Startling Adventures is a 2001 PlayStation disc by Capcom containing three entirely independent adventures, all of which can be played in any order or even flitted between at will. In this regard it feels very much like Level 5’s “Guild” series for the DS; a varied compilation of games released under a single unifying label, a digital buffet of creativity. Each tale hums with the sort of energy that only comes from giving little teams the time and the freedom to make whatever they want to without fear of having to make it fit within a hot trend’s restrictions or carefully moulded to better suit an established IP.
The first on the list is Kyoko to Hyakki Ou, a demon-laced tale that opens with a young boy discovering a mysterious box with a strange “monkey” inside it (if you thought “Oh I bet that turns out to be a demon and not a monkey” then you’d be absolutely right) and has two minigames to break up the fully dubbed visual novel segments, one of which is perhaps best described as “Demon Snooker”. Then there’s Princess’s [sic] Knights, which is essentially Valkyria Chronicles before Valkyria Chronicles existed. Set in definitely-not Europe and taking place during definitely not-World War II, a group of loyal soldiers must protect a country’s princess from a warmongering Empire. The minigames here are the most in-depth of the three, offering small-scale real-time strategy missions with a selection of chunky tanks and heavy artillery.
And then there’s Space Rescue Joe. I chose to play through this one first because I love this sort of sci-fi: The very “ordinary” sort where everything is pretty much just regular modern life as it’s always been, apart from bubble-like helmets, spectacular glass-domed colonies instead of towns, and an insatiable desire to add “space” in front of everything – space friends, space rats, space pirates, and so on. It’s simple, magical, and a little knowingly ridiculous all at once. Appropriately enough for this normal-but-in-space backdrop the glamour of the story’s title is a comical red herring, as in truth the titular Joe’s job would be more accurately described as Space Odd-Job Joe.
There are four jobs for Joe to tackle in any order you please, and once you’ve completed them all a fifth unlocks, revolving around Joe’s birthday and his space pirate dad. The jobs serve as mini adventures within an already mini adventure, and the tone of each one is reliably light-hearted and fun. Watch a robo-mum punch out a robo-cowboy, help get an alien baby out of a metal space egg, and even get into a wrestling ring with none other than Rainbow Mika by your side (this is after you’ve impressed her with your impromptu bomb defusing abilities). This glorious moment should have been a highlight of the game (if not the entire hobby), but this is unfortunately the point where Startling Adventures takes leave of its senses and decides your opponents will look like some really awful and inexcusably racist stereotypes instead.
I’m not going to share any screenshots of them because I sure as heck don’t want that kind of imagery anywhere near my text, so I’ll have to make a little extra effort and describe the issue to you instead. To be clear: I’m not talking about aggressively stylised caricatures in the same way other people, robots, aliens, and aliens disguised as people are represented throughout Space Rescue Joe. This is not a cheeky poke at a specific group of people (for example the common mild jabs about the English and our fascination with cups of tea/the weather/having bad teeth, etc.) or an honest gag gone wrong either. What it is – and there’s no use pretending otherwise – is the sort overtly racist stereotyping that would’ve managed to stand out as too much even in some ignorant little man’s crass “comedy” routine back in the ’70s about “foreign people with funny accents and weird clothes”. It really is that bad, it still would have been that bad when the game debuted over twenty years ago, and yes it still is that bad when it’s present in a Japanese game made for Japanese consumers.
This is where I get to explain the relevance of this article’s title. These days the phrase “One bad apple” tends to refer to an unfortunate one-off, a solitary negative person in an otherwise good and upstanding crowd, system, or workforce. It’s something or someone to apologise for and then brush aside, to carefully tiptoe around for the noble sake of acknowledging all the good found elsewhere. Considering this happens once and once only in Space Rescue Joe, “One bad apple” would surely be the fairest way to refer to Startling Adventures – there’s just one “bad apple” in there, and it’s not right to judge the entire game on its solitary presence.
But to leave it there would mean ignoring the original meaning of the phrase, which is: “One bad apple spoils the whole barrel“. Or in this case, one deliberately super-racist moment spoils the rest of Startling Adventures. The fact that this sorry incident’s isolated to one minigame and over in minutes only makes it worse, because they could’ve just not done that and it wouldn’t have made the slightest difference to anything at all… but they didn’t.
I’d adored the game up to this point too, but after this watershed moment I didn’t even bother finishing off Joe’s final scenario and only skim-played the openings of the other two adventures just to grab a few screenshots and perform a little research. The magic had gone. Startling Adventures was almost a visually beautiful and joyously inventive collection of bite-sized experiences, but as it stands I can’t recommend it to anyone. I don’t want to sit here worrying about whether Capcom’s Racist Uncle will show up again, drunk on his own opinions and desperate to turn an otherwise pleasant event into an offensive farce.