Flight Simulator: Dirty Pair: Project E.D.E.N. (Famicom Disk System)
Back when I started planning these video game posts it never would have crossed my mind that it would take until 1987 to properly get this phase of the project underway and that the first actual video game we’d be looking at wouldn’t even be a Star Trek one. And yet, Kei and Yuri must be heard.
There were a handful of Star Trek titles released for early PCs and home consoles like the Apple II, TRS-80, VIC-20, Commodore 64, Atari 2600 and Vectrex in the early 1980s, but they were all on platforms I either didn’t have at a formative age or are so arcane they’re difficult to get ahold of these days. Considering the way the pagination for Volume 2 is turning out, I may try to take a look at a few of them to flesh that book out, but we’re skipping them for the time being. The Star Trek video games I’m most familiar with date to the late-1980s and early 1990s and we’ll talk about those when the time comes, but, as it turns out, Dirty Pair: Project E.D.E.N. predates them all. In the meantime, a whole bunch has happened in the video game industry, namely that there is now in fact a video game industry that has been around long enough to not only crash thanks to market saturation and Atari’s sloppy management, but come back bigger than ever before thanks to toy company from Japan called Nintendo.
The Famicom Disk System is a strange beast within the history of Nintendo. It was a Japanese-exclusive add-on for the Famicom (or Family Computer), which is what the NES (or Nintendo Entertainment System) was called in its home country. This naming discrepancy actually reveals a lot about how the history of the game industry in the United States differs from how it played out in Japan. See, by 1985 video games were seen as a dead fad thanks to the collapse of the monopolistic Atari that dragged the whole industry down with it in 1983. Because of this, Nintendo had to market the NES as essentially a children’s toy to get it to sell its first Holiday season, in the process changing the way video games are thought of even to this day (before Nintendo’s US success, video games were seen as social things for everybody, though primarily young, single, active adults). However, this was only true in the US, and in Japan, the console was marketed as what it straightforwardly was: A home computer designed for family entertainment.
(You can see this attitude play out even today: In the US, in spite of the industry’s major inroads in recent years, video games still can’t *quite* shake the stigma of being thought of as expensive playthings for lazy, socially maladjusted children, or adults with the mentality of socially maladjusted children. In Japan, the Nintendo 3DS is as ubiquitous as the iPhone.)
So, the Famicom Disk System is something that Nintendo would only ever have released in Japan at this time, along with the modem that also existed for the console at the time (yes, you could access something a lot like the Internet on your Famicom in 1983). Nobody would think the kids’ Nintendo toy would need a floppy disk drive, but it makes perfect sense to have one for something called a “Family Computer”. Furthermore, the Disk System existed to correct some of the Famicom’s inherent drawbacks: There was only so much performance you could squeeze out of the thing, and this severely limited what developers could do with the system even as early as 1985. The Disk System alleviated all of these problems, allowing for more vibrant and detailed graphics, crisper, more dynamic sound, the ability to save without battery backup and more general processing power. In fact, a lot of the games we think of as being iconic to the NES were actually designed with the Disk System in mind, including classics like Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Metroid and Castlevania.
(So much so that it took a *lot* of compression and optimization to shrink those games down so that they’d fit on NES cartridges, meaning the versions we got in the US were *severely* stripped down when compared to their Japanese counterparts. In particular, there’s simply no comparison between the NES and FDS versions of Castlevania and Metroid: Aside from the better graphics and sound, the addition of an actual save feature makes them both entirely different experiences. If you ever get the chance to play the original FDS versions of these games, I strongly recommend it.)
So, a Dirty Pair video game for the Famicom Disk System sounds like exactly the sort of thing we would expect to see come out of the Japanese video game industry at this point in history. 1987 was in many ways the series’ annus mirablis, with Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture getting a major theatrical release, the premier of the direct-to-OVA second TV series Original Dirty Pair (not to mention With Love from the Lovely Angels) and even the publication of Haruka Takachiho’s third light novel, Dirty Pair’s Rough and Tumble, where Kei and Yuri team up with Studio Nue’s mascot team the Crushers to hunt down a renegade sexbot in the middle of a simmering revolution. And, given the United States’ reticence at the time about anything anime that wasn’t Macross, Robotech, Voltron, Speed Racer or a first-party Nintendo franchise (combined with the console’s inherent regionalism), Dirty Pair: Project E.D.E.N. is sort of the definition of an “Only In Japan” game.
And really, Dirty Pair is custom-tailored for the video game medium if you think about it. I have a theory that one of the unique virtues of video games as a form of artistic expression is their ability to convey ideas, themes, emotions and stories without relying on a conventional linear narrative. Part of this is because video games, probably more than any other kind of media, rely on an implicit and innate understanding of the dynamic interaction between the positionalities and agency of two or more parties (in particular, the players and the developers). The best video games, in my view, directly and overtly play to this, understanding (as oral storytellers do) that their stories will be retold slightly differently every time the game is played. The reason Dirty Pair is a natural fit for video games should be self-evident by this point: The biggest strength, and biggest failing, of Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture was the vestigial nature of its plot when compared to the era-defining, paradigm-shifting power of its music video structure. A video game following in the wake of such a landmark work could take all of that to the next level without any of the drawbacks that come with being shackled to cinema. A post-Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture video game could be a true shamanic vision for the Nintendo age.
Unfortunately for all of us, it sucks.
|I genuinely have no idea who this is supposed to be.|
As you can probably guess from the title, Dirty Pair: Project E.D.E.N. is loosely based on the events of Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture. And I mean *extremely* loosely: There’s one screen of text at the beginning of the game that talks about Agerna, Vizorium (the movie’s Spice analog) and Professor Wattsman, but it’s all flavour text and none of them are ever addressed again anywhere else in the game. Interestingly enough, there’s no mention of Uldas and Edia blaming each other for the Sandingas’ attack on the research facilities (the girls know Wattsman is behind everything from the get-go) and I don’t think Carson D. Carson is in the game at all, so the story is already better than the one in the movie (that should probably tell you something). Also, the girls get briefed on the mission by someone who I’m going to assume is Gooley A. Francess from the TV show, but the graphics are so crude I honestly can’t tell if it’s supposed to be him or the 3WA chief from Dirty Pair: Affair of Nolandia. Neither character was in the movie, in case you were curious.
|There’s an English translation of this game, if you can find it.|
But that sort of fealty to the source material was never needed: After all, if video games are more comparable to oral storytelling in terms of narrative than anything else, one wouldn’t expect the game’s story to be beat-for-beat the same as the movie’s, and in this case I’m thrilled that it isn’t. And anyway, I was the one arguing for as thin and forgettable a linear narrative as possible. No, the reason Dirty Pair Project E.D.E.N. is a bad game isn’t because it doesn’t follow in lock-step with the movie, it’s because of *everything else*. I mentioned the graphics earlier, and it really is impossible to make much of anything out. This is not me being prejudiced against the art style of older games, the visual aesthetic really would have looked subpar even in 1987: The backgrounds are all crudely defined and remind me of something from an old PC-8801 game, Kei and Yuri’s overworld sprites barely resemble who they’re supposed to represent and none of the enemies look like anything remotely describable, let alone the creatures from the movie. The sound effects are all monotonous and generic and, most inexcusably, there are, as far as I can tell, only three or four music tracks in the game, only one of which is the overworld theme (and it loops *constantly*) and all of which are mind-numbingly dull, droning and repetitive.
|Kei’s earring in World 1, Level 1.|
Given that this is Dirty Pair and considering how the series is built around Kei and Yuri’s relationship, you might expect some kind of co-op mode or at least the option to select one of the two Angels to play as. Since the girls compliment each other so well, a fun thing for the video game to do would be to give each one of them unique powers and abilities that need to be used in tandem to progress. Well, as it turns out Yuri is the only default player character: Kei only shows up when you grab her earring, conveniently located at the beginning of each level, thus summoning her to fly in on a kind of hovercar that Yuri can jump onto and use to traverse the rest of the level. She also gives you backup fire and one extra hit (oh yeah, I forgot to mention you die in one hit), but disappears if you take damage on the hovercar. Yes, in this game Kei, one half of the Lovely Angels and Dirty Pair’s original narrator, is relegated to being a glorified power-up. I think that probably says it all.
|I can only guess what these hearts are for.|
When you’re just playing as Yuri on foot, the game plays like a standard-issue sidescroller-shooter, and a particularly bad one at that. Yuri plods from one side of the level to the other traversing some of the most boring, unimaginative level design in video game history at a speed resembling that of a particularly brisk Sunday stroll in the park all the while attempting to dodge a relentless hail of indescribable objects that will surely one-shot her with a migraine-inducing strobing effect should they come anywhere near her vaguely-defined hitbox. You only get one weapon, but there’s a power-up you can find that temporarily swaps out your default invisible gun with a terrible rate of fire that shoots lines and sounds like an error message with an invisible gun with a terrible rate of fire that shoots dots and sounds like an error message. There are other power-ups you can find, including a few that look like tiaras (OK…), what seems to be a bottle of poison (!) and even Nanmo (Nanmo isn’t in Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture), but I have no idea what they’re supposed to do or how to equip them.
(Interestingly, there is apparently a strategy guide for this game done as a manga with exclusive artwork. It’s a cute idea and I’d love to read it and add it to my collection someday. I’m sure if I had that, or more to the point a translated version of it, all of this would make a *lot* more sense.)
|Beware the Alpha Hoppers and evil cinnamon rolls.|
When you’ve got Kei with you, the game is more like horizontal space shooter (think R-Type or Gradius). The game is marginally more playable here, as the hovercar moves at a decent pace and you get to shoot two sets of missiles at once (that look like lines and sound like error messages), which in my experience is just about the only way to survive the onslaught of enemies that show up in later levels. You still don’t get any new weapons or upgrades though, and I don’t even think you can use your power-ups in this mode. You just careen from one end of the map to the other, trying desperately not to crash into shit and mash the B button until your thumb falls off (oh yeah, that’s another thing: You have to keep repeatedly tapping the button to fire. Given how much shooting you do in this game, this understandably gets tiring very quickly. A turbo controller is pretty much required for this game). You’re supposed to get graded on your accuracy at the end of the game (which is a *great* idea for a bullet hell game like this, by the way…), but I’ve never gotten that far and honestly I care more about clearing the screen and staying alive then any letter grade the game might give me for playing by its arbitrary rules.
|Yuri faces the camera in World 2, Level 1.|
After the first four levels, the game changes again and becomes a kind of rudimentary action adventure game. Supposedly, the girls have reached Doctor Wattsman’s lab, which is designed like a maze. This is where I started to have real problems with the game, because I honestly can’t make heads or tails of the layout here and I freely admit I’ve never actually gotten passed these stages. You’re Yuri on foot again, moving from screen to screen trying to find your way out. But every room looks the same (well, there’s two or three different “types” of room and each instance is laid out slightly differently) and enemies just spawn out of thin air giving you next to no time to react, which is a real issue considering the control is as sluggish as it is. Without Kei backing you up (her earring doesn’t appear in these levels), you’re constantly outmanned and outgunned, which just compounds the panic that sets in when you inevitably get lost (there’s no map) and find yourself going in circles. One cool thing about these levels is that the game actually made front and backsprites for the characters, and it tries to give you some illusion of depth as you walk into the background and foreground: Not a lot of sidescrollers do that, and in spite of the fact it’s not wholly effective (imagine the NES port of the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game, but a lot slower, and you get the general idea of what this feels like), it remains pretty ambitious for the time.
|These guys seriously just materialize with no warning out of *nothing*.|
(There is, I should mention, a co-op mode where the second player takes control of Kei, and I suspect the maze levels are significantly easier if you’re playing with two people. The whole game probably is. But, given how obscure and frustrating this game is, I don’t fancy my chances of getting anyone else to play it with me to test that theory out.)
I know I’ve spent a lot of time critiquing the mechanics, which probably seems odd given my stance on video game writing elsewhere, but the thing about mechanics is that they’re supposed to be intuitive and invisible, and the moment you actually notice them they become the only thing you think about throughout the entire experience. Video games have an almost transcendent ability to invoke within you a heightened state of consciousness, and always having to fret about movement speed pulls you right back down. The fact is, things like control, level design and combat are a constant problem in this game, and this is on top of the pre-existing issue that it’s just resoundingly uninspiring to look at, listen to and play. And it’s not like I’m being unfair to a dated relic from another time, I don’t think I am. Not in 1987 when Super Mario Bros. 1 and 2, Castlevania, The Legend of Zelda and Metroid and Mega Man all exist already, each of which was a groundbreaking, evocative and memorable trip all its own. Dirty Pair deserved to be treated like a classic on the Famicom, and Dirty Pair: Project E.D.E.N. simply isn’t.
That’s really the fundamental problem with Dirty Pair: Project E.D.E.N.: It’s utterly joyless and uninspiring. Even in its weakest moments, animated Dirty Pair always has a sense of wonder and fun about it. That’s what saved the very movie this game was based on after all; it simply looked like absolutely nothing else and effortlessly, masterfully captured your imagination. That there’s no trace of that magick to be found anywhere in the Famicom Disk System game is the most egregious and comprehensive betrayal of all. Though its moment in the sun seems to have passed, I can only hope that the video game medium will someday give Kei and Yuri the royal treatment they deserve. And not just video games-Dirty Pair warrants love and respect everywhere. Few science fiction works have done so much for us or have such heart.
Until then, I’ll still have my dreams of starlight and cosmic highways.