or Aicom?

But mostly I was left wondering if my dream was somehow rooted in fact. Was an Operation Dumbo Drop game ever announced for the NES?



No, it wasn't, but someone else asked about it. Perhaps this dream isn't mine alone.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Dark Side of Captain Commando

Captain Commando was a veritable chameleon among game mascots. As mentioned in a recent feature at 1up.com, the Capcom icon started off as a box-art pitchman and went through two different designs in the 1980s. It wasn’t until 1991 that Capcom finalized his look with an arcade beat-‘em-up.

Captain Commando is a typical enough outing in the Final Fight tradition. The eponymous Captain and his three Commando assistants pound street thugs and monsters, and it's dressed in a futuristic style inspired by manga superhero tales and old serial adventures like Captain Future and Lensman. It’s also pretty mild as the violence goes. Sword-wielding enemies can cut the Captain in half, and the mummy commando, a.k.a. “Mack the Knife,” causes foes to disintegrate into skeletons when he defeats them. That's about it. These scenes were removed in the Super NES version of Captain Commando, and there wasn’t much to take out.


There’s nothing in Captain Commando to suggest that Capcom’s underlying vision for the game was a bloody procession of sadism and gruesome deaths. For that, you’ll have to read a promotional comic that Capcom made.

The first five pages of this comic were run in Capcom Illustrations, a 1995 collection of arcade-game artwork. Those pages are likely the work of company artist and Captain Commando planner Akiman, and the empty word balloons suggest that the project was never finished. A two-volume Captain Commando manga was released in 1994, coinciding with the Super NES version, but it seems to be a different production.


Our story begins with news of unrest at some scientific facility, and this alarms fully clothed passersby as well as couples engaged in pants-free leisure (remember to read these panels right-to-left). The suit-wearing man in the crowd looks like an older version of Captain Commando, and it’s the closest that this comic comes to including any of the game’s heroes. This is all about the bad guys, folks.


The broadcast cuts to footage of the facility interior, where some unfortunate guards are slaughtered by the forces of Captain Commando's end boss, Genocide first boss, Dolg. If you look closely at the bottom-right panel, you’ll see one of the game’s “Z” enemies slicing a guard in half. On the lower-left, Dolg snaps off another guard’s head, the first of several unpleasant sights in this comic.


Dolg, realizing that he’s on TV, seizes the last un-murdered guard and bites off the top of his head. An adept public speaker, Dolg keeps talking through a mouthful of brains and skull fragments. Meanwhile, the lab’s surviving employees are rounded up by yellow-hooded flunkies, all known as “Wooky” in the game.


Flanked by two “Carols,” Dolg confronts the lead researcher of the facility. One might assume this bespectacled scientist is important, but he never appears in the game. A displeased Dolg orders one of his underlings to show the good professor that they mean business, so a Wooky grabs a hostage by the head and... ewww.

The assembled thugs laugh while the professor winces in disgust. This scene is made slightly more unnerving by the fact that Wookies are the lowest-rung enemies in the game. They’re punching bags that are barely even dangerous in groups. It’s like seeing a grown man decapitated by one of those little blue slimes from Dragon Quest.


This horrifying display causes the next guy in line to lose his nerve, and he points an accusing finger at a fellow hostage. Without dialogue there's no clue as to who this blonde woman is or why her identity creates a little question mark over one Wooky’s head. Perhaps she’s an undercover agent. Perhaps she knows whatever secrets the villains seek. Perhaps she’s Rachel, the daughter of the president of Sercia. The close-up suggests that she, like the professor, is a significant character, but she doesn’t appear in the game either.

Snitching on his comrade doesn’t do this poor sap any good, however. It only attracts the attention of one of the Carols, who electrocutes him with her prod-like daggers. Or maybe she’s shocking him with her embrace. Then again, a close look reveals that the current is arcing out of her ass. That’s somehow a fitting conclusion to this story.

So ends this preview of a Captain Commando comic that was perhaps never completed. It raises the question of what other violent, officially endorsed manga may exist for Capcom games, which rarely traipsed into Mortal Kombat territory. Is there a Street Fighter II comic where M. Bison mercilessly executes captive scientists? Is there a Final Fight comic where Rolento and Andore Jr. dismember innocent Metro City pedestrians and laugh at their screams for mercy?

Then again, a comic like this isn’t such a surprise. By their own admission, Capcom’s artists are regularly inspired by violent manga like Fist of the North Star, Battle Angel Alita, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, and even Apocalypse Zero. A brain-devouring giant is par for the course in the first volume of Battle Angel Alita, and murder by electric ass would be an unspectacular sight in the pages of Apocalypse Zero. Strange as this comic is, it's a good look beneath the surface of many a Capcom game.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Little Things: Wonder Boy in Monster Land

Wonder Boy in Monster Land may have a title both generic and silly, but it’s an important game in the history of Westone and their biggest series. The original Wonder Boy went through the motions of a rudimentary platformer (and spawned Adventure Island along the way), but 1987’s Wonder Boy in Monster Land slowed the pace while adding weapons, armor, shops, and other RPG-ish features. And so it started the franchise’s climb toward the fantastic Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap and Monster World IV.

Another thing about Wonder Boy in Monster Land: just about every foe has a death animation. Most side-scrollers of the NES and Sega Master System didn’t bother with this. Enemies exploded, flickered, or flipped off of the screen upon dying. Wonder Boy in Monster Land, on the other hand, gives each defeated creature a single-frame demise.


The most striking one comes from the mushrooms that amble toward Wonder Boy in the early stages of the game. At first, they look sedate and dutiful.


Then Wonder Boy stabs one, and its face changes to a look of pure agony. The creature’s final half-second on Earth is spent in tearful horror, gazing not toward Wonder Boy but out at the player. Or perhaps it’s looking at the vast spectrum of all it'll never be, at everything it longed to do with its brief fungal existence. A glimpse of a life unfulfilled torments this mushroom soldier, who couldn't even be a Goomba in Super Mario Bros., just before it vanishes from the world, leaving behind nothing but regret. And a shiny coin for Wonder Boy.

Many enemies in the game have their own death throes, but nothing so memorable as the mushroom underling. And Wonder Boy? He doesn’t react at all. As I pointed out years ago, Wonder Boy is a bit creepy.