Chew Man Fu: Balls to the Wall

It’s fair to say that the PC Engine is primarily known for its huge collection of shoot ’em ups today, but that’s not all that the diminutive wonder-platform was good at.

And, pleasingly, Konami’s excellent PC Engine Mini console features a wide variety of these “other” games alongside some classic shmups, in both the localised Turbografx-16 and unlocalised Japanese PC Engine titles in its on-board collection.

One such example is Chew Man Fu, also known as Be Ball in Japan. This is a solid puzzler from 1990, developed by Now Production and published by Hudson Soft and NEC, and has been a real highlight of the platform’s library for me since I played it for the first time. So let’s take a closer look. And be warned, I’m going to use the word “balls” a lot of times in this article, so you’re just going to have to deal with it like a mature adult.

In Chew Man Fu, you (and optionally a friend) take on the role of the heroic sisters LaLa and LingLing in an attempt to free China from the tyranny of the titular villain, who has stolen all the fried rice and egg rolls. What a rascal!

It seems that the only way to resolve this unfortunate problem is for LaLa and LingLing to push coloured balls onto plates of the same colour in a series of maze-like single-screen stages, which destroys all of Chew Man Fu’s henchmen in the vicinity and allows them to move on to the next challenge. In total, their journey will take them across five areas with ten stages each, plus a selection of bonus rounds that can be accessed any time they acquire thirty diamonds, and some “extra” stages that unlock when you complete a single loop through the game. On top of that, there are several other “games” that can be played once you clear the first set of 55 levels, making for a whopping 550 possible stages in all.

You’d be forgiven for assuming Chew Man Fu was a frustrating Sokoban-style series of logic puzzles with single “correct” solutions from that description, but the reality is a bit different. Rather than only being able to push blocks, LaLa and LingLing are able to push, pull and kick the balls around the stage, and, notably, are also able to roll them around corners. Controlling this latter aspect feels a bit fiddly at first, but as soon as you get your head around the fact that when you’re holding on to a ball you’re essentially controlling the ball itself rather than your character, everything falls into place, and the game feels a lot more fluid in its movements. And the flexibility you have with your movement options means that it’s impossible to get yourself “stuck” or make a level unsolvable.

There are four coloured balls: black, blue, green and red. Each ball has its own properties: the red ball does the most damage to enemies; the black ball does the most damage to walls; the blue ball is the fastest, lightest and weakest; and the green ball is “average” in every respect. By sensibly choosing which balls to move and when, you can take control of the level, manage the enemies that are wandering around the place and get everything where it should be.

The enemies you’ll come into contact vary with each of the themed “areas” you visit over the course of your adventure. Some simply get in the way; some chase you; some pick up or freeze the balls; some can break walls themselves. With each enemy type having a very clear design, silhouette and colour palette, you’re never left in any doubt as to what type of foe you’re facing at any given moment; actually dealing with them while attempting to accomplish your primary objective is another matter, of course.

While each level starts with a set layout, most of the interior walls can be destroyed by bashing them enough times with the balls. In this way, you can manipulate the environment to both clear a path for you to get the balls into position and prevent yourself getting trapped in a dead end by enemies. Certain enemies also move with predictable “rules”, too, so setting up a path for them to stay out of your way is often an option, too — indeed, in later stages, which start to feel surprisingly cramped despite unfolding on the same size screen, this becomes a lot more important!

Chew Man Fu is a tricky game that takes a bit of getting used to, but it’s satisfying, and its difficulty curve is well-paced. Ten stages per “area” in the game gives you plenty of time to get to know each enemy type and their behaviour patterns — along with how to deal with them. Each time you play, you’ll doubtless make a bit more progress — and a password system allows you to resume from where you got to on subsequent sessions. Alternatively, if you’re playing on an emulator or a modern platform like the PC Engine Mini, you can always make judicious use of save states to manage your progress.

The game’s very much got what I’ve come to think of as the distinctive PC Engine “look” about it — big, chunky, all-caps fonts; large, colourful and well-animated sprites; and a distinctive chubby, chibi style about its characters. The music is super-catchy, too, with unique themes for each of the five areas — though with the aforementioned ten stages per area, you do hear each loop quite a few times before you get a bit of variety in the soundtrack.

Chew Man Fu is a great game that takes a little getting used to when you first start playing, but as soon as you get the hang of its controls and its core mechanics, there’s an enormously addictive puzzler to enjoy here. And with 550 levels in total for you to beat, this one could potentially keep you busy for a very long time indeed!

More about Chew Man Fu

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