Kishin Douji Zenki and the Case for Handheld Games

The Game Gear was a handheld console Sega ran with from 1990 to 1996, selling over ten million units. Unlike Nintendo’s Game Boy, the Game Gear displayed games in full color, had a backlit screen, and could be held (relatively) comfortably with its landscape format. It was cheaper than the Atari Lynx and the NEC TurboExpress (PC Engine GT in Japan), and managed to build a strong library of fun games to play on the go. Some were ports of Master System games, some were simpler versions of Genesis/Mega Drive games, and some were their own original titles created specifically for the Game Gear.

It is this third category of games that perhaps will interest retro gamers the most these days. Many of these titles were Japan-only (a running trend for Sega consoles apparently), but in recent years they’ve received English fan translations. Titles such as Megami Tensei Gaiden: Last Bible, Magic Knight Rayearth, Moldorian, Godzilla: Monsters Attack, Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon S, and the game I’ll be writing about today: Kishin Douji Zenki, which released in Japan in September 1995. This is a platformer that lets you play as two distinct characters (sort of three, actually), and adapts what I assume is a simplified version of the story told in the anime and manga of the same name.

Kishin Douji Zenki (or Demon God Child Zenki) was a 12-volume manga that ran from 1992 to 1996, and had a 51-episode anime adaptation in 1995. The story seems pretty straightforward. A sealed demon god named Zenki is freed by a shrine maiden girl named Chiaki, but Zenki is generally stuck in the form of a pipsqueak child. Chiaki can use a magical bracelet to temporarily return Zenki to his supercharged adult warrior form, and together the two fight off monsters of the week and scheming villains that are using Macguffins called the seeds of Karuma.

In the Game Gear game, you choose who to play as before each stage: Chiaki or child-form Zenki. Chiaki attacks by shooting fireballs (making a finger gun when doing so), while Zenki jumps in a ball to defeat enemies (you know, like Sonic the Hedgehog). Chiaki can destroy certain blocks to gain special power-ups, while Zenki can roll through hidden passageways. Levels are fairly short, but the ability to play through them as two different characters and find secret routes adds a lot for the game’s replayability. At times there are also boss battles, in which you play as adult-form Zenki. With his full power unlocked, Zenki can punch, block projectiles, and utilize four different magic abilities (pause, then select which power to have on-hand for your charged attack). To defeat bosses, you’ll not only need to learn the enemies’ attack patterns, but also work out which magic ability proves the most effective against them.

All in all the game is what I’d call a fun romp. For a Game Gear title, the presentation is top-notch (I was surprised by the number of cut scenes that were incorporated in the game), and the visuals in general are just fantastic. The character sprites are crisp and well-defined, and the backgrounds are lush and detailed. My favorite visual effect is whenever Chiaki shoots a fireball, which illuminates her sprite a bit (as in, the glowing fire in front of her reflects off her body). Screenshots here probably don’t look that impressive, but when you’re actually playing it on a small-screened handheld, it’s good stuff. Again though, if you’re going to be reviewing it or something, I think you’ve got to imagine yourself playing this in 1995, on a Game Gear. It wouldn’t be fair to compare it to today’s modern platformers, or even to titles releasing on home consoles in 1995… right?

But therein lies the struggle that handheld consoles have always faced: the inevitable comparisons to games made for more powerful home consoles. Why play any of the Sonic or Shinobi games on the Game Gear when you can play the superior ones on the Genesis? Similarly, why play Uncharted: Golden Abyss or Killzone: Mercenary on the PS Vita, when you can play “real” Uncharted games and “real” first-person shooters on “real” consoles? The answer of course is portability, but it seems that isn’t a thing that even gets considered by a lot of people.

I think it’s a shame, but what can you do? I’m only starting to dive into the Game Gear library, but I’m already finding some fun titles like Halley Wars and Tails Adventure. They’re simpler than the shoot-em-ups and metroidvanias of today, but that’s only to be expected. As long as it’s fun, then I’m in. And for what I consider the Game Gear’s spiritual successor, the PS Vita, I could go on all day about the games I’ve enjoyed playing on that. You either “get it” or you don’t though, and for one reason or another most folks didn’t want to give the Vita the time of day. Certainly Sony could have done better to market and support the system, but I feel the general gaming public was also pretty harsh on its games since Day One. Instead of being impressed by these big titles running on a small but well-built handheld, it was much more commonplace to bemoan the frames per second or draw distance, and immediately proclaim there were better games to be had on the PS3 or PS4. Certainly there were certain games that ran too poorly on the Vita and thus were not fun to play–but there were many more that ran just fine, or at least ran well enough to not hinder enjoyment.

It’s the same for the Game Gear. Yes, some games on it suffer due to the small screen size or tinny sound effects. But there were also games that made it work. There were developers that creatively worked within the handheld’s limitations and released some solid titles that are still fun to play through today. Kishin Douji Zenki is one of them. The character sprites are not too big, and enemies attack in ways that rarely feel unfair. Controls are responsive and easy to pick up for both playable characters. The platforming challenges are clear to understand. Bosses can be difficult, but not overbearingly so. Careful exploration of the short levels is encouraged and awarded effectively (secret paths, extra levels, hidden power-ups), and playing as both characters in each level provides two unique gameplay experiences. And hey, even the sound for this game isn’t bad.

So fire it up! Supper, TheMajinZenki, and Filler did good work on the fan translation, which you can find here.

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Battle Golfer Yui and the Fun of Offbeat Japanese Games

Battle Golfer Yui

On February 15, 1991, Japan received an interesting new game for the Sega Mega Drive (AKA Sega Genesis in North America), developed by Santos and published by Sega. It was a golf game titled バトルゴルファー唯 (Battle Golfer Yui), which mixed things up by including a quirky story about cybernetic-enhanced golfers created by a mad scientist trying to take over the world. This story plays out via simple text adventure segments between each golf tournament. You gradually earn special golfing abilities as you go along, and many of the golf courses are designed in amusing ways (e.g. a ghost-shaped course featuring Japanese tombstones as hazards). You can get a good rundown of the game in this DidYouKnowGaming? video.

Battle Golfer Yui is not what I’d call a great game, but I still enjoyed playing through it. The simple yet dicey gameplay is more or less what you’d expect of a golf game of its time, though perhaps a bit more frustrating to succeed in thanks to the course designs overly filled with sand bunkers, water hazards, and out-of-bounds cliffs. The putting also felt off, always requiring me to hit the ball much harder than I expected. What actually makes this title stand out though is its wild plot. You are here for the 90s-style anime golf matches against a baseball player, an occult girl, a power ranger, a robot clone, and–uh, this guy.

It’s weird, obviously. But it’s great. Japanese pop culture has its oddities, but so does any other country’s pop culture. Instead of just mocking everything, it’s more fun to learn the context behind these jokes. And in the case of Battle Golfer Yui, I think much of my enjoyment came from learning about all the different things its story was referencing and poking fun at. Stories that were parodied included:

  • Kamen Rider Black — a Kamen Rider TV series from the late 80s. Kamen Rider is a very popular superhero franchise in Japan along the lines of Super Sentai (which was localized as Power Rangers in North America), but with insect-theming and motorcycles. There is generally more of a plot to Kamen Rider shows, and the Black iteration entailed the two lead characters being captured by an evil organization and getting turned into cyborgs, but the protagonist escapes before the brainwashing can be completed. The protagonist then uses the newly-acquired cyborg powers to fight the evil organization. Battle Golfer Yui uses the exact same premise… but adds golf.
  • Kikaider — another live-action superhero show (this one from the 70s), by the same creator as Kamen Rider. Kikaider is an android of justice, much like Mega Man and other robot heroes from Japan. The battle golfer Yui contrasts with such heroes by being an average everyday high schooler who gets (understandably) exasperated by her bizarre circumstances. And instead of fighting, she plays golf.
  • Cyborg 009 — a manga from the 60s and 70s, also by the creator of Kamen Rider and Kikaider. At this point I should mention this creator is Shotaro Ishinomori, a hugely influential figure in Japanese entertainment. He started off as an assistant to the “god of manga,” Osamu Tezuka. Tezuka was the manga creator of Astro Boy, which would be adapted into what is generally considered the first popular anime. I imagine it’s no coincidence that Astro Boy is about an android who uses his robot powers to go on adventures and vanquish evil. Cyborg 009 meanwhile is about nine individuals turned into cyborgs by an evil organization, but they escape and fight back against the villain’s plot for world destruction. There was a trilogy of CG films made for the franchise recently (subtitled Call of Justice), which was later split into 12 episodes and put on Netflix.
  • Kyojin no Hoshi — AKA Star of the Giants. A baseball manga from the 60s.
  • GeGeGe no Kitaro — AKA Kitaro of the Graveyard. A manga from the 60s involving Japan’s folklore creatures known as yokai. It recently had a new anime updated for modern audiences, which you can watch on Crunchyroll.
  • Kaiketsu Zubat — another 70s superhero TV drama. This was also created by Ishinomori. From what I gather, this one had a bit of a wild west cowboys theme to it (despite taking place in Japan) and the lead hero was a detective who kept his super suit hidden in his acoustic guitar. It sounds delightful.

I can only imagine what it would have been like to be a kid in Japan in 1991 playing Battle Golfer Yui. How many of the references would I have gotten? The story is random in a way that’s still funny, even if you don’t know what’s being parodied specifically. But I think an at least subconscious awareness (through pop culture osmosis) of the various character archetypes and plot conventions being played with would have definitely added to the experience.

I’m trying to imagine a version of Battle Golfer Yui being made in the US for gaming audiences today, in some parallel universe. We’ll call it Battle Golfer Suzy, and fill it with references to things from 20-40 years ago. One day, Suzy is turned into a cyborg and for no reason is code-named Inspector Gizmo. She wears a trenchcoat and a hat with a helicopter propeller attached to it. Her first golf match is against Emilio Feztevez, who wears a fez and a Mighty Turkeys hockey jersey. In the next golf match she faces a sad teenage witch named Sobrina, accompanied by a talking cat named Solemn. Later, she must defeat a weird superhero: Cockroach-Man, who is not nearly as friendly as his spider counterpart. Finally, Suzy must put an end to Dr. Clog’s evil plot and save her friend Jenny, who has turned evil and looks like one of the Borg from Star Trek.

A game like that would definitely look bizarre to anyone unfamiliar with the stories being referenced–but even to those who aren’t, I think it would still be funny, if only for the sheer randomness of it all. Either way, it’s going to be a trip. And Battle Golfer Yui is precisely that, especially once you reach the final act of its absurd plot. The conclusion in particular can easily be included in a list for biggest WTF endings in video game history. Definitely the highlight of the game. It may be weird, but I like it. Give me more weird games, if it means entertaining and innovative. Or hell, even just entertaining is fine. That’s what games are supposed to be, right?

In a way, I think golf might be the perfect sport to use for a silly story like this. Golf is something of an outlier in the world of sports. It’s just a funny game in general, with all its strange clubs, its massive hazard-filled playing fields, its extensive downtime between swings, its (essentially) single-player nature, and all its bird-themed lingo. It also has the reputation of being a casual and relaxing sport to play on your day off work, and yet it seems to be the sport specifically designed to frustrate players as much as possible. Battle Golfer Yui captures both ends of that spectrum, I suppose, with its aggravating need for exact precision in the golf gameplay, and its laid-back shenanigans during the text adventure segments. Just a chill afternoon on hole 9, hanging out with your pals. And by pals, I mean cyborg terrorists. And by hole 9, I mean a series of floating islands above a lava-filled wasteland.

There were a lot of zany games that were only released in Japan back in the 90s. That was a shame of course, but I imagine there would have also been a bit of fun to starting up an import title and just seeing what unpredictable things would show up on the screen. You can still experience that to some degree, but it’s just not the same anymore. The types of games that remain Japan-only generally have a different feel to them these days, and the internet is always there to quickly fill you in on everything. So it’s nice to see some of these older titles making a small sort of comeback thanks to the efforts of fan translators. Now you can experience for yourself this blast from the past: the unbelievable magic of battle golfing. Filler and Supper did a great job on the translation patch, which you can find here. Why not give it a shot?