Monday, February 3, 2014

NES Replay: Chubby Cherub

Developer: TOSE
Publisher: Bandai
Released: October 1986
Up until mid-1986, every game released for the NES was published by Nintendo. However, what really made the NES great weren't just the games Nintendo made but the ones that third-party companies published as well. There was a rich vein of third-party games that ran through the NES, from A Boy and His Blob to Zanac. Some of them, like the Mega Man games, Castlevania and others, were classics in their own right. The vast majority were not.

Of all the third-party games, Chubby Cherub has the distinction of being the first one we'll cover. Technically speaking, Bandai released three games at the same time, but alphabetically Chubby Cherub came first. Lucky us.

It's a really, really odd game, and it makes you wonder: Out of all the fantastic third-party games that were released for the NES, how did a game like Chubby Cherub end up being first in line?

Namco Bandai is a huge toy manufacturer today, but in the 80's and 90's they were even bigger. They went through a brief slump in the early 2000's and ended up merging with Namco, and that's where they are today.

Bandai had a close relationship with Nintendo. They were one of the earliest companies to identify the NES as a hit, so they were the first to market with their third-party games and accessories. For example, they produced the Power Pad, which ended up being released in Japan in 1986 and stateside in 1988.

But why make Chubby Cherub? Where did the idea even come from? Well, the three games Bandai released in the 1986 were based on pre-existing Japanese properties. Chubby Cherub actually was based off of a manga about a ghost named Q-tarō. Q-tarō flew and was afraid of dogs (specifically beagles), so those elements made it into the game.

Stateside, though, almost no one was familiar with the manga. Bandai still had a game that was complete and ready to be released, and they wanted to send it to America. To do so, they made a decision that became the de facto standard for Japanese games for several years: Bandai changed character names, so Q-tarō the ghost became Chubby Cherub. Next, they made some minor translations and changed the sprite for Q-tarō into an angel. Finally, the manual spelled out a new story for Chubby Cherub. Nothing else really changed.

That made Chubby Cherub supremely weird. Why exactly was a fat little angel flying around eating food and avoiding dogs? Who knows? When you understand the manga that Chubby Cherub is based off of it makes more sense, but there was no way of knowing this information back in the 80's. In a weird way, since large chunks of these games would go unexplained or poorly translated, these weird little quirky games were the first exposure a lot of people had to Japanese culture. I guess we should thank them? I think?

Anyway, Chubby Cherub at least has some interesting concepts. While a lot of later developers emulated the hop'n'bop style of Super Mario Bros., Chubby Cherub focused on movement and evasion. Chubby Cherub flies around the levels looking for food and avoiding dogs. Rarely will you want to take on most enemies head-on.

While evasion can be an interesting gameplay idea, it doesn't work well here. It just feels clunky and dull, like you're using a Mack truck to navigate an obstacle course built for a sports car. Since you can just fly over most obstacles, it's not horribly challenging unless you want it to be.

It also demonstrates how clearly level design can make or break a game. Chubby Cherub's levels have more padding than the titular Chubby Cherub himself. The levels show you the same stuff over and over and over again with no flow whatsoever. You'll see the same few enemies, the same few buildings and the same obstacles.

Chubby Cherub only has two things going for it: There are no bottomless pits and it's weird. That's not enough to keep any game fun to play for long.

Final Rating:

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