I clearly remember the first time I played Psycho Soldier. It was at the Skateland roller skating rink in Union Gap, WA in the late 1980s. Skateland was, and probably still is, a blacklight paradise floating in an eddy current removed from the temporal flow around it. Skating rinks have a smell to them that I can’t quite describe. It falls somewhere within movie theatre popcorn, sweat, oil, and the fog of dill and vinegar wafting above the machine they use to make pickle-fizzes. The music blasted over the floor from wall-of-sound style speakers at a volume guaranteed to make you question what song you’re currently listening to. And yet, in an acoustical side-channel, you could sometimes hear the beautiful sounds and soundtracks from the wall of video games cabinets.
Psycho Soldier grabbed my attention right away because, unlike most games of the time, the main character is a young woman. The secret of Samus Aran wasn’t much of a secret anymore, but a feminine video game protagonist remained a rarity. It’s a side scrolling shooter-platformer style of game, and the art is lovely. But, all of that aside, the thing that got my attention was the music.
Because someone was singing in there.
It was the first time I played a game with a vocal soundtrack, and it enraptured me. I strained to hear the tune over the music of the rink and I got my first taste of Japanese pop music. The music, and that game, stuck with me. I never saw the game anywhere else in Yakima, so I didn’t hear a clean copy of the song until a couple of years later. And when I did, wow.
Man, that song is… not good. It’s not the worst thing ever, and the problem has nothing to do with the song or the singer — the song sucks because of the recording and mixing. Yes, I know we’re talking 1987 here, and the fact that there were lyrics in a video game soundtrack was groundbreaking on its own. But the Japanese version of the tune, performed by Kaori Shimizu, sounds good.
The English version of the song may have may have been recorded on a desktop tape recorder normally used for dictation, and the mic was faulty. So far as I can tell, the vocalist hasn’t ever been identified, but my hypothesis is that someone working on the western version of the game hired their daughter to save a few bucks on localizing the music. All I can figure is that the people in charge of translating and distributing the game in the west didn’t give a shit and rolled it out as quickly as they could. It’s a good song, even in English, so long as you have halfway decent recording equipment.
Which brings me to the reason I’m pushing the cursor to the right on this essay: the art in the western advertisements for Psycho Soldier.
Thankfully, the game predates Street Fighter II by four years. Because our girl Athena here, she’s got legs like Chun Li. She’s a statuesque beauty with raven hair, powerful muscles, elven ears, and a jawline that could cut glass.
But just for the sake of comparison, here’s Athena Asamiya as she appeared in Japan.
If you take a look at the gameplay, you’ll notice that your protagonist is a young girl with pink hair. She’s wearing the traditional Japanese schoolgirl uniform. You’ll observe a distinct lack of D cups along with the absence of a plunging neckline. In Japan, Athena prefers comfortable loafers to white leather boots. Indeed the only things that stand out on the Japanese version of Athena is her golden star hairband and the fact that she’s wearing MMA gloves.
Athena went on to appear in other video games, most notably the King of Fighters series, where those MMA style gloves got their use. Her stages often incorporate remixes of her original theme song because it’s kind of a thing for that character. She’s still got the gold star on her hairband and she made the move to cuffed boots, but we remain bereft of pointed ears and v-neck dresses.
It takes me back the original cover of Mega Man for the Nintendo Entertainment System, a piece of artwork so bad it became a legend. Setting aside what Mega Man actually looks like, this cover art is a masterwork of surrealism blended with a cubist flair. It’s as if someone described Mega Man to a person who’d not only never seen the character, but also had no idea what a video game is. Palm trees, explosions, golden platforms, distant cities burning in the night; there’s so much to take in from a cover executed by someone who learned to draw by watching The Secret City on PBS.
I’m always fascinated by the differences between Japanese and Western methods of game advertisement. I hate advertising as a general rule, but when you grew up in the 80s and your main source of information about new games were ads in video game magazines, those images were to be studied. You could learn a lot about a video game by what they chose to show you in an ad. And you could easily get screwed out of your hard earned allowance money because you bought something stupid rather than a good game, like Mega Man.