This is an odd one. I suppose it is technically cheating to rely on a fan translation but well, there is a language barrier to overcome, and personally my Japanese literacy is limited to karaoke nights and calling people idiots. Now, from what we've been able to deduce judging from Japanese fansites and the odd bit of detective work, the translation we're basing this review on is pretty accurate to the spirit of the original- even including many of the same cultural references, such as Ben Johnson being the basis for the track & field star- and so we see it as a good substitute for the original text. One bone of contention is the translation of the plot-vital song, 君はホエホエ娘 or Kimi wa Hoe Hoe Musume in Romaji. This patch uses the name "You Are the Derpy Girl" and that word has what we could charitably call some baggage on the internet but the Let's Play of the game by ChorpSaway uses the title "You Are the Ditzy Girl" which fits a little better... Although apparently 'Hoe Hoe' is kind-of untranslatable anyway. We can't seem to find if there's a publically-available patch that uses Ditzy instead, but we've had to manually sub Ditzy in for our screenshots. If we used any with it in. I dunno, I'm writing this before picking out the shots. We didn't? Oh, balls. Speaking of screenshots, we used the NES palette recommended by TCRF's Taking Screenshots page for our snaps, so, you know, that's something.
But on a more important note... You liar! You promised we were done with idols forever! You promised!
Oh boy, treading hip-deep into unfamiliar waters here, exciting!
Today's subject finally brings us to the world of adventure games.
Well, sort-of. Saying that name conjures up images of gathering a pile of seemingly-useless junk to solve puzzles, and perhaps even the long-forgotten thought of making a fake moustache out of fur stolen from a cat (and the fact that's the only joke I can make points to my surface-level knowledge of the genre) but, well, there's a lot of subgenres within that banner, not all of them being what you'd expect. More specifically, this is a look at a Japanese console-based text adventure game from the '80s. There was a bit of a glut of these in the latter half of the decade due to the influence of Chunsoft and Enix's Famicom port of Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken, usually translated as The Portopia Serial Murder Case. Originally released on the NEC PC-6001 and a bunch of other home computers, this murder mystery game penned by Dragon Quest creator Yuji Horii originally used a text parser similar to games like Zork and Leisure Suit Larry, but this had to be retooled when ported to the Famicom in 1985 to make it more palatable to console players. As such, a more easy-to-digest menu system with a series of actions you can perform- adapted from their then-recent computer follow-up to Portopia, Okhotsk ni Kiyu: Hokkaido Rensa Satsujin Jiken, as explained by this interview with Horii and Riverhillsoft staff Rika Suzuki from BEEP Magazine in 1987- was used, and this formed the basic template for a lot of Japanese text-based adventure games, ported or otherwise, for the system afterwards (and beyond, even- the Master System had Sukeban Deka III which uses a very similar menu-based system, albeit with fighting scenes included). The genre was especially prolific on the Famicom Disk System thanks to Nintendo themselves publishing several, including Time Twist: Rekishi no Katasumi de... and the Famicom Detective Club series. It would morph and grow in the 16-bit era, leading to pivotal games like Kamaitachi no Yoru, but we're sticking around the '80s for this one.
This is a lot of context to introduce, but I figure it's important because there was quite a lot of these games, and they feel a lot different from the sort of game you imagine when you think of text adventure games. No text parser to deal with, just a nice and convenient set of menus, usually with a main screen showing your current location. In particular, while there are ways to die in some of them or get some kind of Game Over, this is rarely the focus and usually serves as a minor inconvenience at worst, usually during little action sequences such as the shootouts in Akira and space battles in Metal Slader Glory. Crucially, it seems that there's no 'walking dead' state in a lot of these games- a common problem in other adventure games where you miss a crucial item at on point in the game but you're never told, and so you march onwards but eventually reach a point where you can no longer progress and must restart. Here, though, you will progress through the game eventually (and are prevented from advancing without doing everything properly) and if you can't figure it out, it's possible to brute-force at least some of these games, though certainly not all. If you want a modern example of this, then the easiest go-to point is the investigation sequences in Phoenix Wright- you have several locations to visit and people to talk to in those sections of the game, but there's no way to 'fail' them, and eventually you'll proceed to the trial portion of the chapter once you've exhausted every possibility (although often the joy is in finding unexpected things like the discussion about stepladders- Horii adds in that BEEP Interview that adventure games should be 20% main story, 80% extra stuff the player finds by themselves). Goes to show that some genres don't really die, just get merged with something else, eh?
This brings us to Idol Hakkenden, published by Towa Chiki, a toy company who made toy tranceivers and are mostly known for publishing trash-tier Famicom games like Sherlock Holmes: Hakushaku Reijō Yūkai Jiken and A Week of Garfield. The actual developer is far more interesting though- it's Natsume, a company known for some absolutely solid NES and SNES action titles, especially Shatterhand, Power Blade, Wild Guns and The Ninja Warriors Again. Their first two original NES games were indeed text adventures, and this was actually their second, the first being Touhou Kenbun Roku from 1988, but it's not a genre they're really known for after that point. Thus, we must set the stage: on her deathbed, the head of one of the biggest financial conglomerates in Japan has decided that her vast, vast fortune will go to whichever of her three daughters is the most successful over the next three months. The competition is between pro businesswoman Shizuka Saionji, scientific genius Reika Saionji... And Erika Saionji, a precious doofus who's useless at pretty much everything but singing and playing dumb. Luckily, there's nothing in the rules to say little goofballs can't be idols (see also: Nico Yazawa, Anzu Futaba) and so Erika sets out to become the Number One Idol in the Universe. Her psychic friend (no, really) suggests that they need to gather six more friends to make Erika's dreams of fame and fortune come true, alongside honing Erika's singing and dancing talents... However, they are unaware that the Dark Lord Iromono (original Japanese) / Kooky King (fan translation) is keeping an eye on Erika's activities, determined to make her an integral part of his evil plans to take over the world by turning her into a late-night variety show star, a fate truly worse than death. Can Erika overcome the Kooky King's evil machinations and triumph? Her fate is in your hands!
(This review is based on the fan translation patch by cccmar of Nebulous Translations, available at RomHacking.net.)
So, this is very much a game in the mould of the games before it- the screen is split into four quarters, and you have a view of the location you're currently in, a profile picture of either yourself or the character you just talked to, the text box, and the command menu. Most of the commands are the kind of thing you'd expect from this kind of game- you can examine your surroundings and the people around you with Look (unlike Portopia, there's no pixel-hunting for objects, items of interest will just be here), chat to people with Talk, grab or buy items with Take (Erika has infinite money, fortunately), Use any items you have in your possession, and Move to another location (you can't move on until you've done what you need to do for most of the game). The other two commands are a little unique though- you can make Erika perform actions herself such as singing, dancing and playing dumb (more useful than it sounds) which you'll often need to do to charm other characters into helping you, and if Erika has any of her companions with her, you can ask them to help out or comment on the situation (the roster of friends rotates regularly, so you won't be stuck with the same ones for long). That's pretty much it, and thankfully Idol Hakkenden doesn't feel it necessary to tack on a 3D dungeon / maze like Portopia and Famicom Tantei Club!
At the start, things are pretty simple, never having more than one location available to you, but of the game's 5 Acts, 2, 3 and 4 have a lot of moving between a selection of locations, to great effect in Act 4 in particular- you're chased from room-to-room by a man in a frog suit who keeps trying to slap you (go with it) and have to find the one item you couldn't interact with before (a large statue that Erika can now push because of the adrenalin of the chase and the rockin' battle music) to advance. The game is simple to navigate with no action sequences to speak of, and while Acts 4 and 5 do have BAD END sequences, they just restart you at the beginning of the last scene so it's a minor inconvenience more than anything else. Mechanically, this is pretty standard, although one wrinkle I do enjoy is something alluded to in the manual, that "sometimes a command may have a different use than normal". It's vague, but it's a nod to when the meaning of a command changes a little due to the context it's used in- for example, at one point going to the Use menu lists 'your head' as an option. Use your head? Get it? It's a minor thing, but it shows that thought was put into the menu selection so it's not always the same thing.
Of course, a text adventure needs puzzles to solve with your wits and what you've got with you, and Idol Hakkenden has plenty of those- some definitely have arbitrary bits added on to them (sometimes you have to Talk or Look at unrelated things before you're allowed to interact with the thing you need) but generally they're done quite well. The strange thing about Idol Hakkenden is if I explain to you what you do to solve a particular puzzle, you'd probably shout, "What the heck? That's moon logic!?" (if anything, the game makes fun of this kind of thing- even the characters don't buy it when you're told to go to an aquarium for a nut-cracker) and question how anyone would figure it out, but it doesn't feel like that when you're actually playing it. The options you have are fairly limited, and so even beyond brute-forcing your way through, you'll often just figure out the solution based on what you have available. For instance, in Act 3, you reach the end of the area and find only a ghost who has the lyrics you need to progress. Your psychic friend says they can commune with the dead, but only when they can see stars. There's nothing else you can do here, but you do have a baseball bat in your inventory, and... You can figure out the solution from there, right? I will admit, when I figured that one out, I actually burst out laughing because I really didn't think they'd go there, but they did, and the payoff is pretty great. It won't drive you up the wall with really esoteric solutions, but if you're not the sharpest tool in the shed (hello, it's me) you'll get a nice sense of satisfaction from solving them. Additionally, even the wrong solution can be funny- trying to use the stun gun or pistol (yes, you get those) on anyone and everyone in the later Acts usually gets some funny responses, and there's even a few different variations of the text for Erika's singing, dancing and smiling failing to do anything.
Oh, yeah, it's probably time to bring up the actual story and how you progress through it, because this game goes places. My goodness, does it go places. It starts out kinda odd, with your psychic friend telling you to reach the highest point in town- this involves going to a music hall where you can't get past the guard, a lobby with an old lady who won't say a dang thing to you until you buy a load of junk, and a cafe called The Bloody Fool- and just keeps escalating from there. On her way to superstardom, Erika has to tackle people with dynamite strapped to their chest, biker gangs fighting with a fireworks display team, a has-been idol and her team of sports buffs, and at least one knife fight. Of course, you can lay out puzzles from any adventure game like that to present them as wackier as they are, but what I think Idol Hakkenden does particular well here is pacing- it is always going at maximum speed, and each Act has a pretty clear end-game to aim for, even if the path you take is, ahem, perhaps not what you'd expect. With each Act being roughly half an hour even if you don't know what you're doing, there's basically no time wasted, leading from one ridiculous scenario to another. As soon as you're done shaming a washed-up baseball player for his awful singing, Erika's fighting off a squadron of sumos. It really encourages you to keep going, just to see where it's going and what happens next, and things escalate to world-domination-plan levels by the end- when I first played through the game, I was doing so while sharing screenshots on Twitter, and people wanted to see more.
Something else in its favour is that each of its five Acts is self-contained, so you usually have a good place to leave off and go back to. As the game was released on cartridge rather than disk and has no battery back-up, passwords are used instead for each Act, and while some items carry over between Acts, the way the game's set up means you can't possibly miss them and still progress, so passwords are kept short and they're fairly convenient for getting back to where you were. The start of each Act quickly sets up what you're doing too, so it's difficult to get totally lost when going back after a break. The last point regarding the story and theming is that, while some of the more direct references went a little over my head (although if you're British, imagine the Kooky Kompany's output being like Noel's House Party and that should be close enough) the game is a bit of a send-up of aspects of the entertainment biz of '80s Japan. Not a deeply-critical look at the business, of course, but more a cheeky little jab at some of the meaner parts of it- many of the 'talents' hired by the Kooky Kompany are has-beens, cruelly discarded by their sectors of choice and forced to do variety-show gigs, often in ridiculous and embarrassing costumes to keep afloat. Act 3 even has a sleazy idol producer who Erika sorta blackmails into helping her after she finds he's in a relationship with one of his idols! It never goes super in-depth about it, but it certainly adds to the game's character and makes it pretty memorable.
The presentation is another element of note here, as because it's an adventure based around the music business, there's a lot of different songs. Not just songs that play in different parts of the game (although there's plenty of that, and most of those are pretty great) but when certain problems are solved through Erika's singing, there's a straight-up unique song for it that has lyrics timed with the music! They're short but catchy, but the real star of the show is the main theme, Kimi wa HoeHoe Musume, an infectious '80s idol song as rendered by the Famicom (the game's intro and ended is practically a music video for this song, pretty much) and it's no wonder it's been remixed a lot in the intervening years, it's so good. As for graphics, while most of the screen is taken up by text, there's plenty of care put into the scenes and characters, with lots of amusing expressions and animations for Erika (my favourite is the smiling one because it's usually accompanied by some deflating text like "Nobody's going to be impressed by your smile here", oof) and some nice detail in the various backgrounds. This is definitely a game with care put into it, that's for sure.
Idol Hakkenden is a real charmer, then. This is exactly the kind of goofy text adventure game I'm into (
although yes, the theming does help, I'm idol trash don't send help) and while I've shown and talked about a fair bit of the game- you can safely get through it in an afternoon even without a guide- there's still plenty more I've left out for you to enjoy. Even so, it's still worth playing through it rather than watching someone else play it- there's not much room to do goofy stuff but it is there if you want to try and aim a gun at as many people as possible, and there's a large cast of goofy characters to talk to that I haven't been able to highlight. There's silly stuff, over-the-top action sequences, some searing-hot jams for the Famicom, neat little character art, and a solid way to have an evening of idol-related text adventure hijinx. It is perhaps a little easier here to brute-force your way past parts you're stuck at, but you'll most certainly encounter some entertaining text along the way. Even if you're terrible at adventure games, give this one a try, it might surprise you with how breezy it is!
And hey, you want to support Erika, don't you? Get your glowsticks and banners!
For making an adventure of the idol biz, Idol Hakkenden is awarded...
In a sentence, Idol Hakkenden is...
A nice little goofy tale, full of heart.