Today’s game is a cutesy Famicom romp through a series of colourful worlds, where a young girl, erm, does things? I can’t really be more specific than that. It’s a confusing game. Welcome to Lost Word of Jenny, developed by Takara and released in 1987. Before we get started, take a close look at the title. Yes, it’s “Lost Word” and not “Lost World.” I hope you don’t have as much difficulty as I – and several others, if a quick internet search is anything to go by – did making the distinction. “Lost World” just feels more correct, somehow, probably because “lost world” is a phrase sometimes used in English whereas “Lost Word” sounds like an indecipherable error message from an ancient computer.
Here’s Jenny now. Jenny has a lot of hair. Perhaps too much hair for such a small head, and it threatens to engulf her diminutive features. If Jenny looks a bit doll-like, that’s because she’s a doll. Specifically, she’s based on the real Japanese “Jenny” doll, which was originally known as “Takara Barbie.” This gave me cause for concern, because playing a videogame based on Barbie is not something I need in my life right now. Things are stressful enough without adding another god-awful minigame collection based around fashion, but thankfully Lost Word of Jenny is actually a platformer.
Jenny is also Cinderella, it seems. Cinderella in space, maybe, what with the featureless black void and the horse kicking up a trail of stardust.
Here’s Jenny now, at the bottom of the screen, long of limb and full of youthful energy. The game begins with Jenny leaving her house and traversing this map screen, trying to reach the entrance to each stage while avoiding the many hazards that block her path. These hazards include cars, which move as though they’re being driven by a chimp fed a steady diet of amphetamines. I can see how that would be a hazard. On the other hand, puppies. Deadly, enraged puppies. Yes, the puppies hurt you if you touch them. No, I have no idea why. I’ve complained before about how many videogame heroes can take damage from bubbles, but this is a step beyond that. At least a bubble could conceivably contain poison gas. A puppy is a puppy. If you asked people to compile a list of the least threatening things in the world, puppies would be number one with a bullet. There are therapies out there that give people puppies to make them feel better. I just can’t get over it. My only explanation is that Jenny reeks of Pedigree Chum.
Also, there’s a building over there marked “NASA.” Obviously, this was my first port of call, but it wouldn’t let me in. Instead, I wandered around for thirty seconds or so until I found a stage that would admit Jenny.
It’s a pirate ship. “Gabacho the Ship,” according to the title that appeared when I walked in. Here’s where I hope that Lost Word of Jenny came with a detailed instruction manual, because at first I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing. Stages in this game aren’t the usual “get from the left to the right” affairs, instead comprising a few screens, usually with a second set of screens below that you can reach by travelling down a ladder or staircase. Some time spent jumping around and trying out Jenny’s combat skills – she can perform a high kick or a crouching punch – eventually led me to one of the barrels you can see above. They’re the key to completing the stage: find all the barrels and open them (or open them and defeat the creatures inside) to collect the important items they contain. Most important of all are the keys. Keys let you exit the stage, and six are needed to finish the game. Every stage has their own variation on the special containers you need to find, be it barrels, gravestones or gift-wrapped presents, but finding and opening them all is the main thrust of the game.
Already Jenny has proven herself to be better than Barbie. I can’t imagine Barbie kicking a crocodile in the face. Jenny’s got something of Wonder Momo about her, especially those high kicks, but both games were released within months of each other so I don’t think it’s anything other than coincidence. Then there’s this adorable crocodile, a chubby, big-eyed reptile friend. I’d almost feel bad about beating it to death with Jenny’s bare hands if it wasn’t trying to kill me. On the plus side, being a fashion doll means that Jenny can probably put the crocodile’s skin to good use.
I’ll say right now that the enemy design is my favourite thing about Lost Word of Jenny, with some of the most precious little weirdoes I’ve seen in an 8-bit game for a long while. Jenny herself doesn’t have much personality, which is a shame, but the monsters more than make up for it.
For example, check out that mouse. It’s nothing more than a simple cartoon rodent but it’s expertly drawn, extremely basic but packed with character, and it’s a great example of the amount of charm that can be packed into a tiny amount of pixels.
Eventually I made it down below deck, and checking every single barrel finally revealed a pirate. Sadly he did not pop out of the barrel when I inserted a sword. Even more sadly, he decided to sit on top of Jenny and chip away at her health while I struggled to get her into a position to kick him. The crocodile looks on, his glee at his vicarious revenge evident in his expression.
Once the pirate was beaten – I managed to get into a spot where I could crouch down and repeatedly punch him in the Jolly Roger – he dropped a key.
The key opens the grey exit door. Does it open that exit door right next to where it spawned? Does it bollocks. Instead, there are multiple doors scattered throughout the stage, and only one will let Jenny leave, where she will presumably head back to the “overworld” section and pick another stage.
Wait, what? Did you just call me a cow head, Lost Word of Jenny? You cheeky bastard. That sounds like an isult screamed by a five-year-old so angry they can't get their words out.
Never mind, I’m guessing this guy is Cow Head. This stage is a long corridor with little to stand in Jenny’s way – a couple of fiery cauldrons and some moving spikes – until you get to a certain point and Cow Head rises from the ground, intent on putting a stop to Jenny’s vague quest. You have to beat him to progress, which I found out after saying “yeah, see ya” and running for the exit, but the exit won’t open until Cow Head is Cow Dead. Fortunately, I discovered a decent strategy. You can’t see her thanks to some sprite flicker, but I managed to get Jenny to stand just to the left of that cauldron. From there, you can use your high kick to bash Cow Head and he can’t retaliate, trapped as he is on his higher perch. Strong and cunning, that’s Jenny.
I’m glad I figured this out early, because you have to fight Cow Head after every stage. It’s the same level layout and pattern, but it becomes more difficult each time – the spikes move faster and multiple Cow Heads appear at once, some of them on the bottom half of the screen where I couldn’t trap them with my mighty kicks. During those fights, I simply died a lot.
Okay, now it must be time to get on to the next stage proper, right?
Or not, whatever. This stage is announced as “Whomanchun,” and it gives us a chance to play a little game of “Ghost or KKK?” I’m going with ghost, because I really don’t want to imagine there’s a violent racist in this otherwise saccharine Famicom platformer. At most, you could say he’s the ghost of a Klan member, condemned to an eternity of purgatorial wandering for his crimes. Whatever it is, I’d like the name of his detergent because those sheets are immaculate.
During Whomanchun, you play some kind of slot machine game. Numbers spin around in the reels at the bottom. Presumably, something happens. I have no idea what, and I couldn’t detect any influence on later gameplay. How very mysterious.
Now we’re back to the regular stages, with a world made of cake. Now I want cake. I don’t have any cake, so I had to settle for a cigarette and my sixth cup of coffee. I think the cake would have been healthier, so I’ll blame Lost Word of Jenny the next time I see my doctor.
The enemies here are the kinds of things you might expect to see on a giant cake, like giant ants and hunched-over over men with pumpkins for heads. Hang on, that doesn’t seem right. There are two other spookily-themed stages, and the pumpkin man wasn’t deemed appropriate for either of them? He looks like an elderly farmer who was tending his pumpkin patch on Halloween night when he was struck by lightning and fused with his crops, but here he is, trudging his way through the icing.
There are also witches. Someone didn’t think the cake world through at the planning stage and panicked when it came to designing enemies.
Those monsters should have been in this stage. It’s even called Monster’s House! The monster in question must be Dracula, because I’m getting a real Castlevania vibe from this. Diagonal staircases, bats, knights in armour and a hero who struggled to interact with the aforementioned stairs, all the signs are here. That’s definitely one of Lost Word of Jenny’s more irritating flaws: she struggles with moving up and down levels. Staircases have to be approached at just the right angle – and if they’re at the bottom of the screen you risk falling to your death – and ladders are fickle creatures that might let you climb them, or not, depending on whether you’ve got Jenny’s pixels lined up just right.
I headed into the basement. It’s certainly colourful down here, isn’t it? I’d worry about a house with Duplo foundations, but the monsters don’t seem to mind. Speaking of monsters, it’s the definitely-not-a-shitbag-racist ghost from the Whomanchun stages, wandering around with a flaming torch that is not helping in my attempts to paint him as nothing more than a simple spectre. Naturally, Jenny ran straight over there to exorcise him with her blessed fists.
The ghost dropped a number 6. Well, I’m sure it’s not important.
Now I can get into the space stage, which is the closest I’ll ever come to my childhood dream of joining NASA until they loosen their acceptance requirements and start hiring tubby asthmatics who are bad at maths. This stage deviates from the rest by not being a standard platformer. Instead, Jenny can fly as long as you’re holding the jump button, so you can drift through the level and have even more trouble than usual defeating the monsters because trying to kick them in mid-air (mid-vaccuum?) is a real pain in the arse.
As ever, the monster designs paper over the cracks somewhat. This stage has these boggle-eyed little aliens, and it’s a shame I had to kick them to find the keys I needed. I would have much preferred to have made friends with them. It does seem odd that a game based on a fashion doll revolves around her battering her way through the inventory of Fluffy Smilekins’ Plush Toy Emporium, and normally I’d be very glad that they took such an unexpected route – but I like all the enemies so much that this approach has backfired.
Never mind. I retract my previous statement. I reached the graveyard stage and immediately had to fist-fight the Grim Reaper. That’s not just my bag, that’s overhead storage locker in which I store the holdall that contains all my other, smaller bags.
As fun as giving Death a taste of his own medicine sounds, it isn’t that great in practise, and I should probably discuss Lost Word of Jenny’s gameplay. The platforming aspect is fine, staircase issues aside. Jenny handles well, and jumping is reliable and precise. It’s the combat where things suffer. This is a surprisingly difficult game, given the source material and overall pastel-daydream tone, thanks in large part to the very short range of Jenny’s attacks. The saving grace is that she can attack very rapidly, but still enemies have a habit of getting stuck “inside” Jenny as she struggles to hit them. A projectile weapon, even a short-range one, would have gone a long way towards making the combat more pleasant, and Jenny does have one. If you’ve collected enough power-ups, you can use a spray-can weapon – but it’s limited-use, and annoyingly enemies seem to have a roughly twenty-five percent chance of ignoring it completely. Plus, by the time you reach the last couple of Cow Head stages the spray is almost mandatory, so you have to save all your sprays for that which doesn’t help you when the bats in the Monster’s House stage have decided that Jenny’s sinuses would make a perfect new nesting site.
The level design is okay, with nothing to get hugely exited about. In several stage, some of the special containers you need to open are blocked off in such a way that you have to approach the bottom level via a specific staircase from the top level for a soupçon of maze navigation, but that’s about it. It does feel very much like an early arcade game, which is hardly surprising.
The final main stage is Flower Land. Really put a lot of thought into that name, huh, guys? I would have called it Hayfever Nightmare Zone, myself. There’s land, and there are flowers, with leaves for climbing on and praying mantises seeking refuge from a Disney movie about loveable insects. There’s no refuge here, my friends, only brutal hand-to-hand combat. And flowers.
I defeated another Whomanchun, and received the number one. I hope this doesn’t represent a countdown as I gradually exterminate the last surviving members of their species. I also picked up the sixth and final key, which leaves me with only one last Cow Head encounter before I can wrap this up.
Multiple Cow Heads are no joke, unless your idea of a joke is “what would be a terrible thing to put in your kid’s lunchbox.” Still, I’d saved up all my sprays, so I managed to send them all back to the great ranch in the sky. Okay, time to roll the credits!
Oh ho, not so fast. You know those numbers you’ve seen Jenny find throughout the game? I hope you wrote those down. You see, each stage contains one number and one letter, and before you can complete Lost Word of Jenny you have to enter those numbers and letters into this combination lock. The first time through, I did not write those letters and numbers down. I barely even remembered seeing them, so intent was I on trying not to die. Thus, I was literally locked out of the ending, and had to complete the whole game again. Ghosts ‘n Goblins has a surprise competitor for “most dickish end-of-game move,” and as I said at the start I really hope this was explained in the original manual. Even if it was, you just know there’s some poor Japanese kid out there who struggled through the game only to be denied by a tiny frog-faced wizard right at the last. The sheer cruelty of it is astonishing.
So, I played through the whole game again, pen and notepad by my side and a litany of curses seeping through my clenched teeth, until I managed to open the lock. I’m fairly certain it’s random every time, too, so I can’t even tell you the code.
At least the ending is nice, with a roll-call of all the enemies in the game. I think you even get a bit of information about each character: I would take this with a pinch of salt because my Japanese knowledge is on roughly the same level of my knowledge on cardiac microsurgery, but I think it says that the ghost thing is called Biibii and he’s gathered together the world’s most evil creatures. It might be a touch harsh to say I’d have rather just watched this ending than actually playing through the game, but then I do love those monster designs.
Lost Word of Jenny is a flawed game, especially in the monster-punching stakes, and it has a soundtrack so repetitive and wheedling I’d strongly urge you pack your eardrums with old rags and candle wax before attempting to play it. However, I ended up enjoying it far more than I expected to. It’s crisp, it looks nice for its time and there’s plenty to do without it being overlong, and while I’m not saying it’s an undiscovered masterpiece I suspect there are quite a lot of people out there who’d really enjoy sinking their teeth into it. Maybe those people can figure out some of the game’s more confusing moments, like what the small red bird I occasionally found actually does, or why Jenny is relentlessly pursued by a cow skeleton. As for me, I shall end this article proud in the knowledge that I might have helped a couple of people avoid getting stuck on that lock.
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