Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Caltron Take Me Away!

Action 52 isn't a bad game. It's over 4 dozen bad games. It's also clear case study of what happens when your ambition is considerably larger than your actual talent or resource pool, but that's not where I'm going with this.

Action 52 was unique among NES multicart compilations in that it actually was 52 original games, developed either in house or by some Alan Smithee studio, for the expressed purpose of being on this particular compilation title. Most multicarts, back in the day, at least the ones that made it to these Atlantic Canadian shores, were of the pirate variety, often coming with handfuls of existing games, dumped entirely without permission, and sold in stores that either didn't know what they had, or just didn't care... and then purchased by confused parents who most certainly weren't on the up and up about the licensing issues behind games, and just saw x-number of games in 1 as a great value.

I'm not saying these multicarts were "bad," per se, but they did often contain Ikki (sometimes renamed, so as to trick you into thinking you're not about to play Ikki... then bam!). Just throwing that out there.

The trouble with writing about these compilations, though, is that they're not all that interesting to write about. They're just a bunch of old Famicom games you've probably never heard of, give or take a few dozen lazily hacked versions of Super C or Adventure Island, even Ikki doesn't really warrant that much discussion. (you collect coins while throwing what looks like a boomerang at ninjas... rumoured to have been developed by TOSE... there, we talked about it)

So, engaging in my usual pastime of downloading NES roms that looks as though they might be so bad that they're good led me to a game called Caltron 6 in 1. Actually, the game is just called 6 in 1 and is merely published by Caltron, a Taiwanese company you never heard of before, and won't ever hear of again, but given the prevalence of games called x in 1, the name of the publisher was thrown in to avoid confusion.
Speaking of confusion, after Caltron dropped off the face of the Earth, the game was picked up and re-published (and I mean "published" in the loosest definition of the term) by an American company called Myriad... whom you've also never heard of. Thus, Myriad 6 in 1 was also released, and is quite literally the same game with a different cartridge label.

Since the halcyon days of the early 90s, this little gem has, to no one's surprise, failed miserably, and has become a collector's item. Thus, I highly suggest you pirate it instead... or rather I would suggest that were it not an act nothing short of pure communism to suggest such a thing. (Remember, I am fond of Tetris... just throwing that out there). So while I'd like to tell you that the game is on Coolrom, among other places, I can't tell you that, because that would be wrong.

What makes C6i1 such an interesting game is that it dances just along the fine line between original games and pirated early Famicom stuff. To the best of my knowledge, five of the six games on here are original to this compilation, but at the same time, they're also blatantly iterating on an existing popular game, and making said game several degrees worse in the process. The sixth game is one that appears pretty commonly on Taiwanese compilations.

The games are, in order of appearance:
Cosmos Cop
Magic Carpet 1001
Balloon Monster
Adam and Eve

Since there's just the six of them - as opposed to 52, for instance - I'll go over each of them in some degree of detail.
Maybe I'm alone in thinking this, but that title screen looks pretty badass to me. If I didn't already know better, I might think the game I'm about to play might actually be pretty good. You don't see it from a still picture, but there's a pretty cool lightning flash effect as well. Clearly, this game was put at the top of the list for a reason, just as it's main character gets the most box art real estate. What we've got here is Caltron's Cheetahmen, if you will.

Of course, any badassery of this image is a bit undermined by the fact that the game's title is hilariously dumb. Cosmos Cop? Really? It sounds like the title of one of those anti-drug comics that they freely hand out in your local middle school library, usually written by some painfully out of touch moral crusader or by government mandate. I'm sure you can just picture Cosmos Cop having some sort of inane catchphrase, fighting some evil overlord whose diabolical plan is to get the kids of the world addicted to the cranks, or worse, the marijuanas (dun dun dun!!!). He probably namedrops American Idol winners in a desperate bid to relate "those kids today."

Okay, maybe it's just me.

Either way, picture a game licensed from some random "giant robot" anime series. Imagine said game is a complete ripoff of Space Harrier, and it's utterly terrible, and you've got Cosmos Cop. The plot is as follows:

The terror legion from alienation space invaded galaxy
Universal defence headquarters detach Cosmos Cop to destroy them

Mission 1
Cross over outside defence area"

In it's defence, the people who wrote this prologue probably don't actually speak English, and likely had to look up each word individually and string them together as best they could. Babel Fish was still years away, after all. I see no reason to reduce myself to the level of making fun of a foreigner's grasp of the English language... but you guys go ahead. Just pretend like I said something really offensive right here, it's probably not much of a challenge.

(well, okay, I made fun of dude's name, I guess that counts)

There might be more plot to go through past mission 1, but I honestly couldn't tell you, because damn if this game isn't insanely hard! On the plus side, it adds a few cool things to the space harrier formula, like different weapons and a much needed health bar, but it simultaneously takes away anything resembling perception of depth. Objects just kind of appear, spontaneously increase in size once or twice, then disappear as you suddenly take damage. All you can do is clumsily amble around the screen, mashing the fire button, while trying in vein to avoid the random assortment of crazy nightmare shit that may or may not be about to crash into you.
Your gun, for it's part, never seems to fire quite where you want it to, and everything takes too many hits to actually kill. You do have a secondary weapon; a round thing of some sort, but seeing as it's actually effective against the enemies, you only get a small handful of them. It's so severe that at most points, you're really better off just avoiding actually trying to fight back. Maybe this is Cosmos Cop's way of teaching kids the value of pacifism.

So that's it, then you die twice and it's game over, absolutely no continues, and you're left to either start over, or more likely, give the hell up. Should you choose the latter, I feel it only fittin that you take a moment to linger on the thought of the terror legion getting their hands on the children of Earth. Before long, kids will be hopelessly addicted to the heroins, freely engaging in pre-marital sex, and never wearing their seat-belts or bicycle helmets. We believed in you, Cosmos Cop, and you let us down.
As opposed to all the other games on this cart, Magic Carpet 1001 isn't a poorly made version of an existing game, but a game that's commonly found on pirate NES carts and more recently, on plug and play devices, also of pirate origins. I myself own this very game on one such pirate device, only it's been renamed Aladdin, but is otherwise identical. More recently, it surfaced again as a Harry Potter themed game, with a graphical overhaul so it at least looks the part.

While it's heritage makes this possibly the least interesting game on the compilation, it does have one benefit over Cosmos Cop, in that it's at least playable. It's a pretty standard horizontal shooter, that is, if by "pretty standard" you mean "you fly to the right, dodge these things and shoot those ones, and who cares if it doesn't make a damn bit of sense outside of those key points." Come to think of it, that might be the best description of a horizontal shooter I've ever come up with.
So the long and short of it is that you're some guy (possibly Aladdin, possibly Harry Potter) on a magic carpet flying through the middle east, shooting down enemies with a bow and a limitless supply of arrows. And by enemies, I mean birds, bees, bats, evil superheroes, ninjas riding on top of missiles, you know, the things one would expect to find running rampant in the deserts of... wherever the hell this game takes place. Each stage ends with a boss encounter. The first one being that common middle eastern stereotype of a witch on a broomstick, and the second looks rather like a red, fire breathing alligator poking it's head out of a clay pot.

Dammit Cosmos Cop! If only you didn't suck so much! Now all our game designers are smoking the acids. I bet they also litter and hide in the drier all the time.

Aside from the stock villains, most of whom don't really make sense in the setting, and the fact that those camels in the background look like they're 20 feet tall... and barring some balance issues and awkwardness arising from your character's size and odd proportions, this game is entirely playable. Come to think of it, that is a lot of qualifiers, isn't it?

But seriously, it's not terrible. Like a lot of older shooters, you can only have so many bullets on the screen at once, so you need to pick your targets carefully, and actually aim, and while the screen can get a bit flooded with crap at times, it's nothing your modern "bullet hell" fan won't be able to handle. There are powerups, but aside from the 1-up, damn if I can figure out which one does what. To offset some of the imbalances, you're generously given 6 lives.

That's really about all there is to say about it, but I must add that the idea of just randomly cramming licensed characters into old shovelware games is an appealing prospect. I think there's untapped potential here.

Coincidentally, I hear tell that the new Harry Potter game is riffing on Gear of War.
You must think you're pretty special, huh? You must think that brightly coloured balloons shoot out of your... oh wait, apparently they do.

Okay, so at this point in the article, there isn't really a great deal of point in labouring over it. This game is a blatant copy of Pang! (aka Buster Brothers) that seems as though it was programmed by someone who'd only every watched someone else play the game and didn't quite understand how the underlying mechanics worked. I'll get to that in a minute.

What I'd love to do right here is make an allegedly fair and balanced screenshot comparison, but as it turns out, Pang! doesn't seem to have been officially released for the NES, in any capacity that I'm aware of. As luck would have it though, the game was unofficially released by the notorious pirate company known as Sachen. Since both versions are, for all intents and purposes, pirate versions of the same game, it's not really the best indicator of quality, though I do think it speaks volumes that the Sachen version of the game is actually closer to the real thing.

But, not to get bogged down in all the technicalistic terms that I'd only be pretending to understand anyway, here's the pictures. Sachen's inaccurately titled "Super Pang" is on top, Caltron's "Balloon Monster" is below.
Now, first glance can be a bit deceiving here, because while Sachen's version looks a lot better in stills, it actually has a terrible problem with flickering even when there's only two sprites on the screen. In motion, Calton's version looks a lot sharper, what's more important is how the game actually plays, and in this case, a closer inspection of these two screens actually demonstrates that Balloon Monster is, in fact, a crippled and broken game right out of the gate.

The important thing to look at here are the weapons by which these two imitation buster brothers defend themselves. Notice how in Super Pang, the weapon, which appears to be some sort of harpoon, starts at the floor and snakes it's way up to the ceiling. This, you might recognize, is roughly what the weapon looks like and how it operates in the official game. Now, look over at Balloon Monster. The actual weapon therein might not be immediately obvious, but it's there, present only as a series of white rectangles, which are probably supposed to resemble some kind of bullets. (I'm not making any "unidentified white stuff" jokes either, but you guys go ahead. This is this internet, after all.)

The problem is this, those bubble-like objects, I believe they're supposed to be balloons, but whatever... they bounce around within the confines of the single room stage and if they touch you, you die, or rather, you fall upwards for reasons unclear. These balloons obey some kind of rudimentary physics, so that each time they bounce, they don't reach quite the same height as they did the time before.

Some of the more astute readers might already have figures out where this is going. If you're one such person, here's a video of an angry kitten for you to enjoy while the rest of the class reads on. We'll all be caught up by the time it's done.

The long and short of it is this... The harpoon-like weapon of the original Pang! was designed the way that it was so that you don't actually need to be directly underneath the balloons in order to pop them. If you weren't already aware, popped balloons split off and become smaller balloons, Asteroids style, so this kind of positioning is very important, as the screen can get pretty flooded with little tiny balloons if you're not on staying on top of things. The other important detail about the harpoon is that, and this is the key part, because it fires from the floor to the ceiling, it's still able to hit straggling balloons that have no bounce left in them.

By contrast, your weapon in Balloon Monster is some kind of double barrel shotgun that only fires upward from the top of your sprite, meaning that in order to hit anything with it, you actually need to be standing directly underneath that object, and since the balloons themselves behave more or less exactly how they would in a properly made version of this game, as soon as they're no longer bouncing above the height of your character, you're toast. It's just a matter of time before you're backed into a corner and are unable to defend yourself. If you want to pass a single stage of this game, you have an extremely brief window of opportunity in which to do it. Naturally, the game throws more obstacles your way from level 2 onward... good luck with that. But hey, they did give you 6 lives.

Oh, and welcome back, that kitten sure was angry, wasn't it?
This game is so freaking weird, it's practically in it's own category altogether. In effect, what we're dealing with here is a strange mash-up of two things that probably ought not to be mashed up: Balloon Fight and the Book of Genesis.

Yeah, I've got no snappy one-liner for this one, one would just have to wonder about the brainstorming sessions behind this game. "This Balloon Fight game is pretty awesome," says the first guy, "but it's missing something." All sorts of ideas were thrown out there, and somewhere along the way, the answer was decided. "Blasphemy" they shouted, "that's what this game needs. Now, let's get out there and drop nonsensical religious references that practically insult the source material!"

It's like Cosmos Cop's worst nightmare.
So what we see here in this screenshot, Adam is a white caveman with green hair who sticks a balloon his head and flaps his arms to fly, just like in the bible. Eve, meanwhile, is his black with blonde hair caveman counterpart. (more like Adam and Steve... elle-oh-elle!) You do battle, in traditional Balloon Fight style with a series of serpents who end up looking more like earthworms, while a bird occasionally flies over the top of the screen and drops what look like bouncing potatoes into the field. In the first stage, a thing that looks like a bamboo tree takes up most of the screen, and later stages are merely random assortments of little blue platforms and spikes.

It's an epic battle, but don't worry, God's got your back. Throughout the game, yellow balloons with pink ribbons on them will rise up from the bottom of the screen (God's the one whose below us, right? I can't remember) most of which contain bicycle pumps which you can use to re-inflate your damaged balloon. Occasionally, a yellow balloon will yield a gigantic apple. Eating said apple gives you a 1-up, just like in the bible. Whenever killed, you turn into an angel who wears a helmet for some reason, and fly up to heaven. As a neat touch, if you continue to mash the buttons and hold either left or right while dead, you still have some rudimentary ability to steer your angel on the way up, which serves no real purpose other than to demonstrate one of the corners that may or may not have been cut during programming.

Still, if you can get past the fact that the game makes a mockery of millions' of people's fundamental beliefs, it's a decent enough Balloon Fight clone. The fact that the screen doesn't wrap around, added with the blue border that surrounds each level, stages feel much more confined, and the collision physics when you bump into enemies isn't quite as tight as in the real game, but at the same time, the generous influx of bicycle pumps ensures that a cautious player is always able to deal with a few hits without much worry. Plus, the level layout gets creative pretty quickly; observe level 4.
Spikes on the wall that you can get pushed into by enemies, or if you bump into another object with too much speed. Not sure what kind of garden of Eden would have spiked walls like that, but it certainly mixes up the gameplay.

Now, one last point, to be clear on this subject, I point out a lot of the religious stuff in here because, frankly, it makes me laugh, but I'll admit that I'm not particularly sensitive to that kind of thing, and I would advocate that, really, it's not worth getting in too much of a panic about it. In reality, I'm sure this project was not really meant to be taken as a serious statement on anything, and was just hilariously misguided. At the end of the day, I think the one question on all our minds is this: Is it more fun than for-real Balloon Fight?

No, not really, but it does have it's strengths.
It's a Sokoban clone.

As much as I'd enjoy just leaving it at that one sentence fragment, and jumping straight ahead to Bookyman (you know, for comedic effect) this one warrants a little bit of elaboration, because it's actually a rather baffling Sokoban clone.

For those of you who don't know, Sokoban is a classic Japanese puzzle game in which you, a warehouse employee, (a warehouse "porter," if you will) must push a series of boxes strategically around a maze-like storage room, in order to get them onto specific spaces, usually indicated by a red circle, on in this case, a star. The catch is that you can push the boxes, but can't pull them, so you need to be very careful not to push into positions where you'll be unable to move them again afterward. Traditionally, there's only a limited number of steps permitted for each puzzle, so efficiency is also an issue.
It's in this point that Porter first starts to deviate from the conventional formula. Observe the corner of this screenshot, and notice that, en lieu of the step limit is a boring old time limit, probably because it took so much less work to swipe the time limit code from some other game that it would to actually program a proper step counter. Of course, I have no idea if assembly code actually works that way; if not, add that one to the libel file.

The problem with this change is that you're forced into action a lot sooner than you would be in a proper Sokoban game, where you'd be able to sit tight and ponder a puzzle for several minutes, hours (or if you're as dumb as I am, weeks and months) before slowly working it out. Instead, you need to spring into action as quickly as possible and get solving. In theory, this really only changes the pace... so long as the complexity of the puzzles is drastically reduced in order to take that into account. Something tells me this isn't the case with Porter.

Even more bizarre is that, in stark contrast to just about every sanely designed puzzle game ever, you're actually given a limited number of lives, and then a limited number of continues after that. You lose a life whenever the timer runs out, and if you get stuck, you can easily suicide yourself by pressing the B button. Run out of continues, and you need to start back from the first puzzle, meaning that anyone serious about actually getting through this game had better get well acquainted with the first few puzzle... or... you know... with save states.

The puzzles appear to be all original, and the ones I've made it to are only marginally brain teasing, and documentation indicates that there's actually not that many of them, which would suggest that making you play the game properly might actually make it too easy.

The weirdest part of all, despite the fact that this is quite possibly the worst Sokoban clone ever made in earnest, it's still a contender for the best game on this compilation.
Bookyman is pretty unremarkable in terms of funny-bad design decisions. At first glance, it looks like a Pac-Man rip off, but a quick trip to the shrine of undisputed truth, also known as Wikipedia, the game is actually a rip off of a game called Make Trax, itself a pretty liberal adaptation of Pac-Man. Bookyman, in a way, could be called a ripoff of a rip off of Pac-Man, but then some pedantic asshole (who is called Jave) would have to point out that Balloon Fight is a liberal adaptation of Joust, which I didn't bother to bring up in the Adam and Eve portion of this post. I won't allow it, because Balloon Fight is just too awesome to be referred to as a rip off of anything.

Hey, I might contradict myself. but at least I'm not a hypocrite... except for those times when I am, but it's okay because those don't really count.
So, yup, you control a bug that in no way resembles the mouse from the title screen, and just like in Make Trax (try it out in MAME some time, it's not bad) you move around the maze, changing the colour of the path behind you, which is completely different from eating dots. Did you hear me? COMPLETELY DIFFERENT! That's right, in no way whatsoever does it all amount to the same thing in the end, gameplay-wise. So you change the colour of the entire map to clear the stage, after which the background slowly transforms into a series of small hearts over the course of about 13 seconds (yes, I timed it) though it can feel like a damned eternity... and of course you can't skip over it this little celebration, what kind of shit game would that be?

Every stage is the same maze with different colours, complete with the same random-ass cartoon animals waving at you, though each stage has a different random... thing... that leaves a trail of little dots all over your freshly coloured maze, and grants you bonus points when caught, even though catching the bugger is pretty much mandatory. Also, two salamanders chase you around, and you lose a life if they touch you, which is totally different from the four ghosts in Pac-Man. After all, two is less than four, and salamanders are different than ghosts; that's a scientific fact, look it up on Wikipedia.

Even though there's only half as many enemies on the screen, somehow, the two from Bookyman turn out to be much tougher than the four from Pac-Man, because they move as fast as you do, and are completely relentless in their pursuit. Instead of power pellets in the corners, you've got these two paint rollers in that you can push within a limited space to either gain a small speed boost, or attempt to roll over the salamanders in order to temporarily subdue them. Even with the ability to use these rollers as often as you want, the game still puts up one hell of a fight, and in true Caltron style, the programmers decided, instead of rebalancing the difficulty, to just give you 9 lives in the hopes of things working out somewhere in the middle.

And that's Caltron 6 in 1. A collection of 6 games that are all dangerously close to being good, but miss the mark in (I think) fascinating ways. It's also a game that sells for about three to four hundred dollars on eBay for a bare cart, or a fucking thousand dollars for the complete package. Needless to say, if you're just looking to play it, I'd strongly suggest finding some other way. (perhaps through piracy, perhaps not, wink wink)

But anyway, Caltron 6 in 1, if for nothing else than bringing Cosmos Cop into the world, without whom neither the dangers of sniffing the cocaines nor the virtues of recycling might ever be known to the younger generations; Camp Kusoge salutes you.


  1. After reading this article I "acquired" this game. I went to play it but dosen't work at all! I guess that's probably a good thing though...

  2. Don't tell where it came from, and I won't ask.

    All I can really say is that it works fine on the Mac version of Nestopia.

  3. nice insight, its good to see somone putting time and research into their posts. just got my first down, thanks for site and link