At the time of writing, people are getting seriously excited for PlatinumGames’ next release, Astral Chain — and with good reason!
As the release approaches, we’re starting to learn more and more about the game: what we can expect from it, what sort of experience it will be and what its main inspirations are.
In the latter case, an interview by Polygon reveals that a particularly strong influence on director Takahisa Taura was an obscure 1983 release from Namco, developed by the creator of Pac-Man. I give you Libble Rabble.
Libble Rabble is noteworthy from a historical perspective for a few reasons. Besides being a somewhat lesser-known release from Toru Iwatani, who is best known for both the aforementioned Pac-Man and massively influential racing classic Pole Position, this was the first of Namco’s arcade games to make use of the 16-bit Motorola 68000 processor: that which also powered popular home computers such as the Apple Macintosh, the Commodore Amiga and the Atari ST.
In other words, it represented a technical leap forward for Namco when compared to the earlier Z80-based Pac-Man hardware, and was much more efficient than the multi-processor Pole Position setup. While it may not look as immediately technically spectacular as Pole Position was back when it was first released, when you consider quite how many “things” Libble Rabble is throwing around on screen at any one time, you start to see how that new technology is being put to use.
But enough technical talk; what of the game itself? Well, this is another reason Libble Rabble is worthy of note: there’s not really anything quite like it! The closest comparison is probably something like Taito’s Qix and Volfied, but this isn’t particularly accurate; while Taito’s classics involved drawing straight lines to block off as much of the screen as possible, Libble Rabble involves drawing two-dimensional polygons to capture moving targets.
The concept of Libble Rabble is that you, as both Libble and Rabble, are attempting to harvest sentient mushrooms named Mushlins. This is not an easy job, however, since the hooded Hobblins and various other foes are trying their best to stop you — though in the grand tradition of Pac-Man, it is possible to temporarily put the Hobblins out of action by enclosing them in a shape.
In order to draw your polygons in Libble Rabble, you do not control a single cursor as in Qix. Nope, this is a twin-stick affair in which you are expected to control both Libble and Rabble simultaneously, with each being represented by a coloured arrow that corresponds to the stick that controls them.
To draw a shape, you have to make use of the line that perpetually links Libble and Rabble together. This has no maximum or minimum length, and is normally completely straight and taut.
You may well wonder how you can draw a shape using a completely straight line. That’s where the orange dots on the screen come in; these are poles that Libble and Rabble’s line can be wrapped around, so you’ll need to manoeuvre them both in such a way that you keep adding bends in the line (or vertices of the polygon) until you enclose it. This can be achieved either simply by crossing the line to close the shape, or taking both Libble and Rabble to the same edge of the screen to use as a side of the shape.
Unlike in Qix, your line isn’t vulnerable to attack by enemies — you’ll only lose a life if an enemy actually collides with Libble or Rabble. There is one exception to this rule that is more of an inconvenience than an actual danger, however; if either a Demon or a Shears-type enemy crosses your line, it will “cut” it and cancel any vertices you have already established, forcing you to start your shape all over again from the single straight line. Annoying!
This is an old-school arcade game, so scoring is everything. You primarily earn points for enclosing things — both Mushlins and enemies — inside the shapes you draw. Enemies are worth a flat amount of points according to their type, while Mushlins’ values are variable according to whether you closed the shape yourself, or if you used the edge of the arena. The former is considerably more valuable, with each Mushlin after the first increasing in value by 10 points at a time up to a maximum of 200 each; the latter, conversely, awards a flat 10 points per Mushlin.
There’s a “treasure hunt” aspect to the game, too. If you draw a shape over an area where there is a concealed treasure chest, an alarm will sound and colours will flash. You can then reveal the treasure chest by drawing a smaller shape precisely over where it is, at which point a series of creatures named Topcups burst out and must be caught before they escape. Each Topcup successfully caught in this way rewards you with a letter of a bonus word; completing a bonus word takes you to a bonus stage where you need to find a whole bunch of chests against a tight time limit.
Libble Rabble is a really interesting game, and while it’s initially baffling and confusing, it soon becomes very enjoyable and satisfying. There’s a pleasing gracefulness to how Libble and Rabble move, and successfully “dancing” them around the screen to produce a well-formed polygon that encloses a large number of enemies and Mushlins is extremely gratifying.
It’s clear that despite this game not being all that well-known today, it’s had plenty of influence on things that came afterwards, either directly or indirectly. Besides Astral Chain, it’s probably fair to say that the Animal Crossing-themed “Sweet Day” game in Nintendo Land may well have drawn a certain amount of inspiration from Libble Rabble for its twin-stick, dual-character control scheme, and likewise the delightful (and largely forgotten) Kuri Kuri Mix by FromSoftware (yes, that FromSoftware) demands cooperation between two independently controlled characters even when playing in “single” player mode.
If you want to check out Libble Rabble today, your options are a bit limited, since all of its previous incarnations remained confined to Japan. Ten years after the arcade version was released, it was ported to the Sharp X68000 and FM Towns Marty home computers, and later the Super NES’ Japanese counterpart, the Super Famicom. The arcade original was subsequently ported to the Wii’s Virtual Console service in 2009, but with the closure of the Wii Shop Channel, that version is no longer officially available at all.
Libble Rabble hasn’t been completely forgotten, however; 1985’s Battle City for Famicom (the predecessor to 1991’s arcade title Tank Force) featured a stage based on the design of a Hobblin, and the distinctive, infectiously catchy theme music for the game was used in 2007’s Nintendo DS version of Pac-Man Vs. It also appeared as a character’s ringtone in Xenosaga.
On top of that, a medley of all the arcade game’s music also appeared as one of the possible soundtracks for the Pac-Land stage in the Wii U version of Super Smash Bros., and subsequently returned in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate for Switch. And, as we’ve also seen, it clearly also occupies a rather fond spot in Takahisa Taura’s heart.
So while Libble Rabble may not be fondly remembered (or indeed remembered at all) here in the West, it’s clearly an important, however minor, piece of gaming history for our friends in the East. And that’s as good a reason as any to check it out for yourself if you get the opportunity!
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