Monday, September 24, 2012

Wave Jack Series: Fighting Piracy With Pin-Up Girls

Video game companies have always been designing schemes to encourage consumers to purchase their software mint in the shrink wrap and discourage piracy.  Before first day pre-order bonuses, before Working Design pack-ins, before Star Tropic had you dip the manual in water, there was the Wave Jack series.

Published by Imagineer for the Famicom Disk System, these open-ended titles pushed passive players to be more proactive in searching out clues, not only in the 8-bit world itself, but also in the materials included with the disk. These ranged from simple maps to detailed guidebooks by living gaming legends to music cassettes featuring trending idols. A promising project on paper, in execution the trilogy was a buggy, unfriendly, unbeatable mess not unlike Atari’s Swordquest experiment. 
The adventure kicked off on November 6th, 1986 with Ginga Densho, aka Galaxy Odyssey. Set in a distant future of space colonies and interstellar travel, an ominous meteor shower rains down an unknown skin-calcifying virus, and you must scour the galaxy in search of the cure. Each of the five planets begins with a vertical-scroll shooting stage where you gather oxygen for the top-down exploration segment set deep within the alien star. 
The Guardian Legend this ain’t. Spaceship sequences feel tacked-on and half-baked compared to competent contemporaries like Super Star Force which was released just a week afterward. The exploration bits are hamstrung by finite oxygen resources, copy-pasted screens, and game-freezing bugs, making this a kusoge by our modern rubric. Despite its fatal flaws, the opulent packaging drummed up enough interest to move a few units.   
Relatively unknown sci-fi manga artist Okazaki Tsuguo provided the character designs while teen superstar Oginome Yoko lent her voice to the theme song Romantic Odyssey. The lyrics, in conjunction with the instruction manual written as a prose novella, supposedly contain clues for deciphering the in-game space runes left behind by extinct civilizations—a DIY Al Bhed primer. There’s even a 10-page pamphlet from the Japanese Psychoeducational Institute extolling the benefits of these mental gymnastics on a growing mind to scam parents into buying more edutainment for their family computer.  
Imagineer’s sophomore effort, Kieta Princess (Missing Princess) is considered the strongest entry in the trilogy, albeit a confusing mess. The princess of the imaginary country Rabia (or Labia, depending on how you romanize it) is kidnapped during a goodwill visit to Japan, putting the kibosh on trade—specifically, the vaccine for an incurable virus running rampant across the archipelago. As a private eye employed by the government, you have thirty days to find the missing princess and restore international relations.

Thirty in-game days, mind you. The clock ticks forward relentlessly as you scramble for clues and resources in a completely free-roaming world. You can interact with nearly every building on the congested map, go to the martial arts dojo to boost your life total, or even take on a part-time job to supplement your daily stipend. But don’t dawdle. Come nightfall, shops close and the streets are overrun by pistol-toting gangs. Get too trigger-happy in self-defense and you’ll be arrested and slapped with a fine.

Missing Princess tried to do more than the infant technology could handle. Years later, once hardware grew up to fit the design, sandbox games become a cornerstone of the medium. Until then, players were left to sift through the litterbox. 
At least they didn’t have to dig in with their bare hands. The package came with a police badge notebook, map of the city (whose backside served as a poster of the game’s token idol), travel log by Mori Meijin (mousy rival to Takahashi Meijin), and vocal tracks by actress Tomita Yasuko who had recently been launched to stardom by her role in Lonely Heart (Sabishinboh) by Hausu director Obayashi Nobuhiko. 
Finally we have Holy Sword Psycho Calibur, the most competent of the trifecta for what it's worth. Released on May 15th, 1987, this quest puts you in control of a young orphan on a journey to find his father and unravel the secret of his mother’s memento, an ancestral sword. Aided by the fairies Pipi and Popo, you must make the sacred blade shine once more to free the land from the Demon Lord Hrungnir and his hundred-year rule of terror.   
Don’t let the flip-screen overhead view and sword-slinging fool you—this isn’t Zelda’s long-lost cousin, it’s the mutant twin confined to rot in the attic. Right from the offset the player is asked to purchase equipment that will make or break their adventure without any explanation or context, making it a blind crap shoot amongst an already aimless sprawl. Good thing there’s pack-in guides, right?
Well, not so much. There’s a storybook illustrating the history of the realm, a Bikkuri-Man style monster manual, and cassette tape soundtrack needed to solve the musical Lost Woods riddle hiding the true last boss. Very fancy, but not useful in divining what items do. Do cherries restore health? (No, they’re actually bombs.) Is it worth dropping all your rubles on a teardrop? (Yes, it’s an over-powered boomerang). The game is still playable if you factor in the vintage. Do you enjoy the perilous learning curve of Rougelikes and poor hit detection of lazy programming? Then you’re in for an import gaming treat.

The rest of us can enjoy the totally sweet cassette illustration by Kamen Rider Black RX monster designer Amemiya Keita and the screamin’ saxophone accompanying smalltime idol unit Poppins on Springtime in the City Means Adventure. 
Citing low sales given the high production costs, Imagineer pulled the plug on the Wave Jack series after just three titles. Their 5000 yen price tag—normally reserved for cartridge games—was highway robbery compared to other Disk System offerings. Thanks to the proliferation of disk writers, you could download new games for 500 yen a pop at the corner store after an initial 2000 yen investment for the blank disk. With A+ titles like Castlevania, Kid Icarus, and Metroid at their fingertips, kids would be insane to spend their lunch money anywhere else. Even idols, normally the sexy deciding factor in the war for young boys’ pocket money, lost their luster in light of bootleg porn games, including Bishojo SF Alien Fight and other NSFW titles

Ironically, Wavejack’s pack-ins were originally devised to fight such unlicensed disks through added value. Rogue agents quickly figured out how to bypass Nintendo’s lax copy protection systems, with the Disk Worker from Hacker International being the workhorse of choice for counterfeiters. The Famicom homebrew scene hit a growth spurt with mooks dedicated to Disk System mods, blurring the line between hobbyist and hacker pirate. 

Despite the ease of piracy and format obsolescence from advances in ROM carts, the Disk System enjoyed a robust life cycle, cranking out titles and providing disk writing services through 1993, three full years after the release of the Super Famicom. The Wavejack series is a fondly remembered footnote in Japan for what it could have been, while hardly known in the west due to the language barrier. Still, there’s enough clues scattered across the internet to start hearty enthusiasts down the right path. After all, a journey isn’t an adventure unless it’s into the unknown. 

Special thanks to Mind Rot for introducing me to Poppins and putting this post into motion.
Images of packaging and pack-ins taken from StrategyWiki.

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