Posted on May 24th, 2010 4 comments
Release Date: 6/28/89
Price: 6700 yen
Media: HuCard (4mbit)
PC Engine FAN Score: 18.55 / 30.00
Kōgien: “A sort of warring-states version of Space Harrier, but the hero can only jump and cannot fly all around the screen. The game is also not forced-scroll, so you can go in reverse to pick up items you missed.”
After its founding in 1987 and before their Genesis games began to draw overseas attention, Wolf Team’s primary business lay in the Japanese PC marketplace. There they became very much the Psygnosis of their scene — they made titles with beautiful visuals and lavish intro sequences that took up an entire disk, but boasted gameplay that was often nothing short of torture. PC gamers got repeatedly gypped this way, in an era before one-star Amazon reviews and support forums full of irate nerds, but nobody could deny that Wolf Team games were great for showing off what your fancy PC-8801 was capable of to your less wealthy friends.
Jimmu Denshō is a spin-off of Yaksa, a swords-and-samurai action RPG that was Wolf Team’s first PC release as an independent company. Yaksa is best known for a three-and-a-half-minute-long intro that knocked Japan’s collective socks off in 1987 and is still pretty nice to look at today. It’s also infamous for being a slow, sleep-inducing mess once you get around to playing it. Wolf Team couldn’t just port that junk to the PC Engine — the audience already knew the game wasn’t salvageable, and there wasn’t enough HuCard space for the intro anyway. So instead, they did the logical thing — take Iori, one of the heroes from the original, and put him into a Space Harrier clone.
No, those screenshots aren’t lying to you — Jimmu Denshō is a flat-out Space Harrier ripoff. Not at all a good one, either. Iori runs tirelessly forward through every stage, swinging his sword at ninjas and yōkai and giant spidery bosses. No, his default sword doesn’t fire shots. That would be too fair. (Hitting anything with it is a daunting task, and even when you earn shot power-ups, they go away if you’re hit too many times.)
The stages are more complex in setup than Space Harrier’s, but not in any sort of good way. Several levels repeat forever until you figure out what Iori’s supposed to do, and others constantly throw “warp back to start” traps careening forward while you’re trying to deal with the bullet-hell onscreen. Iori can run backward (i.e. toward you), which is a neat feature and theoretically a nice way to defend yourself, but it’s turned off in some stages and can’t be relied on in a pinch.
Worst of all is the inclusion of platform elements. In a Space Harrier game. One hellish stage requires you to stick to a tiny path that snakes forward and frequently makes violent turns without warning; falling off it causes damage and runs you the risk of getting thrown back to the start of the level. I’m not sure how anyone could have completed this section without cheating — the hand-eye coordination required is nothing short of superhuman.
But, like all the Wolf Team games of this era, Jimmu is saved by its looks. The game doesn’t have any fancy intro, but the audiovisual package is top-notch and helped along immensely by the brooding, experimental soundtrack. The music was composed by Masaaki Uno, Wolf Team’s resident go-to man for sound and the guy who would give Motoi Sakuraba his first game work a few years later. His stuff is very un-PC-Engine-like and is a lot closer to the FM synthesized sound you heard in lots of Japanese computer games back then — complex, atmospheric, and not afraid to take center stage. Uno’s soundtrack is the sort that gets better with repeated listens; I couldn’t really take the Stage 2 tune at first but it’s grown on me like kudzu in a Georgia backyard.
As the video shows, the rampant slowdown that splays out across Jimmu is often the only thing that keeps Iori in one piece. It’s led me to conclude that Wolf Team may’ve been founded a bit too early — their staff was remarkably talented, but until the 16-bit platforms came along, their ideas always got bogged down in implementation.