It's time for another one of those games that was but a mystery, just a myth for so long!

For the longest time, this was all there was out there on the rare Taito arcade game, Rumba Lumber. On the English speaking web, anyway.

Via an older version of UnMAMED Arcade Games, a title screen and a single non-descript gameplay shot.

That's all you really need to get someone like me interested though, right? Not even the instruction card gives you a lot to go on here, it's ostensibly some kind of top-down maze game, but that's all a non-Japanese reader such as myself can glean from this info. As you can guess from this page existing, obviously the game eventually got found and dumped in 2010, but a lot like Bullet, the protection was imperfect for some time (to a much more severe degree than Bullet, it was marked as straight-up not working) until 2017 when the vicious protection of the board's MC68705P5 microcontroller was defeated (a protection chip that affected a lot of Taito games from the era and meant their emulation was not entirely accurate- you can read more about it over at David Haywood's MAME page). Even back in 1984, Taito were conscious of not letting their games getting bootlegged (or, at least, for those bootlegs to be missing critical data to ruin the experience). With all that intro said, what is Rumba Lumber? Was it worth all this wait?

Well, yes, from a preservationist point of view, but as for the game itself, it's a curious beast indeed.

As it turns out, Rumba Lumber isn't quite a maze-em-up as I'd guessed. Instead, it takes its inspiration from another of Taito's big hits, the existential battle for board space Qix. The strange thing here is that Qix was the biggest hit for a completely different division of Taito- their internal development staff at Taito of America, based in Elk Grove Village, Illinois. Many moons ago yours truly wrote a big ol' article about their output including oddities like Complex X and Change Lanes, but if you've played any Taito of America game, it's almost certainly Qix. The Japanese side of Taito would later try and iterate on the game properly by contracting Kaneko to make Super Qix, then have their own crack at it with arguably the best iteration, Volfied, but in 1984, they opted for a slightly different approach. Taking elements from Dig Dug as well as Qix, Taito made Rumba Lumber, a game that's less about claiming territory away from an invincible enemy, and more focused on trapping that enemy as efficiently as possible by altering the environment.

As a little blue cave dude who's probably the long-lost brother of Bignose the Caveman, you have to get rid of the pterodactyl on each scene, who can only fly over trees (and, assuming there are trees in the right place, can wrap from one side of the screen to the other, both vertically and horizontally). Using your club, you can hack trees down either by holding down the first button or tapping it (it takes about two hacks to fell a tree). As well as reducing the amount of space the pterodactyl has to move, hacking down trees expands your territory, a bit like digging through dirt in Dig Dug. The overall goal is to trap the pterodactyl in a clump of four or less trees- the less trees you trap it on, the bigger multiplier you'll get at the end of the scene, where it gets multiplied by the number of trees you cut taken away from the scene's total. Complicating matters are a dinosaur that hatches from an egg, wanders through your territory and can even walk through trees if it wants to, and a mole that digs up from the ground and will track your caveman for a second or two before hitting a tree or disappearing. You can defeat these threats by using the limited number of stone wheels on each scene (they're a bit fiddly though- tap the second button, then the direction) but other than that, one touch from anything (including the pterodactyl's flame breath, which we'll get to) and you die. There's a loop of four scenes, each with unique hazards- Scene 2 has a river you can drown in, Scene 3 has a cloud that regrows hacked-down mushrooms (the scene's version of trees) and Scene 4 has a fireball-spitting volcano- and things get more difficult as you clear each loop (such as adding dead trees that can't be cut down to Scene 1). Those are the basics, then- hack those trees and get that dang bird! As far as Qix variants go, it's certainly unique and stands out...

That said, we'd better analyse a little. Sorry to start with the negatives, but compared to similar games your defensive options are incredibly limited, and make the game way, way harder and less fair than it should be. To compare it with Qix, consider being on the border of the screen or one of your claimed areas 'on the defensive'. You're bothered by Sparkz, yes, but you usually have a lot of warning before they reach your position. In these areas, the Qix can't hurt you at all, and it's only when you start to claim territory, to go 'on the offensive', that the Qix is a proper threat and can kill you easily. Obviously, progress and scoring are all dependant on going on the offensive, but you can always rely on going on the defensive, even if you can't actively wait it out as more aggressive Sparkz will eventually appear, and this is especially important as you can't remove enemies from play beyond ending the round early by splitting up the Qix in later boards. Applying this to Rumba Lumber and you find that there is no way to properly play 'defensively'. You're essentially always out in the open, always able to claim territory back from the pterodactyl but also always under attack from dinos and moles, and sometimes you have no escape option, especially with the moles (they usually spawn very close to your position, and if you're cornered, you're done). In particular,'digging' your way out is usually impossible, as you're too slow. As you hack away the trees, even the pterodactyl can attack- as each scene goes on, it'll start breathing fire when it changes direction, and the hitbox on it is dubious, to say the least. While later Qix variants would let the Qix attack with projectiles, that wasn't so in the original, so this is a big change and it's for the worse, honestly as it's so unpredictable. At least the pterodactyl's movement is easier to pre-empt than the Qix in spite of its flame breath, usually bouncing diagonally off boundaries, and generally only moving straight when it wants to wrap around the screen. In a nutshell, while it would be foolish to expect you to be able to avoid trouble all the time, it still feels like the odds are stacked against you unfairly in this one.

Comparing it to other maze-em-up-style games that limit your defensive capabilities, such as Pac-Man and Dig Dug, does Rumba Lumber no favours either. The limited stone wheels may seem analogous to Pac-Man's Energizer Pills, but the wheels are way less effective. Using them is fiddly (press the second button then a direction), they're slow, and while there are advanced applications for them (sending them across the river on the log or hitting the pterodactyl to end the scene instantly, and they also don't affect your end-of-stage score as trees they destroy aren't subtracted from the total), it's absolutely not a guaranteed help like the Energizers are. What's more, Pac-Man has another escape tool in the form of the side tunnel that ghosts will always slow down in when passing through, but no such mechanic exists in Rumba Lumber, leaving you constantly at the mercy of dinos, moles and the pterodactyl's fire (the exception being the river which the dinos will sometimes blunder into). What about Dig Dug's rocks, then? They're a bit tricky to utilise well, just like the stone wheels, but the difference is in that game, you always have your pump to hand. It's not always effective- it can't deal with multiple enemies at once, and you have to stand in place for it to fire out- but it also has other uses like stalling enemies and setting up for rock drops. You've no such tools in Rumba Lumber, and so your little cave dude is constantly under threat with little to his aid. The task ahead just feels a bit too insurmountable, which makes the game more frustrating than better games in similar genres.

All that said, there are some positive aspects to pick from this one. In particular, the actual act of hacking down trees is oddly satisfying- while holding the button will work, double-tapping the button destroys them a lot quicker and gives some very satisfying audio-visual feedback. It's definitely a positive to have the game's core mechanic feel like this! Also, as much as we've compared it to its contemporaries- we haven't done this merely to rag on Rumba Lumber, but highlighting the design decisions that make those games work so well helps to illuminate what can go wrong with this kind of game- it does have a distinct identity mechanics-wise. Giving each of the four scenes its own gimmick in particular makes each of them stick out rather than reuse the standard layout. Adding the dead trees to scenes also changes things up for subsequent loops beyond just making the enemies faster. So for all its other failings, it does certainly have some character and appeal!

It's a shame it's so difficult because presentation-wise, this is great! This game came at an interesting point in Taito's arcade history, as it was after Chack'n Pop but before (or at least contemporary with) The Fairyland Story. In other words, this was before many of the cute and cuddly games that defined so much of Taito's arcade output. It certainly has a lot of charm, even from the title screen with the cute logo that uses a stylised R in the shape of a dinosaur. In-game itself, the character designs are cute and distinct, and the dinosaur and mole have custom animations for when they catch you. There's even amusing animations for enemies drowning in the river in Scene 2! The sound is also pretty worthy of praise, with the main music being surprisingly catchy, and nice little flourishes such as special sound effects for the river and stormcloud scenes, and the credit noise being a dinosaur roar. It's certainly a step towards what would become Taito's cutesy style for these kinds of games, and while less likely to turn heads than, say, Pac-Land or Kung-Fu Master, the visuals are definitely a big part of the appeal. Of course, that's assuming it did come out in 1984- a useful source for arcade game releases, アーケードTVゲームリスト 国内•海外編 (1971-2005) (ISBN: 978-4990251215) says that the game came out in September of 1985 (after The Fairyland Story) which I kinda want to dispite simply because that's so late in 1985 that you would've thought Taito would change the date before release, but there's so little to go on with this game that it's really hard to verify anyway.

In any case, Rumba Lumber disappeared into total obscurity after its release. No home port, no emulation for years, and it's telling that the Japanese website where I found the scan of the instruction card kept a list of rare boards they owned and while they had things like Borench, Twin Qix and Sega's penguin firefighter simulator 119, Rumba Lumber was listed as a board they were still looking for. Just a small indication of its scarcity, really. Not entirely surprising that Rumba Lumber fell through the cracks, really, it's just a little too unfair in some of its design decisions, which is a shame because there are some good ideas here! Sadly, compared to the contemporary (and older, even) competition, it was destined to be a 'fodder' arcade game, forgotten about and only notable decades later for its scarcity and MCU protection. It's absolutely of interest to Taito fanatics like myself though, a strange look at the company's earlier 'cute' output, before Bubble Bobble and even The Fairyland Story, and a fascinating if flawed attempt to build upon one of their American branch's biggest success stories, something they'd have better luck with later in 1989's Fukio 'MTJ' Mitsuji-led Volfied. Rumba Lumber, though, remains just that- a good study, but not a great game.

For trying its best at one-upping Qix, Rumba Lumber is awarded...

In a sentence, Rumba Lumber is...
Much like a dinosaur, extinct but fascinating to study.

And now, it's that time, folks!

There's a few odd dipswitches for Rumba Lumber. Let's take a quick look, shall we?

For a start, you can change the copyright string on the title screen to remove the Roman numerals if you want.

There's also a language option, although this only seems to affect two screens- the attract mode instructions and the Training Stage.

It is a little odd though, the Japanese attract mode screen seems to go into slightly more detail than the Englsh one!

That got all sorts of beardy-weirdy, huh? With these older games, I suppose you gotta get down to the thorough stuff..

This is definitely one of the older games we've covered. How old can we go...?