Sunday, March 16, 2014

Diary Entry #18: Black Bass Fishing With HOT・B

Another great sketch by Crystal Mielcarek!
I don't know why you'd need a rod if all the
fish are jumping right at you.

               In my last post, I commented on how I wanted to focus on two game companies: Obsidian Entertainment and HOT・B, a long deceased Japanese developer that specialized in fishing games and RPGs. The former has made some greats that I have played through, but I knew very little about the latter, which is perhaps why I was much more excited to tackle their gameography. What I didn't know was that this would take me through a fishing/shmup/RPG odyssey that will take far more than one post to totally discuss, but fully discuss it I eventually will. Great Yoda syntax there. Without further ado, I present you an overview of HOT・B's fishing games and some other titles.

If I ever caught a fish like this,
I'd be afraid he had a tommy gun on him.

               Although HOT・B had already developed and published several RPGs before their fishing series, I think Black Bass is a natural starting point. For years, they were their only games released in America, and since eight million Japanese sequels exist, it probably was the company's principal bread-winner. The first Black Bass game is a Famicom exclusive, actually programmed by a company called Another, who appear to have been HOT・B's Famicom development team. Later on, several of their games were published by other companies, but I'm just going to ignore those. This initial game is the only Japanese-exclusive Black Bass game I'm going to focus on. The rest are all western localizations.

               After saying hello to the ganster fish on the title screen, I'm rowing a boat around a lake somewhere. Little knowledge of Japanese is required for the game; just throw the line and get ready to catch some bass.

               The fishing sequences take a side view of the lake, fish darting back and forth in the water. Moving the line around with the D-pad and the A button, I caught a fish with little effort. There's little depth here, no pun intended whatsoever, and it's hardly enjoyable compared to future titles.

               The second Black Bass title and the first to reach western shores was The Black Bass USA. Do Japanese game companies get off on tacking USA onto various products? Super Mario Bros. 2 was released as Super Mario Bros. USA in Japan. Regardless of cultural patterns, it's a good thing this was released in America. It's actually a lot of fun.

               Now the fishing takes a top-down perspective. Little fish shadows slowly approach your bait, but the only way to get a bite is if you move the line in a convincing manner. You can move the bait to the left, right, or just reel it in. Alternating between these three actions in a rhythmic pattern always gets positive results.

               Once a fish bites, you reel it in. The fish's vitality is represented by the picture on the bottom left, and by the time he's a weird skeleton, he's as good as caught. Aside from this, there doesn't seem to be that many factors involved. Sometimes the fish eats your bait, sometimes the line breaks, yet there aren't enough noticeable stats on the screen to make anything obvious. Although fun, there's not enough going on to break the monotony of simply casting and catching bass.

               HOT・B's following fishing game, The Blue Marlin, was developed in house and introduced many unique features that future titles unfortunately eschewed. Now, you actually drive your boat around a variety of locales. You have three separate stats, your muscle power, your vitality, and your decision ability. They level up as you continue to reel in more fish, throwing in an RPG element long before every game arbitrarily added RPG elements. 

               These stats do affect gameplay. I played the game for about two hours, and building up your stamina and muscle drastically alters how easily you can catch marlins and sharks. Instead of having a casting portion, your boat now has a lure that just hangs off the end. By positioning it over moving fish in the lake area, you enter the fish-catching mode. You can adjust the tension on your rod, alter the length of the line, and change your lure to alter your strategies.

               An image of the fish on the bottom right shows how tired the fish is and how loose the bite might be. Above this is your vitality, a bar that lowers whenever you pull the rod a direction or reel the fish in. Pulling back becomes key to success, holding the fish dead in its tracks, while pulling the fish right or left to turn it becomes increasingly important as you take on tougher fish. If a fish is moving in the other direction, it's sometimes wise to move the boat in reverse, an option that occasionally makes a fish easier to catch.

               The line can also snap quickly if you're not careful. If you just hold down the reel in button for too long, you'll start to hear a beeping noise. This means there's too much tension on the line and it'll break if you don't rectify this. Pulling back and letting the fish go out a little at the time is the best strategy, limiting the fish's chances of getting too far out.

               Sometimes, a fish may be tough to wear down and your vitality will drain. You have to balance your reeling and resting, letting the fish swim out for a few second. Oftentimes, if you get too worn out against a big fish, it's better to save time and just cut the line. Increasing your stamina later becomes essential to victory, allowing you to eventually catch 800 pound sharks!

               There are a lot of nuances that make the game worthwhile, though a few are just strange. Sometimes, the fish will randomly move out twenty feet. Other times, the fish will suddenly get tired, allowing you to reel in at a much faster rate. Perhaps oddest of all, your reel will occasionally catch fire, and you have to either let the fish go out or pour water on it. The correct answer is always randomized, but if you select it, your decision making stat goes up. What kind of effect this has later on in the game I'm not sure, but I'll let you know when I play through the game.

               The Blue Marlin is honestly one of those surprise classics. I'd say this is one of the best NES games I've ever played, introducing an unprecedented level of quality to the series. It's probably HOT・B's finest game, and one that I intend to buy soon.

               The next game, a Game Boy title called Black Bass: Lure Fishing, was initially released in 1992 and re-released for Game Boy Color by Majesco in 1999. I just bought a boxed copy of the game and I'm not ashamed of it. It's a real treat. While a huge step down from the Blue Marlin's dynamic man vs. fish battles, this handheld entry is far more interesting than previous Black Bass games. Now, the perspective is a first-person perspective from the view of your bait. You reel the bait towards you, a fish comes from the side and either bites or not. If it does, you have to balance depth and tension in a way that keeps the fish from eating the bait or breaking the line.

Catfish sure are ugly.

               Occasionally, the fish will leap out of the water, which I think represents him jumping out of the water or turning? I'm not entirely sure, but either way, catching fish is incredibly easy. I never lost a single fish.

How a fish that small could put up such a fight,
I will never know.

               The game is just as dumb as the original Black Bass, but at least it's charming. It has that "we're not even going to try to make this on par with the NES" quality that many early Game Boy games flaunted. It reminds me of a time in handheld gaming that will probably never be replicated. Perhaps it's an acquired taste.

               Although HOT・B is credited with creating King Salmon for Sega Genesis, it might actually have been developed by a company called Sage's Creations. The mechanics absolutely scream The Blue Marlin, but unfortunately, the graphics are way worse and the boating isn't nearly as intuitive. I'd recommend picking up this game up if you exclusively play Sega Genesis for religious reasons.

               The first Super NES entry in the series is developed by Starfish, a company formed by HOT・B alumni just prior to the Japanese company's bankruptcy in 1993. Surprisingly, HOT・B USA continued to publish games until 2005, releasing Starfish's Black Bass games for years. I will continue to examine these entries published by HOT・B USA. 

               Like in the Blue Marlin, you boat to various areas, but much like Black Bass 2, you have to cast the line and try to catch fish using an overhead perspective. It's a fine return to that game's approach, but Super Black Bass feels complex in the strangest ways. Although the wind is taken into account when casting, it hardly seems to affect your fishing. The strength of your rod now goes up against the strength of your fish, but it feels far more unwieldy than it needs to. 

               The sequel, Bassin's Black Bass, is more of the same, but with a ton of unnecessary additions. Your initial play now offers a guide who functions as a basic tutorial, giving various tips for beginners. Terrain largely affects where the bass are as bass feed at mossy areas and lily pads. Depth also becomes important, forcing you to search shallower areas to find your quarry.


                Super Black Bass for Game Boy is a port of Bassin's Black Bass with cartoony character design, and TNN Outdoors Fishing Challenge is still the same but in color.

               Outdoors Fishing Challenge is probably my favorite of all the Starfish developed games. I caught a lot more fish, either because I was already over the learning curve of the previous games, or because the game is just easier. Either way, I'll probably pick it up sometime.


                The last of the Starfish games to reach America is American Bass Challenge for GBA, another re-hash of Bassin's Bass Challenge that eliminates the boating sections. It does offer a lot of options in terms of your character, allowing you to select whether you're male or female, right or left handed, etc. Of course, this equates to squat when you hit the waters.

                And it's more of the same. What I loved about the progression in the first four Black Bass games was how Another and HOT・B totally altered the game mechanics for each game, giving you a reason to buy the latest edition. Starfish took the simpler route that most sports games take: rehash the design over and over. It's depressing to see such an interesting series turn into a hackneyed mess, even ignoring the more interesting features from The Blue Marlin.

                Starfish went on to make Fishing Fantasy, a Japan and Europe exclusive that allegedly mixes role-playing and fishing game elements. They also made developed the long-running Wizardry Empire series and Heavenly Guardian, a fun PS2 Ikari Warriors clone. There are also two PS1 Black Bass games that I didn't cover, but I intend to at a future date.

                HOT・B, of course, developed and published lots of other games during their existence. They received the rights to create all the console and computer ports of a puzzle game called Palamedes, a series that I guess people absolutely adored in Japan. Pictured above is the Famicom exclusive Palamedes 2: Star Twinkles. I have no idea how the game works and have very little interest in it, but it certainly looks good.

                Another took a stab at J-Adventure with Meitantei Holmes - M Kara no Chousenjou, a typical title from 1989 filled with menu-upon-menu of useless Japanese text. It's no different from any of the Jake Hunter or JB Harold games. The wikipedia article claims it's the sequel to Sherlock Holmes: Hakushaku Reijō Yūkai Jiken, a silly looking action game from 1986. It's not actually published by HOT・B, instead by Towachiki.

                President no Sentaku was Another's last game for HOT・B, and maybe it was their best. I'm guessing it's a presidential simulation. With little knowledge of Japanese, this game is impossible to enjoy.

                Developed by HOT・B and Pixel, the developer of the great Cowboy Kid, and published by HOT・B in Japan, Over Horizon wants to be Gradius or Salamander, but instead plays like a poor man's Zero Wing. Using the same options flanking you as in Zero Wing, you have to blast through seven stages of shoot-em-up action. The game received a European port by Takara, but I'm not sure why. 

                Enemies pop up erratically and half the time I just felt like the screen was scrolling with nothing happening. Each stage appears to only have two enemies each, making each level's six minute play feel like an eternity. Boss battles can be fun, but even these are more about plugging tons of ammunition into an enemy after figuring out it's basic shooting and moving pattern. Imagine if Salamander moved in slow motion and you've hit Over Horizon on the head. Despite lazy design and grating repetition, Over Horizon does have some nice little innovations.

                My personal favorite is the second stage, an icy wasteland filled with giant blocks. When you shoot the blocks, they continuously move forward until they hit something, bouncing back one space. There are several sections where the screen becomes filled with ice blocks, forcing you to make a path through a maze of them. 

                Below is a thumbnail gallery for the game. If it looks like each screen only has one or two enemies, that's just how Over Horizon rolls. It's better than most of HOT・B's non-Blue Marlin games, but I'd rather play a good game. I'm excited to try out HOT・B's other shmup, Steel Empire. 

                My next post might just cover whatever else I'm playing at the time, but I do hope to cover most of HOT・B's RPGs. I can't find disk images of Kaleidoscope, a series of two RPGs they made for the PC88 and FM7. I've already finished Hoshi wo Miru Hito, but there's a handful of interesting titles left to try out. Shingen the Ruler uses the individual unit wargame approach to tactical battles, a style that, while already used in Famicom Wars the year before, had not yet caught on with console RPGs. I'm excited!

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