Saturday, 10 October 2015

NGOTM: Nanako in Classic Japanese Monster Castle (Computer Emuzone, 2007)

Based on Jose Gonzalez's original game Classic Japanese Monster Castle, released by LOKOsoft in 1991 for the ZX Spectrum 48k.

Concept, programming, graphics and sound effects by na_th_an. Originally released as freeware for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum 48k in 2007.

Converted for the Amstrad CPC by the Mojon Twins in 2009, powered by PSG Player by WYZ and cpcrslib by Artaburu. Uses Exomizer 2 decompressor for Z80 by Metalbrain.

Converted for the Commodore 64 by the Mojon Twins in 2010: Programming by Algarbi, graphics by Nathan Asshantti and Domingo Alvarez, music by Sascha Zeidler and Mikael Backlund.

Converted for the Sinclair ZX81 by the Mojon Twins in 2011: Programming and graphics by na_th_an, concept and story by the Mojon Twins, level design by Zemman, Anjuel and Jf_Jara.

Original cover art by Pagantipaco. Cover art for the ZX81 version by Anjuel.



It's been a long while since I did my last New Game Of The Month, so I figured it's time to dig up another one of these, since the single one I had on my research list was thematically suitable for October. This time, it's not a particularly NEW game as such, since we're talking about a game that was released 8 years ago already, but the word "New" in the series name implies games that were released long after the machines' commercial demise, so in that sense, the word is still valid. As for the selected game having much to do with our current Halloween theme... well, perhaps Classic Japanese Monster Castle isn't the most frightening title ever in any possible way, but I guess it wasn't really meant as such. But classic Japanese monsters? I admit that I'm really out of my league here, but I don't think a single-screen puzzle-platformer with creatures... well, a creature, to be more precise, just barely resembling some sort of monster that anyone could have made up move around without any inclination of appearing scary really fits the bill. But let's not get too much ahead of ourselves.

I should start by saying something about Computer Emuzone, which was at one time the most important community dedicated to preserve and document Spanish computer games and everything around the Spanish gaming culture. In 2004, they created a development group, called the Emuzone Computer Games Studio, which divided into four labels, similarly to Firebird, Mastertronic, U.S. Gold, etc. The Silver range (CEZ Silver) would feature simpler and less packaged games, but still of a fairly good quality, of which Nanako in Classic Japanese Monster Castle is an example of, and one of the rare ones that had a good amount of conversions done for other machines from the original Spectrum version. Eventually in 2009 after having published the remake of Captain Sevilla, the group dissolved, but happily, many individual members of the group still remain active in other currently well known retro computer game development teams.

Now, to get back to the game at hand, Nanako in CJMC is a remake of a 1991 ZX Spectrum game of the same name by Jose Gonzalez (who, if I have understood correctly, is the very same na_th_an responsible for the 2007 remake, among other great things), so I had to take a look at the original before having a fair chance at telling how much good the newer version actually is. I shall get into the particulars later on, but needless to say, the Nanako version certainly is better, but it's also quite a different game. Whereas the original CJMC plays like a fairly basic single-screen platformer, Nanako has to solve puzzles to get herself through each screen. The backstory tells of two sisters practicing occult arts, one of whom gets herself trapped in a huge tower occupied by a legion of karakasa, which are some kinds of inanimate objects that have become alive - the titular classic Japanese monsters, I presume. Of course, it is your job to climb the 25 floors of the tower and get your sister back home. Thus, the idea of the game is to get yourself to the topmost platform of each level, and then proceed to the next level, but to get there, you need to pick up boxes and pile them up in a certain way so that you can climb up to where you need to go, as you can only jump your own height. Your job is made more difficult by the tower's monsters, which occupy some part (sometimes random) of each room. You can jump and walk on top of them, but approach one from the wrong angle, and you lose one of your five lives. And that's pretty much all there is to it.

Due to the slightly clunky game mechanics, Nanako in CMJC isn't a particularly easy game to get into, but once you forget about it not being a platformer, although it looks like one, but primarily a puzzle game, you might appreciate it more readily. As there is some room for chance in the game, it might not be every puzzler fan's cup of tea, but it does offer a nice challenge. The best thing I can say about Nanako in CMJC is, surprisingly enough, that it doesn't resemble many other puzzle games, although most of the ideas can be found in other, different kinds of games. And if that's not a strength in modern retrogames, I don't know what is. If you're a puzzle fan, I can wholeheartedly recommend this game, but platform gamers might be a bit disappointed.



First things first: the controls. The SPECTRUM version has a predefined set of keys - QAOP and Space, which is the expected norm for the platform. The same keys work in the ZX81 version as well. The AMSTRAD version gives you an option to redefine the keys, but by default, you will use the cursor keys and Space bar. The C64 version only works with a joystick, but that's kind of expected. Now, I shall focus on the basic threesome first, and later on talk about the almost radically different experience that the ZX81 version offers.

The original Classic Japanese Monster Castle didn't give you anything more to do than walk around and jump to higher platforms, and your character sure enough got to jump to impressive heights. At least compared to what kind of jumping ability Nanako has been given - just her own height. On the other hand, she can carry one box at a time and lay it down to a chosen location.

The key element here is the placing of the said boxes, which has been made surprisingly free - you can place a box anywhere on the screen where there's a suitable blank space for it, and you can use your imagination on where to place it. The only rule is that the box will always go straight under the space occupied by Nanako. In other words, just because there are plenty of boxes to use, doesn't mean that you will have to be using them all that much.

Probably the single most differing thing in all the versions is how far Nanako can jump. In the SPECTRUM version, she will jump the width of three character blocks automatically, unless something comes in her way. While the AMSTRAD and C64 versions' movement is more based on pixels, the basic mechanics of movement have been kept similar, only the jump length has been shortened to only one sprite's length. Indeed, the AMSTRAD version is referred to as Version 2.0 at the Mojon Twins' website, since the game was slightly redesigned and coded from scratch in C, allowing smoother movement and improved gameplay. The C64 version seems to be based on the Amstrad version. Unfortunately, the C64 version has some problems with collision detection, which makes Nanako often fall through platforms she could well be partly landing on.

Also worth mentioning is the way the karakasa are made to act. At the beginning of each level, they are placed in a certain spot in the room. The SPECTRUM version only gives them the same spot every time, while the AMSTRAD and C64 versions place them at any random spot in the room, where they can fit. As for their movement, each version has some slight differences in the way they move around, but basically, they can only move back and forth (left and right) in the area they have been placed in, between obstacles, and on SPECTRUM, they are quite twitchy and unpredictable, while on the other two, they move around more gracefully.

Cover art from the ZX81 version.
Then of course, we have the ZX81 version, which looks to be the first ZX81 game that Ubhres Productions ever produced, at least according to the Mojon Twins website. Naturally, as with the ZX81 version of UWOL - Quest For Money, Nanako requires a memory expansion to work on a real machine, but since I can only play it through emulation, I can only say how it basically plays on an emulator. The game plays surprisingly much like the other versions, in that the boxes are worked on in the same manner. Nanako can jump longer here than in any other version, since you can move her to left or right as much as you like when you fall down further. And of course, the most notable difference is the way the levels are built: basically, they are eight times as wide and high as you are, but feature some extra background graphics at the bottom and at the top. Also, since only six of you would fit on the screen vertically, the screen scrolls as you go. In the other versions, a level has the width of 12 sprites and height of 8. Therefore, the level design is mostly different out of necessity, and thus the ZX81 version cannot be properly compared against the others. But like the ZX81 version of UWOL, it's surprisingly good.

All four versions use a passcode system that can help you proceed from any level you might have happened to die on, and the code is shown at the beginning of each level. All versions have their own method of applying the codes: the SPECTRUM versions let you type in the code, while the other two will make you use the joystick/cursor keys to scroll through the letters (or even more characters in the C64 version). Of course, the joystick controlled version is meant for gamers who might use a C64GS (which has no keyboard) or the Amstrad equivalent, but I have to say, I far prefer to type in the code.

Clearly, the three main versions are different enough so that I can put them in some kind of an order. I would say the AMSTRAD version is the clear winner here, since it was officially an enhanced version. The C64 version loses to it for being a bit slower and having some problems with collision detection. Unfortunately, the SPECTRUM version of Nanako again feels like a prototype, even after the original CJMC, and the horribly twitchy randomness of the monsters make it an unfair experience compared to the others. Indeed, I would rather play the ZX81 version.



As the game was made as "early" as 2007, it doesn't feature the most current state-of-the-art graphics engine that many of the new Spectrum games do the make them look incredibly colourful. That doesn't mean Nanako in CJMC isn't a colourful game, only that it's still graphically fairly similar to games from over 20 years before. But since I skipped the loading bits, as I usually do for the newer games, let's start with the loading screens.

Loading screens, left to right: ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64 (Psytronik), Commodore 64 (Mojon Twins).

Call me old-fashioned, but I'm not a big fan of the Mojon Twins' tendency to feature scantily clad girls in their games as decorations or even protagonists, because this sort of thing always felt to me like a trick to take away your focus from how bad the game actually is. Happily, the game is still quite good, even with Nanako (or is that her sister?) with barely anything on her in the loading screen. For the loading screens, the bikini-clad girl has been represented in three different styles: the original SPECTRUM screen has a fairly regular looking, completely monochrome rendition of her, and is at least to me, the most visually pleasing pixelated girl of the lot. The other two are just too damn yellow with shades of purple and/or pink, that the white one feels the most comfortable, as if you were seeing her in an old black-and-white movie. The AMSTRAD girl is similarly wide-pixeled as the C64 girl, but the Amstrad girl looks something between the Spectrum girl and the very manga-styled C64 girl. In context, I think the C64 girl is the most correct one, but as I said, the Spectrum girl looks the nicest.

The backgrounds in the loading pictures are made of blue skulls and some sort of ground matter underneath Nanako. The AMSTRAD version also features some other peculiar-looking graphics, which I can't really make out, what they are. The C64 version has a red brick wall under the title, although it might be featured in the SPECTRUM version as well - I'm not really sure, because the blue stuff blends together a bit too effectively. The developer team logo is featured only on Spectrum and Amstrad, and in both cases, it's different, and in a different place.

So, what's that red-and-black bars thing on the right, I hear you ask? Well, it's how the original C64 tape image release by the Mojon Twins looks like - there's no actual loading screen. The one with the picture was included in the Psytronik release.

Opening sequences and title screens. Top left and middle: ZX Spectrum. Top right: Amstrad CPC. Bottom row: C64.

And this is probably the reason why it wasn't used as the loading screen on the C64 - it was included as the third quickly showing picture in the title sequence. The two previous are logos for the publisher and developer. As with all three comparable versions, the actual title screen comes last, and features a bunch of text within the margins set by the castle, which you will be seeing all throughout the game.

Unlike the SPECTRUM and C64 versions, the AMSTRAD version has no additional screens before the title screen shows up - it's just a menu, in which you can start the game, enter a passcode or redefine keys. Also, unlike the other two, the Amstrad version doesn't feature any sort of visual effects in the title screen; the other two have a text highlighter that goes down and back up again. The AMSTRAD and C64 versions have much more background graphics to look at, though, and so we can see an interesting progression in the released versions here. 

Level code screens and Enter Password screens, from left to right: ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC.
There's not much of interest to look at here, except that you'll see an example of each version's level codes. Although it looks like each version features different codes, this isn't exactly true - most of the level codes work in all versions. But that's not all that interesting, since we're talking of graphics now, so it might be a good time to talk about each version's chosen font. Not that any of them are particularly difficult to read; only the original Spectrum version has the advantage of giving the font more of an appearance of resembling Japanese letters, which is a good thing in the context. The only really curious thing here is that the AMSTRAD version starts at level zero, instead of level one, like the other two.

Examples of the first level type (Level 1) graphics, left to right: ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC.

Now, it doesn't take all that many hours of playing to find out that the in-game graphics stop giving you anything new after the fifth level, so I will show you an example of each of the five level themes that the game repeats until the end. The defining element for the five different styles is the colours and styles of the solid floors, and all versions differ in this matter somewhat to match their other graphical qualities. Naturally, this here is the first one, and the floor colour is quite similar to that of the surrounding castle graphics - only there are some lighter shades in the tiles. The AMSTRAD version gets the shading idea more forcefully on the screen than the other two versions, which makes it look a bit off. Also, the skulls on the Amstrad version look a bit strange with that green tone, but then again, they're not supposed to represent real skulls, considering their size compared to Nanako's head. One thing I can say in favour of the Amstrad version is, that the background graphics are a bit more atmospheric than on the C64, and unfortunately, the SPECTRUM version doesn't feature any. The C64 version, however, excels in the look of the two moving sprites in the game, both of which feature a black outline and a multicolour back layer.

Examples from the second and third level type graphics (Levels 7 and 3), left to right:
ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC.

The second one in the loop, as represented by level 7 here, features something a bit different. The SPECTRUM version has a dark blue flooring, while the other two share a green look. The third one in the loop features yellow floors that look like something that belongs in a cave. At least it's similar in all versions. Something else worth noting is that the solid blocks change their look and order randomly, and have nothing to do with the platform you're playing the game on. Of course, you could see this in the previous picture, but I can't reveal all the elements in one go, now can I?

Examples from the fourth and fifth level type graphics (Levels 9 and 5), left to right:
ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC.

Therein lies the problem - this game doesn't have enough of graphical elements to make reading about it (or writing about it, for that matter) a particularly interesting experience, which is why I decided to combine two levels for the previous picture and this one. In level set 4, the floor blocks lean more towards purple, although the SPECTRUM version has some yellow shine on them; and in level set 5, every version of the tile graphic is of a notably different colour. The rest of the levels continue in the much of the same manner - these five themes loop until all the levels are done, and you get to the end of the game, and see the ending, which I'm not going to give away here.

Screenshot of the visual effect in
the Amstrad version.
There is one thing that the AMSTRAD version has for its advantage - an explosion-like animation bit for planting and picking up boxes, as well as your dying, which looks exactly the same on each occasion. On SPECTRUM, the only actual visual effect you will see during the game is when you die, and it's just really fast on/off-flashing of the sprite. The C64 version doesn't even give you that, as the picture only freezes for the duration of the "life lost" tune, when you make contact with the monster of the room.

Game Over screens, left to right: ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC.

Being the newest one of the usual lot, the C64 version can boast of something completely unique - an actual Game Over screen. The other two only have a black box with the obvious text in the middle of the screen of the level where your journey ended. Does this give the C64 version any advantage in the comparison? Not really, since there are already much more graphics outside of the in-game graphics, and the in-game graphics themselves have enough things to make it slightly ahead of at least the Spectrum version, at least in some aspects. Yes, the SPECTRUM version has better-looking monochrome hi-res things on the screen, but the atmosphere is a bit lacking. The AMSTRAD version can be congratulated on having a nice visual effect that shows up on a few occasions, and the background picture is more fitting for the overall mood of the game than the picture in the C64 version, but the sprites look easily the prettiest on the C64. But I can't really say if they're graphically any better than the other - it's what you're accustomed to, I guess.

Screenshots from the Sinclair ZX81 version.

Of course the ZX81 version doesn't look like much to most of you out there, and the fact that it requires a memory expansion to work speaks even less for the favour of the machine, but considering that this sort of stuff can even be done on a machine older and certainly much clunkier than the ZX Spectrum is a small miracle in itself. Thus, you're sort of inclined to forgive the rather rudimentary graphics.

Combined screenshots of Level 1
in the ZX81 version.

Even though the game has been modified rather heavily to work on the ZX81, it still features a rather nice title screen, a password system, random ASCII graphics in the level code screens, and very good use of ASCII characters to make the in-game graphics. It's all black-and-white, but it's ZX81, so you have no option, really.

A full level in the ZX81 version is about two and a half screens tall, and scrolling is required to view the whole level. The graphics are huge, to say the least, but gets the idea and mood of the game across surprisingly well. Although I didn't include pictures from further levels here, the ZX81 version also has different looking floor blocks for different levels, similarly to all the other versions, so I'd say it's a pretty impressive demake.

Screenshots from Classic Japanese Monster Castle (LOKOsoft, 1991).

For the sake of completion, here are some screenshots from the original Classic Japanese Monster Castle. As you can see, it's a very different game, even though the basic layout is sort of similar. It does feature some nice surprises despite of its relative simplicity, but due to its differences, it cannot really be given scores to on the same basis.



Let's go through this in the order of release. Although the original version was made for the 48k Spectrum, which only has a single-channel beeper by default, the game features some jolly impressive tunes. The main title theme feels something like a traditional Japanese disco tune, if you can call it as such; the level code screen features a bi-tonal short ascending melody in a Japanese scale; and the Game Over tune is a surprisingly happy short tune in the same vein as the level code tune. The sound effects are basic 48k burps and farts, of which there aren't too many, but are there just for the sake of being something to hear. All in all, not too bad, but I suppose it could have been more impressive too.

The AMSTRAD version ups the ante with an in-game tune that has a more horrorish vibe to it, albeit a bit cartoony. In terms of music, the other differences are, that the short level code tune is now a bit more thematically correct, there is no Game Over tune whatsoever, and all the tunes are now more wholesome, as they feature more channels to play with. Of course, the sound effects now have a bit more character and melody to them as well, and are played simultaneously with the music playing in the background. And it's not a bad combination.

I'm afraid the C64 version has been left completely without sound effects, but then again, the music is phenomenal - I'd say it's almost too impressive on its own to require a game to go with it. The conflict is really that it doesn't quite seem to fit in the game. Nanako in CJMC, to me, feels more like a humorous or cartoony take on the theme, and perhaps requires the sort of childish soundtrack that is featured in the other two versions. Personally, I think Linus is up there among the best C64  composers of all time, but this soundtrack feels a bit wrong - particularly the in-game tunes. The short title picture tune is brilliant and similar enough to the tunes featured in the other versions; the menu screen tune is superb and feels something you would expect in an anime series or a Capcom game perhaps, but sets the tone in a different manner than the other two versions; and then there are the strangely evolving progressive chip-jazz kind of an in-level tune, the odd-timed level code tune, the short "level complete" tune, and the slightly (but fittingly) out-of-tune "life lost" tune. Curiously, the C64 version has no Game Over tune either. But what it does have instead, is an absolutely fantastic rendition of the theme from Forbidden Forest as the tape loading tune.

Of course, the ZX81 version has no sounds at all, and the original CJMC has very little to offer, so there's only the conclusion to write. Only by the sheer amount of music, the C64 would win easily, as it would if the beauty and complexity of the soundtrack would be the issue here. But I just don't think it's really as fitting as it could be. I find myself more in favour of the AMSTRAD version in this case, because the soundtrack suits the game better, and it has the best sound effects as well.



Nanako in CJMC has got to be one of the strangest gaming experiences of my entire life in a certain way: each version has something going for it that the other versions don't have. The ZX81 version features some great gameplay, that only the AMSTRAD version comes close to. The Amstrad version also has the most atmospheric background picture. The SPECTRUM version has the best font, as well as a nice jumping style and an exclusive Game Over tune. The C64 version has brilliant music, which doesn't necessarily fit in very well with the game, but are still joyous to listen to - and it also has the best-looking sprites for Nanako and the monster. Also, the original CJMC has some surprises up its sleeve, that the newer versions of the game cannot possibly offer. But the question is, which version would I be most likely to recommend, if I was asked to?

As usual, playability is king, so I would recommend either the ZX81 or the AMSTRAD version. The C64 version has a soundtrack that can be listened to separately, and the other versions can offer you a slightly different sort of a challenge. Anyway, I can only recommend you to try it out and be your own judge.

By finishing this comparison, I just noticed that I have featured all three games from the Mojon Twins 3-in-1 compilation released by Psytronik Software a couple of years ago. And why not - it's a fine package, after all. I'm guessing the next NGOTM entry shall have to either wait for a longer while, or then I shall have to make it into a two-for-one, because there are plenty of newer games out there that have no more than two versions. But for now, this shall have to do.

In case you happen to like this sort of thing, Nanako has featured in other Mojon Twins' games as well. Nanako Descends to Hell was released in 2009 for the 128k Spectrum and Amstrad CPC computers. Biniax 2 is a demake of Jordan Tuszuzov's Python-based puzzle game for the Spectrum 128k, and features Nanako as the increasingly scantily clad protagonist. More Mojon Twins' heroines can be found in the Lala series and the Cheril series, and if you're really into pixelated lady-bits, you can see some in Phantomasa 3: Fundementally Loathsome. Some of these even hide a perfectly good game behind all those graphics.

Thanks for reading, see you next time with some more classics! Comments are as welcome as ever, particularly if you have any definitive information on the credits...

1 comment:

  1. Maybe somewhat of a unique puzzle game here. I must confess, if I was to assume what was to await me, by a mere vision before my C64 monitor, of the Nude Nanako load screen, I do not think I would have quite figured, what was to follow.