Carmine first hit Japanese computers in 1986 with the PC-98 release discussed in this blog post, and then had what could be described as a de-make the next year with visually weaker PC-88 and Sharp X-1 releases. The game’s by Micro Cabin, perhaps best known for the Xak series and responsible for the beautiful and shockingly fair PC-98 RPG Elmknight. Carmine came out a full six years before Elmknight though, and it shows.
The game bills itself as an “SF HARD ACTION ADVENTURE” set in the distant future-past of 2008, and you’re playing as “Braian=W=Kernighan” (their typo, not mine), an Armoured Fighting Walker pilot sent with his team to investigate [something something] “Biodolls” in Special Research Facility “Cardinal” [something something]. What these means for you is a lot of exploration and fighting broken up by the odd event or bit of dialogue. The most important thing to remember is that everything in this very blue research facility is trying to kill you and anything that doesn’t start off trying to kill you can be accidently or deliberately provoked into all-out aggression, including your own team mate (if you decide to turn back at the beginning he asks if you’re scared, then if you continue past him he’ll accuse you of being a Biodoll and opens fire)!
Carmine’s world is presented through an impressively large view window considering the era, and every last pixel around it’s taken up by a necessary feature rather than papered over with an overly elaborate static border. There’s even a mini-map in the top-right to make navigation simpler! Heck, there’s even a proper map accessible from the menu that shows the surrounding area (whether you’ve explored there or not) and has a large “You are here” marker on it too. This is fantastic news because the 3D display itself is as stylish as it is sparse, with everything from wreckage to doors and oncoming enemies being represented by a variety of wireframe squares and boxes.
Any old adventure game worth its salt has to have special “event” graphics when something especially exciting happens, and Carmine’s no exception to this rule. These images take up the entire view window and appear to be some sort of ultra-compressed scan of a real image, which gives the rather clever impression of viewing everything through a screen from inside your AFW. I’m sure this effect is mostly the result of a happy accident, but it looks wonderful anyway.
A quick glance at the paper map included with the boxed version of the game or Project EGG’s PDF equivalent will reveal that instead of plunging you into a sprawling labyrinth like the one found in Psy-O-Blade the equivalent in Carmine is far more straightforward and compact – the only problem being that the battling is so hard and random that any and every encounter will more often than not kill you. This is no exaggeration by any means – in all the time I’ve spent playing this game I’ve won exactly one battle, and thankfully it was captured in the video below (by the way, the battles that occur before NOT FRIENDRY PERSON are “event” battles that you always win). Whether you’re trying to shoot at Ruma’s with a hand gun yourself or allowing the AI to auto-battle for you, death is almost inevitable.
What I can tell you about battles is that enemies are spawned in set places based on your location, and once triggered will follow you with wearying tenacity until one of the two of you are dead.
Spoilers: It’s you.
You’d think this would mean the game then becomes about finding enemy trigger points and then learning how to avoid encounters entirely, but after checking several guides I’ve discovered that this is literally impossible and the only way to survive is to save frequently and pray to the RNG gods for mercy.
It’s also possible to attack certain parts of the scenery should the mood take you such as the little sensors above doors, meaning you can permanently block off certain areas. On paper this has the potential to open up some really clever tactical play – perhaps abruptly halting an enemy advance - but in practise what it means is that you’ll end up locking yourself out of rooms you need to get in to progress. This is either terrible design or the ultimate freedom depending on your point of view, but it’s worth mentioning either way.
Carmine is awful, mesmerising, stylish, and ugly all at once. It’s a captivating and impenetrable mess that I absolutely wouldn’t recommend to anyone but at the same time I’m glad I’ve played it because the striking sci-fi minimalism always leaves you feeling that maybe this time, just for you, the game will suddenly unveil its secrets and you will become the master of this harsh blue domain. You know this will never happen, but maybe it’s worth one more go, just to be sure…