Friday, June 8, 2018

Unearthed Treasures: Batman Returns (Sega Master System)

"I'm not sure what it is, but there's something very familiar about this game," I said to myself during my earliest moments with Batman Returns, whose strangely remindful emanations had me racking my brain in an effort to give solid form to the fuzzy images that were emerging in response to this incoming stimuli.

I didn't become aware of Batman Returns until about four months ago, when I was browsing through Gamefaqs' Sega Master System games list in search of interesting-sounding selections for Retro Gaming Live's "All Day Raffles," which I'd been attending on a regular basis. It seemed logical to think that it was a port of the NES original, but after viewing the accompanying screenshots, I couldn't be sure. And, really, that's what made it such an appealing option. "Wouldn't it be great," I thought, "to learn of Batman Return's true nature via a live 15-minute sampling?!"

And that, I decided, was the way that Batman Returns and I would be formally introduced. I made up my mind that I wouldn't seek out any additional information about the game until such a scenario had played out.

Sadly, though, I wasn't having much luck with the raffle drawings. Week after week I'd come up empty. Eventually I ran out of patience; after failing for the fifth week in a row, I said "Screw it" and decided that I might as well test out the game for myself. "Why drag this out any longer?" I thought. "Why engage in all this buildup for a game that may very well turn out to be cheap, generically designed movie-licensed dreck?"

Oh, but it wasn't. Rather, Batman Returns immediately showed itself to be ambitious in spirit and thoughtful in design. Right from the outset, it was determined to dispel any notion that it was a cheaply made cash-in and loudly communicate to first-time players that they were about to experience a finely polished, well-realized action game.

It was dripping with quality, which I was delighted to see, but what really got me stirring was how it went about conveying this feeling. There was something very familiar about this game--something very familiar about its controls, its aesthetic, its musical instrumentation, and moreover its whole vibe. It didn't become clear to me until I listened closely to its enemy-damaging sound effect, whose markedly reminiscent ringing had me asking myself, "Now where have I heard this sound effect before?"

Suddenly it hit me: "Why, it's from The G.G. Shinobi!" And from there I could only wonder: "Could it be that these two games were made by the same developer? It's obvious that they share the same sound designer, but what if the connections run deeper?"

So I looked it up and discovered that Batman Returns and The G.G. Shinobi were indeed developed by the same company: Aspect Co., a Japanese-based developer that had a close working relationship with Sega (it's listed a "contracted studio"). "What an amazing coincidence!" I said. I felt so fortunate to have stumbled upon this--one of the company's lost works.

So it's no surprise that Batman Returns has turned out to be a hidden gem. It's really got me hooked; I've been playing it regularly for the past three months. Though, it didn't need that long to convince me to write about it; no--I've been meaning to do that since our first meeting. So let's get started with this long-overdue piece. Let's talk about Batman Returns!

The game's title tells us all we need to know about its story, which is of course based on the Tim Burton movie's though somewhat loosely: The power-hungry Penguin, as portrayed by Danny Devito, has staked a claim in Gotham (whereas in the film he was driven underground following the implosion of his mayoral campaign), and now it's up to Batman to rid the city of the waddling wretch and his circus goons. This overarching narrative drives the game's progression but doesn't shackle it; instead, it allows the ongoing plot to express itself in a rather unique way. That is, each stage presents a self-contained scenario--an individually developed chapter in which a particular group or character carries out a personal agenda. I'll hit upon each one as we go (and I'll be relying chiefly on the game's manual for the all-important details, which aren't communicated in-game).

I can best describe Batman Returns as "Shinobi meets Bionic Commando." Though, that's a surface-level description. In reality, it never fully encroaches upon either; rather, it combines elements of both and spins them in such a way that Batman Returns comes out feeling like something fresh and new--something far from derivative. Really, Aspect's Batman isn't like any other you've played.

Right from the outset, Batman Returns aims to differentiate itself from all of those other 8-bit Batman games. You'll sense as much when you play around with the action button and learn that Batman's repertoire is absent of hand-to-hand fighting moves. Instead, his main source of offense is the ranged Batarang--a boomerang-like weapon that travels at a quarter-of-the-screen length. Also, you'll find that the game's mode of level design calls for heavy use of a grappling mechanic whose successful utilization demands a certain amount of skill. More on this in a moment.

The rest of Batman's platforming maneuvers are crafted along conventional lines. He executes jumps that are both floaty and fully controllable, his hang time such that there's plenty of time to improvise--to adeptly draw closer to active targets or weave around incoming attacks. However, he can't switch directions while airborne, which hampers his ability to deal with enemies that suddenly rush in from behind. You can otherwise control the height of his jumps by pressing the button with variable levels of influence. His other basic maneuvers include crouching and dropping through narrow platforms.

Much less called upon but nevertheless super-cool is his ability to draw open his cape and float down to the ground. You can trigger this move by continuing to hold the jump button after Batman has jumped or dropped down; though, it won't activate until Batman's fall-distance exceeds that of the height reached during his highest jump, which is to say that it can't be used if the platform to which he's leaping is either higher up or level. While descending in this manner, he is able to change direction at will.

And then there's the grappling system, upon which the game's platforming and stage-navigation elements are greatly dependent. It's not as meticulously developed or as refined as Bionic Commando's system, no, but it's still fairly intricate. The main difference is there's no button dedicated to the grappling hook; rather, its use is mapped to the jump button, which means that Batman is only capable of firing it while airborne. By default, the grappling hook travels diagonally at about a three-tile length, though you can alter its direction to straight vertical by holding up as the button is pressed.

Once the hook has latched onto a solid surface, Batman will hang down beneath it. From there you can adjust his hanging distance and thereafter swing back and forth to gain momentum; you can even adjust the hanging distance while swinging, of which our pal Nathan Spencer was never capable! The process requires your active participation, because Batman doesn't swing automatically; rather, you have to guide his swinging motion and do so with a certain rhythm; otherwise his movement will stall or he'll remain idle (rapidly tapping back and forth, for instance, will work to no effect).

Once you've settled upon a desired hanging distance and momentum-level, you can swing away and at any time propel yourself by pressing the jump button. For some extra boost, Batman performs a jump upon release--ordinarily at a fixed height; though, if you press the button at the peak of a swing, Batman's jump will gain additional height and thus a greater amount of hang time.

While grappling from them, he's able to propel himself up through narrow platforms. The thicker surfaces are solid; you can neither jump or drop through them. Though, highly skilled players will find that it is possible to curl around and up to the edges of these solid platforms if you position yourself correctly and release your grip at a swing's very peak (we're talkin' about the type of pixel-perfect maneuvering that only experts will be able to execute consistently).

If you hope to finish Batman Returns, you will have to become proficient at grappling. And that'll be quite a challenge, since that the learning curve for grappling is pretty steep. It may take a long while to get acclimated to it; and until such a time, the entire process will continue to feel harrowing. Though, once you're able to make sense of it, you'll start finding great reward in being able to deftly swing about and maneuver around even the most daunting of obstacles. It's a well-implemented system.

You can otherwise use the grappling hook to strike overhead-positioned enemies (its strength is about equal to the Batarang's) and the power-up-providing item markers.

The item markers, which take the form of hovering bats, are strewn about all across the game's five stages. They drop three different items: Yellow Batman icons, which boost Batman's walking speed by one level. Gray Batman icons, which increase the speed and distance of his Batarang up to two levels. And Red Batman icons, which award him extra lives; though, I'd more correctly term them "extra hits," since that's basically how the game treats extra lives. As they're available in abundance, losing one isn't a serious matter, so they instead come to function as a unique form of health. The only consequence of dying is the loss of your upgrades, which, really, you're likely to promptly reacquire. And there's no real loss of progress, either; if you succumb to an enemy attack or fall into a pit, the game will simply respawn you on the last platform on which you established solid footing.

There are no continues. If at any point you deplete your entire stock, the game will end, and you'll have to restart from Stage 1.

The game's most innovative feature is its route-selecting system: Available for each stage are two separate routes--two uniquely designed stage settings--either of which culminates with the same boss battle. And you can choose to travel one or the other--mix it up as you please. The best part is that we're not talking about a slight shade of variance between the two routes; rather the second routes are distinct in that they feature an expert difficulty. This makes them entirely uninviting to newcomers, yes, but it offers seasoned players a chance to really test their skills. It also affords Batman Returns a desirable does of replay value, because, I say, any excuse to return to this game is a good one.

It's a simple idea, yes, yet it's so brilliant. Really, it's a shame that other games from the era didn't copy it. Hopefully a modern game designer or two will unearth Batman Returns and take such influence from it.

Stage 1

Scenario: Gotham's citizens are being terrorized by the Red Triangle Circus Gang, a horde of grievous goons.

Batman Returns is an attractive game, though more so stylistically than graphically. That is, much of its visual charm is derived from how it presents itself. It does so with such expression. You'll realize as much as you observe Batman's sprite-animations, which are filled with character: When idle, he enters a fighting stance and begins bouncing up and down with his fists outstretched. He walks forward with an imposing full-profile posture. And whenever he's descending or swinging forward, his cape begins to flow in the wind. (And he's colored purple, because that's just tradition.)

The game's art direction and mode of visual rendering do well to produce the scene as described in the manual: "Ancient, decrepit buildings are held up with street girders, massive water pipes embedded in old brick walls rust away, and dingy yellow streetlights illuminate the streets with a pale light." This is well-communicated in Stage 1: Buildings' textures are granular to reflect their deteriorated nature, and the walls and surfaces display muted highlights that speak of the city's dreary state of luminance. These environments function to tell us a story. They're helped by the small-but-nevertheless-important details like the Christmas decorations and the Penguin posters, which provide further context.

Stage 1's is your typical high-energy, pulse-raising opening theme. It's an uptempo piece whose rapidly occurring, mesmerizingly complex strains absorb your attention and pull you into the action. I can't help but point out that the music's style is directly in vein of The G.G. Shinobi's (as is the game's sound design in general); it certainly works to the same effect, which is to say that it keeps me focused and engaged. Don't expect to hear any 8-bit renditions of the sweeping compositions as heard in the Tim Burton films. No--the music here is not at all indicative of what you heard in the game's big-screen counterpart; rather, it's a product of and belongs purely to the Master System, which makes Batman Returns its own (in the same way the NES made 1989's Batman its own). That, my friends, is the power of 8-bit music.

As is standard, Route 1 is broken up into two sections. The first is straightforward, all horizontal. You can traverse it via the street or the buildings' ledges, whose surrounding spaces house a greater selection of valuable items (extra lives, mainly). Garnering a quick understanding of the grappling system will be key if you intend to access these ledges; it also helps to know that you can grapple up to and stand atop the street lamps--a position from which you can then leap to solid ledges.

Before you can proceed to the second section, you have to destroy the Penguin's campaign bus. It's natural to want to jump atop it or pass through it, as though it were a background object, but this will prove to be a mistake, since it represents a physical danger despite there being no outward signs that it is (I learned the hard way that making contact with it is instant death). What you have to do, instead, is keep your distance and attack it with the Batarang. Four hits will do the job.

In the second section, the scene expands vertically. Your job now is to snake around series of ledges in order to negotiate your way over stacks of crates.

A number of Red Triangle goons will attempt to halt your progress. There's the lanky clown--a boxer who moves to within proximity before throwing a lightning-quick jab. The acrobatic thug, who continues to leap toward you. The fat clown, who curls into a ball and quickly rolls toward you when you move to within a certain distance. The bomb-throwing vixen, who throws three bombs in succession from far to near. The gun-toting clown, who slowly inches forward before firing a single shot. The bomb-dropping clown, who at regular intervals drops bombs directly down to the level below; as he possesses no periphery attacks, he's helpless if you approach him from the side. And the exploding clown, who blows himself up when you move to within a two-tile radius; if you're a level below an exploding clown, he'll drop down onto you before exploding. Every minor enemy can be taken out with a single hit.

Route 2 is structurally similar to Route 1 (two sections--the first straightforward, the second expanded vertically), but far more difficult to traverse. The biggest difference is that the area lay in ruin and long sections of the street are missing; in place of solid ground are long expanses over which you'll have to skillfully grapple. You can otherwise access the ledges above and engage in some high-pressure pixel-perfect platforming, with any miscalculated maneuver landing you in a bottomless pit. It's all very perilous. And if you hope to survive long, you'll have to quickly sharpen you grappling skills. There's no easing your way in, since the level design is brutal from the start.

You'll encounter a couple of unique enemies here. There's the stationary flame-thrower goon, who releases a short stream of fire every three seconds. A second type of exploding clown; this one attempts to bait you in by challenging you to draw near. The armored trickster, who uses a jackhammer-like device to thrust a long, retractable blade down toward the level below; like the bomb-dropping clown, he lacks periphery attacks and is vulnerable from the sides. And the rocket-launching goon, who fires a rocket from his launcher every two seconds.

I can't speak highly enough of the game's level design, which was obviously thoughtfully considered. Batman Returns makes great use of its spaces. It knows when to offer you a level of freedom and when to carefully manage your advancement. It doesn't allow you the cheap option of flying over or uninterruptedly grappling across whole stage sections; rather, it forces you to work around its structures and use your abilities to locate a viable path; and from there you can then branch off--meticulously explore the surrounding area and its not-immediately-visible fringes in search of valuable goodies. Or you can play it safe and stick to the most direct, stress-free path. It's how you choose to go about exploring the game's stages that differentiates each experience.

The grappling system, while also well-realized, lacks some polish. The biggest issue is collision-detection: The grappling hook latches onto a platform's underside only if it hits squarely; if it passes through a platform, which is likely to happen if you're trying to connect with it while approaching from the side, the shot won't connect, and you'll fall helplessly. Also, the length at which the grappling hook is seen to travel isn't indicative of its true range, which is actually a bit shorter than what you observe, the disparity such that it can become difficult to correctly time your shots; there will be plenty of instances where you'll feel as though the grappling hook should have made contact when the game says that it didn't. Finding consistency will be your challenge here.

Waiting for us at the end of either route is the boss--the Tattooed Strongman. This burly, pot-bellied brute takes swigs of alcohol, which he uses as fuel for his three flame-spewing attacks. He cycles between them in the following order: short-range flame breath, an arcing fireball chain, and a trailing wave of flame. The big guy is susceptible to damage only when he's in his drinking animation. Six shots will do him in.

Stage 2

Scenario: Batman follows the hoodlums into a Shreck's department store.

The atmosphere in Max Shreck's commercial establishment appears to be relaxed, yet the aural and visual indicators suggest otherwise. That is, neutral color shades and a soft, mysterious-sounding tune combine to create an air of unease--implant in your mind that unseen dangers are lurking in the shadows. And they certainly are. That's the theme of this stage: The biggest threats are those that aren't immediately visible. It's all very unsettling--and delightfully so, I might add! My favorite visual touch is a repeated background detail: hallways that stretch into the background and speak of the store's considerable depth and scale. They function not just to provide some interesting imagery but to also get your imagination stirring--make you wonder about what's going on back there, in those adjacent wings, and create the sense that the evil forces might emerge from any angle.

The first section of Route 1 expands several screens along both axes, and it features a labyrinthine design. Successfully advancing through the store's interior is a matter of locating the narrow surfaces through which you can jump after grappling up to them. Solving the riddle entails discerning which supporting pillars are solid and which are unobstructive foreground elements.

The background, you'll notice, is populated with numerous double doors, all of which are active level-design elements. Whenever you move to within range of one, it pops open, revealing a concealed danger (enemies I've already discussed) or, less frequently, a helpful item; as you traverse through the stage, you have to remember to keep an eye out for these doors, lest you'll continue to fall victim to surprise attacks. Also, you have to be careful not to grapple up through a platform that rests directly beneath a door, as doing so will lead to an unavoidable death. The key is to pay attention to your surroundings.

Navigation also entails the traversal of moving walkways, a couple of which are placed right at the stage's starting point. These conveyors provide opportunities for convenient speed boosts, yes, but their true purpose is to obscure the nearby enemies and promptly deliver you to an unexpected trigger point--to limit your reaction time and stunt your ability to adequately respond to a suddenly-detected enemy attack.

The trickiest bit of platforming is found in section's lower-right corner, where falling chandeliers set the ground ablaze. You'll have no choice but grapple your way over these fiery gaps, touching which leads to instant death. Once you move beyond them, you'll gain entrance to the stage's second section, which is more straightforward. Though, it features a particularly troubling sequence wherein you have to grapple over a fiery gap under cramped conditions and via a fractured ceiling structure. If you've yet to gain a firm grasp on the grappling system, you could potentially dump all of your lives here. You could always tank your way through the flames, sure, but then you'd probably be in a position where your stock is severely depleted.

Stage 2 introduces only one new minor enemy: an aggressive slide-kicking clown.

Route 2 is absolutely fraught with danger. It features areas that are comprised entirely of fiery gaps, around which you'll have to gingerly maneuver. There are no two ways about it: You're gonna have to possess a full understanding of the grappling mechanics and how to correctly time your shots if you hope to endure these sequences.

Though, I've discovered a tactic that helps to keep you suspended and reduce the amount of risky grapple attempts: After successfully latching onto a ceiling, pull yourself up toward it. Thereafter, hold forward and rapidly tap the jump button; this will allow you to skitter across the ceiling and more reliably maneuver over gaps. You can thank me later.

Most everything else is familiar except for what you find near the section's end portion: a cool sequence wherein you have to use Batman's flight ability to glide down and snake around inflamed surfaces, finding openings wherever they may be. Sadly, there are only a tiny number of these sequences throughout the game, which is too bad, since they're a lot of fun.

Both routes carry us up to the store's rooftop, where we encounter the delectable-but-deadly Catwoman. Hers is a two-step pattern: First she dashes her way toward you before executing one of two attacks: a whip-swing or a vaulting flip. And then she begins diving back and forth between the two surrounding buildings--a number of times as she ascends and then descends. The first step is designed to keep you guessing; you can't be sure which attack she'll unleash, so all you can do is anticipate. The best all-purpose strategy is to hop backwards--far enough to evade a whip-strike but not so far that you'll collide with Catwoman on the back end of her vault.

Also, you can interrupt her building-diving by striking her with the grappling hook, doing which causes her to fall to the ground and reset the pattern. After you land a fifth hit, she'll flee the battle, living to fight another day.

Stage 3

Scenario: High above the streets of Gotham, Batman fights his way along the rooftops while the criminal element attempts to make his life difficult.

The stage's musical theme carries the load in terms of conveying the tenor of this building-top setting. Its busy, frenetic-sounding composition creates an air of instability and makes even basic platforming feel all the more precarious. It's just what the scenario called for. I mean, "unsteady" is exactly what you would feel if you were attempting to traverse along uneven rooftops while people in clown suits were trying to murder you (and don't you just hate it when that happens?).

Route 1's separate sections are similarly designed; both consist of wide-open spaces whose traversal entails working around and across buildings via their ledges and rooftops. Also, you'll have to negotiate your way around series of exposed girders and in some cases the deteriorated, crumbling surfaces that rest between them. Since most of the buildings are spaced apart, there's always the danger of falling into a gap, to your death; you should remain cognizant of this fact whenever you're jumping or dropping down to a level below--especially if you're not overly familiar with the stage's layout.

Here, too, there's no visual indication as to whether a pillar or girder is a solid object or merely a foreground element. You should never assume the former and instead hug every wall in sight, checking to see if it's passable. It's worth the effort to do so because the designers like to hide valuable items beyond such seeming barriers.

I was instantly enamored with Stage 3's setting because it reminded me so much of The G.G. Shinobi's city stage, for which I have a fondness. Really, it's a more-fleshed-out version of it. Also, it has the same type of charm to it: The scattered cityscapes seen far in the distance help to create such a wonderful sense of remoteness and separation, as if ours is a battle being waged somewhere where no eyes can see. And the encompassing, darkly hued night sky works to provide us an extra layer of cover; it helps to complete what is to me a great flavor of 8-bit setting.

Route 2 is thematically similar, though it's mostly devoid of a base level. Thus, there are many instances where you have no choice but to rely solely on your grappling skills. There's no avoiding peril here: Route 2 features a number of sequences in which you're required to grapple your way across entire areas--sometimes using nothing more than single blocks from an alternating arrangement. And all the while, you'll surely be troubled by the thought of the instant death that's waiting for you below.

It's dangerous to explore around the buildings' lower levels, but it makes sense to do so. That's where the designers have hidden the most valuable items. It's just that you're going to have to be precise about it.

Stage 3 introduces two new enemies: There's a second type of rocket-launching goon; this one fires rockets diagonally upward, its trajectory such that it's able to catch you unexpectedly as you drop or glide down. And an acrobatic woman who flies in from out of nowhere and temporarily plants herself before vaulting off the screen.

Our boss is the Fighting Golem. This blue menace commences the fight by rushing in and surprising you with fierce punch. Thereafter, he leaps back to the screen's right edge and begins channeling a rotating quartet of stony projectiles. Once the stones are fully formed, he commands them to dart toward you in a semicircular formation. If you hope to dodge them, you have to find an opening between them and thread it with a particularly precise jump. Squeezing through them isn't as easy as you'd figure because Batman Returns is another game in which the hero's hitbox is 1.5-times the size of the character; your calculation has to take this disparity into consideration.

From there, the Golem repeats this two-step pattern. Six hits will reduce him to rubble.

There are two separate strategies you can employ when fighting these bosses: (1) You can play it tactically--memorize the patterns and react accordingly. Maintain a high life-stock just to be safe. Or (2) you can tank them--throw caution to the wind; get right up in their faces and unrelentingly spam Batarangs. Treat your accumulated lives as disposable. Trust in the game's proclivity to supply you a whole new set of them in the next stage. Do what works for you.

Stage 4

Scenario: Batman continues his pursuit of the Red Triangle Circus Gang, whose members have retreated to their underground hideout. He descends into Gotham's dismal sewer system, which rests well below the city.

Gotham's sewer system isn't quite as gloomy and as distressing as the description implies, but still its environments induce feelings of trepidation. It's just that they convey an air of danger in a unexpected way--in a way that's atypical of a described "dark, dank" underground setting: Their textures instead have a fluorescent quality to them, which creates the sense that they're radioactive to the touch; they make you feel as though your simply being here is a hazard to your health. The stage's musical theme works to add a layer of foreboding; its slow tempo, eerie strains, and hauntingly reverberant bass notes fill you with a persistent feeling of concern--make you feel anxious as you wonder about what might be waiting for you in the surrounding spaces.

In Route 1, navigable environments are comprised mostly of sinuous pipes whose geometry is such that it's fairly difficult to maneuver around. The resulting level design demands consistent use of the grappling hook. There are a few instances when there's no obvious way to advance--when making meaningful progression becomes a matter of grappling along series of irregular ceiling structures and seeking out available pathways.

The stage's second section introduces rushing tides that carry you forward. If afforded such control, they'll ultimately deposit you into bottomless pits. These waters emerge from demonic-looking conduits--stone faces whose mouths continuously eject the liquid. The stone conduits also obstruct your path, and they're large enough to where you're forced to navigate around them via the platforms and structures seen overhead.

The sewers are home to the game's most annoying minor enemy: missile-equipped penguin commandos. These mind-controlled spheniscidae suddenly emerge onto the scene, fire off heat-seeking missiles, and then quickly flee. Any such missile will ceaselessly track you; it'll continue on your trail--orbiting around you in a roundabout fashion as it seeks an opening--until it makes contact or until you destroy it by striking it with one of your weapons.

And don't bother trying to scroll these missiles off the screen; they'll follow you wherever you go, no matter how far back you retreat. And since missiles are small in size, and it's difficult to draw a bead on them, a process of targeting or evading them proves to be burdensome if not maddening.

Stupid penguins. Get out of my video games.

Route 2 is filled with watery chasms over which you'll have to expertly grapple. You'll do so mainly by latching onto stone conduits--a second type that ejects water spouts at timed intervals. It's required that you grapple your way below series of them using their undersides at the attach points; also, you'll have to run some mental calculations and execute carefully timed grapples and swings, since the grouped conduits release their spouts asynchronously (though in an easily observed pattern). If you make contact with any of these spouts, your grip will break and you'll fall helplessly, any further input prohibited until Batman hits the ground. The between spaces are comprised of unforgiving, harrowing platforming sequences.

The second section is largely similar, though its end portion features something distinctive: another one of those cool gliding sequences. This time, you have to fly down and snake around a series of spike-lined surfaces.

Our boss is Catwoman, who's back for round 2. Her pattern remains the same, though this time she drops a number of daggers as she dives back and forth between the stone walls. The daggers drop slowly, and they're easy to evade, so in reality this version of the fight features almost none in the way of added difficulty. So no change of strategy is needed.

When you're done extinguishing the second of her nine lives, she'll once again flee. Though, she won't be returning for a third encounter, nor will she be playing any further role in the story. Maybe she wants to save some for the sequel. You know--the video-game adaptation of the next Burton film!

Yeeeeeeah--about that...

Stage 5

Scenario: The maze of sewers continues as Batman relentlessly pursues the elusive penguin.

In terms of graphical presentation, Stage 5 is more or less an extension of Stage 4. Though, there's a bit of an aesthetic difference: The environment's textures are choppier and more granular, which suggests that the current system has found itself in a state of neglect; these visual touches convey to you that we're traversing upon forgotten ground. There's no better place to hide if you're a hideous penguin-man.

Also, the music moves in an alternate direction. It's similarly eerie-sounding, yes, but it's brisker in tempo and more urgent in tone; its message is that you should steel yourself, for the most dangerous challenges lie ahead.

Though, the most significant difference is that there are no alternate routes; the path to the end is now strictly linear. So Stage 5 is forced to carry the full load, and consequently it becomes the game's longest, most difficult stage. It measures in at four sections, each of which features some of the game's most challenging platforming sequences.

In section one, you have to choose what's most convenient for you: Do you travel the item-packed upper path, whose platforms are spaced so far apart that you'll have to execute the most precise grapples and the lengthiest grapple-jumps if you hope to navigate onto them and reap their rewards, or do you wade into the tide below--advance at a much faster pace but forfeit your ability to collect items and risk dumping stock as you deal with creeping enemies?

Section two features a particularly rough vertical sequence wherein you have to ascend upward by grappling onto and platforming across distantly-spaced platforms and the sequenced barrels that are being carried down by the waterfall that comprises the area's entire backdrop. If you haven't yet mastered the grappling system, forget it--you ain't advancing past this section. You might not even get to see much of it, because the trickiest, most-deadly part is encountered right at the start, where you have to make headway by grappling about while being menaced by an inconveniently positioned rocket-launching goon, whose obstructive fire always seems to be perfectly timed. There's a good chance that you'll dump all of your stock as you desperately attempt to find workable angles.

I have to say, though: Aspect's designers had such a great flair for rendering waterfall backdrops. Those in Batman Returns (and The G.G. Shinobi, for that matter) glow so luminously and feature such rich animation. I've never seen better in an 8-bit game.

Section three slopes upward, its gradation such that the entire area is one big obstacle. Surmounting it requires heavy use of those aforementioned precise grapples and lengthy grapple-jumps. If at any point during the ascent you screw up and fall down to the base level--into the tide below--you'll have to backtrack a fair distance and try again.

The final section features a combination of tricky barrel-jumping sequences and stretches where you have to grapple across extended chasms via series of single blocks.

Along the way, we'll encounter two new minor enemies: First are the submerged hunchbacks, who suddenly pop out from the water and attempt to deal physical damage when they sense that you're invading their space. There's no secret as to where a hunchback is lurking; you'll see his head floating back and forth over a specified area. Hunchbacks are only vulnerable when their full bodies are in view, so if you want to eliminate one of them, you'll have to first bait him out of the water. Later on, you'll be accosted by a second type of acrobatic woman who continuously leaps over Batman's head--back and forth, from left to right--and targets her subjacent prey with a three-directional dagger attack.

Stage 5 represents a significant jump in difficulty and may very well overwhelm those who have grown accustomed to the relatively mild challenge experienced in the Route-1 stages. But that's no reason to be discouraged: If you like the game but lack the skill to clear it in one go, sequentially, you can always turn to the game's hidden stage-select option, which you can access by holding 1, 2 and Up when the title screen comes into view.

Once we've reached the sewer's darkest depths, we'll have located the Penguin. This will initiate the final battle, which occurs in three phases. In phase 1, the Penguin uses his flight-capable umbrella to fly about overhead--back and forth, with two swoops executed in the periods separating his single and two-step end-to-end flights--and shower the area with mines. In theory, you're supposed to carefully seek out openings and craftily strike the airborne Penguin; though, you can just as well trivialize this entire phase by safely camping at either screen edge, where the Penguin can't travel, and attacking him when he flies to within range. Four hits will prompt him to launch the next phase.

Phase 2 is basically a Dr. Wily-capsule fight. The Penguin descends onto the battlefield and conjures three bladed umbrellas, all of which spin in place for two seconds before darting at you. During each cycle, he'll hover at a variable height. When he's higher-positioned, it becomes tougher to successfully land strikes and dodge the umbrellas, which fly in at ever-more-difficult angles. Three hits will cause him to enter last-resort mode.

In the final phase, the Penguin takes command of his springy Duck Car. The vehicle's is a two-step pattern: (1) It charges forward, in an attempt to run you down, and then retreats back to the screen's edge. (2) And then it fires off two missiles, the second of which arcs upward. You can leap over the second missile if you're close to the vehicle; though, if you're instead at a distance, you'll have to crouch. The Duck Car's weak point is its head, which you'll have to strike six times. However, the conditions inevitably change: After the vehicle absorbs a fourth hit, it adds a third missile to its step-two attack; during this cycle, both the first and third missile arc upward.

The destruction of the Duck Car seals the Penguin's fate. His reign of terror is over. The ending sequence explains as much: After the Penguin's is defeated, peace returns to the city. We're assured that if any others like him ever threaten the good citizens of Gotham, Batman will again fight for the cause of justice. The people can rest easy knowing that the Caped Crusader is standing guard. All such text is interspersed between animated scenes wherein the triumphant Batman can be seen standing atop Gotham's tallest buildings, watching over the city. We then cut to the credits.

Closing Thoughts

Batman Returns really took me by surprise. I was expecting it to be a typical run-of-the-mill movie-licensed game--an average-at-best platformer that I'd quickly abandon once curiosity was no longer a factor--but instead it turned out to be one of the best games I've unearthed since starting this blog. Now I regard it as another one of those "Where have you been all of my life?" games. I don't know what else to say except that I've been having great fun with it these last couple of months.

Aspect really outdid itself here. This company, I've been finding, had such an amazing ability to take any subject-matter and derive from it a great product. I can honestly say that Aspect's are some of the most well-constructed, most satisfying, and most replayable 8-bit games I've ever played. That's certainly true of Batman Returns, which I regard Master System standout. In fact, I'd say that it's one of the best Batman games in existence!

"Now, does your stating as much mean that you think it's a better game than Batman for the NES, to which it's sort of an analog?" you ask.

Well, reader, that's a tough one. Really, I'd say that it's too early to make that judgment. I'll feel more comfortable providing a definitive answer to that question after a few years have passed--when I'm able to see how Batman Returns ultimately resonates. If I were being pressed, I could certainly come up with a few reasons for why it's more fun than its NES counterpart, but I feel that such thoughts would be better expressed in a more appropriate space, like in a future comparison piece. For now, let's just say that they're both fantastic 8-bit Batman games. They're fun in very distinct ways, and for that reason they complement each other well.

Really, it's absolutely criminal that a game of this caliber is essentially lost to time. Batman Returns should be available on digital shops everywhere--on platforms where it would be rightfully celebrated by all those who love classic games. But you know how it goes with these licensed properties; for publishers, the process of bringing them back to market is often painstaking and not worth the financial risk. And--sadly, it seems--corporations are going to hold the majority of them hostage until the end of time.

Oh well.

But there are still plenty of ways to get a hold of Batman Returns, finding which is certainly worth the effort. So if you're a fan of Batman games or the Sega Master System (or the Game Gear, for which this game is also available), do yourself a favor and track down a copy. You won't regret it. (Note, though, that the Master System release was Europe-only, so physical copies will be hard to come by in non-PAL regions).

So hats off to Aspect, whose games have continued to impress me. I've been having nothing but great fun with Batman Returns, The G.G. Shinobi, Tails Adventure and the company's Disney games (Legend of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse and Deep Duck Trouble Starring Donald Duck). And I'm eager to discover and play the rest of its creations.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go search the Internet and find out what else these guys have made!

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Rediscovered Classics: Neutopia (TurboGrafx-16)

Talk about missing the boat.

Really, I can't think of any other idiom or phrase that does better to encapsulate how I feel about the TurboGrafx-16, which for most of my youth I was apt to stupidly disregard. "It's a low-value also-ran with at most two or three worthwhile titles," I'd immediately think to myself whenever I'd see its name in print.

That's how it was until I entered my enlightenment phase--until I became the person who earnestly sought to learn about the TG-16's true scope of influence and explore its genuinely stacked game-library.

Ever since then, all I've been able to think about is how much of a tragedy it is that a system of its caliber was unable to find an audience outside of Japan.

Oh, if only we'd known in 1989 what we know now.

If only I had known.

Realistically, though, there was no way that I could have. There were simply too many barriers standing in between the TG-16 and I--too many mental obstructions as implanted in my mind by NEC USA's horribly misrepresentative localization and marketing strategy. Judging from what I was seeing in my daily media, there was nothing to convince me that the TG-16 was an attractive system. The bizarrely rendered, almost-surreal magazine ads seemed to be more focused on promoting the marketing executives' "clever" slogans and oddball brand of humor. The TV commercials were lame and uninformative, the worst of them typically featuring "totally rad dudes" who would explain to me how "cool and awesome" the system's graphics were while barely-decipherable snippets of in-game action would intermittently flash onscreen. And the games, few as they were, just didn't look all that interesting; furthermore, not a single one was so graphically "advanced," as the advertising claimed, that I could seriously think to rank it above any of the best-looking Genesis games.

The entire marketing campaign reeked of desperation. It was like watching a friend's 45-year-old dad hop into a pair of parachute pants and rap about how in touch he is with "youth culture."

By 1991, the TurboGrafx-16 was a lost cause. There was no logical reason for me to purchase one when I already owned an SNES and had ready access to the Genesis via my friend Dominick. Nintendo and Sega's 16-bit machines more than had me covered. As far as I was concerned, NEC's was completely irrelevant. I mean, how else could I feel? I didn't know of a single TG-16 owner. None of my friends ever talked about the system. And I couldn't remember ever seeing one in stores. It was almost as if the TG-16 didn't exist in physical reality.

It was a 16-bit console, it had a funky design, and it played host to superior versions of the Bonk titles. That's all I knew about the TurboGrafx-16. Really, that's all I wanted to know; I was so cold on the system that I never felt compelled to read up on its history. There was no reason to, I thought, since presumably it had made no measurable impact. The way I saw it, the TG-16 was a complete failure of a video-game console, and it was so lacking for original, must-play games that it probably wasn't even worth emulating.

That's how I felt until 1999, when fate led me to NEC's 16-bit machine, which I'd woefully misjudged. That was my conclusion after playing Dracula X: Chi no Rondo, whose awe-inspiring quality spoke of a system that had far more potential than I ever could have imagined. I was so taken with the TG-16's ability to render such a visually stunning, technologically impressive game that I had to know more about what this platform was and how it came to be. So I spent many hours in following hitting up the enthusiast sites and learning about the TG-16's history as well as its true nature. What I found was that NEC's wasn't a lame, second-rate nonstarter, as I'd presumed, but instead a very serious competitor; it was, in actuality, the "PC-Engine," an amazingly versatile, top-shelf wonderbox that had found great success in Japan following its 1987 release.

And that seemed incredible to me. It was crazy to think that the PC-Engine was playing host to arcade-quality games as far back as 1987 while in 1990 we, as Westerners, were under the impression that Super Mario Bros. 3, Double Dragon II: The Revenge and Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse were the most graphically intensive games consoles had ever produced. But there it was, way back then, giving consumers access to technologically advanced games like The Kung Fu, Fighting Street (the original Street Fighter) and Space Harrier.

Though, as was in character for me at the time, I wasn't quite ready to immerse myself in the scene (quite simply, I wasn't as passionate as I am now nor did I possess the same level of inquisitiveness; I had yet to fully shed those lingering unadventurous traits). Beyond Rondo, my PC-Engine experience was limited to sampling a few games on the Magic Engine emulator. And even then I chose to play it safe, any of those selected either a franchise game (New Adventure Island) or a multiplatform release (the Bonk and Bomberman titles).

It wasn't until recent years--specifically until my favorite Twitch personalities really started to emphasize PC-Engine games--that I felt inspired to jump in--get fully on-board and experience the system's magic for myself. I've been having a great time with it ever since. It truly is a top-tier gaming console. I can't reiterate enough how much of a shame it is that we missed it.

All I can do is shake my head when I see people say, "Well, the PC-Engine is purported to be a 16-bit system, but, really, it's nothing more than a souped-up 8-bit system!"). Whatever, man. Sometimes the specifications fail to tell us the whole story.

What we can say for certain is that PC-Engine games have a wonderfully distinct glow to them. They're rendered in such a way that they somehow feel like 8- and 16-bit games simultaneously; they capture two separate essences and combine them to forge an aesthetic that is familiar-feeling, yes, but at the same time unmistakably unique. It's truly something special.

Also, the PC-Engine is home to a lot of great-looking original games, many of which I plan to play and subsequently talk about here. I want to start with Neutopia, which I've recently played to completion. It was a long time in coming. Too long, I'd say. I'd had my eye on the game since 2015, when I watched Youtuber Brisulph play through it. Finally I was able to get around to it--and at a good time, too; it was right at the start of spring, which as a trusted Steam friend correctly stated is when PC-Engine games are best experienced--when the atmosphere is such that their nostalgically drenched emanations are able to combine with and texture the revitalizing spring air and do so in a way that causes you to become filled with feelings of bliss as you play. It's when their fruits taste the sweetest.

Now, sure--Neutopia barely qualifies as an "original" title. In truth, it's a rather shameless Zelda clone. "But so what?" I say. Nintendo and Hudson Soft were always on friendly terms, even when their respective consoles were competing in the market. I'm sure that there was no malice intended; it was simply a matter of Hudson's developers being so filled with affection for one of gaming's all-time greatest works that they simply had to pay it homage with their own loving interpretation. They sought to rekindle its flame--take what was growing old and make it feel new again.

That, to me, was the appeal of Neutopia: It was offering me the chance to experience The Legend of Zelda again for the first time, albeit in a slightly altered form. I mean, that's the type of opportunity I dream about. There was no way I was going to pass it up.

"So was it actually able to meet that expectation?" you ask. "Was it just like playing The Legend of Zelda for the first time?!"

Well, let me tell you what it's like.

Be warned that I'm going to be analyzing Neutopia almost entirely through the lens of The Legend of Zelda, whose influence looms ever-large. This, I feel, is the natural course to take, since Neutopia's near-1-to-1 replication of Zelda's core elements makes it impossible to treat it as a standalone product. The connections simply can't be ignored.

Its story, for instance, is basically Zelda's with some different names swapped in: It takes place in the peaceful and prosperous land of Neutopia, wherein people express their virtue by worshiping at the Sacred Shrine. At least, that's how life was until one fateful night, when, as the townspeople slept, the evil demon Dirth (our Ganon analog) descended upon Neutopia and kidnapped its blessed Princess Aurora (Zelda) and stole eight precious medallions, whose collective represents the spirit of Neutopia's beloved forefathers--specifically their "wisdom, power and virtue" (sound familiar?); their essence is said to live on inside each and every person. Dirth, we're told, was their archenemy; he used his dark power to cast them into stone, thus eliminating what was a major obstacle to his plan for world domination. The only other being capable of unleashing the "forces of goodness" was the princess, and now she's gone, too.

Their options limited, the elders pin their hopes on a young man Jazeta, who they task with retrieving the medallions and rescuing the princess. They provide him direction by informing him that Dirth has hidden the medallions in eight separate labyrinths (of course). Heeding their words, he ventures out into the greater Neutopia with the intent of discovering the locations of these unholy crypts.

Neutopia's map structure and mode of travel are very similar to Zelda's: You move from screen to screen on what's essentially a grid. Though, Neutopia's isn't a single, continuous world; it's instead segmented into four separate, self-contained areas, each of which consists of a varying number of screens. Successive areas are unlocked as you recover pairs of medallions. And this represents the most pronounced difference between the two games: Neutopia has a much more structured feel to it. You explore a given area until you've relieved it of its every valuable and then move on to the next. Really, the game provides little impetus to return to previously explored areas.

All the same, the hero can only travel about a screen on its x- and y-axes, which is to say that he can't move diagonally (he is able, however, to fire his lone projectile in all eight directions). That hero is Jazeta, our Link substitute. He's a rather generic-looking anime-style protagonist, his unremarkably rendered garb exhibiting none of the character of Link's green attire--that iconic, image-defining tunic and pointy-hat combo. He begins his adventure with base-level sword, armor and shield items, all of which will see a number of incremental upgrades as the game progresses. As in Zelda, swords strike at enemies that stand directly in front on him, and shields blocks certain types of projectiles when he's standing still; armor determines the current damage quotient.

Discovering an area's secrets is a matter of manipulating its environments in expected ways: pushing blocks, burning away bushes and other objects, and bombing through walls. Though, Neutopia alters the formula a bit by extending the normally labyrinth-exclusive kill-all-of-a-room's-enemies-to-trigger-an-event mechanic out into the overworld, which works to create an exponential increase in the number of possible secret-harboring locations.

The adventure's starting point is the Sacred Shrine, which functions as a hub wherein you can heal, save your game, and obtain a password (which I guess is useful if you're the type who becomes so emotionally attached to your save files that you can't bring yourself to delete them). Also, the shrine provides access to the game's three successive areas and even the final boss' crypt. You'll locate similar save points later on, though the keepers of such lack the ability to heal. If at any time you die, you'll be transported back to the last save point you accessed. You'll restart from there with 30% of your health meter filled, which you may or may not find to be inadequate depending upon where you are in the game. What's always of concern is the resulting hit to your wallet; death will cost you about 43% of your current money-total, which is a hefty amount in this, a game where you'll need to hold onto every bit of cash if you hope to afford its exorbitantly expensive items. The best solution: Don't die.

Easy, right?

You can access the inventory screen by pressing the Run button. It's of course very similar to Zelda's in terms of design and organization. The weapon section, found on the screen's left half, is split into two categories: selectable items and items whose effect is automatic. The screen's right half displays maps but only those of labyrinths (there are no overworld maps); displayed above and to the right are the labyrinth items currently in your possession (the Key, which opens the door to the boss' chamber, and the Crystal, which provides you the map). To the right of those is the Compass, which you receive from Sacred Shrine's priestess (an "old and wise woman") before you set off; whether you're exploring the overworld or a labyrinth, it points you toward the next logical destination; also, it emits an alerting tone whenever you're on a screen adjacent to the place you currently need to be (but only when you're on the inventory screen).

Along the way, you'll locate a number of bomb and potion shops whose goods vary in price depending upon where you are in the game. You can purchase these items using the money you've accrued during your enemy-slaying and secret-finding exploits. Bomb shops sell Boom Bombs, whose explosive blasts damage enemies and destroy certain walls (though, strangely, the explosions don't harm Jazeta); you can carry up to eight of them at the start. Potion shops sell potions that completely replenish your health meter. You can buy two of them at a time; for the purpose of saving inventory space, they stack (like in Zelda), the liquid's color changing to reflect the number of potions currently in your possession (green for one, red for two).

Vanquished enemies will sometimes leave behind money or other helpful items. Mostly they'll drop coins, which come in two forms: the silver coins are worth $10 apiece, and the gold ones $50. Other potential drops include Berries, which restore a single unit of health; a Sandglass, which temporarily freezes all onscreen enemies (think of it as a less-useful variant of Zelda's stopwatch); a Boom Bomb icon, which supplies you four such explosives; and the one-use Wing of Return, which when activated will instantly transport you back to your last save point.

Once we exit the Sacred Shrine, we'll be in the wilds of the Land Sphere, the game's first area. The Land Sphere is a naturally formed environment, its grassy fields divided by the surrounding woodland and stony outgrowths. It has the features of an island, the Land Sphere and its isolated masses fully encompassed by the sea. As do the game's other three areas, it measures in at 64 screens (8x8).

Neutopia is definitely an aesthetically pleasing game. Immediately it projects a certain aura; as I gauge its environments and absorb its vibe, I find that I'm filled with feelings of joy and wonderment. Tonally it's more vibrant and radiant than Zelda, but not so much that it forfeits the ability to portray a cursed world; it's lush and lively, yes, but tempered with a tertiary color-scheme whose shading imbues the game's landscapes with underlying feelings of desperation and despair. There's a lot of emotional resonance here.

Otherwise, the characters and environments are well-drawn and well-animated. Objects are given solid form and shape via some skillfully applied shading. And the implementing of separate planes--some decoratory and others fully explorable--works to the desired effect and provides the game's spaces a real sense of depth; this style of layering evokes images of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and gives us an idea of what a top-down Zelda sequel might have looked like had it came out near the end of the NES' life-cycle, when the console's technology had reached its zenith. It would have made for such a great intermediate step.

The main difference is that you can't hop down to a lower plane. No--moving between planes is a matter of climbing up and down ladders that connect them.

It's the little details that help the environments to develop their character. Here, in the Land Sphere, it's the molehills, stone carvings, and little ponds that provide them some important texture. There's always something interesting to look at. Neutopia, you'll notice, never wants you to feel as though it's flat or sterile.

The Land Sphere's musical theme has a heroic vibe to it. Its busy, complex bass arrangements work hard to invigorate you--to fill you with energy and keep your spirits high. It's not as powerful a piece as Zelda's main theme, which has an almost-mystical quality to it, but its nonetheless intoxicating, its energy such that it succeeds in keeping you immersed and engaged. Also, its uplifting nature contributes to the formation of the game's charming vibe; when I listen to it, I think, "Man--it's good to be able to play video games!"

When it comes to enemy design, Neutopia sticks closely to the script. Its minor enemies are grouped into very predictable classes, and they behave exactly as you'd expect: They move about aimlessly and randomly toss/fire their projectiles (if they're armed with such). The game attempts to distract you from its plagiaristic ways by constantly introducing new variants of these enemies, each with a distinguishing quirk, even if minor. To best communicate how these enemies function, I'm going to be listing them in accordance with Zelda's established enemy classes (the manual names only 16 of them, so the majority of the identifying labels will be purely descriptive; also, the manual's images are so vaguely rendered that I might not be able to match them up, my only option, again, to rely mainly on descriptive labeling).

As for what you'll encounter in the Land Sphere:
  • Octorok types: Slimes and Scorpions.
  • Moblin types: spear-throwing Mad Dogs.
  • Peahat types: Sojo Flies.
  • Zora types: Sea Balloons.
  • Tektite types: Froggers.
  • Leever types: Sandies.
  • Armos types: Blue Fighters and Lizard Knights.
As you engage these enemies, it'll quickly become apparent that Neutopia has some very troubling hit-detection issues. They're especially jarring if you've been weaned on Zelda. The first is an issue of the sword's seemingly indeterminable range: In Zelda, the sword's hitbox is equal in size to Link (12x16 pixels), which works to create a visual frame of reference for what its attack-range is; Jazeta's sprite is 66% larger in height, yet his sword's sprite is approximately the same size as Link's, which means that it provides cover only to his lower half. This leads to many instances where you attempt to strike an enemy that's observably right in front of you but miss because it was more directly in line with Jazeta's upper body; the result of this miscalculation will likely be the enemy colliding with his or chest and knocking him back.

Also, Jazeta's hitbox extends beyond his observable frame by about 10%, in all directions. So there will be times when you collide with an enemy even though it appeared that the two of you were several pixels apart. This can become a major issue when you're dealing with enemies who like to approach Jazeta from weird angles. You'll have to remember what game you're playing--make sure that ol' Zelda muscle memory doesn't take over whenever your attention lapses. Failure to do so can result in a quick demise.

The developers knew that the sword's range was inefficient, which is why their game so relentlessly pushes you in the direction of your first major selectable item: the Fire Rod, your one and only long-range option. It allows Jazeta to fire boomerang-like fireballs--two in succession and with the ability to fire them in alternate directions. It functions similarly to Zelda's candle items in that it can burn away bushes (or other similarly purposed objects) to reveal secret stairways. In a game where it's a constant struggle to get a feel for the main weapon's hitbox, an item with its range, usability and effectiveness proves invaluable. It's sure to replace the sword as your main weapon the moment you obtain it. What's even better is that its destructibility and damage-potential increase as your health meter extends; in time it'll become an instrument of mass destruction! (Note that Jazeta is immune to the rod's flames, so you don't have to worry about accidentally engulfing yourself in the fiery spew as you go about torching the place.)

The Land Sphere's other major item is the Book of Revival, which we receive almost immediately after leaving the Sacred Shrine. It's bestowed upon us by an old man who serves as our "It's dangerous to go alone!" analog. Otherwise, you'll want to do some bush-burning near the map's top-right portion; there you'll find an old man who will boost your vitality--add one extra unit to your health meter (these old chaps are basically our "Take any one you want" analogs).

In fact, many screens hold secrets, so you should make liberal use of the Fire Rod. Also, during any first visit to a screen, you should make sure to kill all of the enemies lurking about its space. There's a chance that doing so will reveal a hidden staircase. The uncovered secret place will always be someone's abode. The reclusive inhabitants found within these residences will help you in different ways; they're known to give you advice, heal your wounds, supply you some extra funds, or increase your health or item capacity. Abandoned domiciles are usually home to juicier rewards like free potions and weapon upgrades.

The point is that you should burn everything in sight. Go nuts, I say.

Neutopia's labyrinths are directly in the style of Zelda's dungeons. They're structured similarly, and they incorporate all of the same mechanics. Though, Neutopia's lack any kind of real distinguishing characteristics; whereas each Zelda dungeon features a starkly distinctive palette-scheme, Neutopia's come in slightly brighter or lighter shades; if I were playing a hack wherein the the labyrinths were switched around, I probably wouldn't even notice the change. The labyrinth theme is melancholy in tone, its resonance inviting reflection and a merely cautious approach to traversal, whereas Zelda's is a haunting, uneasy tune that does well to keep you feeling on edge--as if even empty rooms are filled with unseen dangers. It's a fine piece, but again--it just doesn't have the same power as its inspiration's.

Navigation works the same way: You traverse through rooms that are filled with enemies and other dangers. Sometimes you'll have to clear a room of enemies before a door will open or before a secret stairway will appear; other times you'll have defeat all of the enemies and then push a block to open the way forward. Along the way you'll find a crystal, which acts as a map, and the key that'll allow you to unlock the door leading the boss' chamber (it's basically the Big Key from A Link to the Past). The first couple of labyrinths are simple as straightforward, as you'd expect.

Labyrinths of course feature exclusive enemy types, all of which are very reminiscent of those you remember from Zelda. Here's how Labyrinth 1's enemies fit into the established classes:
  • Keese types: small Red Bats and Giant Blue Bats.
  • Zol types: hopping Pink Slimes; tentacled Blobs; and six-legged, pincered Dormers.
  • Stalfos types: Gyrudes and Bull Skeletons.
  • Goriya types: Wolfmen.
  • Rope types: Snakes.
Neutopia even has those fireball-spewing statues who ceaselessly bombard you as you struggle to clear the room of enemies.

Each labyrinth contains a major item. Here, in Labyrinth 1, it's the Bronze Armor, which will be of great use to you in the following area.

Our boss is a large-but-slow-moving dragon (I mean, a Zelda-style game's gotta have a dragon as its first dungeon boss; it's tradition!). As it stalks Jazeta, it spews four fireballs in succession, each traveling toward his current position. Though, they're pretty easy to dodge. Also, the dragon isn't a terribly threatening foe; all you have to do is crowd it into a corner and continue to string together sword-strikes or Flame Rod blasts, backing off regularly in anticipation of his next fireball spew. After finishing him off, you'll retrieve the first medallion; thereafter you'll be transported back to the Sacred Shrine, where the old woman will reward you further by increasing your health meter by one unit.

Labyrinths located in the same area contain identical enemy casts, so Labyrinth 2 has nothing new for us on that front (save for more-troublesome enemy groupings). However, it does introduce one of the most obnoxious traps in adventure-game history: inconspicuous-looking blocks that suddenly stab at you as you approach them. Each of a stabbing block's four sides thrusts a blade, so they can get you from any direction. And since it's never clear which ones are rigged, you have to put to use your years of gaming knowledge and cleverly guess as to where a mischievous level designer would likely place such a block. In rooms that are filled with blocks, it's best to move about cautiously; if you suspect that a block is rigged, approach it slowly, bait out the blades, and then zip by when the blades retract. If only I'd take my own advice, I wouldn't be walking into these things constantly. I really do despise them.

Labyrinth 2 also introduces wall-bombing as a means of advancement. It's required that you do: You can't reach the boss without bombing your way through a certain wall on the Labyrinth's left side. On the way there, you might want to grab the Bronze Sword, the Labyrinth's major prize; no bombing is required to access the room where it's being guarded.

The boss is a metallic golem. It lumbers about for a couple of seconds and then suddenly breaks apart into eight pieces, seven of which blast off the screen in a spreadshot. What remains is its core--a red orb--which is the only part of the Golem that is susceptible to strikes. You have about two seconds to get in as many shots as you can before the Golem reconstitutes. If you obtained the Bronze Sword, it shouldn't take too long to kill Golem. Do so and retrieve the second medallion.

When the Land Sphere's two medallions are placed into the carved niches on the Sacred Shrine's left side, a magical transport to the next area will appear within the space between them.

That transport is a stairway that brings us to the Subterranean Sphere, which I'd describe as a crystal mine whose magma-carved terrain rests above an encompassing pool of lava. Sprouting crystal shards form its natural obstacles. This area is split into two halves, its northern cliff the only bridge between them; each side is home to a labyrinth. Here you'll be met by faster and more-aggressive enemies, all of which inflict greater damage (so finding armor upgrades is an imperative).

The area's musical theme is gloomy in tone, its slow tempo and melancholic strains conspiring to evoke feelings of despondency. Though, the piece also has a tinge of mystery to it--an underlying vibe that piques your curious spirit and drives you to press forward. The composer, Tomostune Maeno, shows the he knows how to touch your soul. All of his compositions exhibit this quality; each has the ability to paint a mental picture--to evoke certain emotions. He did some pretty stellar work here.

The enemy roundup goes something like this:
  • Octorok types: diving Worms; Mimics that disguise themselves as rocks; and Green Flames that cycle between a rising and withering state.
  • Moblin types: rock-throwing Imps, anthropomorphic Ants, and arrow-firing Pig Creatures (flat-out Moblin clones).
  • Peahat types: Fruit Flies.
  • Zora types: Hothead-like Flame Creatures.
If you managed to grab the health upgrade in the Land Sphere, you'll now have enough vitality to enhance the Fire Rod's effect. In its newly augmented state, the Fire Rod will now spread waves of flame that travel four tiles in length. These flames can strike enemies multiple times as they pass through them. Used to its full potential, the Fire Rod will allow you to build walls of impenetrable flame. Further trumping the previous boomerang-like fireballs, these flames can be fired three in succession and in alternate directions. So if hadn't before, the Fire Rod will now most definitely become your preferred attack option. But be aware that there's an unfortunate quirk attached: The Fire Rod's power-level is determined by the current status of your health meter and not the number of units; so as your health depletes, the rod's power regresses, its fiery attack reverting back to an earlier form.

There are two major items hidden here: The first is a jar of Moonbeam Moss whose contained substance has the power to illuminate dark rooms both in the overworld and in labyrinths (so you can stop wondering why the Fire Rod is lacking for what you would think is an essential feature of Zelda-candle imitation). The other item is the Rainbow Drop, an automatically laid bridge that is functionally identical to Zelda's ladder; you can use it to cross over one-block gaps and water tiles. You won't be able to advance through Labyrinth 4 without it.

Concealed within the area's lower-left corner is the abode of an old man who will increase your bomb capacity by four. This is the first of three such upgrades (take that, Zelda, with your "two").

Helpful tip: If ever a fireball-spamming Zora-type enemy is seriously hampering your ability to deal with a screen's collection of grounded baddies, kill one of the latter and then exit and reenter the screen. For reasons I'm too computer illiterate to explain, the game will have replaced the Zora-type enemy with another land-type.

Also, I have to mention one of the game's more annoying quirks: The Fire Rod's flames can't penetrate dropped items, whose presence limits your ability to engage with the enemies surrounding them. If currently an enemy and, say, a coin are overlapping, the latter will shield the enemy from incoming flames and leave a prone Jazeta open to contact-damage.

Another issue is that it soon becomes difficult to locate bomb and potion shops. When almost every screen is hiding a secret staircase, it lowers your chances of remembering which of those in particular contain the item shops. Neutopia, I'd say, is a little too populous; there doesn't need to be that many people. Also, it's normal that the process of accessing these shops entails the use of bombs, which in some places are rarely dropped. Eventually it reaches a point where it becomes easier and more convenient to travel back to the Land Sphere, whose shops are within close proximity to the area's starting point; moreover, it's worth taking this measure because the game's earlier shops sell bombs and potions at a much cheaper price.

Oh, and there's ringing. Lots of it. You know what I'm talkin' about: When your health gets really low, the game signals this to you by emitting an unending alarm sound, which turns out to be as grating as Zelda's incessant beeping. Its harshness is such that you'll want to transport back to the Sacred Shrine, even if doing so is a major inconvenience, just to make the ringing stop.

Labyrinth 3 introduces pitch-black rooms whose darkness conceals their obstructive elements; we can illuminate them with our Moonbeam Moss.

And your enemy classification:
  • Zol types: Beetles; and Slimes that are encased in protective bubbles (when free of their transparent shielding, they move more quickly).
  • Vire types: diving Gels.
  • Goriya types: poison-spewing Myconids.
  • Darknet types: armored anthropomorphic Ants and Lizard Knights.
  • Wizzrobe types: phasing Ghostcloths (which are immune to fire) and Reapers.
Our major prize is the Bronze Shield, which we can put to good use when we tangle with labyrinth's two bosses. The guardians in question are the Twin Gargoyles, each of which flies about the room and stops every 5 seconds to release a 5-dagger spreadshot. Normally they attack in sync, but you can disturb this pattern by striking a single gargoyle right at the moment it's about to unleash its dagger attack; this will allow you to more conveniently isolate one of them. Whatever your strategy, you'll want to use your new shield to block their daggers.

Defeat the winged duo to retrieve the third medallion.

You won't be able to advance past Labyrinth 4's first room if you don't possess the Rainbow Drop. Really, the whole of Labyrinth 4 requires heavy use of this item. You can also employ clever use of it to gain a tactical advantage over enemies; as was possible in Zelda, you can use the bridge to position yourself on top of normally untraversable tiles and cheaply pick off the enemies, who are of course unable to enter those spaces.

Labyrinth 4 introduces two new dangers: (1) Snake-like chains that gravitate toward you, their bodies stretching and twisting about as they attempt to crash into you; though, they're bolted in place, so their attack range is limited. And (2) specially marked tiles that when traveled upon trigger the room's arrow-firing devices, all of which are resting behind the visible embrasures.

Our major prize, this time, is the Steel Armor.

The labyrinth's boss is a pincered centipede. Its mode of attack is to stalk you and ultimately use its large frame to corner you and chain together several hits. Its only weak point is its tail, approaching which is a matter of creating space and cycling around the centipede when the opening appears. Striking any of its individual sections will cause it to temporarily break off and fly back; while this doesn't deter the centipede, the disconnected section will be effectively diverted, its focus now limited to returning to the host; doing this gives you easier access to the tail. Though, honestly, this fight isn't particularly well designed; you can just as easily crowd the centipede into a wall or corner and spam sword-strikes until it's dead.

Once the centipede is eliminated, the fourth medallion will be yours.

Now that you've retrieved both of the Subterranean Sphere's medallions, you can place them in the Sacred Shrine's rightmost carved niches and open the way to the next area.

The next transport takes us to the Sea Sphere, a seaside sanctuary around which water is constantly streaming. Stony pillars divide its traversable spaces. Less obtrusive are the ceremonial totems whose presence is meant to suggest to us that this is a place of spirituality (the denizens confirm as much when you speak to them). Its labyrinths stand in the area's upper- and lower-left corners.

The Sea Sphere's spirited, uptempo musical theme has a heroic vibe to it. Its resonance works to fill you with determination at a time when the level of danger has spiked considerably. It wants you to think, "The enemies are tougher and more aggressive than ever, yes, but I'm up for the challenge!"

Here's what you'll be dealing with:
  • Octorok types: Casseopaie with retractable tentacles; Caterpillars; jumping Fuzzballs; hopping Crabs; and cone-shelled Octopi.
  • Moblin types: spear-throwing Mermen.
  • Peathat types: Weevils.
  • Zora types: Fishmen.
  • Armos types: rushing Knights.
The overworld houses two major items: There's the Steel Shield, which can be found hidden amid the clustered islands in the area's lower-middle portion; you'll have to use the Rainbow Drop to move between them and spiral around to the right-most destructible cave-entrance, behind which it's being held. The other prize is a pair of Falcon Boots, which permanently increase your movement-speed; these are located near the area's northern cliff--on the left side of the streams' head.

Otherwise, you can pick up the second bomb-capacity upgrade in the area's upper-right portion. The old man's domain rests beneath the screen's lone pillar.

Here, at the game's mid-point, the enemies grow stingier than ever; they'll very rarely drop useful items like bombs or berries. So you might have no choice but to rely on the commercially driven bomb and potion salesmen--that's if you have enough money and can remember where their abodes are hidden. Commit their locations to memory if you can; otherwise, you'll give rise to a scenario wherein you'll to have to search everywhere to find them--check under every object and bomb every cave wall and in the process frustrate yourself and exhaust your bomb supply. This isn't even to mention the fact that you get locked into an unnecessarily long three-second entry animation every time you enter someone's abode, which after twenty or so empty visits starts to test the limits of your patience.

Labyrinth 5 is fairly straightforward, all of its important items placed in rooms that are found while traveling along an obvious path. The only mystery is its boss location, finding which entails some required wall-bombing.

We'll meet resistance from the following:
  • Zol types: Tadpoles, transparent Slugs, Shellfish, and Meiolania Skeletons (horned turtles that resemble Dodongos in appearance and animation).
  • Vire types: hopping Issus.
  • Wizzrobe types: spinning, spell-firing Wizards (Wizzrobes, basically); black Specters; and dagger-wielding Ghosts.
The labyrinth's easily procured prize is the Silver Sword, whose superior strength will give us a better chance against the boss.

Our boss is a giant horned crab. It slowly moves back and forth along the screen's top portion and charges down toward you when you pass directly beneath it--but only if you're not in motion along a horizontal axis at the time. It'll pause intermittently to spew three bubbles in succession; occasionally some of them will adhere to the surface, forming damaging obstacles. The crab is impervious to attack until it spews these bubbles, at which point its now-open mouth becomes vulnerable to attack. It can be a long, protracted fight if you don't how to approach it. What's aggravating about it is that the crab's weak point is so centered that it proves exceedingly difficult to land a strike on it without bumping into its extended, buffering outer frame. Having a pair of potions in your inventory becomes a must.

Declaw the beast to retrieve another medallion.

Labyrinth 6 is considerably large, and its rooms are packed with nasty combinations of the aforementioned ghost- and wizard-type enemies. Some rooms are so crowded that it's impossible not to take hits as you desperately shift about in an attempt to dodge the near-inescapable enemy fire. The Wizzrobe clones, in particular, will become the bane of your existence; they hit so hard and take up so much space that you'll be overcome with a sense of dread whenever you enter a room and see even one of them lurking about. Obtaining the labyrinth's major item, the Strongest Armor, might help to reduce the pain, though only by a little.

The labyrinth's boss is a large three-headed turtle skeleton. The victory condition is the destruction of its three bony heads. Whenever you strike one of the heads, it'll break off from the turtle's body and rebound about the room for a couple of seconds, Gleeok-style, before reattaching itself to the turtle, which all the while will continue to stalk Jazeta. It's best to deal with the heads one at a time, lest things will start to get chaotic; the amount of traversable space is already limited, so you don't need three of those bony suckers concurrently clogging up your escape routes.

Once all three heads are destroyed, the body will explode. The sixth medallion will then be yours.

When you return the Sea Sphere's medallions to the Sacred Shrine--specifically to the carved niches located at its center point--the way to the final area will be opened.

Our final area is the Sky Sphere, which floats above the clouds. It was once considered a holy place--a virtual heaven on earth; it's where the spiritually gifted leaders lived before Dirth turned cast them into stone and conquered the land. He now occupies their former temple, which is located in the area's bottom-left portion, in an isolated map section that can only be accessed via a transport (a staircase found in the area's middle-right portion).

The Sky Sphere is structured like a segmented castle; each of its sections is comprised of subjacent baileys, with their marble surfaces, and elevated battlements and walkways. Crystal pillars dot the landscape, their presence serving to remind us that we're traversing upon holy ground (so maybe say a prayer or two before attempting to burn them to the ground; it's just good etiquette, really).

The area's musical theme is fast in tempo and serious in tone. It tells us that now is the time to steel ourselves, for we're fast approaching the final showdown.

As this point, your vitality is such that the Fire Rod has reached its peak potency; its strength is maxed out, and its flames now travel the entire length of the screen. This type of range and coverage makes for good crowd control an area whose rooms are packed with annoying, hyper-aggressive enemies. It really is a godsend.

The overworld contains one major item: the Strongest Sword, which is resting in a secluded temple in the area's lower-left corner; accessing this islet requires ringing the Bell of the Sky (found in Labyrinth 8) while standing atop a sacred cliff in the area's lower-right corner, doing which will open up the magical transport that leads to it. Otherwise, we can grab bomb-capacity and vitality upgrades in the the sphere's upper and lower regions, respectively.

Not one to leave you guessing, the game becomes adamant about the fact that only a warrior armed with three specific items (the Strongest Sword, the Strongest Armor and the Strongest Shield) can hope to defeat Dirth. I'm not joking: The sphere's citizens absolutely beat you over the head with this message. They really want you to know this. Meanwhile, all I want is for any of them to sell me bombs.

As for our enemy selection:
  • Octorock types: blue Slimes.
  • Moblin types: winged Birdmen and anthropomorphic Mosquitoes.
  • Peahat types: angry Birds.
  • Zora types: evil Clouds.
  • Tektite types: Grasshoppers and large purple horned Blobs.
  • Armos types: robed Goat Sorcerer (though, they behave more like an outdoor Wizzrobe-type).
The Sky Sphere's two labyrinths are, not surprisingly, the game's toughest, most complexly arranged. Labyrinth 7, for instance, is a giant maze wherein you're forced to bomb through walls to find the necessary transports. In the process, you might exhaust your bomb supply two or three times over; and the enemies are so stingy that obtaining more bombs will probably require leaving the labyrinth and visiting a bomb shop. Also, since there are a considerable number of transports, it becomes difficult to keep track of which stairway leads where. More than anything else, your patience will be tested here.

Helping to make your life difficult is the following enemy selection:
  • Keese types: enflamed Spirts and fireball-spitting Bats.
  • Zol types: googly-eyed, beaked Spiders (I mean, I guess; these creatures are becoming so weird-looking that I can't even explain what I'm seeing anymore) and transforming Ghost Blobs.
  • Vire types: jumping winged Snakes.
  • Gibdo types: Mummies.
  • Armors types: anthropomorphic Beetles and armored Skeletons.
The labyrinth's big prize is the Strongest Shield, whose obtention, if you haven't heard, is required.

The boss is a shapeshifting crystalline knight who is constantly surrounded by six oscillating gems. Predominantly, the knight floats about and attempts to inflict contact-damage. Though, it'll intermittently cease its movement and stand upright before firing a stream of energy blasts in Jazeta's direction; it's vulnerable to attack only during this period. There's nothing terribly difficult about this fight, though those hit-detection issues will surely rear their head if you play it too aggressively. The key is to pick your spots and avoid getting cornered.

Shatter the knight to pieces and grab your seventh medallion.

As you travel about the sphere's isolated section, you'll be informed that Dirth has been tracking your progress and in response has moved the princess to Climactic Castle--his secret crypt in the North Pole. This is obviously setting up an A Link to the Past-style battle-scenario. Still, we'll have to confront him in Labyrinth 8 and retrieve that last medallion. We'll do this armed with the knowledge that he's a "master of illusion," a description that's surely foreshadowing future events.

Labyrinth 8 is the game's largest and most labyrinthine. Navigating it entails a whole lot of wall-bombing and transporting between its separate sections. It represents a pure test of endurance. You'll want to have at least thirteen units of health when you enter this place. It'll also be wise to have two potions on hand at all times.

As mentioned, this is where we'll find the Bell of the Sky, whose dinging opens the way to the Strongest Sword. Also, the chained-up old man in the labyrinth's upper-left corner will provide you another vitality increase.

When all of the labyrinth's mysteries have been solved, we'll finally come face to face with Dirth. And, really, his is a big face.

Well, actually, Dirth doesn't immediately reveal himself. Rather, all we see at first is a gold demon mask, within which he's concealed. During the battle, the mask will split open, at which point Dirth will show himself. That's how the battle is scripted: The mask hovers about the room, regularly emitting two cross-shaped projectiles, and briefly splits open to reveal Dirth, who releases an 8-directional shuriken spreadshot.

And man did this battle piss me off. I figured that the Fire Rod would be of no use, since the game kept insisting that the Strongest Sword was the only weapon that could pierce Dirth's defenses. The problem is that it takes about fifty hits to defeat him with the sword, which makes for a ridiculously long battle; and that's assuming that you can survive for more than a minute--that you'll be lucky enough to consistently evade Dirth's hard-hitting shuriken spreadshot, whose size and scope is such that it's almost impossible to cut through it and successfully land a hit within the two-second window during which Dirth appears.

But it turns out that the Fire Rod's flames can damage him. In fact, if your health is such that it can spew flame-waves, this battle can become trivially easy, since Dirth becomes helplessly trapped in the flames' net. However, if you don't have a fully powered Fire Rod, or if your health drops so low that the rod's power regresses, you're pretty much screwed. At that point, even two potions won't be enough. This is what I learned over the course of nine or ten battles, commencing any of which required that I retread part of the Sky Sphere and a big portion of the labyrinth.

What a nightmare.

However, we learn that this wasn't the real Dirth. What we defeated was actually an "image" of Dirth--a mere projection. The real Dirth is hiding out at the North Pole, keeping a watchful eye over the princess. Conveniently the Sacred Shrine has a "magic square" that will "beam" us directly to Dirth's chamber in Climatic Castle.

When we arrive before Dirth, he tells us that he can't be defeated because he represents a spirit of darkness that lives in the hearts of all men (the same spiel we're always hearing from Ganon, Dracula and the like)! It's up to us to prove him wrong.

Dirth's is a fairly simple pattern: Following his initial attack--wherein he conjures eight flames, all of which circle about before darting toward Jazeta--he begins to phase in and out of view; each time he reappears, he does so alongside an incorporeal copy of himself--a decoy whose image fades seconds later. Your objective is to quickly locate and strike the real Dirth, who after phasing in will execute the aforementioned flame attack. It's not a difficult fight, really: You can easily dodge his fireballs by keeping your distance and continuing to move vertically, since they always dart in horizontally. Also, you'll always want to strike Dirth from the side, doing which knocks him far back, into the room's horizontal boundaries, and gives you more time to observe and react to the fireball attack. Shorten the battle by sneaking in two hits when you can.

You have to strike Dirth 30 times to defeat him. Once the final blow has been landed, he'll be purged from Neutopia and his cold grip over the citizenry will be broken. Most importantly, the princess will be free from bondage.

Upon escaping her cell, the princess runs over to Jazeta and expresses how grateful she is. She's so impressed with his act of bravery that she offers him her eternal love. Following a short dialogue scene, the two of them then return to the Sacred Shrine, where the citizens of Neutopia are waiting for them--waiting to celebrate their return. The old lady confirms that Dirth has indeed been eradicated--that evil has been replaced by the power and force of good and people's hearts are again filled with kindness and the charity of brotherhood. Dirth's reign was simply a reminder of what temptation can breed. But in the end, good will triumph over evil.

Somethin' like that.

We then cut to the credits sequence, which features interspersed action scenes.

Closing Thoughts

I come out of the experience with mixed feelings. Neutopia is certainly a very good action-adventure game, and I'm happy to have played it, but still I'm left feeling a bit disappointed. Quite honestly, I feel that it didn't reach its full potential. All of the pieces for a truly great Zelda clone were in place, yes, yet for a number of reasons they simply didn't come together to form an amazing whole.

In the first few hours, Neutopia was able to capture me with its entrancing radiance and sense of vivacity, but slowly its grip loosened as its mechanical shortcomings (particularly its highly unfavorable hit-detection) and misguided level-design elements (stabbing blocks plus too many instances where hordes of large, obnoxiously aggressively enemies are packed into too small a space) began to proliferate; all too often it came to exhibit the worst parts of a Zelda-style game. And whenever all such issues would surface concurrently, the game would become plain unenjoyable; in those instances, which were many, I'd be so frustrated by my inability to control the action that I'd do anything that I could to avoid combat completely.

Also, I'm disappointed by the rigid linearity of its overworld design. Its areas are merely annular rather than labyrinthine. No matter where you are, you're never far from the intended path. As a result, there's never a time when you feel like you're exploring a wondrously large, expansive world--never a time when you come to know the exhilaration of becoming hopelessly lost within dangerous territory--in a section of the map in which you're not sure you're supposed to be. There's no sense of enormity. Not a single one of Neutopia's spheres conveys to you that its is a vast, sweeping landscape whose underlying secrets will reveal themselves to you only after you've spent countless hours braving its wilds and acquiring the wisdom necessary to solve its many puzzles; it's not a place that'll weave itself into the fabric of your being--inevitably become a part of you--after you've immersed yourself in it for a long period of time.

This is where the game would have been better served to more closely follow the blueprint. If it was going to go this far to copy the Zelda formula, it should have gone all the way; it should have provided a large, continuous world in which you could spend days blissfully exploring and discovering. Instead it seems intent on rushing you through to the end. It doesn't want you to stop and look--to wonder about the setting and absorb its environmental ambiance. It doesn't want you to think about how it all connects (thus the existence of the compass, whose pointing and jingling further rob the environments of mystery). For that reason, Neutopia doesn't resonate as strongly as its inspiration.

Now, you might be thinking that some of these critiques are unfair--that mine is a case of judging a game based not on what it is but on what I was hoping it would be. And maybe you're right. But still I'd contend that I'm judging Neutopia based on the expectation Hudson was surely trying to create when its developers decided that they wanted to closely replicate the era's most popular adventure game and evoke images of it at every turn.

I'm just doin' what feels proper.

But don't be misled by my previous commentary: I still think that Neutopia has plenty of endearing qualities. It's got a wonderfully evocative aesthetic. Its soundtrack is fantastic. It exudes the most inspiriting of vibes. And on the whole, it plays pretty damn well. Even though its pieces don't come together perfectly, we're still left with the picture of a top-tier Zelda clone. It's a must-play for any PC-Engine owner.

I really enjoyed my time with Neutopia, so much so that I'd like to return to it in the future. (For certain I'll be playing its sequel.)

Above all, playing Neutopia reminds me of how unfortunate it is that I missed out on the PC-Engine, which has turned out to be a terrific little system. It's a shame, really, that Western countries didn't get the PC-Engine but instead a compromised, soulless version of it. Really, it doesn't even seem as though the TurboGrafx-16 and the PC-Engine are the same console. I put that on NEC USA, whose marketing team dropped the ball so very hard; as a result we missed out on what was an awesome scene. My younger self would have been blown away by the PC-Engine had it come to America in 1988.

Hell--I'm blown away by it now! More than any other, it's the system I'm most excited to explore!

It's great to finally be catching up on the PC-Engine. I've had a wonderful time exploring its library. What I've discovered is that it's loaded with hidden gems. And I can't wait to play each and every one of them!

Whenever its name comes up in conversation, I feel compelled to ask, "Is the PC-Engine the 'secret-best' system?" It may very well be.

I look forward to seeing how it continues to go about making that case.