Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Unearthed Treasures: Nuts & Milk (Famicom)

Welcome to this first edition of "Unearthed Treasures," a series in which I'm going to briefly discuss any of those weird or obscure games that I continue to dig up on my journey of discovery. Think of it as a "Now Playing" feature for old games that aren't likely to get the Memory Bank treatment due to our lack of historical connection.

So I'm playing the unfortunately named Nuts & Milk on a cool late-summer night, with the window kicked open and Predator playing on the TV to my side (I love the film's lush jungle setting with its remote, secluded atmosphere--just as I do games with similarly isolated settings). I've been aware of this game for years, but it's only fairly recently that I've seen it pop up in videos made by a few of the Youtube personalities to which I'm subscribed (like BriSulph and Classic Game Room). It's always struck me as a game I should be more intimately familiar with, but I haven't been able to gain access to it due to its Japanese exclusivity. I don't like having to take the route I did, but it's the only option when dealing with a game that's likely to never see a Western release.

Nuts & Milk is a simple puzzle-platformer developed by Hudson and released for the Famicom back in 1984. Not surprisingly, it has all of the trappings of an early-years Famicom title: Single-screen action, solid black background, and that familiar heads-up display (score, stage number, and other requisite information) as seen in many of those NES arcade ports. And, naturally, they put you in control of the era's typical protagonist: A pink bipedal blob who's tasked with saving his equally pink girlfriend. To rescue his bow-headed beloved, who somehow manages to become trapped in her house in every round, he has to simply collect all of the fruit hanging onscreen and then head toward her abode when prompted (when she begins poking her head out, mainly).

It all sounds very uncomplicated--like, as its name suggest, a wacky kid's game. In reality, though, it's pretty tricky. For one, you have two separately functioning means of traversing a stage: The ability to climb across dangling chains, and limited run-and-jump plaforming mechanics. The problem: You can't jump while standing atop a series of level chains even though their tight grouping forms a flat surface. So when deciding to pick up a fruit positioned atop chains, you have to take into account the loss of mobility or risk walking into an evil blue blob or falling limply off their edges. It's an easy thing to forget when things get hectic.

Nuts & Milk is particularly unpolished: The hero falls through the corners of surfaces, most notably when he comes up a little short on two-block-wide jumps. He gets stuck on walls. His momentum sometimes inexplicably halts in the middle of leaps, causing him to helplessly plummet straight down. And springs don't always want to function as advertised (you have to hit "jump" just before landing on one, allegedly). The designers were highly aware of these flaws and actually incorporated them as solutions to fruit-grabbing conundrums, like in one instance where you have to snag a hanging banana bunch by falling off the side of a chain and clipping through part of the wall (depicted above).

Also, the enemies are pretty dumb, their actions governed by a stupidly basic chase algorithm. They'll mindlessly walk or jump off platforms and plunge into the watery abyss below. If you're anywhere beneath them, they'll drop off ropes, to their deaths, rather than logically circumnavigating the readily traversable terrain. And they'll abort a direct pursuit if you loop to the other side of the screen, turning away to head in the other direction when you're in actuality just inches away. The developers were cognizant of this, too, and expect you to manipulate the enemies as described. 

I chalk up these deficiencies to circa-1984 Hudson, like other young development houses, not yet having a full grasp on what constitutes good game design. It was only the seventh game released in the company's history, after all.

By no means am I calling Nuts & Milk a "bad" game. It's just a bit rough--a set of unfiltered ideas forming a solid-but-messy whole. Truthfully, I'm really enjoying my time with it so far. It's not visually spectacular, but it has a quintessentially classic vibe to it, as if it encapsulates the raw, experimental state of Japanese game-development in the early '80s; it feels, in fact, more like one of those old computer games that charmed me with its no-frills presentation, delightfully simple aesthetics, and anything-goes game-design (it was actually ported to both the MSX and Sharp X1, so it kinda is a "computer game"). I'm definitely "feeling it," as they say.

I also like the between-round bonus stages, which feature a more-focused version of the Nuts & Milk formula: Collect the moving fruit and reach your girlfriend before time runs out. The only obstacles here are the red and green fireballs that start appearing from the sides and rebounding around the room after some time has elapsed; weirdly, these fireballs look and move suspiciously like those from Mario Bros., as if ripped directly from it. Considering this and the HUD similarities, you'd think it was actually Nintendo that made the game. Hmmmm.

I've only made it as far as stage 39, but I'm going to continue to attempt making further progress in the coming days. Nuts & Milk is difficult and often frustrating due to the recurrence of the aforementioned flaws, but it has an endearing quality that makes me want to return to it. Moreover, even in my limited time with Nuts & Milk, it's managed to impart upon me a regretful sadness that we in North America didn't get to experience the early Famicom era, which I imagine was a deeply formative period cherished by every kid that got the chance to live through it.

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