Pasok Retro is our regular look back at the early days of Japanese PC gaming, featuring everything from 1980s specialized computers to the happy days of Windows XP.
SystemSoft’s long history is littered with strategy games. From the sci-fi setting of Imperial Forces to the all-out fantasy of Master of Monsters, if SystemSoft’s developers could find a way to place a grid on a map and then give themed units a list of stats, then they did. And they often did well. Decades later, it’s SystemSoft Beta label still making modern entries of some of the more popular series, including the magical war-themed Tir Na Nog and Daisenryaku (the latter is even on steam).
Many of SystemSoft’s games fit easily into obvious genres, but then there’s 1996’s Tuned Heart, a complete one-shot where the titular team of young adult police officers live in a Japan that resembles, but is slightly different from, the real thing. Like many groups of color-coordinated fictional women, they like to spend their days enthusiastically fighting crime, following orders from their beloved captain’s blank slate, and trying not-so-subtly to steal his – and by extension the – romantic attention of the player to win.
All of their crime-fighting is done from the seat of a car or the back of a motorcycle, with justice dishing out one pixel bullet at a time. Unusually, the bikes they ride aren’t just vaguely based on popular real-world models—many of them are officially licensed Kawasaki machines of the era, rendered in beautifully detailed pixel art form.
Soon, even those not particularly interested in the finer points of 1990s motorcycle design will be able to talk about the differences between a ZXR 250 and a KSR-II, or appreciate the smooth curves and eye-catching headlight on a Balius.
The weapons fired by the Tuned Hearts are as accurate as the bikes, everything from handguns to giant shotguns painstakingly recreated in crisp pixels. The valuable screen space given over to the (technically useless) side views of every named firearm, every hammer, sight and gun barrel painstakingly transferred from reality to floppy disk, exudes a “Someone voluntarily subscribes to magazines on this subject and pins the centerfolds to their closet wall” vibe that would be a little concerning if the game didn’t so gleefully embrace its own gun nerd.
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Kawasaki, of course, was very concerned about Tuned Heart’s official mix of their machines and cartoonish gun violence –safety for motorcyclists. The manual goes to great lengths to point out that the game is not only a work of fiction, but also that although the characters in it are shown riding motorcycles without helmets, no one should ever copy them in real life as that is dangerous and illegal. It’s only after this that the concerned boxout bleakly reminds us that shooting people with guns is dangerous and also illegal, nor should it be imitated.
Thanks for the clarification, Tuned Heart.
That’s as solemn as the game ever gets, though, as the rest are having too much fun and too deliberately silly to care about how the medley of discordant styles go together. Defeating an enemy causes their vehicle to comically explode in a Looney Tunes-esque cloud of smoke with a lone band boinging just for the record’s sake. Characters will cry a little when defeated in battle, then always come back fresh and smiling for the next one. A returning friendly detective for sure not based on Columbo. And, of course, shooting a powerful sniper rifle out of a car window while driving has a certain amount of absurdity baked in for free.
But as deliberately stupid as just about everything in Tuned Heart is, the game is much more serious with its strategy than it appears. A sincere effort has been made to link the bikes, cars and guns to the grid-based gaming that runs beneath them in meaningful and often inventive ways.
Instead of typical character gear, Tuned Heart allows you to “tune” your transport. Sleek motorcycles and police cars with cute mellow proportions can be outfitted with a range of new mufflers and new aluminum frames, given away by NPCs or dropped by defeated enemies. Movement has also been given a unique twist, with high and low speed states determining how far characters move not only this turn, but the next as well. A character moving at high speed (at least as “high” as turn-based movement allows) will find it easy to zip away and chase a distant target, but they can eventually do it alone, like someone else who braked . – to shoot a villain closer, for example, or use a special ability to heal an ally – will take some extra time to get back up to speed.
The weapons that are fired all have a very limited supply of ammunition that can only be replenished at gas stations and police stations scattered around each map, or through one character’s limited-use special combat ability. It’s a limitation that encourages more thoughtful use of the team than simply letting them all pile up on anyone nearby and potentially leaving them completely defenseless the next turn.
How many bullets does anyone have left? Where is the nearest gas station and is there a clear path to this strategically important feature? Would it be better to let someone go back now, or squeeze all possible shots out of him first? These are all things to keep in mind, even when a young woman in a fashionable pink hat throws her shotg-sorry, her Remington M870about the criminal subordinates of this mission.
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This welcome complexity is offset by Tuned Heart’s heavy streamlining. It constantly swings players back and forth between battles and short scripted events. This lack of freedom is something of an unexpected blessing, as it makes it impossible for the game’s power curve to escape its players. There are no bad purchases to waste money on, no essential upgrades forever missed, no nagging. A dialogue option three battles ago was the reason why this current battle is so tough.
How many games combine this level of real-world mechanical detail with brightly colored anime cuteness? Not much. But there is a certain something about that makes it more than a simple novelty. There’s an unnecessary level of detail and joy here that makes spending time with Tuned Heart feel like someone is excitedly showing you some of their favorite things. More games should be packed with stuff their creators unabashedly love, even if they go together like chalk and cheese on paper.