On the Famicom, no one can hear you scream…

For whatever reason this 1989 port of Enix’s 1987 computer game Jesus: Kyofu no Bio Monster to Nintendo’s Famicom was handled by King Records, who are best known in the field for publishing, erm, Jesus: Kyofu no Bio Monster on the Famicom. The game’s a creepy sci-fi adventure crafted in an era-standard style with no biblical references whatsoever (the eye-catching title is actually the name of the space station/”skylab” in the story), inviting players to LOOK, TALK, EXAMINE, and TAKE their way through what should hopefully be a thrilling horror story.

Hang on a minute…

A horror story… set in space… starring a small international team of researchers and support staff who return to their craft with an unknown lifeform in tow… only for it to break free, and then become bigger and more dangerous, killing everyone on board as it goes… and it also has a fondness for vents and ceilings… and its movements can at times be detected by a small handheld device…

Don’t you think that sounds a little familiar?

Thankfully Jesus is one rare instance where having many obvious similarities to a more famous example of the same thing honestly isn’t a problem: Adventures like this are the perfect fit for a story that relies on a slow build up of tension mixed with sudden jump scares, and if you’re going to mimic any story it may as well be one of the best examples of the genre ever made (even over forty years after its cinema release).

Although many of Jesus’ similarities to everyone’s favourite xenomorph-starring die ’em up movie have got to be deliberate, the passage of time has revealed another incredibly charming accidental one too – now ancient tech being used as if it’s still common and normal in the far-flung future of 2061. In Alien this took the form of the Nostromo’s beautiful monochrome CRT TVs and plasticky keyboards (all expertly recreated in Alien: Isolation), while in Jesus it’s found in the humble cassette tape, still apparently the music lover’s storage medium of choice. The game’s not worse off or less believable for having this anachronistic detail, but when experienced in 2021 it’s transformed into a sort of nostalgic reminder of a future we’ve already left behind.

Besides, worry about the audio format used during an Eighties adventure game’s plot is usually dwarfed by more pressing concerns – like whether the text is going to leave you high and dry, wandering in circles as you check and then re-check something you know you already checked twenty times before as you try to divine the arcane sequence of commands necessary to trigger the next cutscene. I wouldn’t say that awful scenario never happens in Jesus, but the script does at least make a real effort to weave relevant information and helpful clues into the dialogue and on the whole you’re given enough hints and direction to solve most problems on your own. Helpfully the commands you can perform automatically prune themselves depending on your current situation, meaning the TAKE option won’t be there when you’re in a one-on-one conversation with someone who has nothing to take, and you don’t have to waste time EXAMINING every point of interest in a room just on the off-chance there’s something in there that really does need examining. That doesn’t mean every action offered in the command list is always going to be necessary or illuminating (or possible, in some instances), more that an effort has been made to keep you on track without sacrificing too much interactivity. Setting the game on a mixture of orbital stations and space ships doesn’t hurt either: these structures naturally lend themselves to small and clearly defined self-contained areas spread across visually similar floors, allowing for limited options without having mood ruining thoughts like “But why don’t they just run away?” or “Why can’t leading man Hayao…?” bubbling up to the surface.

But what about the deadly monster roaming around?

This intergalactic terror isn’t actually any problem at all – at least not from a player’s point of view – as no matter what happens you can’t ever choose your way to death in the Famicom version of the game (computer players can apparently still die under certain circumstances). The lack of any real game-ending threat does stick a pin in the game’s hypothetical fear balloon but on balance it’s the better option to go for in an adventure game because it means nobody playing Jesus has to worry about their curiosity – the one thing an adventure game should always encourage – leading them to their doom. This decision’s also important for another more practical reason too: On console Jesus uses password saves, so by ensuring the game only ends when you’ve decided you’ve finished playing it you’ll only ever have to re-enter a mildly irritating string of twenty hiragana characters because you’re now ready to carry on from where you left off, not because you died again and now have to retry a sequence from the beginning, hoping this time around you’ll finally work out where you went wrong.

As this was designed with home computers in mind and then ported to the Famicom several years later there were always going to be some compromises, and as expected even just a quick look at some PC-88 footage reveals a few altered scenes and many graphical downgrades. Most of these losses could be classed as nice but unnecessary details – the higher resolution of a computer display leading to more fine detail, additional animations in scenes where the Famicom port’s static, the frequent use of palette cycles to simulate blinking displays and interesting lighting – that sort of thing. Unfortunately the console release is also missing an entire extra display window as well, and there are more than a few times where its absence causes significant issues. In the computer versions of the game this sat in the top-right of the screen and was most often used to display animated character portraits – losing those is a shame but not unreasonable – but sometimes it was used to show a detailed close-up of an item Hayao had just been given, something of immediate interest, or the troubling droplets of blood your investigations had just revealed were on the floor. The end result is a game that, even with all of the Famicom release’s alterations, is still built on the assumption that you’re seeing things the game no longer displays, and their omission does hurt the atmosphere during a few crucial moments.

But while this Famicom port is definitely the “lesser” option it does have one big modern positive that beats the PC-88 original every time – accessibility. The Nintendo cart can be bought in beautiful condition for a relatively small sum of money with little effort from any number of online stores, and on arrival simply slots into a common console or any of its many weird and wonderful clones. In comparison the computer versions of the game (Jesus debuted on the PC-88 and was then ported to the MSX2, FM-77AV, and X1turbo) cost much more for a copy in much worse condition and are infinitely more difficult to get hold of and run in any case. Even emulated there’s no doubt a .nes file’s easier to set up in your program of choice than the equivalent old computer emulator, and I say that as someone who likes messing around with old computer emulators. Simply put; without this release there’d be no article here at all, and no English translation patch for me to direct you towards either.

Not as good” is not the same as “bad“.

With its talk of deep scratches in the walls, images of slumped-over corpses, and mention of strange sounds that just perhaps Hayao didn’t hear at all Jesus… Jesus has an honest go at being scary, even if it doesn’t quite pull it off. No amount of midnight game sessions can make it even half as unsettling as certain other Famicom horror adventures are in broad daylight, and as far as ports of monster-riddled sci-fi adventure games go this is unfortunately outshone by the Mega Drive release of Psy-O-Blade (the comparison is in some ways unfair, but as both are console remakes of Eighties computer games and actually released within a year of each other…). Having said that Jesus is a competent example of the genre and a decent idea entertaining told: Jesus may not reinvent the wheel, but it’s also a welcome reminder that a good game doesn’t have to either.

[Ko-fi supporters made this post a reality – and got to read this article one week early too!]

4 thoughts on “On the Famicom, no one can hear you scream…

  1. The NES version has another possible advantage over the PC88 one: It got a fan translation for those that don’t understand Japanese :3

    But I also love thes 80s scifi tales with their future tech that seems so old and crusty by our real future standards xD Like when I rewatched Bubble Gum Crisis and they were like “we get the newspaper faxed und printed right at home!” xD

    Like

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