DEVELOPER: Thinking Rabbit (port by Sega)
RELEASE DATE: 1985 (JP)
Bolting down moving platforms in Rock n’ Bolt. Traveling down thirty floors in an elevator in Elevator Action. Moving boxes around confined corridors in Soukoban. Thrilling concepts for video games? Nay. But all three games share a curiously addictive nature that belies one’s initial impressions.
In Soukoban, you play as a construction worker who has to push boxes to a certain location in a warehouse. This sounds simple, but from the first stage onward, Soukoban commands you solve its strict, unforgiving puzzles in a very particular way. Since you can only interact with the boxes through pushing them (no pulling or lifting), each move must be carefully considered prior to execution. The boxes are usually clustered near each other, sometimes placed in layers. You’ll often have to push boxes in directions that don’t initially make sense in order to “free” other boxes. If you accidentally push a box into a direction or placement from where it can’t be recovered, you’ll have to restart the level all over again. Never have the words “trial and error” so readily applied to a game.
So why would anyone play such a brutal box-pushing simulator on the SG-1000? Well, like any puzzle game worth its salt, Soukoban teaches as much as it punishes. After a couple levels of screaming “What do you want from me?!”, you’ll begin to pick up on the game’s idiosyncrasies and push boxes in the direction the game wants you to. You’ll still fail – will you ever! – but success will not appear as elusive the further you progress. And when you inevitably start over, you can select any of the hundred levels to start from on the main menu screen. Even Sega knows Soukoban is hard as sin.
In addition to pushing boxes around meticulously crafted levels, Soukoban has a level editor. The editor has all the necessary features – walls, boxes, places to put the boxes – but Soukoban is so restrictive by nature that, unless your mind naturally thinks like the developers, you won’t be making reasonable levels without insane amounts of practice. And when you make a level that’s creative and clever and you want to show your friends, you’re not able to save. Lest you forget, you’re playing on the SG-1000, and as Gollum would say, “What’s a battery backup, precious?”
PUBLISHER: Masaya (JP), DreamWorks (US)
DEVELOPER: Thinking Rabbit (port by NCS)
RELEASE DATE: 01/30/90 – (JP), 05/90 – (US)
Our journey with Soukoban doesn’t end with the SG-1000 version, however. The Genesis/Mega Drive also received a version of Soukoban in 1990. In America, the game was called Shove It!… The Warehouse Game, while in Japan it was known as Shijou Saidai no Soukoban. The former is certainly a more apt title (hey! You are just shoving boxes in a warehouse!) than Shijou Saidai no Soukoban, even if it was pieced together by an early 90s focus group.
Rest assured, Shove It is pure Soukoban through and through: boxes need pushing and you’re the schmo hired to push ’em proper. The game is structured a bit differently from the SG-1000 version, though. Instead of a hundred levels back to back, Shove It gives one stage at a time, with ten rooms per stage. A “room” is just a level with a different name, and while you can complete the ten rooms in any order you choose, the next stage is only opened after all ten rooms have been completed. Since there are sixteen stages, ten rooms per stage, that makes for 160 levels. After you beat a stage, you’re given a password. Sega didn’t program this port, so there’s none of that “Start anywhere you like” generosity here.
While you still can’t pull boxes backwards, Shove It gives the option to take one move back, which is surprisingly helpful. You can also open a menu during the game that allows you to perform one of several options: ‘Reset’ begins the level over again, ‘Trace Mode’ re-traces your steps prior to the last step before pulling up the menu, and ‘Go’ opens the room selection screen. Shove It also has an edit mode, which is plagued by the same inability to save as the SG-1000 version. I’m sure battery backups made cartridges more expensive, but these edit modes are a tease without some way to save your levels. Unless you have a bulky VHS camcorder at the ready to film your inspired creation, they’ll be gone forever.
Soukoban‘s presence on the SG-1000 in 1985 seems natural, but Shove It feels antiquated for 1990, and particularly on the Genesis. Shove It graphically improves upon its SG-1000 predecessor (as well it should), but it doesn’t build upon soukoban’s minimalist foundation. There’s no power-ups, no special flourishes to take advantage of the new hardware or to give those who played prior versions of soukoban a reason to return. While Shove It is perfectly playable, the game feels like a missed opportunity to expand the limited boundaries of soukoban for a new console generation.
RELEASE DATE: 12/15/90 – (JP)
The box-pushing craze continues with Soukoban on the Sega Game Gear. Handhelds and Soukoban feel like a somewhat natural fit, particularly handhelds with color (sorry Boxxle). Like Shove It, Soukoban only gives you access to ten rooms at a time, but it does give you a password option after you beat every room. Also, while the walking/pushing speed of the construction worker feels appropriate in each level, he has five different walking speed levels you can cycle through by pressing ‘Start.’
There are three hundred whopping rooms in this go-round, which amounts to approximately 100,000 AA batteries or more, depending on your ability to push boxes in the right direction the first time. Unfortunately, the larger the room layout, the more the camera zooms out from the on-screen action, making the boxes and the construction worker abnormally small at times. Now, I understand why the developers did this: it’s slightly less inconvenient to shrink the on-screen sprites than to add an unbearable amount of scrolling to a couple hundred levels. Still, since Soukoban is already forced to work with the small, blurry Game Gear screen, making the game even smaller and harder to see does not seem like the answer, especially for players with impaired vision.
Well, shove my boxes if I didn’t enjoy the SG-1000 version of Soukoban the best. The Game Gear version’s portability and overabundance of levels makes it a must for soukoban fans on the go, but you’ll need a magnifying glass or a young child’s perfect vision to stumble through the more complex levels. The Genesis version looks the best of the three, but the game should have brought some innovation to traditional soukoban mechanics. The SG-1000 version is basic, sure, but its steel-eyed focus is what makes it feel superior over its brethren. SG-1000 Soukoban is puzzle-solving-by-box-pushing distilled to its purest form, and that ain’t not bad.
GAME GEAR: B-