Before we head into 1988 (and the Tonka era), I thought I’d take a look at what could be considered a ‘lost game’ to us Western Sega fans. Those of you who’ve seen the 1987 Sega poster catalog might have noticed a Sega Card announced in the lower right corner called Woody Pop, which also advertised a paddle controller to accompany it. As far as I know the game and controller were never released outside of Japan (Sega probably didn’t want to have another short-lived periphreal on their hands, since only three Japanese releases used it) so I figured I’d do a quick write-up at what we could have had on our shores.
To put it bluntly, this is Sega’s attempt to bring Taito’s hit arcade game Arkanoid to their system. Arkanoid was essentially a jazzed-up version of the old Atari ball-and-paddle game Breakout, with a sci-fi theme, power-ups and more. A port of said game was released on the NES and had a snowball’s chance of appearing on the Sega console so, like so many other times, Sega offered this clone for their gamers as the next best thing. However, instead of a paddle that’s supposedly a spaceship battling an inter-dimensonal force, you’re a sentient plank of wood. I don’t know the official game story for this version, but the Game Gear version (which was released in North America some years later) says you’re an enchanted log called Woody containing a tree spirit trying to escape from a malevolent toy shop by an entity known as the Mad Machine, so we’ll go with that.
This game pretty much follows the Arkanoid template to the letter, including the special controller that came packaged with it which you need to really play this game. You have to make your way through a number of rooms, each of which has a group of blocks arranged in a peculiar pattern and as you might have guessed, you job is to clear them out by bouncing a ball off your paddle. The regular blocks can be knocked out with one hit, while the wooden blocks require multiple hits to break. However you also have to keep your ball from falling through the pit below you, or you lose a life, but fortunately the pit only spans 2/3 of the bottom, meaning your ball might catch the corners instead of falling to oblivion. The longer the ball bounces back and forth the faster it moves, forcing you to keep up, plus there are screws poking up from the background that can’t be destroyed, they just get in the way. In addition some of the rooms have enemies that pop out of certain blocks such as toy soldiers and robots and while they don’t attack you directly, the can deflect your ball in weird directions. And if you’re wondering there are a selection of power-ups to help you out which are released from the glass blocks (which take two hits to destroy), such as lengthening your paddle, making your ball bigger or splitting it in two, giving you some firepower, slowing down its speed, giving it the ability to cut through several blocks at once and even turning it into a fireball than can torch multiple blocks. Once you clear out all the blocks the entrance to the next room will open, and some room have several exits, giving you multiple paths to take through the game. There are 50 possible rooms, and the game even includes a final boss battle just like Arkanoid where you go one-on-one with the Mad Machine itself.
Now I do have to confess that since this game and the paddle controller never left Japan, I played it on an emulator (the excellent Kega, which allows you to use a mouse to simulate the paddle) to get an idea of what the actual game mught have been like. That said, the game is actually put together nicely and plays pretty solidly. The action is pretty engaging and addictive, and while it can be a bit frustrating, it’s mainly due to your skill level at this genre and not any real cheating from the game. There is a continue mode that lets you restart from the level you lost at (press button 1 about six times on the GAME OVER screen) and to my knowledge can be used any number of times. However there’s no game save feature or a stage select, forcing you to put in a lot of playing time if you want to see the later levels, and before long the game does start to feel a little repetitive. The graphics are decent enough with plenty of color and details used, and the sprites have some okay animation, including Woody’s reactions when the ball hits him. As usual there isn’t much to the audio; just some so-so sound effects and an unmemorable background theme.
So my impression of Woody Pop is that it wasn’t going to rank in the top tier of games but I feel it still would have made a nice addition to the SMS library for us Westerners. It certainly does a decent job of bringing Arkanoid to the Master System and is a solid title for a quick playthrough, just don’t expect to beat it without a lot of time invested in it. At least you can play the Game Gear version to get a taste of it, though using the handheld’s d-pad isn’t a substitute for the paddle controller.