Dynamite Headdy's Horrors

Dynamite Headdy has a secure yet easily sidelined role in Treasure’s catalog. It’s not unfairly maligned like Advance Guardian Heroes or Light Crusader, and it’s not unfairly obscure like Bangai-O Missile Fury or Rakugaki Showtime. It’s well-liked but simply just not discussed as often as Gunstar Heroes, Radiant Silvergun, and other classics that defined Treasure’s reputation as masters of the action game. 

Like all Treasure games, Dynamite Headdy deserves more mainstream attention. This website is as far from the mainstream as one can go, but I'll still look at one weird minor moment from the game.

One could call Dynamite Headdy a standout of the Sega Genesis, but among side-scrollers of any period or console it’s spectacular: a surreal, theatrical frolic through a world of sentient marionettes and other toys, starring a neckless hero who tosses his noggin around. It’s packed with enough colorful vistas, clever stages, novel power-ups, and memorable boss battles to make it a great platformer, though that may apply more to the Japanese version. The American release excises almost all of the dialogue and makes everything both harder and more tedious, but even then it’s a good time. 

All is not lighthearted and wondrous within Dynamite Headdy’s world, though. There are some typical Treasure jabs of dark humor, of course, but the opening of stage 4-1 gets surprisingly gruesome.

Halfway through the level Headdy encounters a large and helpfully labeled drainpipe jutting up from the ground. Small spherical creatures jump out of it; they’re smiling little things called Happy Campers (or Browny Bon-Bons) and they resemble pleasant Pac-Man characters or perhaps South Park Canadians. They don’t damage Headdy, apparently wishing him no harm.

There are large spikes near the pipe, and Headdy must proceed in the level by pecking at the Happy Campers and impaling them there like the prey of a shrike. The Campers go limp and turn blue once speared, and only after Headdy’s filled the spike with their corpses does he have enough of a platform to jump upon and move forward. 

Cute video games have spread cheerful patinas over somewhat grim elements since before Mario even stomped his first Goomba, but this little encounter from Dynamite Headdy ventures past such minor pangs of conscience. Most of the enemies that Headdy butts out of his way stay toylike in their mortality: even if they explode to pieces, you never have to see their lifeless forms hanging in midair. It’s not as horrifying as, oh, the wind-up donkey dismemberment scene from The Mouse and His Child, yet it’s still an odd and unsettling display in a game that’s mostly charming and reassuringly cartoonish. 

In fact, it makes me re-examine Headdy himself. He’s an interesting design, a Fraggle-faced creature who resembles at various points a bird, a turtle, or a misshapen humanoid like Graggle Simpson. His default pose has him glaring out in determination or annoyance, commiserating with the player as they face a giant porcelain-doll robot or a level of bizarre cows and countryside. 

Yet after watching him craft a morbid shish kabob of joyful, innocuous creatures, I see a definite look of menace in the allegedly heroic Headdy.

He knew it was wrong.

He did it anyway.

And he’ll do it all again the next time you play. 

Well, at least Dynamite Headdy has a level-select code, so you can skip that stage, the carnage within it, and the resulting uncomfortable realizations about Headdy’s true nature.

Important Freeon-Leon News

This coming month looks to be a busy one for nerds of my stripe, what with Unicorn Overlord, Princess Peach: Showtime!, a new Contra, and the bulk of Final Fantasy VII Rebirth looming over all. Yet the most important release is Ufouria: The Saga 2, in my opinion. That’s because it brings back Freeon-Leon. 

I discussed the first Ufouria: The Saga and its enduring appeal in my previous post. It’s cute, complex, cleverly designed, and largely unweathered by several decades of advances in video games. My favorite part of it is Freeon-Leon, the orange dinosaur hero who trots around with an expression of perpetual astoundment. 

I especially like it when, instead of ducking in a traditional manner, Freeon-Leon flops on his back and stares upwards, as though comprehending the weight of all existence. And then, realizing the necessity of enduring the day as it stands, he scoots along the ground. 

Freeon-Leon was crafted for the Western release of Ufouria, however. The Japanese version has a cat-suited girl named O-Chan instead, and Sunsoft carried her over to the Hebereke series that grew out of Ufouria (and seldom saw any releases outside of Japan). When Ufouria: The Saga 2 rolled around, it seemed to forget all about Freeon-Leon as well as Bop-Louie, the snowman-like revamp of series protagonist Hebe. 

Well, Sunsoft didn’t forget! Ufouria 2 has Hebe and O-Chan as playable characters, but you’ll see both Bop-Louie and Freeon-Leon on rare occasions. At the end of each stage is a Bobodori bird that flies the heroes back home, and that return trip occasionally shows Freeon-Leon or Bop-Louie instead of O-Chan or Hebe. 

This appears to be the limit of their cameos, as even after buying all of the game’s items I can’t find a way to unlock them as playable characters. Making them mere alternate skins for the existing cast might even mess with the game’s dialogue. O-Chan seems a little more braggadocious than Freeon-Leon’s boggled stare would imply, though Bop-Louie likely could share a lot of Hebe’s lines. I naturally would prefer that they be entirely separate characters, fitting with the game’s self-aware sense of humor. 

I will continue my investigation, but even this small cameo is a wonderful surprise. It’s also a good example of Ufouria 2’s winning attention to detail and heritage. I praised all of that in my review, and I really hope that the game doesn’t get buried under the weight of more prominent titles this year. Sunsoft is planning an enhanced reissue of the original Hebereke as well, so there’s another chance for a Ufouria re-release and more of Freeon-Leon.

Ufouria: Bring Back Freeon-Leon

A look through this site reveals that I enjoy going on and on about minor concerns. Yet I assure you that this entry involves no trivial complaints over logos or labels or Zed Blade. This is serious. I’m here to talk about the upcoming Ufouria: The Saga 2 and how it seems to ignore my favorite part of the original game.

Sunsoft’s Ufouria: The Saga is a delight from the last years of the NES empire. It’s a sprawling adventure with four payable characters, solid side-scrolling mechanics, and a vast world to explore in backtracking Metroid fashion. Propelled by charming graphics and one of those marvelous Naoki Kadoka soundtracks, it’s altogether enjoyable even in the face of modern games that expertly evoke NES aesthetics and offer larger quests. It even accomplishes a rare feat for a maze-driven game: losing dumps you back at the very beginning, but thanks to Ufouria’s breezy pace and clever layout, I never really minded that setback. 

Like a lot of impressive late-period NES games, Ufouria wasn’t justly appreciated in its time. It was released in Japan and Europe with little traction, and the North American version was canceled outright (though the Wii’s Virtual Console brought it there in 2010). In Japan the characters continued on in their Hebereke series, though this was primarily in puzzle and sports titles, never returning to the adventurous tones of Ufouria.

Ufouria stars four goofy creatures in a quest to escape a strange alien world, including the protagonist Bop-Louie, the sure-footed Freeon-Leon*, the spectral Shades, and the aquatic Gil. As was frequently the case in this era, changes were made to the original Japanese game’s cast. Shades and Gil merely had their names changed (from Sukezaemon and Jennifer, amusingly enough) but Bop-Louie and Freeon-Leon also look different from their Hebereke counterparts. Hebe is a penguin while Bop-Louie is an alien-eyed snowman. O-Chan appears to be a person in a cat suit, but Freeon-Leon is a big-eyed dinosaur with a single horn.

Freeon-Leon instantly became my favorite of the bunch. In NES games with regional changes I often lean toward the Japanese releases and their cuter designs, but that’s not the case with Ufouria. For one thing, I like Bop-Louie’s unique extraterrestrial Frosty design over Hebe’s precious but fairly pedestrian penguin form. 

And while there’s nothing wrong with O-Chan, I find Freeon-Leon just about perfect. I love how he waddles around with an expression of utterly stupefied wonder. I love how the character selection screen has him making a panicked faced when you select him. And I love how his look of neutral awe changes to a confident smirk when he stomps enemies or a determined glare when he swims across a watery surface.

This brings me to Ufouria 2, Sunsoft’s upcoming sequel to the original game. Its plush-toy look is enticing and the gameplay appears to expand a good deal on its predecessor’s sound ground, but everything shown of it features the original Hebereke characters. There’s no beady-eyed Bop Louie and, worse yet, no unidinosaur Freeon-Leon. Like its Sunsoft contemporary Mr. Gimmick, Ufouria has characters clearly designed for more than just games. They were potential mascots for company logos, cameos, and prize crane machines. It’s a shame that any of them should be ignored.

Ufouria has perhaps only a cult following outside of Japan, of course, and there’s a much greater history to the Hebereke series. Yet I’ll miss Freeon-Leon. I’m not suggesting that Sunsoft delay the game to add optional characters for the sake of just one nutty Freeon-Leon fan, but perhaps we’d see some DLC if, say, several thousand Freeon-Leon fans took up the cause. That’s a hint. 

To turn this more realistic, I hope that Ufouria 2 will include the original game as a bonus in both its Japanese and European/American iterations. With the Wii U and 3DS shops closed to new purchases, there’s no place for newcomers to legally acquire the first Ufouria right now. I think it’s terribly unfair to deny modern civilization easy and honorable access to Freeon-Leon and all he embodies. 

*Ufouria’s in-game text spells his name “Freeon-Leeon” when he’s introduced, but the manual spells it “Freeon-Leon” and that seems to be the more popular interpretation anyway.