You know Shovel Knight might be a wonderful game, but the azure-armoured crusader wasn’t the first spade swinging hero to battle baddies in video games. Maybe you’re thinking of Taizo Hori from Dig Dug, but I’m writing about someone else. I’m writing about the Kebiishi, or Heian period police officer (that’s from the Encyclopedia Britannica), that fought off the alien invasion of Japan’s old capital city Heian-kyō.
Heiankyo Alien was the product of hard-working students from the University of Tokyo in Japan. The game originally came out in 1979 for the Apple II computer, but it was the 1980 Arcade release that saw Heiankyo Alien reach wide-popularity.
The game saw the smallest of stick-men, the aforementioned policeman (Kebiishi), digging holes to capture chomping aliens. When we jump ahead ten years to 1990 though, the simple stick figure and block buildings were replaced with more detailed art in the Game Boy port.
The big thing to start with, and the main reason to recommend the Game Boy version of Heiankyo Alien, is the ‘new’ and ‘old’ game choices. The old game is that same stick man, classic version of Heiankyo Alien, the same that was so successful in Japan, albeit with the much smaller Game Boy screen to contend with. The new game is a reworked version with the Game Boy in mind, with brand new sounds and graphics, and the superior of the two versions.
The port of the original game is not a bad one. Everything works, but the difficulty is much more pronounced than the new version. The movement is slow, the digging is painfully slow, and more often than not I found myself an awful alien’s appetizer rather than the clever Kebiishi. It’s nice as a piece of history, but the new game is with what I spent most of my time.
The new version feels much more comfortable. The Kebiishi moves smoothly between the buildings and obstacles that make up the levels, and the difference in digging and filling trap-holes is immediately obvious. That’s what you’ll be doing too, digging trap-holes, waiting, then filling those trap-holes when an unsuspecting alien walks into one. Waiting is a good idea too, because it only takes one touch from the roaming aliens for then to turn you into their dinner. When that happens you’ll have to start the stage over, with any previously buried aliens returning, though any holes you dug that weren’t filled remain.
Controls are very straight forward, with one button to dig and another to fill, and the D-pad handling movement. The main thing to keep in mind is you surroundings. No matter how many or how few the aliens, if you don’t take note of possible spots from which they could sneak up on you, then you’ll be stuck between a hungry extraterrestrial and that trap you set for them (oh, bitter irony). When an alien is caught you’ll only have a limited time to bury it before it frees itself, and if another alien makes contact with it then the trapped alien will be instantly freed.
The music is limited, but fitting, carrying off a traditional Japanese sound. And sound effects do a good job too, with sounds being clear enough that you can pick them out but are not annoying, something that can happen easily in older games like this with their smaller sound pools.
It’s not all good news though. To sum it up; Heiankyo Alien is small. It isn’t just the Game Boy’s screen, everything is limited. The music, as I wrote, but also the game’s length, which most will complete in under 30 minutes. There are only two types of aliens, and three types of levels. There are a few elements introduce in each type of level, like lanterns that are impassable when lit, then become passable again when they go out. But again, there’s only a handful. Adding the original version of the game is a nice extra that brings a bit more to Heiankyo Alien, but since it’s such an inferior version there’s not much reason to spend any substantial time with it.
Heiankyo Alien is a fun game for a while, and it’s uniqueness in both it’s mechanics and theme are commendable. The problem is that the fun doesn’t last long enough and that identity as an odd-ball Space Invaders (almost) in ancient Japan is never properly developed or displayed with more locations and cut scenes (there are a couple in the game). Here’s a simple example – there are a total of four different eaten animations depending on from what direction an alien catches you – why include what is a nice but superfluous detail like that, one which brings a degree of menace to an otherwise quirky game, but fail to include more than two aliens with which to menace the player in the first place and give some more personality to differentiate the antagonists?
As of writing, Heiankyo Alien is roughly £10, and that’s just the cartridge. It’s hard to recommend at that price, but if you can find it for less then you might find Heiankyo Alien is worth a look.
I give Heiankyo Alien a 6.3 out of 10.
For Stage – Select, this has been Ed, signing off.