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Pirate Ship Higemaru

Why, yes, I've always thought Pengo and The Legend of Zelda are remarkably similar.

Both are based on cute and cuddly carnage, feature four-way player movement and…oh, hell, I can't even fake this one. I'm entering this review at a complete loss to explain an apparently common belief there's One Degree of Separation between the games.

Welcome aboard the good Pirate Ship Higemaru.

Higemaru Title Screen
If you don't remember feeding change into this arcade machine back in 1984 it's because you were short on 100-yen coins. Higemaru was a Japan-only release until it found its way into U.S. homes in "collection" titles for various consoles from the Sega Saturn to PlayStation 2.

Replace Pengo's penguin with a sailor named Momotaro, ice blocks with barrels and Sno-Bees with pirates and the foundation of the two games is the same. The biggest immediately noticeable difference is Momotaro picks up the barrels and can carry them until throwing them at the pirates. Higemaru also expands gameplay with two types of objects that can be thrown (one destructs on impact, one doesn't), multiple types of enemies and what's essentially a boss stage every four waves. The graphics are more detailed and animated, with pirates flying off the screen ("overboard") when hit rather than just being crushed, for instance.

It's very much what one might expect to see in an official Pengo sequel (had the characters remained the same) and, as a big fan of that game, one of the minority of times with 1980s arcade games where it seems like an improvement. That's an intellectual judgment since my heart still prefers the penguin, perhaps due to a latent polar region fetish that fully blossomed during adulthood. But even in my overheated enthusiasm back then I never thought Pengo would merit a sequel or cash-grab ripoff by a competing company.

So Higemaru is a fun discovery (I was randomly scrolling through my hundreds of ROM files in MAME and booted it up because of a rhyme association with the no-win simulation in Star Trek II). But things got a little weird reading about the game at a few websites, where the close connection to Zelda was asserted.

The Pengo-Zelda link is, strictly speaking, provided by a sequel to Higemaru called Higemaru Makaijima released in Japan for the NES and MSX home machines. Quoting Wikipedia, the sequel's gameplay is mostly similar, but "the game features much more diverse gameplay such as the ability to traverse a map screen via ship, levels taking place on islands, and giant bosses, as well as a more developed plot." And quoting StrategyWiki, "The island exploration sections are extremely reminiscent of dungeon exploration aspects of The Legend of Zelda, to which the game is often compared."

OK, that's all strange enough to merit giving the original Higemaru a shakedown voyage, after which I'll get to whether "they" are out of their gourds by making the Zelda connection with its successor. (Spoiler alert…read the final few paragraphs of this mess if nothing else, since Makaijima is a far superior game well worth spending time with.)

Pirate Practice
Pirate Ship Higemaru's controls are simple, with a four-way joystick and a single fire button for picking up/throwing things. The DIP switches, at least in the ROM file I have, are at least partially useless. There's one that's supposed to allow one to five starting lives, but it didn't actually change the game's default setting of three. Extra lives can be awarded at between 10,000/every 50,000 and 40,000/every 100,000 (or not at all, except for one possibility in the game that's not based on points). Go with the most generous setting and you'll be able to earn extra lives with a single action, as will be seen below.

A very cool introductory extra is what's essentially a short tutorial when you begin a game. Three barrels appear in a line at the middle of the screen with three immobilized pirates in a line directly beneath them, and the player gets a short time to hit the sitting ducks. For first-timers it's a reassuring way to know what you're supposed to do, while anybody who's played more than once and takes a moment to think will realize there's some extra opportunity here. The main one, of course, is moving down so you can take out all three pirates with one barrel, which is worth far more points. Another possibility is if you're holding a barrel when the timer expires you start the first wave with it. Not a huge thing, but interesting nonetheless.

It's tougher to play as beginner since you'll need to master more skills to take advantage of the extra features. The ordinary pirates seem about equal to the Sno-Bees when it comes to pursuit skills, but the action is quicker and some buccaneers pack extra strength. Those walking around in barrels need to be hit once to knock him out of it, then again to send him overboard. Then there's the leader, Bous (get it?), who will climb back on board if you him. Finally, take too long and the skull-and-crossbones icons at the corners of the screen start moving around the edges (they do this in the tutorial screen as well). Not nearly as big a threat as say, the pterodactyl in Joust, but one more nuisance to factor.

One other difficulty is you're destroying those barrels when you throw them, so the playfield gets more open and your weapons decrease over time. You won't ever completely run out of weapons, however, since a few projectiles (appearing as oil drums, gold pots, coins and other objects) are indestructible. Also, the playfields are generally more open and/or tricky than Pengo, especially after the first few waves, making it far harder to hit pirates who are either moving erratically in open spaces or in short corridors.

Throw those barrels mate!
Now for the stuff that makes life easier: First off, since the pirates are hiding in barrels waiting to replace their vanquished mates, it means they may be in the barrels you pick up and throw. You'll see a set of eyes peek out when this happens and tossing the barrels counts as one of the "kills" you need to complete the wave. Next, a particularly nice advantage is every time you destroy 16 barrels an item appears that's basically a Pac-Man energizer, making you invincible and able to kill enemies by touching them for a short time.

There's also bonus items worth varying amount of points (usually 400-3,000) when you pick up barrels that are flashing. I consider them "nice, but not worth risking your life for" items (unless you're close to earning a bonus life, of course), but there are "secret" bonuses in a few stages worth between 10,000 and 50,000 points (and one with a sailor suit that awards an extra life) definitely worth taking a risk for. The catch, however, is it must be the first barrel lifted during the wave.

A big risk/reward feature is the Bous stages every four waves. As the name suggests, these Captain Hooks are the only baddies and they all must be knocked off the screen before any climb back aboard to complete the wave. It's definitely one of those times when destroying enough barrels to get an invincibility power-up is a good idea. The good news is the point values of the bonus items are higher and in general it's easier to rack up a bunch of points.

There's a total of 16 waves, with the latter eight repeating infinitely once all are completed. The bad guys, of course, keep speeding up and getting nastier over time. If there's a "kill screen" I haven't seen any reference to it.

The NES Port?

Ordinarily this would be a "discover, play and enjoy for a bit, forget" game, without much interest in checking out the home-only sequel. But since the Zelda comparison was made, I gave Higemaru Makaijima what I figured would be a brief spin on an NES emulator (a "translated" version from the Japanese version that may be an unreleased prototype).

To summarize my findings: 1) The sequel definitely is worthy of more than a quick spin and 2) It's no Zelda, but the One Degree connection to Pengo is unmistakably there.

Look like Zelda a little?
True to the spirit of home console games, Higemaru Makaijima eschews the quick-play arcade format in favor of a longer single quest. In fact, after diving in without any guidance I wound up having to retreat and find some help on the 'net, since the game starts with the player navigating a ship around the open sea and I found myself doing so at length without encountering anything useful. (A good instruction/walkthrough guide is at strategywiki.org/wiki/Higemaru_Makaijima).

The goal is to defeat bosses and collect their treasures and other certain items on seven islands in order to gain access to the area that holds the final boss fight and the grand treasure. You collect keys to gain access to islands by finding and boarding pirate ships, defeating captains who are essentially mini-bosses. Once you find the island with a gate matching the key you navigate around a definitely Zelda-like landscape battling various foes in search of the boss.

Higemaru Makaijima was released in 1987, a year after the original Zelda, and everything from the cute graphics to the playful chiptunes are an unmistakable "me too" effort. The key difference is the "throw the barrel/object" action is the focus of gameplay, although it turns out some other weapons/abilities are available. Another big difference is your battles take place on multi-screen playfields (each ship is five, the islands obviously are much bigger) that scroll a screen at a time like Zelda. Unlike Zelda, however, screens are usually full of baddies from the start and since they regenerate it's frustrating as hell to accidentally leave a screen and return immediately into peril, which I did frequently at first.

Thumbs Up!
You need to defeat a set number of pirates on ships to access the captain's area, then hit the captain several times while he tosses knives (or swords or whatever they are) at you. The islands (at least the first, all I've completed so far) repeat all this on a larger scale, but the variety of foes means getting attacked in ways that will catch you off guard (not to mention the difficulty of navigating your way to where you need to go).

You get some, if not a lot at first, of extra ability and help in your quest. Your character can now jump, which is useful for eluding foes as well as necessary for navigation. You'll encounter merchant ships whose occupants will offer guidance (while the text is translated into English, it's amusing to see it presented in the right-to-left style of Japanese). Finally, your mortality doesn't consist of lives, but rather an overall health that is reflected by your score. You lose 100 points every time you're hit and if you reach zero you die. There's a password system, although I avoid them in favor of far more useful save/freeze options when using an emulator.

These few paragraphs barely touch the essentials and depth of Higemaru Makaijima and, as you might tell, I'm definitely Hooked enough I plan to keep at this game for a while. The one possible long-term hitch I can see is a monotonous fatigue from the largely repetitive battles, but the StrategyWiki intro gives me reason to believe more variety lays ahead. The game probably doesn't stand out from dozens of other Zelda knockoffs, but since I haven't played those this one will do just fine.