In 1984, five people, Kojin Ono, Takashi Matsuda, Hideaki Yoke, Hiroyuki Obara, and Satoshi Koizumi designed twenty-eight figures using molds from the Japanese toy lines, Diaclone and Microman. Hasbro, a high-profile American toy company brought the distribution rights to the molds, rebranding them as the Transformers for the North American market. They would later buy the entire toy line, giving them sole ownership of the intellectual property. In exchange, Takara, the company that originally owned the line would retain the rights to distribute the products in Japan.
Taking cues from the Diaclone toy line, the biggest selling point for Transformers was that, true to their name, they could transform. All of them had a default robot form, but through shifting the parts, they could turn into vehicles, devices, or even weapons such as pistols. The robots were divided into two factions: the heroic Autobots and the evil Decepticons (named Cybertrons and Destrons respectively in Japan). In the eighties, a majority of Western animated series were created with the goal of advertising toys to children. This was due to many factors such as regulations regarding appropriate content becoming stricter and the industry as a whole being on the verge of disaster. This is the approach Hasbro took, and with help from help from Toei Animation in Japan, a three-part miniseries based off of Transformers debuted in September of 1984. Both the animated series that spawned from it and the toy line were among the greatest successes of the eighties, and many more incarnations would follow in the coming years.
Shortly before the toy line’s conception, Nintendo launched their first gaming console to use programmable cartridges in 1983: the Family Computer (Famicom). The first consoles were prone to failure due to a bad chip set, but after a product recall and subsequent reissue with a new motherboard, its popularity soared. Its following became even greater in scale once it was released in the West rebranded the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Whether it was in its native homeland or overseas, games on this platform often sold thousands or even millions of copies. This was especially true if the game bore a famous license from another medium.
As the Transformers franchise reached the height of its popularity, a developer named ISCO was commissioned to create a tie-in game. It was released in 1986 under the name Transformers: Mystery of Convoy – the titular Convoy being the Japanese name for Optimus Prime, the leader of the Autobots. Strangely, despite the franchise’s success in the United States, Mystery of Convoy was never released outside of Japan. Is this an instance of the medium’s first Western hobbyists being unable to experience a classic?
Analyzing the Experience
Optimus Prime has gone missing, and it is up to the Autobot Ultra Magnus to investigate his whereabouts. |As the 1986 film did not air in Japan for another four years, the death of Optimus Prime wasn’t fully explained there. Therefore, the plot of this game was designed in a way to help bridge the gap.| His quest won’t be easy, for the Decepticons led by Megatron have mobilized, and they will stop at nothing to stop him from making contact with the Autobots’ charismatic leader.
Mystery of Convoy is, at its base, a run and gun platformer game typical for its era. You control Ultra Magnus with the directional pad. He moves at a set speed, for there is no run button. The “B” button is used for shooting while you can have Ultra Magnus jump with a simple press of the “A” button. It should be noted that your character does not have the ability to duck.
Instead, by holding down on the control pad for a few seconds, he will transform into a truck. In this mode, he cannot jump, but he has the ability to shoot in two different directions. The “B” button makes him fire in an upward direction and with the “A” button, he will launch grenades forward. To return to normal, you hold up on the control pad for a few seconds.
As a side-scrolling game from the mid-eighties, the goal of each level is straightforward enough: get to the end of the stage. The linearity of the game is enforced to the point where it’s impossible to backtrack, though there is a slight caveat to this rule. Should a stage scroll vertically rather than horizontally, it’s possible to go in either direction. If you’re made to travel up, this means you don’t have to worry about an encroaching bottomless pit as you make your climb. Every stage in the game ends with a boss fight, and defeating it will advance you to the next.
Within a few seconds of starting the game, I’m positive the average enthusiast will know the kind of experience they’re in for.
Specifically, owing to the fact that one successful attack or collision with the enemy is enough to make Ultra Magnus explode, Mystery of Convoy is quite difficult. At this point, one may wonder if there are any power-ups to help mitigate the daunting ordeal. As it would turn out, there are four of them. They take the form of small cards labelled “P,” “B,” “1,” and “F”. Collect a “P” card and Ultra Magnus will be able fire at multiple angles at once. The “B” power-up creates a barrier around the protagonist, allowing him to take more than one hit. Should you find a “1” card, you will gain an extra life. An “F” card, once discovered will give your character the ability to fly by holding down the “A” button. Finally, during your playthrough, you may happen upon a fifth card labeled “D”. You would do well to avoid it at all costs, for it will cancel out every power-up you may have found should you pick it up.
Many fans are quick to lament whenever a good game fails to be exported from Japan and for good reason. It’s especially bad if the game in question is part of a long-running franchise or the product of a prolific company. At best, it could be seen as a sign of apathy on the publishers’ part. At worst, it’s outright disrespectful to the fans outside of the developer’s home country. To answer the question of how Mystery of Convoy relates this inexplicable tendency, I find myself respecting Takara’s decision to not make any effort to localize ISCO’s effort. In doing so, they saved several unsuspecting Transformers fans wasting hard-earned money on a woefully subpar effort.
There are numerous reasons why Mystery of Convoy is a terrible game – chief among them concerns its controls. If the color palette and the various onscreen graphical textures weren’t arranged the way they are, one would be forgiven for assuming the entire game takes place in a frigid land wherein the concept of friction is nonexistent. To put it another way, Ultra Magnus skids around as though he’s on ice at all times, which is problematic whenever you’re trying to dodge enemy fire. Such scenarios present themselves for the entirety of the experience.
Because pressing down on the control pad causes Ultra Magnus to transform into a truck, he cannot duck in his normal form. This presents a conundrum whenever an enemy is too short to hit with his default attack. It’s possible to hit them as a truck, but it takes a few seconds for the transformation to complete, and enemies usually move too fast for this tactic to be effective. Even if you do successfully make the conversion, you’ll have to contend with your new form being much less mobile and a much larger target for the enemies to hit.
Another glaring issue with the game’s difficulty concerns the overwhelming advantage the enemies have over you. To wit, you have fire with pinpoint accuracy every single time. You also have to be rather close to the enemies to hit them, as your shots have a limited range. Even if they’re but a solitary pixel off, the attack won’t connect. It doesn’t help that, barring assistance from the “P” power-up, Ultra Magnus can only shoot straight in front of him. Conversely, the enemies have no trouble hitting their mark. They will shoot in your direction with frighteningly good accuracy and from much further away than your own attacks can reach. To make matters worse, their bullets are often camouflaged by the background, and they can travel through solid walls. When they’re doing this, you can’t return fire, as the barriers will block your projectiles.
One comparatively minor source of irritation stems from a lack of checkpoints to be found. To be fair, it is one of the game’s lesser grievances because none of the stages are terribly long. Then again, ISCO filled all of them to the brim with enemies – occasionally placed in the most inconvenient spots possible. That they don’t take long to clear does little to assuage the inevitable frustration one would feel trying to get through them. There is some degree of mercy in that if you die fighting a boss, you can restart from the beginning of the encounter. On a jarring note, the bosses are insultingly easy compared to what the game has to throw at you in the normal stages. With a majority of them, you can find one spot where their attacks will almost never reach. From there, you can mindlessly fire at them until they’re defeated, only occasionally jumping out of the way of a stray projectile when necessary.
I usually try to avoid commenting on the graphics because they’re rarely important when it comes to assessing the gameplay, but in this case I have to make an exception. When you start the game for the first time the opening cutscene culminates in a harsh, flashing red strobe effect. This graphical effect also shows up whenever you defeat a boss. Either way, this runs the risk of hurting the players’ eyes the further they get. Indeed, when I tried this game out for myself, I had to turn away from the screen and close my eyes every time the screen began flashing. If you suffer from epilepsy, do not for any reason play this game, as it could present a legitimate risk to your health.
In the very likely event that you lose all of your lives, the game is over whereupon you’re returned to the title screen. Fortunately, by holding down “START,” “A,” and “B” on the controller on the “GAME OVER” screen, you will be able to restart the last stage you were on. Unfortunately, inputting the code will result in you continuing to play the game.
After experiencing all the game has to offer, I am convinced that there is nary a single salvageable level to be found. Even then, level nine stands out as the nadir. You will venture forth, fighting enemies along the way only to realize the stage is noticeably longer than any of the ones that preceded it. In fact, you could potentially spend more time on this level than the previous eight combined. As it would turn out, the stage is actually a maze in disguise. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was inspired by Super Mario Bros., as it too features a similar gimmick in some of the levels. It added a degree of variety that helped make the game the enduring classic it remains to this day. Naturally, ISCO completely failed to live up to that standard.
There are three main failings to this specific level. To begin with, the sheer density of enemy forces attempting to impede your progress means that on your initial playthroughs, you’re not likely to stay alive long enough to realize you’re in a maze. Secondly, the developers seemed to make the intended route the most difficult to traverse, often littering them with strategically placed enemies that you have to jump from a lower level to hit. The final problem is detailed in the screenshot above. Occasionally, you must shift to your truck form and take the lowest path. As you may have inferred from where Ultra Magnus is placed, the two partitions that look like walls are in the foreground, and can be passed without a problem. With its simplistic graphics, an uninitiated player could reasonably assume that there is no lower path and proceed to waste their time exhausting every other option, growing increasingly confused when they remain trapped in the level.
A battle against Megatron awaits those who make it to the end of the ninth level. Surprisingly, as the transitional screen informing you of the existence of a tenth stage implies, he is not the final boss. In a rather blatant display of laziness, stage ten has the exact same layout as stage eight. The sole difference is that you’re ascending rather than descending. Once you’ve climbed your way to the top, you come face-to-face with Trypticon, a being known for its immense hatred of Autobots and Decepticons alike. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that he presents a challenge befitting an end boss. ISCO failed to live up to this reasonable expectation; if anything, he’s slightly easier than his predecessors. Once the strobing lights indicating your victory finish flashing violently, you’re presented with a well-deserved ending.
What I described just now is what a sensible design team would do. ISCO, on the other hand, took notice of your tenacity and determination before declaring that it doesn’t count. If you had any lingering doubt that you misinterpreted the screen, pressing “START” will dash it in an instant as your character is whisked back to the first stage. Once again, this design choice feels lifted from Super Mario Bros. Upon completing that game, you were presented with a second quest, though the main difference lied in the enemy placements. However, while I can imagine somebody actually wanting to play through Super Mario Bros. a second time immediately after rescuing the princess, conducting a second run of this game is a stupendously ill-advised action.
If you’re supposing that Mystery of Convoy took cues from Ghosts ‘n Goblins in how one must complete the game twice to achieve the true ending, you would be half-correct. As it turns out, in order to achieve a different ending, you need to collect letters spelling out the name “RODIMUS”. These letters are dropped by specific enemies in the first, second, fourth, fifth, seventh, and ninth stages along with one hidden in a secret room in the eighth level. If you manage to find all of them, you get the following screen instead.
In other words, completing the game having found those letters still isn’t good enough. When you’re sent back to the first level this time, you will be in control of Rodimus Prime instead of Ultra Magnus. Those who speculate that he must have new abilities, thus making the effort of unlocking him actually mean anything are giving the developers a little too much credit. There is exactly one difference between these two characters: their sprite designs. Otherwise, the game plays exactly the same – the lone exception being the ending you receive should you clear it with your new character.
Needless to say, it’s not worth the effort. In the interest of fairness, games from the 8-bit era weren’t known for having elaborate, pensive endings. Nonetheless, considering that most people would have to clear a horrible game two or more times before they could view this screen succeeds in rubbing salt on the wound.
Drawing a Conclusion
The most shocking thing about Mystery of Convoy isn’t its severe lack of quality, but rather the fact that the game had a fanbase in its native Japan and there’s no indication that it was enjoyed ironically. It was to the point where in 2015 when the franchise had celebrated its thirtieth anniversary a year prior, the Tokyo-based entertainment company DLE produced a flash anime adaption for the game entitled Transformers: Return of the Mystery of Convoy, running for twenty-six episodes. I find this difficult to accept because what Takara helped produce is no treasure – far from it. Indeed, Mystery of Convoy could very well be the worst game in the medium’s history to have a significant following; the only comparable examples I can think of are Metroid: Other M and the 2006 edition of Sonic the Hedgehog. Even then, as dire as they were, they did have a few things that went at least part of the way towards almost resembling redeeming qualities. The same can’t be said of Mystery of Convoy; playing through it confers onto whoever experiences it firsthand a feeling of annoyance one would usually feel after playing multiple bad games in a row.
Needless to say, I don’t recommend playing this game for any reason, and it’s for the best that it never left Japan. More than anything, what strikes me as the worst aspect about Mystery of Convoy is the distinct lack of care that went into creating it. The bosses have forgettable designs with some of them merely being the Decepticon insignia. When you get to face off against Megatron and Trypticon, you’ll realize the developers didn’t bother animating them – instead content just to have them statically float up and down. I can imagine it took a lot of imagination to conceive a toy line wherein robots could be changed into other objects. It’s a pity Takara showcased none of that when it came time for them to help produce a video game.
Final Score: 1/10