Region: PAL-B, Famicom
Developer: KID Corporation
Released: February 1992
Despite being virtually forgotten by all but the most knowledgable retro fans, KID Corporation actually made some of my favourite games for the NES: Kickmaster and G.I. Joe: The Atlantis Factor are two I’ve played so much the cartridges probably give me the shifty eye in my sleep, and Summer Carnival ’92: Recca and Isolated Warrior, two of the most technically impressive shmups on the console, are also their work. So when I found out about this obscure Germany-only release by obscure publisher Takara, I was excited to try it out. How was it? Eh… it was okay, for the most part.
The game starts out simply enough: you’re a little nature-boy with a butter knife (they call it the “Stone Axe”, but look at the dinky lil’ thing) that kills enemies in one hit, trying to get through a series of platforms and evil vegetables in order to prove that the banana is superior once and for all. All around the level are rings you collect and chests that have items in them. The gameplay consists of running in one direction and finding the exit door. Sometimes the levels will be a little more complex than that, but not by much. Avoid falling into pits and it’s honestly quite difficult to lose most of the time. The series of attacking vegetables mostly just seem to bob around, not putting up much of a fight, and some occasionally fire slow projectiles.
The first problem anyone would notice is in the controls. The Prince runs fast and jumps high, but not at the same time. Jumps are floaty and the horizontal speed decreases – think Swamp Thing in reverse. Play it a few times and it’s possible to get used to, but why is it like this? It never feels right and causes countless problems with accuracy. This is where the central gimmick of the game makes life much easier: by pressing Down+B, you can grow a banana plant in the ground, climb it and jump off it. Jumping from the top does a fast spin-jump that not only helps reach longer distances, but also can be used as an attack. This feature takes most of the sting away from the poor jumping and swampy weaponry, provided you’re not on a narrow ledge and have to fidget around to plant one in the right spot. Enemies later on are dangerous enough you’ll want to attack from afar. A wide selection of weapon upgrades can be purchased with the rings you’ve collected, all of them projectiles that fire from your knife, but they only activate about a second later. No matter how much pricier the upgrade, the damage and speed never increase, only the range and width. Which is a shame, since these projectiles are probably the slowest attack I’ve ever come across. If you turn around while releasing a projectile, it will fire in the new direction instead of the one you were facing when you hit B.
Before you get to the exit door, there will be many other doors littering each stage. Go inside and you’ll find one of these things: a casino, a weapon shop, a ‘bonus island’, a girl who’ll kiss your wounds better or a banana vending machine. The girl and vending machine can be handy if you’re on low health, but it’s best to just leave otherwise, because when the level ends you have to go into one of three doors: a casino, a weapon shop, a ‘bonus island’ – stop bugging me! These doors are frequent and forcing the player through one at the end of the level really interrupts the flow of the game. It also doesn’t help that all of the screen text is in German, so it can be difficult to know how to proceed. In the weapon shop, it’s easier to just check all the prices and buy the most expensive weapon than attempting to translate what the vendor says. On the plus side, as soon as you reach a door, that’s a checkpoint you go back to even after continuing, which makes dying basically meaningless.
Whatever mean things I have to say about the game, at least it’s easy. Any cheap deaths that happen are soothed by the frequent checkpoints, items like lives, invincibility and extra health are chucked out from chests and downed enemies with reckless abandon, and the continues are unlimited. If there’s ever a spot you’re stuck on, you’ll be able to get past it because one of the enemies is bound to drop an item that makes progress feel a bit like cheating. The most helpful is probably the flower that increases the height of the plant, meaning wide gaps are far easier to pass. Level 6-3 has a spot that’s nigh-impossible to get past alive without one.
The graphics are well done, with the quirky environments and obstacles being the most attractive part of the game; the animation, however, is choppy and colours a tad dull. The music is consistently excellent, capturing the tone of each world with some unique and distinctively KID sounds, and although it isn’t quite a rival to the soundtrack for Kickmaster, it’ll still be difficult to get those tunes out of your head.
For the most part, the game sets itself apart from similar Mario-alikes with its kooky proto-Adventure Time style, plentiful items (keep an eye out for the protective wizard that floats around you) and banana plant feature, even if the gameplay tends to get repetitive; same vegetable enemies that die easily, same wide gaps to cross with your banana plant, same abundant minigames. However, one major roadblock is thrown your way. When you get to the end of level 5-3, an opponent turns up not for a boss fight, but for a general knowledge quiz. On top of the fact that the screen-text is in German, the questions only give you ten seconds at a time to answer them, AND you have to get five correct answers and are only allowed to make one mistake. Fail and you’re sent all the way back to the beginning of the level, forced to get back to the end to try again, and you can’t skip it.
Not only does this halt further progress dead in its tracks for any foreigners, its inclusion as part of the basic game design makes no sense. Exactly how would young German gamers, trying their best at the platforming, get to the quiz a second time and get the correct answers with any more certainty than their previous attempt? This happens again in level 7-3, the last level of the game, but you won’t make it that far unless you speak fluent German, read up on GameFAQs, have already obtained a translated ROM, or skipped ahead using the password feature – a password feature that features bananas instead of letters. This impassable quiz was a stupid and terrible idea and I had to knock it down by a whole grade just for that.
The boss battles are definitely the best part of the game. They take a lot of hits to kill and death actually feels like it means something here. Learning their patterns, killing any enemies they spew, and spamming your axe, projectile and spin-jump is a lot more fun than wandering through the level and dying your way forwards. Each one has a ridiculously cute design and amusing attacks (my favourite is the pepper-headed dinosaur that eats you up and barfs you out), which makes the game somewhat worth playing.
Banana Prince could have been great if KID had ironed out its many flaws – tightened the controls, made the attacks faster, put in a few stronger enemies, paced out the diversions and axed the random, out-of-place quiz section. Instead, it’s a mediocre game that’s fun to play but aggravating in numerous places, with questionable design choices that really bring it down. It is neither an exquisite steak with luscious redcurrant jus, nor a turd sandwich with skunk spray on it, but that one banana in the fruit bowl that’s been around a while and is probably edible but not that nice. Bananas. Eh, whatever.