Monday, 12 August 2019

Nippon Safes Inc. - Final rating

Written by Torch


What were my expectations when I started playing this? Well, maybe more safes... Honestly, my familiarity with the game only goes as far as remembering to have seen some screenshots in a magazine some time in 1992. I guess it was a review, but I can’t recall what the reviewer thought about it. The reason I remembered it is probably due to the colorful and cartoony graphics, that must’ve struck a note with me at the time.

Since then I’ve not heard anything about it, with adventure game classics like the Sierra Quest-series or anything made by LucasArts claiming all the spotlight, so I wasn’t sure if it wasn’t actually an adventure game, or if it just wasn’t very good. It certainly didn’t propel the creators Dynabyte to stardom. They made only two more games, one of them, Big Red Adventure seems to be a sequel to Nippon. I’d never even heard of that game before I researched this, but that could be me.

Famous or not, the game has both entertained me and frustrated me, so as I ponder how to go about evaluating it against the mighty PISSED, I’m still not sure how it will all play out in the end. But let’s start with the first category, and see how it goes


Puzzles and Solvability

The puzzles in the game are fairly varied. Many of them consist of using an action or an inventory object on another object. You also need to find these objects, something that’s not always easy. Several puzzles are about getting money for metro tickets, but you never use the same method twice. There are a couple of dialogue puzzles, and sometimes you encounter what is in essence a quiz. There are three separate playable characters, (four if you count Dr. WooKi, who is playable during Donna’s intro and briefly in the ending). They can be played in the order of your choosing, and each character will encounter the other two during their chapters, and will have to provide an item for them in return for another that they themselves are in need of.

Some puzzles are about discovering the location of what you’re looking for. In the beginning, I didn’t really realize that these were in fact puzzles. You can’t buy a metro ticket to the Kinza district until you know that there’s something there that you need. Most of these were solved by reading signs, magazines, posters, etc.

As for solvability, I found myself needing to ask for hints twice during the playthrough, and besides this, I did manage to get half-stuck several times, not really understanding what the game wanted me to do. I guess some of this can be attributed to at times dodgy translation ( the creators are Italian ), though. Several times I found myself just going through all available locations, trying to interact with anything and use any inventory item/actions on everything I see. This procedure was also made more complicated due to an at times unhelpful interface ( but more on that in a bit ).

A couple of puzzles are plain stupid ( in my opinion ). Like Dino needing a hat to beg for money, or Donna exchanging a used CD-ROM with unknown contents for a new music CD at the department store. Oh, and Donna spending 50 000 yen to take a class to learn to make 172 types of tea, then finishing it in 5 seconds (or at least an absurdly short amount of in-game time). Others were more logical ( at least when using adventure game logic ), and I sort of had an idea about how to solve a puzzle fairly early on. Like the “Guess the number of balls in a jar”-competition. When I saw that honest Chan had a similar looking jar, I thought to see if I could fill it with something of equal size to the balls in the competition jar and count those. I didn’t know what to put in the jar, but I had the right idea.

One other positive thing: During my whole playthrough, I never once encountered a dead-end. The game always made sure to force me to pick up necessary items before leaving an area, or provide a way to return to it whenever. Maybe it’s possible to get dead-ended, but it never happened to me, so I’ll score the game as if it’d never be an issue.

I don’t automatically want to punish a game for being difficult. I think hard puzzles are ok if they make you smack your forehead when you figure out ( or otherwise learn ) the solution and go “Ooooh!”. With this game, I had a couple of those moments, and some moments where I smacked my head for other reasons. Puzzles are varied and some are quite decent, but I felt I had to endure a little too much trial and error to get a really good score.

Score: 5


Interface and Inventory

I’ve done my fair share of complaining about the interface during the playthrough posts, but it’s not all bad. Let’s look at the good parts first. The game uses icons for both actions and inventory items. Contrary to some other games that do this, both the action icons and the inventory icons are merged into a single menu that appears when clicking the right mouse button. This is a fairly clean and simple approach. You never leave the game screen, and the menu stays hidden until needed. I have no problems with that.

6 sheets of paper, a lighter and a fire extinguisher

For a long time, I had issues combining inventory items, but that turned out to be due to my own inability to properly read a manual. When you click an item, the inventory window disappears, turning the cursor into the item you’re holding. If you then right-click again, the menu reappears, and the cursor changes to the default arrow again, unless you right-click when the pointer is over the player character, in which case the cursor item persists, and you can click it on something else in the inventory. So far, so good.

Now for the bad: Since at least Monkey Island 1 (correct me if there’s an earlier example), we’re used to placing the mouse pointer over an object and getting a text description of what we’re looking at. In the earlier Lucasfilm/arts games, there was a separate “What is” action to provide this functionality With both these implementations the text would always show up if you were pointing at an interactable object. Not so with Nippon, and this is one of my major gripes with the interface. In Nippon, you get something close to this behaviour, but at times only if you’ve selected the correct action or inventory item. If you have the default pointer, you might not see anything, leading you to believe what you’re looking at is just background graphics. You can’t even use the “Look” action on a hotspot, even if you know there’s something there. Why not? At least give me a simple “It’s a rope”

For example, in Doug’s chapter, I can’t interact with the TV unless I have a remote. In Donna’s I can’t hitchhike unless I’m in the exact right screen, even though there are 5 almost identical screens with 100% identical cars driving past. And unless I have selected the “Tyoko” road sign, mousing over the cars won’t give any indication that they can be interacted with. In Dino’s chapter, there’s nothing to suggest that the three 4-pixel-wide dots in the ceiling are smoke detectors until I mouse over them with a burning painting.

Add to this that even though the game mostly takes place in the same locations, different things will be interactable for different characters on the same screen. In Doug’s and Dino’s chapters, you can talk to the Geisha when she’s wandering around outside the Hot Sushi, but she doesn’t register when you see her by the newspaper seller. In Donna’s chapter, though, you can talk to her on both screens. It’s all a big mess, in my opinion, and I was frustrated by it more times than one.

You could make the case that this prevents the “You can’t do that” response 30 times while you randomly try using every inventory item on every hotspot you can see, but instead you have to select every action and item and pixel search every screen with it in case there’s hidden hotspot somewhere.

Another issue I had is that since everything is an icon with no text, you can’t always tell what an item is. With a couple of items (mostly readable things), you can click them on the player character, and s/he will give a brief description, but this is more often the exception than the rule. Granted, you might see a name on the item as you pick it up, but with the wonky translations, that doesn’t always help. Also, some items are gained in other ways, so you’ll be left guessing what they are

So the inventory/action menu part is simple, nice and clean, and the interface would’ve had the potential to be pretty good if not for these annoyances.

Score: 4


Story and Setting

The story and setting could be lifted from a movie. Three people with different skill sets are recruited to each steal a valuable item for a mysterious stranger, but it turns out they were being manipulated and tricked by empty promises. In the end, the bad guy gets his comeuppance, and our heroes have bonded, and are ready to join up for the inevitable sequel. It sounds like it could be a 90’s movie. I might be good, or it might be bad. Who’s to say? I’m not film savvy enough to know of any movies that fit the description, but feel free to comment if you know one that does.

By itself, the story is fairly simple, but it takes you to a couple of interesting locations like a Japanese metropolis, a temple and a hi-tech lab. I like the premise of the characters meeting up in-game and having to help each other out. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any other games from this time period (or before) that do this.

The story does have the odd gaping plot hole, though. The whole premise of the Sumo wrestling match is perhaps the strangest one. An overarching plot that affects all characters’ chapters in some way. It’s a match that’s been announced a long time ago, tickets have been sold out for weeks, hotels are all full of people coming to see the match, and the champion Buta Futotta is fighting….. Nobody. Right up to the very day of the match, they haven’t decided on an opponent.

If you build it, they will come

Now, I’m no match arranger, but I’d think that was something you’d figure out pretty early on when planning an event like this.

I also feel it’s the potential tie-in between the trio members is a bit of a missed opportunity. They have two things in common.
  1. They were all arrested at the start of the game
  2. They are all trying to find an object for Dr. WooKi
Somehow I feel it would be better if 1 and 2 were related. If getting sent to jail was the catalyst for the following events, or if it turned out that Dr. WooKi had them all sent to jail. As it stands, the arrests just seem to be a coincidence. The Doctor posts bail for Doug and gets some leverage over him for that, but Donna and Dino get out of jail without his intervention. And did he just sit and wait in the bar until Donna finished her sentence…? Maybe I’m nitpicking here. A nice touch is that every chapter ends with a cliffhanger, and we have to wait until the last chapter is complete before we see how it all plays out. Even though it’s short, the last “chapter” does provide a fairly satisfying conclusion to it all, explaining Dr. WooKi’s motives and, finally, the name of the game.

Disregarding the weirdness of the sumo match, I think the overall story holds up pretty well.

Score: 6


Sound and Graphics

I believe I haven’t really mentioned the sound at all in my game posts. The main reason for that is that there hasn’t been much to talk about. Each character has a background tune that repeats a couple of times, then stops. Then starts again at random, or as you move to another screen or something. A couple of them may or may not be original tunes, but Doug’s music is a dead ringer for “Baby elephant walk” by Henry Mancini, so the others may be borrowed as well.

Listening to the tunes for a short while is fine, but when they repeat over and over, it gets fairly annoying, so I mostly ended up turning down the volume. My version of the game when played on Dosbox did not have any sound effects at all. After finishing the game, I checked out a couple of gameplay videos on YouTube, and it seems the Amiga version has some sound effects, like running water in the sewers and nature sounds in the park. I don’t really feel that I missed anything though. I’m not sure if there’s something wrong with my copy, or if the PC version just didn’t have sound effects.

As for the graphics, they were what attracted me to the game in the first place. I’ve mentioned the word cartoony a couple of times before, and that’s still the word I feel best describes them. There’s a lot of grey, but I think that fits the setting of a Japanese metropolis, and some scenes are pretty cool to look at. They’re not King’s quest level, but I think they have a certain charm. There are a couple of nice touches, such as artistic screen borders and some special view angles in a couple of scenes.

Fold-out park

Going up...?

...or down

Each character has a close-up portrait, and some of them seem to be based on actual people ( like the hotel clerk looking like Spock )

Not sure that wallpaper is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, though

Though the graphics look good to me, a couple of times I felt that they took a shortcut regarding animations. The decision to not show anything from the sumo match was really disappointing, same with Dino’s eating orgy at the restaurant. It didn’t help that one happened shortly after the other. Then again, there were some more fleshed out scenes, like Dino knocking “suicide” guy from a building, WooKi getting kicked out from the Hot Sushi and… well I’m actually glad they didn’t show Donna “persuade” Buta Futotta. Oh, and the intro was pretty nicely done. Actually that one looked better than most of the game.

So good graphics, mostly decent animation, repetitive music, no sound effects.

Score: 5


Environment and Atmosphere

Like some others before me, I find this category the most difficult to rate. It’s sort of a mix of other categories that come together to create some sort of intangible feeling of getting dragged into the game, and perhaps forgetting that you’re supposed to be sleeping now, and have to go to work in 2 hours. That particular scenario was of course very hypothetical and has never happened to me in real life.

Most of the action takes place in the city of Tyoko (Yeah, I said it. Screw you, Tioko!), and the three characters mostly visit the same places. This means there’s a lot of repetition in the scenery. As for exclusive areas, Doug gets the monastery, Donna gets the emperor’s house and Dino has the Mitsushita lab, but if I had a yen for every time I passed the Hot Sushi, man I could ride that metro all day long. There are also a couple of other locations in the city where not all characters go, like the beauty salon, pachinko house and public bath. Oh, and Dino and Donna have the museum and the TV tower, Dino has the sumo arena, Doug and Donna get Doug’s apartment, Doug gets the sewers, Donna gets Buta’s hotel and the department store… ok I guess there’s actually a fair bit of variation here. Maybe it just feels like most of the game took place in the main district, since you go there so often.

There’s a fair bit of background info on locations and Japanese culture, split between the game and the manual. This provides an interesting insight into the different aspects of Japan that we encounter in the game. If you’ve read the manual prior to playing, you’ll be able to recognize and be knowledgeable about things like pachinko, public baths, the railway system, geisha, etc. I think this is a nice touch, and works well to increase the atmosphere and feeling that the game takes place in a large Japanese city.

When you enter a new location, like the museum, a hotel, Doug’s apartment, etc. there’s an introductory text explaining a bit about the location, some of which further build upon the information provided in the manual. Several of them made me want to go back to read the relevant portion of the manual again.



There are some people wandering randomly around the city. Some of them you can interact with ( even though it’s just a standard reply ), and some of them you can’t. Regardless, them being there adds to the feeling of being in a big city. It all adds up to a decent atmosphere.

Score: 6


Dialog and Acting

Nippon Safes Inc. was developed by an Italian company. Hence, it has italian as a language choice, and I suspect that this is the “primary” version, and the others are translations. It’s possible that it would have done better in this category if I could speak Italian and had played through that version. As it stands though, I - and probably the majority of players - had to stick with the english version, and I did find that one somewhat lacking. At times, the translation is a bit off. Maybe not to the degree that you don’t understand what’s going on, but enough to make you focus on the delivery instead of the contents of a conversation.

Come on, Doug. Tell it!

If you can look past this, I’d say the character dialog is “fine”™. Each character is different enough from the others to warrant their existence. I found Doug to be the most “normal” and enjoyable character. Dino is so stupid he misunderstands just about everything he’s told. I have no idea how he gets by in life when there’s no mouse wielding player to guide him. Donna is… a bit much, in my opinion. She’s supposed to be this femme fatale, but think that archetype is more about tricking men into thinking she’s interested in them, rather than flat out:

Fatale-ity!

I do wish there would be more flavor text, descriptions of items and so on. As I stated in Interface and Inventory, it’s sometimes hard to know what an item really is. With many items, the only time you see their names, is when picking them up. There IS a “look” action. Why not be able to use it on inventory items?

There are two places where there’s a decent amount of flavor text: The department store, and in the museum ( but only when playing as Dino ). There were a couple of jokes that went over my head, as they were probably targeting Italians ( or at least those familiar with Italian celebrities and such ).

Score: 5


Final Rating

So (5 + 4 + 6 + 5 + 6 +5) / 0,6 = 52

Feels ok to me. It’s not a bad game. It suffers from shaky translation, and despite the interface having the potential to be pretty good, they made some choices that ended up being annoying ( at least to me ). Puzzles are mostly ok, apart from a couple of bonkers ones and the fact that I had to do a lot of brute forcing at times, emphasizing my issues with the inconsistent mouseover text.


So did anyone guess 52? Yes! ShaddamIVth was spot on. Congratulations!


CAP Distribution

100 CAPs to Torch
  • Blogger award - 100 CAPs - for playing through the game for everyone’s enjoyment
25 CAPs to Vetinari
  • Pocket-oracle award 20 CAPs - for multiple comments, providing information and hints throughout the game.
  • Quizmaster award - 5 CAPs - for correctly guessing the “Glorious Olga” reference
16 CAPs for ShaddamIVth
  • Psychic Prediction Award - 10 CAPs - for correctly guessing the final score of Nippon Safes Inc.
  • “High society” award - 3 CAPS - for teaching us about Italian opera
  • “What a tool” award - 3 CAPs - for providing info on various types of wrenches
10 CAPs for Mr. Valdez

  • Dire Straights Award - 10 CAPs - for getting a rare 0 on the recent Straight

6 CAPs for Ilmari
  • Existentialist award - 3 CAPs - for connecting the “Brain,Brain,Girl” trope to Torch, the reviewer
  • “At least you tried” award - 3 CAPs - for being one of only two people who tried to guess who Figaro looked like
6 CAPs for Lisa H.
  • Beautician award - 3 CAPs - for explaining what nail enamel is.
  • “What a tool” award - 3 CAPs - for providing info on various types of wrenches
3 CAPs for MisterKerr
  • Pattern detector - 3 CAPs - for noticing the “Brain, Brawn, Girl”-pattern
3 CAPs for Reiko
  • Babelfish award - 3 CAPs - for translating the name of the wrestler from Japanese
3 CAPs for ATMachine
  • Historian award - 3 CAPs - for providing some history about Tokyo
3 CAPs for gboukensha
  • Babelfish award - 3 CAPs - for informing us that Dino’s last name means “beans” in Italian
3 CAPs for MorpheusKitami
  • “At least you tried” award - 3 CAPs - for being one of only two people who tried to guess who Figaro looked like
3 CAPs for The Bru
  • “Alternate reality” award - 3 CAPs - for pointing out that the museum statues are different in Dino’s and Donna’s chapter
3 CAPs for Michael
  • “What a tool” award - 3 CAPs - for providing info on various types of wrenches

4 comments:

  1. Fair rating. I enjoyed this game quite a bit in the 90s, but have to admit that it does not have what it takes to be a "classic". So, all in all excellent work, Torch! ;)

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    1. Thanks! And also thanks for all your helpful comments. Probably couldn't have done it without them. :-)

      Thinking back, maybe I would've ended up with a slightly higher score if I'd played Doug's chapter last. It was the one I enjoyed the most, so ending on a higher note might've helped. I would probably have been less disappointed with the sumo match, at least.

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  2. The different perspectives they used in the artwork goes a long way to distinguish the game from contempory games graphics wise, but the palette IS bland. As for the sumo match and the tea-making course, even a few still shots with some commentary would gone a long way to redeem some of the missing qualities.

    On the other hand it was a very enjoyable blog, thank you Torch for all the effort!

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    Replies
    1. Yeah, they DID manage to make a still for Donna's beauty salon visit, so why the lack of love for Dino...? Strange decision, I think.

      Thanks for the kind feedback. It's much appreciated

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