Genre: Puzzle Developer: Sega Ent. Publisher: Sega Ent. Players: 1 Released: 1991
The year is 1991, and a wind of change is lying in the air. The Cold War between the Eastern Block and the western democracies, which has gone on since 1947, is drawing to a close. Germany gains its official independence from the four allied powers, internationally solidifying the reunification of the two German republics into one from the year before. The U.S. and the Soviet Union sign the START I treaties, declaring their intent to limit their nuclear arsenals. The Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s politics of Perestroika and Glasnost set out to reform the Soviet Union, opening up the country and its satellite states to the world. In modern-day Russia, he is heavily criticized, if not despised, as an inconsiderate ruler who destabilized a once-powerful nation and drove it to the brink of ruin. To Western nations, however, he was seen as a bringer of democracy and as a liberator, the man who brought an end to an era of constant fear of World War III, and the man who promised to put an end to poor workers having to stand in hour-long lines just for a loaf of bread and some chicken. He would open up the Soviet Union to the free world market!
So, Sega of Japan decided to honor the man by dedicating a handheld puzzle game to him! Yes, in Ganbare Gorby! – literally translated to “You can do it, Gorby!” You play as a super-deformed version of world leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mikhail Gorbachev! Your goal: To personally head out to the local factories and provide the huddled masses with the essential goods they desperately crave, like food, medicine, and the newest handheld sensation from Japan, the Sega Game Gear! I’m not making any of this up, people; This game is for real. Though it was stripped of its political overtones in its European and Brazilian releases (and the super-deformed Politburo chief) and the title rebranded to Factory Panic and Crazy Company, respectively. It also never got a U.S. release in either form.
Ganbare Gorby! is an action/puzzle game. Before each stage, the SD premier or a nameless, random kid in the E.U. and Brazilian releases of the game, gets informed how many people are going to stand in line next and what items they want to receive. Elderly men need bread, women want meat, others crave medicine, and kids are, of course, crazy for the aforementioned Game Gear handhelds the factory also produces. However, the Red Army (or regular Factory Security in the non-Japanese releases of the game) is still controlling the means of production. You need to go into the factory and manipulate the flow of the conveyor belts in order to direct the right goods to their respective recipient. Things start off relatively easy, with only one type of product present in either spoiled or pristine form, few conveyor belts to keep an eye on, and only a few guards wandering in set patterns. You press switches to change intersections or reverse the flow of the direction and try to guide the right items to their corresponding recipients. Later on, things get more complicated: People who want different products stand in lines, guards get armed (first with batons, later with guns), more switches of different colors that control different belts get introduced, and you need to place bridges with the 1 button between conveyor lines in order to divert the right goods at the right time. There’s also a time limit for each stage, but it is rather generous. Things might get hectic but never overly stressful.
It is quite easy to just avoid the first set of guards, but later on you will need to actively defend yourself. Pressing the 2 button let’s out a – very short-reaching – shout that stuns enemies for a while. Occasionally though the factory also produces a few power-ups that give you an extra edge on pickup. Megaphones increase the power of Gorby’s commanding voice and gives your attack a slightly longer reach and duration. Picking up an electric guitar unleashes the power of rock ’n roll and forces the guards to uncontrollably spaz out for a while (again, we’re talking about a game originally set in Perestroika-era Soviet Russia here). Other power-ups include stars for extra lives, clocks for extra time or weights that allow you to weigh down switches so you don’t need to keep standing on them yourself to keep them active.
Ganbare Gorby! is not just an odd curiosity though. It is a genuinely enjoyable game, and one that plays to the strengths of a handheld console. The graphics are cutesy but also clear, and they are well optimized for the screen resolution of the Game Gear. In later stages the factory layouts get quite complex, and in the last stages one may wish for a slightly bigger screen space, but it never to really grows to such dimensions that you get completely lost or disoriented. The soundscape isn’t very versatile – two different themes during the stages, a few ditties for the cut scenes, and a few sound effects for jumping and the like – but what little there is, has been competently put together and is enjoyable, if a bit repetitive.
The game also has a smooth difficulty curve: The first few stages serve to get you familiarized with the gameplay mechanics, and afterwards the game slowly but steadily increases the challenge. Soon you’ll find yourself handling multiple conveyor lines and product recipients with relative ease. It is also quite the casual game, and with four rounds with eight stages each, it’s rather on the short side. Thus, it might not be well suited to the hardcore gamer who prefers a challenge like grinding through a concrete wall using only your front teeth. If you are looking for something simpler for a few rounds that aren’t too taxing, this serves as a nice diversion for short gaming spurts.
As much as I prefer the original setting over the rather generic, bowdlerized version of the game we got in Europe, I can understand why the change was made. By the time the game was released outside of Japan, the Soviet Union had already dissolved and suffered a putsch attempt, so dropping a game starring the now-ousted former premier personally handing out food, medicine, and entertainment electronics to his people into post-Cold War Europe might not have gone down very well at the time, I reckon. So, instead of taking on Red Army stooges and liberating the huddled masses by opening up the world of consumerism to them, the game received a new backstory where an industrialist subtly named “I.M.Greede” has hired local thugs to just keep all the quality products to himself. I think there’s might be some sort of anti-capitalist message buried in there, but then again, the story isn’t important.
On a technical level, Factory Panic and Ganbare Gorby! are virtually identical except for the SD Gorbachev sprite, really. So, both games practically rate the same. If I had to choose though, I pretty much prefer the original Japanese take, if just for the sheer cheek of it. It is very much a time capsule of a very particular era in world history and also an enjoyable little, casual puzzle game as a whole. It has nice graphics, the sound is decent, if not a bit repetitive, and the gameplay is challenging enough without becoming too complex. Whether you can get your hands on Ganbare Gorby or Factory Panic (or the much rarer Brazilian release Crazy Company), I can recommend giving the game a try.
SCORE: 7 out of 10