Might Have Been: Nuts & Milk

[Might Have Been tracks the failures of promising games, characters, and companies. This installment looks at Nuts & Milk, released for the Famicom in 1983.]  

Nuts & Milk has a small place in the equally small history of video games. It made the rounds as a simple maze-based game on various Japanese computers without much fuss. Yet when Hudson remodeled it for the Famicom in 1984 Nuts & Milk became one of the console's first titles released by a third-party publisher, apparently sharing that release date with Hudson's own port of the more commonplace Lode Runner. Considering what else was fighting for space in the Famicom’s early years, Nuts & Milk wasn’t a bad game—it just had an unfortunate title for English speakers.

When one stops snickering and actually plays the game, Nuts & Milk reveals itself as an entirely harmless imitation of early ‘80s arcade culture. Players control Milk, a pink blob who traverses levels of planks, pipes, and brick in search of his girlfriend, Yogurt. To properly rescue her, Milk much collect all of the fruit in any given stage while avoiding his rival Nuts, whose blue skin apparently brings instant death to Milk and his kind. And Milk must do this in 50 different levels, harried by multiple clones of Nuts.

It’s all very simple, but it’s not quite as cleanly programmed as appearances suggest. Just like Donkey Kong and its legions of single-screen imitators, Nuts & Milk works against the player in many little ways. Milk has trouble jumping when he's on wooden floors or against a wall, and a lot of his fruit-gathering solutions involve properly calculated falls. Particularly frustrating are the springs that bounce Milk up to greater heights, but only if the jump button’s pressed at exactly the right nanosecond.

The game also looks very much its age, though there’s some appeal in the characters. Nuts and Milk are early examples of the blob-with-eyes design trend that would mold countless characters and corporate icons in the Japanese game industry of the 1980s. The finest little touch comes when Milk falls from a decent height and lies immobile for just a moment, with a look of perfect befuddlement on his barely extant face.

Tape Test: Twilight of the Cockroaches

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

“Franz Kafka Meets Roger Rabbit,” proclaims the cover of Twilight of the Cockroaches. It almost fits. Like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? this odd half-anime film from 1987 has live actors next to cartoon characters. And like Kafka’s "The Metamorphosis," it’s…uh, it has roaches. Well, humanoid roaches. Even though Kafka’s story wasn’t necessarily about a roach. Oh well. I sympathize with whoever had to describe Twilight of the Cockroaches in a short tagline, and the Kafka one has a sharper ring than “Watership Down With Roaches” or “A Bleak Anime Version of Joe’s Apartment.”

Life is pleasant for the roaches in the bachelor pad of one Mr. Seito. They frolic amid dirty dishes, they swim in the toilet, and they fly where they please, all without Seito caring a whit. They have roach politicians, roach nightlife, roach class prejudices, and a roach holiday that commemorates a tragic loss of roach life. And if this isn’t an obvious enough allegory for the Japan of the 1980s, there’s even a meretricious morning-news show run by roaches. But the bugs aren't accurately insectile blattella asahinai. These roaches are largely humanized anime characters with antennae, an extra set of arms, and glovelike flippers where their hands should be. Fables about mice or rabbits get semi-realistic animal heroes, but biologically accurate roaches don't appeal to viewers so much.

All of this glorious roach opulence isn’t enough for Naomi, a 19-year-old (insect years, I assume) roach girl. She’s bored with her milquetoast fiancĂ© Ichiro and generally discontented with the roach lifestyle. So she’s quite intrigued when a strange roach named Hans arrives at the Seito pad.

Hans brings the placid Seito roaches stories of his home, where roaches are systematically hunted and exterminated by humans. And no one’s more fascinated by it than Naomi, who likes Hans for his grim demeanor as much as his square-jawed German manliness. So when Hans departs for his native land like the dutiful soldier he is, Naomi follows. And she finds the adventure she so vaguely pined for. Hans and his fellow roaches live an apartment where a fastidious woman hauls out bug spray and shoes to rain death upon her unwanted tenants each night. She’s also lonely, and so, it seems, is Seito. And they’re neighbors. And so destruction is sown for the hedonistic roaches who in no way represent 1980s society.

Tape Test: The Awful Truth

I haven’t done much with Tape Test. With this week’s installment, I’ve put up only three entries in as many years. There’s a reason for that: everything is awful.

I should explain further. When I started Tape Test, I looked forward to writing about the various VHS anime that’s not yet available on DVD; I even had a stockpile of cheaply acquired tapes for starters. Of course, I knew that most of them would be mediocre, as the overwhelming majority of anime is, but I was convinced that I could find something interesting to say about each and every one of them.

I was wrong. There are indeed a few notable anime creations only released on VHS in the West, but the majority I’ve found are awful in the worst way: they’re hackneyed, boring, and completely devoid of valid entertainment. I realized a while ago that I didn't need to write thousand-word pro bono excoriations of DNA Sights 999.9, Explorer Woman Ray, Ehrgeiz, Ogre Slayer, Genesis Surviver/Survivor Gaiarth, Dragon Century, Raven Tengu Kabuto, Blue Sonnet, Luna Varga, Akai Hayate, AWOL, Grey: Digital Target, The Legend of Kotetsu, Roots Search, or the 1996 remake of Hurricane Polymar. Many of these I remembered all too well from that unfortunate time in my life when I was willing to watch just about any remotely promising anime the local Blockbuster or comic store had up for rental. I sat through Dragoon ten years ago, and I’m not doing it again. Not for free, anyway.

And that's what happened to Tape Test. As any critic could tell you, it’s not the worst of it that gets you. It’s the banal and unremarkably terrible.