Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Mystery Woman

Konami’s original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game was a remarkable sight back in 1990. It’s competent as side-scrolling brawlers go, and the many animated effects and prickly voicework convinced children everywhere that they were playing the actual cartoon. When it hit the NES as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game, it became something else: an apology for that lousy earlier Ninja Turtles NES outing that everyone bought.

The arcade game didn’t allow much personal creativity from the programmers. All of the enemies are straight from Turtle doctrine, and at most Konami was permitted to devise different types of Foot Soldiers. The NES version let the developers get a little more creative and throw in two extra levels with new bosses: a mutated arctic tiger-wolf-bear named Tora and a robotic samurai named Shogun. Neither of them appeared anywhere else in the Ninja Turtles universe.

There’s another new character who shows up in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game, and her presence is never really explained.

In the game’s second level, there's a break in the street brawls against Foot Soldiers. A woman, bedecked in the height of ’80s fashion, rides by on a skateboard. She doesn’t attack or even notice the player’s chosen turtle. If not interrupted, she’ll pass right through the whole fracas.

The Forgotten Professional Gamer

The history of “professional gamers” is long and frequently hilarious, stretching from the days of high-scoring arcade champions up through the celebrity of Nintendo’s Howard Philips and the smash sensation of WCG Ultimate Gamer. Other alleged video-game experts had briefer stays in the spotlight, and one of them was Renovation’s Jamie Bunker.

Jamie and his spectacular mullet appeared in no less than three advertisements for Renovation’s shooter Gaiares, and they ensured him a special place in the halls of early 1990s game marketing. In fact, a grown-up, de-mulleted Jamie looks back on his time as a Renovation spokesman with the right sense of humor. Yet he wasn’t the company’s only professional gamer. An ad for Arcus Odyssey extolled the knowledge of one David Izat.

This Arcus Odyssey spot is obscure today, even among those who fondly remember Renovation’s Gaiares campaign. That's not because Arcus Odyssey lacked a T-shirt and pronunciation guide. It’s because David Izat looks just a little…unwholesome.

And there’s the difference. The Gaiares ad presents Jamie Bunker as average '90s guy who just really likes a particular Genesis shooter. The Arcus Odyssey ad transforms a normal Renovation game producer into a shadowy nerd-goblin whose obscene, knowing grin would strike terror into any child paging through a new Gamepro issue. Oh, he’ll teach you a thing or two about fun. So many, many things.

David Izat and Arcus Odyssey had little time to teach anyone anything about fun, as they soon gave way to other Renovation titles and less eerie marketing. This was unfair to both of them. Arcus Odyssey is an enjoyable Gauntlet-style action-RPG and one of the better Renovation offerings. And David Izat probably didn’t deserve to be turned into that game's ghoulish overseer.

Tape Test: Lily C.A.T.

[Tape Test covers notable anime available in North America only through old VHS releases. This installment looks at Lily C.A.T., released by Streamline Pictures in the 1990s.]

A 1980s anime rip-off of Alien isn’t such a bad idea. No, really, it isn’t. The anime industry spent most of that decade wallowing in a mire of detailed robots, massive explosions, slavering aliens, huge-haired women, and ridiculous visual overkill, all of which would work strangely well in the sexualized and grotesque realm of Alien imitators. An anime-washed Alien might not be any better than Deepstar Six, but at least it shouldn’t be boring. And yet Lily C.A.T. is.

Unabashed in aping Alien, Lily C.A.T. finds the crew of a deep-space freighter slumbering away a long journey. Once awakened, they’re greeted by the disturbing news that two of their number are illegally aboard. Their speculation about the stowaways is swiftly thrust aside by a larger problem: some strange virus is killing them. And there's a big lineup of characters to kill. In terms of both Alien rips and space-opera anime, Lily C.A.T. has its stereotypes covered.

There’s a blonde girl with a pet cat.

There’s an unflatteringly drawn black man.

And there’s a macho, gun-toting fellow who looks vaguely like Coach McGuirk from Home Movies.

In Praise of Moe

The anime industry is not in a good place right now. Animators are still underpaid, studios haven’t scored an international hit in years, and Japan’s anime market is shrinking its focus to either children or over-devoted, undiscerning, fetish-addled nerds. Blame for this is often placed on moe, the art of presenting frequently underage anime girls to be fawned over by those lonesome and desperate for the innocence of youth. Moe is cute turned creepy. Moe is veiled pedophilia. Moe is blushing, gooey-eyed anime girls who look like The Family Circus run through a grotesque anime filter. In a strange way, moe is a blessing.

Consider the situation that faced casual viewers of anime as recently as five years ago, when there was no simple way to pick out the rare decent title at a glance. A lot of anime used stylistically similar character design; sometimes the eyes were bigger or the noses sharper, but there were plenty of perfectly boring and terrible series that unfairly resembled Cowboy Bebop or FLCL. For example, it wasn't easy to find the single worthwhile offering from a lineup of Cybuster, Mirage of Blaze, Z-Mind, Takegami, Sorcerous Stabber Orphen, The Dark Myth, Biohunter, Getbackers, King of Bandit Jing, Shadow Skill, Darkside Blues, Space Pirate Mito, A.D. Police: The New Files, Ninja Cadets, Eden’s Bowy, Real Bout High School, Shinesman, Tokyo Project, Vandread, Aura Battler Dunbine, Zenki, Licensed by Royalty, Blue Seed, Nazca, Dai-Guard, Nightwalker, Rune Soldier, Assemble Insert, Infinite Ryvius, Sorcerer Hunters, Saber Marionette J, Harlock Saga, Neo-Ranga, Yamamoto Yohko, Those Who Hunt Elves, Power Dolls, Doomed Megalopolis, Zaion, Bounty Dog, Hades Project Zeorymer, Geobreeders, Kurogane Communication, Queen Emeraldas, Demon Fighter Kocho, Betterman, Nuku Nuku Dash, Gunparade March, Dangaizer 3, My Dear Marie, Sonic Soldier Borgman, Space Travelers, Photon, Sailor Victory, eX-Driver, Brain Powered, Chance Pop Session, Miami Guns, Gate Keepers 21, Steam Detectives, Burn Up! Scramble, GranDoll, and Princess Rouge: Legend of the Last Labyrinth. You could make educated guesses, but most anime of that era wasn’t conclusively revealed as crap until you watched a little bit of it.

Today, moe dispels that mystery. If a new series abounds in garish, big-eyed girls gazing shyly at the would-be viewer, it’s all but guaranteed to be garbage intended for no one but devoted moe fans. There are exceptions (Gunbuster 2 and not much else), but most of the people making moe shows nowadays are the same sorts that produced vapid, boring direct-to-video chaff and cheap, ugly TV series in the 1980s and 1990s. Just as a moth’s wings bear eye-like patterns to frighten predators, the empty stares and heavy blushing of moe warn off any sensible viewers. Their message is simple: you don’t have to concern yourself with this.

Some lament the faded standards of bygone anime eras, when directors worked largely in pulp violence or silly excess. Yet for every delightfully stupid bloodbath or beautifully animated trinket, there were dozens of failures that only lured in the unsuspecting and wasted their time. Today’s anime may indeed be worse than it was in decades past, but at least it’s better about warning us.

Lost Anime: Neuro Heat

Anime studios still value manga artist Masamune Shirow. No matter how much dreadful porn he draws, Shirow nonetheless contributes to all sorts of anime projects, including adaptations of his own comics and entirely original creations. A few of these projects were canceled along the way, though they’re not to be confused with Gundress, Landlock, and other things that should have been canceled. Most of Shirow's never-made anime ideas are table scraps, but Neuro Heat stands out among his unused pitches.

In a calendar devoted to his lesser-seen artwork, Shirow describes Neuro Heat as a “3D-CG” TV series and comic that was his take on The Bionic Woman (or “Bionic Jamie” as Shirow knew it). He also paints it as a version of his own Ghost in the Shell aimed primarily at viewers outside of Japan. The show went no further than Shirow’s designs. And the comic? Well, Shirow’s far too busy drawing slimy-skinned mermaids being railed by squid-men and I-don’t-know-what else.

Neuro Heat’s art shows a team of Shirow-grade cyborg agents and mecha clustered behind the apparent heroine, Annette “Annie” Oakley (likely as much of a reference-laden pseudonym as “Motoko Kusanagi”). Shirow didn’t lie about the lack of originality: this is just Ghost in the Shell with a cheerful blonde Motoko and a mustache-sporting Batou. There’s even a redesigned Tachikoma in the background.

On the other hand, the idea of a Americanized Ghost in the Shell has merit, particularly if Annie were a hunted renegade, as implied by the “reward” caption next to her. Perhaps the show could examine just how an American democracy would use cybernetic technology, revealing social and political subtexts in the ways it differed (or didn’t) from the Japan-based Ghost in the Shell. Or maybe Annie would just wear a cowboy hat and eat a big sloppy cheeseburger while watching football on her giant-screen TV.

Plans for Neuro Heat dried up around 2001, though it almost seems a better idea today. Ghost in the Shell is still popular in North America, to the point where Dreamworks recently optioned a live-action version of it. Meanwhile, modern anime studios, besieged by creepy fans in Japan, are finding more high-profile work in mainstream Western properties like Halo and Batman. With all of this going on, it’s surprising that no one’s dusted off Neuro Heat.

This is Terrible

Satoshi Kon, one of the best directors in the anime field, died yesterday. I really wish this were a prank, but it's not.

Kon visited New York for a film festival back in 2008, and I was in the audience during a Q&A session. I'd been let go from Anime Insider the month before. I was already a little jaded toward the industry from writing about it for three years, but getting laid off made me truly sick of anime and everything it touched.

I came away better. Paprika was shown, clips of Kon's other films and projects were played (including this NHK piece), and he gave all sorts of interesting answers. He was a fascinating, clever man who kept taking pictures of the audience. It reminded me that as stupid and wasteful as anime is, it still has exceptionally gifted people making things worth seeing. And we won't see as many of those things now.

Spun Around Saturn

I recently had my Sega Saturn modded. I’m surprised I didn’t do it back in 1998, when anyone with a Saturn was soldering a switch into the console so they could play Japanese games without some pesky region-changing cartridge. This was especially useful when it came to Capcom fighters, many of which needed the Saturn’s cartridge slot for a big ol’ hunk of RAM expansion. For some reason, I ignored this and just used a slightly unreliable all-in-one cartridge to enjoy my Cyberbots and Vampire Savior.

Well, my Saturn’s finally modified to run those games and more with the official RAM cart, as nature and Capcom intended. It’s a nice job, too. The switch is inconspicuous and fitted perfectly into the system’s battery door. What’s really interesting, though, is what my system-modding friend found inside the console.

Some spider built a little web inside my Saturn a long time ago. It's apparently more common than I ever before suspected to find bugs inside electronic equipment, and this discovery is especially amusing when I remember how fastidious I was with my Saturn back in the 1990s. I even draped a dust cover over it at night.

I only hope that the spider moved on before it starved to death or got fried during a particularly heated session of X-Men vs. Street Fighter. It also makes me wonder if any of my other game systems have bug residents. Come to think of it, my last apartment was in a basement frequented by house centipedes.


Vice: Project Slimeball

There’s a lot that I like about Vice: Project Doom, a late NES action-platformer from Aicom and American Sammy. I like that it mixes its side-scrolling gameplay with driving stages straight out of Spy Hunter and shooting galleries straight out of Operation Wolf. I like the tight controls, which let you laser-whip enemies behind you, grab ladders in mid-air, sprint while ducking, and do a lot of things that many other NES games still overlooked back in 1991. I like how the backgrounds are grimy and impressively varied. And I like how Sammy’s translators had enough presence of mind to play up the cheeseball action-hero tone of the game’s hero, Quinn Hart.

Yet the translation apparently proved a little too profane when it came to an early scene in which Hart, after barking out orders to his girlfriend/partner Christy, notices that a masked superhero is spying on him.

That screen comes from a review in the June 1991 issue of GamePro, and the dialogue differs slightly from the final version.

Yes, Hart’s line was rewritten to keep him from saying “slimeball.” Did Nintendo really object to an insult that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles could freely spout on TV? Or did the translators think that “slimeball” gave away the game’s later (and entirely predictable) plot twists about alien-manufactured green gel? Perhaps someone felt that Hart already came across as too hard-edged. After all, the game’s first level has his Spy Hunter car tearing down a city highway and destroying harmless blue sedans that, for all the player knows, are filled with innocent and terrified families.

A little research suggests that prototypes of Vice: Project Doom are out there. In fact, this guy found a cartridge at a game store in 2006. Nobody's shared one online yet, so we can't see if any other mild epithets were trimmed from Hart's vocabulary. Maybe he called someone a scuzzbucket.

My First Fansub

The mid-1990s weren't such a bad time to watch anime. Japanese cartoons didn’t fill an aisle at Best Buy or clog all corners of the Internet like they do today, but they were conveniently infiltrating television and video stores back in 1995. I was better (or worse) off than many young anime geeks who picked through the “animation” sections at their Blockbusters. My local comic shop rented just about every new anime officially released in North America, no matter how awful it might be. This let me discover many things I could’ve done without, but it also kept me well outside of anime fan circles.

I was dimly aware that there was a large community of people peddling tapes of anime that you couldn’t find at Suncoast, but I didn’t care as long as I could freely rent Dangaioh, Gunsmith Cats, El-Hazard, Blue Seed, Urusei Yatsura, Angel Cop, and whatever else the comic store bothered to stock. Then my sister went to a comic convention and returned with one of those “fansubs.” It was Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie, only this version had Japanese dialogue, Chun-Li’s uncensored shower scene, the original lawsuit-friendly character names, and a soundtrack free of Alice in Chains. It also came with a flyer listing a bunch of other tapes offered by a fansub distributor.

So I look over the titles, and something jumps out at me. Why, they have the sequel to that Silent Möbius movie I oh-so-vaguely enjoyed! And it’s only $19.99! That’s a steal for something that’s only available in Japan! I’m ordering that right now!

Yes, it was a massive rip-off in several ways, though at least the tape came in a clamshell with a Xerox of the movie’s Japanese packaging. That way I could see that this thing cost about $98 in Japan, making a $20 price tag seem a bargain at the time. Of course, it wasn’t long before I ventured online and learned that a lot of fans just traded fansubs, and that most of the people who flat-out sold them charged about seven bucks per tape.

And what about Silent Möbius: The Motion Picture 2? Disappointing. Silent Möbius is and always was a cliché carnival about women hunting slimy trans-dimensional invaders in rainy future Tokyo, but the original Silent Möbius: The Motion Picture had some slickly animated battles. The second film is much slower, featuring more of reluctant heroine Katsumi Liqueur whining about the exact same things she whined about (and seemingly got over) in the first movie. It also makes the mistake of humanizing the Lucifer Hawks, the other-dimensional antagonists of the series. The first movie keeps them as slavering monstrosities beyond humanity's realm, sorta like a low-caliber Lovecraft story with generic anime women instead of virulent racism. Silent Möbius 2 makes the Lucifer Hawks more like the angry, conniving demons found in just about every anime ever made, robbing itself of a good chunk of novelty.

It’s a different world today. No one cares much about Silent Möbius, fansubs are so plentiful online that they overwhelm the official anime publishers, and VHS bootlegs like this are just quaintly embarrassing pieces of nostalgia. There’s certainly nothing else interesting about my blurry old copy. It was subbed by “E. Monsoon Productions,” a name that now brings up only a few lists of obsessive anime fans’ videotape collections.

The anime nerd that I was can take comfort that Silent Möbius: The Motion Picture 2 wasn’t officially released in North America until years after he paid for his pricey fansub. Bandai brought both films to DVD in 2008, redubbing the first one and unwisely not selling the two movies together. I didn’t bother buying them, as I was hurting for money and my interest in Silent Möbius 2 had faded by then. Perhaps I knew that I’d already spent too much on it.

Depressing Game Endings: M.U.S.H.A.

The Sega Genesis library boasts an estimated 47,000,000 shooters, and Compile’s M.U.S.H.A. is the best of them. It’s visually stunning even today, it's well-designed, and, of course, it's unfairly hard. From the fourth level onward, it’s a frantic battle for survival that all but forces you to exploit the game’s cheats to their fullest.

There’s even a nasty surprise after the game’s assumed final boss, as a recurring orange-and-black mecha swoops in to pelt you with one last flurry of lasers and homing fireballs.

And then it’s over. The M.U.S.H.A. mecha’s pilot, a young woman named Terri, limps out of the cockpit, and her nerve-flaying battles are finally at an end.

Well, not quite. Terri has only minor injuries, and the game assures us (with three exclamation points) that she’s just waiting for future adventures! Funny how Terri doesn’t really look like she’s waiting for future adventures, especially not any in the form of grueling, Compile-made shooters. She looks like she’s praying for merciful death to release her from the unending, robot-waged war in which she's trapped.

Or maybe she’s actually in rehab for a crippling heroin addiction, as the M.U.S.H.A. manual suggests.

Fortunately for Terri, Compile stopped making shooters around 1993, as the company landed a hit with the puzzle-game series Puyo Puyo and created little else until 2001's Zanac X Zanac. Then Compile folded. This denied the world many excellent shooters in the vein of M.U.S.H.A., but at least their mecha pilots were finally allowed to retire.

Metal Storm: The Destruction of Gundam Copyrights

Irem and Tamtex’s Metal Storm is an often under-appreciated marvel from the NES era. It’s a solidly designed mecha-shooter at its base level, but then it throws in the ability to reverse gravity, affecting enemies, obstacles, and the player’s M-308 Gunner robot. It’s a wonder that this idea hasn’t been ripped off countless times since Metal Storm’s 1991 debut, but then again, the game was never a huge success.
There are several reasons for that. For one thing, Irem couldn’t afford to market or distribute Metal Storm heavily. And even though the game landed a Nintendo Power cover, it didn’t catch on among a gaming press that was already inundated with NES releases.
I doubt that the M-308 Gunner itself had anything to do with Metal Storm’s low profile, although it lacks something found on most robots of its day. Everything about the M-308 Gunner makes sense until you notice that it has no head, and that big orange shape on its chest doesn't immediately register as a cockpit. Perhaps American kids just weren’t ready for a mecha without a face. Someone involved with Metal Storm’s print ad thought the exact same thing and decided that this robot needed a head. Any head would do.
So the advertised version of the M-308 Gunner borrowed a head off one of Japan’s most recognizable anime robots: the Zaku from Mobile Suit Gundam. As low-level enemy mecha, Zakus are destroyed by the truckload in various Gundam series, and by the end of the 1980s, they were almost as recognizable in Japan as the iconic white Gundam robots themselves. In America, however, no one would spot a Zaku’s head (or a Gundam-like shield) outside of a few devoted anime nerds who happened to page through a GamePro issue. Nobody at Bandai, which had canceled a Zeta Gundam NES game back in 1988, noticed this copyright violation either. They were too busy prepping Doozybots for that fall's TV schedules.
Metal Storm also might’ve stolen its name from a movie about The Destruction of Jared-Syn, but that’s another story.

Darkstalkers and the Enigma of Trouble Man

There’s a special procedure to follow whenever I mention Darkstalkers. First I have to explain that the series started out as Capcom’s second fighting-game venture after the success of Street Fighter, which Darkstalkers briefly eclipsed in popularity among Japanese fans. In America, though, the monster-filled Darkstalkers never really caught on to that extent, and Capcom shut down the whole thing after three major games.

Then I have to explain that this is a terrible waste, because the Darkstalkers games are excellent. Marvelously animated and highly amusing, they shed the few realistic traces of Street Fighter and build a cartoon world where chainsaw-legged zombie rockers moon over Chinese ghost-girls, mummified kings turn werewolves into wiener dogs, and a bee-woman dies after she stings an opponent, only for her clone to burst anew from her foe’s honeycombed flesh.

Anyway, the PlayStation port of the original Darkstalkers isn’t very important. It was scheduled to ship near the system’s launch and show that Sony’s new console could handle a heavily animated 2-D Capcom fighter. Yet the game was delayed until March of 1996, a month after the generally better sequel, Night Warriors, came out for the Sega Saturn. By that point no one cared that Darkstalkers was on the PlayStation or that it had an inexplicable and strangely catchy theme song.

Instead of the arcade game’s introduction, the Japanese PlayStation port of Darkstalkers (known over there as Vampire) has grainy footage playing along to “Trouble Man,” in which somewhat notable J-rock singer Eikichi Yazawa declares that he’s gonna be trouble, ‘cause, baby, he’s a trouble man. He proves this by accepting a challenge for a rumble. Toniiiiight. This would be nothing out of the ordinary for Japanese pop carelessly in search of English lyrics, but these lines were actually written by Andrew Gold, who’s had a storied musical career that stretches from hit ‘70s singles to the theme music for Mad About You.

Capcom removed this intro for the North American release, but “Trouble Man” clung to Darkstalkers. The song pops up in the brief credits for the American syndicated Darkstalkers cartoon, which is horrible enough to shame even its Street Fighter cousin. A longer version of “Trouble Man” also blares over the closing for the four-part Night Warriors anime series, which is just plain boring after a slightly promising first act. Someone clearly paid for “Trouble Man,” and dammit, they were going to get their money’s worth.

It was never clear why Capcom wanted Darkstalkers to have a completely unrelated theme song full of guitar hooks and nonsense, and no other Capcom fighters had anthems until Street Fighter IV’s “Indestructible.” Perhaps someone at the company just liked Andrew Gold.

When Capcom rolled around Darkstalkers 3 (known as Vampire Savior in Japan and among American kids who owned Saturns), “Trouble Man” was nowhere to be found, and the series went under not long after that. Would it have survived if Capcom had given it another theme song? And if Capcom greenlights another Darkstalkers, will it have another rousing opening number about trouble, men, and various combinations of the two? We’d better find out.

Conquest of the Bio Force Apes

Is Bio Force Ape the most popular NES game never released? I'd say so. It drifted into obscurity after Seta canceled it in 1991, yet this past decade gave rise to a geek subculture that hunts down canceled games, and Bio Force Ape was always pursued. At first it was only one of several sought-after lost games, squabbling for space with Bandai’s Ultimate Journey, Capcom’s Black Tiger, and such planning-stage pipe dreams as New Kids on the Block and Hellraiser. Yet one amazing prank and its buttery residue shot Bio Force Ape to the top of the list, so much so that fans started making their own version of the game.

Then the real Bio Force Ape showed up. It appeared in a Yahoo Japan auction, and the game quickly made its way to 1up.com’s Game Night, where the public saw it played for the first time in 19 years.

And it’s amazing. Well, it’s no rediscovered masterpiece, but it’s great fun in that absurd, clumsy way that middle-grade NES games often stumbled into. There’s no question that Bio Force Ape makes the most of a game about a monkey who grows into a pro-wrestler ape and bodyslams bee-men, monstrous sumo wrestlers, and mutants with crocodile jaws for legs. It’s also technically impressive for an NES game, with a well-animated simian hero and some dizzyingly fast rides on moving platforms and mine carts. In another world, perhaps Seta released Bio Force Ape and built it into their Battletoads, with its own toy line and terrible cartoon special.

Then again, Seta would’ve needed to actually finish the game. This version of Bio Force Ape is as far as things got, but it lasts only three levels, and they’re noticeably incomplete when it comes to the enemies and overall design. It’s believed that this game was built as a demo, but someone went through the trouble of giving it a grueling final stage and a shocking twist ending that we ask the audience not to reveal.

Despite the rampantly bizarre scenes in the game, my favorite thing is the ape’s rolling move: he can drop to the ground at any point and just tumble forward at insanely high speed. It doesn’t damage enemies, it doesn’t get him past many obstacles, and it doesn’t really serve much of a purpose. It’s just fun to screw around with it. And that’s the legacy of Bio Force Ape.

Demo Demo PlayStation Predicts the Future

Sony’s Demo Demo PlayStation series is less than a footnote in the system’s history. They’re very similar to the Play Play demo discs that were mailed to new PlayStation owners across Japan starting in 1995, as Demo Demo volumes are also loaded with promotional videos and playable previews. Unlike Play Play, Demo Demo discs were originally made for PlayStation store kiosks in Japan, and they were perhaps the first PlayStation demo discs ever released. They stretch back to the system’s launch in late 1994, making them relics of a time when Sony was doubtless worried that the PlayStation would flop and send their entire video-game division scrambling for new jobs at Nintendo’s Virtual Boy department.

I'll remember Demo Demo PlayStation mostly for including a playable version of Bounty Arms, yet these discs are interesting beyond that sample of my most-wanted unreleased game. True, Demo Demo volumes are bare-bones compared to the Play Play series. Play Play discs come with plenty of extras, commercials, original games, booklets, and glossy designs. Demo Demo discs just get covers with generic comics. That's understandable if these cases were meant to sit idly on a shelf while the disc ran in a kiosk somewhere. Sony gave Demo Demo covers to any manga artist willing to sacrifice a few panels to obscurity.

My favorite Demo Demo PlayStation cover comes from Volume 11, because it’s the only one I even remotely understand.

If this were a good website like Magweasel, I’d have a detailed translation of this comic. It’s not, so here’s a crude guess (edit: I am, in fact, mostly wrong; see the comment below). Starting on the upper-right and going clockwise, we find two girls wolfing down cake, with the brown-haired one fretting about gaining weight. Her blonde friend points out that she’s not worried about her own figure, explaining in the second panel that “games” keep her thin. I assume she’s talking about sports.

Our heroine, being none too bright, interprets this to mean PlayStation games, and the next panel sees her embracing a “Game Diet” with the help of her trusty Sony-manufactured game console. This diet presumably consists of her sitting around all day while playing Ridge Racer, Philosoma, and maybe even Hermie Hopperhead. In the last panel, she laments that she hasn’t lost any weight on the Game Diet, while the blonde girl laments the unfathomable stupidity on display.

Edit: Since I guessed wrong, here's a actual translation.

Brown-Haired Stupid Girl: We’ve had so many sweets this fall, we’re going to get fat…
Blonde-Haired Smart Girl: Oh, I’ll be OK.

Smart Girl: I lose weight with video games. I play them so intensely, I don’t have time to eat, you know?
Stupid Girl (vagrant floating thought): Really.

Stupid Girl: All right! I’ll try it too! I’m on the Game Diet!
(Headband: Something about losing 5 kilograms. It’s hard to read.)

Stupid Girl: I was so bad at playing games, I got depressed and started eating. And I gained weight!
Smart Girl: You are such an idiot.

This sort of allegedly classic humor has entertained manga readers for decades, yet there’s something charming about this little throwaway gag. Perhaps it’s the way the comic unwittingly predicts Wii Fit fourteen years down the road. Or perhaps it’s the backhanded, Sony-endorsed admission that playing video games will make you a gloomy fatass.

The Rise and Fall of Masamune Shirow

[Note: this entry charts a manga author's descent into creepy porn, so it contains images that may offend some workplaces.]

Few authors in the manga industry went wrong like Masamune Shirow. True, he remains well-known in the North American anime and manga market, largely because of comics he made nearly twenty years ago. Those comics are kept in print, and his name is invoked and praised whenever a new Appleseed movie or Ghost in the Shell adaptation arrives. Yet his reputation is a lean shadow of what it was during the 1990s, when Shirow seemed unstoppable.

Shirow started off in the 1980s with a generic spaceship manga called Black Magic, but no one was really impressed until he rolled out Appleseed, a dense tale of science and politics gone astray in a 21st-century urban utopia. It set many Shirow standards: pretty and highly lethal heroines, police-procedural stories, rampant philosophical technobabble, and incredibly detailed mechanical designs for everything from firearms to city-crawling robots. It appealed to content-starved American comic readers of the 1990s, and Shirow caught on in a big way.

It wasn’t just Appleseed, either, as Shirow recycled the same approach (Women! Mechanical suits! Violence!) in better form. Ghost in the Shell added more police drama and copious lumps of artificial-intelligence ruminations, while Dominion went the opposite direction and made a silly comic about tank-driving cops in a future of pollution and terrorist robot catgirls. And then there was Orion, a mixture of space opera, Buddhist-Shinto mysticism, and concepts so insane that Shirow admitted he didn't even known what they meant.

Shirow grew even more popular with the mainstream exposure of the first Ghost in the Shell film in 1996, and it wasn’t all just because he could draw anime chicks straddling mechanized police armor. Most of the manga titles foisted on readers in the 1990s were cutesy piffle or dated pulp (completely unlike today’s scene, of course), and they were lightweight even when they were enjoyable. Shirow’s stuff was hardly of great substance, but his stories were usually driven by interesting ideas. His comics unsubtly reminded readers of this by having characters spout off reams of tangential discussion about the Gaia hypothesis, particle physics, or just how human a disembodied brain can be. It bordered on philosophy-student gibberish at times, and yet it was a blessing to any manga reader who wanted something to think about.

Of course, a lot of Shirow’s appeal came from his English translators. Frederik Schodt, Toren Smith, Dana Lewis, and other members of Studio Proteus dressed up Shirow’s stories with dialogue that was memorable, funny, and about as natural as a conversation can be when a bodiless synthetic consciousness is lecturing the vagrant cyber-spirit of a government operative about the benefits and risks of non-corporeal living.

There were, however, signs that Shirow possessed unsavory tendencies, and no one had to hunt for them. He seemed to write at the rate of one bad decision per comic: a gooey, virtual lesbian three-way in Ghost in the Shell (which was cut from the first U.S. version of the comic), a photosynthetic, bug-winged pixie who spent a fourth of Dominion naked, and a scene in Orion where the heroine is rolled up by karma-magic, thrown into the ocean, and dragged down to the lair of octopus creatures who want to eat her excrement. Shirow had himself some issues.

Little Things: Cyberbots

Cyberbots isn’t my favorite fighting game, but it’s my favorite obscure one. It’s a mid-1990s experiment by Capcom’s talented designers, paying tribute to the orbital-war intrigue and clanking, realistic robots of Gundam. It’s full of huge, well-animated mecha smashing each other in front of richly drawn backdrops, and I often wonder why it doesn’t command even a fraction of the attention given to Street Fighter and Darkstalkers.

And then I remember why Cyberbots isn’t popular. It’s far too shallow to entice the combo-memorizing players who take on fighters competitively, and it doesn’t have the marketing to pull in the anime and model-kit fans. Yes, the giant-robot collectors of the world will buy variations of the same Gundam and Mazinger figures year in and year out, but they don’t want a big plastic version of Blodia, the flagship machine of Cyberbots; its spokesmecha, if you will.

Blodia is the Ryu of the game: a well-rounded combatant and the chosen robot of the game’s ostensible hero, the gung-ho Jin Saotome. Blodia also embodies the impressive level of detail in Cyberbots. When it comes to the small touches in the game, I can’t think of a better example than the spent shells that fly out of Blodia’s arm with each punch.

Mind you, that happens with every regular punch. It’s not a special move. Just tap one of the game’s two attack buttons (I told you it was shallow), and Blodia will spew tiny casings from its elbow.

Blodia and Jin Saotome later showed up in the Marvel vs. Capcom series, gaining some hilarious, excessively damaging attacks. Still, nothing really strikes my admiration like those little empty cartridges tumbling through the air.

The Vague Search for Gu Gu Ganmo

In my days at Anime Insider, the magazine occasionally got letters from people trying to identify Japanese cartoons they’d seen long ago. Most of these requests were easily answered by pointing out semi-obscure ‘80s creations like the Unico movies, Macron-1, or Galaxy Rangers, the last of which is, shockingly, not even anime.

One stumped us, though. A reader wanted to know the name of an anime comedy shown in France in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and two major details about the show were offered: it featured a giant yellow alien bird that came to live with and irritate a human boy, and one of the show’s running gags involved the boy’s older sister kicking him in the crotch when she was riled. No one at the magazine had the slightest idea of what this show could be, and I gave up after a few Google searches revealed places offensive even to an office wallpapered with anime posters.

Years later, I looked over some of the old series represented in Konami’s shonen-manga crossover fighting game for the PSP, and I noticed a 1985 cartoon called Gu Gu Ganmo. The bird is pink instead of yellow, but everything else about it matches up. It was shown in France, it features numerous crotch-kicking jokes, and it stars a trouble-making bird of possibly alien origin.

In fact, Gu Gu Ganmo seems more popular among nostalgic French viewers than Japanese audiences. The first French-dubbed episode was uploaded here, and it reveals a fairly standard comedy in the Doraemon mold. Young Hanpeita’s pet bird flies away one morning, so his sister gives him a huge egg that she finds in the street. Soon a giant pink creature hatches out and takes up residence with Hanpeita’s family. Mostly unremarkable antics ensue as the self-centered Ganmo torments our hero by hogging the bathroom, snoring loudly, and embarrassing him in front of girls and nose-picking neighborhood bullies alike. It might not be particularly imaginative, but Ganmo found enough of an audience to last 50 episodes and get a movie deal.

As far as I’m concerned, the highlight of the show is its opening, which has all of the characters dancing on stage for no real reason. I love this sort of thing, and I wish every anime show, regardless of genre, led with some pointless Broadway-style musical number. Even Code Geass might've been good with a big chorus line to start it off.

As is often the case with old cartoons and the Internet, the edifying clips of Gu Gu Ganmo are outnumbered by the clips that suit someone’s fetish. This can be seen in a YouTube account dedicated to nothing but the girls of Gu Gu Ganmo farting. An entire account.

So, possibly French letter-writer, there’s your answer: Gu Gu Ganmo. I hope you found it before the farting fans did.