Saturday, February 15, 2014

Little Things: Kid Kool

Some mysteries are compelling not because they’re important, but because they’re so weirdly insignificant. For one example, consider the king’s butler in the awkward and rampantly detested Kid Kool and the Quest for the Seven Wonder Herbs. He's a miniscule oddity in a lousy old NES game, and that makes the enigma itch all the more.

Kid Kool’s interminable story sequences introduce only four characters: the ailing king, his butler, the titular Kid Kool, and, in the best endings, a princess. The butler doesn’t serve much of a purpose beyond rattling off the details of Kool’s herb-gathering mission and announcing the hero’s demise. The latter happens a lot in Kid Kool, because Kid Kool despises everyone who plays it.

But it isn't the butler's dialogue that's puzzling. It’s his appearance. His haircut, glasses, and snaggletoothed nerd visage clash with the King’s Garfield-like appearance and the mundane anime-kid design of Kool and the princess. And why do his shorts clearly say “T YAN”?


It all suggests that the butler is a caricature of someone, possibly this T. Yan individual. But who could that be?

The most obvious explanation would be that the butler is a leftover joke from Kid Kool’s original Japanese version, Kakefu-Kun no Jump Tengoku: Speed Tengoku. It was a vehicle for Kenji “Kakefu-kun” Sagara, a popular child actor in Japan during the late 1980s. Vic Tokai’s Americanization of the game replaced his Hanshin Tigers baseball cap with a spiky coiffure and changed his name to the less expensive Kid Kool, but the other characters were left alone. One clue crops up in the Japanese credits: the butler’s name is listed as “Dirty Echigoya.” It also lists the king’s name as Nioccory V of Poconioccory and his daughter as Josephine Nioccory, and I have no idea what that might mean.


Could T. Yan, Dirty Echigoya, and the butler's horrifying visage refer to some other celebrity from the same era? At the time of the game’s release, Kakefu-Kun was known mostly for his appearances on quiz shows and commercials, which extolled his resemblance to a Tigers player. Sadly, those lead to dead ends. It’s hard to find records of Kakefu-kun’s career in English, and there’s no sign of anyone with the butler’s goofy appearance or either name.

It might be that the royal steward is based on a Vic Tokai staffer. It’s not uncommon for game designers to pattern characters after their fellow employees. In fact, that's where Shu Takumi got inspiration for certain eccentrics in his Phoenix Wright games. It’s rather brazen to have an in-joke like that front and center in Kid Kool, and yet it makes sense. The credits don't mention an Echigoya, but there is a map artist named Sano Yan. A likely suspect.


Another possibility arises, however. Vic Tokai made many more games than Kid Kool, and a glance through their credits reveals one name that corresponds to T. Yan more than any other. That would be Takayan the Barbarian, director of those charming Trouble Shooter games…or the Battle Mania games, as they were known in Japan. Perhaps he worked on Kid Kool under "Sano Yan" or another name. Vic Tokai had lots of great pseudonyms to go around in those days, like "Dark Side Toshi," "Propeller Wado," and "Bigfoot Shijoh."

Could that be it? Did Takayan the Barbarian, future leader of Studio Space Iron Men, play butler in Kid Kool? Or did he turn a co-worker into the malformed attendant? It would be right at home with the in-jokes throughout Trouble Shooter.

It’s a shame that much of Vic Tokai’s past remains opaque, because a look into their history brings up all manner of fascinating details. Vic Tokai co-developed games with Seibu Lease, an even more obscure company. Vic Tokai canceled a North American release of their RPG Shinseiki Odysselya under the name Lost Mission, and it’s a curious game in any form. Vic Tokai also left the industry in 1997, and rarely do they remember that they ever made games.

Vic Tokai never grew to become another Capcom or Konami, but their games had cartoonish appeal and memorable characters beyond their station. Clash at Demonhead and the two Trouble Shooters are underrated delights, and second-stringers like The Krion Conquest and Chester Field show winsome sides amid their flaws. Sometimes that sort of scrappy inspiration is more intriguing than a creatively polished gem.

And Kid Kool? Well, even that left us something to ponder.

1 comment:

ArugulaZ said...

Wasn't Amagon one of their games, too? It sure had all the earmarks of a weird-ass Vic Tokai game.

I will admit, I liked their Bump 'n Jump remake on the NES. It had a little more meat to it than the original, as well as more variety.

On the slim chance that you were wondering what happened to Vic Tokai, I think they're an internet service provider now, or something.