Wakusei Aton Gaiden (Planet Aton Side-Story)
Platform(s): Famicom Disk System
Release Date: November 1990 (Japan exclusive)
When games come from an unexpected place, be it through their developer, country of origin or distribution method, they more often than not have an interesting story behind them. The Famicom era are notable for presenting some of the earliest and most memorable instances of promotional games, with various companies and establishments making use of the Famicom boom to get their products into the hearts, minds and homes (and not to mention game collections) of families across Japan. Be it a version of Mario Bros. created to advertise curry or a version of Gradius where all of the power-ups have been replaced with noodles, it seems that it was hardly uncommon to find games which had been created or modified for promotional needs.
What is slightly more rare, however, is when a government ministry is behind said promotional game; in the case of Wakusei Aton Gaiden, a Famicom Disk System exclusive shoot-’em-up released in 1990, the ‘Kokuzeichou’ (Japanese National Tax Agency, essentially their equivalent to inland revenue) are responsible for all publishing duties, as well as being credited for the game’s development (although in this era, it’s possible that the real developers may have been contracted in to work on the project and remained anonymous – some believe that Daisuke Amaya, aka Pixel of Cave Story fame, may have been involved in this bizarre tax office title). It’s hardly a surprise that government agencies are rare dabblers in game development, but the release of Wakusei Aton Gaiden as well as many other commercial games in the era in particular shows not only the power and reach of the Famicom boom within Japan, but that everyone from food companies to tax collectors had caught on and were looking to make the most of the phenomenon.
Now, to set the scene; in the far reaches of space, the titular planet Aton is gripped by the terror of an invading force, attacking with a mixture of powerful spacecraft and assorted trivia questions dealing with a variety of topics, the majority based around the Japanese economy. Up to two players take control of Kanta and Yuki, two young pilots set on defending their planet from this mysterious enemy, as well as learning a thing or two about Japan and the economic bubble and subsequent inflation that took place in Japan in the late 80s and early 90s, something equally as menacing as any hostile alien army.
The gameplay consists of a single vertically scrolling shoot-’em-up stage that last for 8 minutes, interrupted at various intervals with trivia questions that grant huge score bonuses in response to correct answers. The shooting sections are incredibly simple, with a single enemy shot damaging your ship and reducing your rate of fire, and a further attack destroying you. Limited time additions to your ship can be picked up to increase your rate of fire, helping overcome enemies much faster. Despite piloting a seemingly weak vehicle to begin with, as well as having to fend off enemy attacks from four different directions, the game is generous with difficulty, giving you infinite respawns no matter how many times you die – after all, this is an educational game first and foremost, and an effort has seemingly been made to reflect this in the gameplay so as not to alienate the many non-gamers who likely acquired a copy of this now-elusive title at a tax seminar or something of a similar manner.
Such a simple game is accompanied by appropriately simple graphics, but some big, colourful sprites and charming enemy designs make for a nice visual complement to the game’s short shooting interludes. Small, progressive details such as ringed planets, clusters of shining stars, distant galaxies and the fortifications of alien space stations help to create bold backgrounds that keep the game looking fresh throughout the whole 8 minutes, with enemy types varying in-between trivia questions to further add to this. As opposed to the gameplay’s more cartoonish look, the games protagonists are illustrated in a distinctly 90s anime style that’ll likely appeal to any fans of the era. The game’s music is catchy and easy on the ears, although understandably brief considering the game’s length.
Unfortunately, Wakusei Aton Gaiden‘s big failing comes from the fact that it’s intended educational function overshadows every other aspect of the game; deaths, collectables, enemies and completion time are largely irrelevant and your final score, which depends crucially on your answers to the various trivia questions, is the only important outcome from each 8 minute session aside from whatever knowledge you might pick up about early 90s Japanese economics. Despite this, it’s hard to fault the game when it comes to achieving its goals; it offers trivia relevant for the era and presents information about a quite dry topic in a manner much more fun and interesting than a simple pamphlet or video. Distributed free of charge primarily through seminars and methods not unlike those seen on the Famicom Disk Writer, it’s no surprise that this has become one of the most expensive and sought-after titles in the Famicom Disk System’s library, but if you do decide to go hunting for Wakusei Aton Gaiden, it’s likely going to be entirely for collection purposes – unless you can read Japanese and have a sharp knowledge of the country’s economy, you’ll be in for a real challenge.