Forgotten gems

Despite all my moaning and sulking about the general state of Japanese games and the, in my view, overblown view many westerners have, there are some absolute classics that many people should play but that have never made it across the language barrier. Usually these games were criminally unsuccessful but given the chance most people would enjoy them. At the very least people should give them a whirl. So far only the importing hard-core crowd has been able to play these but hopefully a few more people will look around for these woefully forgotten classics.

Guru Logic Champ (Gameboy Advance) Compile
This is, by far, the best puzzle game I have ever played. Created by the sadly deceased Compile this game never saw a western release.

The premise is deceptively simple: a board consists of a grid with blocks on it and can be rotated in 90 degree increments. At the bottom is your cannon which you move left and right. You can shoot blocks, if there are any spare, or suck up blocks from the play field. The aim is to fill the predetermined empty squares to complete a little picture.
Indeed, the first hundred orso puzzles you’ll have no trouble with this fun little game except for the occasional head scratching. But then there are another 200 odd puzzles to go and with the introduction of new elements, like holes, rubber blocks that bounce back your shots and heavy blocks that topple over an extra square when hit things will get immensely complicated. Soon you’ll be placing temporary blocks to block your shots and creating snaking walls to reach that one lonely empty spot.

Interspersed are useless but utterly charming little vignettes where the two duck-like heroes help some citizens with their problems, being a lost tap, dandruff problems that are causing traffic jams or fixing the dentist’s mecha-robot's drill-bit. You’ll find yourself playing just one more puzzle just to see what crazy thing they get up to next.
There is little replayability, apart from a fastest time ranking, but with over 300 puzzles you’ll get your money’s worth for sure. This is by far The Best Puzzle Game Ever Created.

The game has been, um, hommaged recently by Nuclide/Popcap as Pixelus, and though it’s a fun game in itself it doesn’t have the many obstacle blocks the original has and its art design, though cute, doesn’t live up to the utter insanity of Guru Logic Champ. A must for anyone with a brain that desires flexing!

Playability: The biggest problem will be getting hold of a copy but after that it’s Easy Street. The GBA and its younger brethren are not region locked and you can easily get by without Japanese ability. The menus are very simple and you’ll soon figure out which option means “restart”. The game saves automatically between puzzles and the tutorial is an easy follow-my-example type affair. Infinitely enjoyable!

Try it! There is a 10 level PC demo available here, as well as a review. There were about three separate demos at one point but I cannot track the other two down. It was the same demo but with 10 different puzzles in each.


Kururin Squash! (GameCube) Eighting
Kururin was a special little GBA game that not enough people played. Kururin Squash is the home console version and though not noticeably different in essence it’s still a worthy purchase, especially as it was released at the mid-price range in Japan. The gameplay is as twitchy as the handheld original, where you move a rotating sick through increasingly elaborate mazes while avoiding the walls and other obstacles. An incredibly simple premise that leads to addictive twitchy and compulsive play

Though there is no multiplayer mode here, the game is a great single player experience with extra extended levels for those who want to dare try for the hidden key which in turn leads to special unlockable levels. There are boss levels, rail levels, upgrades for your vehicle, etc.
The graphics are as cute as you’d expect and the presentation fits perfectly. More peo;ple should play this as I am personally dying for a Wii version. I can just imagine how much frustrating fun that would be!

Playability: You’ll need a modded Gamecube or Datel’s Freeloader to be able to play it. The game itself is simple enough and none of the menus should be too difficult to figure out without Japanese ability.


Drill Land (GameCube) Namco
Though Mr. Driller isn’t unknown to western audiences this particular outing never made it to foreign shores. I once had a chat with a Namco localiser who told me he had begged his boss to let him translate this game; he would even do it in his spare time, such was his righteous love for the product. The boss, however, declined; as, with all things great and misunderstood, the game never sold well enough to even consider starting a localised version. This is too bad because this version is by far the very best Mr. Driller game of all.

One thing you need to know before I continue though is that this game is HARD, as in proper hard-core, hair-tearingly hard. But in a good way. Each game mode has four play levels, which I have termed “Difficult”, “Impossible”, “KILL ME!” and “Special”. As you can’t progress to the next level until you’ve cleared all modes of the preceding difficulty this “Special” mode has remained elusive to me so far. I think it’s simply an “unlimited depth, instant death” mode for all the different types of game.

The different play modes are as follows:
1. World Drill Tour: Your usual Mr. Driller type affair, except that you can use several different characters, each with their own very slightly differing stats which strangely leads to wildly varying play styles.
2. Star Driller: This is basically Mr. Driller Plus Alpha. The premise remains the same apart from some extra blocks that unleash special events or bonuses during play.
3. Drindy Adventure: The similarity to Indy doesn’t end with the name. In fact, there is a distinct flavour of the good old Rick Dangerous about this mode. You need to collect golden statuettes and make your way to the bottom while avoiding spikes and rolling boulders. This is probably my favourite mode.
4. Horror Night House: Another excellent variation on the theme. Ghosts fly around and towards you. You need to collect a bottle of holy water with which to freeze the ghosts in place. If you then drill the block they are in they will die and drop crystals. You need to collect a certain number of crystals to clear the level.
5. Hole of Druaga: This is possibly the most inventive re-imagining of the game. There are several connected pits to which you warp via doors. Your energy drops steadily so you must hurry and pick up items that are revealed when popping blocks. There are a whole host of items, some that give you energy, some that destroy a certain colour of blocks, etc. At the bottom of one pit is a dragon boss (BOSS!) which you must drill to death for the key to the final pit where the final boss awaits. This one can be defeated by destroying a large enough number of bricks at once, which is where the iems come in handy. All in all a difficult but fun mode.

When playing and invariably failing play modes you get given points which you can collect and trade in for extras, like extra lives or shields. Except that these only count for the level of difficulty you are playing. Once you progress to the next difficulty level you need to start from scratch, requiring a lot of replay if you need extra help to survive the increasingly impossible challenges. On top of that there are unlockable but useless items and trophies and a multiplayer mode.

Though there have been some excellent handheld versions of the game, this home console version simply shines out as the best. It even let’s you link up with one of the GBA games for extra unlockable fun.

Playability: You’ll need a modded Gamecube or Datel’s Freeloader to be able to play it. Though there are quite a few menus they aren’t hard to navigate and all but one of the game modes require no Japanese ability. Where it does, in “Hole of Druaga”, you’re stuffed, though, as the inventory list of items to use is in Japanese only. Still, with a little experimenting you’ll be able to find out what does what, eventually.It’s worth it for the overall experience.

~ ~ ~

With all the dross that does get localised and released in the west it’s almost criminal that these little gems were overlooked. That said, if it didn’t make financial sense to release it in the Americas and Europe all my fanboy gushing can’t really change the situation. These games weren’t bought by droves of people and I guess that is where the real crime lies. I supposed you can’t please all of the people etc. Do yourself a favour and try to find and play these games.

If I find a cheap second hand copy of, say, Guru Logic Champ I might organize a Japanmanship giveaway contest of sorts, but don’t hold your breath as I don’t really enjoy going to all the way to Akihabara.

12 comments:

  1. We have a similar taste in puzzle games. I adored Kurukururin on the GBA - especially as I got it for a tenner new around the time I got my GBA. I played it solidly for a day and beat every stage with a star (well, not the last couple), got all the birds and beat most of the times.

    Mr Driller is pretty great too, but I did get bored of it after a while.

    I'll definitely have to look up the other game you recommended, because it sounds cool, and maybe it will be around quite cheaply if I can find it.

    By the way, did you try the Dr. Mario in More Brain Training? It's very good, and you can compete with your wife on equal footing (as opposed to the kanji test game :)

    Also, if you were ever fond of the Incredible Machine, I recommend Armadillo Run (www.armadillorun.com)

    YMLL

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  2. Good recommendations all, YMLL! I got the US Brain Age, so Sudoku, rather than Dr. Mario, but I have a few versions of it already anyway. Brain Age's Sudoku is miles better than that cheap standalone Sudoku title for the DS, by the way.

    Mr. Driller got boring for me too, but Drill Land never did. Seriously, try it out. You should be able to get it dirt cheap now, as it wasn't very expensive the first time round!

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  3. I don't recall which area of Tokyo you live in, but perhaps Nakano is closer? Or less offensive? Or, atleast you can salvage the rest of the day by heading further west to Kichijoji or something. Heh.

    If I remember correctly, the otaku mall just outside Nakano station has atleast three used games stores. I picked some DS titles up there for not appalling prices (though not shockingly good) when I was last in Tokyo, back in September.

    I realize it's sacriledge to some Driller fans, but I picked up Dig Dug: Digging Strike for the DS a while back, which mixes overhead puzzle play with old school Dig Dug. There are large spikes set in the ground on each island, by entering one of the holes/levels, you have the ability to undermine the support for the spike. When the spike reaches the bottom of the level, it leads to a crack in the overhead map (and water can flood the level). Each stage/island has a monster on the overhead map. The object is to drown the monster by timing the spikes correctly so that a piece of the island sinks while he's on it --hopefully drowning the boss, without drowning yourself.

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  4. Whoops, previewing the comment seems to have dropped my tag

    -trs

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  5. *leaps*

    Kururin Squash is one of my most cherished gaming memories for the Cube. It probably only lasts five or six hours, but they are glorious.

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  6. I really enjoyed Mr. Driller on my Dreamcast (never played the other iterations). You made me wanna play Drill Land for the Cube! Will see if I can get an import copy (along with this Datel' thingy you've been mentioning).

    Oh yeah, also downloaded the 'Guru Logic Champ' demo; going to play that now as I am a big Compile fan (I thought Sega bought 'm... Are they really 'dead'?)

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  7. Just finished all the levels in the 'Guru Logic Champ' demo. It's fun! Think I'm gonna buy the GBA game (if I can find it).

    Thanks for the tips and keep up the blogging!

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  8. You won't regret it! Guru Logic Champ is great! The puzzles get REALLY hard later on though.

    As for Drill Land, beware! For the purposes of this post I had dug it out again and now I can't stop playing it again. It's very addictive but so much fun. And it really is HARD!

    Compile is, as far as I know, dead. Some of the key people and teams have spread around or started anew. I have no idea where the famously flamboyant boss ended up in the end.

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  9. "I have no idea where the famously flamboyant boss ended up in the end."

    Are you talking about Moo Niitani, the creator of Puyo Puyo? He now works at Compile Heart. They are making an arcade/Wii puzzle game Takoron.

    I've always been curious about Guru Logic Champ, since it is tied with Zanac X Zanac as Compile's last release. This is the most I've ever seen about it in English.
    Thank you!

    Anyone here have any idea how to import it?

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  10. That we never got Drill Land in the US, in my mind, indicates some fundamental failing of the system. Its obscurity almost feels malicious.

    Same goes for Zanac X Zanac, by the way.

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  11. God, Kurukuru-kururin... positively sphincter-tightening!

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