- a deceased tumblelog project by Bruno de Figueiredo -

Past the gaudy kitsch pop-aesthetics of Catherine lies a sincere warning sign: it is as if the concealed message under the very outline of this most provocative release was an open appeal to reconsideration. For someone who has found himself knee-deep in this universe of digital wonders for over two decades, Japan has surely become a woefully strange nation in what concerns the production of games: the colossal enterprise that has long defined this country and, to a great extent, acted as a foreign representative of their outstanding creative minds. It is now widely known that eastern game creation is undergoing a midlife crisis, as revealed by the acute reluctance and loss of identity, in comparison to the boldness once instituted to almost every work dating back from an age when the average nihon-game designer had purer and far more focused pursuits. This peculiar syndrome of mental dispersion was undoubtedly brought about by the recent increase of North-American partaking in video ludic affairs, its ostentation of an image of absolute power terrifying enough to germinate profound creative introspection even among the most respectable and established prodigies of Japanese videogame production.

Yet to what degree is this Western threat veritable enough to be taken into consideration? The game turf is still highly defined and characterized by Eastern giants whose sheer volume of sales, both of systems and software, should be plentiful enough to promptly burst this overly inflated and ever deceiving bubble. When, occasionally, Japanese game creators do opt to ignore the media spectacle and its pernicious falderal, admirers of their once refined craft may be surprised to discover intrepid new inventions such as this intermingling design from Atlus - certainly not a reference in innovation of late. As far as uncanny hybrids go, few could ever outstrip Catherine in its dissolute amalgam of genres, as unalike as arcade puzzle, sound novel and a soupçon of Japanese dating simulation. At this point of any evaluation, the otherwise widely employed designation of puzzle-adventure would not suffice in revealing the precise orientation, much less the intense transition between the unnerving abstract sequences taking place in Vincent’s disturbed dreams, and the common quotidian quality bestowed to the interactions of his waking life. Unambiguously, Catherine revels in the transitions between these definite types in its perversive characterization of a character struggling with the gaping abyss between the two women that dominate his life, intimately associated with opposing parts of his mind: conscious and subconscious.

Due to the brevity of the sample, it would be at this point very unwise to issue a precarious opinion regarding the final version. The premise of this outlandish game points to a cryptic existentialist narrative that is certain to please the most refined of players, teeming with references as ostentatious as the inclusion of erudite music - as is the case of the revised themes by Holst, Handel and Mussorgsky, audible in this preview. Nevertheless, the very employment of such barefaced anime aesthetic brings to mind the recurrent examples of the many animated features of this variety whose initial thematic richness fail to translate into a credible and stimulating exercise. Whereas if, indeed, the narrative of Catherine may achieve the desired grade of distinction, defying the average formulaic pattern of Japanese animation, we may very well stand before a deviation from that vastly contaminated watercourse of anxiety and cowardice, on which so many an iconic Japanese game creator has been sinking their exalted careers.

JAPANoFILES #7 - Country of Bears and Burgers


[ For this seventh feature I wished to bring forth a game whose exploits I will have to precise with the care and detail they certainly deserve. So far in this feature I’ve covered half a dozen titles (including a book) whose uniqueness and undeniable relevance made timeless classics out of them individually; today I confront my readers with something far more shocking, especially for those who are more acquainted with the history of videogames and its timeline of wonderful innovations. The object at hand is indeed so complex and requiring precise description I opted for a more organized article structure so as to keep track of all the vital aspects I wished to mention. Should this, for any reason, be my last post on this blog, I couldn’t opt for a more suitable game that could summon up the idea of an unheeded achievement.  Forgive the lengthy and descriptive fashion employed on this piece. ]

~ Setting the calendar back to 1998 ~

In retrospective, one may ask what was it that Japanese videogame players were so distracted with in the year of 1998. The proper answer, whatever it may be, would no doubt include sensational titles originated from prominent game developers such as Ocarina of Time, Resident Evil 2, Parasite Eve, Tekken 3 or Metal Gear Solid - as well as any portable monster-collecting game that Nintendo might have been selling at the time. I remember Dance Dance Revolution was also highly popular in those days for the arcade-going players; die-hard Saturn fans rejoicing with the resounding flutter of those awe-inspiring dragoon wings. As the year was waning and the promise of a surprising 1999 came near, a small survivor of the older days of game making in Japan – none other than Human Entertainment, a group associated with the most reputable of references – shrieked this most baffling swan song less than a year before it eventually perished. Under the inconspicuous title of Mizzurna Falls, Human had commemorated videogames once again with a work whose unique attributes escaped the larger audiences, inebriated with the sights of a green hooded boy and his magic wind instrument.

~ A Christmas Day Calamity ~

As stated by the remedial Engrish narration, the sequence of events portrayed in this flouted game take place on a small town (under 2000 in population) located at the foot of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado named Mizzurna Falls. On the outskirts of this isolated center, an injured girl by the name of Kathy Flannery was found by dawn on the 25th of December showing bruises and marks consistent with the supposition of a bear attack. Another girl, Emma Rowland is later reported missing to the police. The main character in this familiar small-town ordeal goes by the name of Matthew and he is a young and well-behaving student installed in modest bed and bathroom dwelling right behind his uncle’s (Captain Nozzu) general store. Being best friends with the missing girl, as shown by the photo he keeps on his bedside table, he is among the first to be informed of this tragic occurrence and to be questioned by the police.

The entrance to the Barrow Woods (originally Ballow Woods) where young Kathy was found gravely injured. The peculiar choice of name brings to mind the Barrows mansion, the center stage for the horrific experience in the original Clock Tower.

At the Rowland’s, Christmas could hardly have been more tragic, as the family is missing their only daughter whose whereabouts are still unknown.

As suggested by the compact presentation I annexed to the intro video, Mizzurna Falls is an open adventure game presenting a subtle amount of RPG elements where basically every visible inch of visible terrain (delineated by the very limits of the town it portrays) can be explored. More than a radical open-world generated in full real time 3D visuals, exploration is also subject to the fourth dimension of time, a key-feature to the completion of this game. The sole purpose of this game is to carry a parallel line of investigation to that of the police and to ultimately find the missing girl and the reasons of her mysterious disappearance. Should this investigation not be finished within a period of days, the game ends with what could be called a bad ending scenario (see final considerations chapter for more on this decision); should the player act unwary of the timing in which situations occur in the town, there is a great probability that essential events, capable of revealing vital information, may be indeed lost. In short, the key to a successful scenario will invariably lie in the completion of requisites that not only require the player to be present in different places, interacting with specific characters or objects, but essentially in a very precise time-frame.

Albeit its challenging controls and noticeable technical flaws, even for a 32-Bit game, Mizzurna Falls manages to perplex the player with its unexpected details: as is the case with these highly evocative dangling traffic lights over the central town junction.

~ First day ~

To improve the reader’s understanding of the routine proposed by Human’s game, I present a brief walkthrough document whose content might help understand the complexity and density of what is, I remind, a twelve year-old PlayStation game.

~ A traveler through time and space ~

When going about the virtual environment of Mizzurna Falls, one mustn’t consider elements such as cars to be mere decorations appearing randomly on the roads so as to make the illusion more believable. Hard as it may be to believe, there is a character inside each car whose routine is quite precise to the point where we may follow a single resident during the entirety of the game. This also accounts for the diversity of random events that may take place if the player is found at the right place in the right time.

As observed, the proper exploration of space is a chief aspect of this game in the sense that the designers sought to represent the ambience of the small rural town and adjacent woods to the best of the hardware’s ability, comprising an astonishing range of details - from numerous interior spaces to incredible, almost unnecessary details on the exteriors such as the dangling traffic lights over the main town intersection. The choice of a small vehicle (a close yet non-official recreation of an old Volkswagen beetle model) serves the purpose of limiting the exploration to an agreeable maximum speed that would match the hardware’s capacity for drawing polygons and textures. In spite of the unassuming vehicle owned by Matthew, rides can become rather speedy depending on the ability to face corners. Car controls come in a classic and very basic form.

The somewhat amusing car exploration, however, comes at the expense of gas consumption. As presented in the bottom left corner display, the Volkswagen will run out of gas if the player fails to pay attention to the meter, in which situation the player is forced to make a phone call to the shop so they may pick up the car – this possibility also comes in handy when the car is stuck to any roadside trees or bushes, namely by fault of the game engine which, nonetheless, predicts and produces a solution to eventual bugs. Phone numbers are listed in a portable phonebook that can be retrieved from a drawer in Matthew’s room (optional task).

Additionally, parts of the game require the use of a small paddle boat that can be accessed in a boathouse just beside the icy lake, where hot drinks are also served. Within a constrained space, the young student may roam freely and enjoy the scenic vistas of frozen mountaintops on the horizon. This feature serves a rather objective purpose of reaching a small wooden cottage that is inaccessible by foot or car.

The game displays an exceptional effort in the recreation of the effects of the passage of time, namely with a system where day and night interchange almost imperceptibly and without any stop. Not only do the lighting settings out on the streets change, as does the sky bitmap beyond the polygon draw distance, swapping the cloudy diurnal skies for darker and clearer ones unveiling the beaming moon; car lights also turn on automatically when the day is dimmer; and a comforting glow can be seen coming out of building’s windows.

The celebrated Mizzurna Falls.

~ About Taichi Ishizuka ~

Not much is known about Taichi Ishizuka. Unlike the foremost authorities on videogame design, his name carries no reputation even among far-eastern game journalists who, even so, are bound to recognize the importance of Human as a company that has successfully established bold new alternatives to orthodox game canons. Ishizuka’s most famous creation is without a doubt the 1994 Super Nintendo title The Firemen, one of the most unique and virtuous action games to have emerged in its time. Two posterior titles would follow it: The Firemen 2 Pete & Danny, a direct sequel, was released for the PlayStation years later; and lastly a third title, a spiritual sequel designed by the same team now with Spike as the publisher, was released in 2004 for the PlayStation 2 under the title Hard Luck. After having participated as the director in these titles, Ishizuka is said to have left Japan to fulfill his life-long dream of becoming a mountain-climber. The last he was seen, he was working as a guide in the Rocky Mountains: from what I could gather, helping tourists in sight-seeing.

Admittedly, this could very well be but pure myth or misconception.

No genuine nowhere America small town would be complete without the regular haunt: Bar Wolf is located just outside city center and is visited every night by dozens of customers. One of the reasons why the place is so popular, other than liquour, is the sensuous diva who comes out every now and then to sing a song - much to the delight of a few local fans.

~ Final Considerations ~

The sheer magnitude of this project increases when considering the modest scale of the remaining Human studio productions from the time - as was the case of the second episode of Clock Tower or the sequel to Septentrion -, compared to which this Mizzurna Falls becomes an intriguing and unmatched display of ambition. Unlike western productions such as Reflection’s Driver series, this title raises the degree of interaction to a level which would only be fully achieved a generation later. In fact, as far as innovation is concerned, this forgotten paragon does precede many of the so called sandbox forerunners such as Shenmue (with which it shares an unsettling number of similitudes such as the significance of weather and of the calendar, both games sharing a bad ending scenario when the calendar expires) or to some degree the generation of Grand Theft Auto games and its respective offsprings.

One of the most fascinating parts of this production is undoubtedly the care and detail bestowed to each character, individually.

For all intents and purposes, Mizzurna Falls makes few efforts in order to conceal its greatest inspiration which so clearly comes from David Lynch’s iconic TV series Twin Peaks. That, however, doesn’t necessarily make the game plot an equivalent to that of Lynch’s twisted tale of eerie paranormal outlines: in fact, Ishizuka’s game is more concerned with the notion of a small town tragedy involving the death (and disappearance) of a young girl, rather than diverge in supernatural intrigue – of which it has none in its no-nonsense approach. To a degree, the uniquely sinister soundtrack of Angelo Badalamenti is also replicated in the constant use of synthesized sounds of violins. Even so, this approximation is by no means as obvious as in the case of the recent Red Seeds Profile, a game whose features, in summary, often match those of the game in question. In fact it has been said that SWERY, designer of this alternative game phenomenon, only contemplated the use of third person shooting phases due to the pledge of a western release: bearing this in mind it is by no means far-fetched to state that the original project (once named Rainy Woods) could very well rank as a spiritual successor of this unique game. Be that as it may, Suehiro-San has told me recently that he had only heard about this game after the release of Deadly Premonition.

Mizzurna Falls is, by all possible accounts, a life-altering experience. In truth, there is no possible angle in which this game can be observed – especially from the safe distance provided by the decade that has passed since its creation – as a profoundly surprising preview of many of the most cherished characteristics that popular and market-oriented videogames would later assume and redevelop. Very few, if indeed any other videogame before it was able to provide a similar experience both in the competent sense of freedom provided by the open tridimensional spaces; but also its relatively complex system in which the narrative is slowly built, piece by piece, until all actions required to the resolution of the greater enigma are carried out by the player in due time.

The second day of the adventure may begin with this dramatic scene where Father Burton performs the funeral for the deceased girl, Kathy.

(A final observation: Human has released Mizzurna Falls on the 23rd of December, exactly two days before Christmas when, I remind, the action of the game is set. Clearly the team had thought that the players could actually match the game experience with the calendar of real life and the celebration of Christmas: even if the passage of time runs at a rhythm of its own on this virtual snowy retreat, much faster in pace than real time, this small fact seemed worthy of note.)

The author of this article wishes to acknowledge Sato Murakami for his highly interesting and humorous Mizzurna Falls page Country of The Bears and Burgers, whose title was used on this article in honor of his dedication to the game.

More JAPANoFILES Features
JAPANoFILES #6 - Violent Cop
JAPANoFILES #5 - Of tax evaders and space invaders

From glorious artwork to the woeful grade of a lesser videogame

Just when I had conformed myself with the ubiquitous vulgarity found during my experience with Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom, based on the poor impressions initially provided by the demo and later verified with further probing into the game proper, Namco Bandai releases a volume of early artwork, partially designed prior to the actual production of the game. If, in fact, I was more than prepared to give up on the pledge of a game I can’t help but to consider one of the greatest failures of recent history, Namco’s press release of late only confirmed my initial expectation that this project could have risen to a much superior status.

Upon viewing these images and the richness of its contents, I’m more certain than ever that the Game Republic ensemble does possess interesting talents who have initially conceived a higher purpose to this project, later having settled for far less due to reasons that may relate to profitability or commercial appeal: after all, there is little revenue to be made from true inventiveness and experimental exercises in this mind-numbing field. It may indeed be very frequent to find such disparity between the quality of a game’s artwork and the poor results presented once the concept has shifted from the minds of artists to those of coding engineers (the shift from real art to the pitiful state of a common videogame, in short); yet this painful example perfectly illustrates this process of blatant degeneration like few other games in the past. How these exquisite ideas of impossible landscapes and idiosyncratic creatures, so unusual in their characterization, came to be transformed into a tasteless replica of the poorest digital game and animated film references is a riddle whose solution will forever defy my reason and comprehension.