As far as most people are concerned, Lara Croft is the world's first British, ancient-civilization-exploring video game super star, but those people are mistaken. The true holder of that title is Nigel, wood elf treasure hunter extraordinaire. This plucky little pointy-ears, with the help of his vertically challenged partner Friday, stole the hearts of countless Genesis owners in a somewhat overlooked title called Landstalker. Here's my review.
After running from a giant steel ball, leaping over countless nearly impossible jumps, battling steel golems with a sword, nearly plummeting to his doom as the floor collapsed, and barely solving a split second puzzle in the nick of time, Nigel had found it. The ancient Jypta statue was now in his possession. Now all he had to do was get back to town…
The sun was setting. An old man docked into town on a raft, hobbled his way to a strange building, and opened the door. Inside, he saw his employed mercenary Nigel nursing a few cuts and bruises while guarding a golden statuette. The exchange was over quickly and Nigel soon found himself 2000 GP richer. Before he could spend it however, a strange winged fairy flew through the roofless building's… uhmmm… roof and hid inside the adventurer's backpack.
Suddenly, two unkempt hooligans and an evil-looking blonde appeared just outside the building, demanding the little fairy girl to be delivered to them. Nigel, not enjoying confrontations with unknown and violent women who keep monsters for pets, quickly escaped and hid until the trio left the area. After a brief interrogation, Nigel discovered that the fairy knew the location of King Nole's treasure, a mythical fortune that had allured tomb raiders like him for years. And so, after blowing exactly 2000 GP on travel expenses, the two begin their quest for the greatest treasure known to man.
Landstalker is a game that almost defies description. As far as I know, it is the only 3D-platformer-2D-sprite-based-block-pushing-puzzle-platform-hopping-action-RPG ever made. Somehow, the game is playable and even enjoyable at times despite the many imperfections in its gameplay, but don't knock it until you at least hear how it works.
As Nigel, you must explore the island that contains King Nole's treasure in search of various items and such to help you reach the ancient tomb. For the most part, this means wandering into a town, speaking with the locals until you hear what their troubles are, solving their problem, and then continuing on to the next town.
Enemies abound and come in multiple shapes and sizes, and each one uses its own unique strategy to attack. While idly mashing the attack button is your only real offense, any player who just does that will be torn to shreds rather quickly. However, because there are so few strategies to fight enemies with, the game's battles do get repetitive. Fortunately, you usually have enough money to buy whatever you need without hours of training.
The only things you really ever buy in the game are healing items and Life Stocks, as most equipment is found in your wanderings. Healing items can be used manually or can be used automatically, when you die, by Friday. Life Stocks raise your life meter and are the only ways to improve you attack power, but usually require huge amounts of cash or extensive searching to acquire.
While battle does make up a good percentage of the Landstalker experience, the rest is 3D platform hopping and puzzles. Now, the problem with 3D platform hopping is that the game just isn't in 3D. No shadow effects, no way to determine depth, and less-than-perfect controls make some of these leaps nearly impossible, although necessary.
As for the puzzles, these include some of the most bizarre block puzzles I have ever seen, as well as few tests of timing and skill. Others involve following poorly translated clues, finding invisible passages, or just having some good old mini-game fun. While they don't quite match up to the mini-games of today, I'm sure you'll enjoy such classics as Chicken Racing or the ever-popular Greenpea's Gaming Emporium (it's got one game where you throw a bowling ball on little platforms in the air. Swell, ain't it?).
The game does provide a decent visual experience though. Suiting its kiddy game nature well, everything is bright and vibrant. Enemy design is good and has quite a bit of variety despite the endless palette swapping, but it's surprising how few special effects there were. Enemies simply disappear when killed and the only decent sprite animations were the couple of ways Nigel falls on his face when beaten. Still, it is nice in a cutesy sort of way.
As for the music, expect nothing special. Every song is your usual MIDI quality RPG filler and there's not even that great a selection. There is the usual happy, cheery village music, the so-so mysterious cave music, and a few other songs here and there, but very few of them are noteworthy. There was one special piece performed during a cut scene at the castle banquet that was kind of nice, but that's about it.
The sound effects were even worse. While the Mario-like sproing noise that accompanied your jumps was bearable, I'm confused about the sounds of combat. When enemies get hurt or die, they seem to make strange barnyard animal noises that are beyond definition and are hardly recognizable. Also, every enemy type, whether man, monster, or carnivorous mushroom, made the same noise. As for Nigel, he tended to cry when hurt and screams when killed (well, I suppose I'd do the same). Although not particularly bad, Landstalker is an auditory C student.
And yet, despite the foibles of the sound, the game's storyline is the greatest example of mediocrity. What begins as a hunt for hidden treasure slowly but surely develops into a hunt for hidden treasure with a whole bunch of side quests added on. Villains rarely say much and you hardly learn anything at all about any of the characters. There was an attempt at a love story between the 4' 7" Nigel and the 1'3" Friday, but obvious problems showed up and it just never developed past one or two scenes.
There are some humorous cut scenes here and there and the game does eventually gain a "Save the Airhead Princess" theme to it, but whatever bonus the game earned from these is disqualified due to the Sega-quality translation. It's a corny and childish tale that probably won't hold you very well, but the game is enjoyable enough.
Finally, we have controls. I don't know who designed these, but he obviously had a few grievances against society as a whole. First of all, movement is a little weird. It's hard to describe, but something about how it's setup just makes turning very strange. Movement in close-quarters combat is nearly impossible to do well. Not only is it hard to move precisely, but the way Nigel fights also makes some battles annoying. Since his sword swing is horizontal, getting too close to a wall can make his sword hit that instead and lets the enemy get in a cheap shot on you.
Most importantly though, we can't forget the platform-hopping. Without shadows or a sense of depth, many of these jumps simply cannot be done without countless experiments to discover just where in space they are located. This is not a fun exercise, especially when large spiked balls are floating throughout the area you're jumping in.
If you happen to be a Genesis owner looking for an interesting and quirky title over one with a compelling story, then look no further. Landstalker will provide you with a decent game and might just make you smile once or twice, but only if can enjoy it for the gameplay. I don't think I could suggest it as a must-have title, but you might just like it.