How would you like to make your own video game? The incredible Super Mario Maker was not the first time a company gave players the tools to produce their own interactive entertainment. In fact, such titles predate the online infrastructure which modern examples of the genre rely on for growth, idea exchange and level sharing. One of the very first games of this type was Sensible Software's (yes, the folks behind Sensible Soccer) 1987 release SEUCK (AKA: Shoot-'Em-Up Construction Kit). That bit of software arguably turned many players into game developers on Commodore 64, Commodore Amiga and Atari ST; you didn't even need to know a single line of code to make your game run. It wasn't the only package that offered this kind of functionality, either.
Enter Japanese developer Athena, coincidently also founded in 1987. The company released the original Dezaemon in 1991 for the 8-bit Famicom. It was a shmup construction kit with spartan and somewhat scary graphic and music editors, giving a good insight on how hard it was for Japanese developers to work with the limitations of the system and still come up with amazing efforts. Three years later, Kaite Tsukutte Asoberu Dezaemon made the jump to 16-bits, arriving on the Super Famicom in a vastly improved package. If you have Mario Paint lying around, now is the time to get that oft-ignored SNES mouse out of the box.
Jumping straight into the editors might be somewhat daunting right off the bat, so running the sample game Daioh Gale is the first thing you should really do. If the name is familiar it's because Daioh was a previously released arcade shmup by Athena; this sequel gives you six vertical-scrolling levels to conquer using a range of different weapons. It might not offer the spectacle of Axelay (to be fair, very few others shmups do) but it certainly is a challenging, competent one. There is nothing wrong in having a by-the-book vertical-scrolling shmup on the cartridge that serves not only as great example of what Dezaemon can do but also stands up as a decent product itself. If Daioh Gale was the sole focus of this review we'd give it 7 out of 10 for its frantic action, clean graphics and lack of noticeable slowdown even during boss fights - a feat which was often hard to accomplish on Super Famicom.
Now for the real fun bit: taking Daioh Gale apart. If you've spent time doodling about in Mario Paint in the past then you will feel right at home as Athena wisely lifts most of the graphic editor and the sound composer (more on that later) tools from Nintendo's unique offering. Opening the graphic editor will allow you to start designing parts of the game - namely your ship, weapons, enemies, main screen and background tiles. The user interface is self-explanatory for the most part thanks to smart usage of common, easy-to-understand icons. You can edit all the existing graphics from Daioh Gale or you can start a game from scratch. A clean canvas means that you will not be able to change something quickly and test it out Super Mario Maker-style, but depending on your pixel art skills it is the best way to truly flesh out something unique. Thanks to the game engine, even if your drawings are not up to your favorite pixel artist standards, it will still play well assuming you balance out enemy waves. Drawing the enemies is just a part of a shmup, how they behave and how they attack the player is what makes or breaks the challenge. You can assign movement patterns and types of shots enemies can throw at you, but once you realize that you can have enemies spawning other enemies, the possibilities quickly expand.
Once you are done with editing your ship, weapons, enemies and end of level bosses, the next step is to draw background titles so you can construct the levels themselves. It is in this section pixel artists can really go nuts, designing tiles for future assembly into whatever your mind can think off. When you are happy with your graphics, you can assemble them in Construction mode. Having impressive eye candy for the levels will quickly rise the interest in your game, so it pays to spend some time making things look as good as possible.
Last but not least, you will take care of the aural side of your shmup project. The music editor in Dezaemon could almost be subject to standalone review treatment. In fact, if you aren't an artisan of pixel art, you can skip the whole shmup making plan and just go make music for it instead. Once again, thanks to clean icons and great user interface, it's easy to understand what does what and the fact that it is very much an enhanced version of the music composer from Mario Paint makes it incredibly simple to start composing your own tunes (besides being a huge update from the scary editor from the previous Famicom edition). There are thirty-two song save slots with half of them already occupied by the soundtrack for Daioh Gale and you can easily remix them by adding your own notes to the sheet. This feature is a surprisingly easy and an excellent way to turn your Super Famicom into a music sequencer, despite just being a small part of the whole package. Budding chiptune composers should definitely give this element a look (or a hear) and see what kind of music they can create.
Despite all of this freedom to create, Athena did limit users in some ways. For starters, you can't really change the weapons systems beyond their cosmetic appearance. You will always have six different weapons pickups, a shield and a speed-up icon showing up in your game. This sadly makes most of the games made with Dezaemon seem a little samey. It is also a shame one can't make horizontally-scrolling levels; it would have added some variety to the whole package, but we can assume that was due to memory restrictions. All of these negative points were eventually resolved in a future edition of the software for the Nintendo 64, so at least we know that Athena listened to fan feedback.
Contrary to what one would assume, there is very little Japanese text in the original 1994 Super Famicom release. Most of the editing is driven by an icon-based interface, yet that did not stop legendary translation group Aeon Genesis from releasing an English translation patch. Make the most of it on your RetroN 5 or Retro Freak, but we should say that given the online resources available today it is much easier to understand the whole package even in its native, import state.
Kaite Tsukutte Asoberu Dezaemon is a hard game to score because you get as much out of it as you put into it. If you have some basic skills at pixel art and music composition, it is quite rewarding seeing the game you had in your mind becoming a reality step by step, and eventually running on your Super Famicom. Despite the infinite possibilities made possible due to technological advancements in recent years, sometimes this overwhelming freedom is counterproductive, with people losing their way halfway in the journey of game development. By assembling everything you need in a single Super Famicom cartridge, Athena gave us a focused tool to make vertical-scrolling shmups and little more, but that's a positive rather than a negative. Where today most would see limitations, we see the immense potential and numerous possibilities to make our friends despair while trying to tackle our near-impossible end of level bosses. All of this and we still didn't have to learn a single line of code… but that is a subject for another time. It's easy to imagine a package like this getting updated and adapted to the 3DS and Wii U with the welcome addition of the touchscreen input for drawing, but sadly no one as yet offered one such product for shooter fans. Truly a one of a kind cartridge, and one to seriously consider adding to your Super Famicom collection.