When you stumble upon a Famicom game whose packaging boldly declares itself to be nothing less than the title of this post during an extended online shopping session it’s impossible to scroll on past like you’ve just seen your 345th “Rare Japan l@@k” retro baseball cartridge or yet another board game with a cover illustration punching far above the included software’s weight, and I knew there and then no matter what sort of game Hikari no Senshi: Photon was it had to go straight into the shopping cart and mail its way into my home.
It turns out “The Ultimate Game on Planet Earth” is an unusual but not unwelcome combination of flip-screen dungeon crawling with real-time sci-fi shooting, all set within an enclosed multi-level labyrinth filled with hostile alien creatures. If we play a little loose with generally accepted genre definitions this makes Photon a sort of free-roaming action-exploration ’em up with third-person shooting – and all this happened all the way back in 1987.
The game’s pseudo-3D point of view may feel a little “stiff” (especially as you can’t pivot on the spot) but it always accurately represents your strange surroundings: If there’s an object lying on the floor on the left hand side then you’ll clearly see a generic but bright orange blob up to three spaces away in the right place, and if there’s a hole in the floor up ahead or a crossroads coming up that will be reflected in what you can see at any distance as well. Deep shafts pierce the dungeon in different places, granting access to new areas on new floors: many appear to be natural caves (as far as can be represented with an 8-bit grid system), but others are lined with glowing pillars, alien architecture, or even pulsating globs of organic matter – so long as you can find the coloured stone that matches the bright glow of that shaft, enabling you to float up and down to new levels safely. Yes this means these areas are essentially magical lifts with their own special keycard for access but the slightly surreal presentation elevates (hah!) them beyond their otherwise unremarkable function, especially as the open nature of these areas allows for a sense of continuity that would be lost if you were made to stand in a metal box and then press a numbered button for your floor. As your own (potentially faulty) mental map of the place builds up over time there’s a definite feeling certain levels are more dangerous places to linger in than others, and as you explore with new items in tow or discover a whole new shaft your progression begins to change from pure luck and aimless wandering into something slightly more purposeful and methodical.
Although having said that you will spend a fair bit of time aimlessly ambling around as Photon’s stuffed with that old dungeon-gaming favourite – fake walls (and sometimes floors too). What saves this from becoming a tedious walking-into-every-wall exercise is a wonderful item you’ll bumble into early on called the Sensor (if I can find it by accident then I’m sure you will too), which prints a simple “DOOR” message on the screen if one of the walls next to you can be walked through. Further assistance comes in the form of a compass and a counter – with these you can see at a glance which direction you’re facing and also pop into the menu at any time to check your exact X,Y,Z coordinates within the maze (one segment excepted). Even without these tools Photon’s floors aren’t especially large or cruelly designed when compared to other Eighties explorathons: There are no one-way doors, spinner plates, silent teleporters, game-ending traps, or any other vicious low points of early dungeoneering design to wearily give up to – Photon even takes the time to leave hints lying around, warning you of the existence of these fake walls and floors (and some other more cryptic messages) too. All of this help is still no replacement for a real automap (some good old graph paper and a pencil helps a heck of a lot with this one), but it’s enough to guidance you get to where you want to be – or at least know for sure where you’ve already been.
Should you find yourself in need of a break from your underground adventures the password save option on the sub-menu can be brought up whenever you feel the need to use it, although the twenty-eight character kananumeric jumble it brings up takes some careful scribing (or a quick photo on your phone) if you want to use it later due to the deliberately stylised space-font. If you do manage to pick up from where you left off you’ll find yourself on the exact screen you were on before with all your items and facing the same direction, but – and this is a big but – you’ll resume with nothing more than the base 200 HP, regardless of what you had when you left off – and your HP can go all the way up to 9999.
The good news is you regain a small portion of that vanished health in Photon every single time you shoot any enemy, a nifty little idea that gives you a very straightforward reason to keep on the offensive and also helps prevent the endlessly respawning enemies from being a resource-draining annoyance: how can they be if you have unlimited bullets and a single shot at the right time leaves you with more health than you had before? The dark cloud to this silver lining is when you realise you can only shoot directly upwards from wherever you’re standing, even when you’re on a screen where you have to walk from side to side with enemies crawling along the floor. Boss battles are even worse; they’re universally miserable affairs raining down so many bullets at unpredictable intervals you have no hope of dodging them all and can really only survive to the bitter end if you walk into the room after carefully building up a health-horde beforehand.
In spite of the bold claim on the front of the box Photon’s unlikely this is anyone’s favourite game ever… or their favourite Famicom game, or even their favourite Famicom free-roaming sci-fi exploration game but the ambitious point of view works well enough to praise the developers for their efforts, even when vast stretches of brown walls are the only thing you have to orientate yourself with at the beginning and it’s far too easy to find yourself walking in circles and struggling to work out where you’ve already been. Combat is simplistic and weak, but on the plus side it is at least a forgettable and tedious sort of weak rather than particularly broken – the enemy collision detection and the responsiveness of your little blue avatar’s just fine, the only problem is it’s not tied to a system you’d want to spend any time with. There’s the definite rough outline of a potentially good game in this little blue cartridge though, and if the idea of roaming a maze of forgotten places and forbidden rooms with graph paper in hand is your idea of a good time then there’s at least an uncommon take on that well-worn formula to be found in here.