Hardcore Gaming 101 Presents: Japanese Video Game Obscurities
Splatterhouse Wanpaku Graffiti (1989)
Developer: Now Production (Namco)
Namco's Splatterhouse is one of the first true horror arcade games. While fundamentally a simple Kung Fu-style beat-em-up, the grotesque monsters and gory visuals made it stand out among the crowd, and still today it's viewed as a masterwork of pixel artwork. But while the series found a home on the TurboGrafx-16 and Genesis, its terrifying visuals wouldn't really fly on the NES, which was still primarily aimed at kids. So Namco took a different route and made a parody of itself, turning the undead mask-wearing hero Rick into a super-deformed hero, and giving the rest of the series' conventions a cutesy makeover. That result is Splatterhouse Wanpaku Graffiti (Wanpaku means "mischievous" and graffiti, at least used here in Japanese, means something like "doodles").
In turning it into a Famicom game, obviously much of the gore had to be removed, but it's still fairly violent, even if it's presented in a comical manner. Many of the scenes are parodies of famous horror scenes - in the first stage, Dracula comes out from a stage and puts on a dance number similar to Michael Jackson's Thriller; there are references to The Fly, Poltergeist, and The Burning; Rick, with his hockey-like mask was always a reference to Jason in Friday the 13th but there are even more allusions here; and it even brings in characters from other Namco games, like Kai from Tower of Druaga and Tarosuke from Yokai Dochuki. One of the most amusing fights is when a whole torrent of Alien-like chestbursters leap from the stomach of a seemingly dead girl, only for her to get up and walk away, seemingly without a scratch, when they're all defeated.
The mix of comedy and horror must've been too weird for Namco to release outside of Japan, despite Splatterhouse's popularity overseas. It does resemble Bandai's NES game Monster Party, which, weirdly, was never released in Japan. Capcom pulled a similar maneuver by making all of its characters super-deformed in its NES beat-em-up Mighty Final Fight, a pseudo-conversion of its famous arcade game.
Yume Penguin Monogatari (1991)
Penta the penguin, along with the Gradius Moai heads, was one of Konami's mascots during the 1980s. After his marathon sprints in Antarctic Adventure (Famicom and MSX) and Penguin Adventure (MSX), he really let himself go - the svelte figure that carried him across several hundred kilometers quickly morphed into an obese lump. His girlfriend, Penko, threatens to leave unless he can lose some weight, a challenge Penta accepts. Unfortunately, waiting in the wings is his nemesis Ginji, who wants to steal Penko for his own, and vows to throw a wrench in Penta's exercise regime.
Yume Penguin Monogatari ("Dream Penguin Story") is a completely ridiculous game. A departure from the 3D pseudo-racing predecessors, this Famicom title presents Penta's quest to lose weight as a typical side-scroller, though with very unconventional mechanics. Most of the ridiculousness lies in the game's loopy cartoon logic - Penta starts the game in a "chubby" state, and can either slim down or get fatter based on various actions. Each of the three forms also has different skills – he's much faster when he's skinnier, but is stronger when he's fatter. He loses weight by eating diet drinks and gains weight by gulping apples. He'll also inflate to his fattest state falling into water, which causes him to inflate like a balloon. Enemies won't damage him directly, but it will stun him, and if you don't make it to the end of the stage when the timer runs out, or get there without reaching the proper weight goal, Penko will break up with you... over the phone, no less.
There's some cruel gender politics at play here, made absurd thanks to its overwhelming cuteness. This is the most adorable game released on the Famicom, with detailed animations and an impossibly peppy soundtrack. It's a bit on the short side, and the sporadic shoot-'em-up segments drag, but it's almost guaranteed to bring a smile to your face.