“My Energy is Depleted… I’m Shaking!”
If I might start this article off with something like a shameless plug: A couple of months ago, the Bad Game Hall of Fame launched a Patreon page, so that viewers like you could have a way to support the website if you so choose. Pledging as little as $1 gets you access to articles as they’re still “works in progress,” as well as some exclusive polls and other assorted nonsense to come. If you’re feeling particularly generous, a $5 pledge will see your named etched onto the prestigious walls of the Hall of Heroes. And finally – for those of you who are presumably as obsessed with bad games as I am – a one-time $20 pledge will allow you request a game for me to focus my efforts on in the form of a future article.
Of course, I’m mentioning all this upfront for a reason; that reason being that today’s article is the first “pledger request” I’ll be fulfilling! With that in mind, I’d like to thank one Dustin Cooper (@GenioAugusti) for their contributions to the Bad Game Hall of Fame — and I’m not just talking about sending some of that precious paper my way, no siree bob. For one, Dustin has been a long-time reader and friend of the site, so I’m happy to try and give back in my own goofy way. In addition, they were accommodating enough to provide me with a handful of different suggestions from which to pick from, all in a similar vein: Japan-exclusive PC Engine / TurboGrafX-16 games. And while I’d like to keep the other two suggested titles secret for the time being – since all three games really did manage to pique my interest in different ways – I reckon you might be able to tell which release I ultimately landed on.
So, here I am to cover 1989’s Energy: Released on the HuCard format for the PCE, as published by Masaya Games, and developed by the elusive Quasar Soft. Information on Quasar on the English-typing side of the web is both difficult to come by and inconsistent to boot, but by my guesstimation, they developed a grand total of five games before falling off the face of the earth. Curiously, this game is actually intended as a remake / conversion of one of their previous titles, so you could argue that they’ve only got four unique games to their credit? But perhaps the most confounding element in all of this is the fact that one video game can effectively demonstrate so much flawed design in such a small package. Of course, I reckon that means I’m just going to have to cover every last one of those flaws in painful detail, huh?
“I Told You Not to Come! You’ll Get Stoned like Me!”
Our first order of business is trying to get a handle on who exactly Quasar Soft were, and what they contributed to gaming. Naturally, with their being a Japanese developer whose games seemed to release exclusively to the Japanese market, this is easier said than done. On top of that, the impression that I get is that they were never even particularly popular or recognizable within their home territory, which only makes matters that much more difficult. So, while I’ve gone and done my best to try and compile the most accurate information possible here, I fully expect that there are plenty of fascinating details and historic notes that I’m still missing out on. At the very least, I reckon I can provide a sort of brief timeline for their involvement in the industry.
If Western message board rumblings are to be believed, Quasar Soft was founded by a group of former Bullet-Proof Software employees at some point between 1986 and ‘87. For reference, this is before BPS had hit paydirt with their NES / Game Boy conversions of Tetris, and back when the bulk of their output was still software for Japanese home computers (such as the PC-88, MSX, and Sharp X1). In any case, Quasar quickly set to work on developing their debut title: AIR for the PC-88. It’s a genuinely novel little space exploration title where you fly from planet to planet, trek their surfaces in search of action and adventure, and use your hard-earned credits to upgrade your ship. I’d be lying if I said the game didn’t move at something like a glacial pace, but for new studio’s first effort, it’s certainly an ambitious release. Funnily enough, Quasar would insert their own company name as the central antagonists of the title; playing the role of the aggressively expansionist “Quasar Empire.”
If AIR was maybe a tad bit too big for its britches, Quasar’s next release could be seen as trying to bring things “back to basics,” relatively speaking. 1987 would see a second title released by the young developer, titled Legend. From what I can gather, the plot revolves around a crystal that governs good and evil that is somehow acquired by the evil entity Gaudius, who quickly harnesses its power to begin destroying civilization. Naturally, you play as an intrepid adventurer or some sort looking to defeat the big bad, collecting some other necessary crystals along the way to increase your power. Now, I’m gonna have to admit to not making it particularly far in this one, since the large size of the game world honestly seemed kind of daunting to me — especially when also considering the fact that the game honestly didn’t feel super great to play? Simply put, the PC-88 wasn’t really built for this kind of game, what with its lack of smooth scrolling or rapid tile refreshing.In effect, animations all feel somewhat stuttery, and screens transition only as you reach their edges.
But Quasar Soft seemed committed to iterating on this formula, and making the most of the hardware at hand. And so, 1988 would see the release of Ashe (subtitled in-game with Legend of ‘Toma’), also for the PC-88. Preceding another infamous kusogē starring a group of ESP-endowed children released just a few months later (Hoshi o Miru Hito on the Famicom), Ashe follows the mission of the psychically-gifted “Toma Force” as they attempt to take back Tokyo from a wave of apocalypse-threatening monsters, by putting you in the shoes of a custom-named member of the squad. Deployed with three other teammates, your teleporter pod seems to malfunction, and your arrival to the scene is significantly delayed — long enough for the rest of your team to lose contact, and for the remainder of ground forces to be decimated. Arriving at a thoroughly ruined city, your goals are to find the rest of your team, salvage the mission, and save what remains of Tokyo.
In terms of gameplay, this translates to another action platformer, where your player character’s weapon of choice are psionic energy blasts you can fire at the baddies. You’ll navigate above and below ground, discover the fate of your allies, and even happen upon a small handful of survivors to help you on your way. I won’t be getting too deep into this particular title here, for reasons that should become evident soon, but I will say that it seems to be a generally competent platforming title relative to the platform: The graphics are decently-detailed considering the incredibly limited color palette available, making the most of dithering effects to create the illusion of a broader range of colors and shades. It’s even got a neat little title screen, and a couple of decently-rendered illustrations during the intro and ending rolls. What seems to hold it back is again the general sluggishness of the PC-88 platform, and what I consider to be some pretty lacklustre game feel. Again, this isn’t an issue exclusive to Quasar’s games, as even Hudson Soft would famously struggle to recreate the likes of Super Mario Bros. for the technically ill-equipped platform.
What Quasar Soft needed to truly realize their visions was to develop them on hardware capable of rendering them. As it would so happen, such a platform did exist as produced by NEC; the same company responsible for that line of PC-88 computers that Quasar had already become so familiar with. This system in question would of course be the PC Engine (or the TurboGrafx-16 as we know it here in the States). As a matter of fact, the console had already been kicking around as early as October of 1987 in Japan, and been establishing a sizable niche for itself within in the Japanese market (while admittedly failing to gain much traction in North America). In any case, the time had come for Quasar to test the waters of the console market, in a move that would see them having to make some considerable changes to their general practices.
For starters, Quasar Soft would have to seek an outside publishing deal in order to produce software for the platform, unlike the self-publishing route they had grown accustomed to as an independent developer on the PC-88. A deal would ultimately be struck with Masaya Games; a division within the larger Nippon Computer Systems Corporation. While Masaya would eventually find some success in publishing recognizable entries in the Langrisser franchise – as well as some Ranma ½ titles and localizing the Battletoads series for Japan – these were still early days for the publisher that saw them looking to make a name for themselves. Much like Quasar, they seemed hungry and eager to establish their brand on the console market. And so, the decision was collaboratively made to bring one of Quasar’s already-existing games to the PC Engine platform, in order to see how it might benefit from the improved hardware.
The decision was made: Ashe would be the game subjected to the conversion treatment, rebuilt from the ground up by the combined efforts of Quasar and Masaya / NCS. Yes, in addition to publishing duties, Masaya also had a hand in hands-on development; sometimes under the Masaya branding, and sometimes under the general NCS banner. For all intents and purposes – and as far as I can gather – “NCS” and “Masaya” are more or less interchangeable labels here. In the specific case of Ashe’s remake, Masaya is given the publishing credit while NCS get an ambiguous “Presented By” billing, with Quasar Soft granted a further confounding “Created By” credit. It’s of course difficult to determine exactly how much work was split between Quasar and NCS in re-developing the game for the new platform, but I’d be willing to wager that it was Quasar themselves that likely headed programming efforts; if only based solely on the “technical merits” of the finished product. Come April 19th of 1989, the game would finally see release, with a newly-christened name to boot.
Of course, this was standard for all home computers of the era, and would really remain that way until John Carmack and Commander Keen came along to introduce the world to “adaptive tile refresh.”
“This is a Disaster!”
Despite its new title, Energy follows very much the same plot and structure as its source material: The organization responsible for the Toma Force observes the destruction of Tokyo from their headquarters in the Himalayas, and quickly moves to dispatch their squad of psychic warriors [alongside a supporting force of unspecified military grunts]. Though it is not depicted in this version of the game as it is in the original, your teleporter pod presumably fails to send your character off with the rest of your team, resulting in your delayed deployment. As you wait for things to get fixed, HQ receives another transmission from the field, where one of the expendable soldier types calls in to let you know that the rest of the Toma Force have gone missing, before having his neck gruesomely wrung out by some weird tentacle. There’s even the added effect of his eyeballs bulging out from his head, as blood pours out from his every facial orifice! It’d make for a truly grotesque sight, if only the graphic for it wasn’t the size of a postage stamp.
Seriously: The graphics featured in this intro somehow pale in comparison to their PC-88 counterparts, despite benefitting from a far broader color palette. They’re accompanied by some truly hideous animations attempting to create the illusion of lip sync, where characters alternate rapidly between two frames of their mouths being open / closed. Of particular note is the professor character, who has an absolutely wild look to him like he’s completely unhinged. As far as first impressions go, this is a truly underwhelming way to start off the game, though I reckon that makes it all the more fitting? Oh, and one more note before you’re sent off: The professor hands you a “secret weapon from the Captain,” which he unfortunately has no idea or explanation as to how to actually use. And yes, in case you were wondering; this item does remain entirely dormant and unusable in your inventory until the very last screen of the game, where you can finally trigger it in order to beat the final boss with ease.
After inputting your name on a screen boasting some incredibly catchy music, you’re immediately dropped into the heart of a Tokyo as overrun by monsters, who immediately begin to swarm and attack you. You’ll quickly discover that for every one of them you kill, another will almost immediately respawn to take their place. So, in effect, trying to fight the monsters here is completely useless, and will only waste your precious LIFE and ESP energy — two resources which you will obviously find to be very important in your journey. While LIFE fulfills the standard role of your health points, your ESP meter fuels your attacks; preventing you from casting your psychic projectiles if allowed to deplete. Luckily, ESP will recover as your character stands still, making it an automatically refueling resource. Unluckily, it feels as if most screens in the game will not actually afford you a chance to stand still, as monsters are liable to constantly respawn as they do in the first screens of the game.
And of course; recovering health is also something like a rare treat, as you have to rely on the kindness of sporadically-appearing red potions to appear, where in each instance there’s the equal chance that an entirely useless blue potion will appear to instantly fill your ESP meter. This is especially fair and balanced when you also take into consideration that running out of health is an instant Game Over… with no option to continue where you left off. Yes, slip up just once and it’s straight back to the title screen with you, and back to the very beginning of the game! And considering some of the inescapable drains on your HP that you’ll encounter throughout the course of the game, this design decision really is made all the more cruel and unusual. To top it all off, there’s no way of saving your game or so much as a password system, so you really are meant to complete the game in one effective credit. This is yet another step down from the original Ashe, as even that game had a save system.
Oh, one more thing you’ll likely quickly notice: The game still lacks screen-scrolling! Yes, in a truly baffling bit of design, the decision was made not to take full advantage of the hardware at hand, and to relegate the game to the same edge scroll-transition nonsense that was previously forced by the PC-88. Only this time, there’s the added bonus of these transitional scrolls being painfully slow. And when I say “painfully” slow, I really mean agonizingly slow. And when I say “agonizingly” slow, I mean a full five seconds for the screen to roll over to the next. Naturally, all this time wasted waiting adds up, and I can genuinely say that a full fourth of your time spent playing the game might well literally be spent watching screens scroll. I cannot fathom how continuous scrolling wasn’t, like, priority number one on the design docket for bringing this game to the PC Engine. And if there was somehow some technical issue that prevented them from implementing it, then at the very least they could’ve made these screen transitions a fraction of their finalized length!
Now, it’s here where I have to admit to “cheating” a slight bit in playing the game myself, as I elected to take advantage of an English patch posted to ROMhacking.net by the duo of “cabbage” and “onionzoo.” In addition to making the text in the game — well, interpretable, as they say; the patch also provides the benefit of reducing the screen scrolling speed to something like a half of a second (while also making the game’s slow text prompts print at double speed). As such, this patch is practically essential, for such vital reasons that the least important of which actually ends up being the fact that it translates the game into English! Of course, with all that being said, I’m here to evaluate the game based on its original intended format. And from that perspective, the lack of either continuous or at least speedy scrolling is entirely unacceptable. At its default pacing, these scrolls kill any sense of momentum the game might try to establish, and results in an experience where it seems to take pleasure in wasting your precious time.
So then, back to the structure of the rest of the game. This cityscape surface area comprises only a scant few screens, as the bulk of your time will be spent in the underground from whence the monsters emerged. You should get used to the sight of caverns and and rock formations fairly quickly, as you’ll be staring at the same background elements [in different shades] for the vast majority of the game. The game ends up not really being much of a looker when all’s said and done, complete with some rather gaudy-looking character graphics and indiscernible monster designs. Your player character sports a color palette consisting of bright red, green, orange and blue; which while it certainly helps your character to stand out from the drab backgrounds, it makes for an altogether goofy look for our protagonist. The almost chibi-esque design for human characters in the game world stand in stark contrast to the monsters which I reckon are meant to be somewhat horrific, as well as against the generally dark and gritty nature of the game’s setting and themes.
For more on the game’s issues deciding on a tone and sticking with it, please consider the remainder of its story beats. The first NPC you interact with is a surviving woman who urges you to descend into the depths and destroy the source of the monsters, before “shockingly” revealing themselves to be an eyeball monster in disguise? You’ll later re-encounter this character in an instance where they block your path underground, and you’re made to cure (?) them by pouring some sort of acid on them, at which point they revert back to their human form and complain about their own stench. This acid, by the way, is given to you by a balding character who talks about how he was playing NCS’ Crest of Gaia (conveniently available on either PC-88 or PC Engine!) when the city began to collapse around him. He then insults you for calling him “Mister,” as he claims to still be a junior in high school. I should also note here that in order to get him to give up the acid, you have to talk to him five or six times in order to get the text prompt where he actually hands over the goods to you, as if we’re playing a goddamn King’s Field game here or something.
Between these two conversations, you’ve likely already found one or two other members of the Toma Force; one of whom (Koichi) is embarrassed to admit that he hurt his leg while fighting the monsters and isn’t able to assist you for the time being. The other, affectionately nicknamed “Glasses,” dies in front of you in what is supposed to be a dramatic, motivating moment. Yeah, just a couple slight problems here: You’re never given a chance to meet or bond with the members of your squad, and the way he dies by being turned into stone can only remind me of the guy who hilariously dies in Troll 2 by being turned into a tree, so this shocking death completely fails to register with any emotional impact. The monster guarding Glasses here also suggests that your third squadmate, Peaches, has already been eaten by another monster, though you ultimately do end up saving her before she’s digested… at which point, there’s a comedy moment (?) where you ask her for a pair of glasses she borrowed from a 2,000 year old hermit you met earlier, and she mistakenly assumes you’re talking about your deceased ally. I cannot tell if this game is supposed to be parodying the apocalypse subgenre, or if it’s trying to present it as grave and serious.
At the very least, rescuing members of your team (as well as discovering a small handful of item pickups) will reward you with attack modifiers, which do become somewhat essential in taking out monsters before they get a chance to take you out. While your default attack consists of firing a single on-screen psychic bullet at a time in a path straight ahead of you, this is almost immediately obsoleted by a power-up allowing you to have two projectiles on-screen at once. This can then be further upgraded to four projectiles on-screen at a time if you follow a hint from a helpful monster, leading you to Koichi’s hiding place and earning you the final fire rate upgrade. In other words, you’ll be upgrading from the starting tier to the ultimate tier in a matter of the game’s first six or seven minutes, which is an absolutely absurd bit of progression pacing. At the very least, there are still a few other different types of upgrades to be discovered: Power-ups that boost your projectile’s damage at the cost of additional ESP per shot, and modifiers that allow your projectiles to travel up or down the screen after traveling a short distance forward.
What is admittedly convenient is the fact that these options and modifiers can be swapped out on the fly by accessing your inventory; wherein you can select from a small assortment of quest items you’ll be collecting (activated by pressing the I and II buttons simultaneously), as well as mixing and matching the different firerates, projectile types, and projectile directions at your disposal. That said, there’s really no reason to downgrade your own firerate or shot damage once you max those out, and the downward shot is pretty much useless. In fact, the upward shot likely ends up being the most useful in the game, as it allows you to take out several of the bosses with the most minimal of effort by standing directly beneath them and continuously firing. The bosses in the game are all sort of largely trivial, with the standard assortment of respawning enemies posing far more of a threat.
But of course, it’s not just a matter of the baddies tossing numbers at the problem: They also have strategic positioning at their array, where they can practically guarantee damage the moment you transition between screens. Often times, you’ll move from one screen to the next only to find an enemy spawn directly next to or even inside of you the moment your character reappears on screen. Even if you enter every new screen spamming your fire button to try and kill potential monsters before they become an issue, you still won’t be able to kill them quick enough to avoid taking at least a couple of hits, as even the most rapid and powerful attack in the game still requires you to hit some of the weaker enemy types at least two or three times before they dissipate. And with nothing like “invincibility frames” or “pushback” when you’re damaged, these can potentially lead to instances where you absorb multiple hits that you had no means of predicting or dodging.
I’m sorry to have to come back to the subject so quickly, but this is a major issue with non-continuous / edge-activating scrolling. It’s an issue that requires some amount of thought and foresight on the part of developers to address, by making sure that players have sufficient time to observe their surroundings on loading a new screen of play. What there needs to be when this sort of design is forced / insisted upon is something like a buffer zone around where the player character appears; a surrounding empty space where enemies are incapable of spawning and immediately colliding with the player. Given how small the player character in Energy is relative to the rest of the screen, something like a safe distance of “five character sprites ahead” in every direction would’ve likely been sufficient. Of course, the size of the buffer that Energy sees fit to implement is… none whatsoever.
There’s also another factor at play here which gets in the way of avoiding damage, as well as your ability to so much as navigate the game world. This, of course, is the issue of abjectly awful jumping control, which manifests in a variety of fun and exciting ways. For starters, there’s no “hangtime” — the effect in which a character slows down their upward velocity at the height of a jump, before gradually increasing in speed as they’re pulled back down. Instead of that, you get a pitiful little hop that sees you go up in the air and back down to earth at a fixed speed, ultimately feeling very unnatural for a later 80s / early 90s release. In fairness, it’s not as if there’s a major deal of platform-to-platform jumping to do in the game, so you’re fortunately spared the frustration of slipping into bottomless pits or what have you. No, the issue largely arises as you try to vault over incoming enemies, where you’ll have to wait until the very last second to jump (or risk taking inadvertent damage on landing). Hangtime in games isn’t just important because it makes the sense of gravity more tangible: It also affords you some much-needed leeway when it comes to clearing hurdles.
But where the jumping controls really come to a head are where it comes to climbing up ledges or other elevations. Now, in a typical platformer, you can continue pushing forward into a small immovable obstacle, and when you jump, your character will continue to move forward as they reach a height above said obstacle. Effectively, I consider it something like vaulting over or climbing up objects in modern-day FPS games. So, how does Energy handle the issue of jumping while pressed against ledges? Well, it goes ahead and locks you completely in place, while rapidly repeating the jump sound effect for as long as you insist on holding onto the jump button (which, when held, will usually continuously automatically jump for you). In other words, it is verboten — an action not allowed by the game. Oh well, at least you can still count on a simple running jump to get you over the edge, right? But of course, it’s not quite that easy, as colliding with a wall mid-jump will also immediately send you back down to the ground; meaning that your jump timing has to be incredibly precise in order to make sure that you are at the absolute peak of your jump as you approach the edge of the platform you’re trying to land on.
What this all adds up to are a truly frustrating set of jumps that must be made over the course of the game; sometimes under the pressure of being flanked by enemies. In this sense, a seemingly nitpicky design flaw can prove quite fatal if the odds are not in your favor. But what this flaw indicates more than anything is just how little the developers considered “fluidity” as a design priority — how unaware or uncaring they were of how games had evolved to handle game control over the course of the previous few years. Energy is made to feel like a relic in its own time; clinging to the same strict limitations as its PC-88 source material, unwilling to iterate or take advantage of the hardware at hand. And it’s not even a case where they seemed compelled to make this game a 1:1 port of the original, as much of the level layouts are actually condensed and simplified for the PC Engine platform!
Yes, for all the improvements that the HuCard format held over the floppy disks intended for the PC-88 in terms of capacity and read speeds, Energy ultimately ends up lacking a large portion of content from Ashe. For something like an [very] incomplete list, the PC Engine version of the game excludes; the laboratory area at the beginning of the game, probably something like half the number of screens that would comprising the caverns, a section where you navigate a collapsed train tunnel in nearly complete darkness (Energy heavily condenses this section, illuminating the whole screen and not allowing you inside of the traincars), an entire level where you float between platforms in a void while battling stone totems, a number of puzzle elements, a variety of the originally-existing enemy types, and even several of the abilities and items from the original. This isn’t even counting a number of what I’d consider to be visual downgrades in terms of effects and background details, as well as a number of additional NPC interactions and functions. Oh, and did I also mention that the original game is much more conservative in terms of how often it tosses respawning enemies at you? The absolute downgrade on display here in Energy is honestly confounding, and has to leave you wondering what went wrong.
None of this is to say that Ashe is some forgotten masterpiece: Like I’ve said, it’s competent at best. In example of a major issue with the original game – and one which unfortunately does survive the conversion to the PC Engine – there is a massive amount of backtracking to be done; from literally one end of the game world to the other, and then back and forth again. In what I reckon might be one of the scarce few improvements on offer here, I think Energy might actually require one less round-the-world trip than Ashe does? And seeing as the game world is significantly smaller on consoles, it’s a shorter commute to boot. Small miracles, I suppose. Still, this does not alter the fact that you’ll be performing a pair of fetch quests that see you travel in a full circle twice (earning a “Demon Medal” to gain passage to an area near the start of the game, and retrieving that pair of glasses for the ancient hermit), and then back again to unlock the endgame zone. All this here is padding of the most blatant degree.
As if that weren’t enough, there’s also one resource in particular that you’ll likely find yourself backtracking and returning to on a frequent basis: A singing and dancing idol named Yukiko, who sits and waits on a small ledge in a vertically-tall room near the center of the game world. To reach her, you first have to negotiate with an incredibly finicky set of harmless (?) monsters who can propel you upwards toward the top of the screen, where you’ll also pass by a uselessly terrified civilian, an entrance to the other half of the map, and some pointlessly empty rooms that seem to exist solely as additional padding or to put some obstacles in your path. In any case, talking to Yukiko will reliably prompt her to ask who you are every single time you talk to her, before proceeding to see her perform a routine for you that fully recovers your health and energy. In other words; she is a rare, vital lifeline in a game that seems to delight in throwing you no bones otherwise. And in case you were wondering again: Yes, the original game provided now-absent health-refilling items, as well as giving the hermit the ability to fully restore your ESP instantaneously as a bit of added usefulness.
This constitutes just one of so many little quirks and oddities in the game; the likes of which would probably prompt the Irritated Interactive Software Dork™ to utter his famous catchphrase, “What were they thinking?!” I’ve yet to mention the friendly water monster who escorts you across a contaminated pool of water on their back, but only after saving their son and blowing into a whistle. Or how about the unexplained, ill-defined green statues that transport you into a hellish realm of flesh and intestine when you touch them? Oh, but my favorite might be a particular room that inexplicably drains away at your health while you stand in it, only for you to discover (by wearing a pair of magic glasses) that there’s an invisible boss that’s presumably been spitting fireballs at you the entire time you’ve been in there! The game has nothing in the way of explanations to offer for any of these occurrences, leaving the whole story incredibly vague and puzzling. I can’t say whether Ashe does a better job of explaining any of these sorts of situations, but I can certainly say that it contains altogether way more text boxes as you interact with the world.
If I’m reaching for positives here, it can at least be said that the obtuse nature of the game doesn’t go as far as some comparable Japanese adventure games of the era. I’m talking the likes of games inspired by The Tower of Druaga to hide all manner of secret rooms, hidden blocks, and inexplicable progression: Your Atlantis no Nazos, Milon’s Secret Castles, Super Pitfalls and the like. At the very least, it can be said that Energy is generally straightforward, with NPCs serving up clear objective messages and directions for you. I’ve read some number of online comments that claim that “most of” the hints in the game are replaced by shameless plugs for Masaya games, such as the aforementioned Crest of Gaia-playing character. But by and large, I don’t honestly believe this is the case. From the portions I personally translated and checked against the work of the English translation patch, I want to say that the latter seems to do a solid job of retaining the original messages, which are by and large practical.
Another positive I’ll pay is to the game’s soundtrack, which can be very catchy. It’s a shame the game seems to boast fewer overall music tracks than the PC-88 original — which, hey, there’s another downgrade I forgot to mention earlier! Regardless, what’s present is quite good the first several times you’ll hear it… until your hundredth time hearing the most commonly-used background music on loop, at which point you’ll probably just wanna hit mute. Just make sure to turn the volume back up for the ending screen tune, though, since it’s a “bop” as the kids like to say. It’s a shame then that the sound effects are all largely irritating from the get-go, and might well be constant enough to warrant silencing the game altogether.
So, let’s say that you manage to tolerate the cacophony of sounds, unintuitive mechanics, and general slog that comprises the bulk of the game. All that’s left is to travel down the final corridor, receive a garbled transmission from HQ, and square off against the final boss. Like every other boss encounter in the game, he is easily beaten by standing in place and constantly firing at him, occasionally batting away his projectiles or jumping to dodge them. If it all wasn’t easy enough as is, you can use that “secret weapon” that’s been taking up space in your inventory this whole time to have your friends help you by astral projecting and intercepting some of the boss’ projectiles. Shoot the big eyeball enough times, and it eventually explodes, whisking you away to an ending screen where your comrades commemorate the fallen Glasses with smiles on their goofy faces. A few more rolls of text acknowledging the Toma Force as heroes, until the game locks on a message reading “Until we meet again…” Even in these final moments, the game comes up short by lacking a pair of additional cutscenes and a credits roll from the original Ashe.
And that’s about all there is to Energy. All in all, it took me all of one hour to clear the entire game, not accounting for deaths and resets. I reckon it may have taken at least an additional 20 minutes if the originally slow screen scrolling was present, which is astonishing to consider. And with zero incentive to replay the game, that’s all you’d get for your ¥5200 back in the day. To say that the game underwhelms would be an understatement, especially to anyone who may have previously played the PC-88 original and hoped for an enhanced remake. It cannot be overstated just how much of a downgrade this game is from its source material, and how utterly tedious the final product is to actually play. Which brings us to the question: What could have been done to improve it?
With some games, I have to struggle to think of ways that the broken heaps we’re ultimately presented with could have been fixed. But when it comes to Energy, the template is already in place: It should’ve been more accurate to its source material in terms of bringing over content, and then used the technology at hand to improve on some of the clunkier aspects of it. These could include tightening up the controls, speeding up the recharge on your ESP meter, adding more variety elements to the boss fights, and perhaps most importantly; getting rid of the damn screen transitions and just presenting each of the unique tileset sections as open areas with continuous scrolling. With the original Ashe, there truly was the potential for a gem of an adventure game, and the move to more powerful hardware could’ve been all it needed to achieve that potential. Instead, we’re left with a great big flop that fails to live up to its predecessor.
All this begs one additional question: Is Energy worthy of being called “so bad, it’s good?” I’ve certainly seen the claim made, and it’s not as if the game is an over-long slog — far from it, even. Unfortunately though, I do find it all a bit too dull to deserve the honor. Sure, it has a small share of little setpieces and sequences that are decidedly goofy, and the absolute confusion in trying to set a mood and tone is a staple of media that fits the phrase. But at the same time, the core gameplay sits on that fine line between “hilariously busted” and “largely competent”; where it’s just functional enough not to elicit jeers from a crowd, but just subtly frustrating enough to make the experience of playing it feel like a chore. I hesitate to suggest it, but perhaps if the game was slightly harder – more difficult to parse and challenging to play – it’d cross that threshold into the territory of more notable kusogē.
For another suggestion I rarely make, I feel like the game should’ve just fully went for it with the gore and horror? Aside from that one intro scene of a guy being crushed by a tentacle, and the “Hell of flesh” aesthetic you get from the monsters and their associated environments, it’s a relatively bloodless and not-very-scary game. Granted, I know that getting more violent fare to pass on the home consoles was a more difficult task at the time: One of my favorite MSX games, Shiryō Sensen: War of the Dead, lost a lot of its charm in its toned-down translation to the PC Engine, despite being a title billed on graphic violence and terror. That being said, it’d be a novelty well-justified for Energy, and I have to imagine that if they got the game’s intro past certification, they could’ve likely included more in the way of bloody deaths and corpse-laden streets to pass as well. Add all that while keeping the same goofy dialogue and performing idol from the original, and you have a recipe for a properly tone-deaf disaster.
As it stands, Energy sadly doesn’t make much of an impression. For me, the true fascination lies in the obscurity of its developer, as well as the stripping down of its source material to its more bare bones form. About the only element of the game itself that I can truly see sticking with me is that atrocious screen-scrolling, and even that is something that most non-Japanese-reading players will lose out on if they apply that multi-functional English patch. At that point, you’re just left with a fairly basic little adventure game with just a hint as to “what could’ve been.” It’s a case where I wish it was somehow slightly worse, so it could at least have more to mock. But at the end of the day, all it is Ashe in the wind: Close your eyes only for a moment, and the game’s gone.
“And All Became Ashes…”
Energy served as the sole collaboration between Quasar Soft and Masaya, as well as the only title Quasar would bring to the PC Engine. And while sales numbers here are the typical mystery as was common for the era, it’s safe to say that it probably did not fare so well, considering how quickly future endeavors were dropped and abandoned. What can be confirmed, however, is the lukewarm critical reception the game received; presented in summarized English courtesy of Magweasel.com:
“Famicom Tsushin gave it 4/5/6/3 for a total of 18 points. Marukatsu PC Engine, Kadokawa Shoten’s monthly PCE mag, was a bit kinder with its 5/5/6/4 rating, but I can count on one hand the number of times Marukatsu gave out scores below 5/10, so the presence of a 4 up there indicates we’re into deepest, darkest kusoge territory with this one.” ~ Kevin Gifford, Magweasel
I also took to a more recently written review of the game from Kieren Hawken’s The A-Z of PC Engine & TurboGrafx Games: Volume 1, which describes the game as graphically looking like “a Master System game at best with poorly drawn sprites, boring backdrops and some overly bright colours.”They proceed to zing it by proclaiming that “For a game called Energy this title is utterly devoid of it!” I’d love to transcribe for you some translated content from actual Japanese publications of the era, but I sadly lack the means to make that happen at the moment.
And so, as Masaya would quickly move on to bigger and better things, Quasar found themselves in something of a rut. Abandoned by their prospective publishing partner, the PC Engine seemed to be taken off the table as a potential platform for them. Within the year, they found themselves back on the PC-88, developing what would seem to be their final title: The graphic adventure game Dororo ~Jigoku Emaki no Shou~. An adaptation of a classic manga / anime by the acclaimed Osamu Tezuka, it follows the adventure of a cursed child born missing 48 parts of his body (including limbs and facial features), who is constructed a functional / weaponized body by a kind-hearted doctor, and sent on a quest to slay the demons who hold claim to his missing appendages. The game sees you navigating from a first-person perspective in graphical frame, as the action is presented by text and your small selection of commands. From what I’ve seen of it, it looks like it has potential enough to be an engaging romp for anyone who’s a fan of the material it’s adapted from.
Unfortunately, this licensed game would fail to keep Quasar afloat in the game-making game, and the developer would shut down operations soon after its release. In what might be considered a cruel cosmic joke at their expense, Quasar Soft collapsed just as the company they split off from in Bullet-Proof Software found themselves entering into one of the most lucrative business agreements in the industry. I’d like to think that at least some of Quasar’s staff found their ways back to BPS in time to cash in on the Tetris train. But as for the fruits of their labor as part of an independent company, it seems they had little to show for their hard work in terms of profits earned or legacy established — their works doomed to be forgotten.
… Except, perhaps not entirely forgotten. Having languished in obscurity for the better part of two and a half decades, a handful of Quasar Soft’s titles began to see digital distribution on a Japanese subscription service titled “ProjectEGG.” It began with Legend in May of 2013, and saw Ashe served free with the client beginning the next month in June. In subscribing for the service, you download a client to your PC that serves as your game launcher and library for any titles you’ve paid for or which are offered for free, as well as being treated to bonus goodies like manual scans and soundtracks. In a sense, I reckon it’s something like the GOG Galaxy client, serving the same purpose of making older titles more easily accessible through a modern frontend? In the case of these PC-88 titles, it full-on launches an emulator that boots into the system’s command prompt and gives you control over the virtual disk drives, as well as providing some number of emulation options for the technically-inclined [and Japanese-literate].
However, the “best” was yet to come, as it would be another two years plus until Quasar Soft’s magnum opus came to the service. In a news story so major that Famitsu saw fit to publish an article announcing it, Energy made its way to ProjectEGG on December 15th, 2015, for an asking price of just ¥500. You can even purchase the game’s soundtrack for an additional ¥600, if you’re so inclined! In a translation of Famitsu’s headline, they informed their readers that the day had come for them to “annihilate the demonic beast army as the best ESP warrior!” Truly, a historic day for games preservation, and a day of celebration for all humanity. But seriously: It’s genuinely rad as heck that Energy and its predecessor are available legally through digital distribution, at an asking price that isn’t completely obscene… and even if the ProjectEGG client itself also seems like a bit of a pain to use outside of Japan itself. Trust me: I paid the price to try.
I know that I dismissed it earlier as not being worthy of a “so bad, it’s good” recommendation; but if you’re genuinely fascinated by the concept of this game, you might as well go ahead and try it out for yourself. That being said, if you want the full effect of it all, you should commit to it and play the original, unpatched / untranslated version of the game. Get a feel for the way the game was intended to be paced, and experience it in all it’s unnecessarily-prolonged glory. And while you’re at it, you should really make sure to give the original Ashe a try too, to see for yourself what’s missing and what made the cut. I also promise that we’ll be returning to the wild and wacky worlds of the PC Engine and PC-88 again on this website, for those of you eager to see an American fumble their way through largely-undocumented Japanese games history!