Aoi Blink, also known as “Blue Blink” is a video game developed by Westone Bit Entertainment (most known for birthing the Wonder Boy franchise) and published by the great Hudson Soft for the PC Engine (which is the Japanese equivalent of the TurboGrafx-16). It’s a platformer with mild shooter elements based on an anime series by the legendary Japanese animator and manga artist, Osamu Tezuka, the creator of Astro Boy. Who, interestingly enough, died while the series was being made. Now, I’m not saying an anime with a blue flying pony KILLED him but… you know. It’s a possibility…
That’s a lot of history. Let’s discuss the game itself. It’s not a great game, but it’s passable. It’s relatively short and somewhat easy, and the level design is fairly minimalist, which is not surprising given the platform being the very beginning of the 16-bit era of games, putting it just slightly past the Sega Master System in capability.
The game has a very bare bones story: your dad (you being Kakeru, the young boy in green) was kidnapped by an evil emperor and you have to traverse some places to get him back. Accompanying the main character is a mix of other characters from the show. And occasionally, the titular blue flying pony. MY LITTLE PONY EAT YOUR HEART OUT!
Now, as I started the game, I felt it was a very basic, unremarkable platformer. But as I kept exploring it and figuring out the mechanics, I found quite a number of interesting concepts that I felt gave the game it’s own feel, and could also be studied in terms of what they mean to game design.
Let us dive right in.
As you can see, our hero is always accompanied by two separate characters in each level. These characters are different in each level, switching in and out seemingly at random. All three characters move together, and with the touch of the Select button, you swap between the three. Whichever one is in the “lead” is the one who’s attack you use. And each character has their own type of attack. For instance, Kakeru fires throwing stars which go straight. You may have a character who fires red bombs in an arc up in the air. Or you have a Princess character who has a higher jump, but no attack. This allows you to switch attacks or abilities on the fly quickly to suit the current situation.
This is a familiar setup for anyone that’s ever played the cult classic NES game, Little Samson (another game I could probably Game Study someday…) . In Little Samson, you could switch between one of four characters with different attacks and abilities, but in order to do that you had to open a cumbersome menu. With all three characters on screen, it quickens this system up considerably.
But perhaps the most interesting ability that comes with this is that whatever attack is assigned to your lead party member, all three characters on screen will do the same attack simultaneously. What this means is that if I were to use Kakeru’s throwing star, there would be three throwing stars. One thrown by each of the three characters. Even more interestingly, if you used this ability while the characters were facing different directions, or by jumping so they are all in different vertical positions, it’d allow you to use a sort of spread-shot effect.
The next interesting thing, while not anything remarkably new to gamers, is the map screen. It has multiple branching paths that intertwine, and throughout each level, there are multiple exits to discover that’ll open different paths along the map screen. Most of the exits lead you to rooms with random NPC characters who will give you dialogue pieces, or more interestingly, small hints a la Zelda II’s NPC hints.
Why do you need hints? Because the final level of each map, the “Boss Level” has two doors at the end. A regular exit, and a locked exit that leads to the actual boss fight. The interesting thing about this is, in order to get into the boss level, you have to find a red key (icon pictured in the above screenshot) in order to unlock the door. These keys are hidden in one of the random levels on the map. There is always an NPC that drops a hint on where the key may be. They’re pretty well hidden actually, never hiding in a similar place each time. And some of them you flat-out won’t find without the clue. But luckily, the clue is never super vague so it’s easy to find the key. And since each level is very short, it’s not too much of a hassle to breeze through it for multiple exits or to find the missing key.
Next, let’s discuss the pickups.
This is one of my favorite mechanics in the game. Next to your hearts, you can see three pickup icons. Money, blue keys, and Blue Blinks head, which represents your available lives.
The keys are used to open chests, which are scattered around each level. The chests contain various different things from money to power-ups to extra lives. Once a chest is opened, it will no longer contain anything on subsequent playthroughs of the levels. And since the keys, much like purple orbs for extra lives and also the power-ups, drop randomly from enemies, you may occasionally miss out on getting a chest or two.
The power ups range from a clock that stops time to a feather that speeds up your characters to an invincibility star. They are admittedly the most uninteresting part of the game. Though the clock does come in handy sometimes…
However, the most interesting is the coins. Collecting coins (which can come in 1 Coin, 5 Coin, or occasional 20 Coin increments) is nothing new to people who have played platformers. However, unlike most games where collecting them is either useless or just to gain extra lives, this game does something completely unique with it’s coins. Every time you hit 100 coins… they add another permanent heart to your health. Yeah. The more you grind enemies and grab bags of cash lying around, the more health you can get. Basically, giving it an almost experience-style RPG element to it. This is perhaps one of the most interesting uses of money pick ups I’ve ever seen in a game, and I quite loved it. It made collecting money more satisfying than any platformer I’ve ever played.
Now, let’s discuss the lives system.
Being a short game on a retro console, the game does punish you for running out of lives. You have to start whichever map you were on over again. It’s a lot better than a total game over, that’s for sure.
But the most interesting thing about the lives system is another great mechanic I was surprised to see. Instead of a Mario-style “start over from the beginning of the level”, dying causes Blue Blink to fly onto the screen and resurrect your characters. This uses up a life, but also respawns you where you died. In a matter of seconds, you’re back in the thick of things without losing your progress. Since the game is already circulated around backtracking and potentially retracing levels, this cuts down on the added frustration of having to go through them again simply because you died. It sped up the game and made it far less repetitive.
This is especially useful during boss fights, which are fairly simple but a few can be challenging enough to warrant depending on your stockpile of lives. During the fights, you play only as Kakeru who is now riding around on Blue Blink. The bosses have a decent amount of health and mostly just fire projectiles and move around in irregular patterns, testing your reflexes while you mash the fire button to attack like a side scrolling shooter.
This schmup feeling shooting to attack mechanic is further amplified during the game’s occasional auto-scrolling levels. I know what you’re thinking “auto-scrolling! NOOO!”. But, once again, the game takes a cliche mechanic and actually does something awesome with it.
Most people hate side scrolling levels because they’re super slow. Forcing you to move at a snails pace even in games that are usually faster moving. However, the interesting thing about these levels in Aoi Blink is that if you move to the far right of the screen, it speeds up! The camera will fast-move forward so you don’t have to wait! This makes the auto-scrolling levels surprisingly fun, and cuts down on the boredom and slowness of these usually awful levels.
So, there you have it folks, Aoi Blink in a nutshell. A short, easy game that adds multiple different elements to it. Light RPG elements. Light Metroidvania elements. Light Schmup elements. Even light adventure game elements. This manages to take what could have been another very traditional and forgettable platformer and make it quite a fascinating and unique game. I’d urge people to consider giving the game a try, if only to experience these mechanics that, quite frankly, I wish I would see in other games of it’s kind.
(Screenshots compliments of GameFAQs)