A couple weekends ago I finally beat Bubblegum Crash for the PC Engine, and that was kind of a big deal for a few reasons. The game was part of my massive vintage game collection (that I sold to pay for my move to Portland), and not only had I never beaten it but I never got particularly far on it either. You know, because it’s a “digital comic” text adventure entirely in Japanese.
It was also the only reason I hung onto my “Purple Barney” converter so long
Thankfully, about a year ago a fan-translation ROM of the game surfaced. Playing through the whole thing, the translation is fantastic, with very little ambiguity or awkwardness. Which is good because the game includes plenty of that for itself. The game opens up with mysterious armored battle suits breaking into a bank. You start out playing Nene Romanova, one of the vigilante Knight Sabers, who finds out about the robbery because her day job is boring. It’s worth noting that the entire Bubblegum Crisis franchise does a pretty tenuous sexual politics balancing act between showcasing four relatively self-actualized woman protagonists (a business owner, a rock star, an actress and… a traffic cop) that are kickass robo-suited vigilantes behind the scenes but also making them ditzy, irrational, and surprisingly helpless on occasion.
Then again, for 1980s Japan, this *was* progressive.
So anyway you go inside to talk to Leon McNichol and Daley Wong and let’s just stop there for a second because Daley Wong. Seriously, even for anime, having such an unapologetically gay male character in the mid-1980s that wasn’t, like, dying of AIDS or otherwise weighted with hubris was really badass. Even though it doesn’t come up at all in the game, they even made sure that looking at him, you just know.
You’d be sassy too if you had a 10-inch… neck.
Like other digital comic adventures, you have a series of commands you can use on the right side of the screen. One of the things that is endlessly frustrating if you don’t have a walk-through handy is that there are separate commands for “Talk” and “Listen” (bottom left and middle left) and many interactions require you to alternate between them in a non-intuitive (read: seemingly random) manner to keep the conversation going. Anyway, you find yourself investigating the bank and immediately the fourth wall between yourself as player and Nene finds itself broken. After a brief glance in their direction, Nene resolves that the nearby garbage bins aren’t worth searching and are gross anyway. Well, turns out you can *force* her to investigate them anyway. Doing so doesn’t even find anything, except a vague sense of horror at a player/character contract the game allowed you to violate.
The fuck kind of game is this?
Most of the game involves investigating broken pieces left behind by the unfamiliar robo-armor of the criminals that performed the robbery. This requires going back and forth to various computer vendors, sleazy hackers, and military factory workers for bits of information. Eventually Nene just says “fuck it” and HACKS INTO ONE OF NATO’S DATABASES… WITH A POLICE HQ OFFICE COMPUTER… THAT SHE LOGGED INTO WITH HER POLICE BADGE. You know, as one does.
Sure, ok, fuck it why not.
Shit, why not just tell rando homeless street hackers about your plans, as a police officer, to bypass NATO security? Nah that would be so impossibly reckless oh wait she does that too…
While Nene is busy breaking international treaties, the bank robbers strike again, acquiring a total of 5 billion yen. Further investigation reveals they are also raiding the safety deposit boxes for the pieces of a top-secret super AI. At this point, Nene finally decides hey maybe this should actually be an actual Knight Sabers game…
Oh wait nevermind, this just means you hang out in Linna Yamazaki‘s apartment while she takes a shower. At this point of the game, in another strange fourth-wall breaking moment, you can peek in on Linna in the shower if you are persistent enough. Not you as in Nene, you as in the player. The game talks directly to you the whole time.
Yeah, like Gamergate would be concerned about a woman’s privacy.
After some story exposition, you find yourself playing as Linna. During this interlude you head to the stock market to hear buzz about Zone Co, the company that manufactures the stolen Super AI. Then you get sexually harassed in an alley be the same guy that harassed Nene earlier in the game. And then you call Nene. And that’s pretty much it.
Nene then uses the police computer she already committed international espionage on to stalk and harass an old man into telling her more about the Super AI. Because apparently Internal Affairs isn’t a thing for the AD Police. And then this happens-
Oh, Leon. You suck so hard.
Priss (who suddenly becomes a thing in this game) then pursues the escaping battle armor with her motorcycle, which moves about as smoothly as trying to play shuffleboard with a Christmas ham. I cannot emphasize how awful the controls are or how infuriating this motorcycle stage that just appears out of nowhere is.
At least it looks cool when you die. Which you will. A lot.
Once you manage that (takes surviving through three to seven stretches of road) this ridiculous bullshit happens. It’s a 3/4 view grid board game where you chase the mobile suit and manipulate the board to trap it. Seriously tho, apparently somebody thought this was a good idea, and worth adding/keeping in the game. They took the time to program a top-view movement engine, and created these cartoony RPG sprites in a style that appears nowhere else in the game. For this. I’m half-convinced parts of this game were just bullshit unused shovelware hobby projects they had lying around that they inserted the BGC characters into and shoehorned in. Look at this and try to convince me otherwise.
Then, after investing so much energy into keeping her motorcycle intact through the chase, Priss just shoves it right up Armor Suit Guy’s ass.
Then we go back to following Nene around, showing some of the pieces of what was left of the armor suit to various folks until she gets a note from Sylia Stingray, which she immediately misinterprets.
Oh God shut up, Nene.
At this point, finally, after what is likely around two to three hours of gameplay, the four Knight Sabers get together in the same place and this thing turns into something that actually kind of looks like an actual Bubblegum Crisis/Crash game. Sort of.
The remaining part of the game is in Stephen Lab, and if you die you have to play the whole thing over. The gameplay here is like a standard first-person RPG maze game. It’s a three floor maze where you have to trip three levers to get the main service elevator (which takes you to the final battle) to work. While wandering through the maze you will be attacked by the traditional boomers from the series as well as more men in armored battle suits. With each battle all chars HP starts at full, so you don’t have to worry about that, but other than that the fight themselves is like a bare-bones RPG. You’ll wanna switch out characters to keep them from dying. Also, Nene has a “Scanner” tool that will increase your defense while weakening the enemy’s attack, so you wanna use that each battle. Other than that, all four characters have the ability to use physical combat or shoot, which you will also alternate for effectiveness.
After sludging through the generic “dungeon” of Stephen Lab you fight the leader of the battle armored criminal gang, and it is actually kind of boring as shit. To be honest, after wanting to beat this game for like 20 years, I feel a bit ripped off by how corny the ending is.
seriously that’s it
Like, I think there were elements here that could have made a much more solid game. Literally everything taken care of in the digital comic scenes could have been accomplished as a standard RPG if they’d just developed that aspect. As they were, the RPG elements did offer a challenge and a change of pace, but one that wears off quickly because the elements were so rudimentary and lead to dreary repetition.
That said, it’s an interesting eclectic conceptual grab bag. The graphics are mostly rendered gorgeously and it stays true to the source material. However, the gameplay is clumsy and non-intuitive. Depending on how much of a fan you are of the source material, the latter may be forgivable to an extent. I just happen to be one of said fans, so your mileage may vary.