Buddhism: a philosophy of peace, of attaining balance with the world, of immolating matadors and clowns with spiritual energy launched from your mind. Apparently angels are involved somehow, too? What I'm saying is if you're revising for a Religious Studies GCSE then you might want to stay away from Sega's 1994 arcade game Zunzunkyou no Yabou, because it'll only confuse you.
Shadowy figures perform a ritual dance before a wall of fire, an oddly dark image for the attract screen of a game that's far from menacing. The dancing guys look pretty happy about whatever's going on, so I guess I'm reading too much into it. Maybe they just really like bonfires.
The title doesn't give many hints to what the game's about, either. Thanks to playing Gradius II: Gofer no Yabou I know that "yabou" means ambition, so this game is called Zunzunkyou's Ambition, possibly. Further investigation suggests that "kyou" might be a suffix placed on words to denote a faith - the "ism" in "Buddhism", if you like - so Zunzunism's Ambition could be a more correct title. Feel free to tell me I'm wrong on this one, but it looks like we could be in for a battle between religions in this one. Something nice and uncontroversial, then.
With no intro or discernible storyline offered to the player who isn't fluent in Japanese, this menacing Mount Rushmore of silhouetted weirdos is where Zunzunkyou no Yabou begins. It's a stage-select screen, and I'm sure I don't need to tell you that I played through the stages in the standard left-to-right order because I am a man utterly lacking in the drive and imagination needed to smash societal norms.
There's some more translation "fun" here, too. From left to right, the stage's labels read Japan Branch, Asia Branch, Europe Branch and America Branch. Whatever Zunzunism is up to, they've truly embraced globalism, and it looks like I'll be starting my battle against them in Japan.
All right, that's not what I was expecting - a screenshot of a Seventies-themed Bratz doll standing in a discotheque. She doesn't even seem to have noticed that her hand's exploded. Maybe the intense levels of smugness being put out by the guy on the right are distracting her.
Buddhism is concerned with attaining enlightenment through the removal of desire, and in this case that desire seems to be the desire to get dressed up and hit the town on a Saturday night. You play as the statue pictured at the bottom of the screen. He's presumably supposed to be Jizo, the Japanese representation of the bodhisattva Ksitigarbha, protector of children and probably best known to the videogame-playing public as that statue Mario can turn into using the Tanooki Suit in Super Mario Bros. 3. He's out to bring peace to the world by throwing manji symbols at dancing girls until they burst into flame. It's what the Budha would have wanted.
Zunzunkyou no Yabou's gameplay feels instantly familiar, cobbled together as it is from the concepts of other games. It's a single-screen (well, one-and-a-half-screen) shooter where the enemies attack in waves and you can only fire upwards, so it's got a Galaga flavour, but you can also roam around the screen to avoid attacks in the manner of something like Smash T.V. To clear the level, you simply need to incinerate a set number of targets.
Each stage has two kinds of enemies - the more common ones that take two hits to destroy, in this case the dancing girls, and the less numerous but arguably more deadly second kind that move faster and tend to charge in from the sides. In this case it's the smug blokes in the pink suits. Those suits are bad, sure, but are they so bad that the wearer deserves to be burned alive? Yes. Yes they are.
If you can avoid the many projectiles thrown your way and reach your fatality target, you'll move on to the next stage and a fresh batch of oddballs to dispatch. This time it's a relatively normal-looking (for this game, at least) pair of traditional Japanese folks who give off a husband-and-wife vibe. The guy also gives off the vibe of someone who is suffering severe stomach pains but is trying to smile through it. That's only once you've shot him once, though - after one hit, the people you're shooting at change appearance, in this case from "cheerful" to "cheerfully pretending they're not having an aneurysm."
Speaking of changing appearance, you might have noticed that Jizo is tiny now. That's because I collected a power-up that shrank him, making it easier to dodge projectiles (in theory). Zunzunkyou no Yabou has quite a few power-ups to help you on your way, all of them familiar from other shooters, beside the shrinking potion. There's temporary invincibility, speed-up and speed-down icons and the ability to increase your firepower and fire two or three shots at a time. These power-ups also change your statue's appearance into something a touch more threatening, which you would be able to see in the screenshot above if I wasn't shrunken.
If all else fails, you can activate one of your limited-use special attacks to summon a squadron of flaming Buddhas to hit every enemy on the screen. He may be free from the cycle of rebirth but according to this game Gautama Buddha is still available for a bit of carpet bombing, and you'd better get used to seeing this if you're planning on getting anywhere in this game.
So the game goes on, with three regular stages followed by a boss battle and then back to the stage select screen to pick another branch of this evil global empire of what seems so far to be mostly normal people. This third Japan stage is filled with drunken-looking and definitely stressed-out salary men pouring out of a subway car, a sight as quintessentially Japanese as the falling cherry blossoms or Mount Fuji. I'm glad this is a Japanese game made by Japanese people, mind you. The depiction of Japanese men as glasses-wearing, buck-toothed bundles of stress might seem a little... inappropriate otherwise.
The boss is a kabuki dancer. A very wealthy kabuki dancer, if the rate he's throwing gold coins at me is anything to go by. He's also got a move where he stretches his hand out to slap you, and because it comes out so fast you'll want to stay quite far away from him so that you've got time to react and get out of the way when you see it coming. This means that most of the time you can't even see the boss that you're fighting because he's off the top of the screen, something that happens with every boss in the game. It's just you, firing upwards while moving between whatever objects the boss is throwing at you, hoping that you're actually doing some damage. It's not very satisfying, and sadly it's a glimpse into the way Zunzunkyou no Yabou will be playing from here on out.
With Japan freed from the menace of folk theatre and nightclubbers, I can move on to the rest of Asia. The first stage in this group is packed with Chinese women who are either dancers or kung-fu fighters. Whatever they are, they're very serious about their work, even if their work is mostly throwing things at Jizo whilst spinning in a circle, stopping for a moment and then spinning in the opposite direction.
The real stars of this stage are the monkey statues dotted round the edge of the level, though.
Good good that ape's having a whale of a time. I wonder how they got the monkey to pose with that expression while they were carving the statue? "Okay, the chimp's in position, now slowly pull back the curtain to reveal the ton of bananas we just bought and I'll try to finish up the face before he figures out how to undo his restraints."
Also Chinese: pandas. There's nothing too amazing here, I'm sure we've all seen pandas in traditional dress dancing around and throwing swords at people before. However, I managed to capture the moment one of the pandas was consumed by the spiritual fires of Jizo's attacks and I recognise that tortured expression, those low-set eyed, the noodly, tapering limbs: that's Horace, the perpetually gloomy star of a series of old home computer games! Finally I have a handle of what's going on in this game. Horace's misery has become so overwhelming that it has transformed into a vast entity capable of possessing people, and it's Jizo's job to release people's souls from the clutches of the Dark Horace Force.
I've had to apply a bit of censorship to the final stage of the Asia branch, because most of the enemies are these Indian women with exposed breasts. I can't have that at VGJunk: this is a family site, where families can gather together to read bad joke about ancient videogames. I could have tried to make this stage safe for work by shooting all the ladies once so that there's nothing but skeletons on the screen, which would have been the perfect solution because everyone knows that skeletons are great, but Zunzunkyou no Yabou is a difficult game and I couldn't manage it. Still, I'm looking forward to all the extra pageviews this article will get thanks to people Googling phrases like "Indian women boobs".
The boss of Asia is a chef who flies around in a bowl and throws dumplings at our hero. The dumplings are massive, so they're a better offensive weapon than you might think. It seems to me that this chef has joined the wrong evil organisation, though, and he'd be much better off following Kettler in UFO Kamen Yakisoban. He's got kitchenware instead of a lower body, he'd fit right in.
I was looking forward to the Europe stages, because I was having a hard time narrowing down which aspects of the vast sweep of European culture could be used in this game. I'll tell you now, there were no British-themed stages: no bearskin-wearing palace guards, no mobs of football fans, no gormless aristocrats trying to drum up some cash to restore their crumbling stately homes by charging the unwashed masses to come and visit them. Instead we start out with the ballet, where the women are graceful and delicate and the men have huge bulges in their leotards. ZnY is not a subtle game.
Next up: matadors, and the occasional senorita. Did they use the wrong detergent when they were washing their capes or something? Because those are clearly pink, not red. After blasting panda bears and office workers, you could at least make the argument that matadors are a more suitable target for the wrath of the Buddha. I can't imagine he'd be cool with people who stab animals for a living.
The run of legitimate targets continues because after all, what could be a more legitimate target than a gathering of clowns? This is still supposed to be Europe, right? Because those symbols on the ground look very Egyptian to me, hinting at dark rituals and unsavoury magics. These clowns are up to something, something that was not meant to exist in the world of man, and I'll gladly take up my solemn duty to eradicate this greasepainted menace. I can only pray I am not too late.
The boss is a knight, a suitably European opponent but one that has given up the code of chivalry and converted his castle into the cover art from an eighties metal album. Mind you, I suppose that from the knight's perspective that cross isn't up-side down, so maybe he's not as godless as I imagined. I'm sure the skulls with the vines growing out of their eye sockets have some religious significance.
The knight's gimmick is that he can summon three clones of himself that can all throw lightning bolts. I was killed by those lightning bolt a lot, because they're long and pointy and you'd expect them to travel in a straight line, but they kind of slide sideways towards you in a manner that feels very counter-intuitive and they kept clipping me when I was sure I'd avoided then. Once you've reached this point in the game, ZnY has become little more than an exercise in avoiding projectile, attacking the enemies becoming something of a afterthought in your quest to not get hit by constant stream of obstacles that are flying towards you.
Jizo's attack on the USA starts at a rock concert, climbing on to the stage and striking a blow against hair metal by shooting his way through the dozens of guitarists in this band. Just look at some of those faces - was there ever a movie where a tribe of cavemen was thawed out of an iceberg in 1987 and were subsequently moulded into a Motley Crue-type band by a greedy manager? Because that's what's going on here, I'm sure of it. The band is called Homo Erect-us, naturally.
Street punks with mohawks fighting on a graffiti-daubed basketball court. The American Dream lives on. Always remember that Final Fight was a documentary, folks. I like that someone's written "GRUNGE" on that wall, as though there's a member of this gang who prefers Nirvana to Black Flag.
The bright lights of Broadway are the final challenge before America's boss, a terrifying gauntlet of high kicks, plastered-on smiles and thousands of deadly hats. You can see here that one such hat has killed Jizo, and he's ascending to heaven with angel wings and a halo. He kept all his religious bases covered, and it's paid off for him as he takes his place at the right hand of the lord. Well, until I press "continue," at least. Then it's back to the battle for him. The endless wheel of samsara is a cruel master.
Wow, Captain America has really let himself go. In case you couldn't tell, this is the boss of America: an inflated superhero in a scandalously low-cut leotard who attacks by shouting the word "JUSTICE" at you. Zunzunkyou no Yabou has mostly worn out its welcome by now - its repetitive, one-note and annoyingly difficult instead of challenging, but it was worth playing through just for the moment that a grinning, copyright-skirting parade float of a man launched the word "JUSTICE" at me using naught but the power of his vocal cords.
Once you've beaten the four branch leaders, Jizo is thrown into a couple of stages involving aliens and these slightly off-model copies of himself. Nothing new, nothing exciting, and without even the entertaining oddness of the stages based on "real" humans (and clowns), these stages feel like a bit of a chore. At least the final boss should be along soon.
To save the Earth, you must destroy... the Earth! You all read that in the manner of a movie trailer voice-over, right? Good, good. There really should have been one of those "bwoooom" bass notes that film previews are so fond of these days to accompany it, but if you were playing this in the arcade the only noise you'd be hearing would be the clatter of coins dropping into the slot. I lost track of how many times I had to continue in this fight, thanks to the boss' tendency to do little besides run into you with it's limbs whirling like a sugared-up kid chasing an ice cream van. It's a good job you get two special Buddha Bombs every time you lose a life, otherwise I'd still be fighting this guy now.
You blew up the Earth, Jizo. Congratulations, I guess? I settled back to enjoy the ending sequence, one that I assumed would show Jizo floating in the black void of space, surrounded by the fragments of our former home planet, but ZnY pulls a Ghosts 'n' Goblins on the player by forcing them to play through the game again in order to see the ending. ZnY is not nearly good enough for that to be an appealing prospect, but for you, the reader, I struggled through for a second time. The game felt more difficult, but I'm not sure if that's because the second run is actually harder or if I'd just lost all interest and thus didn't try very hard.
This is your reward, a shot of Jizo and his palette-swapped P2 counterpart enjoying a sunset, their faces sporting the sheepish grins of people who have just exploded a planet. I'm glad I made that extra effort.
You're unlikely to ever find yourself in a position where you'd have to fork over actual money to play Zunzunkyou no Yabou, and as such it's easy to recommend that you give it a go purely to enjoy the weirdness of the setting and the bizarre enemies. As a game, though, it's not up to much. It smacks of a game designed for comedy, with the developers having a great time pitching boss battles and blasphemous clown ceremonies but forgetting to make an enjoyable, engaging game. It's just too basic to wring much fun out of, especially on the second run when you've already seen everything it has to offer. Play it for a while, enjoy the fight against Definitely Not Captain America Honest, then play Smash T.V. instead. At least that way you might win a brand-new toaster!