Although I have not played every system in existence, I firmly believe that there is something, or at least one game, that adds some type of merit to each and every one. The Sega CD had Snatcher, the 32X had Kolibri, and the Virtual Boy had Jack Bros. While most people immediately think of Wario Land when attempting to think of anything positive about the Virtual Boy, Jack Bros. is arguably the best game on the system. Wario Land is a fine game, and one I played obsessively as a child, but Jack Bros. has so much more character to it. If there was any game on the Virtual Boy worth impairing your sight over, Jack Bros. was probably it.
It’s approaching midnight, and you have very little time to return from the human world to the fairy world. We’ve all been there, but now it’s a feeling we get to experience from a viewer’s perspective. The Jack Bros., including Atlus’s adorable mascot Jack Frost, are trapped in the human world with little time to spare. As these things usually go, they are forced to fight baddies, gather keys, and find their way back to the fairy realm. It’s a neat plot, but it’s essentially a tacked-on device that enabled Atlus to create an excellent, Gauntlet-like game for what many consider to be the worst system of all time. As someone who still owns the system, I can tell you with certainty that those claims are highly warranted.
The player has the choice of three characters: Jack Lantern, Jack Frost, and Jack Skelton. What’s confusing is that Jack Skelton’s weapon is a short-ranged knife, while Jack Frost and Jack Lantern have projectiles. Because you’re timed strictly throughout the game, using a weapon where you have to approach every single enemy is totally impractical. It’s an irritating issue, but it also unintentionally adds a new difficulty setting to the game. Just be prepared to throw your Virtual Boy across the room.
The difficulty of this game only intensifies the headache-inducing tendencies of the Virtual Boy. As you traverse through strictly-timed levels you must avoid ghouls and other villains as they shoot arrows, drop bombs Bomberman-style or just stand in your way. There is no damage in this game, though. When the player is hit, the timer goes down anywhere between five and ten seconds. The worst part of this is that it’s immensely difficult to see projectiles like arrows because everything is red. Even with this irritating handicap, Jack Bros. still has some impressively-detailed sprites and backgrounds. It’s just too bad there’s not a second to spare to appreciate them.
In the interest of transparency, I should confess that I have a Japanese copy of the game. I understand the basic plot of the game, but I’m unable to read any of the directions that the fairies provide you with along the way. Even so, I managed to pick up on the game play quickly and progress. I’ve always considered the mark of a good classic platformer to be the ability to emote what one should do without the usage of text or in-game tutorials, and this is a fine example of that.
The Virtual Boy was riddled with problems to the point where the 3D technology, though interesting in theory, was not exactly easy to appreciate. Jack Bros. used it in a couple of brief animations, but nowhere near enough to warrant putting this game on the Virtual Boy as opposed to a system like the Game Boy or even the SNES. Unless it was some ill-conceived venture to increase the sales of Tylenol, there was really no need for Atlus to put such a good game on a headache-inducing system. That being said, there is some sort of cosmic sense to the notion of putting such a quirky game on such a quirky system. Atlus clearly has a soft spot in their heart for unwarranted and borderline detrimental synergy.
It saddens me that most people will never have a chance to play this game, but that is the reality of the situation. Perhaps Nintendo will randomly decide to put out Virtual Boy titles for download on the upcoming 3DS, but something tells me that is a murky part of their history they would like to forget. Regardless, this is a title worth picking up should you find it cheap enough and still have a Virtual Boy. There are always the less-than-legal means to play games like this, but Virtual Boy titles don’t exactly emulate well. Knowing Atlus, they will somehow find a way to get this game out to the general public at some point or another.