Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle
Alex Kidd got a raw deal. He’s got huge ears — but he managed to overcome them and retain some semblance of the cuteness that was necessary to keep his job as Sega Master System mascot. His first adventure, Alex Kidd in Miracle World, was brilliant, and solidified his role of superstar. But Alex quickly fell from grace as an overly simplistic, unrelated sequel followed his fledgling foray into 2D platformer cuteness. Things went from bad to worse for the Kidd faithful, when the horrid Alex Kidd in Hi-Tech World made its way to store shelves. And stayed there. A BMX spin-off racing game put the youngster to further shame, so it’s a wonder he escaped the pitfalls of drug abuse, alcoholism and clinical depression, all afflictions that embrace so many child stars in a tenacious grip of despair.
Sega decided to revive their fallen hero to take one more crack at getting things right, the way they first were. They made Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle, the first real sequel to Miracle World. The idea of Alex’s resurgence on Sega’s brand new (at the time) 16-bit Genesis is akin to Macauley Culkin being brought back to do a new Home Alone movie as an adult. Thankfully, the result here is a little less unsavory than the prospect of seeing Culkin’s aging face again wearing red lipstick, again screaming in that famously annoying fashion as bumbling crooks and embarrassed viewers alike look on. But only a little less unsavory.
The mission this time is to rescue Alex’s dad, who’s gone missing in the land of Paperock. Seems he went wandering and never returned… damned Alzheimer’s! (Fans of the series will recognize the first stage music right away. It’s a nice nod to the first game, but aside from that particular track, most of the music is grating on the auditory nerve. Simply witness the title screen jangle as evidence.) Anyway, the name of Paperock comes from the game that every citizen likes to play and is an expert at: paper-rock-scissors, also known as Janken. You’ve got to guide little Alex through ten stages of punching, jumping and kicking, and ‘Jankening’, to gain passage to the Enchanted Castle, where you will do battle with Ashra and hopefully rescue your father. Without spoiling things, I’ll prep you for this one thing that will strike you about the ending. It sucks. It may be the worst ending I’ve ever come across in my many years of game playing. It explains nothing, and reeks of a certain ”we didn’t have an idea of what we were going to do so one of the programmers got his four-year-old to finish up.” I will spare you the details of the exceedingly laughable conclusion, though it’s unlikely that you’ll play long enough yourself to discover it.
On the bright side, Enchanted Castle is a very colourful game. It’s extremely cute, featuring enemies who themselves often look as loveable as Alex. Our protagonist is larger here than ever before, and fans of the series will be pleased with the detail and quality of the visuals in Alex’s ascension to the Genesis platform. He’s never looked better. The looks are charming, and the beautifully simplistic backdrops range from towns to plains to forests to the mountains, before you finally arrive at the castle from the title.
But even more endearing than the scenery, is Alex’s repetoire of techniques and items. He is a master of the Shellcore technique, whereby he can punch through almost anything with a fist the size of his head (it only gets that way when he’s punching). When he jumps, he automatically extends a foot, so that any airborne foes in the way at the time will vanish into thin air. The problem with both his ground and air attacks, is unkind collision detection. I almost never chanced hitting a flying enemy, like the tiny planes that swoop down in flocks; I just endeavored to avoid them. When a big red car, or monkey or whatever came my way, I would have my bracelet item equipped so that a tap on the attack button would blast the annoyance from a good distance. So your basic attacks are untrustworthy. This is not a good thing. As you might expect, should you manage to kill something, the something will leave behind bouncing coinage. Treasure chests bear even more coins, even bags of coins, as well as the occasional item (all of which can also be bought in the store — like the bracelet — more on this later), the valued extra life, and, if you’re unlucky: bombs.
The items available to you are mostly a joy to use. The Pedicopter is a personal-sized helicopter powered by pedaling, and equipped with a gun. It’s extremely unwieldy to use (it was fun and easy to control in Miracle World… sigh) but at least you can use it in tight spots to zap creeps from a distance. Likewise, the aforementioned bracelet allows long distance zapping when it’s equipped, and you can only lose it if you die while wearing it. In a rare improvement over Miracle World, you can actually unequip an item when you’re finished with it for the moment, for use later on. Pogo sticks for bounding on the heads of enemies and reaching higher heights, are also available, as is a cape for temporary invincibility, a cane for flight, and the inimitable motorbike. With this last item, you can plow through all manner of foes and even blocks (except for the red blocks!). Stockpiling these items in the early going can make Enchanted Castle a very enjoyable game to play. The trouble begins with trying to stockpile them (well, actually the trouble began with the bad collision detection, but this flows better).
The trouble: Janken wins items. I am an Alex Kidd fan through and through, so my stomach for his weaknesses is greater than that of the average gamer. So believe me when I say that most folks will be very put off by the use of luck in deciding not only how far you progress (Janken beats the bosses, and yes, Miracle World played this way too), but also how you purchase items (no, Miracle World did not stoop this low — cold cash sufficed as buying power in that game’s shops). Imagine, you come up with the coin to pay for the exorbitant items found in the many shops on your travels. Offer the money as fair barter and be informed that your hard-earned cash isn’t enough. You may have to die for the items.
Your very life hangs in the balance as you shop! And I’m not talking about the murderous scents that assail us when we walk through the perfume counters in our local department store. Nor can we compare this danger to the threat posed by cutthroat salespeople who prey on us from behind clothes racks. This is really a life and death situation. It’s stupid. Really, it is. If you win, you take the item, the fool shopkeeper stays alive, and he keeps your money. If you lose, you don’t get the item, you die, you lose your money, and the fool shopkeeper stays alive. I cannot comprehend the idiocy at work here. What society of people have risen up in Paperock? Doesn’t Alex question the lack of fair play these shops of grim, grisly death exhibit? How many innocent travelers has the average shopkeeper murdered? Is there no justice? No Better Business Bureau? No Sixty Minutes?
The bottom line is that Miracle World was a lot of fun because even with the inclusion of Janken, at least through trial and error, you could learn the bosses’ Janken patterns, and you didn’t have to use Janken just to buy a goddamned item. Also, it helped that it was a best two out of three scenario when you did have to play. In the Enchanted Castle, the patterns are complex enough to seem random, and since you’ll need to stock up on items for the fun, yet challenging platforming action throughout (more so as you progress), you’ll be playing Janken — and therefore relying on luck — far too often.
If you stick with Enchanted Castle, it’s most likely because like me, you’re a diehard fan of the series who feels the need to give Alex every opportunity to prove his worth to you. If this is the case, you’ll find a very enjoyable cutesy action game at the core of Enchanted Castle, as the patterns to at least ensure you a tie — if not a victory — will start to show themselves, rendering the cursed ‘just wish me luck’ problem a negligible one. If you stick with it.
But most likely, you’ll be turned off far before that moment of recognition and peace approaches, and you’ll rue the idea that your platfomer skills should take a backseat to sheer, dumb luck. You’ll enjoy the jumping about, and the cool items in the endearing locales right up until your luck runs out, and some bloodthirsty storekeeper sends you to the grave over and over… for a cape or something.
I considered how much fun this game would be if Janken was removed altogether. Whether it’s swimming (Alex does it all) and punching the tentacles off an octopus, taking out aircraft in your Pedicopter, or building an airtight case for the prosecution for vehicular homicide on your motorbike, there’s plenty to do and see thanks to the good level design and brilliant items at your hands. Without the paper-scissors-rock routine, it would be a bit too easy, despite the great and incongruous length and difficulty of the final level, but it wouldn’t make you mad, and you’d easily be able to stomach the dodgy collision detection and horrid ending sequence. Yes, the adventuring ingredients are that engaging. But the Janken element isn’t going anywhere, and to speak to your probable progress in Enchanted Castle: neither are you.