There is an interesting thing with Japanese homebrew, indie or doujinshi games that I’ve slowly realised throughout these years; they tend to be weird, lacking in polish in areas where they matter the most but at the same time numerous titles overshadow big company games like no other to the point of becoming hallmark games. Cave Story and La-Mulana both are massively popular examples of successful Japanese indie games, yet they’re largely an exception to the rule of Jank. Jank in context of doujinshi games doesn’t signify bad coding or controls, but a certain kind of lack of logical polish. For example, you’d expect for a shooting game that uses WASD movement and mouse aiming to include changing weapons with the scroll wheel, but instead, it must be done with the numbers. It’s logical and completely functional, but really throws you off and takes off some of the smoothness of the action in controls. This isn’t a quality of life issue, as scroll wheel weapon changing has been a thing even in Japanese games for almost two decades now. For whatever design decision, the controls’ jank was implemented. When a game is supposed to be fast-paced shooting action, you sort of end up prioritising one weapon in a situation over all others when quick-changing isn’t an option. Or aiming while running, for the matter. Or smooth transition between movement options, creating jank movement options from otherwise smoothly animated action.
La-Mulana is one of those games that many considered impossible to beat without a guide, but all the clues and hints spread around do make sense if you put your mind to it
The Japanese jank could be described as the opposite of polish. It’s not erroneous design per se, as most of the jank is fully intended. Consider how in 2D Castlevania the Belmont’s jump arc is completely set in stone and you are unable to change it after you’ve jumped. Similarly, in Ghost ‘n Goblins you are dedicated to that jump and its arc after you’ve initiated it, though you can control it with the second jump later games added for that specific purpose. These would be jank in any other kind of game, but the whole play world and the system has been designed to follow this same approach. All enemies in the games have purposeful, straight attacks and moves, and the stages provide challenges appropriate to the available movement options. It makes both games stupidly difficult at times, but the game is fair as no enemy or projectile breaks the same jank. The fact that everything is extremely limited yet finely tuned to a sharp point turns these controls, that would in other games be considered outright shit, into a challenge unto themselves. The doujinshi jank is as if everything had this lack of polish. Character movement might be slow and camera wonks off into position unfavourable to the player, but at the same time enemy movement is just as unrefined and how their act with the camera on screen often ends up being just as unfavourable to them. It’s a weird kind of jank you don’t see in western indie games, probably because of the style of approach and gaming culture overall.
Monster Surprised You-ki chan! is in many ways trying to play itself like a version of Ghost ‘n Goblins in its controls. In practice, the game plays nothing like Capcom’s original. You-ki’s controls might be decent, but everything from the graphic style to sprite resolution and enemy behaviour and weapons makes this game jank as hell to play. The stage designs do mix things up quite a lot from a usual GnG-inspired title, yet all the decisions carry so much jank in the design that the game feels underwhelming to play. Even the sounds are off, as numerous special effects are as if they were at a wrong volume or simply don’t work in the intended context. Special effects, like the lens flare in the second stage or the sparklers You-ki jumping leaves is all part of the jank as their framerate and smoothness is very different from the rest of the spritework and animation in the game. Hell, the explosions and blood effects look like they belong to a different game altogether because how they’re designed and animated from there rest of the game’s visuals. Even the way You-ki takes damage is weird and outright frustrating to witness. It’s a mish-mash of everything that should’ve been straightened up and unified in design and polished even further, yet the game deserves some respect. The stages are rather large and there are exploratory elements, the characters have some charm and the game isn’t exactly unfair. Just jank as hell in a similar manner so many other doujinshi games are.
The jank doesn’t make these games unplayable. They’re not broken products in any manner, and often doesn’t even necessarily detract from the fun-factor of the game. The jank is probably the opposite of being immersed, where you are well aware that you are playing a video game and you damn well play according to the game’s rules. The jank of doujinshi games often walls you to a different extend before you manage to overcome it. Sometimes the jank is minimal and doesn’t really affect much, sometimes you might spend few evening with a bottle of beer thinking what the fuck you’re playing and why, but at some point, both will end up you enjoying the game. Sometimes to the degree of witnessing something batshit insane that can only be done in a completely rules-free environment where nothing is held back, sometimes ending you finding a new bottom of underwhelming. Despite me running You-ki Chan! down the mud there above, but sticking with the game netted one of the more exciting final stages in some time. It takes a while to get used to how the game’s play goes, to get around the sheer jank of it all, and the game itself is rather lengthy, but I guess I would have it no other way.
Unlike the vast majority of Western homebrew and indie games that aren’t high-mark high visibility games, loads of doujinshi games of varying quality get released during Comic Market, a decades-old event where people gather to sell and buy their own comics and other goodies. The event is a massive sub- and pop-culture event, which also sees massive amounts of people donating blood. Nowadays, you see a lot of these games released on digital storefronts like DLSite, while some titles will fall between the cracks and into obscurity. Sometimes, they sell only few stages of a game as a demo as they’re intending to do a full release later on, but sometimes these games just end up vanishing. Such was the fate of Es, one of the best fastest pace action-shooter that was in development but never finished.
Developed originally in 2007 by circle 9th Night, Es is a prime example of a doujinshi game that doesn’t have much jank, and whatever jank it had worked for its benefits because everything had been already been sanded down to a nice matte finish. All it needed was more content and stages with some polish, and we could’ve had one of the best games of the later tens, developed by only a handful of people. If you liked anything about Zone of the Enders, this game would’ve been right in your ballpark.
The whole Japanese doujinshi scene is full of titles most people in the West are going to miss, be it either because of the language barrier or simply because their circle of fellow weebs just never notice them. Maybe it’s the jank most of these titles present themselves with. The jank is part of the scene in a weird way, but even then in that mass of jank you’ll find things to love and enjoy, and maybe even a game or two that doesn’t have any jank.