Quite often we view the past through rose-colored glasses. We remember those games we played in our youth as somehow ‘better’, or more ‘pure’ as compared to the contemporary tripe. This makes some degree of sense, as influential as many of them were on our development into critically thinking, sentient beings of some kind. It’s not a bad thing to do, really. And how can we build fond memories for ourselves without some shred of fabrication?
But now we’re all jaded and cynical. We don’t fall for that crap anymore, or so we tell ourselves. So when I picked up Hudson’s PC Genjin remake, I was not expecting another Star Soldier. I’ve since abandoned the idea I formulated in that article; that Hudson is working for something better. Their recent efforts make it clear that they’re as perfectly content to release me-too clones and vapid character-based throwaways as the next guy. As such, I was expecting the PC Genjin rehash to lay bare the flaws inherent in the original; further antiquated when paired with the contemporary graphical update it’s received.
Not so, friends. Not so.
I had a Turbo Grafx growing up. It was my first system past the ‘classic’ era of Intellivision and 2600. It was also the first system I bought with my own money. To be honest I’m not certain why I picked this over the Genesis and Super Nintendo that all of my friends had. Maybe I just wanted to be different. Maybe it just cost less. Whatever the reason, it turned out to be the right choice. I identified heavily with many of the games that were released for the system – shooters, RPGs, stylized platformers.
So while the kids down the street had Mario or Sonic, I had Bonk. Bonk, PC Genjin in japan, is a ridiculously baby-faced cave-boy who makes his way through life by bopping things with his oversized cranium. It one-upped their one-button attack scheme by adding a second element. Two buttons now – jump, headbutt. He could headbutt from the ground as well, making him more than a match for the other mascots in terms of play dynamic. Further add to this his ability to flip/float through the air by headbutting rapidly, and there’s a nicely functional intellectual property for you.
Plus he ate meat to gain super-neanderthal power. Edgy!
I’m not saying Bonk is better than those other fellows. He’s just a more complicated kind of guy. Plus the girls love him. No ‘princess in another castle’ for this cat – every female dinosaur in this game falls for him flat out.
But even so, I couldn’t identify with Bonk. While the reptilian types loved him, to me he looked…well, stupid. He couldn’t speak properly (though the dinosaurs in his world could – odd), he wore a ridiculous leopard-skin loincloth, and he lived some several thousand years before my time.
Japanese gamers had a bit more to identify with, though. The Genjin of PC Genjin basically means prehistoric man. But it also rhymes with PC Engine, the name of the Turbo Grafx in Japan.
So it really was remarkable that RED, developers of the original title, managed to make the universe so compelling for so many people. It was not the character itself that we identified with, but rather the comedy, the innovation displayed by his environment, and the sheer explorational interactivity of the world. Bonk’s world was one rife with color, and visceral texture – the insides of a stegosaurus’ stomach, the pixelly flow of sand in the desert – the inviting fluffiness of the cloud world. Never mind the fact that you enter that stegosaurus via his mouth, and exit via the most logical means.
The world begged to be explored. The secret bonus areas you could reveal by bonking specific unmarked portions of your environment are one thing. But there was something even more special for me – when you killed an enemy, they flew up into the air, in a sort of spinning ball. You could hit that enemy again with a jump attack, and it would propel you even higher into the air, along with the enemy. In theory, you could do this indefinitely if it weren’t so damned difficult to pull off, timing-wise.
But that’s the kind of thing that lets you feel like you’re getting away with something, even though it’s built properly into the engine. I could launch Bonk up to the top of any structure I want. It doesn’t matter that there’s nothing to see up there. Hell, Bonk himself is offscreen. It matters that I got there even though I wasn’t ‘supposed’ to.
There’s a lot of meaning for me in this particular game. Super Mario Bros. fans know what I’m talking about here.
Thus, loading up the new-and-improved version, I was ready for disappointment. I sure didn’t want it, but I was ready.
Initially, I was a bit crestfallen, to be honest. The graphics have been kidded up an extra notch. The original, admittedly, was something of a kids game itself. But in those days, that’s who home videogames were ‘for’, by and large. If I were Hudson though, I’d be positioning these remakes for the now-adult players of the original, not for a new breed of children.
But it’s clear that Hudson and I do not agree on that point. Little onomatopoetic words float out of your every movement – from the POM of your footsteps, to the BONK of a headbutt, every sound made by our hero is graphically and textually illustrated. It’s a stylistic choice of course, and does not affect the gameplay in any great way. But it’s a choice I don’t think I would have made, myself.
After this early setback, I got into the game a bit more. I discovered that the levels were shorter, and felt more focused than before. There has been a reorganization, even to the point of changing enemy spawn points (and the removal of a few - most notably the tiny shrub-raptor). There is now a more singular goal, and a certain motif to follow, without dwelling on some of the more arbitrary elements of the original. An example would be in the stomach of the aforementioned stegosaurus. In the original, there’s a long sequence where you’ve got to get by a series of uvula looking things that poke up or down from his stomach lining. They move to and fro, allowing a split second of safe passage. There are about six of these in a row, and they’re a bit overly difficult to get through without getting hit a couple of times. In the remake, you only pass two, and they’re far easier to pass by, given Bonk’s vastly improved swimming ability.
It keeps the nearly every element of the original, but no longer makes you suffer through the rough spots. In essence, it retains the heart, but removes the chore.
In fact, the very framework of the game; the engine, has been changed in several key points. For instance, that scenario I described, what with the multiple bonking of enemies to reach an impossibly higher platform – this is now a great deal easier to do. I can actually do it on command in this version. Bonk walks faster, he swims better, he can control the angle of his jump, even with his head pointed downward, and is nearly invincible to enemies when flipping.
For those fans of the series, here’s the list of changes I found from the original to the remake:
You don’t fall off of waterfalls unless you press down on the pad – in the original, you’d fall down after a certain period of time.
After powering up with meat, you retain your super-neanderthal status until damaged, rather than the time limit afforded you in the first.
Those fruits you could collect in the first one (which gave health and points) – now there are only six per stage, and in addition to giving a point of health, collecting all six grants you an extra life.
You can’t jump attack enemies while underwater in the new version. The upside is, you can now ‘swim’ instead of merely jumping your way through the water.
Bonk walks faster, and falls faster.
There is no longer any incremental damage. Now you have three hearts, and any kind of hit from any kind of enemy takes a whole one away.
In both versions, bonking the ground when powered up petrifies the enemies temporarily. But now there’s a longer ‘freeze’ period.
In the first, two small meats make you invincible. In the remake, you just become doubly-powered. Only large meat makes you invincible.
Now you can walk freely in quicksand, albeit slowly. In the original, once you got sucked in, you could only go up…or down. Oooooooh!
Bonk recovers much faster after smacking the ground.
The bosses have new attacks.
The blocks you have to break in order to enter bonus rounds now stand out from the background, in normal mode. In the original, it was all guesswork. In the harder modes, it returns to the original model. But by and large, they’re all in the same places they used to be.
These are all of the changes I noticed, but there may well be more. Now, all of this does effectively make the game a bit easier. But at the same time, it’s a hell of a lot more enjoyable to play. There was a fair bit of frustration involved with the original, and precious little to be found here. Again, it does seem as though Hudson was aiming it for a younger audience, slightly. But the end result of this decision was a game that’s much more intuitive, and far less rough around the edges. It’s just…really fun to go through these levels, popping away at everything in sight.
And after a while, I really got to liking the graphics. I’ve long been an opponent of bringing 2D games into the third dimension. But PC Genjin retains the 2D gameplay, and while the characters and environments are polygonal, they’re shaded well enough that I frequently forget that they’re 3D. It looks quite nice. I even got used to the little words that come up. If you pay attention to them, they’re rather amusing choices. When it’s time to climb a tree with my teeth, I encourage Bonk to ‘sob’ faster.
I’ve played it through twice already, which says something. I’ve only owned it for three days. I tend not to replay games immediately, unless I need to get an extra handle on it for reviewing purposes. But this game is different. It feels very right, and very fun.
The control is spot on, and Bonk’s attacks are usually very precise. There were very few times that I got hit, and didn’t acknowledge it as being ‘my fault’. And you’ve got a lot more lives to work with, as each stage has the potential to give you at least one. The combination of these two things allows you to be much more daring in your exploration.
And it’s quite a good thing that you’re encouraged to explore – as an extra to the remake, you’ve got to collect these giant gold wheels (money). There are ten in each mode, some of them rather well hidden within bonus worlds. You begin on normal, and each successive mode is unlocked by beating the one you're in. Thus Tatsujin (hard mode) is unlocked by beating normal, and Meijin is unlocked by beating Tatsujin. Meijin mode is interesting in that it uses the original levels from the game, but throws a whole lot more enemies at you, a lot earlier. The structure of the levels is also reorganized, with added obstacles, and longer playtime in general. It's *almost* like a different game. But only just slightly. Regardless, getting all of those gold wheels in each mode allows access to a new TV Commercial. The sound test is open from the get-go.
While we’re at it, the music is quite excellent. The remixes are tasteful, essentially just modernized orchestrations of the original tunes. They’ve been given a bit more bounce though, and the enemies dance a bit more than they used to. It feels very lively, when put together. The music seems much more a part of the natural landscape than it did before.
At the end of the game, the words “to be continued” flash across the screen. Are they just doing this to mimic the original, or will they truly be remaking Bonk’s Revenge? I have an infinite amount of respect for that game – so if that’s the case, and the same care is taken, we’re all in for a remarkable treat.
The PC Genjin remake is just a great game. After I finish this paragraph, I’m going to go back and play it again. It’s enjoyable just for the playing. I’m not playing through it again because I want to get the extras…I’m doing it because I’m having a good time. I didn’t really think I’d be saying that, in this day and age. It’s rather refreshing.
The game may well never see a release in the west. But know this, PC Engine lovers: if you liked the original, even if you loved the original, you will dearly love this game.
brandon sheffield is a PC Gaijin
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Thanks to Lawrence for the images.