Might Have Been: Trax

Most of us know all about Kirby. He’s the puffy pink hero of a popular Nintendo series. He’s a smiling, rotund creature who swallows foes and gains their powers. He’s a fixture of excellent games, stuffed toys, and comic strips about how it’s subtly disturbing that he’s eating his equally cute enemies.

The insatiable, adorable monster first appeared in 1992 with Kirby’s Dream Land, the creation of HAL Laboratory and Masahiro Sakurai. It’s a breezy, bouncing side-scroller littered with cartoonish effects and whimsical details. It made Kirby a star, though it wasn’t Hal’s first attempt at spherical heroes. The Adventure of Lolo series preceded it, of course, but less well known is a shooter that arrived just a year before Kirby’s debut.

Trax is a brave little creation, attempting a fast-paced overhead shooter on the Game Boy of all places. Nintendo’s handheld may be a wonder of late-1980s engineering, but its small screen wasn’t friendly to the speed and visual complexity that a traditional shoot-’em-up needed. In appearances, however, Trax plays it simple: you pilot a round proto-Kirby of a tank with equally round wheels, spew round bullets, and hover through stages of frequently round enemies. Your craft fires in eight directions, with one button launching shots while other rotates the turret. It sounds far too ambitious for a compact Game Boy outing.

Yet Trax holds together. The controls are never as smooth as a simple dual-joystick setup would be, but the game paces everything well enough to give you a fighting chance. It moves at a fair clip, with minimal flickering and seemingly intentional slowdown, and Hal packed it with all sorts of elaborate sights. Level bosses fill the screen, homing missiles circle and sputter, and bombs explode into smoke clouds and tiny Looney Tunes stars that we’d later see in Kirby’s Dream Land. Your tank, commandeered from the enemy in the prologue, even recoils with each shell fired.

No grim shooter, Trax is quick to reveal its cartoon overtones. Just about everything can be destroyed, from supply trucks to boulders to presumably evacuated neighborhoods. Your tank’s turret spins around dazedly just before it explodes. Each level offers a mid-boss as well as a climactic tilt, and they include a bumbling knight, a giant version of your own tiny tank, a telescoping-limbed mechanical clown, a googly-eyed dragon worthy of Dr. Wily, and a final boss who looks like a cross between Mario and Mutoid Man from Smash TV.