“Careers are here and they’re gone. No matter how great we think we are, we’re nothing but the temples of Ozymandias – we’re ruins in the making.”
“The following is a contributor post by the Hopeful Sega Mage.”
Writing a review of Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle is like writing a eulogy for the career of Alex Kidd.
That might sound melodramatic, but that’s how I feel after playing Enchanted Castle and researching Alex Kidd. Looking back at this series, it’s surprising how fast Alex’s rise and fall was. In five short years, Alex went from unofficial Sega mascot to persona non grata. In an industry where franchises are driven into the ground, how did Alex fall by the wayside?
“Sega were planning on making a Dragon Ball game… I guess this happened long enough ago that it’s okay for me to talk about this! The project began as a Dragon Ball title, not as a direct competitor to Super Mario Bros.
But when we were told we could not use the Dragon Ball licence any more, we were forced to come up with our own ideas instead. For example, when it was Dragon Ball, Goku fought with his Power Pole, but we changed that to a punch attack. It was only after we came up with the plan to restart the project as Alex Kidd in Miracle World that we starting thinking about Mario, and looking for ways in which to differentiate the title from it.”
-Kotaro Hayashida, interview from The Untold History Of Japanese Game Developers by John Szczepaniak.
I never realised that Alex Kidd was the result of Sega having to restart another project. Now I think about it, it explains why Sega never seemed to go ‘all in’ on Alex Kidd as their mascot. While Sonic was a considered effort to take on Mario and to give Sega an edge in the 16-Bit console wars, Alex Kidd’s initial success might have taken Sega by surprise. However, with experienced Master System planner Kotaro Hayashida (Transbot, My Hero, Zillion) on board, 1986’s Alex Kidd in Miracle World was a stand out game for Sega, at a time when the Master System was struggling against the NES and Mario.
While Miracle World was a good attempt to compete with Nintendo’s plumber, it wasn’t quite up to the task. Personally I like Miracle World but I have to acknowledge that it could be frustrating in comparison to Super Mario Bros. The attempts to differentiate Miracle World from Super Mario Bros. didn’t work too well either – Hayashida admitted that the decision to switch the attack and jump buttons to avoid the comparison with Super Mario Bros. was a bad idea. Also, I know some people don’t like the Paper-Rock-Scissors boss battles either…I like them, but I can see how they wouldn’t be to everyone’s tastes.
Still, these issues could be ironed out for the sequel…right? Wrong. If anything, Sega developed more problems with the Alex Kidd series. While Nintendo went from strength to strength with the Super Mario Bros. series, Sega let Alex Kidd down with a run of poor to average games. Games that were not up to the quality of Miracle World or indeed any character considered a major IP for a developer.
First up was Alex Kidd: The Lost Stars, a platform game originally released in arcades in 1986 and ported to the Master System in 1988. I’ve never played Lost Stars, but I’ve not heard much positive feedback. The general feeling I get is that Lost Stars was too simple in comparison to Miracle World and somewhat of a step backwards. Another step backwards was 1987’s Alex Kidd: BMX Trial, an overhead racing game that could only be played with the Master System’s Paddle Controller. This oddity was only released in Japan and was quickly forgotten.
I wish I could forget the next game in the Alex Kidd series, Alex Kidd in Hi-Tech World. When Nintendo reformulated a game to make Super Mario Bros 2, they had the common sense to reformulate a decent game. Sega took obscure anime game Anmitsu Hime, threw Alex Kidd in and tarted the game up for Western audiences. The result was a game that alienated fans of Miracle World with a dreadful first level where Alex has to obtain pieces of a map by exploring the castle he lives in. By ‘explore the castle’, I mean wander around and answer trivia questions. Hi-Tech World did contain some platforming levels, but they were so poor in comparison to Miracle World that any players were probably left wondering why they bothered to complete that awful first stage.
With the release of the Sega Mega Drive in 1988, another entry in the Alex Kidd series was developed. Alex Kidd in Enchanted Castle was, in hindsight, a last ditch attempt to establish Alex as a strong mascot for Sega. Sega took no chances with Enchanted Castle – the story is a continuation of the plot from Miracle World, with no mention of the previous games in the series. A wise move in my opinion, given the confusing twists in the Alex Kidd canon from each of the different games in the series. Enchanted Castle also set out to emulate the gameplay of Miracle World, possibly an attempt to appeal to fans of Alex’s first game and perhaps persuade them to make the jump to the Mega Drive?
Normally, at this point of my reviews I ask the question of if the game I’m reviewing is any good…but I think you might know the answer to this one already. So, please stick around while I explain my issues with Enchanted Castle and why I think it was Alex’s only adventure on the Mega Drive.
Visuals – 4/10
Enchanted Castle isn’t an impressive looking game for a 16-Bit console. Sure, it’s an early Mega Drive game, but one of the Mega Drive’s selling points was arcade quality at home and from the off, graphics were the focus of it’s software. Compared to other early Mega Drive games like Space Harrier II, Enchanted Castle looks dated even for 1989.
I hesitate to say the Master System could have hosted Enchanted Castle‘s graphics, but there isn’t much of an improvement from Sega’s 8-bit machine. There is a lot of colour in Enchanted Castle, but visually it’s very basic. Alex himself is the visual highlight, his animation is quite charming and his sprite really stands out among Enchanted Castle‘s average enemies and workmanlike backdrops.
Audio – 4/10
I wasn’t too impressed with Enchanted Castle‘s music – there is nothing offensive in it’s soundtrack, but there are only a limited number of bouncy but basic tunes. There isn’t anything worthy of being part of a Mega Drive soundtrack – when you consider that Revenge of Shinobi came out in 1989, you can see how much Enchanted Castle is lagging behind in terms of audio quality. Even the 16-bit rendition of the Alex Kidd theme sounds a bit flat and lame.
The sound FXs aren’t anything to write home about either, they’re pretty forgettable. Again, nothing offensive but nothing that will leave any lasting impressions.
Gameplay – 3/10
Enchanted Castle‘s gameplay is it’s biggest issue. I can forgive weak graphics and gameplay if there is a great game underneath. However, Enchanted Castle is rife with issues that make it irritating to play. Not game breaking issues, but issues that will make the game feel like a grind.
Firstly, there’s Alex himself. Jumping is fairly awkward as he’s so slippery with his landing. Generally, Alex is really slippery – if you walk forward quickly then suddenly stop, Alex will slide forward before coming to a halt. This is a nuisance if you are trying to stay on a ledge and a pain if you are trying to stop before a pit.
Plus, Alex automatically does a flying kick when jumping diagonally…unless he doesn’t. It cam be a tiring process to judge and towards the end of the game, I was just avoiding using any flying attacks just to avoid the headache of whether Alex’s flying kick would work or not. I prefer the normal way of attacking foes in the air – yes I have to do more work in pressing an additional button, but at least I’m in control of the attack!
The collision detection feels fairly inconsistent too. Sometimes, you’ll jump near an enemy and die, despite having a bit of space between the sprites. Sometimes, the same jump will be fine. I found myself playing Enchanted Castle and deliberately accounting for the collision detection inaccuracies as I couldn’t trust the game. The sliding and flying kick issues really don’t help though…it’s possible to miss punching a foe and die as Alex is sliding instead of punching…
I think Enchanted Castle’s biggest flaw though is how shallow it is. There are shops and hidden sections across Enchanted Castle’s eleven levels, but none of them are essential for completing the game, nor are they worth the hassle of going out of your way to discover. The first ten levels are fairly short and straightforward – there is no need to try and gain the power ups when you can just charge through the levels. As long as you have enough lives, you don’t need anything else to beat Enchanted Castle. Truthfully, given how frustrating it can be keep Alex alive with the aforementioned gameplay issues, there is little incentive to explore. Anything than a rush to the end of the level seems foolish given how easily Alex can die. There is no energy bar so the slightest risk of death doesn’t seem worth jeopardizing your progress.
The last level deserves a special mention…it’s effectively half of the game and is full of traps and enemies. It’s a unique idea and it does make the last level feel like a big deal, which it always should be. However, the main difficulty comes from adapting Alex’s flaws to surviving the level and it quickly becomes a slog. I’m glad I knew about the length of the last level going in as it would have been a nightmare to experience that level cold!
Narrative – 2/10
The Alex Kidd series isn’t known for great plots and Enchanted Castle is no different. To call it a plot would be overstating it truthfully. Simply put, the story follows on from Miracle World with Alex looking for his long lost father King Thor. You’d be hard pressed to pick this story up from the game however – there is nothing in game to reinforce what Alex’s quest is, why it’s important and why I should care.
A special shout out to the ending too – I nearly threw my laptop across the room upon seeing it. I’m not going to spoil it (I’m sure you’re all going to play Enchanted Castle after reading my review) but I felt like it made my hard work (well, about an hour and a half) seem completely redundant. The ending was so blase about Alex’s quest that I literally just shook my head and shut the game down…
Replayability – 1/10
Enchanted Castle is pretty shallow and will probably be beaten by most players fairly handily. The only real challenge is the aforementioned nightmare of a last level and I personally feel the main reason it’s a challenge is due to Enchanted Castle’s unpredictable collision detection.
I can’t imagine anyone replaying Enchanted Castle after completing it initially. There isn’t really an incentive to come back to it. Hell, writing this review was my only incentive to keep playing. Enchanted Castle doesn’t have anything to inspire a repeat play – the levels are pretty forgettable bar the last one. There isn’t a great story to pull you in either, nor a two player mode. Unless someone was a big fan of Alex Kidd or had nostalgic feelings towards Enchanted Castle, there isn’t really a reason to play it more than once.
Accessibility – 6/10
Given the simplicity of it’s levels, Enchanted Castle isn’t too hard for a new player to involve themselves with. However, I think Enchanted Castle‘s flaws and lack of clarity will push most gamers away. It’s not good enough of a game for players to tolerate it’s flaws – there are many better platformers available, especially in 2019.
Enchanted Castle is very easy to get hold of, both digitally and in cartridge format. It’s a fairly common game and it’s a game that Sega always release digitally every generation. You can pick it up on Steam for a few quid or on any Sega compilations over the past ten years.
Uniqueness – 1/10
There isn’t anything unique about Enchanted Castle – it’s main inspiration is Miracle World. There are two problems with that. Firstly, Enchanted Castle seems to mess up the features it takes from Miracle World, such as using the Rock-Scissor-Paper game in shops as well as boss battles. This means the feature is irrelevant and overdone.
Secondly, Miracle World’s inspiration was Super Mario Bros, so Enchanted Castle comes across as a weak Mario clone. Mario clones were pretty common during the eighties and nineties and there are much better ones than Enchanted Castle.
Personal Grade – 3/10
I think you may have gathered that I don’t like Enchanted Castle. Based on my experience of the Alex Kidd games, I’d consider Enchanted Castle to be the worst I’ve played. I think it’s because Enchanted Castle seems to be a compilation of all the worst features of the Alex Kidd series. The basic gameplay of Lost Stars, the bad platforming of Hi-Tech World, the frustration of Miracle World…Enchanted Castle has so much wrong with it’s gameplay and mechanics that I can’t enjoy it. It’s not a broken game, it’s just horribly flawed.
That seemed to be the consensus when Enchanted Castle was released too. After the failure of Enchanted Castle, Alex was shunted back to the Master System for one last game, 1990’s Alex Kidd in Shinobi World. Shinobi World is actually a decent game, but again it wasn’t originally an Alex Kidd game – Sega simply replaced their Shinobi Kid character with Alex with the hope of selling more copies.
Shinobi World was the end of Alex Kidd and bar a few cameos since, he hasn’t been seen since. There has been the recent Miracle World 2 game made by fans of the original, but nothing from Sega themselves. I personally think that’s a shame, as Alex was a character with some good will (thanks to Miracle World) as well as being recognizable to those who grew up loving the Master System in Europe and Australia.
Sadly, you can use Alex Kidd as a blueprint for Sega’s struggles with Sonic…an exciting start, followed by a deep decline in the series. I actually read the Well-Red Mage’s Sonic the Hedgehog review while finishing up this review and I feel he makes a good point. Sega, as a developer, struggle with maintaining the success of their IP’s. They’ve developed some great games over the years, but ultimately the franchises fade away as Sega struggle to develop their ideas any further. Compare that to Nintendo, who have seen franchises run for decades and evolve across new hardware. It’s quite a stark reminder of why Nintendo succeeded as console developers and Sega didn’t. Alex Kidd may be a footnote in Sega’s history but in a way, he was the first hint of their eventual decline.
Aggregated Score: 3.0
The Hopeful Sega Mage is a Sega obsessive who shouldn’t be approached by members of the public. However, he can be found on Twitter at @carrythegary and here at The Well-Red Mage, if you wish to discuss Japanese Mega Drive artwork and the greatness of Altered Beast.
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Categories: Game Review