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 clichĂ© 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.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Tape Test: Twilight of the Cockroaches

[Tape Test covers notable anime available in North America only through old VHS releases. This installment looks at Twilight of the Cockroaches, released by Streamline Pictures in the 1990s.]

“Franz Kafka Meets Roger Rabbit,” proclaims the cover of Twilight of the Cockroaches. It almost fits. Like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? this odd half-anime film from 1987 has live actors next to cartoon characters. And like Kafka’s "The Metamorphosis," it’s…uh, it has roaches. Well, humanoid roaches. Even though Kafka’s story wasn’t necessarily about a roach. Oh well. I sympathize with whoever had to describe Twilight of the Cockroaches in a short tagline, and the Kafka one has a sharper ring than “Watership Down With Roaches” or “A Bleak Anime Version of Joe’s Apartment.”

Life is pleasant for the roaches in the bachelor pad of one Mr. Seito. They frolic amid dirty dishes, they swim in the toilet, and they fly where they please, all without Seito caring a whit. They have roach politicians, roach nightlife, roach class prejudices, and a roach holiday that commemorates a tragic loss of roach life. And if this isn’t an obvious enough allegory for the Japan of the 1980s, there’s even a meretricious morning-news show run by roaches. But the bugs aren't accurately insectile blattella asahinai. These roaches are largely humanized anime characters with antennae, an extra set of arms, and glovelike flippers where their hands should be. Fables about mice or rabbits get semi-realistic animal heroes, but biologically accurate roaches don't appeal to viewers so much.


All of this glorious roach opulence isn’t enough for Naomi, a 19-year-old (insect years, I assume) roach girl. She’s bored with her milquetoast fiancĂ© Ichiro and generally discontented with the roach lifestyle. So she’s quite intrigued when a strange roach named Hans arrives at the Seito pad.

Hans brings the placid Seito roaches stories of his home, where roaches are systematically hunted and exterminated by humans. And no one’s more fascinated by it than Naomi, who likes Hans for his grim demeanor as much as his square-jawed German manliness. So when Hans departs for his native land like the dutiful soldier he is, Naomi follows. And she finds the adventure she so vaguely pined for. Hans and his fellow roaches live an apartment where a fastidious woman hauls out bug spray and shoes to rain death upon her unwanted tenants each night. She’s also lonely, and so, it seems, is Seito. And they’re neighbors. And so destruction is sown for the hedonistic roaches who in no way represent 1980s society.


Director Hiroaki Yoshida meant Twilight of the Cockroaches as a message for modern Japan, and it's a pretty simple one. Yet another tale of creatures undone by materialism and ignorance, it veers into muddled, cautionary terrain without much in the way of solutions. The film’s at its most enjoyable when parodying the relationship between humans and ancient pests: the roaches of Hans’ army are militant in their defense of roach life, right down to a marching anthem about roach birth rates. Yoshida's mixture of live-action and animation is hardly as smooth as Roger Rabbit (or even Cool World), but there's a much greater thematic divide between the silent, towering live-action actors and the scurrying, babbling cartoon critters. Yoshida also adds a brief stop-motion interlude in an attempt to make the film even stranger.


Aside from the talking feces, Twilight of the Cockroaches goes exactly where one expects. The roaches’ world crashes down all around them, the humans show no compunction, and there’s an uplifting little epilogue. Naomi’s affections for Ichiro and Hans are resolved, albeit in a strange way that wouldn’t work with human characters—or any vertebrates, for that matter. Still, the scenes of roach genocide have an undeniable impact, and the film has at least one genuinely unnerving moment when Naomi wanders into a roach motel. She’s stuck on a glue floor among slowly dying bugs, who thrash and starve in a shadowy grave. Nothing deserves to die like that.


Twilight of the Cockroaches received its U.S. theatrical release and dub courtesy of Streamline Pictures, and it has the usual round of competent actors reading occasionally bizarre lines. Rebecca “Reba West” Forstadt plays Naomi, and she considers it “my most bizarre role.” It’s a fair dub, though there's always the Streamline-fueled suspicion that the script's been needlessly altered.

DOES IT DESERVE A PROPER DVD RELEASE? Yes. Twilight of the Cockroaches may be routine beneath its partly animated surface, but that surface is something unique. What other films wring pathos from a roach shitting on a human’s face? What other films have bizarre, pseudo-fascist songs about the enduring roach race? What other films try to make you happy that a single roach can spawn an entire colony? Not very many, that's for sure.

Tape Test: The Awful Truth

I haven’t done much with Tape Test. With this week’s installment, I’ve put up only three entries in as many years. There’s a reason for that: everything is awful.

I should explain further. When I started Tape Test, I looked forward to writing about the various VHS anime that’s not yet available on DVD; I even had a stockpile of cheaply acquired tapes for starters. Of course, I knew that most of them would be mediocre, as the overwhelming majority of anime is, but I was convinced that I could find something interesting to say about each and every one of them.

I was wrong. There are indeed a few notable anime creations only released on VHS in the West, but the majority I’ve found are awful in the worst way: they’re hackneyed, boring, and completely devoid of valid entertainment. I realized a while ago that I didn't need to write thousand-word pro bono excoriations of DNA Sights 999.9, Explorer Woman Ray, Ehrgeiz, Ogre Slayer, Genesis Surviver/Survivor Gaiarth, Dragon Century, Raven Tengu Kabuto, Blue Sonnet, Luna Varga, Akai Hayate, AWOL, Grey: Digital Target, The Legend of Kotetsu, Roots Search, or the 1996 remake of Hurricane Polymar. Many of these I remembered all too well from that unfortunate time in my life when I was willing to watch just about any remotely promising anime the local Blockbuster or comic store had up for rental. I sat through Dragoon ten years ago, and I’m not doing it again. Not for free, anyway.

And that's what happened to Tape Test. As any critic could tell you, it’s not the worst of it that gets you. It’s the banal and unremarkably terrible.