Ardy Lightfoot's Dark Side

It’s tempting to swiftly set aside Ardy Lightfoot. You might give it the same fleeting glance you’d give any other semi-obscure Super NES action game with an animal protagonist, side-scrolling stages, and a higher level of difficulty than it might be worth. Yet there’s an uncommon sense of ambition about this one. The opening titles promise “A Team Ardy Film,” as though its overalled fox hero is a cinematic star in the making, and the cutscenes get surprisingly detailed as he gathers ancient crystals and contends with a rival treasure hunter, a wicked monarch, and some vicious level bosses.

One might assume that Ardy Lightfoot is all harmless, but the game takes a grim turn in the sixth stage. The ninja-like Catry appears in the previous levels, swiping a forest village’s gem and tying innocent citizens to trees. Ardy and his blobbish sidekick Pec navigate the wood, curiously without freeing a single hostage, and confront the feline kunoichi in a maddening duel of switches and spring-loaded boxing gloves.

Upon defeat Catry begs for mercy and flies off with a gem. Ardy pursues, and both of them are swallowed by a giant Arrakis-grade worm. Seriously, there's a big Dune desert creature in the middle of a cutesy Super NES platformer. Ardy makes his way through the depths of the beast’s digestive system to find Catry and the jewel.

Here the game differs with its region. In the Japanese release, all that remains of Catry is a pile of bones. Despite her recent ingestion, she’s already been gruesomely skeletonized by acid dripping from the roof of the creature’s stomach. Ardy is distressed not a whit beyond his brief stock exclamation point of surprise, and he carries on after cheerfully nabbing the crystal. 

In the North American and European versions of Ardy Lightfoot, Catry’s fate is less clear. She’s lying there, unmoving but undigested, and there’s no acid falling on her. Ardy once again seizes his coveted gewgaw and bounds along, not bothering to check if Catry’s alive or not. This is the last the player sees of her.

It’s a curious moral shift. The Japanese version renders her demise unsettling, but there’s clearly nothing Ardy can do to help. The other releases of the game try to soften the scene but actually make it worse. With Cathy’s condition left vague, Ardy is now a cold-blooded bastard. Sparing not a glance to see if Catry survived, he leaves her to presumably perish within the worm’s innards. 

Strangely, the English versions of the game also remove any captive villagers. It was a potentially upsetting sight for young players, especially when Ardy didn’t rescue them, but excising that plot point makes Catry even less deserving of her fate. Her only offense is an awkward boss battle, but that's more the fault of the game's controls.  

Of course, all of this is blatant rebellion against the cliches of the genre. If Ardy had a typical action hero’s code of honor, he would rescue Catry no matter what harm she had visited upon him and others. This act of kindness would in turn drive her to question her loyalties and perhaps, at the author’s discretion, develop romantic inclinations or a respectful rivalry (or both) toward the protagonist. But Ardy Lightfoot is unencumbered by such strokes of mercy.

Granted, a death such as this isn’t uncommon for generally lighthearted stories. Children’s films occasionally delight in opaquely bumping off villains under the supposition that they deserve it, and even casual side characters, like a conceited squirrel from The Enchanted Journey, might meet unpleasant fates. Yet the protagonists usually react with appropriate shock and horror. Ardy and Pec just merrily bound along. Many years before people questioned the tonal clash of Nathan Drake’s quips and his violent methods in the Uncharted games, Ardy was a cheerful adventurer who left a helpless foe to die. Let’s just hope it was over quickly for Catry. 

Then again, things were over quickly for Ardy Lightfoot. There were no sequels or remakes, and the game gets discussed so seldom that I can’t locate interviews or developer insights regarding ASCII’s intentions for a possible series. Team Ardy never got to make another film. 

Today Ardy's quest is a high-priced curiosity, though not an easy game to enjoy. The stage design is often clever and the characters boast more personality than usual, but it's all burdened by frustrating gameplay. It fact, Ardy's methods of tossing Pec and stomping enemies resemble the awkward moves that Vic Tokai used in Kid Kool, Magical Hat, and Psycho Fox. Perhaps they were an inspiration in several ways, since Ardy is both a fox and a psychopath.

Dive Alert: Sub Average

Dive Alert keeps underappreciated company. It’s on the Neo Geo Pocket Color, a fantastic handheld system unfairly cut down when the pachinko monsters of Azure bought SNK and canceled their projects. It’s the work of Sacnoth, a short-lived developer that crafted a number of intriguing, creative RPGs. And Dive Alert is a game that really wants to tell a story, a game that sometimes wants to fight submarine battles, and a game that doesn’t care if the player might get bored.

The first moments of Dive Alert impress, introducing some appealing pixel-anime characters, high-tech ships, and a mecha who looks a lot like Giant Robo. We learn that the world is now mostly ocean, continents and civilizations long since submerged in disaster. Bellicose Automan machines roam the seas, while humans scrape by and trade rumors of Terra, the last remaining dry land. One such human is either Matt or Becky, depending on which version of Dive Alert you play, and the unfolding quest involves rebel factions, overcontrolling computers, and a few conspiracies. It’s a setting seen in Waterworld, The Incredible Tide, Blue Sub No. 6, The Drowned World, Future Boy Conan, Tide Line Blue, Mega Man Legends, and other tales stretching back over a century, but it’s one of those science fiction standards I never really mind—perhaps because, given our current environmental state, it’s so plausible. 

One thing becomes clear very early: Dive Alert does not care about quick pacing. Handheld games tend to be brisk in their setups and lenient in their storytelling, accessible enough to pick and up and put down when subway commutes or lunch breaks demand. Dive Alert isn’t having that. The player sits through a lengthy conversation between Matt or Becky and a Navicom, detailing their motivations, mechanics, and purposes behind their submarine forays. It’s all familiar ground, though the illustrations of the characters are detailed for a handheld game of this vintage. 

Soon it’s time for the first submarine battle. And then it’s time to ask “Wait, THIS is the gameplay?”

The combat takes place on a sonar display, with your ship a mere triangle and the enemy Automan vessels mere dots around it. This is not an optional viewpoint, like the map screen in an RPG. The game fully expects you to play out submarine duels in a rotating grid that’s just as slow as an undersea battle might be in real life. It brings to mind Silent Service and other simulations more than the more active combat of In the Hunt, Sqoon, or Sub Rebellion (or the unreleased Mariner’s Run). While there’s something to be said for authenticity, it’s an approach unexpected after the game’s graphically stylish cutscenes. 

A simple perspective might help these submarine battles move quickly, but Dive Alert isn’t having that. Your ship turns slowly, launches torpedoes slowly, and evades attack slowly—or not at all. It’s strategic and careful and…well, tedious. Landing hits isn’t particularly satisfying when it’s just a matter of seeing one dot collide with a small blob, and there’s only some minor claustrophobic tension when your own sub is threatened. 

There’s more to the battles, of course. Each dive can reach one of four different depths of the ocean, and your ship gains new weapons and slight speed upgrades (which vary across the two different versions). If you’re willing to put yourself fully into Dive Alert’s clutches, to invest yourself in the overwritten cutscenes, explore the extensive customization of your submersible, and imagine dramatic implications for those geometrically bland sonar-screen clashes, Dive Alert has some meat to it. 

The story goes routine places in its twists, but it at least has some twists. The long-winded cutscenes are handsomely rendered and devoted to showing off characters, from the protagonist and their Navicom to the various merchants and rebels, including a classic Yatterman trio of pseudo-villains. And even though the dialogue is overwritten for what it conveys, it's sometimes a welcome break from that dinky little navigation screen. 

That awkward gameplay viewpoint is puzzling in light of Dive Alert’s generally striking looks elsewhere. The cutscenes are full of expressive portraits and nice background scenery. There’s a multitude of submarines, from robotic whale-ships to old-fashioned U-boats, that you can commandeer (and never see on the playing field as anything but a triangle). There’s even a bonus shooting gallery with graphics far better than the main gameplay. 

It's enough to make one theorize that Sacnoth trimmed down Dive Alert for either time or memory limitations. The game’s not very long in terms of actual missions, and the intro’s above-mentioned Giant Robo analogue apparently doesn’t even show up. Perhaps the gameplay really is just a sonar side-screen meant to accompany a richer and more detailed vision of submarine warfare—one that the developers never finished. 

Dive Alert’s multiplayer mode allows battles over link cables for the American and European releases of the game, but the Japanese version sports the Neo Geo Pocket Color’s wireless feature, allowing for limited online play. It’s an intriguing concept that unfortunately couldn’t get approved outside of Japan, though it’s hard to imagine the game’s slow combat enticing hordes of players.

One can’t call Dive Alert the most boring game on the Neo Geo Pocket Color, not when there’s a load of Aruze pachislot games to despise for several reasons (they KILLED SNK, dammit). Yet it’s very much a slow and stubborn game, one that makes you watch it and play it exactly how it wants, no matter the consequences. 

This would be a habit that Sacnoth showed in other games. Founded by composer Hiroki Kikuta and some other Square expats, the developer tried hard to cut its own path. Dive Alert was their debut release, but their first big showcase was Kikuta’s creation Koudelka, a gothic RPG-adventure that sought lavish production values and an older audience with its tale of strangers gathered at a haunted monastery in 1898. It’s also another case of Might Have Been. Koudelka artfully presents its gothic trappings and shows some deft storytelling with its characters and voice acting (the title heroine is both refreshingly sharp and amusingly selfish), but its gameplay is divided between clumsy Resident Evil controls and unnecessarily frequent RPG battles. Even so, it’s a fascinating creation and a companion to the more accomplished Shadow Hearts games, and it’s a shame that Kikuta, who left Sacnoth not long after Koudelka, never got the chance to revisit it. 

Sacnoth’s other Neo Geo Pocket Color outing would be Faselei!, a mecha strategy-RPG with some astounding anime aesthetics—including its own theme song. It’s a much more approachable and solid game than Dive Alert, though again Sacnoth marches to a different beat: players guide combat robots by making a list of commands, detailing every step they take on the screen. It’s novel but more cumbersome than a familiar, direct control method would be. At least the mecha look like actual machines of war and not just dots on a grid. 

Back to Dive Alert. If it’s not among the greats in the Neo Geo Pocket Color’s library, it’s one of the most curious experiments there. On a system with lots of portable (and usually excellent) versions of quick-fix arcade games, here’s a dialogue-heavy and languidly paced submarine adventure that makes few concessions for the player. A quicker, prettier combat screen would have done wonders, but Dive Alert instead seeks a limited audience. And that’s precisely what it found.

The Strange Depths of Dig: A Journey Into the Earth

It’s always a relief to rediscover some bizarre cartoon you vaguely remember from your childhood. Beyond nostalgia, there’s a comfort to finding out that you didn’t merely imagine it, that this curious little movie or TV special existed and that it was, in fact, almost as weird as you remember. 

Dig: A Journey into the Earth is like that. It’s one of those short, obscure cartoons by talent better known for other things. Writers and directors John and Faith Hubley are animation legends whose accomplishments stretch from Disney films to Oscar-winning shorts to Mr. Magoo. The music is from Quincy Jones, whose 70-year career includes film scores, Michael Jackson albums, Oscar-winning movies, and far too many achievements to sum up here. Dig is a remote find next to all of that: CBS commissioned it as an educational TV special back in 1972, and it apparently re-aired only a few times afterwards.

I saw Dig in the first or second grade, many years after it debuted, and I assume my teacher had taped one of its repeat airings. This is a practice alien to schoolchildren these days, when we can summon anything by streaming or downloads. In the 1980s and 1990s, however, we were still at the mercy of whatever was at hand, so teachers might go to the school library and pull out VHS tapes or film strips of much older vintage. 

Resourceful educators also recorded kids’ programs off TV at home just so they’d have a stockpile of semi-instructive material and holiday entertainment for years to come. Whenever teachers put on a video for the class, we might see some recent Garfield or Charlie Brown TV special...or perhaps some older selection like Nelvana’s A Cosmic Christmas or a stop-motion rendition of Dick Whittington that I’ve never been able to identify. Comment below if you have any leads on that one.

Ostensibly all about geology, Dig follows a city kid named Adam and his dog Bones as they meet a talking rock called...well, Rocco and plunge deep into the Earth. On their trek Adam learns all about earthquakes, mountains, time periods, and other geological concepts while Bones sniffs around and nibbles anything that holds still. Rocco’s family members Igneous, Sedimentary, and Metamorphic deliver songs about their specific rock types, whereafter Bones comes unstuck in time and requires rescue across millions of years. 

It's all supposed to be palatable for kids, with fun songs and friendly creatures. Yet Dig is loaded with the abstract, intriguing animation choices favored often by the Hubleys—and by semi-educational 1970s cartoons in general. Characters move with halting, sketchlike mannerisms that make even a modern city look a little strange. There are slow, haunting pans across fossils and strata, accompanied by Jones’ eclectic and eerie background music. The various talking rocks are grotesque just as often as they’re cute, and there’s the constant feeling that Adam and Bones are treading into places they definitely shouldn’t be.

The educational aspects of Dig actually add to the effect. Instead of reciting facts and labored explanations, Rocco and his fellow stone creatures deliver lessons with a rapid, occasionally metaphorical tone that makes it easy to miss such details about geological eras and whatnot. It's just as disorienting as the animation. Then again, it's refreshing to find children’s educational cartoons that challenge their audiences to pay close attention, rewatch them, and maybe do a little extra reading about sediments and erosion.

That’s why Dig stayed with me. It was much more abstract than the Disney films or TV cartoons I commonly saw, and it even surpassed something like Watership Down, which at least has realistic rabbits in between its apocalyptic imagery (and which John Hubley was originally going to direct). This made Dig strange and dreamlike to me. It didn’t feel as safe as other animated specials, not because of anything that happened in it but rather because I didn’t know the limitations of its world. There was a vague trepidation about something bizarre or frightening lying around the corner, even in this TV-appropriate lesson about stalactites. 

Animation is unique in that ability to disquiet. Live-action creations can be beautifully surreal, but anything with flesh-and-blood actors carries unspoken assurances, especially to a child. We learn from an early age that these are actors and special effects, and no matter what happens during the story, the players are unharmed. Cartoons don’t carry that same protection. Their characters don’t exist in the real world, and so their peril seems strangely more real. Bambi’s mother and Optimus Prime and poor Violet (from Watership Down) didn’t shuffle off the set once their death scenes wrapped up shooting. They lived only on the screen, and they died there as well.

Not that Dig is even remotely harsh. Adam rescues his dog, and they emerge into the mundanity of the city with Rocco and a greater understanding of what’s in the ground below them. Of course, the experience of being around living, talking rocks might warp a kid’s perceptions to the point where they see even a broken sidewalk as the mangled corpse of a sapient being, but that’s the price of cartoon personification. 

You can watch the entirely of Dig here. If you don’t care to sit through all 25 minutes, its vaguely ominous atmosphere is embodied well at the 14:30 mark, when an adorable little dog vanishes and a malformed limestone golem cackles about it.

Dig now seems quaint to me, since I’m older and cynical and much more familiar with its native era of animation. Even so, I respect Dig for unnerving me just enough that I'd remember it and track it down as an adult. Heck, maybe it’s the reason I like Wurm: Journey to the Center of the Earth so much.

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.