The lights are on
A page from the manual of Ganbare Gorby!
Japanese developers often have a knack of incorporating their own creative ideas into idiosyncratic settings and stories. Perhaps they want to have space sheriffs in the American west. Perhaps they want to put the U.S. president in a mech suit. Some developers might shy away from such ideas. But these six developers – they went for it. They took a swing at working other cultures into their games with a creative abandon rarely seen these days. While these might have not been the most commercially successful games, they are each fascinating in their own way.
1. Ganbare Gorby!
Released outside of Japan as “Factory Panic” with no connection to the former Soviet statesman, Ganbare Gorby! was released in Japan for the Sega Game Gear in 1991, published by Sega. As a Japanese speaker, I can let you know that the word “ganbare” in Japanese is a phrase of encouragement, so roughly the title translates to “Go Gorby!” or “Come on, you can do it former leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev!”
In Ganbare Gorby! Mikhail Gorbachev must hit switches inside a factory to move conveyor belts of food to starving people. While doing this, he must incapacitate guards who are trying to stop him (because apparently they hate anyone getting food). For such a political backdrop, only the Japanese could make a Soviet factory look fairly cute and innocuous.
Released less than two months before the Soviet Union officially dissolved in late 1991, Ganbare Gorby! can either be seen as the Japanese trivializing the gravity of communism ending, or it can be seen as the Japanese developers praising Gorbachev as a humanist leader who is helping his people.
2. Ganpuru: Gunman’s Proof
Ganpuru: Gunman’s Proof has an outstanding premise and story. Developed by ASCII and released in 1997 for the Super Famicom, the game is set in the American West circa 1880. In the intro, two meteorites crash on “Strange Island,” an island surrounded by water off the coast of the American West. Since the meteorites hit, there have been strange creatures roaming the island, attacking people and leaving behind in writing the word “Demiseed.” Mysterious, right?
Your character, a young farm boy, is strolling around outside of his hometown of Bronco Village when a UFO crash lands in front of him. Two entities named Zero and Goro emerge, who tell the boy they are space sheriffs trying to track down a fugitive named Demi, whom they believe is hiding on earth. The boy is so interested that he lends his body to be inhabited by Zero to try to hunt down Demi, since the aliens cannot survive in the Earth’s atmosphere for long. You play as Zero inside the farm boy’s body for the rest of the game.
The game itself is very reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, so much so that it has a similar world map. But unlike the Legend of Zelda, you have guns, and not just old-fashioned guns from 1880, but machine guns, bazookas, and flamethrowers. Guns can fired in eight directions, and you can even strafe with the left and right triggers, which will let Zero move while his aim is locked to a given direction.
Apart from the guns, the gameplay is ripped out of the Zelda format, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You progress through dungeons which reward and unlock new power-ups and weapons that allow you to access to the next dungeon. After a dungeon, carrots appear in the world; using this vegetable will summon another Space Sheriff, Mono, and his mule named Robaton, which you can ride around on for a little while. Between space sheriffs, bazookas, and blatantly yet charmingly ripping off one of the greatest Zelda games of all time, it has now become my life’s goal to play Ganpuru: Gunman’s Proof.
Ganpuru: Gunman’s proof has very tangential relation to the Wild West, really. If I were to speculate why it’s set in the old west, I would say the developers clearly have a love of the setting, and were also enamored with the idea of a poor farm hand becoming a hero. It may have also simply been a good way to put guns into a Zelda-esque game, and I can’t fault them for that.
3. Square’s Tom Sawyer
Your eyes are not deceiving you, this is indeed an RPG about The Adventures of Tom Sawyer made by the people that brought you Final Fantasy. Released only in Japan for the Famicom (or the NES as we know it) in 1989, Square’s Tom Sawyer takes place in 1855 on the Mississippi River, and features most of the main characters of the original book by Mark Twain. Combat is standard RPG fare where each party member (be it Tom, Jim, Huck or whoever) has their own stats for health, power, and speed, which increase as party members gain experience. There is no weapon equipment as all characters fight with their fists, but there is a large item inventory.
The game was scored by famous video game composer Nobuo Uematsu, and the lead designer, Hiroyuki Ito, would later work on the active time battle system for Final Fantasy IV. Square’s Tom Sawyer seems like a standard light RPG. It might have been forgotten in time if not for having one of the most painfully egregious caricatures of an African American in the history of video games, as seen in the screen above. It’s easy to see why this game never made it stateside.
The game offers a fascinating glimpse at one development studio's interpretation of American historical literature. While not totally true to the source material, the game does center on Tom looking for buried treasure, which is part of the book. Apart from one glaring racially insensitive aspect, Square’s Tom Sawyer does a competent job representing the book’s vision of 1855. Sure, there are odd video game tropes like key cards and black magic, but this is an RPG after all, so it’s hard to fault them.
Square’s Tom Sawyer offered Japanese gamers a glimpse into Square’s vision of 19th century America. It also represents a different time in game history, in which major publishers could and would make video games about anything they wanted, even when those concepts crossed the line into blatant insensitivity.
Up next: The Cold War comes to Japan, police fire machine guns off of hover bikes, and the president fights the vice president in outer space.
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