Hana Taaka Daka!?

Hana Taaka Daka!? / はなたーかだか!?- PC Engine HuCard (1991)


The PC Engine was a great hardware for shoot-em-ups as it could handle fast gameplay and high amount of simultaneous on-screen sprites with little to no slowdown. Of all the shoot-em’-ups on the system, there are only a few titles are not sci-fi themed, and Hana Taaka Daka!? is one of the more memorable one of them. It’s a HuCard game developed by Natsume and published by Taito that has a look and feel that is very much in the same vein as Coryoon, Air Zonk and Magical Chase, albeit a tad bit sillier in tone.

You control a tengu, a mountain dwelling mythological creature from Japanese folklore that often take on sinister roles, but are also known to aid humans if they find them worthy. Tengu ranges from avian beings with beaks (konoha- or karasu tengu), to winged humanoids with long red noses (daitengu). Although the tengu of this game is clearly of the humanoid daitengu, with the long red nose and wings on his back, he sort of also has the body of a crow (karasu) tengu. He sports a pair of tengu geta – a impossible-looking version of Japanese wooden sandals that only has one tooth – and his main weapon is a ha-uchiwa fan, which tengu use to stir up winds.

The title is a pun on the “hana takadaka” (鼻高々) idiom – an expression which means “proudly” or “braggingly” depending on context (cf. English: “hold one’s head high”), but literally means to have a long nose – and on the fact that the main character is a hanataka (“long nosed”) tengu, which is another name for daitengu. On English-language sites this game is often subtitled “Long nosed goblin”, which is actually not a bad attempt at transferring the general meaning into English. Another way of translating the titular wordplay could maybe be “Hold your nose high, Mr. Tengu”.

The plot centers around two kitsune (foxes) named Konta and Inari that got themselves into trouble with a gang of mean tanuki (racoon-dogs). In Japanese folklore, both kitsune and tanuki are shapeshifters and there are many stories of how they deceive people in various ways. In this game, however, the kitsune are benevolent – another angle they sometimes take on in the folklore – and the tanuki are trickster troublemakers that you have to fight. These particular tanuki were locked up in a cave in the woods, which the foxes stumble upon and manage to break open by removing the magic seal. Konta gets punched in the face and Jikanda, the boss tanuki, kidnaps Inari. The panicked Konta then does what everyone would do in this situation: he runs to the local tengu and begs him for help. It’s a simple plot but it sets the tone right from the start: this is through-and-through a quintessentially Japanese game.

The game is a traditional side-scrolling shoot-em-up, but has enough features to make it stand out in the PC Engine catalogue. The first thing that you will notice is how stunning the graphics are. The game has just the right amount of color without feeling overly cartoony, and the cutscenes, character designs and backgrounds all come together to form a world that really feels lived in. The level design is competent and even has some verticality and branching paths that can lead to various secrets; in all, the levels feels like a road that you are actively traversing, and not just an auto-scrolling backdrop. Also, this is one of those PC Engine titles that despite not having much parallax scrolling manage to feel anything but flat. The only real graphical nitpick is that some of the enemy bullets can be difficult to distinguish from the background when there are a lot of things happening at once on screen.

In terms of game mechanics, Hana Taaka Daka!? has two key features going for it. The first one is that you can expand your hit points up to three by grabbing scrolls. Doing so will also increase the size of your character and thus also your hitbox. This makes for an interesting risk-reward system: by avoiding the power-up, or actively taking hits to decrease in size, it becomes much easier to dodge bullets and enemies, but you will be killed in less hits. However, since the scrolling is slow (almost meanderingly, until you get used to it) and that you unlike most other shoot-em’-ups are allowed to touch walls without taking damage, the larger tengu sizes aren’t as cumbersome as they first might seem.

The second key mechanic is how this game discourages you from using rapid-fire by having a charge shoot á la the Mega Man series. Holding the fire button charges a gauge that that when released fires a much more powerful shot. These are needed to clear out some of the obstacles that block your way: if you don’t break them in time, you will be crushed between the obstacle and the left side of the screen. Mastering the charge shot is going to be important before you get more powered up, since the standard shot is severely underpowered. You can also pick up four different power-ups that change the projectile of the charged shot to more powerful versions: spinning tops, a flock of small karasu tengu, Kamaitachi​ yōkai (sickle weasels riding dust devils…) and a magic attack that the manual calls “white dragon”.

Other pick-ups include different types of bombs that can be fired with the second button on the controller, mini-tengu that acts as your options (you can have three at once), a shield that is a giant pair of Clackers, wings that increase the movement speed and a straw cloak that confers invincibility. Interestingly, the power-ups are tied to the different tengu sizes, and if you are not the correct size when a power-up appears, it will instead turn into money. Likewise, you will lose your options and bombs when you reach your last hitpoint. Extra lives can be gained by collecting enough points and there are a couple of checkpoints in each stage so that you don’t have to restart all the way from the beginning when you die. There is also a password system that lets you skip levels.

The game has a very silly sense of humor, and almost everything it will throw at you is a weird interpretation of various Japanese phenomena and youkai. It is not dissimilar to the Parodius series in this regard, but whereas those games are hearty pastiches and commentary on the genre, Hana Taka Daka!? is more of a tongue-in-cheek love song to Japanese mythology. This inevitably means that you will need to be well-versed in Japanese folklore and pre-1991 pop culture to get a lot of the more obscure references, though. There are a lot of clever enemy designs here, and a nice detail is that all of the enemies are shapeshifting tanuki in disguise: once defeated a small tanuki will drop from the enemies Sonic the Hedgehog style (this is also depicted on the cover). Even the balloon enemies are tanuki! Another interesting touch is that many enemies will keep following you along if you don’t kill them, meaning that it is easy to end up in situations when you are hunted by “new” and “old” enemies and their projectiles at once; just avoiding and running from enemies doesn’t really work in this game.

Some of the more memorable enemies include Kappa in speedos that throw their precious head-plates as projectiles, walking Daruma that fire hookshots at the tengu, a witch that rides a vacuum instead of a broom and will instantly kill you if you get sucked in, heavy cupids that cling to you and pull you towards the ground and a basket-on-a-stick trap that has your power-ups as a lure. There are also a lot of borderline copyright infringing enemies and bosses, such as Spiderman in a construction hard hat, a wind-up Godzilla and Arale from Dr. Slump. The first level boss is a “potato” with the likeness of the wrestler Abdullah the Butcher, who was big in Japan. Other bosses include a tanuki with giant genitals (taken straight from the folklore) and a kabuki dancer that turns out to be both Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger in disguise. The final boss is supposedly comedian Jiro Sakagami in a tanuki suit, but this is a gag that is probably lost on all non-Japanese players.

To get the “true” ending, you must find twelve pieces of the broken seal that were used to capture the tanuki in their magic prison, but the only thing that happens if you don’t get all the pieces is that the ending screens will be partially covered by the pieces that you did not find. There are two pieces in each level: one is obtained by beating the boss, and one is held by a hidden tanuki that has shapeshifted into an object. You will normally find him by taking one of the branching paths and looking for an item/obstacle with a tanuki-tail. Shooting him will send you to a bonus level that scrolls ad-infinitum, and the only way to get back to the main level is to find and shoot a second object he has shapeshifted to. These levels have a more esoteric design to them and are in general nice side-tracks to the main game. However, the later bonus levels become frustratingly difficult to solve since the tanuki starts hiding in really obtuse places, and there is seemingly no way to return to the regular level without finding him.

The music is cheerful and fits well with the overall presentation. It was composed by Kinuyo Yamashita (author of the score to the original Castlevania, among other games) who had left Konami to become a freelancer and ended up doing a lot of work for Taito. According to a 2009 interview in Original Sound Version, she used a more free approach to making this soundtrack compared to her normal M.O.: instead of focusing on a sound that would fit with the core theme of the game, she went for a gut feeling approach and thus ended up with the different genres in the Hana tāka daka!? soundtrack. The music is maybe not among her most memorable, but is still a great listen and helps set the mood of the game. The soundtrack was released on CD in the HuCARD Disc In TAITO Vol.2 collection.

Hana Taaka Daka!? is a great little game, and among the most charming shooters on the PC Engine. It is not a very difficult game unless you decide to go for all the hidden seals, and once you get used to its slow pacing, it is a surprisingly cozy experience. Compared to most other HuCard games, this one does fetch a high price on the aftermarket, but it is nowhere close to the absurd prices of Coryoon and Magical Chase.

Links and further reading:

A 2009 Interview with Kinuyo Yamashita in which she briefly discusses the soundtrack of this game:

http://www.originalsoundversion.com/beautiful-music-beautiful-lady-kinuyo-yamashita-interview/

Tofugu’s excellent primers on tengu, kitsune and tanuki

https://www.tofugu.com/japan/tengu/?s=No

https://www.tofugu.com/japan/kitsune-yokai-fox/

https://www.tofugu.com/japan/tanuki/

Japanese site that list Hana tāka daka!? as a Natsume game (the game itself does not)

http://www.geocities.jp/natsume_game/

Japanese site that names the final boss as Jiro Sakagami

http://koshinori.hatenablog.com/entry/2018/06/05/211101

 

Similar games

As much as one would think that shoot-em’-ups starring tengu would be a niche thing, there are at least two more games like this. The first game that comes to mind is the 1990 Abarenbou Tengu (“Hooligan Tengu”) – the original Famicom version of Zombie Nation – a ridiculously over-the-top game where the player controls a flying tengu mask that tries to save the US from being mind-controlled by an alien meteor. Abarenbou Tengu was also featured as the main game of Game Center CX episode 67. The second tengu shoot-em’-up is an indie game from 2014 called Nandeyanen!?:

 

Nandeyanen!? – The 1st Sûtra – XBOX Live Arcade, PC (2014)

At a first glance, this Swiss-made indie bullet hell shooter by Tchagata Games seems very far from Hana Taaka Daka!?’s colorful world and traditional shoot-em’-up gameplay, but Nandeyanen!? – The 1st Sûtra was apparently influenced by the PC Engine game, possibly even down to the “!?” punctuation. Furthermore, the official webpage for this game has the following tagline that deepens the connection: “Welcome to our special brand of Super Long Nose Shooting Game”. “Nande-ya-nen” (何でやねん) is an expression in the Kansai (Osaka/Kyoto) dialect meaning “What the hell” (with some additional idiomatic nuances lost in translation). The main character in this game is a daitengu with the inventive name “Tenguman” that has to battle an army of youkai to rescue a fox girl, i.e. basically the same plot as Hana Taaka Daka!?. Another thing in common is that the player character sprite is huge, but thankfully the hitbox in Nandeyanen!? is much smaller than the sprite and enough to allow you to dodge the barrage of bullets that are thrown at you. There is also a parry mechanism that allows you to reflect incoming bullets by pressing a button and flicking the joystick, but it is somehow quite difficult to pull with the current fidelity of the controls. The easy-mode does remove the need to flick the joystick and activates the parry shield with just the button. Some enemies have a shield of their own that needs to be broken by either a charge shot or a reflected bullet before they can be hurt, which adds an interesting layer of strategy to the battles.

The backgrounds and environmental effects look really nice and the bullets contrast well against the rest of the visuals and are easy to keep track of, which is a must in this type of game. The pencil-like, hand drawn style of the sprites does however clash quite a bit with the background style and gives the game an incoherent visual identity. The stages feature no obstacles and only showcase a few bigger set pieces, which makes the game feel a little bit empty. The music is a cool mix of traditional Japanese instruments and trip hop beats and conveys a welcome forward-momentum. The biggest drawback, however, is that the game only has three levels. The game was apparently planned to be the first in a series (implied by the subtitle The 1st Sûtra and the ending screen), but at the time of writing, no sequel or update has been released. There is an embryo to a good game here, and you can tell that a lot of love went into making it. One could only hope that the developers would revisit this someday with additional levels, a more coherent visual identity and tighter parry mechanic controls. For the current price of $2 US, this game is at least cheap enough to try out.

Links:

The official site for Nandeyanen!?:

http://tchagata.com/games/nandeyanen/

The Steam page for the game:

https://store.steampowered.com/app/386090/Nandeyanen__The_1st_Stra

The itch.io store page, where the developers clearly state that this game is an homage to Hana tāka daka!?:

https://tchagata.itch.io/nandeyanen


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