Rollergames belongs to an interesting sub-category: Japanese developed games unreleased in their homeland.
Why does this sometimes happen? Perhaps the domestic market for that type of game had dried up during its development, but the game was still suitable for western release. Or the Japanese version was cancelled at the last minute because of a clash in release schedules.
But sometimes games were specifically developed for western markets, often based on a western-only licenced property. Such as Rollergames.
These games are interesting because they offer an insight into how Japanese publishers viewed American audiences. In Rollergames case, it appears Konami management showed the developers the source material, and said ‘make an action adventure game from this’.
Rollergames is based on a professional wrestling-esque dramatised fictional version of roller derby. Apparently it was a big deal for its single season in the US, but non-Americans would just assume it was a purely original Konami title, particularly given the arcade-style content.
The gameplay is a unique mixture of beat-em-up and action platformer. Taking some cues from Double Dragon and Konami’s own Ninja Turtles games, and combining that with speedy momentum-based movement, isometric platforming, and Konami’s own brand of tricks and traps. Ultimately I’d describe it as a beat-em-up action platformer on wheels.
I consider it the sister game to another Konami release heavily adapted from an external source: Bad n Rad: Skate or Die on the Game Boy. Similarly based on an existing property (in this case Electronic Arts’ sub-standard Skate or Die series of games, which Konami published on the NES), like Rollergames it deviated from its source material so much as to be basically a unique property. Bad n’ Rad is a sort of racing action platformer, and has a very similar setting and feel to Rollergames. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had designers in common.
Rollergames has a setting and story that takes the basic branding and teams from the (nominally) sports-based show, and throws them into a standard videogame fictional world. A bad guy has taken the head of the league hostage, pick a Rollergames team and set out over a variety of themed stages to defeat bad guy.
You choose a team at the start of each round.
T-birds – Chunky fat dudes (I’ve now learned based on a particular fan favourite character)
Hot Flash – Pink clad females
Rockers – Axl Rose lookalikes
T-birds guy is slow to accelerate but powerful, Hot Flash girl is fast but weak, and Rockers dude is the Goldilocks selection. I always choose Hot Flash because quicker control is more valuable in platforming (which are the most difficult parts of the game), and who can resist 80s girls in hot pink?
Most stages are centred around an evil team, with a set theme and featuring the team leader as the end boss. Main levels are broken in two, and you get an energy bar refill at a mid-stage checkpoint. They’re a mix of platforming, beat em up, and traps.
The alternate stages are constantly moving highway stages, where a variety of traps appear to try and stop you making it to the next stage. These are very similar to the skateboarding levels in Konami’s Turtles games.
The beat em up elements feel a lot like Turtles. Fast and smooth, but relatively loose and forgiving hit detection. Once you work out the exact angle to attack enemies from, you feel pretty powerful.
Bosses are atypically well designed for a beat-em-up. They follow unique patters of attack, more like a good action platformer boss than your typical ‘big brute’ fighter boss. While they are cheap at times, you can see how you could technically not take a hit with a perfect run. More variety than normal is afforded by the premise, so not all bosses are just guys to beat up.
The platforming has two things going against it. The isometric-ish/3D movement (sometimes referred to as ‘belt scrolling’ because you can move up and down the ‘belt’ with perspective at an angle) makes judging jump distances much more difficult than in a standard 2D space.
You are also on wheels, and have momentum to deal with. In a sense the whole game plays similarly to an ice world in a Mario game, all slip and slide. Combine the perspective with the momentum and it’s a recipe for frustration for those without quick fingers. Add to this banked surfaces (which feature heavily in a later stage) and speed and this becomes a tough game to beat.
But it’s not unfair or impossible. It will require level memorisation and quick reflexes, but all traps are passable every time.
Presentation wise, it’s classic high-quality Konami. The graphics are fantastic, Konami’s trademark ‘faceless’ characters are big and well defined. Detailed colourful environments, a rock solid engine with basically no sprite flicker, and some excellent parallax effects on the highway stages mean this is a top-shelf NES game graphically.
Sound effects are good standard NES stuff, and the accompaniment is a series of excellent catchy tunes (by one of the Castlevania series’ composers) which perfectly match the solid game mechanics. The music also has a very ‘Konami Turtles’ feel.
Rollergames is a hidden gem on the NES.