Sisters are doin' it for themselves, and by "it" I mean forming gangs, terrorising the streets and generally engaging in just as much violence as their male counterparts. Dye your hair blonde, slip into the baggiest pair of trousers you can find and join me as I look at NEC's 1995 PC Engine CD gang-violence-and-interior-design-em-up Ane-san.
Ah, the simple elegance of calligraphy, the stark, powerful contrast between black and white. Don't worry; this restrained simplicity won't last for long.
During the intro, a scattered handful of photographs tell the story of some young girls who spent their schooldays being tormented by bullies. Oh, those terrible bullies, always dangling insects in their faces, or making them stand in an alleyway, or using powerful chemicals to mutate them into a half-human, half-plant monstrosities, their heads blossoming from the oversized rosebuds that now make up their torsos. Yeah, I'm pretty sure that's what's going on in that bottom-right photograph.
I guess all this childhood abuse toughened these young ladies the hell up, because now they're delinquents, ruling their turf with a fist of iron or a metal of comparable hardness. Yet even through all this brutality, these young women have managed to retain their graceful femininity.
See? Fresh as a meadow of wild flowers, so they are. The one the middle looks like a Cabbage Patch doll trying to pass a kidney stone, but I wouldn't want to mess with any of them. Let's just hope they're as tough as this disturbing snapshot of impending death suggests.
Ane-san, as games about street gangs so often are, is a side-scrolling beat-em-up. Hooray! I love side-scrolling beat-em-ups, possibly because I fear innovation and change, or because I harbour deep-seated fantasies of taking revenge on the corrupt city. I hope it's the latter, because Ane-san does have a few features that you don't see in many other belt-scrolling brawlers, and we'll get to those in time.
The first thing you'll see in the game proper is the character / stage select screen. The three girls from the intro, looking far less menacing in their super-deformed incarnations than they did in the intro, wait patiently at the bottom of the screen for you to make your selection. I'll be going with Ai, the girl on the left who as far as I can tell is Ane-san's main character. In fact, I'm assuming she's the ane-san of the title - "ane-san" being a Japanese title meaning "big sister." In this context it mean something more like "an older girl you respect," like, say, the boss of your terrifying all-girl band of thugs. The male, "big bro" equivalent is aniki, as in Cho Aniki. Bear that in mind for later.
You also get to choose what stage you want to play, but because I'm so slavishly devoted to the preset patterns of these things I have no choice but to start with the first stage highlighted, the one on the top-left. Predictability! Look, judging by that icon I'm about to go into battle against an overweight, wall-eyed ballerina. I need all the comforting predictability I can find.
So, what did you notice about this scene first? Was it that Ai, with her hand thrust into her pocket and her cocky swagger, looks like a grade-A badass? Was it the enemy goons, who for some reason are dressed as British Gas technicians? Or was it the fact that nearly fifty percent of the screen is taken up by character portraits and dialogue boxes, leaving the actual action to be played out in pseudo-letterbox-o-vision? It was the latter in my case, and it's not really a design decision I can fully get behind but there's still enough room to clobber people so it's not all bad.
Did you know "Ai" is the Japanese word for love? Keep that in mind as she rips this poor young woman's hair out.
Ane-san, as I mentioned, is a beat-em-up, and it's definitely paddling in the shallow end of that particular pool of pugilistic action. Your moveset is basic - just one attack button, a jumping attack, a couple of grabs including the previously-demonstrated hair-pulling and a health-consuming special activated by pressing jump and attack together. At this point in VGJunk's lifespan I'd be surprised if it was any different, and if Ai thinks she can take on the world with a skillset that makes my own anaemic CV look positively robust then good luck to her.
After a short period of thug-punching, Ai reaches the game's first mid-boss. She's a perky "idoru"-style singer who glides around on rollerskates, attacks with expertly choreographed dance moves and sometimes calls in a chorus line of very enthusiastic young men who exist only to impress their idol by trampling her enemies to dust beneath their perfectly synchronised feet. They're good at it, too: I came into this fight with full health, but as you can see from the above screenshot after one hit I was perilously close to death by cabaret. Luckily the actual boss herself shows a commendable dedication to reality by being exactly as tough as you'd expect a rake-thin Japanese teenager to be, and one sustained bout of hair-pulling was enough to see her off.
The second half of the stage proceeds much as the first half did, although some of the boilersuits on display are pink now. Ai remains disdainful, as is her way. Just punch them when they get close, or grab their barnets if they get really close, and they will get really close because as far as their A.I. goes, that's all they know how to do. They just blindly wander towards your character and, if you're tapping the attack button, straight into your fists.
The end-of-stage boss herself isn't much more competent, and as she pirouettes across the screen it quickly becomes apparent that her "Chunky Ballerina" style of kung-fu is no match for Ai's "Disinterested Tough Guy" techniques, and the fight is quickly ended when the boss stands still for a moment and Ai can unleash one basic combo. That's all it takes to bring down this boss. One standard combo. Judging by her face she's been beaten up many times in the past, so there were some signs that this might not be the most difficult bout, but I still wasn't expecting the stage boss to have the same amount of health as any given boiler-suited thug.
Now that Ai has claimed a new slice of turf for her gang, it's time to return to her bedroom and rest up for the battles of tomorrow.
The bedroom serves as a between-mission hub area, with a few simple options available: you can save your game, listen to the music (although oddly there are some tracks missing,) play a minigame and go shopping. Yep, I said go shopping, and because you're playing as an all-girl street gang the stores you frequent carry an... unusual mix of merchandise.
Items seem to fall into two categories: ones that help you in battle, and ones that decorate your room, with items ranging from jackets and knives to wallpaper and posters of androgynous pop stars. It's like shady Asian market stall crossed with B&Q.
The problem with the shopping is that it's completely impenetrable if you don't read Japanese. The effects of one or two of the items can be puzzled out - the jackets seem to give you more health, knuckledusters presumably increase your attack power - but the majority of them are unfathomable even with trial and error. For example, here are some... magazines? Books?
I bought one, and I have no idea what they do. I didn't see them appear anywhere in my bedroom, and I didn't notice any changes in my fighting ability. At first I thought "surely they're not just there for you to spend money on with no practical benefit," but after a little longer spent pondering the strangeness of Ane-san I concluded that such a thing was not beyond the realms of possibility.
One thing I did notice is that the right-hand book seems to star Adon and Samson, musclebound paragons of manliness and mascots of the infamous Cho Aniki series of videogames. This little cameo doesn't surprise me in the slightest, because Ane-san seems to be doing everything it can to slot itself into that same kusoge niche that Cho Aniki occupies, although even more than Cho Aniki this game reminds me of the extra-bizarre SNES brawler Gourmet Sentai Bara Yarou. The art styles are very similar, for one thing. Oh, and Ane-san is also related to the Cho Aniki games by sharing the same composer, Koji Hayama. His soundtrack for Ane-san is probably my favourite thing about the game, a collection of tracks created as woozy, not-quite-right parodies of heartfelt ballads, reworked classical pieces and good old rock'n'roll, like this track which has the evocative if not entirely parsable title of "Very No."
While you're at home, you can also play a minigame that as far as I can tell offers no tangible rewards, unless you're into being traumatised by the demonic faces of some very angry young women.
All you do is rotate the joypad, causing your chosen girl to pull a series of increasingly disturbing faces. First one to reach the top of the chain and summon an expression that would make Satan himself rethink his status as mankind's ultimate adversary is declared the winner. What do you win? Nothing, that's what. Wrist sprains are not a reward.
Okay then, this is stage two. I hope you enjoyed stage one, because this stage and all the others that follow are essentially identical. There are a few minor differences: the backgrounds are different, and now I'm playing as Chika, the "small but fast" character of the three. And look, there's a new enemy type! It's someone on a moped trying to run me down. With the arrival of the Kamikaze Scooter Squad, I offer you my congratulations. You have now seen every standard enemy in the game. Yup, all you get outside the boss characters (which there are at least plenty of) are the jumpsuit thugs and the joyriders. This presents something of a flaw with the game, because the scooters are more akin to dangerous background objects than enemies, and the boilersuits are thicker than a triple-decker housebrick sandwich, with no skills beyond walking into your attacks. Once you've punched one standard gang member, you've punched them all, and Ane-san's gameplay was bland enough to start with.
The midboss is a kung-fu girl, as is this young lady, who serves as the stage's big boss. I'd guess she also serves as her gang's lookout, judging by her freakishly elongated neck. I was expecting more of a challenge than anything I had faced thus far, but the developers behind Ane-san decided that all street punks are created equal and so the boss can be defeated in mere seconds. In fact, if you manage to grab them and perform your hair-pulling move, they cannot escape from it. You just pull their hair until they die, which doesn't take long because everyone in this game has powerful attacks but the defence levels of a sickly fieldmouse. One combo can often be enough to kill you, but it's also enough to kill every enemies, up to and including the final boss. Your lack of health might be a problem if the enemies weren't so monumentally stupid, and once you've bought the item that shows you where the scooters are going to appear from then you're pretty much sorted for the entire game.
Then, as I was heading out to stage three, I noticed something unusual on the stage / character select screen. The girls I'd pummeled in stage one, Ruri the idol singer and Hirame the... well-proportioned ballerina, were now available for selection! This is one of Ane-san's more interesting features - when you defeat a boss and after you've completed another stage to give them time to recover from the thrashing you gave them, they're unlocked as playable characters. Sure, all the characters have identical movesets and not much (if any) variation in statistics, but it's a nice touch that I'm glad to see. However, as similar as all the characters are, some are definitely more useful than others.
For example, I started stage three as Makoto, a veritable behemoth of a woman with hair like a freshly-baked loaf of bread and the cockiness to fight with her hand in her pocket. She looks like a good choice, right? Might rules these mean city streets, and Makoto looks like she's got enough might to bench-press half of the Andes. However, once you try to use her you'll realise that she doesn't hit any harder than Ai or Chika, but she is much, much slower, slower than the enemies, and before I knew it I'd been overwhelmed because I was too ponderous to fight back efficiently and I had to switch to Ruri.
Ruri is here pictured fighting a swordswoman wearing a rather risqué blouse. I'm sure you could write a long and scholarly essay about how this confrontation between the spunky, commercialised icon of hyper-femininity and the sombre traditionalist reflects on the changing attitudes of women in mid-nineties Japan. You know, if you were a mad person.
I pulled her hair until she was defeated, by the way. It really is the most efficient way to beat the bosses.
Stage four is, as I'm sure you suspected, more of the same. This time I'm playing as kung-fu fighter Ryuko. She's definitely better than Makoto and Ruri, and she's currently sitting just behind Ai in the Official VGJunk Ane-san Character Rankings. As these ranking as based purely on the range and speed of a character's attacks, it is not an especially sought-after title.
One thing I do like about Ane-san is the graphics, or at least the art direction - they're hardly mind-blowing in technical terms, but the mood is appropriate and it's one I enjoy. The backgrounds are probably the best aspect, with a variety of detailed city environments like parks with drunken salarymen sleeping on benches, shipyards and underground car parks where gang members watch from the background, surrounding a jacked-up scooter as though it was the center of some strange two-stroke religion.
The boss characters are also pretty well designed, managing to look unique while still fitting in with the whole "girl gang" vibe. At the end of stage four they even mix things up a bit by making you fight two bosses at once! Sure, the bosses still die almost the second you start hitting them, but now there's two of 'em! If nothing else it means that for once the forceful hair removal strategy is not the best way to go about things, because it only hurts one of them at a time. Plus, I know kung fu. I'll use that instead, I think.
With that stage over, we've reached Ane-san's final stage. Yes, already. There are only five of them, and backgrounds and boss battles aside they're all the same so there's really only one of them, but it at least means that Ane-san doesn't have much chance to overstay its welcome.
Before I headed out to face my destiny, I gussied up my bedroom a bit. Well, who knows, I might be horribly murdered and I don't want the police busting into my house only to find I lacked the interior design skills commensurate with my position as Tokyo's toughest gang leader.
Then I fell asleep and dreamed about pastel whales flying through space.
Is this an important omen of things to come? I bloody hope so, this game could do with a bit of livening up and I think space-whales would be just the ticket.
For the final stage, I'll be using Sohshi the swordswoman, because she has a sword. It's a wooden sword, but that doesn't seem to matter - she can use it to poke people to death from nearly halfway across the screen, and that's all I ever wanted from my gang members. I have to say, it works out pretty well.
There's not much more to add at this point - there are no new enemies waiting to ambush me, no new moves to be unlocked even though I have a weapon now, just the same old hordes of the same old enemies who always seem to attack in groups of three. I mostly just wanted to point out that the "restaurant" in the background is clearly a McDonalds. Even in Japanese media, where they take a much more relaxed approach to potentially law-suit-y cameos, it's unusual to see a McDonald's that isn't at least modified a little bit. Not this one, though. That couldn't be any more obviously a McDonalds unless there were some bored teenagers sitting inside flicking chips at each other.
And here, after much poking of jumpsuits and pulling of hair, is the final boss. At least she's not your average gang member, and you mark my words - growing your hair into an afro and then sculpting it into a crude facsimile of a human brain is going to set the world of fashion ablaze in the near future. Probably literally, given the amount of hairspray it must take to maintain that 'do.
Of course, the final boss is an absolute piece of cake to defeat. The developers gave her the same "malnourished woodland creature" levels of health as all the other enemies, and she's not any smarter, either (her hair may have clued you in on that.) If you're the kind of person who looks for a challenge in your videogames, then Ane-san is not the title for you - between the braindead enemies, the characters with long reach and uninterruptible grab moves and the fact that you can save your game between stages, this might well be the easiest side-scrolling beat-em-up I've ever played.
Sohshi was low on health, so I decided to let her fall and have Ai defeat the final boss. Well, she is the leader after all. What will be her reward, now that she has crushed all her enemies? Will she rule the streets with an iron fist, or will she retire and live off the proceeds of her life of crime?
Oh my god, she's going to steal that church!
Wait, that's it? She... gets married? That's hardly the ending I was expecting, and it seems to run contrary to the (relatively) feminist themes of the game. The whole of Ane-san doesn't feature a single man until you get to the end, when Ai suddenly marries some guy who isn't even important enough to have eyes? I probably should have expected it: whenever you see a story about Japanese girl gangs, they almost always seem to feature bad-ass, take-no-shit women who don't need men, only for their strength to be ultimately undermined in some way. In most instances they either fall in love or, as is often the case in things like the "pinky violence" films of seventies Japanese cinema, they're subjected to fetishistic torture scenes. Obviously Ai getting married is nowhere near as bad as that, but still - couldn't she have done something more in keeping with the rest of the game's tone?
I'm choosing to read it this way: this wedding is some kind of scam. Just look at the groom's face, he's terrified! There's probably someone holding a gun to his back. He doesn't have his hands in his pockets, they've been bound underneath his coat. Ai is up to something, if you ask me.
There's a comedy moment as Hirame catches the bouquet. Cue the "wah wah whaaah" trombone noise, please. Naturally, now you're wondering what happens if you complete the game with Hirame...
She gets married, of course! It's a bit rich for me to talk about a person's appearance - glass houses and all that - but suddenly the groom's nervous expression seems much more fitting.
Ane-san, like a clutch of spider eggs coated in rich, dark chocolate, is more than palatable on the outside but the bulk of it will leave you wishing you hadn't bothered. It nearly fooled me into thinking it was a good game, but it isn't: it's a bad game, from all possible gameplay angles barring the inclusion of a few nice touches like the recruitable bosses. Personally, I love the aesthetics of it, I like the girl-gang setting and the commitment to not having any men involved (bar the ending) is a refreshing change of pace, especially given that the girls aren't sexualised at all apart from maybe Sohshi's cleavage-baring top. It also feels like there's more depth to the non-gameplay elements than I managed to uncover, even after multiple playthroughs. The final shot in the ending seems to change according to some criteria I couldn't figure out, and apparently the two bosses you fight at once are recruitable somehow, so there's definitely more to Ane-san than I've shown you here.
Would I recommend you play this game? Sure, if you're the kind of person who appreciates off-the-wall games with interesting settings and the kind of warped, campy charm of titles like Cho Aniki and Gourmet Sentai Bara Yarou. I certainly had fun with it. If you're looking for a game that's actually fun to play, however, I'd recommend that you give Ane-san a miss. Still, at least the soundtrack's good.