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Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Mikie (Konami, 1984)


Originally developed and released for the arcades by Konami in 1984 as "Shinnyushain Tooru-kun".

Converted for the Sega SG-1000 in 1985 by Sega.

Converted for the ZX Spectrum 48k in 1985 by Imagine Studios:
Programming by Jonathan M. Smith
Music by Martin Galway
Title screen by F. David Thorpe

Converted for the Commodore 64 in 1986 by Imagine Studios:
Produced by D.C. Ward
Programming by Tony Pomfret
Graphics by Stephen Wahid
Music by Martin Galway
Title screen by Andrew Sleigh


Converted for the Amstrad CPC in 1986 by Imagine Studios; credits unknown.

Converted for the Acorn Electron and BBC Micro computers by Jon Woods and Peter Johnson, and released by Imagine Studios in 1986.

Unofficially ported from the Sega conversion for the MSX computers in 2004 by SLotman of MSX Files and translated into ROM format by Muffie in 2008.

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INTRODUCTION & GAME STATUS

Now that school's out for summer, it seems like a good time to feature the first school-themed game on the blog. A few months ago, one of my bandmates suggested to do a comparison of this old Konami gem, which frankly surprised me that I hadn't thought of doing before, because the game features something quite rare for any video game of the time: a licenced use of Beatles songs (namely A Hard Day's Night and Twist And Shout) in the soundtrack. So anyway, thanks to Jaakko for the suggestion.

To my knowledge, Mikie ranks in the same league as City Connection, Road Fighter and Hat Trick in that it was only ever mildly popular on any machine it was ever released on, mostly due to its very limited print, and has gained a certain cult classic status. It did receive mostly very good reviews back in the day, and currently our favourite haunts regard the game much like almost 30 years ago: 79 Lemon64 voters have given the C64 version a 7.2; at World of Spectrum, 104 voters have given their version an impressive 8.43; and at CPC Game Reviews, Mikie has received a 5 out of 10, which I really cannot confirm whether or not it corresponds with the original reviews from the Amstrad press of the time. The arcade version has only been voted by one person at MobyGames, so the score of 1.6 out of 5 cannot be considered a very reliable one, and the other versions have even less ratings on the interweb, so I suppose we shall have to make do with the three regulars this time.

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DESCRIPTION & REVIEW

Mikie is another one of those quirky, slightly experimentational arcade-action titles from Konami. The object of the game is to make a successful escape from a boring day at school, and meet your similarly minded girlfriend, who is already waiting for you outside the school, nonchalantly practicing her cheerleading duties. At least outside of Japan. It combines a few different genres in such an effortless way, that it's difficult not to put the game into its very own slot. The most basic gameplay elements are avoidance, distraction and collecting hearts, which mostly require more than just a bit of effort. The game is played from a Sierraesque tilted 2D/3D point-of-view, and most of the time you will be spending inside five different rooms of your high school, which all are naturally linked by hallways. The game not only requires good distance and speed perception skills, but also some sense of tactics. Sometimes, trying to get a perfect score by collecting only the flashing hearts just isn't worth the risk, because some of the rooms are so tight and difficult to navigate around, and each of the rooms have a set number of enemies trying to get to you, be it jockeys, teachers, cooks or janitors. Initially, your only weapon is your head or your loud voice (depending on the version), but some levels give you items to throw at your pursuers.

The game has a very colourful and entertaining style in both graphics and music, which makes the game so much fun to play, but Mikie stands very much on its own in terms of playability as well. If it were nothing more than an update to Pac-Man or Wizard of Wor, I doubt it would be remembered as well as it is. Still, I wonder at its being so little known, at least relatively. Had it been an early NES/Famicom game, it might have easily been a bigger hit all over the world. Perhaps with Mikie's nearly legendary difficulty level, some people have chosen to forget it instead, in order to free themselves from its ability to drive gamers mad. On the other hand, this is exactly one of the main reasons you have to love it.

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LOADING

Obviously, you can't beat the arcade, nor any cartridge version with tapes and disks, but at least you get a loading screen to look at while you wait for any of the tape versions to load up. The C64 version even has the Ocean Loader tune playing. But how about the tape loading times, then? Listed here are the quickest tape loaders of Mikie that I was able to find, as has been the tradition in these cases.

Mikie loading screens:
Top left - Commodore 64 ; Top right - Amstrad CPC
Bottom left - ZX Spectrum ; Bottom right - Acorn BBC


BBC - 4 minutes 48 seconds (orig.)
C64 - 4 minutes 48 seconds (Hit Sq.)
CPC - 4 minutes 32 seconds (orig.)
SPE - 3 minutes 7 seconds (orig.)

The only known disk releases of Mikie were packaged within the Konami Arcade Collection in 1988, which was released on every possible platform but the Acorn computers. The disk versions are, of course, much faster to load than any of the tapes, but are also much more difficult to come by. Also, the disk versions do not feature the loading screens.

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PLAYABILITY

For the first time ever, I believe, we have a game with two ARCADE versions of the game that have some significant differences in graphics and gameplay. It appears as though the original Japanese game doesn't take place in a school at all - instead the game is about your escape from an office building. Therefore, your character has been given the ability to head-butt your boss and similarly break lockers. If the head-butting ability was given to a school boy, it would have perhaps been a bit too controversial... which they initially did for the original translation. Someone apparently thought that a schoolboy shouldn't act so violently towards his teachers, and so they changed his attack to shouting for the later version (subtitled "High School Graffiti"), which isn't as effective, but at least, the teacher is initially slower in the said version. Unfortunately, none of these features will help the fact that the game is stupidly difficult, and most of the gamers will probably never be able to get past level 2 even on the easy setting - at least without using savestates on MAME. I already lost my mind once while trying to play this bugger without savestates and even with savestates it took me a few days of insanity to make it through once. The reason why it took me so long is because your teacher/boss changes his speed, supposedly according to his anger level, but mostly because all three enemy characters in level 2 will always perform as a team to catch you, and even more because you really have to be precise AND lightning fast about your actions in order to get all the hearts in the level. In the home conversions, it isn't always so. Also in the Dance Studio (level 4), unlike in the home conversions, all the dancers in the original arcade game react to your near presence by changing their movement patterns, which will make your life a complete hell, because your home teacher continues to pursue you even more vigorously than before, and doesn't care one bit about all the teenage dancers. Turned out, you only needed to find the perfect route to get through that  particular level. One thing in particular has been bugging me about the arcade versions: although the objects are supposed to be represented in a tilted 3D form, all the solid objects are solid all the way, and controlling your character around everything takes more time and feels unnatural - even colliding with enemies can happen in a longer range than you would expect. So, even though it technically is in a very different league than most of the home conversions, it still is an impossibly difficult game, and not very recommended. Mind you, the original Japanese version is slightly less hellish.

Anyway, in the arcade versions, your controls are as such: the joystick controls Tooru-kun or Mikie in the four main directions, but the directions have additional uses as well. You can nudge off (hip-zap) other people from their seats by tapping the joystick towards them (left or right) when you happen to be right next to them, and you can sit down on a bench or stand up again by tapping the joystick up or down in the obvious places in level 1 (this will soothe your boss/teacher). You also have two fire buttons - one for opening doors and picking up/throwing objects and one for attacking (head-butting or shouting).
Cover art for the Sega SG-1000 conversion.

Strangely, the first home conversion to make it out of the workshops was apparently for the SEGA SG-1000, rewritten by Sega. This particular version was later unofficially ported for the MSX, and everything about it is precisely the same, so there is no need to talk of both versions separately. Somewhat true to the original, the Sega conversion is hard as nails, but now more due to bad collision detection than just plain old difficulty. The problem with depth graphics is even worse here than in the arcades, as you can easily bump into objects of a difficult shape, that have been stretched out to make weird spacings between chairs and tables and all sorts of things. This, I can only imagine, has been probably made so due to the machine's inability to handle such detailed shapes when it comes to collision areas. The AI is not as calculating, and at times your pursuers seem to act quite randomly, but most of the time it's difficult enough to cause some serious headache. Trying to head-butt your enemies successfully will make you lose your mind, because you need to be SO DAMN precise about it, and any minor false timing or location will get your face on the floor. At least the Sega version of Tooru-kun skips the Dance Studio, so I got through the game with savestates and quite a lot of practice, but it's still far from being a fair challenge.

On our side of the world, Imagine published the first conversion for the 48k ZX SPECTRUM. Good old Joffa Smifff took the job, and sure enough created quite possibly the most playable version out there - the game is challenging enough, but still easy enough for the less hardcore of us to be able to beat the game in one sitting. The Speccy version gives you a less intellectual group of pursuing personnel, which helps a good deal when your default weapon is a very ineffective shout. Every character also seems to move at a solid speed, which makes planning your escape slightly easier. There is some collision problems with the desks in level 1, but at least it's not the same as with the arcade and Sega versions. You can sort of walk through the edges of the desks, making the point of collision more focused on the chairs, and you can get around the desks more easily by making Mikie sort of slide around the corners if you are a bit hasty in your controlling. The Spectrum version's controls are interesting: you can choose one of three joysticks, in which case every non-directional action can be performed with the single joystick button, and you can also choose to play on keyboard, in which case you get two fire buttons, just like in the arcades. Neat, huh? Unfortunately, the original Spectrum release has a bug that may crash the game, when you get "perfect" rounds, which somewhat devalues it, even if I personally never experienced it from my own tape. However, World of Spectrum hosts a bugfixed version which you can easily transfer on a cassette tape or play on an emulator, provided of course that you own the original, as the rule goes.

As is so often the case, the Spectrum's closest competitor is once again the COMMODORE 64 conversion. The game is controlled only with joystick, so it plays just like the Spectrum's joystick version in that sense. The enemy behaviour is very similar to the Spectrum version, but in some levels, the enemies' roles are switched around somehow. It doesn't matter much on the whole, but it's still different. The biggest difference in the C64 conversion to all the others is the way you actually move around in the rooms - all the objects for once actually are nicely planted in a 3D sort of depth, and not only for the sake of decoration. This most particularly helps the first level, as you are now able to walk naturally between desks and chairs as you should have been able to in the arcade version already. Also, picking up hearts from lockers and tables doesn't need quite as precise actions as in the other versions. For these two reasons, I'm inclined to give the C64 the top spot here, but the Spectrum version does have more control options, and for the most part, the two are just as playable. So, they shall have to endure each other's company on the top spot.

The AMSTRAD version takes us back closer to the arcade and Sega versions, at least in terms of difficulty. The controls are based on the one-button joystick control method, in both joystick and keyboard's cases. Your pursuers still act in a fairly random, but hostile way, much like in the previous two versions, but due to the CPC's graphic mode, the rooms have been redesigned to fit the screen, and thus leaving less space for you to dodge your pursuers. Level 2 is still the most difficult part of the game, but now for different reasons. For the most part, it's difficult to control Mikie in levels 2 and 3 because there's so much action on the screen that the framerate drops significantly, making everything unbelievably sluggish and difficult to follow if everything is happening on the screen as you intend to. The last two rooms are by contrast incredibly easy, particularly the dancing class room, where the dancers only do a circular motion.

It is an event of sorts, when an ACORN computer version of any game can be called better than some of its mostly unfair competitors. Truly, the Electron and BBC Micro versions (which are exactly the same) are comparatively playable, if not exactly comfortable. The game can only be played on the keyboard, which is a bit awkward if you happen to be using an emulator, but at least you can remap the keys on the BeebEm, if you wish to. The original keys are Z for left, X for right, * for up, ? for down, RETURN for hip-zap/unlock door/throw objects, and SHIFT for shouting and taking objects. Of course, this means that the gameplay already has one singularly strange feature, because in all the other versions of Mikie, you can pick up and throw objects with the same button, and thus makes the Acorn version only uselessly difficult to get used to. Also unhelpful is the way your enemies move around, as most of the time your main pursuer moves exactly the same speed as yourself, and mostly acts like a homing pigeon. Thankfully, the AI isn't always very constant, so you will get some breathers. Then again, you might get stuck in your seat while the teacher hangs around in front of you just long enough to decide that he will throw his teeth at you. So in the end, it's still not very good, but at least I managed to beat it with savestates.

I usually give the arcade version the top spot, simply for being the original version, which usually means the game has the most gameplay elements and the most comfortable playability, because that is how it was meant to be played. Of course, such might have been the case this time as well, were it not for the insane difficulty of the original. So, here we have a relatively unorthodox result...

1. COMMODORE 64 / ZX SPECTRUM
2. AMSTRAD CPC
3. ACORN ELECTRON / BBC MICRO
4. SEGA SG-1000 / MSX
5. ARCADE

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GRAPHICS

You can already see quite clearly from the title sequences, what kind of quality you will be seeing in every version of the game, as some of them have no better title screen than a high score list or the in-game informational table standing alone in the middle of the screen. Unsurprisingly, the arcade version is the only one to feature some sort of instructional demo that will be played after about 10 seconds of idling.

Title sequences. Top left: Arcade versions (Japan and World) - Top right: Commodore 64.
Bottom row, left to right: Sega SG-1000, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Acorn computers.



Now, let's start the graphics comparison with the ARCADE version. At least graphically, it beats all the conversions quite easily, but it does have an advantage in hardware. As I mentioned earlier, there are two different arcade versions - one released in Japan and one elsewhere in the world. Apart from the game title logo and some of the characters and animations, not too much has been altered that would make it feel like an entirely different game. Mostly, the characters represent a different environment, but look just as good both ways. The most notable animation differences are the one for your attack, which has been mentioned earlier, and the one for your capture: in the original version, you get Mikie rolling on the floor, while in the less violent "High School Graffiti" alternative version, Mikie is seen standing beside his capturer, and sobbing in contrition. Some of the more obvious details have been altered as well, like the jars of hearts to a pile of three hearts and the blackboard text, for instance. Nothing too fancy, but just interesting enough to make a fan of the game more interested in playing the different versions through, and hope they have the skills to do it.

Screenshots from different arcade versions. Top row: original Japanese version. Middle row: translated version.
Bottom row: death scenes from all three principal arcade versions.


From the Imagine conversions, the ones released for the AMSTRAD and ACORN computers look the worst, almost equally bad. The graphic quality is very similar - low and scarce in detail, but the Amstrad version loses by an inch due to the worse animation and the level design not being true to the arcade. Besides, the framerate drop in levels with more enemies running around is so fantastic that it would have been enough reason to drop the Amstrad version to the last place. Still, it does have quite a bit more colours in use than the Acorn version, and more personal look to all the sprites, and it also has both hallway bits intact, so it's not all bad.

Screenshots from the Amstrad CPC conversion (top section) and the Acorn conversion (bottom section).


As mentioned before, the unofficial MSX conversion from 2004 is pretty much exactly the same game as the SEGA 1985 rewrite it was ported from, so there is no need to compare them between themselves - at least not in this area. Somehow, though, the Sega conversion of Tooru-kun feels more like a Japanese game than the arcade original, and it looks every bit as quirky as a Japanese arcade game should. It's not exactly as pretty as the arcade game, nor even as characteristically Mikie-like as the Imagine conversions, but in its own way, it's quite nice. Of course, in case you missed it earlier, the set of screenshots is missing the dance studio bit, because it doesn't exist here, and the hallways have been squeezed to just one screen as well, which means you have to be running the stairs back and forth, so actually the lack of graphics actually affects the gameplay quite a bit. Whether it's a good thing or bad, is for each gamer to decide upon, but when comparing it to the arcade original, I can't consider it good.

Screenshots from the Sega SG-1000 (and MSX) conversion.


It needs to be mentioned, that the SPECTRUM version starts off with a relatively show-offish, unique animation of a bunch of hearts randomly circling around in the middle of the screen, which has to be told to go away so the title screen can come up. I couldn't sensibly include that particular screen in the title sequence collage, so I included a shot of it here. The in-game graphics themselves are a bit of an eyeful, to be honest, although I know the Speccy community will try to vigorously defend their version. It's alright when you don't have anything to compare it to; in fact, the graphics are very good and fitting in many ways. Particularly the animations and all the little details are very nice. It's just that when you compare the colour scheme used here to the original, you will see the Spectrum version looks a bit too bright and contrast-rich. I mean, you wouldn't want to look at those colours for all your high school years, would you? The high-quality monochrome sprites are understandable considering the platform, and work quite well in contrast with all the other colours. All things considered, this is one of the best-looking versions out there.

Screenshots from the ZX Spectrum conversion.


For the most part, the C64 graphics are quite faithful to the arcade original, when looking at colours, animations and level design. The sprites are of lower quality than in either the Sega/MSX or the Spectrum conversions, but they all do have more natural colours. There are some things I don't really agree with, such as the brown floor in the Dance Studio and the walls having no details. But the most important thing about the C64 version is the better depth effect regarding all the solid objects, which affects the playability in a very positive way, and that is the only real reason, why it wins over the Spectrum version here.

Screenshots from the Commodore 64 conversion.


Finally, as we get to the endings, you will most likely be sorely disappointed in the comparative unceremoniousness of it, unless you happened to be playing either the arcade or the Sega version, which are basically the same. The Sega version makes a slightly bigger deal out of the ending by presenting it in a completely new screen, unlike every other version, where the ending (or what is left of it) is played in the same screen with the final level.

Ending sequences. Top row, left to right: Commodore 64, Acorn Electron/BBC, Amstrad CPC.
Bottom row, left to right: ZX Spectrum, Sega SG-1000/MSX, Arcade versions (Japan and World).


With so many different looking conversions, it is easy to put everything in a good order. Of course, as the arcade original acts as the basis for the comparison, the scores will have to be given accordingly.

1. ARCADE
2. COMMODORE 64
3. ZX SPECTRUM
4. SEGA SG-1000 / MSX
5. ACORN ELECTRON / BBC MICRO
6. AMSTRAD CPC

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SOUNDS

I would have liked to base the score for this section on the best rendition of "A Hard Day's Night" alone, but I suppose it wouldn't have been very fair. So, let's consider the idea of the soundtrack first. Three of the tracks in the original sound like most of the other Japanese arcade games from the time - very happy-go-lucky-like tunes in a jazzy/vaudevillian melodic sense; two of the tracks are from the Beatles catalogue (the aforementioned "A Hard Day's Night" and "Twist and Shout") and level 5 tune is apparently an original rock tune. So, the basis is very much on old rock'n'roll and comedy music. Only the hallway tune is something completely different, which somehow reminds me of that first underground tune from Super Mario Bros. Of course, the original game features some sound effects to go along with all the music, so it's a strong contender for the grand prize here.

The SEGA and MSX conversions finally differ somehow in this section. The only tunes left in this pair are that Beatles tune, which plays in all normal levels; that hallway tune, and the "Game Over" ditty. At least the Sega version has some sort of percussion in the music. There are some sound effects as well, but the game gets less interesting more quickly due to the lack of tunes.

Strangely, the makers of the ACORN versions decided to transpose "A Hard Day's Night" for each level by half a step. It is funny at first, but the novelty wears off quickly enough when the playability issues truly kick in. There are some basic sound effects in as well, but it's not as bad as it could be.

The AMSTRAD version is even worse off. The only time you will hear any music is in the high score table, which is "A Hard Day's Night", naturally. The sound effects are just horrible, only a couple of boops and blips, and some sort of machine gun fire for when you get the doors open. It's really cheap, and I sort of understand, why would someone not take the credit for creating the conversion with this sort of quality work.

Although the SPECTRUM only ever had a 48k version of the game, the sounds from the beeper are surprisingly well made. Then again, it's Galway and Joffa at work, so it's no surprise. There are two proper tunes left from the original soundtrack: that Beatles tune and the one that was originally in level 2. You get the Beatles in the title screen, and the other tune once you have written your name on the high score list. Also included are the "Get Ready" ditty and the "Game Over" ditty. All the sound effects in the game are very much trademark Joffa noises and blips. Even with the Speccy beeper, the tunes and sounds work very nicely, although it feels perhaps slightly more punk than it should, but at least the melodies almost sound like they were simulated to sound something like a distorted electric guitar, which is a good thing.

Imagine my surprise when I found out that the intro tune on the C64 version was the only version you could hear it on. It's another rocking trademark Galway tune, which fits in perfectly with the game's more rocking tunes. All the tunes from the arcade are intact as well (not to mention very well made) - even the high score tune, which didn't make it to any other conversion. There are even some very nice sound effects for quite a lot of things, so it's definitely the richest sound environment of the home conversions. I would even go so far as to call it the best one around, since the soundtrack's instrumentation by Martin Galway has been made to suit the rock tunes better than the arcade's blippy soundtrack, but the sound effects are an altogether different argument. So, the two shall have to share.

1. ARCADE / COMMODORE 64
2. ZX SPECTRUM
3. SEGA SG-1000
4. MSX
5. ACORN ELECTRON / BBC MICRO
6. AMSTRAD CPC

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OVERALL

Hmm. I'm not entirely sure what to make of the overall results this time, but what I can tell you is which versions you should most certainly steer clear of. Well, not even that really, since it is best that you should decide for yourself, because my gaming skills may not be on the same level as yours. Who knows, you might think the arcade is actually the best one around. I'm just saying, the two on the top require the least amount of practice to be beaten, and all the others require a whole bunch of savestates.

1. COMMODORE 64: Playability 5, Graphics 5, Sounds 6 = TOTAL 16
2. ZX SPECTRUM: Playability 5, Graphics 4, Sounds 5 = TOTAL 14
3. ARCADE: Playability 1, Graphics 6, Sounds 6 = TOTAL 13
4. SEGA SG-1000: Playability 2, Graphics 3, Sounds 4 = TOTAL 9
5. MSX: Playability 2, Graphics 3, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 8
6. ACORN COMPUTERS: Playability 3, Graphics 2, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 7
7. AMSTRAD CPC: Playability 4, Graphics 1, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 6

Perhaps I should start devising a new scoring system, because these mathematical things only tend to look silly. Anyhow, in my opinion, the two at the top should be at the top, but depending on your schooling of art appreciation, you may perhaps enjoy the Spectrum conversion more. The rest of them are a bit randomly placed, and should not be considered anything near the complete truth. Try all the versions out for yourself, if you dare.

Screenshot from the unfinished Atari conversion.
While googling for any lesser known information about Mikie, I stumbled upon a video of an unofficial work-in-progress conversion of Mikie for the Atari 8-bits via AtariAge. The port apparently isn't finished quite yet, but would be a very welcome addition to the lot, as it seems to be based on the C64 conversion, but would feature a more rocking soundtrack. Take a look at the video here on YouTube.

That's it for now, thanks for reading! And also, thanks again to Jaakko for the suggestion.
See you next time with something a bit different... =)

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