Yes, some unreleased NES games left behind only their titles and vague descriptions. Until last month, I thought Mariner’s Run was among them.
Mariner’s Run is the work of Vic Tokai, a company that’s fascinated me for a while—and not just because of my unabiding fondness for Trouble Shooter. Vic Tokai crafted intriguing games throughout the NES era, whether it was the early (and unreleased in the U.S.) action-RPG Chester Field, the complex adventure of Clash at Demonhead, the charming The Krion Conquest, or the Golgo 13 games, which might not be great but remain marvels of sneaking gruesome violence and bleak spy-pulp stories onto a game system where alcohol and crucifixes were no-nos.
We find little information about Mariner’s Run, known as Sea Dog in Japan. It appeared in magazines early in 1991, and the manual for Magical Kids Doropie (aka The Krion Conquest) describes it as a "battle RPG" with a March 1991 release date. That was all I knew about the game, and it was all I needed to imagine the best possible NES treatment. I pictured a naval warfare epic in a post-apocalyptic or high-tech future, where you might roam the seas from an overhead perspective and fight intense battles from a first-person viewpoint. Kinda like SubRoc 3D crossed with a fun version of Silent Service.
I somehow neglected to notice that Mariner’s Run survived online in not one, but two screenshots, plus a Game Players blurb that describes it as “a game in the style of Ultima or Dragon Warrior” that “takes place in a land of seafaring towns.” And that’s enough to destroy my vision of the game.
Yet Mariner’s Run is more interesting now that I’ve seen it. The first screenshot shows the overhead RPG portion, and it's downright primitive for an NES game from 1991. Still, it’s enough to speculate as to which sprite is the main character (my bet is the blue-gray one) and what time period it wants to evoke.
The second screenshot, recovered from a Japanese website through The Lost Levels forums, shows open water with some puzzling sights. The pink shape could be a submarine, a ship, or a mechanized dinosaur. The yellow things could be giant crustaceans or enemy craft. It's like examining an old photo of a lake monster.
Whatever they are, they’re more interesting than the dun-colored townscape of the first screenshot, and they make me wonder if Mariner’s Run actually had a high-tech element after all. Perhaps the simplistic village reflects the game’s setting in a world where rising ocean levels reverted civilizations to basic maritime pseudo-anarchy. And all this years before Waterworld!
Mariner’s Run may be out in the open, but plenty of other unglimpsed games abound in the NES fossil record. You'll even see more from Vic Tokai! There’s the above-mentioned Baby Gangster, the odd and seemingly tentative A-5, and my personal favorite: a Famicom “action/puzzle” game never announced for an NES release or even officially rendered into English. It appears in the same Doropie manual that mentions Mariner’s Run (as Sea Dog), and its title could be Ropie, Roppy, Lopie, Loppy, Roppi, Loppi, Ropey, or any variant on the name.
That’s as much as we know. Some believe that the game turned into a 1992 VAP title (above) based on the anime Chiisana Obake: Achi, Sochi, Kochi. Vic Tokai's name appears nowhere on the title screen, but the characters drag a rope through puzzle boards. So maybe it was "Ropy." Or "Ropey," which is an incorrect spelling but looks nicer on the box.
Never one to shy from speculation, I'll make up my own version of this mystery title. The game was called Loppy, and it starred a lop-eared rabbit who pushed around blocks to escape a mazelike realm of monster-machines unleashed by laboratory science gone awry. The rabbit protagonist could fly with whirling helicopter ears and leave turds to stymie enemies. Instead of getting 1-ups the usual way, Loppy would meet another bunny and spawn a random number of offspring to carry on the quest.
I’ll even draw what I think Loppy might have been, and I’ll do it so crudely that no one could ever mistake it for an actual image or design schematic from the game. I don’t want to ruin anyone’s personal concept of Loppy. Or Roppy. Or Ropey.