Retro Review: Harmful Park (Import)
The 1990s were a strange time. A game like Harmful Park should have been an instant classic, and lauded for its innovative level design, unique style and competent gameplay. Instead it never made its way out of Japan, and today is a rare gem usually selling for over £100 online. Ironically it’s a hugely accessible game that turns a niche genre into an experience any kind of gamer can enjoy.
Harmful Park is a 2D side scrolling shooter set in a surreal amusement park. The game has six incredibly varied levels, all full of strange events and unique enemies. You control a sort–of hover bike that’s equipped with four weapons (potato, ice cream, jelly bean, and custard pie, obviously) and can swap between them to maximise the efficiency with which you clear the screen of enemies.
Simply shooting everything that moves is fun, and naturally learning how to optimise your attacks comes next once the game draws you in. There’s also an upgrade system in play that lets you significantly improve power of your weapons. When you die your characters equipped weapon level is reset, giving a nice risk/reward mechanic by letting you chose to either upgrade a single weapon to maximum strength, or spread the upgrades evenly in case of death.
This is an innovative system, but what really defines Harmful Park is its unique art style, stunning visuals, and infectious music. The game is simply jaw dropping, and the vibrant world is full of movement and imagination. When even the best games in the genre usually involve space ships, space stations, and bigger space ships, there’s something really refreshing about exploring a world full of roller coasters, ferris wheels, and dangerous animals.
Seriously, I really just want to list all the great things you encounter in Harmful Park. Of course you’ll enjoy them more first hand, so without giving too much away I’ll simply mention that you should look out for a giant pumpkin boss, an epic encounter at a drive-in cinema, and an unforgettable scene in a chapel. These were some of my personal favourite moments, and you’ll be spoilt for choice when it comes to finding your own.
Harmful Park draws obvious comparison to other games in the ‘Cute ’em Up’ genre (best pun ever made, I know) such as Parodius and Fantasy Zone. Imagine those titles on steroids and you’re getting there. Whilst less well know, this is undoubtably down to the fact that it was a one off game by an unknown Japanese developer, and it’s remarkable that the game not only holds its own against these long running series, but in many ways exceeds the high standards they set.
With so many enemies and bullets on screen at the same time, the game also makes for a nice introduction into the Bullet Hell genre, but the slow movement speed and a forgiving respawn system means that newcomers can enjoy all the excitement of the genre without worrying about the brutal difficulty level associated with many of its most well known games. For the first four levels you can respawn right where you left off, even after a game over, and the final boss was the only part I found challenging on my first playthrough.
Unfortunately the game is overall very short, so in some ways the ease with which it can be completed isn’t entirely a good thing. Harmful Park relies on the player wanting to play again, and to chase down the high scores. Of course it’s more than good enough to make this worth doing, and there’s also a two player mode and some mini-games to extend the game’s lifespan, but even then the fact that the main game is under an hour long is still unavoidable.
The other problem is getting hold of the game, and as it was only released in Japan and in small quantities it has become increasingly difficult to get hold of (you can have a look for it on eBay here). If you don’t want to purchase an import version of the game game it can be bought for a significantly cheaper price from the Japanese PSN store, which can be achieved by setting up a Japanese account and buying a Japanses PSN card (these can be bought from Play Asia here).
Overall Harmful Park is not only a brilliant game, but one that proves a lot of things are possible. It proves that the PS1 was in fact capable of producing stunning 2D games with some of the best pixel art ever seen. It proves that a virtually unknown developer can create a genre topping game then return to obscurity. And of course it proves that a game with a giant ice cream sundae death ray attack can stand alongside the likes of Radiant Silvergun and Batsugun as one of the most entertaining Shoot ’em Ups ever made.