Boy howdy, how about those Transformers, huh? Why, I remember back in the day, watching them on that cartoon show of theirs. And of course, who can forget those toys? Transforming all over the place, turning into all sorts of stuff! But oh man, don’t get me started on that jerk Michael Bay, tarnishing the reputation of… Those cartoons designed to sell the toys, I guess? Autobots, keep on rollin’ baby!
Alright look, I’ve gotta come clean: I’m not really a Transformers fan. I didn’t grow up watching them (I was more of a Looney Tunes kind of kid), I didn’t mess around with any of the toys, and while I honestly didn’t hate that first Michael Bay movie, I also did not feel the need to watch any of the sequels. If you’re one of those folk who loves this sort of mecha stuff with a passion, more power to you! It’s just not my bag, baby. You know what is my bag, though? Bad video games. Which is where and why our paths cross today.
1986’s Tatakae! Chō Robotto Seimeitai Toransufōmā: Konboi no Nazo translates roughly into English as “Fight! Super Robot Life-Form Transformers: Mystery of Convoy.” But for the sake of simplicity, maybe we oughta’ call the game “Mystery of Comvoy [sic],” as that is the only English present on the Famicom box / cartridge art. You see, we never actually saw a release of this game in English-speaking territories, which is honestly something of a surprise. Considering how anything with the Transformers branding seemed guaranteed to sell like hotcakes in the States at the time, you’d think that they’d have been willing to localize any slop with a shot at making a quick buck? Unless, of course, the product was so bad, that releasing it overseas could’ve been seen as potentially harmful to the franchise as a whole.
Transformers: Mystery of Convoy is one of the classic “Kusogē” titles** of the Famicom era, whose legacy has endured through the years much as the source material it is based on. It was the among most popularly requested games to appear on the venerable GameCenter CX, its legendary difficulty has been referenced in spin-off Transformers anime, and it was even re-imagined as an endless runner smartphone game in 2014 to capitalize on the originals notoriety. It takes a special kind of awful to be recognized as one of “the worst of all time,” and so today we’re gonna get to the bottom of what makes Mystery of Convoy so infamous.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Mystery of Convoy utilizes some pretty severe strobing effects, which I have attempted to diminish the speed / frequency of in the animated GIFs included with this article. This may slightly affect the timing of some of the animations on display, but seizure-proofing takes priority on this website.
** Since this is actually our first time using the term on this site, it may bear some explanation: Kusogē is effectively Japanese slang for “shit games,” generally of the “funny bad” variety. In using the term as someone from outside of Japan, it is my thinking that we should generally try to reserve it for games specifically from and intended for Japan, rather than just labeling all bad games as a kusogē.
The Transformers: The Movie was released in 1986 in North America / Europe, but not in Japan until 1990. Serving as a bridge between the second and third seasons of the original animated TV series, the film makes the bold move of killing off Optimus Prime (though this would apparently be reversed in the series almost immediately due to backlash), along with a number of other named characters from the show / toy line. With Japanese audiences not having a chance to see the movie until four years later, however, a stopgap was required in order to explain the absence of Optimus Prime in the show. Thus, the Famicom game steps in to serve that purpose.
The game itself is story-lite, featuring only two or three short screens of text that comprise the game’s multiple endings, but the premise is explained in the accompanying manual. Playing as the Autobot Ultra Magnus, your mission is to discover the identity of / bring the murderer of Optimus Prime to justice. In Japanese Transformers media, “Prime” is translated as “Convoy,” which should explain the game’s title: You are solving the “mystery” of the death of Optimus “Convoy.” But of course, this is all just an excuse to blow up a bunch of enemy Decepticons in a side-scrolling (and occasionally vertically-scrolling) fashion.
The game spans ten levels — all of which vary in terms of variety, so to speak. For example: The first and seventh stages are both completely straightforward flat planes that you must run and gun your way across, with no obstacles other than the enemies in front of you. The second, fourth, and fifth stages consist of platform-to-platform jumping in addition to your combat tasks. Stages three, six, eight and ten are vertically-oriented, with the eighth and tenth levels actually being the same stage played in different directions (either top-to-bottom or bottom-to-top, respectively). And finally, the ninth stage is a side-scroller taking place inside of what is secretly a puzzle, where you must follow an extremely specific route (similar to some of the later-game castles in Super Mario Bros.) and get hold of a hidden key in order to actually progress past it.
In addition to the variety of stage types, there’s a decent variety of scenery as well. While only one stage (the second) features a background that isn’t colored pitch black, most levels at least feature different tilesets from one another, giving each a distinct look and feel. I highlight this because this wasn’t necessarily the “norm” for Famicom games in 1986, which were still often guilty of repeating only one or two different tilesets across sometimes larger games. At the very least, it demonstrates that at least some level of effort went into the presentation by developer ISCO, and that they weren’t particularly looking to blow this licensing opportunity.
That being said, the humanoid / robot form of our hero Ultra Magnus is a curious little thing. And I do mean “little,” as his scale versus some of the end-stage bosses is often on the smaller side.** If I hadn’t read or otherwise been informed that you were playing as Ultra Magnus rather than Optimus Prime, there’s no way I would’ve known, since their red-white-and-blue color schemes look nearly identical when compressed into a maximum size of 22 by 32 pixels per sprite. Also, his legs look hella weird. Just like, random red blotches on a disproportionate pair of otherwise blue legs? All I’m saying is, there surely had to be a better way to render the bottom half of the character you’re meant to spend most of the game staring at.
In robot form, you can run, jump, and fire bullets in a straight line from your chest. This is not always conducive to defeating enemies which attack you from various different angles, and some passageways are too small for on-foot entry, which is where your ability to transform comes in handy. By transforming into what is apparently a car carrier, you trade your ability to jump for the options of shooting either upwards or in a forward arc. This also makes you horizontally longer and vertically shorter – as trucks are wont to be – which comes in handy in some stages with enemies who prefer to hover slightly above ground / just above your vehicle’s clearance height. In fact, you can easily coast through the first stage of the game by transforming immediately into the car carrier, spamming your upward attack, and driving from one end of the stage to the other largely unperturbed. In fact, the illustrated strategy guide titled “Transformers (Mystery of Convoy)” as part of the Family Computer Hisshō Dōjō series suggests this exact strategy, showing Ultra Magnus transforming into vehicle mode in order to avoid all manner of incoming attacks.
Unfortunately, the game is not so exploitable past the first stage. In fact, it quickly becomes one of the most difficult action platformers ever devised for the Famicom, taking particular pleasure in testing player reaction time with an unending series of split-second dodges. Mastering Mystery of Convoy requires memorizing stages and enemy placement, with certain routes spelling near-certain death if you should accidentally follow them. This is one of those games that I reckon is literally impossible to beat on your first, second, or even dozenth attempt at it: It forces you to practice, practice, and practice some more on each individual stage until you absolutely master them and are able to clear them without getting hit once. Because, as it turns out, you cannot survive one hit without dying.
Yes folks, we are operating under Contra rules here. Though actually, it’s more akin to Silver Surfer rules, since none of the levels feature checkpoints / mid-stage respawning, and must be restarted from the beginning upon death. The only bone it sees fit to toss you is that you can begin from the start of the end-of-stage boss battles if you have the spare lives for it. Unfortunately, should you run out of lives, it’s Game Over. As in, no continues, no save files, no password system: Straight back to the beginning with you! Unless, of course, you press and hold the secret button combination of “A + B + Start” on the Game Over screen, in which scenario you’ll continue again from the beginning of the stage as if you had merely lost a life. Why this is hidden behind a secret button combination – rather than as an option presented to you on a menu screen – is beyond me.
So, since it only takes one hit to kill you, you might figure that the average enemy should only be able to withstand the same. Naturally, you’d be wrong, as several types of enemies will either take multiple hits to take down, or will become briefly invincible as they transform into another form before requiring one more hit. Bosses seem to take something like five or six hits to destroy, though this requires hitting very obvious and often small weakpoints. Does the game give you any sort of advantage or leg up on the opposition here, beyond your “skills as a player?” Well, your blue bullets are at least slightly larger than the standard white enemy projectile, theoretically giving you a better chance at hitting enemies. Of course, even this is a double-edged sword, as the smaller and more difficult-to-distinguish white dots fired by enemies are harder to spot and dodge over the course of a standard stage.
Your only other assets are a small range of items dropped by enemies, displayed as small lettered icons. Power-ups labelled “P” give you a spread shot to cover slightly more space, “F” gives you the ability to fly in robot mode, “1” will grant you an extra life, and “B” will change the background music. Actually, the “B” power-up will let you absorb a few more hits, and you can tell whether or not you still have hits to spare by whether the standard stage music or the barrier jingle is playing. There’s also a pick-up labelled “D,” which will… cancel out any active power-ups upon collection. Because, you know, there’s gotta be some sort of equalizer for if the player is allowed to accidentally become too powerful! Gotta give the game at least a fighting chance at beating you.
There is one more series of hidden items to collect: The letters spelling out the name “Rodimus.” With seven letters hidden across the ten stages – typically inside of passing enemies, though there is one hidden inside of a secret room – you must collect them all in one playthrough of the game, in order to unlock Rodimus Prime as a bonus playable character on a subsequent playthrough! Naturally, Rodimus Prime plays identically to Ultra Magnus, and serves as a purely cosmetic change. That being said, the game chastises you on the ending screen if you fail to collect all the R-O-D-I-M-U-S letters in a given playthrough, so nabbing all of them is consequently essential to getting the “Good Ending.”
Additionally, there are two spots in the game where you are able to skip forward some number of levels, should you choose to do so / to forfeit your chance at the R-O-D-I-M-U-S letters in your playthrough. In stages two and seven, there are uniquely orange jet enemies that stand out from the standard white ones. Shooting them causes them to transform into a special enemy attempting to flee in the opposite direction, who you must try to shoot again in order to initiate the warp. As a bonus, you’re treating to a cute little animation of Bumblebee transforming from a Volkswagen Beetle into his robot form, before being whisked away into a later stage. Again, it’s worth noting that doing this will cause you to forfeit the challenge to collect the R-O-D-I-M-U-S letters, and prevent you from earning the privilege of playing the game again as a slightly recolored character. It’s your loss.
Of course, there’s more to a game’s difficulty than how stacked the odds are against you. There’s also the matters of level design and how well the game controls. Luckily, the game slouches on both of these counts, ensuring the most unfair game possible.
As mentioned before, the game delights itself in tossing enemies at you and giving you precious little time to react. In some of the platforming stages, there are certain paths that simply don’t grant you enough space to sufficiently hit or dodge incoming enemies, and which are tantamount to death traps. In the vertical stages, the camera follows you from slightly above or below center-screen, meaning that as you ascend or descend to scroll the screen enemies can appear almost directly next to you and immediately fire projectiles that you will not have time to dodge. Obviously, I cannot say for certain whether design decisions such as this were made intentionally to make the game more difficult, or inadvertently by a team of developers who didn’t have any idea how to craft fair levels… But my gut feeling leans closer to the latter.
As for the controls: It’s not that the implementation as is feels awful or anything. Sure, movement feels maybe a bit slippery at times, but jumps have sufficient height and your run speed is satisfactory. Where the controls fail are in the lack of controls; namely, the ability to crouch / prone and fire lower to the ground while in robot form. I get that the intention is to encourage transforming into vehicle mode where you have access to that lower attack (as well as your upward fire), but by the time you think to switch from robot mode to your car carrier mode in order to better deal with an incoming attacker, they’ll probably have already closed the distance between you and be within striking range of you. It might’ve felt nicer to remap the transformation button to Select, opening the Down button to be used as a stationary crouch / prone. That way, you get your ground-level fire, but still have reason to switch to vehicle mode when you need to stay on the move while staying low.
With all these design decisions conspiring against you, you might expect the end-of-stage boss battles to be bullet hell-esque tests of pattern recognition and reflexes. Surprisingly, the bosses are actually among the easiest enemies in the game to overcome, as every boss follows one of two patterns in one of two arenas: You’ll either deal with stationary targets with smaller weakpoints, or targets that move a short distance up and down with slightly larger weakpoints — either in arenas with a set of stationary platforms, or a series three platforms also moving slightly up and down.*** You’ll square off against a number of recognizable large-scale Decepticons (well, recognizable to Transformers fans, I reckon), as well as the very icon of the Decepticons itself! No, really: You’ll have to fight the literal icon / insignia that represents the Decepticons, as it remains completely stationary and fires bullets at you. You end up fighting this boss on three separate occasions.
Surprisingly, Megatron is not actually the final boss of the game, despite being the killer of Optimus Prime [in the movie] and being the most likely candidate to fill the role of primary antagonist. Instead, he serves as the penultimate boss, before facing off against none other than… Uhh, hold on, let me look this up… Ah, none other than Trypitcon — also known as Dinosaurer! A foe so large, so menacing, that only through the power of — wait, hold up. He was voiced by Brad Garrett in the English language version of the cartoon? As in the Herman Munster-lookin’ brother from Everybody Loves Raymond? Welp, there goes any chance of me being able to take this boss seriously. Also, this big ol’ dinosaur guy doesn’t even appear in The Transformers: The Movie? Why do I even care so much about this?
So, the bosses are as easy as pie, but the stages you need to clear to get to them are hard as nails. What’s the hardest stage in the game, then? I’d have to give that dubious distinction to stage nine: The level that requires you to take a very specific route through it or be doomed to repeat it ad infinitum. Of course, the game makes no mention of this devious trap, and gives no real hints as to what the true path through the level might be. As if that weren’t enough, you’ve also gotta grab a hidden key fashioned after the publisher Takara’s mascot character. The funny thing is that in terms of enemy layout, this is actually one of the fairer stages in the game! It’s the unexpected, unexplained puzzle element that makes it so frustrating / near impossible without the use of a guide. Luckily, I had the benefit of a GameFAQs map for it, which immediately transformed it into one of the easier levels in the game. But, you know, that obviously wasn’t so readily accessible in 1986. My condolences to anyone who had to puzzle that mystery out on their own.
In terms of “precision of play” difficulty – as far as avoiding and attacking enemies over the course of a level is concerned – the tenth stage is pretty tedious. It’s one of the three vertically-scrolling stages, where your character always feels a bit too close to the top of the screen for the way the camera moves and where enemies will constantly catch you off-guard with no time to avoid. Even knowing where the upcoming hazards are going to appear from, the process of trying to inch the screen forward pixel by pixel to make the enemies appear [without placing yourself in their line of fire] is simply no fun, and getting into position to destroy them is only further complication. The controls simply aren’t conducive to this sort of vertical stage format, and so the attempt at introducing level variety to the game goes unappreciated.
Instead, you’ll wish that ISCO had put some more variety to the game’s soundtrack. There is only one song that plays in the background of all ten stages – changeable only when you pick up the “B” power-up and get to hear the associated jingle – and one song that repeats in all ten of the boss encounters. Beyond that, there’s a “secret” song to accompany one of the secret rooms, plus fanfares for the title screen / ending screen. I can’t honestly rail on the game too hard for this, since this is actually slightly more than was even expected of Famicom games of this era, but there’s something about having to listen to that same song drone on incessantly as you repeat a stage for the twelfth time that will make you utterly despise the jaunty little tune.
Mystery of Convoy may very well be one of the most difficult games I’ve ever played — and I like to believe I’ve played my fair share of challenging games. When people talk about “Nintendo hard,” I feel like they usually have something like Battletoads or Mega Man in mind, which relied a lot on trickery and trial-and-error to befuddle and halt players progress. Games such as that laid the foundation for the “Masocore” subgenre, which use almost entirely unpredictable traps in order to force players into memorizing specific routes and patterns in order to progress. But Mystery of Convoy doesn’t deal as much in that sort of trickery: You don’t have to worry about floors falling out from under you or walls of spikes flying towards you around every turn. Instead, the game builds its difficulty on the back of badly designed levels, unfair enemies, and a lack of control over your character.
I contend that Mystery of Convoy was not intended to be quite the legendary challenge it winded up becoming. The mistakes it makes seem genuinely accidental, and unfortunate in that they act against the player. It feels like a game rushed to pass, with more effort put into the presentation of the licensed elements than the actual core of the gameplay itself. You may be unsurprised to hear that this was the first-ever game by developers ISCO, and that most of their future releases would also tie in to various anime and other Japanese programming. Interestingly, not a single one of their titles ever found their way to the States, which might honestly be an act of mercy. In any case, their attention to the details of the Transformers franchise are admirable, and it’s just a shame they are in service of such a half-baked game. There’s a potential buried in here for a competent little cash-in action platformer, but the hard exterior is damn near impenetrable.
** I gather that at least a few of these bosses are, like, multiple Decepticons combined into one, like some sort of Megazord out of Power Rangers (another franchise I know next-to-nothing about). But I thought Megatron was roughly the same size as a standard Autobot? He’s like, four times your size in this game!
*** Actually, only the first two levels feature that non-moving arena, and have you fight the same stationary boss twice in a row. (Only the second time you fight it, there are two to destroy)
Use Jump-and-Shoot to Deal with the Decepticon Ship
Of course, Japan wasn’t gonna let a little thing like the game being infuriatingly difficult get in the way of making an impact. It was promoted fairly heavily, complete with television commercial campaigns and a 16 minute promotional video which shows off work-in-progress versions of every stage and boss in the game. Fascinatingly, some of the differences in level design and enemy placement actually seem to me like improvements over the final release version, though the fact that half the levels fail to feature any enemies / collision detection does not seem to be enabled doesn’t exactly lend itself to informed impressions. With all that promotion, the game only managed to sell somewhere in the range of 61,000 copies.
Despite this rather unimpressive number, Takara would release a second Transformers game for Famicom the following year, which reads in English as Transformers: The Headmasters. ISCO doesn’t appear to have had a role in the development of the game, with credit given to Takara themselves (which can either be taken at face value, or can be assumed to mean a ghost developer worked on the title). Rather than recycling the formula of Mystery of Convoy, it was wisely decided on that the game begin development from scratch, resulting in a much different Transformers experience. I sampled a portion of it, and while I wasn’t super keen on it, it’s certainly an improvement over its predecessor. Rather than stages designed around transforming on the fly, the game alternates between scrolling vehicle shooter stages and the familiar on-foot run and gun levels. It feels closer to what the ideal Transformers game for the NES / Famicom should have been, but still falls short of the mark by my estimation.
28 years after the release of Mystery of Convoy, the game was granted a “re-imagining” of sorts as a mobile game, titled Q-Transformers: Return of the Mystery of Convoy. Developed by studio DLE, the game serves as a thinly-veiled promotional vehicle for a Takara toyline by the name of “Choro-Q” — better known overseas as “Penny Racers.” In celebration of the 30th anniversary of Transformers, Takara had seen fit to release a Choro-Q line of Transformers toys, effectively rendering the robots in something like a cutesy, chibi form. And so, the game featured illustrated versions of these Q Transformer designs, set in front of levels inspired by the original Famicom game while the classic background music loops. Unlike the original game, however, Return of the Mystery of Convoy is presented as an endless runner-type game, with intentionally even more difficult gameplay throughout. You can watch a very thorough commentated run of the game on YouTube, as played by ProtomanGaming.
There’s one more spin-off here that warrants coverage: The subsequent anime adaptation of Q-Transformers: Return of the Mystery of Convoy. Little more than a crudely-animated flash cartoon to promote the toy line and mobile game, the show aired for 26 episodes across two seasons on the Tokyo MX station. The show features comical discussions of both Mystery of Convoy games, as well as the larger Transformers brand itself, often referencing how shameless and goofy the premise of the show they are starring in is. That being said, the show actually goes into some detail about design decisions made in developing the original Famicom game as well as the subsequent mobile game app. For example, one episode (“Mystery of the Stage Bosses”) is dedicated entirely to discussing why the original developers at ISCO may have chosen the boss characters they did for the game, with Optimus Prime pointing out that it was hard to make graphics stand out in the 8-bit format as an attempt to defend the Decepticon insignia / “Destron Mark” bosses.
The second episode of the series, “Mystery of Reliably Crappy Games,” makes a somewhat passionate argument for the original Mystery of Convoy not being a kusogē, but rather merely an “unreasonable” game. Optimus Prime’s character again takes charge in defending the title, arguing that entertainment is subjective, and that difficulty shouldn’t be the determining factor for whether a game rates as being bad. I don’t think the show seriously intends to dissuade anyone from referring to the original Mystery of Convoy as a kusogē, since that legacy is kind of what the show is banking on to begin with, but it’s still an interesting subject matter to see an official piece of Transformers media broach. For more information on this weird little show, you may want to consult the TFWiki article dedicated to it, which provides English-language summaries of several of the episodes.
I, for one, think it’s kind of awesome that such a decidedly crappy game can become something of a subject of celebration. While Mystery of Convoy was certainly a pain to play through, it’s also an game I won’t soon forget about. I kind of feel like I’ve earned something like a badge of honor for having completed it! Granted, I played it with the benefit of savestates and with the assistance of online guides, so take that as you will. But you know what? I may very well attempt a proper run of it the future (still utilizing the continue code, of course); because in spite of the game’s incompetence, it still comes across as a labor of love. It’s not impossible to imagine someone out there who found some genuine enjoyment in this game, in spite of its extreme difficulty and more obvious flaws. And you know what? The hole this game sent me down might have helped develop an interest the Transformers franchise! Perhaps one day, all will come to appreciate the merits of Mystery of Convoy. Until that day, till all are one…