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Cute and serious sci-fi with 8-bit delivery, and surprising., June 18, 2013
KING OF BEES IN FANTASY LAND is a brisk fantasy/sci-fi CYOA which, in common with the same author's terrific You Will Select a Decision, is presented as an artefact from the recent past written in less than ideal English. Starting up King feels like starting up an '80s coin-op or Nintendo game, albeit one without pictures. The lettering is an all caps 8-bit font and the copyright notice says 1989. The style of the writing is that of mildly enthusiastic Japlish.
The player, addressed as Space Knight during the patriotic opening spiel, is charged with the mission of taking down the "evil King of Bees from Bee Fort" so that humans, who have wrecked their own planet, can colonise the bee planet Garaxas, aka Fantasy Land. The outward silliness of this plot and the game's presentation both put you in in a frame of mind in which you're immediately hungry for fun and success.
The fun is easy to come by. Whatever decisions you make once you hit the planet's surface, the game rolls with them. Even when you face seemingly important binary choices, like whether or not to trust the boardwalk which crosses the alligator swamp, you'll find that all roads tend to lead to ultimate success by their own methods, or that a blocked path will produce a discouraging loop which quickly pushes you onto an unblocked one. Messages will appear proclaiming exciting bonuses you've acquired for non-existent (mechanically speaking) skills, and whatever you do, the occasional exclamation mark is there to suggest that you're doing good, or The Right Thing.
The planet is busy with its bee inhabitants, and they're mostly friendly, chatty folk who offer no opposition to your march across their territory, or even an impression of being aware that opposing you is relevant or necessary. So even though the excitable 8-bit plot and tone of the game will have primed most players savvy to 8-bit conventions for combative action, most players will also find themselves pretty uninterested in vaporising friendly unarmed folk, except in the also 8-bit manner whereby they might just want to see what happens if they act like a jerk. The text gets prejudicial when the bees show up, with terse but aggressive options appearing like ERADICATE, but the delivery remains paradoxically light and encouraging, whether you're acting like Rambo or not.
The first time I played King, the contrary signals being sent simultaneously by different levels of the game about what I was doing as Space Knight started to put me in a nervous and suspicious mood. I was wondering if the game was going to suddenly turn around and tell me (or at least strongly imply) that I was a harmfully suggestible dumb-dumb of the kind who can easily be made to follow any orders. That might sound like a strong reaction to an ostensibly light game, but there seem to be an increasing number of IF games around which impart this lesson through degrees of player deception. It's not that I oppose games deceiving players per se; in fact IF is particularly good at doing this in lots of different ways, and to different ends. But sometimes in the case of games which offered the lesson, "You should have resisted the game's path for moral reasons", I had felt, when I reached the outcome, that I had simply been tricked.
I'm definitely not saying that this lesson or this schtick are the upshots of King, only that these issues do come into play. And I have deliberately not addressed a lot of King's content to avoid spoiling anything. There are some interesting, entertaining and surprising little turns of events tucked into this quite short game, and it's frequently cute, even while it's being serious. To understand all the aspects of what might be going on will take at least a couple of plays, and there's some new fun to be had on the way through each time. The voice of the prose is very authentic in reproducing the earnest and focused tone of Japanese 8-bit games, and the arrangement of the screen, fonts and colours are all attractive. The game is a fine example of how cute and simple aesthetics should not be underestimated in terms of their ability to deliver clever or thoughtful outcomes. Probably the biggest cleverness of King is that the expectations and aesthetics of the 8-bit are used both sincerely and for commentative purposes at the same time. My final advice on this game comes from the attract mode of 1980 coin-op Moon Cresta: "Try it now!! You can get a lot of fun and thrill"