I never thought it would happen, but last week I kicked my last trick. Or tricked my last kick. Whatever.
Okay, I knew I wouldn’t play Tricky Kick (and Tricky Kick exclusively) for the rest of my life. Even with only 14 puzzles left when I wrote about that game last week, though, I still expected it to be a little while longer before I wrapped it up. Not just because the game is hard, but because I don’t always have a ton of time to spend playing 30-year-old obscurities. But nope, I had ‘em all knocked out by Friday night, a mere two days after I wrote that article, and after only an extra, uh, five hours or so of playing. (And drinking. The drinking was always crucial to my time with Tricky Kick.)
Fortunately earlier that same day I received a package in the mail with another 30-year-old obscure TurboGrafx-16 game in it. So instead of plunging back into one of the dozens of other TurboGrafx games I’ve never completed—or, you know, something new I should probably write about at some point—I was able to play something that felt new and fresh to me, just as Tricky Kick had. That game is called Chew Man Fu, and although it’s a typically bright, colorful and cheerful bit of charming fun for the TG-16, it’s also about as breezily racist as that name sounds.
Yes, this is a game where an evil villain named Chew Man Fu steals all the egg rolls from a Chinese village. I’m not sure how much of this is on the original developers—who were Japanese, of course—and on whoever localized it for North America, but between the “yellow peril” bad guy and referring to American Chinese fast food as a beloved dish of Chinese villagers, this isn’t the most sensitive or forward-thinking of games. So just consider this a warning, I guess, if you were somehow considering playing this forgotten old game from a failed and unloved console.
If you do play it, you’ll learn that your tools of destruction are also your keys to salvation—literally. And I don’t mean in the way that you can’t survive, say, Contra without spraying bullets everywhere. There are four colored balls on every stage in Chew Man Fu, and you kill enemies by rolling those balls into them. Those same balls are needed to finish each level, though. When you roll each ball on top of a plate of the same color, every enemy blinks out of existence and you move on to the next round. The same four colored balls are in every stage, each with a specific strength. Blue ones can be carried and shot the most quickly, but do less damage than any of the others; red ones can kill almost every enemy with a single shot; black ones can break through walls (a crucial tactic) far more easily than the other colors; and the green ones are the Mario of the piece, the normal, everyday, average ball, equally decent at everything without being great at anything.
Chew Man Fu is a maze game, then, one where you have to avoid or kill enemies (who kill with a single touch) while trying to move the balls to the right spot. Navigating the balls can be tricky, though; they’re as wide as each corridor you walk through, so to turn around you need to find a perpendicular hallway and do a three-point turn. If any enemy is behind you and you can’t turn around fast enough, it can kill you with a single hit without you even being able to defend yourself. You always have to consider the motions of those bad guys (who return from the dead quickly after getting killed by a ball) while also staying on top of your angle of approach at all times. When you get good enough you’ll instinctively know which color ball to grab at the start of each level, and see the quickest path to success appear in your mind almost like it’s being overlaid onto the screen itself.
These mazes always fit on a single screen. They’re essentially puzzles to be solved, just like those of Tricky Kick, but puzzles that constantly change shape, with constantly moving elements with no set patterns. You can predict where an enemy will go, but there’s always the chance they’ll break down a different hall or head backwards instead of turning when they hit a corner.
You’d think that would make Chew Man Fu’s puzzles more replayable than other games whose puzzles never change. That chaos undermines the fundamental appeal of solving puzzles, though. In Tricky Kick you enter every puzzle knowing exactly what you have to do, and then have to churn through possibilities in your head until you figure out how to do it. It’s a clean intellectual battle between you and whoever designed each level, a dare from the developers that you’ll never understand their systems as well as they do. With Chew Man Fu, though, that pure relationship is altered by the puzzle’s unpredictability and the game’s need to have a more traditionally active videogame element. The result is a game of half-measures—not quite puzzles, not quite a platformer or action game, but a somewhat awkward combination of the two.
That’s not to say Chew Man Fu is bad. It might not be as elegant as other games, but again, it has the visual charm and vivid colors that made the TurboGrafx stand out on the marketplace back in 1990. It has far more stages than Tricky Kick, the ability to make more with the editing mode, and even boasts two-player simultaneous multiplayer, something that unfortunately requires the separate TuboTap peripheral to enable. And once you internalize its peculiar sensations, from the at-times-complicated turning techniques, to the rebound speed and strength of each ball, the actual act of play becomes more enjoyable. Too bad about that racism, though.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.