The Dreamcast’s other speak ’em up

[Apologies for the literal screen shots in this one – emulation doesn’t play nice with this game]

When you spin the wheel of blind import purchases you do so in the knowledge that whatever comes your way could be anything from a life-changing hidden gem to a complete waste of time, money, and effort – not knowing what you’re about to inflict upon yourself is half the fun of it.

And sometimes you end up with a game that defies all traditional approaches at neatly pigeonholing it into simple descriptions like “good” or “bad” – sometimes you end up with a game like Kiteretsu Boy’s GanGaGan.

This microphone-requiring Japanese Dreamcast exclusive is apparently based on the manga of the same name, although information on the original work’s strangely hard to come by. The game describes itself as a “Voice Action” game and boasts about its “Shout Battle System” on the front of the box.

It all sounds very promising, and it all sounds very Sega.

Before you do anything beyond press the start button you have to call out the name of a kotodamashi – any one of over a hundred listed in the manual – to summon them to your aid. This tiny spirit then becomes your first avatar and fighter in Kiteretsu Boy’s world, whisked off to find and defeat all of the others sneakily hiding in a handful of small Katamari-like locations before eventually tackling the toughest kotodamashi of them all – Karma.

Unlike Namco’s effervescent princely roll ’em up the environments here aren’t playfully malleable arenas crafted for your own personal mischief but simple enclosed spaces, the only real movement being the change of lighting as time wears on. In this portion of the game the microphone isn’t used at all, your kotodamashi controlled entirely with the Dreamcast controller. The aim here is to run at speed into objects in the hope of triggering a battle with a spirit lurking within, with exactly who is hiding where depending on the (virtual) time of day, which naturally progresses from day to night and back again as you wander around. An overhead map is also available if you need it, although the square-ish stage layouts and your undemanding task mean there’s little reason to bring it up.

If you do find one (you harmlessly bounce off whatever you ran in to if you don’t, so there’s no punishment for curiosity), you’re instantly transported to a special arena where you essentially play rock-paper-scissors with three different types of word-attack, the letters visibly moving from your to your opponent and causing damage if they happen to make contact. The three possible formations are straight ahead, horizontal, or a larger horizontal spread – straight beats horizontal, horizontal beats spread, spread beats straight. It’s important at this point to refer back to the manual, which lists the word you must speak to perform each attack as it differs completely from one kotodamashi to the next (the one golden rule is that the straight ahead attack will always be the kotodamashi’s name), and attempting to say anything other than either your spirit’s specific words or one of the three back-up universal attacks – Kyaa, Ohhhh, or Waaahhh – only results in a pretty useless question mark appearing instead. You can also freely move around the tiled area of the battlefield (using the controller rather than issuing voice commands) to physically get away from or even sneak between the letters of an incoming attack, or block by holding down the B button at the expense of your constantly regenerating power gauge.

That’s more or less it for the Shout Battle System; something that in all honesty could have been achieved with the face buttons on any standard Dreamcast controller instead. There’s no cheering your kotodamashi on to boost their attacks or shake them out of a status effect early (to be clear: there are no status effects at all), no reaction for congratulating them on a win or fraught cries of “Watch out!” as another meaningless word heads your way. To make matters worse even with such limited vocabulary I still couldn’t get the mic to reliably pick up words, not even with the TV sound off in an empty house, the doors and windows shut tight to ensure the only recognition-snagging noise could be my own breath, not with the mic held at any angle or distance from my face or with any serious or silly variation in my pronunciation. To be fair to Kiteretsu Boy’s this isn’t a new problem for me – I’ve always had a strained relationship with voice controls in any language and on everything from the N64 to the PS3 – but this is the first time I’ve removed and re-checked all the connections to make sure the microphone’s actually plugged in and working. If the game had been lenient enough to throw out a best-guess from the selection of six viable attacks available then it wouldn’t have felt so frustrating shouting something like “Homesick” “Bubbly” or “Gojo” at my TV over and over again.

Should you manage to whittle your adversary’s health down to zero you win and move back to the exploration area, hoping to repeat the whole process on another kotodamashi.

And if you lose? You move back to the exploration area, hoping to find another kotodamashi you might end up beating the next time around.

All of these spirits have fixed stats, meaning if your favourite is a glass cannon or a sorry weakling at the beginning then no amount of battling, successful or otherwise, will change that. The only slight influence is the time of day – a daytime-type kotodamashi will do slightly better in the day, a night-time kotodamashi does better at night.

It’s genuinely like nothing else you’ve played, the kotodamashi themselves are a varied lot, and who doesn’t want to try out a game that lets them shout at the TV? But the end result is sadly an underused peripheral and an IP clinging to each other for dear life, neither really sure what to do with the other. Now not every voice controlled game can be Seaman (or the excellent PlayStation 2 detective ’em up, DekaVoice), not even when you’re Sega and giddy on death-or-glory power in the dying days of a wonderful console, but this is more the kind of thing you play with genuine interest at a convention and then walk away from forever having experienced all the game has to offer in your allotted five minutes, making this the first time an included VMU minigame could realistically outlast the GD-ROM it came from.

[Ko-fi support made this post a reality! Thank you so much for your help!]

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