Maid in Yapan

Aside from Maniac Mansion, few Amiga adventure games allow you to play as more than a single character, so having a choice of three and also being able to flick back and forth between them at will was still considered quite a novelty in 1992 when Dynabyte Systems’ Nippon Safes came along. Day of the Tentacle, published the following year, adopted the same unorthodox approach, yet wasn’t officially released for the Amiga.

It’s no wonder this isn’t a popular plot device as it necessitates designing the same game from multiple different perspectives. As experienced by a series of protagonists imbued with unique personalities, behaviour and dialogue trees.

In Nippon Safes Inc. (and its sequel, Big Red Adventure) we steer three diverse ex-cons, recently released from the ‘Big House’. A dodgy former Oxford electronics engineer turned safe cracker (Doug Nuts)…

…seductive hip-twerking diva/erstwhile ballet dancer (Donna Fatale)…

…and a mentally challenged former boxer and ‘dackhand’ who is always getting into ‘scropes’ (Dino Fagioli).

 

French players may know Doug alternatively as ‘Dough Nuts’ as that’s how it’s written in their section of the multilingual manual. Not in Italian, English or German, just French, suggesting it was more of a slip of the keyboard than an intentional witticism.

Before we begin we’re invited to take a personality test found in the manual to decide which avatar is the most appropriate match should we wish to stick to just one. On the selection screen Donna is described as being “intrguing (sic), vain without scruple” and furthermore as “a sexy chap” so it looks like all the bases have been covered. Oh, I’ve got a picture here. Well it was a waste of time describing that wasn’t it.

Although not immediately apparent from the intro, we’ve been bailed out of jail by an enigmatic, caring-sharing altruist who wants to help us go straight and rebuild successful, honest lives. Of course not! Where’s the fun in that?

He actually intends to blackmail us into acquiring three obscure, sacred artefacts e.g. a priceless jade Buddha statue located in the Saku-Rambo monastery, entry to which obliges the completion of initiation rites.

 

Did I mention he’s the former proprietor of the now bankrupt Nippon Safes company? Oh, well he is. That’s where the title of the game comes from. Nippon is the Japanese name for Japan. That’s why 21 other games exist with ‘Nippon’ somewhere in the title.

Thus ensues a prolonged fetch-quest entailing the discovery of who wants x in exchange for y. You know the usual point and click adventure scenario. If we get stuck attempting to solve a particular puzzle it’s possible to switch to another character at will to continue the main arc of the quest. Since we bump into the sub-benched characters, and the landscapes and scenarios are all interlinked, we can often learn how to fathom out a tricky conundrum by veering off at a tangent, accidentally stumbling across the solution later. It’s a clever mechanic that naturally helps to keep the story rolling without the usual frustration of hitting brickwalls… with no JCB to hand.

Dynabyte hit upon a unique way of describing the situation, even though the approach itself wasn’t totally innovative.

“In Nippon Safes Inc. you will experience the misadventures of our three friends against the backdrop of the Japanese metropolis of Tyoko.

In this piece of fiction the three stories proceed alongside one another and are indissolubly linked. You may decide to solve them one at a time or to alternate them.

This is the PARALLACTION system. Whatever happens you will never get stuck, and you won’t die!”

So exciting it has to be SHOUTED OUT LOUD!

Curious that Dynabyte chose to dyslexify the name of a real Japanese city, manufacturing a fictional stereotyped interpretation of it, as though the genuine name was trademarked. In accord with the rest of the game and manual it’s hard to tell if this was a deliberate gimmick to avoid a direct comparison with Tokyo, which the Japanese might find offensive, or a sloppy typo.

Oh, wait, here’s the explanation in the manual/not-so-subtle copyright protection check system (it’s brimming with Japanese trivia, tested in-game)…

“NIPPON SAFES INC.: the wonders, innovations, contrasts and paradoxes of present-day Japan through the indiscreet eye of the West.

NIPPON SAFES INC. is in no way intended to be disparaging or offensive towards the Japanese culture and people, whose conquests and traditions we admire and respect.

We apologise in advance should any facts or (purely coincidental) references to existing people or things offend anyone’s sensitivity.

NIPPON SAFES INC.: so let’s fasten our seat-belts (or braces) and take off without waiting any longer for Tyoko, somewhere not better identified half way between Tokyo and Kyoto as the crow flies.”

While the presentation is often exceptional (explaining why Nippon Safes had to be delivered on 5 disks), the efforts to translate the game from its native Italian tongue are shoddy beyond belief. It’s dialogue bubbles are chock-full of spelling mistakes (philanthropophagist?), grammatical errors and bizarre word substitutions. It’s Donna’s ambition to become a professional ‘Breadway’ singer, and even two different mauled spellings of Tokyo co-exist in-game… Tyoko and Tioko. Did I blink and end up back in the middle ages before we’d decided on definitive spellings for words? If you’re going to get it wrong, at least do it consistently. Some words have actually been replaced with symbols rather than words.

“I’ve heard of English, I’ll have a go!”, exclaimed the cleaner after overhearing a conversation about translating the game.

Hmm, or maybe all the ‘mistakes’ were deliberate and it’s supposed to be a reflection of the Japanese tradition of butchering the English language, and not giving a damn. Because that’ll do, get it packed and on the boat. Ha, the joke’s on us! Double-hmm. Possibly I’m giving Dynabyte the benefit of the doubt where they don’t deserve it. Who knows?

Quirky pidgin Engrish aside, the dialogue is decipherable, if not particularly compelling. Response trees usually consist of three options, so you have the potential to influence others’ behaviour through manipulating the conversations in the right direction. If it sounds passe to even mention this, keep in mind that earlier adventures only had the option to talk or not. What is actually said is beyond your control in such cases. You’re a spectator wheeling the cast into position and pulling the chord to make them talk.

Nippon Safes aims to be humorous, with hit or miss results. Two members of the development team, for instance, feature as caricatures in the Hot Sushi bar, opening with a groanworthy reference to a new game they are currently working on; ‘The Mistery (sic) of Ape Island’. LucasArts must have stolen their idea etc. It’s not the only time the fourth wall is well and truly smashed.

Other jokes you will have heard before a dozen times, but are executed so well you don’t mind so much. Like the one that entails the Dumbo of the party talking a morbidly depressed man out of jumping off the top of a skyscraper… only to accidentally knock him off once he’s had an epiphany and is dreaming of a brighter future. I think Laurel and Hardy might have done something along similar lines. What’s also worth noting is that the jumper is labelled ‘suicide’ if you hover your cursor over him. I don’t think anyone has ever christened their baby that, looking this far into their bleak future for inspiration.

Sometimes the jokes are more accurately described as visual nods towards pop-culture franchises or technology that fellow nerds would appreciate.

Otherwise what is Dr Spock doing working as a desk clerk at the hotel?

Ditto for Elvis in the Hot Sushi bar. Hey, he looks just like the guy who works in my local chip shop! Swears he’s the real deal too.

If you remember one joke from Nippon Safes though, it’ll be the one concerning Donna’s ‘bottle show’ act. Not necessarily because it’s funny, just that it’s of the ‘running’ variety… the kind that runs and runs and runs ad infinitum.

Performing it is the sole reason she’s incarcerated… repeatedly, making her notorious in the community. What the trick entails is never explicitly (pun intended) expressed, although as she’s a risque dancer in a sleazy club you can probably imagine.

Music and sound effects are sparse, though competently composed and all the more appreciated because you’re made to wait for them. I read somewhere that the opening title music is a rendition of Peter Gunn’s theme tune. What, the Blues Brothers track? Hmm, I’m not detecting that. There’s a bit of plot crossover I suppose so it sort of, kind of would make sense. Ish. Whatever it is, the plinky-plonky toy piano ditty is pretty catchy and fits the playful vibe really well.

You’ll be too busy drooling over the lush cartoony graphics and endearingly stilted animation to pay much attention in any case. Some of the backdrops are stunningly beautiful, rivalling the adventures unanimously considered classics.

Clearly copious resources and attention were lavished on the aesthetics. Beyond the more prominent refinements, also on presenting the panoramas in novel, intriguing ways. Selected scenes are isolated as though sliced away from their landscapes and superimposed over a ‘Tokyo by night’ postcard. You know, total darkness. It’s a joke. Not a very good one it seems.

Anyway, it’s a really striking effect, especially when you see cars driving over an area of road that you have to imagine exists. Elsewhere the same style is engaged for the park scene in that the sides of the backdrop are cut away to give the impression you’re looking at pop-up card-craft, or a stage play.

Ironically, the animation, which isn’t nearly as polished, works in its favour since it emphasises the cartoony, surreal ambience. Sometimes characters seem to glide over the terrain as if they’re moving faster than their strides would dictate. Maybe that was deliberate, I’ve seen it before in animated TV shows. I’ll give Dynabyte the benefit of the doubt and call it parody.

They could certainly whip out top-shelf animation when they put their minds to it. You can’t help smile at the part where Donna escapes through a window in the emperor’s residence, swims across an expanse of water, emerging dripping and dishevelled. A quick shake of her flowing auburn locks and she’s ready for the catwalk once again. Brilliant!

Better still, her wiggling dance routines on stage in the Hot Sushi bar are bordering on hypnotic. 😀

On another occasion she undergoes a complete makeover to look like famous singer, Susy Yong, to fool the emperor into assisting her. Yet her ‘transformation’ is, shall we say, somewhat lacklustre. She looks identical to pre-makeover Donna. Either that’s a joke, or someone forgot to redesign her sprite. Regardless, the emperor is convinced by her disguise so make of that what you will.


Controls are logical, utilising a right click menu rather than a permanently on screen HUD as in the earlier LucasArts games. Talk, open/close, examine and take commands are selected from this before clicking on the target of the action, whilst walking is instructed simply by left-clicking on the desired location. The pointer adapts according to your proposed commands to inform the player what action will be executed if they subsequently click on an object in the environment.

We wrap up with a dramatic six and a half minute ‘final’ in which our Godfather-esque boss’s true identity is revealed. I think they mean finale. Whatever. You already know this because I told you earlier. The Three Stooges, however, aren’t aware that he used to co-own the world’s most revered safe manufacturing company, Nippon Safes Inc.

In typical James Bond villain style he also reveals the real reason he needed them to steal the three elusive items on his shady shopping list. They each contain a key to the most secure safe ever devised, sequestered away by his partner, the true brains behind the operation. Inside the safe resides the most valuable book in the history of history; one containing the secret to breaching all the other safes in the world.

Now in possession of all the keys, no-name-boss manages to open the safe expecting it to fulfil his wildest money-grabbing, criminal dreams… then gets a nasty shock when it swallows him up and plummets through a trapdoor. Probably descending to the depths of hell to be flame-grilled for the rest of eternity.

He’s been double-crossed you see, since his partner – now deceased and speaking via a pre-recorded message – got into the safe-making business to protect people from scurvy thieves rather than aiding and abetting them, and knew his partner is a wrong’un.

It’s a more impressive conclusion than the preamble would lead us to expect. Never has an object-fetching exercise felt so much like an object-fetching exercise – it’s actually built into the plot rather than simply being a by-product of it, as is usually the case. It could at least have been embroidered a bit for subtlety’s sake, to keep the player immersed in the fantasy.

Nippon Safes certainly shines in places, not so much like an imperfect diamond, more of a swinging-pawed, golden plastic cat in a Japanese tourist gift shop. An amusing novelty in the short term… soon destined for the charity donations box. I definitely wouldn’t give it shelf space in my safe. It would be criminal to suggest otherwise.

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