Sunday, 26 February 2017

Onyanko Town (NES)

Traditional top-down maze games aren't very common any more, and they haven't really been since the 80s. When a new one does arrive nowadays, it'll often have a deliberate Pac-Man-inspired abstract "retro" aesthetic. Onyanko Town, released in 1985, eschews this idea, though. Probably because it was released soon enough after the Pac-era that an abstract look would have just looked old-fashioned, rather than retro. What it has instead is a cosy, friendly-looking Japanese Suburbia setting, and in that we might find two reasons for the wane of the maze game genre: that with the level of detail available on the consoles coming to prominence in the mid-1980s, there weren't many different possible ways of presenting a top-down maze, and the other reason being that towards the end of the decade, the kinds of settings that were commonly being used for videogames in general were largely narrowing down to mainly sci-fi, fantasy and military settings, to appeal to the nerdy audience that were buying a lot of games. (Yes, I know there are plenty of exceptions to this trend, but those kinds of settings definitely started to become the vast majority at around that time, and it's only recently starting to go the other way).

Anyway, you play as a mother cat, in a dress and apron, who has to roam the streets of her neighbourhood looking for her wandering kitten while avoiding the unwanted attention of all the loose dogs. Luckily, this cat has been gifted with a ery specific kind of telekinesis with which she can defend herself: if she's facing a manhole cover, and there's no barriers between her and it, she can open and close it from a distance. She's also a very talented jumper, being able to jump over any hedge, wall or house, as long as it's only one block to the other side. She can't jump while carrying a kitten, though. Thusly, each stage is sort of split into two halves: the first, in which you have your full range of movement options, and the second, after picking your kitten, which sees you trying to safely get back home minus your ability to jump. There's no time limit, though, so if you can repress your natural desire to progress, you can meander around the first stage forever, tricking dogs and collecting items for points

But this is a game that gets more fun to lay the more you learn about it and the better you get at playing it. When I first started playing, it seemed to me that your score mainly relied upon the thousand points you get upon completing a stage, as you only get ten points for making a dog fall into a manhole. Then I realised that you get a lot more points if you close a manhole after a dog's fallen in, andthis amount increases dramatically for each subsequent dog that falls in before you close it up. There's also points items that appear in the driveways of certain houses, like jewellry, cakes and cars, and in two houses on each stage, there's a fish in the driveway, just waiting for a cat to come and steal it. The fish is of course, the traditional maze game temporary power up, speeding up your movement, and allowing you to trample over dogs for fifty points ago for a limited time. It's a double-edged sword, however, as taking it also summons an angry, cleaver-weilding fishmonger who'll chase you until the end of the stage or your death, so you really have to think tactically about when and if you want to take the fish. There was one occasion when the kitten, a fish and home were all within two screens' distance, but so were five dogs all clumped together, and no well-placed manhole covers. It was very satisfying to get the fish, steamroll the dogs and dash home with the kitten.

So in conclusion, Onyanko Town is a game that will first appear to be slow, frustrating and tedious, but put a little bit of time into learning its ways and its systems, and it'll become a lot more rewarding.

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