Saturday, September 27, 2014

Rediscovered Classics: Alex Kidd in Miracle World (Sega Master System)

Yep--it's another one of my spontaneously created classifications. I'm calling it "Rediscovered Classics," which will be reserved for highly regarded games that I missed out on because I either didn't have access to them or was long-oblivious to their existence. I might create two or three more of these special designations, including the planned "Now Appraising" (or something similarly titled), wherein I'll rank my experiences with whatever new games I'm currently playing.

But this particular post is all about Alex Kidd in Miracle World, which for decades has been characterized by Sega's devout fanbase as an all-time classic and the showcase game for the Sega Master System. So how did it fare with yours truly?

Really, I don't have a great deal of history with the Master System. My friend Mike was the only kid I knew who had one, and he never purchased more than, say, seven or eight games for it (I remember him owning Space Harrier, Ghostbusters, and those three sports titles we always played--Great Baseball, Great Volleyball and Pro Wrestling). Mike was a Sega fan, but he was never so passionate about his console that he'd attempt to engage in anything resembling system wars; looking back, I wonder if that might be because he didn't own a showpiece title featuring an iconic character he could tout as being superior to Mario.

That's how it always went: Every fanbase that was loyal to a console or home-computer manufacturer would come to identify with its most active developer and christen its mascot character "our Mario." For TurboGrafx-16 owners, it was Bonk. The DOS crowd had Commander Keen. And Sega fans, I discovered much later, had grown attached to a little kung-fu monkey-boy long before their beloved company ever conceived of a speedy blue hedgehog. Since then, I've read countless written works about how Alex Kidd's much-cherished debut title, Alex Kidd in Miracle World, is comparable to Super Mario Bros. in how it looks, feels, and resonates. Also, in terms of its recognition and influence, they agree that Miracle World did for the Master System what Super Mario Bros. did for the NES. I can't say if it's all true or not, since I have no history with the game, but the glowing remembrance certainly worked to eventually pique my interest.

I'm not sure why the pot came to a boil on September 25th of 2014, but it just felt like the right time to finally give Alex Kidd's adventures a look. Here are my thoughts as I play through Miracle World:

Even from the get-go, Miracle World definitely has that early-console-game feel, which instantly speaks to me (there's nothing that can match the nostalgia-rich, moment-in-time vibe of these origin titles and how they differ from the second- and third generation software that could never capture their sense of simplicity). Its minimalist look, with the single-color blue sky and scattered clouds, does indeed remind me of Super Mario Bros. and does so more than superficially. The music is high-spirited catchy, too. It undoubtedly has an aura about it.

It's interesting that the first stage starts off moving vertically downward, which feels to me like an attempt to immediately differentiate the game from its all-horizontal rival. The implication is that Miracle World will be more about calculation than constant motion. In fact, it's a little jarring at first, since I very much want to speed along and jump head-first into blocks to shatter them; Alex instead has to carefully measure distances and break these star blocks by punching them from the side, which doesn't feel as intuitive, especially when the hit-detection routinely fails during jumping punch-attempts that are meant to carry me through floating blocks. One of the game's main mechanics shouldn't be so unreliable.

There's a definite start-stop feel to the action, which almost begs me to take unnecessary risks in an attempt to speed things up. I have to remember which game I'm playing.

The presence of a swimming section directly below seems to be Sega saying, "Hey, look--we've got almost everything Mario has in only our first stage!" The only difference is that Alex has the natural propensity to punch sea life in the face without need for fireballs, which would be something to brag about if the assortment of fishy creatures were any kind of threat. In fact, most enemies so far do nothing but simply patrol back and forth; the only reason I've suffered so many deaths is because I can't get a feel for enemy hit-boxes, and I keep accidentally crashing into them on punch-attempts. Even trying to get close enough to punch the largely harmless fish makes me feel uncomfortable (and having to actively resist Alex's constant upward buoyancy doesn't make things any more controllable).

It's taking me quite a while to get used to the controls in general, mainly because Alex Kidd is one slippery little fellow; he slides all over the place while running and most annoyingly at the conclusion of each jump, which you have to take into consideration before propelling yourself. I can tell right away that Miracle World is going to feature many unforgiving jumps that require a level of calculation and precision more nerve-wracking than anything I've seen in a Mario game.

Let me stress how enormously stupid it is to have boss battles that are won or lost according to the random outcomes of best-of-two matches (which is what they mean by "three games") of Rock-Paper-Scissors (called "Janken" in Miracle World's, untranslated from its Japanese etymology). Now, I've read that the bosses' decision-making is consistent and thus predictable (only if don't collect an item that is alleged to help Alex by giving him visual insight as to the enemy's thought-process), but that's not going to help me the first time through, nor could I imagine that all of these combinations will be easy to remember. This a great way to frustratingly dump lives when the slippery controls are already working to do that job.

I've failed several times in the vehicle stages because, well, I didn't realize that it was a good idea to purchase any means of transport; I had no idea that the vehicles were extremely helpful--that these stages were designed for their use--so I instead attempted to trek across them using standard run-and-jump tactics and soon came to the conclusion that the developers were out of their minds. Also, I wasn't collecting money bags, since doing so seemed pointless in light of my imminent death; I only started procuring money bags after I consulted Gamefaqs and discovered that I could continue for the price of $400 by pushing up eight times at the Game Over screen.

The vehicles of course make things a whole lot easier. The motorcycle in particular feels spiritually connected to the skateboarding in Wonder Boy (and Adventure Island by extension), which isn't surprising considering it's made by the same company. It also has that same lack of lead time, which almost demands that I move at a slower speed; a more meticulous strategy works fine for this debut stage, but it won't be of much use in those future swamp/spike-pit stages, where circular red blocks will be the least of my worries.

The vehicle stages supply Miracle World a surprising sense of gameplay diversity, which is impressive for a game made in 1986. In addition to motorcycles, I've traveled through the air in projectile-spewing peticopters (pedal-activated mini-helicopters) and sailed across ocean surfaces in a speedboat. The peticopter is the only one I'm actually able to retain stage-long, since it's more easily controlled and has the most lenient restrictions (don't smack its rotor blades into ceiling structures).

Miracle World suddenly gets ridiculously difficult, its castle areas sometimes requiring series of spot-on jumps that would be a cinch for Mario but aren't so much for slick-shoes Alex. At certain points, it almost starts to feel on par with Wonder Boy/Adventure Island (even featuring challenges that feel ripped out of them, like having to evade rotating flames while scrolling thunderclouds strike from above). The excessively long final stage in particular is near-rom-hack levels of brutal, with disappearing floors, deliberately cruel enemy placement, and a sequence where you have to swim through narrow, spike-lined passages that would make the electrical seaweed stage in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles seem like child's play if not for the gleaned knowledge that Alex can rest against downward-pointing spikes as long as you don't push up (which apparently you can't do in other versions of the game). This was an almost impenetrable obstacle, and I would have quit on the Miracle World had I not learned of the trick.

The final boss, Janken the Great has perhaps the game's most poorly defined hitbox (you can overlap some parts of him but not others), which led to my timid counter-assault of jumping meekly and repeatedly whiffing--this until I realized that I could crouch directly in front of him without getting hit by his projectiles. Until then, it was very much a guessing game, much like Miracle World's final challenge in which you have input a long code-sequence using the symbols embedded in the ground; if you failed to pick up a special tablet that reveals the correct order, which it does of course cryptically, it becomes a pure guess-a-thon. Oh, and stepping on a wrong block summons a grim reaper who can instantly kill you, which means that you'll be horribly screwed if you lack the necessary clairvoyance.

It all feels so random and uneven, which is my lasting impression of Miracle World. Let me count the ways: Seemingly fluctuating hit-boxes. Having to win games of Rock-Paper-Scissors to defeat bosses. A bull and a samurai. Water levels you can heedlessly swim over without ever needing to engage the enemies. A series of abbreviated late-game stages that have no flow or clear connection. And that final challenge, which if attempted while unprepared will wipe you out and nullify a half-hour's worth of effort.

I'm a little disappointed, really. I mean, I appreciate a lot of what Sega was able to achieve here--the game has great scope, charming aesthetics, good diversity of locales and vehicles, and some fun new ideas, like those rather-clever question-mark blocks that cycle between rings, grim reapers, and 1ups--but it has too many in the way of control and design flaws to be considered on par with a standard-bearer like Super Mario Bros., which is much more accessible. To compare them directly is silly beyond a sentiment like "This is Sega's Mario," which it very much is--just not like that. I like challenge in my games, but Miracle World has too much of the wrong kind.

It's likely that I'll return to it a few times in the future but not as zealously as I would other classics. Though, I'm glad I gave it a shot--becoming more intimately familiar with a rediscovered console and its exemplars and imbibing in their unexplored, disparate aesthetic qualities makes me feel more complete as an enthusiast. And Miracle World, for all it does wrong, absolutely earns high grades in the category of creating a wonderful 8-bit atmosphere.

So while Alex Kidd in Miracle World probably won't soon climb its way onto my favorite-games list, I have a great appreciation for what it is and look forward to experiencing future Alex Kidd titles.

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