Water bombs at dawn

What’s this, another Amiga yarn starring our old chums Ocean France and a slick – yet criminally unreleased – coin-op conversion? It can only mean one thing; it’s ‘Games That Weren’t’ time again folks.

Despite being practically complete and originally pencilled in for a Christmas ’91 release, Taito’s obscure, cutesy arcade action platformer, Liquid Kids (known in Japan as Mizubaku Daibouken, which translates to ‘The Great Water Bomb Adventure’), never graced the Amiga with an official release.

<span style="font-size: 10pt">Hipopo demonstrates the Swiss Ball. Everyone needs a hobby I suppose.</span>

“How obscure is it exactly?”, I hear you probe. Well the ‘Video Arcade Preservation Society’ notes there are a paltry “20 known instances of this machine owned by Liquid Kids collectors who are active members. Of these, 20 of them are only circuit boards which a collector could put into a generic case if desired.” Ryu wouldn’t have lost much sleep over the prospect of being knocked off his pedestal then!

Not that mass appeal is the be all and end all. The exceptionally promising, possibly-maybe spiritual successor to The New Zealand Story (in a ‘I’m not buying it’ kind of way, even if it is from the same programmer, Kazutomo Ishida) was enthusiastically previewed in the May 1991 issue of Zero magazine, and looked set to give the creaky fossil, Bubble Bobble a run for its baubles.

Nonetheless, a year on when nothing had materialised from the Ocean dungeon, Amiga Power smelled a rat. With regret, in October 1992 they reported that it may never see the light of day as Ocean waited for “the right window” in which to release it.

We have since learnt from Marc Djan, former head of Ocean France, that what Gary Bracey neglected to mention was that Ocean UK failed to secure the publishing rights to the game at the 11th hour so the many months of blood, sweat and pixels poured into the project were effectively flushed down the toilet. As with Snow Bros., Ocean commenced work on the conversion before exchanging contracts with Taito assuming the relationship was strong enough to be able to take their permission for granted based on their historically successful collaborations alone.

Hindsight tells us they were wrong, though not why the partnership broke down. It’s unlikely they had a more lucrative offer on the table because the license wasn’t awarded to one of Ocean’s rivals, so Taito failed to make a penny from the royalties they could have earned from the home micro conversion of Liquid Kids.

Nevertheless, it was released for the PC Engine in 1992 (Taito took care of the port themselves in this case), Sega Saturn in 1998, and for the PC, Xbox and PS2 in 2006 via the arcade emulation compilation, Taito Legends 2. It’s hard to fathom why Taito hadn’t negotiated with Sega and Nintendo to bring the title to the Mega Drive and SNES. You’d think it would have dovetailed neatly with their target audience, and it was certainly the time to release a cutesy 2D arcade platformer – they had never been so popular, and it’s unlikely they will ever witness that degree of mass appeal again.

<span style="font-size: 10pt">The super-mega-rare l@@k l@@k collectible PC Engine version.</span>

Fast Forward eleven years and the subject of this squandered opportunity was raised on the English Amiga Board by way of a post originally started by Bernd Gmeineder, founder of AMI Sector One, to discuss the free distribution of David Peres’ puzzle game, The Cartoons.

This naturally led to the discussion of another MIA, forsaken Amiga game, Teddy Bear, also by David Peres. This was being developing on behalf of Ocean France by the freelance coder, was considered complete, yet never hit the retailer’s shelves for reasons that don’t appear to have ever been spelled out. We can’t put this one down to failure to secure the publishing rights from a distant arcade game developer as it was an original title so in theory should have been much easier to launch.

Another tangential leap later and the conversation switched to Pierre Adane, the Ocean France developer responsible for the classy, unreleased arcade port, Snow Bros (as well as the highly accomplished Pang and Plotting coin-op ports). A serendipitous example of the six degrees of separation rule at work!

It was suggested that RCK, founder of the EAB, being a native French speaker should be the one to talk to him to establish the whereabouts of the largely finished source code for Liquid Kids and Snow Bros, and to negotiate the possibility of their extremely belated release.

<span style="font-size: 10pt">Pleeeeeease release me, let me goooooooo…</span>

Over the course of several months the debate unravelled with seemingly little progress. Even if the games were discovered, could they be released without fear of legal reprisals from the copyright holders? The ostensibly simple matter of locating a file on a cobweb-encrusted hard drive and uploading it to the web was swiftly evolved into a bureaucratic minefield.

The question it turned out was not merely an academic one. Liquid Kids graphician, Thierry Levastre (whose impressive CV also makes reference to his contribution to Plotting, Pang, Cabal and Flashback), revealed that he was still in possession of a master copy of the game, but understandably wasn’t prepared to let it slip out into the wild without prior permission from Taito. His hands were tied so it appeared that the long and winding trail had ultimately run cold.

The pitiful saga had really captured the community’s imagination, so without a hint of hyperbole, it’s safe to say they were absolutely gutted by the prospect of losing this recovered, lost treasure all over again. Even ex-Amiga Power critic, Stuart Campbell, had been following the story and was keen to offer his support to see the mission through to fruition.

“…with regard to other unreleased stuff, just a thought. If an author wanted to release a game but was scared of getting in trouble with the likes of Taito, they could perfectly legally send a copy of the game to a magazine journalist, say one who specialised in emulation, for a story on “the great games that didn’t get released” or something.

If it was to accidentally be leaked from there to a small group of users of a dead computer, well, the author wouldn’t have done anything wrong in law, so he wouldn’t be able to be sued. And the journalist, well, he’d probably be prepared to take the risk.

Just some aimless hypothetical pondering, there.”

Red Nose Day in Woody Lake. Please donate generously.

Just as any hope of the games ever being unveiled began to fade, on 26th August 2003, Italian EAB member, The Wolf, much to everyone’s amazement stepped into the breach to announce he’d managed to track down an ADF version of Liquid Kids and would upload it to ‘The Zone’, EAB’s file storage hub. This he explained had been supplied by an “anonymous friend” who snagged it from a BBS way back when. Definitely not from anyone traceable to the original development team of course.

The release was given Thierry’s blessing, and he confirmed that the copy sourced was the one being worked on right up until the moment development ceased. He added that it only needed ‘retouching’ in preparation for the distribution of the finished article. It appeared that this tale of woe may have a happy ending after all!

Ex-Fairlight (et al) cracker, Galahad, relished the opportunity to dust off his skills in producing the WHDLoad version, and within two days shared a beta with the community. Apparently the unpolished gem required a lot of work to make it executable, and would demand much more attention before a final release could be offered. In the meantime, Codetapper beavered away on the original ADF file.

Galahad provided regular progress updates as he set about fixing the many and varied bugs. He dealt with problematic blitter wait routines, corrected spelling mistakes (though left intact the dodgy Japanese Engrish for historical accuracy’s sake), compressed the game data, made it work with AGA Amigas, and squished the DMA bugs.

Sadly he may have bitten off more than he had time to chew because his sterling work wasn’t seen through to the blitter end (pun entirely intended), and as a result several minor bugs have yet to be ironed out. The beta is estimated to be 98% of the way there, and irrespective of the deficit, players can reach the end and watch the unorthodox outro in all its glory.

Contrary to popular belief, getting stuck having immediately travelled to the left when the game starts isn’t one of these bugs. It is in fact the way you enable the infinite lives/level skipping cheat mode. Positioned at the far edge of the screen, you can engage the F2-F7 keys to teleport out of the area in which you’d otherwise be stuck indefinitely.

A further twist to the already perplexing story emerged when the unfinished game was included on the cover CD that accompanied the January 2005 issue of the German magazine, Amiga Plus, along with an interview with The Wolf. It’s believed they had permission to do so from one of the Ocean France developers, though of course having never nailed down the license, legally speaking it wasn’t really for them to grant.

Any fans of the ‘Amiga Games that Weren’t’ web site may be interested to know that this series of events marked the impetus for its inception.

Bernd was so enamoured with the noble crusade of rooting out similarly elusive titles, he suggested constructing the project to act as a repository for researching and documenting their often fragile status.

In his own words…

“My plan is a platform that puts together any info (magazine snippets, information from certain people…) regarding lost Amiga stuff (both games and apps) and tries to get in contact with developers to re-release those titles. This project would be organized by a group of people with equal rights who use a non-public forum for information interchange”.

“Congratulation! You’ve buying this game. It’s a good choice!”

Buyed it, no. It is very splendid. I feel I chosed righteous. Thanking you for the clever making.

<span style="font-size: 10pt">Perhaps the most notorious Amiga Game That Wasn’t. Fear not, this one had a happy ending too.</span>

Liquid Kids’ leading man, erm, I mean hippo, is Hipopo, the least hippopotamusy hippo since Joni Mitchell. Our fearless, ultra-cutesy protagonist waddles around his Woody Lake habitat – pulling off a fantastic Kirby impersonation – in search of his missing cowfriend, Tamasun. Much to his dismay she has been hippo-knapped by the nefarious Fire Devil, along with a plethora of other quirky creatures who are probably supposed to be chimps, or dolphins or dinosaurs, or… you get the gist I’m sure.

The grim consequences of leaving your hippo in the bath too long. Let this be a lesson to you!

Actually, this is cobblers – Hipopo is technically a platypus and you’re in the business of rescuing a paddle of platypodes; we westerners got the wrong end of the stick due to a translation misinterpretation… assuming Hipopo was a truncation of hippopotamus. Stupid foreigners, eh. If you squint a lot and imagine Hipopo has been rolled up in a ball and his bill condensed, you can kind of, sort of see it. Ish.

The plot is a real gift for ADHD-addled gamers given that it’s summed up in a few pithy sentences, each one helpfully accompanied by a static illustration to set the scene. Even Donald Trump could follow this, though I’d imagine he’d struggle to keep the level of violence in check.

<span style="font-size: 10pt">Shirley shome mishtake? The pre-Galahad intro in all its glory.</span>

“Peaceful Woody-Lake.”

“The Fire Devil took Woody-Lake by surprise.”

“Transmitted miraculous power.”

“The savior, ‘Hipopo’ attack the devil to rescue his tribe and save his lover ‘Tamasun’…”

Incidentally, this is 1990 so Masahiro Sakurai’s Kirby concept wouldn’t emerge for another two years, and in any case was only ever intended to be a place-holder graphic.

During his development he went by the name ‘Popopo’ which apparently is the Japanese way of expressing gunshots or a succession of bangs …and the connection to Liquid Kids is? I was hoping you could tell me. Perhaps they’re brothers from another mother? I probably shouldn’t have brought it up. It’s too late now.

<span style="font-size: 10pt">If there’s something strange in your neighbourhood…</span>

Standing between you and your beloved better half are a menagerie of novel, often fire-themed adversaries who can only be dispatched by first incapacitating them with your water bombs and then giving them a swift boot to finish the job. Should they collide with other gribblies on route, they’ll be taken out of the equation too, as you rack up a hefty multi-kill bonus. However, if you leave them lingering in their catatonic state too long, they’ll reawaken and try to duff you up again. It should all be comfortably familiar territory to anyone who has played any of the games in Taito’s Bubble Bobble series.

You can’t beat a good old-fashioned Japanese platypus wedding. It’s what hankies were made for. Aww, bless ’em.

At the end of each themed stage you’ll encounter some of the wackiest, most imaginatively off-beat, multi-layered guardian sprites to have stalked the silicon innards of any video game PCB to date. You’ll no doubt be scrabbling to reassess your concept of ‘random’ when you first clap eyes on these blighters! It’s as though some shed-dwelling loopy schemer has bolted together whatever organic and mechanical odds and ends they can lay their hands on, and brought the hybrid juxtaposition to life with voodoo black magic. They don’t require traditional weapons, they’ll disarm you with their maniacal, mesmerising absurdity alone!

What do you get if you cross the Easter bunny with a Zippo lighter and a Mechano set?

Whilst water bombs are the only string to your bow, they are at least reasonably versatile and upgradeable. Holding down the fire button gradually causes them to inflate to pack a meaner punch, or it can be battered to dispense more compact, rapid ‘ammo’ as the tempo escalates.

Aside from water-boarding your foes, these bombs can be employed to extinguish hazardous fires, manipulate water mills or activate other aqueous-borne paraphernalia, and also to water seeds that grow into plant-based platforms to be used to access higher ground or Narnian wardrobes. The latter is a particularly efficacious party trick given that you jump with all the manual dexterity and athleticism of Eddie Honda.

<span style="font-size: 10pt">Instant telepod, just add water! Flies not included.</span>

You won’t find a multitude of bizarre power-ups here. The train symbol confers a speed boost and consequently improves the scope of your jumps, while the water pistols, pumps and buckets supercharge your water bombs in terms of rate of fire, range and radius. Finally, the roller skates serve to enhance your platform traction, preventing you from being swept away by flowing water.

The scarcity of power-ups serves to ramp up the difficulty level… not that it required any tweaking in that department; the one hit death policy, coupled with respawning enemies, hurry-hurry time limit botherer (a throwback to New Zealand Story et al), and the tendency for power-ups to reset when you lose a life, already have this angle cornered.

As with Taito’s other coin guzzlers, Liquid Kids is brimming with secret bonus rooms and alternate pathways. These can often be accessed by watering seeds which instantly germinate, the stalks climbing skywards towards a door to another world where extra lives and more demented wildlife awaits.

Similarly, each successful guardian battle concludes with the presentation of a choice of one of two doors, each leading to a different branch of the next stage, some more challenging than others.

<span style="font-size: 10pt">“One of us leads to the castle, one of us leads to certain death. One of us always tells the truth; the other always lies.”</span>

Taito games lean heavily towards extending game-play longevity and magnetism, and Liquid Kids is no exception to the rule. The ‘choose your own pathway’ trope is just one of many mechanisms employed in the titles that emerged from the esteemed Taito stable.

As you’d expect from a Taito game, food-orientated point collecting features prominently too. The motherlode is a tasty cream-slathered cherry (or is it strawberry?) sponge cake, which borrows its pick-up sound effect from Snow Bros. and boosts your score by 1000 points. This ‘cook bonus’ (speeling is overrated, who needs it?) receives a special mention at the end of each level akin to the annual plaudits at an awards show.

<span style="font-size: 10pt">The Great Japanese Bake Off.</span>

Another opportunity to reap the pointalicious rewards revolves around the water mills scattered liberally throughout the game. In a shocking turn of events, these can be activated through water balloon bombardment (a case of every problem looking like a nail when all you have at your disposal is a hammer!). On impact, the wheels spin on their axis revealing each crevice between the spokes – jump inside these gaps and all manner of collectibles are yours for the gorging.

<span style="font-size: 10pt">It’s rainin’ cake. Hallelujah. It’s rainin’ cake – amen.</span>

Games developers who have been involved in producing a series of titles that hark back to one another by way of shared themes and game-play mechanics like nothing more than to drop Easter eggs into their work for loyal fans to stumble upon as a reward for their dedication. Liquid Kids is no different in this respect. Hipopo puts in a handful of subtle cameo appearances in other Taito games – Bubble Symphony, the Playstation version of Pop ‘n Pop and Bubble Memories – while an image of Tiki of New Zealand Story fame is chiselled into the wall of one of Liquid Kids’ bonus rooms.

The bottom right image works much like a magic eye painting; stare it at for long enough and Hipopo will emerge. 😉

You want the sex? You can’t handle the sex! If you try to enter the word in the coin-op’s high score table it will be converted to ‘H’, thereby thwarting the corruption of squillions of impressionable young minds who may otherwise have turned to the dark side, indulging in all manner of lurid depravity.

<span style="font-size: 10pt">A page from the Pop ‘n Pop manual for the PlayStation. The caption reads: “Can I have my appearance fee now?” Probably. Hipopo also features in the game’s intro.</span>

The port isn’t what you might call ‘arcade perfect’, though it is a superlative example of how arcade games should be re-interpreted for less capable, home systems.

To match the frame rate as closely as possible, the number of colours have been reduced to 32 (16 allocated to the sprites, and 16 to the backgrounds), and the play area scaled down using a thick black frame, which is most conspicuous when compared with the full screen title image.

The Amiga port is also a single player game, whereas the coin-op sports an alternating two player arrangement. Hardly a deal breaker when a true two player option wasn’t on the cards to begin with.

Of course, the arcade cabinet’s two button configuration has been hobbled into one, plus the usual ‘up for jump’ system. This works remarkably well as the game doesn’t require the upwards motion for anything else.

The arcade game’s mellifluous thirteen tune soundtrack was quite rightly lavished with a standalone CD release, alongside the Space Gun audio. It was published by Pony Canyon/Scitron, and released on January 21st 1991.

Liquid Kids, Liquid Kids (so good they released it twice). The second issue was courtesy of Zuntata Records who released a limited run soundtrack album on 1st April 1999.

The Amiga port’s music is entirely different and unfortunately less heterogeneous than its arcade counterpart. Nonetheless, what is included is equally as captivating as the source material. That said, it’s a shame the catchy, clown-channelling, circus melody with all its zany car horn beeps and whistles didn’t survive the transition as it perfectly encapsulates the surreal atmosphere of this off-the-wall platforming escapade.

To its credit, the Amiga version instead features a ‘platypus in peril’ caper composition which kicks in whenever you encounter a major threat upon your fragile, furry life. As you tackle one of the oversized boss brutes, the upbeat cadence intensifies until you (hopefully) reach the crescendo of its demise, whereby the track terminates abruptly as you simultaneously breathe a sigh of relief, and a far more serene ditty fades in to replace it.

Some of the backgrounds have been modified for the Amiga port, and the arcade’s sumptuous night-day transition effect is regrettably absent. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, another facet of the arcade original to be left on the cutting room floor is the entirety of level five, the tree-climbing stage. A common casualty that can be explained by the memory and disk space constraints inherently imposed by the more limited home computer hardware.

<span style="font-size: 10pt">Duuuude, where’s my tree? Call the toll-free number 1-800…</span>

Otherwise it looks, sounds and plays like a dream. One of those groovy, cool ones where nice, impossible things somehow become possible and you’d rather not have to wake up in the morning to go to some mundane desk job in the city.

Not a bad effort at all considering Taito failed to supply any of the original data from their arcade PCB, making the task far more grueling than it really needed to be. The Amiga port was created from scratch using nothing more sophisticated than an Atari ST and the developers’ eyes and ears for reference!

Making the fantasy a reality coding-wise were Michel Janicki and Pierre-Eric Loriaux (who we also have to thank for the superb music and sound effects), while Thierry Levastre weaved his artistic magic to create the luscious visuals.

<span style="font-size: 10pt">A goggle-eyed pelican – your preferred means of transport between levels. Obviously.</span>

Architecturally speaking it’s composed of no fewer than 52,211 lines of code, 1.4mb of graphics and 218kb of music and sound – the result of 1320 hours of toil spread over a six month period fuelled by pizza and Coke.

Evidently this was no sloppy Tiertex-esque, cash-in, rush job. It takes genuine heart, soul and raw talent to produce a game of this repute.

You’d hope the French division’s dream team were sufficiently compensated for their prodigious labour of love, even though Ocean certainly weren’t. Not that money is a worthy substitute for critical endorsement and recognition for a job well done. Any developer devoted to their craft will attest to that. Knowing your progeny is out there being played and cherished is the icing on the cook (sic). Better late than never!

The Wolf “took back the water paradise, ‘Woody Lake’ from the devil’s hands!!”

“The legend attracts a brave, creating a new legend.”

“This peace is forever.”

2 thoughts on “Water bombs at dawn

  • August 13, 2016 at 2:02 pm
    Permalink

    Great article, thanks!

    I can understand that the developer was reticent to release the game in the wild given that he obviously does not own that copy and was legally not supposed to keep it for himself since it technically belonged to his employer, Taito approval of it notwithstanding.

    But what annoys me is the fact that although a working copy existed which was obviously almost ready for release, the discussion never even came close to caressing the idea of contacting Taito to negotiate licensing rights (likely small given the puny size of the contemporary Amiga market) and the owner of Ocean's software even if just to know for which price these two companies would be willing to let that product be released with a fully official label.

    That nobody even suggested it, even less, tried it, pains me because It seems to indicate to my eyes that even 30 years later, the Amiga community – although now composed almost exclusively of adults with disposable incomes – is still not ready to pay for people's work and IP rights…
    I can only hope I'm wrong.

  • August 14, 2016 at 11:54 am
    Permalink

    Glad you enjoyed it. 🙂 I love covering these quirky, largely untold stories.

    I'd hazard a guess that what happened was Ocean approached Taito in the beginning to say, "we're interested in porting these games, let's hash out the details". They then instructed Ocean France to begin work on Snow Bros. and Liquid Kids assuming the deal was in the bag and it was only a matter of signing on the dotted line. They were Ocean, had plenty of cash to splash and conversions/licensed games were their thing so it wasn't too crazy of an assumption I suppose, especially given their previously successful collaborations.

    I can only imagine that Taito didn't like what was being offered so told Ocean to sling their hook, even if it meant there being no home micro versions of the games. They would likely have published them for the C64, Amstrad CPC, Speccy, and Atari ST as well as the Amiga given half a chance. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face.

    I've got an interesting follow-up to this story coming soon which may give us a bit more insight. I'd love to talk to Gary Bracey too, but I've got a feeling he wouldn't be up for it.

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