Little Things: Adventures of Dino-Riki

I’d say that Adventures of Dino-Riki hates us all, but that's a harsh accusation to level at a goofy NES shooter where a smiling caveman belts prehistoric creatures with fireballs. It’s a side-project from Hudson Soft, so much so that Riki's axes look straight out of Adventure Island, and it’s from an age when NES games had to be fierce and uncomplicated.

That’s where Dino-Riki’s unabiding cruelty comes into frame. Monsters and projectiles and instantly lethal hazards swarm Riki at every turn, and his limited methods of counterattack involve jumping, tossing things, and yelping comically when he’s struck. The game has only three actual stage themes, but they repeat several times before reaching a final, buglike boss. Then it all starts over again from the first stage.

Adventures of Dino-Riki has no ending. It doesn’t even grant the player, who’s surely spent hours upon hours memorizing the behavior of caroming pterodactyls and sinking lily pads, some concluding graphic of Dino-Riki triumphant. The North America version of Karnov and its “Congratulations” screen often go down as the biggest disgrace in NES endings, but at least Karnov cared enough to acknowledge you.

Hudson crafted Adventures of Dino-Riki in 1987, when the NES had plenty of arcade-like offerings that didn’t need endings. Yet Dino-Riki has just enough cartoonish aplomb to invite denouement, even if it were just some seven-second finale with Riki and the cover illustration's apparently nameless red-haired cavewoman (or the Japanese wrestler who occasionally takes Riki's place). This was an oversight in 1987, but it became out-and-out fraud when Dino-Riki came to North America in 1989. By then, even simple shooters like Thundercade and Captain Skyhawk rewarded you.

Glancing over the Japanese version of Adventures of Dino-Riki reveals no storyline there; it wasn’t a case of The Krion Conquest, where the North American publisher clipped out the ending and nearly all cutscenes. Riki is plotless wherever he goes. We’re simply told that he’s a cave-kid fighting dinosaurs and Precambrian monstrosities in a bid to prove himself their evolutionary superior.

This brings me to the most interesting thing about Adventures of Dino-Riki. The first stage sends him across swamps and plains, but the second one shows us a panorama of ruins: broken stone columns, weathered earthenware pots, and a primitive temple entrance (that leads to a cave with a dinosaur inside). It’s the sort of backdrop you’ll see in shooters and action games across the NES library.

But questions emerge here. Riki is a caveboy, and the game is presumably set in some Pleistocene-Mesozoic mishmash without even a Flintstones level of technology. So what’s with the ruins? Is Riki treading through the remnants of Atlantis, Mu, or some lost dino-human civilization like the Reptite Empire of Chrono Trigger? Is Adventures of Dino-Riki borrowing that old science-fiction standby of a cave-tribe vista that actually takes place thousands of years after the fall of human civilization? Is Riki the last human alive, braving a gamut of fire-breathing lizards and sharp-winged bats until at last he falls, and his race with him?

These subtle hints failed to fascinate NES owners, and Hudson realized that Adventure Island was a much more popular take on a primitively clad hero bashing monsters—and it had an ending, besides. Riki never went beyond his grueling little NES debut, and even by 1989 he was stuck in the past. Or the future.

Pin-zer Dragoon

A short time ago I said to myself, “I don’t have enough Panzer Dragoon junk,” and that bugged me more than it should have. Panzer Dragoon, Sega’s line of mostly excellent 3-D dragonback rail shooters, is on the short list of game series over which I will make a complete fool of myself, so felt the need to do just that.

Of course, there’s a limit to my fool-making, and I hit it rapidly when checking out the various Panzer Dragoon merchandise on eBay. A limited-edition Panzer Dragoon Orta Xbox? Too expensive, too big, and I’d never use it. An even more limited resin statue of heroine Orta? Not bad, but even more expensive. A VHS copy of the dreadful Panzer Dragoon anime OVA? Even that unendurable panorama of garbage is overpriced.

Yet I spied something cheap, small, and novel: a Panzer Dragoon Orta pin for about three bucks.

I assume these were given away at conventions, perhaps E3, before the game’s early 2003 debut on the Xbox. They’re neat for what they are. The design is true to Panze Dragoon's ornate future-byzantine motif, and they’re hard rubber instead of cheap promo-pin plastic.

One thing strikes me: instead of Sega’s logo on the front, we see that of Smilebit, the developer. Smilebit was part of Sega’s expansion in 2000, when the company, hubristic as ever, established nine different subsidiaries. All of them still answered to Sega, naturally, and Sega reformed the various groups into six larger entities in 2003 before folding them back into Sega proper in 2004. Sega is strange like that.

So why does Smilebit get billing on the front of the promotional pin when Sega’s copyright is on the back—and on the cover of the game, for that matter? Perhaps Sega wanted to push Smilebit as a new brand. By 2002, Sega was out of the console market that they had nearly dominated in the early 1990s, and their name no longer stood for anti-Nintendo coolness or screaming television commercials. Sega was shameful and tired, but Smilebit? Hey, that sounds fun!

Well, that’s my backward theory, at any rate, and it’s the most notable thing about the pin. That said, I’m glad I picked it up. Even the crappiest Panzer Dragoon errata is rapidly turning collectible, so perhaps even this little rubber square will pay for a trip to New Zealand in a few years.

Valkyrie Anatomia: In Profile

Valkyrie Anatomia: The Origin makes me doubt myself. I enjoy it, but I wonder if that’s because I’m hardwired to enjoy any Valkyrie Profile creation on some level. Am I having fun with Valkyrie Anatomia just as I did Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which lost me in the second half but still made me feel like a little kid watching Return of Jedi? Is it like a mediocre Lupin III movie that I watch only because it has Lupin slinking around while Jigen makes caustic remarks and never takes off his hat? Or is it more like ABC’s recently canceled The Muppets, a standard-issue mockumentary sitcom that I stuck with just to see Gonzo and Fozzie and Uncle Deadly going about Muppet routines?

Should you trust my opinion of Valkyrie Anatomia? Can I even trust it? Probably not.

Well, here’s what I think anyway: Valkyrie Anatomia, as a mobile-game prequel to the rest of Valkyrie Profile, doesn’t form as well as its predecessors. Yet it has enough of Valkyrie Profile’s finest elements to draw me into whatever it’s trying to do to my spare time and money. For all of its failings, It knows what sets Valkyrie Profile games apart. I have irksomely sectionalized proof.

The three Valkyrie Profile games tell of struggles between Norse gods and mere mortals: the first is about a valkyrie slowly reclaiming her humanity, the second about a rebellious valkyrie locked in mortal form, and the third about a bitter warrior seeking revenge on the valkyrie who spirited away his father. Yet their best moments are often found in the smaller tales about the warriors the valkyries gather, the valiant and doomed souls who earn a place in Odin’s army one way or another. The original game excelled at this while Valkyrie Profile 2 had weak side stories, but the third, Covenant of the Plume, remembered the importance of a strong supporting cast. And I will defend it everywhere I can.

Valkyrie Anatomia remembers as well. It's just not as adept. The overarching story finds a younger (and possibly alternate-reality) version of Lenneth Valkyrie sealed in darkness, summoned out of it only by an equally younger version of Odin. He desperately needs warriors for the Aesir ranks, so Lenneth travels to the mortal realm with two raven familiars at her side. She recruits humans for Einherjar he same way the original Valkyrie Profile presented things: watching them in the days before their untimely demises, and inviting them to accompany her to the afterworld.

My limited knowledge of Japanese leaves me unable to comment on the nuances of Valkyrie Anatomia’s storyline, but I can grasp the tenor of it. It’s fragmented in quality, switching from a generic story about an all-too-perfect warrior to an intriguing chronicle of a homunculus mage’s final days. Most of the time, though, Anatomia strikes the right tone: morose, fatalistic, and yet hopeful for a life beyond. It’s easy enough to sympathize with Chloe, a dragon-hunter forced to save her sister’s life at the cost of her own, or Sena, an aspiring swordfighter who dies in a tavern brawl.

That’s where Valkyrie Anatomia lays down the same rhythm that made Valkyrie Profile so compelling. Each little vignette isn’t just about a pathetic mortal; it’s an introduction to a new archer or magician or broadsword-wielder for you to recruit and develop. Anatomia even goes beyond the introductions. Once drafted, an Einherjar unlocks extra dungeons that explore the characters’ lives after they’re turned into foot soldiers for Ragnarok. It’s an excellent flourish on the original’s formula, which tended to forget about most human allies after they enlisted.

I never tire of Valkyrie Profile’s battle system remains, and I refuse to think it's mere nostalgia. No, it's the mix of action-game reflexes and a typical RPG battle array. Each party member is mapped to one of four buttons, and pressing those buttons makes them attack in all sorts of variable pileups of spells and slashes and arrows. And with a reliable influx of dying mortals, there’s always a new character to fit into the flurry.

Valkyrie Anatomia simplifies that idea. Confined to a touch-screen, it lacks the visceral heights of actually pressing a button, yet the four controllable characters still respond when their portraits are tapped. Then the chaos kicks in, as everyone gangs up on an enemy as fast as you can command. Some strategy remains, of course: get too reckless, and a character’s spell might miss a cave-spider that’s bounced into the air, or Chloe’s vicious aerial multi-hit could whiff over a revenant already downed by Lenneth’s slide.

Characters now share a life meter, and if there’s an option to use healing items in-battle, I haven’t found it. Instead, you’re given the choice of using crystals to bring your entire party back from the ether. This being a mobile game, you have the choice of getting those crystals in small portions with each day played and dungeon cleared…or you can buy them outright.

I'm not sure if I've entirely accepted the game industry's future of smartphone diversions primed to snatch money at your most desperate moments, but without that future, we wouldn't have a new Valkyrie Profile.

Both Valkyrie Profile and its sequel relied on the same narrow complexity. Their stages were side-scrolling challenges, with jumps and ladders and visible enemies, and within that space the designers got exceptionally creative. The original Valkyrie Profile relied on Lenneth’s ice crystals, while Valkyrie Profile 2 used heroine Silmeria’s position-swapping magic for some excellent puzzles. Covenant of the Plume, being a strategy-RPG, had no such gimmicks. But that was fine.

Valkyrie Anatomia has nothing of the sort. Each stage spans a bunch of linked islands, and Lenneth runs from one to the other. Some hold enemies, some hold treasure chests, and some reveal secret paths or items if Lenneth searches them. It’s basic and tiresome, but that’s likely due to the platform. A mobile game really couldn’t work as a simplified side-scroller, and it’s better off as a tap-and-go dungeon hike.

To its credit, Valkyrie Anatomia isn’t as openly avaricious as some mobile games. Lenneth’s story and her Einherjar anthology are all free to play; the weapons and equipable gems are the randomly distributed trinkets, and thus they’re easier to get if you’re willing to pay for them.

The Valkyrie Profile series regularly showed beautiful illustrations from Kou Yoshinari and Yoh Yoshinari, both animators and directors. They drew all of the characters in the first game, provided some promotional art for Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria, and returned to design the cast for Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume. Even the regular characters designs for Silmeria weren’t too shabby. Shunya Yamashita draws every female character like a cockily postured pin-up, but his illustrations are professional.

Valkyrie Anatomia is roughest here. Hideo Minaba did at least two nice illustrations for the central artwork, but the in-game illustrations, apparently provided by a different artist, are weak. Lenneth wears ridiculous belted half-boob armor, and most of her recruited characters look mundane. Their outfits aren’t so bad, even if Chloe carries on the Valkyrie Profile tradition of women warriors who outfit themselves sensibly except for the upper thighs.

Anatomia also cheaps out by reusing the same artwork for nameless supporting characters. The same vikings from Lucia’s story reappear as bar thugs in Sena’s arc, while Chloe and pirate-turned-princess Riu apparently have twin sisters for mothers. Yeah, RPGs reuse sprite art and even portraits, but Anatomia clearly didn’t have a solid art budget. It’d look better if the identical children and soldiers and old women had no accompanying illustrations at all.

And what about the soundtrack? It leans a lot on older Valkyrie Profile tunes, but Motoi Sakuraba put together some solid new compositions. It’s a lot more consistent than the artwork.

In some inescapably biased way, I like Valkyrie Anatomia. I like it enough to keep playing it, enough to describe it in a bullet-point format that I usually dislike, and enough to hope that Square Enix puts it on the Vita, perhaps with better artwork. That rarely happens, but Chaos Rings eventually saw a Vita release, so hey. Let's hope.

That’s what bothers me the most about Valkyrie Anatomia: it’s ephemeral. A year or two from now it could disappear in a puff of server deletions and app delistings. If Valkyrie Anatomia survives in some physical form, I can add it to my top-shelf game library.

And I’d like that.

NFL Huddles: Rushers' Revenge

A while back I wrote about the NFL Huddles, a line of little figures representing various football teams. I openly wondered why the NFL didn’t revive the idea and market the Rams and Cardinals and Jets as cute characters for children. As it turns out, the NFL brought back the Huddles in concept, if not in name or spirit. And I learned about it through McNuggets.

I went to at a McDonald’s and realized that it’d been about twelve years since I’d bought a Happy Meal. So I asked what kind of toys they had. This particular McDonald’s didn’t have the Hot Wheels sets as advertised; as a substitute they offered NFL Rush Zone Rushers, a promotion apparently from 2012. This piqued my interest, and I bought one. Then I bought another.

The Rushers have the same underlying principle as the Huddles, embodying some NFL mascot in squat form. Design-wise, they’re different. Each of them is a huge helmeted head with arms and legs attached, plus whatever decorations evoke a team. It’s a physique that works well for creatures like Boglins or robots like Gurren Lagann (or the gun-headed things from Keith Courage/Wataru), but it’s a little strange when applied to human characters and humanoid animals.

Much to my disappointment, I couldn’t pick out teams. The Rushers were blind-bagged, and I declined to ask some McDonald’s employee to check the serial numbers. So I rolled the dice and ended up with the Rushers for the Kansas City Chiefs and Indianapolis Colts. They were  I my top choices, but I was relieved that I didn’t draw the Cowboys. I never liked the Cowboys.

All of the Rushers have a football-throwing mechanism: press the clenched hand, and the other hand propels a plastic ball through the air. They’re made of lightweight plastic, which pretty much ensures that children will destroy them after a week or so of standard toy abuse.

The designs themselves are largely uninventive. The Chiefs Rusher has no adornments whatsoever, possibly to avoid stereotypical Native American garb—though  that skin tone is an odd choice. The Colts Rusher tries harder, but there’s a problem. He’s not an actual Colt. He’s just an ambulatory Madball in a Colts helmet.


See? This is a disgrace to the Huddles legacy and the good name of Cody Colt.

Some Rushers show greater fidelity, and you can see them all in this video. Most of the bird mascots get beaked visages, the Bengals and Panthers are actual cats, and the Jets mascot wears a combination helmet and pilot mask. Still, most of the choices are either lazy human gnomes or strange chimeras. The Broncos Rusher, which I wanted most, looks more like a bored dinosaur than any sort of horse.

There’s more to the Rushers. All of these characters spawned from a 2012 cartoon called NFL Rush Zone: Guardians Unleashed, in which a focus-grouped assortment of kids transforms into football-outfitted Power Ranger superheroes and battles monsters over energy Mega Cores that look like team footballs. Really. There are three seasons of this.

These cheaply animated CG escapades often pause to introduce NFL players (all clearly voicing themselves) and awkwardly interject trivial about, for example, how many times the Cardinals made the playoffs. The squat NFL mascots appear at times, but the focus is on preteen heroes donning neon football armor and crashing into robotic villains. It’s the perfect cartoon for a sports league dogged by scandals about brain damage.

That aside, the Rushers seem like a decent novelty for devoted NFL collectors or anyone looking to annoy fellow diners by lobbing plastic footballs across the table. I still prefer the Huddles, though, and I don’t think it’s due to nostalgia entirely. The Huddles are cuter, more compact, and sturdier in their rubbery forms. Plus the Broncos and Colts Huddles look like broncos and colts.

So the Rushers won’t become part of my modest toy stockpile. I already gave away the Chiefs one to a coworker, and now I need to find someone who likes the Colts enough to want a little plastic catapult shaped like a angry gridiron gnome. If only I still lived in Ohio.

Little Things: Tail 'Gator

Tail ‘Gator is one of those early Game Boy titles that stood all by itself. It has no tie-ins, no sequels, and no subsequent cameos for its reptile hero. It doesn’t even have the odd connections of Trip World (which is a spiritual successor to Mr. Gimmick) or Chalvo 55 (which stars the robot from the canceled Virtual Boy game Bound High). Nope, Tail ‘Gator is just a side-scrolling action game that Natsume released back in 1991.

Yet Tail ‘Gator is great fun. Its protagonist is an alligator named Charly, and he counters the menace of a dragon overlord by jumping around and whacking things with his tail—or launching a fiery tail-shaped corona across the screen, if he’s grabbed enough power-ups. The game runs through different realms that follow such standard templates as sky and water levels, and most of the stages are nicely designed despite their find-the-key simplicity and Charly’s sluggish movement. In fact, Tail ‘Gator is one of the best action games the Game Boy saw in its first few years on the market, and it has an appropriately small and devoted fan contigent.

Natsume also crammed Tail ‘Gator with a lot of entertaining details, all the more impressive considering the Game Boy’s small screen and the primitive graphics of many of its titles. My favorite little touch can be seen when Charly leaps into a waterfall.

Instead of just floating around, he spins through the water with a look of goggle-eyed perplexity on his face. The player can control just where he leaves the waterfall, but I prefer to let Charly drift through it in some embryonic trance. He even looks like a little tadpole.

Not that alligators are ever tadpoles. They hatch from eggs as baby alligators and are often devoured by their own species.

My second favorite detail comes when Charly takes too much damage and drifts up off the screen, gazing ruefully above him. A lot of games show dead heroes and heroines ascending to heaven, but they nearly always have robes, halos, and wings. Charly has none of these, and it makes perfect eschatological sense when you think about it. He won’t get angelic vestments until he actually reaches heaven.

Tail ‘Gator has a small legacy. It’s considered rare among Game Boy collectors, so you’d pay at least $80 for bare cartridge, its label showing an angrier and more realistic Charly wrecking a wall while a frog just stares in the background. That comes to about $20 per square inch of plastic and microchips, so I don’t recommend it.

A Virtual Console release would be nice for those who want to play the game without emulated thievery, but Natsume reported that Nintendo’s pretty much done with bringing Game Boy games to the 3DS. Tough luck, Charly. You can go play in the waterfall until you feel better.

Trouble Shooter Trivia

I admit that I’m lazy when it comes to investigating games. I'm willing to poke through old magazines in search of screenshots that differ from the actual released titles, but I rarely notice any changes unless it’s a game I really like. For example, I found something irrelevant about Trouble Shooter, which I enjoy and write about more than it probably merits.

Trouble Shooter, known as Battle Mania in Japan, is a charming Sega Genesis side-scrolling shooter, stitched together from two obvious sources. One is Capcom’s macho arcade fantasy-blaster Forgotten Worlds, and the other is Haruka Takachiho’s Dirty Pair line of novels and anime about bikini-clad interplanetary operatives Kei and Yuri blowing up a good chunk of space-faring civilization. Many people imitated both of these things to drab effect, but Trouble Shooter found its own identity. It’s colorful and competently made even if the gameplay is simple, and its sequel, Battle Mania Daiginjoh, is downright amazing. At the risk of perturbing Capcom diehards and the fansub kingpins of Reagan-era college anime clubs, I like Trouble Shooter more than Forgotten Worlds or any Dirty Pair adventure.

Most importantly, Trouble Shooter and Battle Mania Daiginjoh have genuine affection at their cores. It’s common for fans to declate their favorite games earnest labors of love regardless of how bland they may be, but the Trouble Shooter series truly seems to exist just because some staffers at Vic Tokai and Seibu Lease really, really wanted to make them. Rather than Xerox Kei and Yuri, they established heroine Madison (Mania in Japan) as a cranky, genre-wise mercenary and, in the American version, a slumming debutante with feminist quips. Along with her more placid and fun-loving roommate Crystal (a.k.a. Maria), she rescues a kidnapped prince who says things like “Coolness,” defeats a supervillain who turns into a giant buglike demon, and goes to even stranger places in the sequel.

And the developers, calling themselves Studio Space Iron Men, packed both games with precious details. A first-stage boss laughs for no reason. A giant ogre-faced assault train runs on hamsters in little wheels (and unleashes flying caped Marios). A beetle-like Batman attacks on a hoverscooter halfway through the second stage. Upon rescuing the prince, Madison and Crystal give him a blaster and turn him into yet another Gradius-like satellite. The menu of Battle Mania Daiginjoh even has a band of miniature Crystals, and they dance along with the sound test.

Trouble Shooter had a bright future for a month or two at the end of 1991. Vic Tokai promoted it with help from GamePro, and the magazine even gave the game a perfect score of red exploding faces. I freely admit that the first Trouble Shooter isn’t quite that great; the action’s slower than most shooters, and it’s challenging mostly because Madison's such a large target. But hey, it deserved a perfect score more than Pit Fighter. Or Valis III. Or Ghost Pilots, Magician Lord, or Quackshot. GamePro gave out a lot of perfect scores.

The most interesting thing about this review is the screenshot on the lower left. It doesn’t appear in the game, as Madison and Crystal are instead introduced by this opening shot.

Upon close examination, however, this mystery shot looks less like a rare early build of the game and more like a composite image pieced together by either Vic Tokai or GamePro. It’s odd that anyone would go through the fuss of making a mock-up from various screengrabs when they could just show the opening portraits of Madison and Crystal, but promotional shots take many strange and unnecessary forms.

There’s another reason I doubt this screenshot comes from a prototype. In one of my dumber moves as a game collector, I bought an alleged prototype of Trouble Shooter many years ago, dreaming that I’d uncover some fascinating pre-release version of the game that gave Madison an R-rated vocabulary or the villain a Hitler mustache. The cartridge used EPROMs and had a tattered Vic Tokai label, but the game within was exactly the same as the released Trouble Shooter, as far as I could tell. It certainly didn’t have the intro screen show in that GamePro review. So yes, this is a false alarm.

GamePro and Vic Tokai further hyped Trouble Shooter with a contest that gave away Game Gears and a chance to be on GamePro TV. Readers could win by finding special Madison or Crystal cards packed in with Trouble Shooter, but they could enter far more easily by sending Vic Tokai the answer to a question. It’s Colonel Patch, by the way.

I hope the contest winners enjoyed their Game Gears, because it’s not likely they appeared on GamePro TV. The show was canceled in late 1991, though it’s possible that two lucky kids ended up on its infomercial revival. It’d beat that Nintendo Power competition where the winner only met Arnold Schwarzenegger for five seconds.

The real question is this: what happened to those prize cards? Only seven of them apparently existed, making them ridiculously rare, and it’s possible that customers didn’t find them all. In fact, there’s a factory-sealed copy of Trouble Shooter on eBay RIGHT NOW for $340, and a Madison or Crystal card might be inside! Crowdfund me, and I promise I’ll scan the card for everyone to print out.

I have a better suggestion if you like Trouble Shooter and have money to spare. Shmuplations is a wonderful place that regularly translates obscure interviews with Japanese developers, and the site’s back catalog has not one but two discussions with the Trouble Shooter series director, who went by Takayan the Barbarian. If you donate to Shmuplations, which you should do anyway, you’ll get to vote on which ones get translated next, or even up your pledge to the point where you can pick interviews outright.

Naturally, I’m voting for Battle Mania/Trouble Shooter each month. I’d really like to know more about the series, even if it turns out that I’m completely wrong. Perhaps Takayan will reveal that Trouble Shooter wasn’t a pet project driven by earnest affection for comedic destruction and spunky anime heroines. Perhaps it just came about after some detached Vic Tokai executive flipped through both a Famitsu and a Newtype in the same afternoon. Perhaps the Trouble Shooter games exist just for mercenary profit. But they don't seem like they do. That’s why I like them.

California Crisis: Do a Lot of Coke and Vote for Ronald Reagan

We’ll remember the 1980s as a time of fanciful excess in North America and Japan, no matter how meretricious that may be. Never mind the Cold War or the AIDS crisis or the rampant sleaziness peddled as noble success. Textbooks will document an era of Thompson Twins singles, Schwarzenegger films, feathered hair, mecha anime, suspiciously avuncular presidents, and video games where you had to rescue suspiciously avuncular presidents from ninjas. Not ninja. Ninjas. It was the 1980s, and we didn’t care about faithfully pluralizing loanwords.

The indulgences of the 1980s fed Japan’s direct-to-video anime market in the decade’s latter half, ensuring that the acronym OVA would remain part of the nerd lexicon. Companies turned just about any idea into at least 45 minutes of animation, even if that idea consisted of nothing more than a giant mecha, a big-eyed heroine, or some combination of the two. Ideally, the OVA boom would’ve spurred a wealth of creative animation from rising talents, but instead it brought a deluge of vapid waste with occasionally nice animation and all the enduring quality of a Sci-Fi Channel Original Movie. The typical 1980s OVA is not Angel’s Egg. It is Ladius, Good Morning Althea, Roots Search, Explorer Woman Ray, Relic Armor Legaciam, or anything else so generic that it’s hard to remember the title. I think one of them was called Steel Guarder Lyzerial.

California Crisis: Gun Salvo, a 1986 radar blip from Studio Unicorn, is smack-dab in the middle of this nonsense. It lasts under an hour, and its story pitch could be summed up in restroom graffiti. It’s a ridiculous joyride that imitates the shallowest parts of shallow action films.

Yet California Crisis stands a little above the dross.

For one thing, it looks different. It’s animated with linework and shadows much heavier than the typical ‘80s cartoon from Japan or anywhere else. And instead of servicing a story about toy-ready mecha, Tokyo teenagers, or robot-demon warfare in the dead of space, California Crisis is all about the glorious sun-baked fa├žade of America.

Noera doesn’t have much in his life. His high-school glories are a decade past, and he spends the opening of California Crisis reminiscing in a bar just outside of San Diego. At least he has his blond good looks, a gorgeous vintage car, and nothing to do but take a leisurely drive while listening to a news report about a crashed meteorite. A young redhead pulls alongside to ask for directions and call him “Pops,” and that’s when a truck runs them both off the road and crashes itself. Armed thugs chase them away, but not before the redhead, Marcia, recovers a mysterious box from the wreckage.

Recovering at a diner, the two learn that the box contains a bowling ball, or at least a curious sphere that resembles a bowling ball. It summons visions of Death Valley at their touch, and Marcia declares that they should take this alien visitor to its apparent home. Her rationale? "American Dream." That's what she says.

A reluctant Noera goes along once some armed goons arrive, and from there the two race around southern California, closely followed by a government task force that includes one of Noera’s high-school pals.

Noera and Marcia drift along, pausing to enjoy lavish scenes of billboards, restaurants, nightclubs, countryside, and other SoCal sights that I assume the animators researched first-hand. I’d like to think that writer-director Mizuho Nishikubo (who'd direct the largely disposable Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensi OVA the following year) and his crew got a nice vacation out of all this.

Their creation isn't realistic, of course. Anyone who actually lived in California, in the 1980s or outside of it, will see only a ridiculous mockery in the whitebread characters and complete void of consequences, physical or otherwise. But that’s OK, because California Crisis is almost over.

Our heroes eventually arrive at Death Valley and, harried by helicopter fire, plunge off a cliff and into a lake. As they’re on the verge of drowning, their spherical cargo glows and draws them out of the water. Noera and Marcia stand on the shore, gazing at the cracked and empty alien orb as copter blades drone nearby.

And that’s the ending. Really. It cuts straight to a shot of Noera and Marcia riding off with a new car and a new bike, while pop singer Miho Fujiwara reminds us all that the streets are hot—perhaps even too hot. She’s very nice, and you might even see her comment on YouTube.

California Crisis is striking in its refusal to mean anything.  Two complete strangers are chased by government agents. A nightclub is visited for no reason. Perfectly good cars are abandoned. There's a pet cat along for the ride. A carefree young woman declares “American Dream!” in a diner before deciding to risk her life for a Sputink-shaped UFO. A rickety pickup truck and an attack helicopter have a canyon chase and a head-to-head showdown. Casual sex is offered and turned down. A vagrant alien artifact does nothing beyond a single anticlimactic rescue. There’s no lasting message, no potential relationship, no ending, no point.

And yet California Crisis is a perfect summation of the 1980s. Not the 1980s as they actually happened, but the 1980s as they were stereotyped even while they occurred, and as they may well be remembered by the terse, distant estimation of history. It’s pretty, it’s hollow, and it’s suddenly over.

The only resolution for the tale sees Noera and Marcia going their separate ways, and that’s what awaited the OVA boom at the end of the decade. Japan’s economic bubble popped as the 1990s arrived, while America had a brief recession and swept away its ‘80s neon gobbledygook with a uglier tide of grunge rock and disaffection. Everyone moved on and grew up a little. In fact, Nishikubo recently directed Mamoru Oshii's Miyamoto Musashi film and the prestigious/propagandic historical drama Giovanni’s Island.

So California Crisis captures two worlds in their vivid inanity. What did most of Japan’s direct-to-video cartoons and America’s flashfire pop overkill really accomplish in the 1980s? Not a whole lot. But they looked good doing nothing.