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.

The Trax tank’s weapon upgrades are rudimentary: a three-way shot, a piercing shell, a scatterblast bomb, and simultaneous rear-and-forward firing. Yet they’re fun to employ during the rampant destruction, and the game doles them out generously. Trax also avoids the one-hit demise favored in so many shooters. Instead you’re given a life meter than can stand about three hits, and it refills if you grab a handy gas-tank icon.

Such leniency renders Trax a short game. It’s a mere four stages, and the mandatory boss-rush of the finale appears just as things get interesting. It would take the typical child of 1991 about an hour to conquer, adequate only for the briefest car trips, and the enjoyable four-player mode was beyond most Game Boy owners. But hey, Kirby’s Dream Land was even easier, and Kirby’s famous.

Trax knew little spotlight. HAL would soon work closer and closer with Nintendo, but Trax had only Electro Brain, a smaller publisher who specialized in bringing B-list Japanese imports to North America. Trax soon vanished into the chaos of 1991; the last big guns of the NES, the release of the Super NES, and the resulting Sega-Nintendo war all overshadowed second-string Game Boy releases. And Trax’s spheroid tank didn’t fit the macho shooter mold. It’s too cute for a traditional R-Type shooter, but not cute enough for the Mario and Sonic set. Goofy round protagonists fared much better in side-scrollers, especially when backed by Nintendo money.

In fact, Kirby’s rapid ascent to Nintendo icon left HAL with no reason to try another Trax. HAL didn’t forget it entirely, though. Like a suddenly popular babyface wrestler, Kirby forced former HAL protagonists to turn heel: the stars of Adventures of Lolo became bosses in Kirby games, and the Trax tank became the common Moto Shotzo enemy. Trax’s wheeled dragon even appeared in Kirby Mass Attack, with Kirby commandeering the tiny tank for the battle.

Don’t take it so hard, Trax tank. Your lone starring role is still a charming shooter and a fine example of the craft and humor that HAL would soon put into Kirby’s debut. And even if you’re a jobber in Kirby’s world, you’re not completely forgotten. Can history say the same for the ship from Solar Striker, the main vehicle from Cosmo Tank, or whatever that suit was supposed to be in The Adventures of Star Saver?

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