Short Series Introduction: Kaizou Choujin Shubibinman

While NCS and Masaya are more well known for their strategy titles, mostly Langrisser, their library consists of multiple genres across the board. However, they are very different in quality, some topping at some of the best games in a genre, while others are outright trash. Kaizou Choujin Shubibinman, or Chbibinman if you want to use their own official romanisation, falls somewhere in between. All the three titles, and a spin-off of sorts, all fall into the same kind of 2D action as the genre’s golden standard, Mega Man, but due to numerous small issues the franchise never really hits the same stride. Not that it intends to, as one of the most peculiar, and perhaps series defining element, is that every game plays significantly differently.

For a 1989 PC-Engine title, Kaizou Choujin Shubibinman the game somehow looks pretty damn nice and has frustrating graphics at the same time. Some sprites hold up better than some, mostly the player and enemy sprites, but the game underachieves with inanimate projectiles, bland character portraits and some of the worst lava of the era. Colours tend to be muted and nothing really pops up despite being clear, but this means all the sprites are easily tracked. Can’t say the same about some of the stage obstacles though, some platforms are exactly the same grey and the background. All the sprites are showcased directly from their side without much dynamic posing or the like, making the game look cheaper than it really is. This doesn’t really help the sprites’ designs, as most of the stage bosses are effectively the same recoloured sprite with an additional dragon head. There are also only three stage archetypes that get used until the final boss stage, which overstay their welcome. Nevertheless, in comparison to most other 1989 PC-E titles, Kaizou Choujin Shubibinman does have tad higher calibre graphics, with flavour that fits more a Mega Drive game.

Music falls into the same category, with only handful of songs on the card, but outside of one particular stage theme, none of them are offensive to the ear. They all fit their designated stages, with with one or two of them being almost worth getting stuck in your head. Having relatively clear voice samples in a HuCard game is a minor achievement, and they’re sprinkled around the game in proper spots.

While the game looks more or less run-of-the-mill, it’s gameplay has some great elements that make it stand out. The game is split between a map screen and an action stage à la Super Mario Bros. 3, with shop and all. You can take a couple of different routes to the final boss stage. Each stage is effectively a type of a mission, flavour wise, with interactions with the city’s denizens popping up at proper times. The cash gained from enemies is spent on upgrades, which are your usual flare, ranging frontrols are what you’d expect, about as tight as the second games with few oddities herm more Life to a charged projectile attack. These upgrades are necessary in the long run, as the game likes to throw fast moving enemies at you all the while stage hazards move at the speed of sound. The player has to move carefully and with patience all the while he needs to push forward as fast as he can. The faster you can remove threats from the screen while dodging whirling spikes of death and jumping monkeys you can, the higher are chances to survive. It takes a bit of time to get used to how the game flows, as it is equal amount of split-second reaction and knowing what’s coming. The game’s design tries to emulate Mega Man to some extent in stage design, but it is significantly less on-point with its challenge-per-screen design. Oh, and the game has a time limit how much you can dilly dally in stages collecting gold for the upgrades. If you don’t beat the game in an allotted time, it’s an automatic Game Over.

The controls don’t exactly help any with the game, as player characters need to accelerate to their full speed every time you start moving, plus jumping is awkward at best. The jump arc feels rather unnatural and lacking, requiring somewhat precise platforming. With some stages having overtly bullshit hazard designs, enemies having jerky patterns and nothing really delivering satisfying feeling from being hit, the game feels and plays loose. However, it must be given props to the developer for allowing the screen to scroll forwards when the player is 2/5 from the screen’s left side, rather than other way around like in Valis series. This gives the player ample time to see and react to whatever the game is dishing at him.

Despite all this, Shubibinman went on to have three sequels. While the above seems to be all negative, as a whole the game comes together as a unique little title. It’s not exactly the lengthiest title, and allowing simultaneous two-player mode changes how the players have to approach the stages and bosses. While the two share the same Life bar, and the only difference between the two is their design and voices, the charged attacks become even more powerful when used in unison. All the things the game lacks in quality is met charm and personality. The game did come out during time when Japanese pop-culture media was going through certain kind parody phase towards 70’s and early 80’s media, especially old tokusatsu shows. Shubibinman, much like Battle Golder YUI, plays the whole android/cyborg angle that was the cornerstone of so many henshin hero shows and goes to have fun with it.

The game’s setting is, after all, about two cyborgs: Tasuke and Kyapiko. Tasuke was a fisherman before Doctor Goutokuji operated on him, much like how Kyapiko was a normal highschool girl. The two got mad over the doctor operating on their bodies, and promised to return both of them back to their old selves. Apparently the doctor is rather paranoid and predicted the incoming Akumadan invasion. With their modified superhuman bodies, Tasuke and Kyapiko venture forth to save the city, block by block. That’s pretty much all there is, but as I said, the charm-factor is strong. After every stage your chosen hero makes a pose and conveys its personality, and the same thing happens when being hit by a hazard and the like. Little things like that made the game go some extended ways, but you can easily tell that this game was NCS/Masaya’s first try at an outright action game, though development was done by Winds. The formula was interesting on its own already, and probably with some tweaking would yield a high-class action game, but seems like the staff didn’t manage to escape Mega Man‘s influence.

Kaizou Choujin Shubibinman 2: Aratanaru Teki (tl; A New Enemy) ditches the map parts from the first game and goes straight up level-by-level fare. Significantly more important is the complete loss of the sword and all close combat weapons, as the game goes for shooting action. Few stages do shake things up and are played like a standard vertical shooting game, though don’t expect them to play like Gradius or R-Type in terms of quality. The charge shot is still in there from the first game, with the player character yelling Shubibeam! every time its launched. It can get grating after a while. Pretty much everything from the first game has been upgraded, with graphics have more colour and variety in them, sprites having much better designs and animations all around. All the characters now showcase their persona much better, with some enemies being on point with the whole parodying things. Big eyed robots with silly faces are great, and they’d fit just fine with other games that parody tropes and genres, like Battle Mania.

Much like sprites, all the stages look pretty great with more variety in them. The shooting stages look significantly different from the action ones, though that can be said most of the stages and some of their respective areas. You go from cityscape to techno-mines and everything in-between. Some stages also scroll upwards, much like how Super Mario Bros. 2 did compared to the first Mario game. The layout design is not directly action, not all the time. The first game’s stages were almost all about the hazards and this has been carried over to some extent into the second game. They don’t pose the same head cracking challenge without any context though, outside few specific bits here and there. Many of the stages have dramatic moments built into their sections during play, but every stage also has a specifically designed spot to have story bits happening.

Music’s great, with more songs and some very memorable ones to boot. There’s not much to say about it, outside that the main theme of the game seems to be considered sort of unofficial theme for the whole series as it has seen the most remixes, with one of the famous one being in Dangerous Mezashi Cat’s 14th release, Newtype Destroyer.

In a straight up side by side comparison, Shubibinman 2 is the better game, but the play between the two is different enough to mention something about apples and oranges. Perhaps the improvements over the first game were enough to convince its release in the US a year later under the name Shockman. To modern players, and fans of the series, it’s less an issue whether or not one game plays better over the other, but which kind of play they like. The same could be said for the tone and the story of the game too.

While Shubibinman 2 still parodies, it does take itself tad more seriously. The whole silly side can be found in character’s expressions and enemy designs, as well in other silly matters, but the interactions are more serious in nature. This actually does follow up well with how the parodying was evolving in the early 90’s, peaking with comedic franchises like Slayers that don’t explicitly parody anything, but under the hood those in the know are having a good damn time. The story in itself is a cliché (intentionally though), with a new enemy and evil versions of Tasuke and Kyapiko, just because. Taking place some time after the first game, Tasuke is still working as a fisherman while Kyapiko is dealing with her classes. Despite his promises to put the two under the knife and return their bodies back to normal, Doctor Goutokuji has been putting that back due to him expecting a new invasion. After many wild goose chases, Emperor Ryo and his two Shubibinman Shades, Jeeta and Myu begin begin their attack. While Jeeta is played out like any generic black repaint rival that wants to destroy the original, Myu is that meek and somewhat forced in her role, wanting peace rather than war. Spoilers, but Emperor Ryo kills her bit over halfway into the game. Of course Jeeta thinks the player offed her, and after beating him and after some convincing, one of the game’s best moments hits when Jeeta joins the player for a stage, like you were playing with another player.

It’s hard to say whether or not the departure from the first game was met with split fandom, but whatever the case, the third game would mix things up again, this time with the power of compact disc.

By 1992, PC-Engine had saw the success in its CD ad-ons and so many games on the system took advantage of the larger space with CD-quality audio and animated cutscenes, and Kaizou Choujin Shubibinman 3: Ikai no Princess (tl: Princess of Another World) was there to fulfil the trope. It also changes how the game plays, though this time it’s a hybrid between the two first games. Fighting with a sword makes as return, and alongside the slightly numb feeling when you’re hitting an opponent. Shubibinbeam is still in as a charged attack, though this time it functions more like a magical projectile you have limited controls over, like how it moves up and down, left and right. However, keeping your character intact and moving the sphere around does require some skill. Controls are what you’d expect, about as tight as the second game, though some of the hitboxes can be wonky at times. The screen also scrolls only when you’ve passed the middle mark, making this one of those games where you can’t see where you’re going. The game also likes to employ the Japanese action game design of Throw everything at the player, where enemies spawn almost constantly and keep attacking until they’re defeated or the player scrolls far enough. This in turn makes the best strategy to keep hacking and moving forwards as fast as you can. If this sounds familiar, a lot of Japanese 2D actions games did this at the time. Luckily the sword swing hits both above and slightly back of the player character, so crowd control isn’t impossible.

Sadly, all of the bosses are one-trick ponies and none of them really pose any threat. They just take time to beat. Combined with the numb game play and lacking level design, the game is rather boring in the play department. Hell, there’s exactly one spot in the whole game you need to walljump, but you wouldn’t know that unless the game told you to do that. Whether or not the game was rushed is an open question, but the game lacks specific stage hazards that had defined the first two games. It’s also probably the easiest game in the series.

Visually, the game is more or less standard PC-Engine CD quality, though it does look significantly better than its two predecessors. Most characters are now built from multiple sprites that give them some extra movement and looks rather damn nice. Sprites are bigger to boot, which does give them more detail and appear more lively. The animated FMV sequences are nothing to write home about, but at least they’re fully voiced. Just like the game, the FMVs are middle of the road. Stages use colours to a large extent and the overall is very pleasant and crisp. Sadly, the stage’s designs themselves aren’t all that interesting, as most of them have been stripped of any platforming. Few of them feel like run-through fares. Still, the background and enemy designs do stand out, even if its a fantasy fare in a SF series. Some of the enemy designs are absolutely gorgeous though, and for a 1991 title, the game does look rather impressive.

As for the sound, the levels are a bit off, effects seem like they’re taken from stock archives and music’s surprisingly muted. Despite this, the soundrack is very much what you can expect from a PC-Engine game, full of synth rock and chips in the side. You’ll probably find something to like if  you have a preference for Falcom’s PC-Engine games’ soundtrack and the like.

It appears Hitoshi Ariga worked at Winds at the time. Ariga is better known for his comics, especially of his Mega Man Megamix series. Note the translation done,

As you’d expect from the title, the story is a generic another-world tale. Shubibinman are summoned to another world during their beach vacation (androids do find appreciation in vacations, apparently.) Shubibinman end up fighting the titular princess’ forces after being summoned due to misunderstanding (hilarity ensued), until they’re thrown into the underworld to fight Demon Lord Kargan and his troops. Right after Kargan is defeated, they’re thrown back to the beach, and the princess and her goons want that technology to gain more power. Even for a series that doesn’t put much emphasize on story outside comedy, this is rather out of place. The Shubibinman Shade, rescued at the end of the second game, only appear as an omake during the credit sequence.

Whatever transpired between the third and the fourth game has never been revealed, but Kaizou Choujin Shubibinman Zero was finalised in 1994, but was released in 1997 for Super Famicom’s Satellaview service, where users could download games and other material off a special online service. The game is, in all essence, a reboot with only Doc returning from the previous games. Tasuke and Kyapiko have been replaced with Raita and Azuki, and their designs look painfully mid-90’s anime. Columbus Circle’s recent re-release makes them look much better. Tomomi Seki’s designs usually are on the spot, but for whatever reason this time they’re a miss with the in-game graphics.

The game’s play of course is nothing like the previous titles’. Instead of characters only being visually different, now the two characters play differently. Raita smashes through generic mooks with his diamond tipped boxing gloves, while Azuki plays closer to classic Shubibinman heroes with a sword. Both still have Shubibeam as their charged projectile, but that’s pretty much the only thing that was carried over. In terms of play, the game plays like a one-lane 2D brawler, a beat-em-up, with a focus on platforming at places. The controls are tight, the best in the series, and the same goes for the level design. Most of the enemies are, quite literally, grey mobs you just hack through, with some interesting level specific enemies here and there. Bosses are much better than in the previous game, but they’re a joke if you’re doing a two-player run, as the Super Shubibeam is overpoweringly strong, taking care of some bosses in one shot. You also gain experience from defeated enemies, which upgrades your health meter

Sadly, this being a Satellaview game, as well as a Super Famicom game, the sprites have been toned back. There is a nice use of colours, but both characters and stages lack in detail, and this is due to size of the sprites themselves. Shubibinman 2 and 3 made great headway how the sprites look, but Zero had to take a step back and make them look like upgraded NES sprites. Some stages use a nice green, but there’s also an overuse of brown in couple of them. That said, some of the sprite designs to convey the characters’ personalities through just fine, though not to the same extent previous two games.

The soundtrack suffered as well, with some memorable tunes here and there, but Super Famicom always sounds like it’s played through a tunnel. Some samples are very Capcom-y in places and can even get you in the mood, but the overall soundtrack doesn’t really stand out too much from the rest of Super Famicom library.

The story doesn’t go out of its way to impress, concentrating on BB Gang’s criminal activities stealing stuff left and right while blowing stuff up, and Shubibinman are there to stop them. BB Gang has their own trump card in Kagemaru, a response of sorts to the Shubibinman, while Galko, the gang’s leader, is your classic high-class lady in hi-heels ready to whip and command every and all mooks.

While there is a minor resurrection with Masaya’s IPs, with Langrisser I and II remade, Kaizou Choujin Shubibinman probably won’t resurface. Columbus Circle re-releasing Shubibinman Zero made the game properly available for the first time, and you can still pick up a copy off your favourite import stores. The rest of the games have been easily available everywhere, as PC-Engine games have been ported via emulation, like on PSN. They’re always cheaper there than their original releases, as despite the overall mediocre quality of the franchise, Shubibinman did gain a strong following and is remembered as one of the better PC-Engine games overall. It might be an example of mediocre Japanese games, the kind of Japanese consoles are full of, but its charm and overall competence does make rise to the surface a bit more. It’s not an obscure or forgotten franchise, despite what Youtube might tell you. It’s just that many other games just did it better and it’s a perfect example of products of its time.