Truly there were a variety of reasons I found the MSX to be so utterly fascinating. I couldn't believe, for instance, that history had produced a highly successful Commodore 64-equivalent 8-bit computer system, and somehow a machine of its type had managed to slip under my radar. I was surprised to read that its creation-process entailed the involvement of Microsoft, which I'd assumed to be a purely American company ("There's a Microsoft Japan?!"). I found it astounding that the MSX had proven itself to be so popular that many of the world's most prolific electronics giants--like Sony, Samsung and Sharp--had adopted its architecture in lieu of developing their own competing standard.
And then came the discovery that shocked me the most--the one that factored most heavily into the process of my world suddenly being turned upside-down: It turned out that it was the MSX, and not the NES, on which Konami, one of my all-time favorite game-developers, had begun building its legacy. It was within the MSX ecosystem that the company worked to establish itself as a major player in the home market. It was on this platform where console-associated big-name franchises like Metal Gear and Track & Field were actually born and nurtured (and even though the fact-checkers eventually proved that Castlevania actually predated Vampire Killer, thus destroying the popular notion that the series originated on the MSX, it remained nevertheless surreal to me that there had been a original series entry on this "foreign" computer of all things).
For years in following, I'd often wonder about what Konami had been up to during those years--how it had chosen to operate within an alien space that had been hidden well outside my field of view.
Ever since then, I've had a strong desire to dig deeper into the subject; I've been anticipating a time when I could begin unearthing Konami's MSX game library and trace how, exactly, the company evolved into the powerhouse I came to know. All I needed was for the appropriate moment to arrive.
Well, dear reader, the opportunity has finally presented itself. Here we are in February of 2018, at a stage when I'm eager to delve into computer-gaming's history and fervidly explore its uncharted depths. What better time than now to initiate a quest for knowledge?
And since I always like to start at the very beginning, I've chosen to commence this search for enlightenment by looking at one of Konami's earliest MSX titles. Specifically, I'm going to start with King's Valley, which saw release in 1985.
King's Valley, more than any other, caught my attention because it fit the mold for a type of game I simply adore: an old arcade-style action game whose combination of rudimentary action and a wonderfully simple aesthetic does so well to capture the essence of a bygone era--the essence we recall when we think about a classic gaming system's earliest years, when it played host to games that were rough and experimental, yes, but fun in the most distinctive way. That's an apt description of King's Valley, which I've been enjoying for quite a while now--so much so that I've been raring to write about it and more accurately express why it resonates with me.
So come join me for a bit, won't you?
Say hello to King's Valley, a fun, challenging arcade-style action-platformer that creatively weaves together elements as borrowed from some of the era's most popular games. It's a product of synthesis, sure, yet it does particularly well to avoid feeling like a cheap amalgamation of the games that influenced it; rather, its separate pieces come together in such a way that rendered is a considerably-unique-feeling whole, and furthermore King's Valley manages to make some of its own contributions to the genre.
"So what's going on in this silly game?" you ask, politely indulging me.
Well, friend, I'm glad you asked. Really, the only scans I could find were of the Japanese manual, so I can't speak as to the story's minutiae or name any of the characters. Though, if what I've read on Gamefaq's summary page is correct, then our protagonist is an adventurer (a member of the "Vick" family of archaeologists, as named in the sequel's manual) who has arrived at King's Valley, an ancient Egyptian burial site, with the intent to scour its spacious royal tombs and claim their hidden jewels. To find ultimate success, he'll have to solve the mysteries of 15 separate pyramids and deprive each one of its riches.
King's Valley is a stage-by-stage game wherein our immediate goal is to collect all of a pyramid's glowing jewels and then promptly escape through its suddenly-appearing exit as triggered. Traversing a pyramid is a matter of running and jumping about its interior--of maneuvering your way onto and across its many platforms and climbing staircases to access those that are otherwise out of reach. It's not that easy, of course: Along the way, you'll face resistance in the form of stalking enemies and some tricky level design, about which I'll elaborate as we encounter them. And if you're really a hardcore arcade traditionalist, you can also attempt to earn the highest score possible even if there's no actual reward for doing so. (Personally, I shy away from the practice when a game features a definitive ending; those that don't sequence indefinitely tend to lack the survival factor that drives me to want to accumulate as many points as possible in anticipation of an inevitable death.)
Most troublesome are the specially colored mummies who systematically patrol the pyramids' innards. They function similarly to the ghosts in Pac-Man, which is to say that each has its own routine. Here, in Pyramid-01, we have to keep tabs on two of them: There's the white mummy, our lowest-tier guardian, who walks slowly and wanders about aimlessly; his presence more or less makes for a random element that may or may not factor into your questing depending upon where he chooses to travel. And then there's the more-determined blue mummy, who moves much faster and has a fairly wide sphere of detection; if you get caught in his sight-line or move to anywhere within, say, a ten-block radius of his current position, he'll begin to aggressively chase you down, his pursuit ceasing only when you put some real distance between the two parties. Note that mummies, too, can jump, and they'll most definitely lunge toward you, sometimes in surprising fashion, if you're standing near the edge of an adjacent platform. Also, mummies possess the ability to warp to other parts of the screen, and they'll normally exhibit this skill as a means of moving to within proximity of your current position.
We'll encounter more mummy variants later.
Any contact with a mummy results in instant death and the loss of one of our four precious lives (there are no continues, though you can use Konami's Game Master device to access a hidden password system). If things get tight, you can always leap over a mummy, but since the hero's agility is fairly limited (his jumps measure a mere two blocks in length, both horizontally and vertically), it's a risky move; in most cases, you'll just barely clear the distance. Ideally, we'll want to use the surrounding platforms to cagily maneuver around them or otherwise bait them over to sections to which we no longer need to travel.
Though, the game does provide us an additional resource: swords, which are usually placed all throughout stages in strategic locations. You'll automatically pick up one of these embedded swords when you overlap its gold handle. Here, in what's virtually a tutorial stage, the game provides us a single sword and positions it where it's sure to stand out, its antennae-like handle tempting you to examine it up close. If you choose to do so, you'll discover that the sword is an effective throwing weapon. It can be tossed the length of an entire screen, and any mummy struck by it will explode. But theirs isn't a permanent erasure, no; you have a window of about five seconds before the targeted mummy reappears in the same location in which it was previously purged. Thankfully, swords aren't single-use; after striking a mummy or a wall, a sword will rebound off of the target and simply re-embed itself wherever it lands. However, sword-use comes with an unfortunate handicap: You can't jump while wielding one, so you'll have no choice but to toss it away if you wish to advance and there are no staircases nearby.
It's important to know that swords aren't necessarily locked to the level on which they're placed. If you experiment with a sword, you'll learn that you can tactically maneuver it between a pyramid's separate levels by (a) throwing it in such a way that it rebounds off of a wall and falls through an adjacent gap or (b) chucking it over and across a one-block-high step, which works to propel it onto higher ground. This knowledge will prove useful in stages where swords are positioned outside of isolated, stairless structures, where mummies are sure to lurk.
It's also a certainty that you're going to be forced to contend with the game's most glaring mechanical shortcoming: the way in which staircase interaction is triggered. If any other stairs-heavy game, it would be a simple matter of approaching a step and holding up or down. Here you have to push up or down to initiate the interaction and then quickly shift to holding diagonally. In tense situations, when mummies are hot on your heels, it's easy to screw up the input--or, worse, forget the order of operations--and watch yourself become an idle target, the hero basically locked in place. How big of an issue this turns out to be depends upon how sure-fingered you are and how well you can control your nerves.
I don't have much to say about the game's audio and visual qualities. King's Valley features a very basic aesthetic: black backgrounds and textures comprised of simple brickwork, both of which are staples of these old-school action-platformers. Also, there isn't a whole lot going on in terms of sound design: Save for its introductory and victory ditties, the game's soundtrack is mostly limited to a single Egyptian-style theme whose duration is a mere 15 seconds (it's of the catchy-but-eventually-grating variety, so you might want to keep your volume controls open). And there only a handful of ringy sound effects.
What do you expect, man? It is, after all, a 1985 computer game. For me, that's the draw. I wouldn't change a thing about its presentation!
So once we obtain all four of the flashing jewels, a sliding-door exit will appear at the pyramid's midpoint. Our departure is a simple matter of flipping the connected side lever by jumping into it, waiting for the green doors to slide to open, and promptly escaping up the now-visible curved staircase.
But King's Valley turns out to be a hell of a lot more complex than what was advertised in Pyramid-01, and it wastes no time in making this fact known. Right away Pyramid-02 introduces two key gameplay elements. First we learn that the game's stages aren't strictly single-screen affairs; some of them, like this one, stretch two screens wide, and their full traversal requires transitioning back and forth between them (MSX developers wouldn't figure out how to implement smooth scrolling until years later). And then the game introduces the critical element of mining. Some jewels, you'll observe, are enclosed within solid structures, and there's no way to reach them using normal platforming techniques. Instead, you'll have to mine your way through the brickwork using pickaxes, which are also strategically spread across pyramids. Wielding one allows you to dig a two-tile-deep hole in any non-staircase-landing surface; the catch is that pickaxes are single-use, and you can't climb staircases while in possession of one. They can't be thrown, either, so their use is normally limited to specific stage sections.
The mining mechanic basically becomes the source of some particularly perilous puzzles, the solving of which requires careful planning and a steady hand. You have to think ahead--consider each move and how it will alter a given structure. Recklessly digging about will almost always result in the hero cutting off his own access or becoming trapped in an inescapable recess. If you accidentally screw yourself over in this manner, you'll have only one option: hit the F2 key to self-destruct and restart the stage, thus wasting a precious stock. Same deal if you run out of pickaxes. Instead, you'll have to smartly and precisely carve your way through surfaces, making sure to (a) leave yourself series of two-tile-high steps (anything higher will be out of the hero's jumping range) and (b) refrain from digging holes that render the transportation of pickaxes an impossibility.
This applied understanding will serve you well on Pyramid-02's first screen, where you'll have to procure a jewel by mining down from the top level and executing measured cuts.
You're correct in thinking that this is all very reminiscent of Lode Runner--one of the influences to which I alluded earlier. It really is something: The deeper I dig into the mid-80s gaming scene, the more surprised I grow at just how much Lode Runner's influence rippled. I simply didn't notice it back then. Well, that and about a thousand other things.
Of course, we still have to take into account the presence of the patrolling mummies, of which there are now three. Pyramid-02 introduces a yellow mummy; he's no smarter than the others, but he moves in short bursts, which allows him to cover a lot of ground in a short period. He tends to gravitate toward you, but he seems to have trouble finding a convenient path and generally deciphering the level design (I don't know if it was intentionally programmed this way or if his ineptitude is a product of poorly implemented AI). Of concern is that the mummies are constantly moving between screens, which leads to scenarios where they unexpectedly wander in from offscreen or get right up in your grill the moment you transition over. The expectancy of such works to induce a constant feel of anxiety; really, you never know what's waiting for you at a screen's edge.
And that's your challenge: finding the time to mine jewels while taking care not to get cornered by mummies both observable and unaccounted-for. In this particular stage, I've observed, the mummies tend to gather in the second screen's upper-right portion, so you'll at least have some sense of the direction from which they're likely to come.
Oh, and I should mention that Pyramid-02 also introduces revolving walls, through which you can pass by pushing up against them. Mummies can't travel through revolving walls, so you can utilize them as a means of earning temporary refuge. However, in some later levels, there are revolving walls that only turn one way--a quirk that won't become obvious until after you've passed through one; those of their type are usually intentioned to function as puzzle mechanisms, though you will come across a few that have been installed solely for the purpose of cutting off your access and forcing you to travel a circuitous route back to the previous location. Sometimes level designers just like to be cruel.
Quick tip: Swords can be sent the flying into the adjacent screen. Even if the screen isn't currently observable, its objects are still in motion, so it's possible for a sword to collide with, say, a lurking mummy. An aural cue will confirm that you've made contact. This technique is useful in those moments when you're prepared to transition over but feel hesitant because you suspect that a mummy is prowling about the adjacent screen's edge.
So that's Pryamid-02, which represents a swift jump in difficulty. Its message is that you better make haste to get a clear grasp of the game's mechanics, because things aren't going to get any easier from here.
Collect all five jewels and the exit will appear in in the pyramid's right half. Strangely enough, the entrance point will also reappear, allowing you to return to the previous stage. I'm sure why, though, since the previous space has already been cleared out. I'm thinkin' that it's a case of the level designer being a bit mischievous; he or she knew that you probably weren't paying attention to or forgot about where the hero originally spawned, and the rascal in question was hoping that you'd accidentally backtrack and "hilariously" waste thirty seconds of your life.
You know I'm probably close to the truth on this one.
Pyramid-03's is a single-screen affair. Some mining is required, yes, but ours will mostly be an exercise in evading the blue mummy, who is afforded the benefit of favorable platform- and staircase-construction. Once he's been alerted to your presence, he'll be on your tail the whole time. This might prove troublesome when you attempt to obtain the green crystal as seen in the pyramid's bottom-left corner; the corridor leading to it is particularly cramped, so you'll definitely want to bring a sword.
Be aware that the red, blue and yellow mummies zip up and down stairs at more than twice the hero's speed, so it's smart to refrain from climbing when one of them is hot on your trail; the superior option is to about-face and leap over him and thereafter find a way to put some distance between yourself and your pursuer.
Pyramid-03 introduces the element of trap walls, which suddenly lower from the ceiling and then permanently lock themselves in place. One such wall will appear in the bottom-right corner after you procure the green jewel, the indestructible barrier forever cutting off your access to that portion of the stage.
Pyramid-04 is another two-screener (stages alternate between single- and dual-screened). Its is a tale of two halves: The right half has a strong mining focus. The process of removing the yellow and purple jewels from the enclosed space requires a calculated digging strategy. It's easy to screw yourself here--to create an inescapable gap or accidentally carve away an adjoining tile on which you needed to stand in order to successfully mine. You'll have to employ the use of at least three pickaxes, and you'll probably want to bring a fourth pickax with you into the burrowed aperture--just in case you miscalculated and suddenly need to improvise an escape. Note that you can't dig in from the side unless you're currently sandwiched between two walls and each is at least two tiles high.
The left half has a platforming focus. The action here is all about jumping, climbing, and working around the pesky mummies. However, one of the jewels is placed behind one of those aforementioned one-way revolving walls. You can't pass through wall's right side, so instead you'll have to dig down to the crystal from the level above. First you might want to take the preventive measure of leading any and all mummies away from the vicinity, since alerted mummies will surely gravitate toward the revolving wall and permanently station themselves on the platform to its right.
Pyramid-05 sees the first change in hue, which unsurprisingly signals yet another jump in difficulty. Partially contributing to the boost is the newly debuting red mummy, who is the most versatile of the bunch; he moves at a high speed, he's constantly in motion, and his sphere of detection is basically the entire screen. His relentlessness reminds me of Adventure's red dragon, which was similarly aggressive (the red ones are always the most trouble, I tell you). Also, Pyramid-05 is the first to make greater use of trap walls, all of which have been installed for the purpose of cutting off convenient routes and limiting the amount of space available for pickax-transportation. Each wall has an invisible trigger point, and it's usually located far away from the corresponding contraption. If by way of careful observation you're able to ascertain where they're hidden, you can avoid triggering the trap walls (though, such a tactic may not be viable in stages whose mode of traversal requires passing through these trigger points).
And that about summarizes what King's Valley is all about. Starting with Pyramid-06, the game focuses all of its energy on expanding upon the aforementioned mechanics. Other changes are merely cosmetic: You get two additional palette changes--one every four stages--and, oddly, the mummies will occasionally swap roles, the blue one behaving like the red one and vice-versa. In some stages, you'll even encounter two identically colored mummies (usually two reds, of course)!
It's normal that I start to run into trouble at around Pyramid-06, wherein you're tasked with cutting through several layers of bricks while continually fending off three obnoxiously aggressive mummies.
But I tell you, man: It was a mighty struggle to beat this game without resorting to unsavory tactics (using the Game Master or save-states, that is). They give you nothin': No continues. No mulligans. And absolutely no mercy. That's how it was; back then, they didn't hold back.
Still, I'm able to have a good time with King's Valley even when I fail to complete it. Really, that's the beauty of arcade-style games: You can extract maximum enjoyment from them even if your time together is limited to a few minutes. That's certainly true of King's Valley.
You don't get much of an ending, no--just your typical single-screen "Congratulations!" and final-score tabulation. Then the game restarts from the first stage, which in continuation is dubbed "Pyramid-16," but with an increased difficulty-level.
Again--what do you expect? It was 1985. We were lucky if they gave us a moon and some stars.
And there you have a clear rendering of King's Valley, a positively charming little creation upon which I can always depend to scratch my old-school-computer-game itch. It seems highly appropriate when I say that I'm glad to have mined it from history's sadly under-explored tombs. It truly is a hidden treasure.
Now, I'm not going to suggest that it represents the pinnacle of game design, no. Rather, King's Valley a product of uncompromised, unrestrained experimentation, which it's not afraid to advertise; its level design is raw, its enemy AI is often erratic, and it has a few mechanical shortcomings. Yet it's worth every second of my time because it checks off two very important boxes: It's fun to play, and it succeeds in encapsulating everything I adore about gaming during its adolescent years. King's Valley is gaming distilled down to its purest form, and for that my imagination and I thank it.
King's Valley is to the MSX what the Gyromites, Wrecking Crews and Balloon Fights were to the NES: It's a bedrock title that helped to form the foundation upon which the next generation of 8-bit games were built. This is evidenced in Konami's future MSX works, many of which recycle and expand upon King's Valley's core concepts. That I'm eager to play and write about such games is the reason I simply had to hurry up and tell you about King's Valley, which established the template that guided their development. It's a certainty that I'll be referencing it in those future blog entries!
Until then, I'm going to spend a little more time with King's Valley, Konami's delightfully primal arcade-style platformer. May it be a harbinger of things to come.