I have spent more time than is probably strictly necessary pondering who my first “video game waifu” was.
My initial reaction was that it was Sophia Hapgood from Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, and to be fair that would be an eminently solid choice for a first digital love. But I had a feeling there was someone special before that… but who?
Picking up a copy of puzzle game Soldam for Nintendo Switch, which I’ll be taking a more in-depth look at soon, reminded me that ah yes, it was Rit from Jaleco’s Rod Land.
Rod Land is a single-screen “kill all the enemies” platform game in the mould of Bubble Bobble and its ilk. Originally released in 1990, it is, unfortunately, one of those games from the era that seems to have been largely forgotten by most people, unlike many of its contemporaries. And this is a real shame, because not only do I still have lingering feelings for Rit (thanks primarily to that saucy winking animation she does if you leave her alone for more than a second, also her hair is nice), but it’s one of the more interesting examples of the subgenre.
For the unfamiliar, which chances are is most of you, Rod Land casts you in the role of the magical fairy sisters Rit and Tam, whose father is absent (and likely deceased) and whose mother has been kidnapped by a giant bird thing. Entrusted with a magical monster-whacking staff (or, uh, rod, if you will, I guess) and a pair of ladder-creating boots each, the pair set out to save their mother from the hideous fate that awaits her atop the “Maboots” tower. The game allows for one or two players to play simultaneously, with player one taking control of the extremely girly pink-haired Rit, while player two has the rather tomboyish Tam under their command.
Much like other games of its ilk, each stage in Rod Land requires you to clear all the enemies off the screen before you can proceed to the next. There’s a slight twist on the usual formula, though: you can’t jump. Instead, you have the ability to create a ladder above or below yourself using the second action button — though note that enemies can use these as well, so don’t think you’re safe perched precariously atop your girly pink ladder, otherwise you’ll have a smug-looking shark or weird blob thing sniffing around your fragrant fairy panties before you know it. And no-one wants that.
Like in Taito’s Bubble Bobble and its subsequent follow-ups, you can’t kill the enemies directly; instead, hitting them with a short-range burst of magic from your staff immobilises them, at which point you need to batter them repeatedly on the floor either side of you in a surprising display of adorable brutality.
While smashing an enemy on the ground like this, you can beat other enemies over the head with their friends, which immediately dispatches them and also drops “attack items”. When collected, these objects, which range from bombs to missiles via explosive bouncy balls, move in a particular fashion before exploding with some delightful onomatopoeia, at which point anything caught in the blast will turn into a block emblazoned with a piece of fruit. These are, of course, worth points. In other words, Rod Land’s basic gameplay has that classic arcade game balance of risk versus reward — you can play it safe and complete each level by dealing with one enemy at a time, or you can attempt to take a whole bunch out in one go for a shot at some big points.
There’s an additional mechanic laid atop this that ties in to both scoring and your survivability. Each stage features a number of flowers growing in increasingly awkward locations as you progress, and grabbing all of these before all the enemies are defeated starts the “Extra Game”, where the enemies transform. Killing a transformed enemy drops an orb with one of the letters of the word “EXTRA” on it, and spelling out the whole word rewards you with an extra life and 10,000 points. Not only that, but grabbing the flowers in sequence without attacking enemies scores increasingly large amounts of points per flower, up to a maximum of 800.
Rod Land has a surprising amount of depth to its scoring, then, giving an additional layer of challenge to veteran players who want to chase the highest possible scores — or to compete against a friend to see who is the best at magical brutality. Not only that, but the original arcade version has a very curious twist in the form of a built-in “sequel”; beat the game (or input a cheat code) and you take on a whole second sequence of levels, this time battling mechanical enemies such as robots, tanks and mechs as you attempt to find out what happened to Rit and Tam’s father.
So why is Rod Land so unknown today compared to many of its contemporaries? Well, it’s probably down to the fact that it was localised by British company The Sales Curve (subsequently SCi, later devoured by the behemoth that is Square Enix), who not only promoted the game with the rather self-deprecating tagline “So Cute… It’ll Make You Puke!” and some rather horrifying promotional imagery that demonstrated little to no understanding of the appeal of ’90s Japanese pixel art, it also focused the game’s release on the popular platforms in the UK and Europe at the time — which happened to be 16-bit home computers such as the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST.
While these platforms have something of a cult following on both sides of the pond these days along with their 8-bit brethren the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and Amstrad CPC (all of which also saw Rod Land ports) they’re still not nearly as well-known among retro enthusiasts — particularly those interested in Japanese games — as console platforms such as Nintendo’s Super NES and Sega’s Genesis/Mega Drive.
All that said, Rod Land did actually get a console release on the NES, though it was developed from scratch and thus came out rather different to the original, unlike the ST and Amiga versions, which were almost arcade-perfect apart from lacking the “sequel”. In the NES version, you could jump, and the game had a number of additional platforming-centric stages added. Plus Rit wasn’t nearly as cute. Since it was only released in Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and Japan, though, avid collectors might want to seek it out purely for curiosity’s sake.
There was also a Game Boy version released in 1993, which was somewhat truer to the arcade original, though added the ability to attack enemies while climbing a ladder, which made the game noticeably easier in places. The low resolution of the Game Boy screen meant that levels scrolled rather than having everything visible all in one go, which made planning your strategies a bit more challenging, but this is otherwise a surprisingly solid port. It even has a two-player mode — albeit forgoing the simultaneous play of the original with an alternating mode using a single Game Boy system.
DotEmu also released an iOS version a while back, but at the time of writing this appears to no longer be available. Which is probably for the best, because if you want to play a game like this on a touchscreen, you’re insane.
Anyway, the sad thing about Rod Land’s relative obscurity is that there’s not really a legitimate way to play it on a current platform. All is not quite lost, however, as the characters did go on to star in another game called Soldam, which first released to arcades in 1992 and was subsequently retooled and HD-ified for Nintendo Switch in 2017.
That’s a story for another time, though! Suffice to say for now, if you have the opportunity to play Rod Land — particularly either the arcade version, the 16-bit computer ports or the Game Boy version — then you should take the opportunity to do so. It’s an underappreciated classic of the “kill everything on the screen” platform game subgenre, and a game that I will always think of as very special… all thanks to the effect that cute pink-haired fairy had on my nine-year old heart back in the day.
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