In 1984, a then little-known gaming company by the name of Capcom entered the video game industry. Back then, the company only had two game designers: Tokuro Fujiwara (a.k.a. "Professor F" or "Arthur") and Yoshiki Okamoto. Both men had previously worked for Konami. During that same year, the company released four games: Vulgus, Son Son, 1942, and a Japan-only action/puzzle game called Pirate Ship Higemaru, which was designed by Fujiwara. Higemaru is Japanese for "Round Beard". This game utilized the Z80 hardware, the company's very first video arcade system.
Higemaru also has the distinction of being the first Capcom game to spawn a sequel, which was released on the Famicom and MSX2. Both games are enjoyable in their own way, the former being an overhead-view puzzle game with a pirate element to it, and the latter taking that same basic concept, and expanding on it greatly to form an incredibly fun action/adventure game.
Pirate Ship Higemaru (ひげ丸) - Arcade, Saturn, PlayStation, PlayStation 2, PSP, Xbox, PSN, XBLA (1984)
The first Higemaru game was released in September 1984. In this game, players take control of a Japanese sailor named Momotaro. The game begins with a lesson that teaches players how to play game. Afterwards, the actual game begins. Each stage is called a "deck", and on that deck are barrels, and two types enemies that will try to stop Momotaro: Higemarus (which are generic small pirates), and Bous, a Pirate leader. They will try to hide from (and hit) Momotaro, killing him off with just one hit, and it is up to him to pick up the barrels, or heavy bags, and heave them at their enemies. You can also collect anchors, which will give you temporary invisibility, and items that will help raise your score. One of them is the famous yashichi symbol, which has appeared in a countless number of Capcom games since Vulgus. After all the enemies have been knocked off the ship within the time limit, you can then advance to the next "deck". The premise of this game, in some ways, is reminiscent of Sega's Pengo, except that game featured a Penguin throwing ice blocks at his enemies.
The protagonist, it is up to him to defeat the band of pirates, and in the process, reclaim stolen treasure. Momotaro is a young, child-like Japanese sailor who must use barrels to defeat the endless army of pirates who will stop at nothing to put an end to his efforts. Momotaro reprises his role in the game's sequel Higemaru Makaijima: Nanatsu no Shima Daibouken.
Small, round bearded Pirates, who serve their leader Bous. They are the first set of enemies that Momotaro has to face. Also appeared in the sequel, but in later levels, and only in the pirate ship portions.
Small Pirate leaders, who are also the only enemies that Momotaro must face in the "Hi-Point levels". Also appeared in the sequel, but as one of the final bosses.
Every 4th "deck" is a special "Hi-Point Stage". During these levels, only the Bous enemies are the ones the player has to deal with, and it is up to the player to attack them all. Not only do the Bous provide more points than the regular Higemaru pirates, but also available on the "Hi-Point Stages" are three hidden items. The game has a total of 16 different decks. After the 16th, the game starts all over again.
The music for this game isn't much to write home about, as there are only a few tracks (including the main level theme, and the "Hi-Point" level theme), but is pretty well done for the time. The soundtrack was among the first to be composed by Tamayo Kawamoto, who's other BGM works for Capcom include the arcade versions of Legendary Soldiers, Commando, and Section Z. She now works for Taito, as a member of Zuntata, a popular (in Japan, at least) band. Graphics are pretty well detailed and animated, especially whenever Momotaro throws the barrels and bags at his enemies. The only downside to the gameplay is that because you can only move in four directions, the controls can sometimes be a bit stiff, because when turning away from an enemy that is about to hit you, or with a barrel, you might not have enough time to react, and could lose a life immediately.
The original Higemaru resurfaced, fourteen years after its original release, on the 3rd volume of Capcom Generations for both the Sony PlayStation and the Sega Saturn, which was subtitled as Dai-san-shū Koko ni Rekishi Hajimaru (it roughly translates into History Begins Here). Also featured in it were three of the company's other earliest titles in Vulgus, Son Son, and Exed Exes. Other than emulation, the game was never officially released outside of Japan, until 2005, when it was included as part of Capcom Classics Collection Vol. 1 for the PlayStation 2 and Xbox. It was also part of Capcom Classics Collection: Reloaded for the PlayStation Portable. Years later, Capcom would release Pirate Ship Higemaru with other Capcom arcade classics for Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network.
Two and a half years after Pirate Ship Higemaru, Capcom released a sequel for the Famicom called Higemaru Makaijima: Nanatsu no Shima Daibouken, which is Japanese for Round Beard Hell Island: Seven Islands of Great Adventure. It had been a little over a year since the company entered the home video game console market, and up until the game's release in April 1987, the company had five NES/Famicom titles under their belt: Arcade adaptations of 1942, Son Son, Ghosts 'n Goblins (Makaimura), Commando (Senjo no Okami), and Trojan (Tatakai no Banka). Unlike the previous Higemaru game, and unlike their previous NES/Famicom titles, this one was strictly a non-linear action/adventure title (the company's first), and was basically their answer to Nintendo's The Legend of Zeld, which hadn't been released in the U.S. yet.
Momotaro, back from the first game, must now sail the ocean, collecting keys from different pirate ships, and using them to unlock each of the seven islands, so that he can gather clues, and gain additional equipment, which will be necessary in uncovering the greatest treasure, which was once owned by a long deceased legendary pirate named Baido.
The names of the seven islands are as follows: Cuck, Curse, Mermaid, Hebi (Japanese for Snake), Dokuro (Skull), Ookami (Wolf), and J. Knife (or Jack Knife). When trying to unlock the door to an island, you must look for the pirate ship (which is colored in black, and has a pink flag, with skull and crossbones). You must then defeat a certain amount of enemies, so that you can unlock the door to the boss of that ship, defeat him, get the corresponding key for the island, and then unlock it with that key upon docking in front of it.
The islands feature their own set of enemies (some of which appear in more than one island), as well as a boss that must be defeated. You can now throw rocks that are scattered around at your enemies, instead of just barrels. During your search in these islands, you should also look for items that will aid you in your quest, such as a lamp that is required to unseal an island before actually unlocking it, a chart to help depicter the old language on the monoliths, and a sword that can only be obtained if the last three digits of your hit points have three zeroes (ex. 25,000), and will instantly kill the final boss. When you're about to return to the beginning of an island, after collecting everything that can be collected, look for pitfalls to jump into, instead of walking all the way back to the entrance. The ending will be different, depending on how many crystals you've obtained; collecting all three will result in the best ending (Momotaro uncovering the lost treasure of Baido, following a rundown of all the enemies on all the islands, and the staff credits set to pictures of all of the islands.)
Many aspects have been greatly improved over its predecessor, not only in but also adding little touches to it. There is a hit point counter, and possible ways of increasing it, which include rolling an object down a good number of enemies. This technique is especially useful against the Higemarus near the end of the game, who do a lot of damage to you. Collecting items can also increase your counter, including hidden ones such as the yashichi symbol. But it's not without its flaws. Unless you have a complete map of the overworld, it's very easy to get lost while sailing, searching for the next pirate ship to obtain the next key from, and then using it to unlock the island that it corresponds to, not to mention that near the end of the game, you'll need to look for a special "Ghost Ship", where defeating the boss on that ship, will give you one of the items that is essential to winning the game, and that you'll have to backtrack to another island, just to get one more essential item (thankfully, the backtracking in this game is minimal). Also, if you're playing this game for the first time, it's recommended that you write down the password (you can view the password on your subscreen by pressing the select button), because if you die once, it's game over, and there are no continues, unless you use the password to continue where you left off. No save files like in The Legend of Zelda, unfortunately.
The graphics are pretty good for early NES standards, the backgrounds for the oceans, the pirate ships, the objects, the islands, and the sprites are all nicely detailed, nothing that sticks out so badly. Speaking of detailed islands, the design for Dokuro Island is nicely done. It's even shaped in the form of a skull! Much like the gameplay, the music is also an improvement in this game. The overworld, the pirate ships, the boss battles, the islands, and the ending all have different music cues, and fit perfectly (although the overworld and pirate ship themes can get a bit redundant at times). Some of the best music cues include the boss theme, Cuck Island, Curse Island, Mermaid Island (with its samba-like rhythm), Dokuro Island (the music for this island perfectly captures its creepy atmosphere), Ookami Island, and J. Knife Island. Music for this game was done by Debara Tarumi and Yoshihiro Sakaguchi (Yuukichan's Papa), the latter whose other works include 1943, DuckTales, Final Fight, the NES version of Legendary Wings, Mega Man 1 & 2 as well as the original Street Fighter.
The most noteworthy thing about this game was the homage that it paid to Ghosts 'n Goblins in the 4th level, Hebi Island (hence why this game was subtitled as Makaijima; GnG is known in Japan as Makaimura.) Upon entering the island, which consists of an eight-story tower, a man will warn you that the remaining enemies from Ghosts 'n Goblins were sealed up in the tower. Since Momotaro doesn't have a javelin like Arthur from the GnG games does, he'll have to deal with them by throwing rocks at them. The enemies from GnG that he'll have to face are the Zombies, the Fire Flies, the Blue Killers, and the boss of the level, the Cyclops, who, unlike his appearance in GNG, now has the ability to throw fireballs. In addition, the final boss in the game is the infamous Red Arremer, who has drove anyone whose played the game into complete frustration. This adorable looking red gargoyle even had his own spin-off franchise, which consisted of three action/adventure games: Gargoyle's Quest I & II (or Red Arremer I & II) on the Game Boy and NES respectively, the latter also had a Japan-only GB port, and Demon's Crest (or
Around the same time as the release of the Famicom version, there was also an MSX2 version, which was released under license by ASCII, who had also produced the MSX versions of 1942 and Commando. This version is virtually identical to the other one, but with some slight changes: there is now a directional arrow that helps you in finding out the location to the next pirate ship, the locations for some of the items have been rearranged, and the secret message that helps you in uncovering Baido's treasure has been slightly rewritten. The music is also slightly different-sounding, and the graphics are slightly better. For example, the Pirate leader on the ghost ship actually looks like a skeletal ghost, compared to the Famicom version, where he looked like every other Pirate leader. A creepy, but nice touch. The only drawback is that the screen scrolls a bit slower, a common problem for MSX games. Also worth noting is that this version is a tad harder compared to its Famicom counterpart. The game was also issued on I-appli phone applications in 2006 in Japan.
Capcom had plans to release this game in the U.S. under the name Makai Island, but that never quite happened. It's not entirely why it didn't make it, but perhaps it was due to Nintendo of America's policy at the time that only allowed five games per year to be released by a third party developer. Fortunately, in 2007, the unreleased English prototype for the game surfaced. It was essentially going to be similar to the Japanese version, but changes had to be made in order to fit the U.S. standards. For example, the text for the dialog portions were originally written vertically and were scrolled from right to left in traditional Japanese style, whereas in this version, the game would cut to a black screen to show the text, kinda like in the NES version of Strider. The cryptic messages on the monoliths were also rewritten, so that they would be easy to understand for English-speaking gamers. Finally, out of fears of stereotyping African-Americans, some of the enemies on Cuck Island were altered.
The naked white men with moai heads (originally looked like blackface cariactures) in the canceled U.S. version) of Cuck Island.
Small spear-wielding enemies in Cuck Island.
Rock-throwing enemies found in Cuck Island. They resembl octopi here, but their imagery was a bit more racist in the Japanese version.
The boss of Cuck Island.
Blue-hooded enemies in Curse Island that throw knives.
Blue-hooded enemies in Curse Island that throw fire.
Red-hooded enemy in Curse Island.
The boss of Curse Island.
Fish that jump in and out of water in Mermaid Island.
The Octopus boss in Mermaid Island. Attacks you with tentacles.
One of the enemies from the Ghosts 'n Goblins series, also from Capcom. Can be found in Hebi Island.
The boss of Hebi Island. Can throw fireballs at you, something that he couldn't do in Ghosts 'n Goblins.
Another one of the Ghosts 'n Goblins enemies that can be found in Hebi Island.
Yet another Ghosts 'n Goblins enemy that can be found in Hebi Island.
First kind of enemies from Dokuro Island.
Second kind of enemies from Dokuro Island.
They look like trees, but can harm you if you get close to them. Can be found in Dokuro Island.
Desert enemies on Ookami Island.
The boss of Ookami Islands. Throws fireballs at you, as you would. No relation to King Kong, or even Donkey Kong, of course!
Looks like the abominable Snow Man. Can be found in J. Knife Island.
Lays bombs. They look very similar to the spinys from the Mario games. Also found in J. Knife Island.
They bite you by leaping out of crevices. Also found in J. Knife Island.
The infamous red Gargoyle from the Ghosts 'n Goblins games, and the final boss of this game.
Although there hasn't been a new Higemaru game since 1987, Capcom didn't completely forget about it. In 1993, they produced and released an SNES adaptation of the Disney animated series Goof Troop. In this game, one or two players, can play as either Goofy, or his son Max, or simultaneously. During a fishing trip, P.J. and Pete, Goofy and Max's friends, were kidnapped by a Pirate ship, and Pete has been mistaken for a Pirate leader. The game has you go through five levels, all while solving puzzles, each one harder than the last, and some of the gameplay elements are reminiscent of Higemaru, like how you throw barrels and other objects at your enemies, and that the gameplay is done from an overhead perspective; the final level even takes place on a Pirate ship (much like the Pirate ship portions of Higemaru Makaijima, and all the levels of its predecessor.)
It's because of these elements that Goof Troop can be thought of as a spiritual successor to Higemaru Makaijima. Goof Troop features ocean levels (similar to Mermaid Island), forest levels (similar to Cuck Island), a castle level (similar to Hebi Island, but without the characters from Ghosts 'n Goblins), and a cave level (much less creepier than Dokuro Island). However, there are completely different items that you can collect use, such as a bell to distract enemies, a rope gun to help you cross over gaps, and keys to unlock doors. Unlike in Higemaru Makaijima, the items you collect are not permanent. You can only carry up to two items at a time, so be sure to use and discard wisely. You also get a limited amount of continues, as opposed to Higemaru Makaijima, where you don't get any. Goof Troop was designed by Shinji Mikami, who later went on to create the Resident Evil series three years later. Goof Troop is worth picking up, especially considering that Capcom usually made high-quality games based on popular Disney licenses, and this one is no exception.
One of the characters in Namco × Capcom is Sylphie, the shopkeeper from Forgotten Worlds (or Lost Worlds) in Japan. She has an attack in which she throws barrels in the same way that Momotaro did.
It's doubtful that there will ever be another Higemaru game, especially since it's even more obscure compared to Bionic Commando, and that Capcom is mainly interested in Mega Man, Street Fighter, and Resident Evil. But Capcom does deserve props for at least bringing the first game overseas. Maybe someday, they will release the second game on the Wii's Virtual Console. One can only hope.