Oh boy, had to dig deep to find the lore on this one. Once again, Gaming Hell salutes those who have come before us, with apparently the sole original source of actual Chack'n Pop information- more specifically, the conditions for making the Super Heart appear on each Maze- being Victor Epitropou's Chack'n Pop page from 1997, mother of God, I don't think my writer cohort had even been on the internet by then, they'd never heard their fax machine sing the song of the modem. Truly savage times. Anyway, we thank Victor for this info, and yes, that's the same person who wrote the guide to The NewZealand Story that my writer lackey used to learn that game, and so we shout them out again. If you ever see this, give us a holler.
Before Bubble Bobble, before The Fairyland Story, even before Rumba Lumber, there was Chack'n Pop.
I like to start these articles with a little history and context to better understand where these games fit in the grand timeline of video games but, uh, the actual release year of Chack'n Pop and its genesis is somewhat mysterious. The year on the title screen and flyer is given as 1983, and most Taito materials, such as the Egret II Mini website, put it at 1983 also. However, one source in particular- アーケードTVゲームリスト 国内•海外編 (1971-2005) (ISBN: 978-4990251215)- specifies the game's release as April 1984. If that is true (and to be fair, people have vouched for this book's accuracy- ta, Lee) then this is pretty dang late for an arcade game that looks like this, especially since that list shows that Taito's next release would be Field Day, leaps and bounds above poor Chack'n in terms of appearance. This feels more like the kind of game you'd play on a home computer at the time, in the vein of Flappy or Sokoban. There is a chance that's where it came from as referenced very briefly in an interview with Yoichi Miyaji, one of the founders of Game Arts. Hiroshi Sakai was a member of the Microcomputer Club at the University of Tokyo (or Todai for short) and also worked at ASCII in the early '80s, and is credited as creating Chack'n Pop for Taito. That's what the interview says and seems pretty reliable, which gives credence to the idea that Chack'n Pop was originally developed with a microcomputer release in mind and later changed to be an arcade game, not dissimilar to Heiankyo Alien created in similar circumstances years prior.
Where it gets murky is some unsourced supposition from JP Wikipedia that claims Sakai created a game called Chack'n Chack for the Hitachi BASIC Master LevelIII which Taito bought from him and adapted to the arcade, then later he would join up with the upstart Game Arts to design one of their first games, Cuby Panic. There's no source for this though, and no amount of searching turns up anything for Chack'n Chack or Sakai himself (in fact, there's not much info out there on Cuby Panic in English either making it difficult to track down excatly who worked on it). It would certainly be convenient if all this was accurate, of course- the Miyaji interview alludes to it in an obtuse way, but this Chack'n Chack story specifically points to the game originating as a microcomputer production, which if true (a lot of that in this article, a veritable Jenga tower of ifs and maybes) would explain why a 1984 arcade release looks like it would be more at home, er, at home. I'm not doing this necessarily to put Chack'n Pop under a particular lens, but it's certainly helpful to know this stuff, plus Chack'n Pop is somewhat of an enigma in the English-speaking web and not many people talk about its origins- 'predecessor to Bubble Bobble' is about as far as it usually gets, and that's hardly fair, is it? It could do with someone giving it a proper look, a good ol' analysis. Hold on- I'm someone, aren't I? Maybe I should do it?
Let's do what Gaming Hell (apparently) does best then, and play the damn game!
Chack'n Pop is a strange fusion of the maze-chase and platformer genres, albeit with more of a focus on the maze-chasing rather than platforming, seeing Chack'n set off into the heart of a series of mazes to find the hearts of both him and his sweetheart Miss Chack'n, stolen by the Monstas and Maitas who dwell within, so they can get married. Each maze has its own layout of tunnels, platforms and other hazards which always includes at least one caged heart, eggs hanging from the ceiling that eventually hatch in slow-moving Monstas that patrol the maze and a Maita pushing a rock to the exit serving as a timer. The objective is simple- free the heart (or hearts) by blasting open the cage with Chack'n's bombs, then get to the exit before time runs out or the Monstas get ya! There's 14 mazes in total (including a Training Stage which can be disabled via dipswitches if you like) with a few cutscenes inbetween certain mazes and a little ending sequence after beating all the mazes, but then it's back to the start with a higher difficulty (and the introduction of Monstas who will turn red and become faster) so do your best to get as far as you can.
Probably the most important element of the game to talk about from the start is Chack'n himself because he's... An odd fellow. Round of body and fluffy of arms, the way you move Chack'n around the maze whether you're playing this game in 1984 or 2024 is bizarre, feeling more like a maze-chase character who signed up for a platformer by mistake. His sticky feet allow him to walk onto the ceiling (if both his feet are on solid ground he can jump higher so keep that in mind) but while he can move up single or two block-high steps on the ground he can't do the same on the ceiling so he'll just fall back down, and he can't reach every ceiling so it's not like he has unfettered movement around the maze. He also can't stop his left or right movement unless he jumps straight up, switches between the ground and the ceiling or hits a wall, which again feels like something inherited from the maze-chase genre. He's a pain to control, is what I'm saying, which is a problem because this game kinda asks a lot of you- you need to be fairly precise when it comes to your feet placement to get to the ceiling at times, and sometimes it feels like you'll just stick to surfaces you don't want to and have to free yourself with repositioning, which usually happens mid-chase. Anything involving the moving platforms is especially troublesome, with Maze 11 in particular being a real pain and very frustrating when you just barely miss moving from the platform to the ledge you need to reach.
Chack'n continues to be awkward with the other major game mechanic, his explosives. The little cherry bombs he can throw are unwieldy and difficult to use at first brush- each of your two buttons drops one to the left or right and while they have a short fuse, they also bounce and roll depending on the geometry of where they land. They'll always roll in the direction they were thrown and only come to a stop if they hit a wall but they follow these rules pretty strictly so, over time, you get a sense of where a bomb's going to go when you drop it. They also run on a timer so you'll have to gauge when it explodes from trial and error, so I suppose there's a smidgen of Bomberman DNA here too. All these combine to make the bombs- basically your only self-defence option beyond running away or praying a moving platform squashes a Monsta or two for you- pretty finnicky to use, with so much lead time needed that you can get caught far easier than you'd think. Factor in the erratic movement patterns of the Monstas (we'll talk about those more later) plus all the movement weirdness and you have a game with a bit of a learning curve. Maybe a learning brick wall.
The final basic element is the maze design, and they're intricate for a game like this with lots of paths but they're also pretty cramped, and with Chack'n's strange movement you'll find it quite difficult to squeeze past Monstas without getting caught. At the very least, some of them feel designed like they expect you to find hidey-holes to lie in wait (even if the timer's breathing down your neck) until you've taken out enough Monstas to proceed, so finding these good spots is tactically advantageous. Later mazes introduce obstacles like water jugs you can destroy to flood the bottom section of the maze and swim around in (bombs don't work underwater though), destroyable walls, moving platforms and wrap-around paths. Of these, the water jug stages are my favourite- the amount of Monstas is always capped at 8 which is a bit more manageable, plus destroying the jugs really affects the layout of the maze and makes you rethink how to approach them. The moving platforms, as mentioned, are troublesome and not implemented especially well (Chack'n's movement speed on them changes based on the direction they're headed, which is never not strange) and neither are the wrap-around paths. The ideas are fine, the execution isn't quite there.
With all these put together, then, I'm not going to lie, even with the Training Stage switched on this is tough to get into right off the bat, a bad first impression for an arcade game to make. Giving up on the game after a few attempts is a natural and understandable thing to do, and I've seen plenty of people do it, because it just plays so strangely and not in a necessarily fun way. That said... I almost got into it after a while. Once you start to get a grip on how Chack'n moves and how the bombs work, there's definitely some fancy moves you can pull off, like dropping a bomb at the peak of a jump to place it on a higher platform, rolling a bomb down a set of steps into a pit teeming with Monstas and outrunning your own bombs with well-executed movement. The most crucial thing is to learn how long the bomb timer lasts so you can lead your shots properly to avoid getting trapped with no way out, and it feels pretty good to land that stuff (if you can). Ultimately though, I think the flaws are a bit too prevalent to let the game shine, with the slow pace and general awkwardness of the controls (even by 1984 standards) holding things back. It definitely feels like an acquired taste, one that I nearly 'got' but just couldn't in the end.
There's a little more to it than that, though. If there's one element of the game that you can definitely trace to later Taito games, it's the scoring system as similar to Bubble Bobble and The Fairyland Story, it's based around getting a combo of enemies at the same time but it's nearly not as refined or developed. Destroying Monstas in groups of 2 or more award increasingly-large number of points plus fruit drops worth even more, and if you use the correct number bomb to do this you'll get a Super Heart that grants temporary invincibility and super-speed (it's based on Pi and the maze you're currently in by default, so you can't rely on it unless you're very, very good). After a maze you're given a tally of the eggs and Monstas you destroyed, and confusingly you're told the number on Monstas that were in the maze you just beat (not, as I originally thought, the number about to appear in the next maze). Anything other than total Monsta annihilation or a pacifist run destroying nothing gets you no bonus, but while the pacifist bonus is mighty tempting- an absurd 20000 points plus an extra life- any Monstas left alive are added to every subsequent maze for the rest of the game, so doing this just once guarantees every single maze (except water jug mazes) will start with the maximum 14 eggs. Needless to say, 14 Monstas crammed into a maze is a lot, ramping up the difficulty immensely and also making it harder to eliminate them all before the timer runs out, so you'll probably want the 5000 point bonus for destroying every single Monsta instead to prevent infestation. Destroying eggs is also punished- they're worth less points, add an egg to every next maze if you do destroy one and even one smashed egg nullifies your potential maze bonus.
There's a risk-reward dynamic to this, of course- do you destroy eggs to make things easier now but harder later and get less points now but more potentially later, and so on- but all of this kind of falls apart when you factor in the behaviour of the Monstas. They just tend to wander around the maze without much purpose, and while sometimes it looks like they're patrolling certain areas, they're mostly doing their own thing and will eventually wander to any part of the maze if you let them. They sometimes react to things and it feels like they're chase you when they want to, but otherwise there's no specific AI like the ghosts in Pac-Man, no consistent enemy behaviour like in The Fairyland Story or Bubble Bobble, so there's no satisfaction in getting them to go where you want or corralling them into certain situa tions. It feels feels far more like luck than skill when you get a combo of them and it's just not satisfying. At one point I managed a three-Monsta combo and I have no idea how I even managed it at all, just completely blind luck. Leading one Monsta into your bombs is one thing, but the main score system the game wants you to engage with is just frustrating at times, but this is at least something Taito would work on with their later single-screen platformers. Again, fine idea, it's just the execution.
The other major throughline between this and Taito's later games in the same sphere is, of course, presentation. Beyond the obvious character designs making their way over to Bubble Bobble a few years later (including one hidden in the code unused), the overall sprite design is very much in the Taito single-screen platformer mould- simple, cute designs that pop off the background and manage to convey a lot about them with a little. Chack'n is a super-expressive lil' blob-monster for the time- he has a strange frown on his face when reaching up to jump or when swimming, he reacts in pain with crossed-out eyes when he dies, and you can even hold Down on the stick to make him look down at the floor when standing still, like he's looking at his feet. Monstas and Maitas aren't quite as expressive (they'll get their chance in later Bubble Bobble and Puzzle Bobble games) but there's little touches here and there, like the giant Monsta in the cutscenes and how when a Maita gets close to the time limit, a bunch of them show up to help the first one push the rock to the end. This may not look as advanced as other 1984 arcade releases like Bomb Jack, Kung Fu Master or, uh, Us vs. Them but it definitely has its charm, something that Taito would work on to earn something of a reputation for adorably cute games in the future.
I guess we ended up where we started again and wanted to move beyond, huh? Predecessor to Bubble Bobble and all that. As is often the case with snappy one-sentence summaries like that, there's a kernel of truth nestled in there- the game's general visual presentation and score system would absolutely be echoed and refined in later Taito releases, particularly Bubble Bobble- but the full picture has a little more to it, with a game wildly different from those it would later inspire. Chack'n Pop is an interesting fusion of the at-the-time burgeoning platformer and maze-chase genres with inconsistent results. As an arcade game it is absolutely not easy to pick up and play, and if you decide it's absolutely not for you then I don't blame you. There's not much else like it, for good or ill. Play it for a little while and you can see the germs of good ideas but the execution just doesn't quite land for me, which is of course a shame. I don't think this is just because it's an 'old' game either- games from the same era like Zoo Keeper absolutely nail the execution, which I think goes to show how important it is to get it right. You might think 2 hearts out of 5 isn't a great score, and it's not, but it's also pretty well-suited to a game like this- one where you either get into it or you don't, and the barrier for getting in is fairly high. Fortunately for us, Taito would take the idea of cute single-screen games and run with it, leading to hits in the '80s and beyond... But they had to start somewhere, right?
For being a game about blowing up purple beluga whales, Chack'n Pop is awarded...
In a sentence, Chack'n Pop is...
The primordial cute Taito game.
And now, it's that time, folks!
Surprisingly, Chack'n Pop got more contemporary home ports than The Fairyland Story! Fancy that. Better get started looking at them.
To save me from repeating myself, only one of these home ports (excluding emulated rereleases) was released outside Japan.
First up is the most well-known console port, the Famicom version, released in 1985.
Developed with unspecified, possibly minimal involvement from TOSE according to GDRI, the Famicom port is actually... Not great. This was the second game Taito released for the system after Space Invaders and just barely a year after third-party companies started making games for it, in a time before expanding the available cartridge size became common like with the Micronics port of Ghosts 'n Goblins / Makaimura. As a result, Chack'n Pop clocks in at a paltry 25KB and guts a lot of the game seen in other ports. Anything superfluous is gone, so that means the title screen, story intro, intermissions and ending are all gone. Most critically, 5 of the 14 stages are gone- Maze 1 (the Training Stage), Maze 4, Maze 5, Maze 7 and Maze 10- leaving only 9 behind (and with the final four Mazes having their order switched around- now arranged Maze 11, Maze 14, Maze 13 then Maze 12 to end the game). This also completely removes a whole gameplay element, with water jugs and flooding both gone. It plays fine, mind, if a little easier than the arcade game (the Monsta cap is always 8) but man, is it a shame knowing just how much they took out.
Next is the SG-1000 version, which came in My Sega Card format only, also released in 1985.
As with a lot of SG-1000 ports, this was licensed by Taito but ported by Sega themselves, and it keeps as much as possible- the intro (albeit not animated), ending, Training Stage and water jugs are all present here, even if visually this is a big downgrade from the NES port, with far less colour (Chack'n has no red feet or hair) and detail throughout. There's also some additions, surprisingly- there's now a proper soundtrack and new power-ups have been added for when you destroy multiple Monstas, including a power-down that slows Chack'n to a crawl. As for how it plays, unfortunately a lot of the game feels a little off. Eggs falling from the ceiling and bombs rolling across the stage don't have the smooth motion of other versions which can mess with your timing, Monstas seem to be easier to corral to where you want them and move a lot slower, but most notable here is the collision detection, which is significantly less friendly to the player. You can't just barely scrape by bomb fumes or snake your way past a Monsta here because you'll die if you so much as catch a whiff of either of those things, so even with the altered Monsta behaviour this is a significantly harder game. Still, considering the hardware I think it does the best job it can, and it's impressive that it kept so much of it, and while it's not 100% accurate to the arcade I think it's worth a look.
The last of the three 'normal' ports (you'll see what I mean) is the MSX version, which did get an international release and has a 1984 copyright.
Oh boy, this one's rough. No-one was willing to take the credit for this port, and it mysteriously has a copyright date of 1984 despite all other sources saying 1985, but it's a pretty lousy port all the same. All superfluous elements have been excised, so no Training Stage, intro, etc. and the graphics have taken a massive hit (although bombs now roll properly) plus there are new maze designs but the big problems are with how it plays. Eggs no longer fall from the ceiling and instead just hatch where they are, dying resets everything in the current maze including the caged heart so you'll have to do it again, and most troublesome is the changed bomb behaviour- explosions disappear by contracting into themselves rather than disappearing from the inside out. That doesn't sound like much, but it makes them way less useful as they're not as active at maximum distance for as long anymore, making hitting Monstas way harder than in any other port! Apparently the power-up apples from the SG-1000 version can appear here too but I could never get them to show up, and I'm done, I don't want to play this version any longer, thank you.
The remaining contemporary ports are... Oh no, Japanese microcomputer versions?! Send help!
Specifically, there were versions of the game for the NEC PC-6001, NEC PC-8801, Sharp X1 and Hitachi FM-7, with a date of August 1984 given.
Crikey blimey, I'll never bellyache about having to play European microcomputer ports ever again after having to fight with four different Japanese home computers (please note, this is a lie, I will never stop bellyaching about it) but I will keep this brief. These four versions were created by Carry Lab, a now-defunct developer probably best known for Mystery Quest for the NES / Hao-Kun no Fushigi na Tabi for the Famicom Disk System, and are all fairly close to one another. As well as including stuff like the intro (fully animated this time!), the Training Stage and the cutscenes, they all have a border on the side of the screen with things like your score, lives and the fruits you've picked up in that maze. They also all allow Chack'n to stop moving whenever he likes, making things a little easier, but otherwise stick fairly close to the original arcade game. The main exception (and my favourite of them) is the PC-6001 version which had to squash everything down and made the game look absolutely adorable- it's like a PICO-8 game but real- but it otherwise plays the same. Additionally, the X1 version's controls felt a bit sticky- it didn't like accepting more than one input at a time, so Chack'n stops dead when you drop a bomb which is, well, a bit of a problem.
Unfortunately, technical issues mean I can't really talk much more about these versions beyond sharing these screenshots. Emulating ancient Japanese microcomputers is something wildly outside of my skillset and I had trouble getting these versions running at all, nevermind properly. Notably, they all seem to run a lot faster than the arcade game which makes them difficult to play properly. There's also no real hardware video reference anywhere out there on the internet so I don't know if this is how they're meant to be played, but I kind of doubt it. I couldn't even get the FM-7 version to boot at all! Not being able to figure out any of the video settings didn't help either, so I'm sorry for the lacklustre presentation here (look at those faux scanlines, aren't they beautiful, by which I mean hideous?) but you'll have to make do this time. If nothing else, this section is a testament to how ramshackle-yet-well-intentioned Gaming Hell is- we couldn't do even a half-decent job on it, but we gave it a try. Much like many ports of Chack'n Pop, I suppose, see, that's clever and deep. Still, I guess this means Chack'n Pop was well-suited to home computers after all.
Hey, speaking of versions I can't play, yes of course there's multiple feature-phone versions.
The first is from 2002 on the Gameselection service by Taito, distributed on J PHONE-brand phones from 2001 onwards. It's a teeny-tiny version of the game with a logo based on the NES port but new graphics, offering a super-zoomed-in view or a zoomed-out view where everything's absolutely tiny. There's an archived version of the Gameselection range over here which is where our screenshots come from. There was also another, slightly-worse-looking version distributed via i-appli and the i-mode Taito site G@ME PARk but there's just one (1) very sad screenshot to go on with that one!
As for emulated versions, there's a couple, some released internationally. Four distinct collections- Taito Memories Gekan (PS2, 2005, red cover), Taito Legends 2 (PS2, 2006), Taito Legends 2 (Xbox / PC. 2006, unique from the PS2 versions) and Taito Memories Pocket / Taito Legends Power-Up (PSP, 2006 / 2007) all include the game, with Xbox and PC TL2 also including a scan of the flyer. Surprisingly, Xbox and PC TL2 has the most options available, allowing you to adjust the number of starting lives, the amount of points for an extra life and the probability of a Super Heart spawningm but while every other version only lets you adjust the number of starting lives, they have the Training Stage which Xbox and PC TL2 skips over. However, all of these collections were released before MC68705P5 microcontroller emulation was cracked in MAME. Xbox and PC TL2 in particular are so built from MAME that you can take the ROMs from the PC version and run them in old versions of MAME if you so choose! As a result, while Chack'n Pop doesn't seem to be as affected as something like Rumba Lumber, the emulation is not 100% accurate and so your mileage may vary. You may have better luck with the upcoming Taito Egret II Mini console, due for release in 2022, which will include Chack'n Pop alongside 39 other Taito games [this space reserved for angry comments / unending praise if Cleopatra Fortune is left out / included, delete as appropriate].
Speaking of the Egret II Mini... Lots of interesting things came out during the lead up to its release from Taito and old staff, including...
I've saved copies of the images here, here and here just in case. The first image is a proposal for Metal Soldier Isaac V3 with four-player support which is wild enough on its own, but the other two images are for Chack'n Pop Jr. as some kind of sequel to the original (the proximity to Metal Soldier Isaac puts this around the 1985-1986 mark) and while there's not much to go on it seems... A pretty wild departure, with presumably Chack'n Jr. donning some kind of robot suit and a knife (!) and shield as weapons. Given their proximity, maybe Metal Soldier Isaac V3 morphed into Chack'n Pop Jr. at some point or was at least considered this way and then plans changed and the whole thing got scrapped? What a mysterious thing this is.
Finally... Oh, do we have to do Chack'n cameos in other games? Do we?
Well, I suppose so. While in more modern times the iconic Space Invaders designs serve as a mascot for Taito, and in years past they had Mr. Catch, you can probably see Chack'n as a mascot of sorts for the company in the late '80s and early '90s as that little guy was everywhere in their games. Trying to find and document every cameo he's made sounds like a bit of a forlorn hope though, and I know I'll have missed one, so consider this a 'best hits' instead, looking at some of his more notable cameos over the years. Or, maybe, just maybe, it's all the cameos I conveniently had screenshots lying around of, ready to be used. Which is it? You'll never know.
Better start with the first one- he appears as a secret bonus item in Field Day under certain mysterious conditions.
Naturally, he cameos in Bubble Bobble as a points item and as a stage layout and is in most instalments in similar roles.
The Super Heart also appears as an item and has the same effect as in the original game, but also stuns enemies to make them easy prey.
(He also serves as a big plot point in the final world of Parasol Stars but I haven't got there yet.)
He appears as a silver-encased boss in the dreadful shmup Mega Blast alongside Bubblun, Doh from Arkanoid and the Organiser from Raimais.
His most prominent cameo is one you're probably aware of- since the very first game Chack'n has been the referee in versus matches for many instalments of the Puzzle Bobble series, sitting in the middle of the screen and clapping towards whichever player wins the round. He also accompanies the player in the arcade Super Puzzle Bobble's one-player mode, and can be found encased in the super-large bubbles in the console Super Bust-a-Move. He wouldn't actually be playable in the series for the most part except for a few side games- Bust-a-Move Millennium for the Game Boy Color, Bust-a-Move Ghost / Deluxe for the Playstation Portable and Bust-a-Move DS for the, uh, Nintendo DS.
Both Chack'n and Miss Chack'n are unlockable characters in the Playstation port of Pop n' Pop, documented elsewhere on this site.
Most recently, Chack'n made a cameo as a helper character in Arkanoid vs. Space Invaders (ta Bobby Tribble for sending that to me!).
Surprisingly, this isn't the oldest Taito game covered on this site. Don't worry, we're gonna get to all of them eventually, no doubt.
WHEN'S STEEL WORKER