Alright, we're all thinking it so let's just get it out in the open - Japan is weird, particularly when it comes to entertainment. You only need to Google "Hatsune Miku" to see that. I try to stay away from that whole "ha ha look at these Japanese nutters" angle because I come from a country that thinks Michael McIntyre is really funny and chasing a rolling cheese down a hill is considered a quaint tradition. Well, that and the fact that oddness of Japanese pop culture is a bottomless abyss of such nightmarish dimensions I'm worried I might fall in and never be heard from again. Sometime I've got to mention it, though. Sometimes you start playing a game and go "yep, that's pretty damn weird". Winds' 1995 SNES side-scrolling beat-em-up Gourmet Sentai: Bara Yarou is one of those games.
That's Gourmet Squad: Rose Rascals to us English-speaking folk. It's worth mentioning that "bara yarou" only one letter away from "bakayarou", an angry Japanese interjection that you might shout at someone who was being particularly stupid. As we'll see, that seems quite appropriate and was probably intentional.
It's certainly a title that makes you think, isn't it? Personally, the "gourmet" aspect makes me think back to Pierre le Chef, which wasn't nice, but this is a side-scrolling beat-em-up! My most favourite of all the mid-nineties gaming genres! I feel confident in my prediction that there's no way this could be as bad as Pierre le Chef.
We're only at the intro and already Gourmet Sentai is so strange it almost defies comment. These are the villains of the piece, or at least some of them, and because this game is so Japanese it might as well be wearing a kimono and pioneering advances in electronics I have no idea what is going on. Japanese webpages, translated to varying degrees of coherence, lead me to believe that the plot is something to do with humans emerging from the devastation of nuclear war. The villains, possibly an organisation called "Bath", are taking the entire world's protein supply for themselves and this is a Bad Thing that must be stopped.
There are three characters to choose from, and predictably one is fast but weak, one is slow but powerful and one is average, at least in terms of fighting skills if not wardrobe. Get this, though: the female character isn't the speedster of the team! With this one bold move, Gourmet Sentai has already cast itself as a true maverick in the field of punching people while moving to the right. Of course none of this matters because the differences between the speed and power of the characters are almost negligible, rendering the whole exercise pointless.
By the way, from left to right their names are Bonjour, Mademoiselle and Tres Bien. You didn't think this game was called Rose Rascals for nothing, did you? As far as Japanese games developers are concerned, France is nothing but a vast field of roses dotted with the occasional fencing match between two fey men.
Here we are, then - Mademoiselle has arrived in a futuristic cityscape, ready to defeat whatever evil stands in her way. In her hurry to leave the house she only managed to put on her shoulder armour, but as long at the bad guys ignore the acres of flesh she's displaying and only attack her upper arms, she should be fine. Cold, but otherwise fine.
The first enemy for you to pummel is a zombie punk rocker, which you can do using the standard punch combo found in all belt-scrolling brawlers. Or you could jump and kick him - that'd work too. What you can't do is press attack and jump together to perform a special attack which also drains your own health, because you don't have one. GSBY truly is a work of avant-garde genius.
However you choose to kill these punks, make sure you do it quickly. Left to their own devices for a while, they decide that their basic punch attacks aren't working out...
...so they split themselves in half with a giant knife that pops out of their chests, locks into position at groin height and jabs away at you. It's like the "lust" death from Se7en, except it also kills the guy doing the thrusting (as you would expect, what with the torso bisection and all). Yep, that's pretty damn weird.
When he dies, he drops an item of food for you to collect, but it doesn't restore your health like food you punched out of a mutant usually does. Almost every enemy will drop some food, actually, but it doesn't work in the way you might be expecting. Just keep in mind that Mademoiselle must be storing that food somewhere. Suddenly those shoulder-pads don't looks so comically oversized.
Dick-knifed punks don't do it for you? Then how about floating robot heads piloted by tiny men? You can also see another kind of punk hiding just at the edge of the screen - he's embarrassed to show himself because he's far too normal for this game. I think he might have gotten lost and wandered over from Final Fight 3. Those heads definitely fit right in, though. They attack by sneezing, a ludicrous idea given that they don't have lungs or a diaphragm. Once you've destroyed them, their tiny pilots run around the stage and can attack you by Cossack dancing on your head. This seems slightly more feasible, although their small size would limit the amount of damage this attack could reasonably be expected to cause.
See, this is what I mean about GSBY being too weird to comment on. What can I say about a green robot with disconcertingly feminine legs and huge hologramatic face that calls to mind the Visionaries toy line, other than maybe "hey, that's kind of strange"? I'll just draw your attention to those legs again. Why are they muscled?
You may have noticed that there are two Mademoiselles on the screen. Don't worry, I haven't suddenly found a friend who will play obscure SNES games with me - I'm as bitter and lonely as ever. She's actually a shadow helper that you can summon by finding a certain power up. Once she arrives she fights autonomously, gets in the way surprisingly rarely and unlike having another human as your 2P you can accidentally hit her and she won't get in a mood and refuse to continue the game until you let her get a "revenge" hit in. Handy.
Once you've broken the hypnotic spell of the boss' well-turned calves, you'll realise that she's not very difficult to beat and you can slap her down, taking the food item she drops in the process. Ah yes, the food items. You'll have collected a few throughout the stage, and it's time to put them to use. How? By getting your robot chef to knock you up a meal, of course!
Kenwood's R&D department has really outdone itself here. Between stages, you can offer the Iron Chef two ingredients and he'll knock you up a meal that restores some of your health. This is important, because it's the only way to get your health back and you only have one life in this game. If you die, you're sent back to the title screen but you can continue from the last checkpoint you reached, which seems rather redundant. Why send you back to the title screen whenever you die, when they could have just used a life system or placed you at the last checkpoint? It's a minor complaint, but it's a baffling decision that shouldn't have even been an issue.
Presumably, this is the "Gourmet" aspect of the title, but I must take issue with this. Eating two random ingredients you found on the floor is not a gourmet dining experience. Do you think Michelin-starred chefs get their ingredients by smacking passers-by until they drop whatever foodstuffs they're carrying? I certainly hope not, otherwise the top restaurants will be serving a lot of chewed gum and Gregg's pasty casseroles. Although, that sounds like something Heston Blumenthal would produce so maybe that's how he operates, but I'm sure it's not standard procedure for the world's best chefs.
Here's stage two, set amongst the dilapidated city streets. Given the bizarre nature of the enemies, the actual stages themselves have been pretty straightforward so far. You might also notice that Mademoiselle is on fire. Don't worry; this is a fairly regular occurrence. Holding R while you attack produces a special punch that can set enemies on fire, but an unfortunate drawback of this is that they'll usually dash straight into you and set you alight, too. It's really not all that useful.
Okay, this is more like it - the second half of the stage takes place on a vehicle transporting hundreds of giant robot feet. This year's Annual Chiropodist's Ball is going to have the most stunning decorations yet! This section involves avoiding the hovering one-armed sword-heads, a task that Mademoiselle couldn't quite accomplish, (no doubt she was distracted by smell of said robot feet) meaning it was time to switch to Bonjour for a while.
As you can see, Bonjour is proud of his body. Luckily for him, it's very easy to show it off because Winds kindly included a "pose" button. If you hold A, your character strikes a body-building pose to show off their rippling muscles, or in Mademoiselle’s case, her backside.
Does the pose button have any practical use? No, of course it doesn't. You can even manipulate their pose by pressing the D-pad while holding A, but all you get out of it is a glimpse into a parallel dimension where Mr. Universe: The Game was released for the 16-bit consoles. It comes as no surprise to learn that GSBY apparently shares some development staff with the infamous Cho Aniki series - I couldn't find any hard evidence for this, but the odds on there being two game developers in the nineties with such a fondness for oily bodybuilders seem pretty slim. Unlike Bonjour. He's huge.
No time for posing now, though - here's the second boss! Why yes, he does have a syringe sticking out of his crotch, I'm glad you noticed. He uses it to harvest... something from your prone body when he knocks you down, thrusting his solid protrusion deep inside you and extracting whatever the hell he needs. We've officially turned off the Weird Highway and onto Creepy Boulevard here, folks. Just keep punching him until you can escape his needle-y clutches and make a break for stage three.
Oh thank God, bunny girls. You know where you stand with bunny girls. They just want to kick you with their disturbingly long legs, that's all. No violations of your tense, unwilling flesh with these young ladies.
These drooling, Lego-headed weirdoes I'm not so sure about. They don't attack you or anything - hell, they don't even walk. They just move around by vibrating, whining when you punch them and offering no resistance other than exploding at you when they die. They look like a costume from Dead Rising, they are utterly bizarre and they're probably my favourite thing about the game.
They do have quite a lot of health, so now is probably a good time to learn some of the intricacies of GSBY’s fighting system. Winds tried something a little different – apart from the posing, I mean – by forcing you to hit an enemy a few times before you can grab them. For example, a standard four-hit punch combo puts a bad guy in a “stun” state, meaning you can get your oily, muscled hands on them. Pressing punch again clobbers them, or you can press R, L then R to perform a high-damage throw. Alternatively, you can not grab them and hit them with another four-hit combo, causing them to become, I dunno, extra dizzy? Either way, pressing R, L, R in this state will unleash an even more powerful throw: in Bonjour’s case, he flies upward with his rocket pack and slams them into the ground. Got all that? No, me neither. Onwards!
After a quick trip across some battlements, you'll reach the boss. She's just a bunny girl who gets some extra armour and rocket-powered high heels. Punch her for a while and her armour changes colour. Well, that seems rather pedestrian. Has Gourmet Sentai lost its way already, the madness tanks running dangerously dry so early in the game?
No, wait, that's more like it. It's a robot tanuki, and the one thing you can guarantee when a robot tanuki turns up is that (like it or not) you're going to be seeing some big ol' robot gonads, and such is the case here. He's also got robot breasts and a robot penis - if you were looking for a vision into the future of robot sex organs then boy howdy is this guy a treat for you. They even made him face toward the player, despite this being a side-scrolling game. At the very least his mechanical testicles could have been a weak point, but no - this tanuki has no weak points, just robot balls precision engineered in a top-secret robotics lab. No wonder he looks so smug.
If you can beat the forest guardian / puckish shape-shifter / robot bollock monster, the fourth stage awaits. It's a circus, and disappointingly it's much less terrifying than a real circus. No clowns, you see. Just extremely camp muscle-men in speedos who attack by prancing into you. Normally this would elicit some kind of reaction, but coming off the back of a fight with the Lord of the Nads it just seems... quaint.
There are plenty of bunny girls to fight, too. If the Playboy Mansion turns out to actually be a front for Hugh Hefner's army of highly-trained, bunny-eared assassins, then we can point to GSBY as an early warning of the doddering sex-turtle's true ambitions.
Bunny girls are all well and good, but what's that thing in the background? At the top, between the curtains?
Why, it's Battle-Armour Winnie the Pooh, new from Disney! After the Hundred Acre Woods was torched by Taliban extremists, Pooh-Bear's lifeless body was taken to a secret government base where he was fitted with the latest in cybernetic equipment and programmed to destroy America's enemies. Let's just hope it wasn't the same secret organisation that made the robot tanuki, otherwise Christopher Robin is in for one hell of a shock.
Beyond the circus lies a disturbing biological hell-scape of intertwined metal and flesh. This is hardly a surprise - the circus was a dead giveaway that something evil was afoot - but there are still shocks in store with the arrival of the boss. It's the moustache-twirling slab of muscle from the intro, and you'll be pleased to hear that he's as French as Gerard Depardieu pissing in the aisle of a plane. The Japanese idea of French, at least, which boils down to lots of prancing, suggestive moaning and him shouting "oui oui oui!" whenever he hits you and "non non non!" when you smack him in the chops. Also, he's a magician. Yeah. He fires doves at you, his top hat contains an evil pocket dimension, he's got facial hair and he's creepy as all get-out. I imagine this is how Paul Daniels sees himself in his mind's eye.
Best of all, he can produce ten-thousand horsepower of groin-thrusting terror by using his top hat as a rocket. Male or female, he's not fussy about his targets. Luckily for us flying about via hat-jets isn't the most effective battle strategy and soon you'll have defeated the pseudo-French weirdo. Now it's time for the final stage!
Space cathedral it is, then. There’s nothing new here, just a long slog through hundreds of enemies you’ve already beaten before. I had worried that GSBY’s nonsensical atmosphere would turn out to be a diversion, a carnival of insanity designed to distract you from the fact that the game isn’t actually that good, and sadly that is exactly the case. It’s not terrible, and it’s certainly not as irredeemably broken as something like Rise of the Robots, it’s just… a bit boring. I know that sounds like an odd description for a game where your character can attack by transforming her breasts into drills, but that’s what it is. The differences that separate good beat-em-ups like Final Fight from the like of GSBY are slim indeed, and in this case it’s the way the enemies fight that drags the whole thing down.
Your foes are slow and ponderous and frankly not much of a threat. They’ve all got pointlessly long health bars – pointless because once you get a hit in there’s very little chance for them to escape. The majority of your time in GSBY’s oddball universe (aside from the time spent saying “Jesus, look at that thing’s knackers”, at least) is spent waiting for them to get up from your combo so you can knock them down again. If you haven’t learnt how to use the more powerful throws by the time you reach the final stage then you’re in for a long, dull level. The first time I played it, before I understood how the throws work, I actually ran out of time in the final stage (although there didn’t seem to be any repercussions from this) because everything moves so slowly. I… I don’t think that’s ever happened to me before. I know they say it happens to everyone at some point, but that’s just something they say so you don’t feel bad when you, you know, run out of time.
If you manage to give enough of a toss to make it through the final stage’s swarm of troops you’ll reach the final boss, an alien force that has taken the shape of the Marvel vs. Capcom 2 character select screen, but with an eyeball in the middle. He wants to take you for a ride, but not just yet…
…because first he transforms into an invincible astro-genie with a fondness for oversized bracelets. See, this is what I mean about the game being tedious. You can only damage the boss when he’s in eyeball form, and as I’m sure you’ve already figured out he doesn’t like to spend too much time in that mode. That’s just common sense, but it means you spend 90% of the battle up against a villain that you can’t even fight, running away from his one main move where he pulls you to the center of the screen and throws you about. There’s no feeling of climax or even challenge, really: it’s just a boring fight that mostly consists of holding the d-pad in the opposite direction.
Oh, are we done? I kind of zoned out there for a while. Gourmet Sentai: Bara Yarou is over, and the whole thing just feels like a wasted opportunity. I love side-scrolling brawlers, and I love games that take such a gleefully idiotic approach to character and stage design, but GSBY ends up falling flat. Presentation-wise it’s a mixed bag – the graphics are very nice, with some detailed animations, a colour palette that manages to be dark without getting too “muddy” and some genuinely interesting character design. The music is all over the place in terms of the compositions themselves, with some fairly good tracks and others which veer into “irritating” territory, and some of the samples used seem oddly muffled and grainy.
As for the gameplay, it’s a mix between being mechanically competent and just a little dull. The controls work fine, the hit detection is good and you’ve got a few interesting moves at your disposal but that’s all rather redundant when the game has no sense of energy, ambition or excitement, at least when it comes to the gameplay. Plus at only five stages long it's very short.
I’m still glad I’ve played it, even if that’s just because the robot chef makes me yearn for a future where Jamie Oliver has been replaced by soulless automaton programmed to never say “pukka”. It’s just that I’ll probably never want to play it again.
That’s not to say that Winds didn’t try to pull players back in, though. If you’re bored of using the three main heroes, why not try taking control of one of the enemies? Holding L and R on the character select screen lets you move the cursor around at will, and by selecting random bits of the background you can play as the bad guys for a change. You can even play as Drool, the slack-faced robot weirdo!
Of course, he doesn’t have any attacks or even a walking animation and is therefore completely unusable, and the same is true for a lot of the other bad guys, but hey – it’s something, right? Yes, it’s definitely something.
There’s also a an extra piece of art that pops up if you complete the game on the higher difficulty, one that seems to suggest that the Rose Rascals have turned evil and are plotting galactic conquest. That's understandable, they’ve been through a lot and being that close to a cyber-tanuki’s mechanitackle is bound to warp your sense of justice, but it’s hardly a reward that’s going to make me play through the whole game again.
In short, Gourmet Sentai: Bara Yarou should be treated like a trip to one of those oddly-specific museums, like the Kansas Barbed Wire Museum: visit it once, wonder at the absurdity of the whole enterprise and never go back.
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