[Many video games build upon the concepts and mechanics of their forerunners. Off-Brand Games examines those that draw just a little too much... inspiration.]
Take a look at this. Now, take a look at this. Does anyone remember seeing these commercials on TV when they originally aired? No, you did not. Don't lie. You didn't see squat.
Let's cut right to it -- no one cared about the TurboGrafx-16. No one cared about the Master System either, for that matter. With Nintendo holding 90% US market share, those other guys were fighting for table scraps and no one gave a flying fudge.
Oh, but that didn't stop the mudslinging! Here's a commercial comparing China Warrior and Kung Fu. Ooooh, I wanna play China Warrior now! Are you kiddin'? Hot damn! What else ya got? You can't out-Nintendo Nintendo but Hudson tried anyway. If there was a game that looked kinda spiffy on the NES, the bee people answered with a color-enhanced alternative. Such was the case with Neutopia. If the games were über enough, they thought, all the kiddies would up and switch camp!
And now TurboGrafx games are on the Virtual Console. Boom.
Developed by: Hudson Soft
Published by: NEC
Released on: TG-16, 1990
Tastes like: The Legend of Zelda
Joining Alundra and Crusader of Centy in the wannabe-Zelda camp is Neutopia, the most faithful "adaptation" yet. In fact, it's too faithful. The other titles did a much better job of distinguishing themselves from the source. Neutopia doesn't try to cover its tracks, and I do not mean that in a nice way.
I can sense some of you pulling away from me. You might have played this on the Wii not that long ago with a smile on your face and a lilt in your step. C'mon, Tony! It's a great game! Don't be a hater! What's the matter, guys? Are you afraid that I might have some unkind words for Neutopia? Afraid that I may have ... *gasp*... legitimate criticisms?
So some dork named Dirth, lead singer of a douchey Brit alt metal band, invades the land of Hyrule ... excuse me ... Neutopia, kidnaps Princess Zelda ... sorry ... Princess Aurora, and plunges the world into darkness and shit. As the hero Link ... pardon me ... Jazeta, you must conquer the eight dungeons ... hold on ... labyrinths, recover the eight Triforce shards ... there I go again, mind in the gutter ... Medallions, and restore peace to the people.
Oh yeah. Magic everywhere in this bitch.
HOW SHAMELESS IS IT?
Everything you needed to know in the original Zelda was right there in the opening scroll. Neutopia adds nothing to that. You hear me? Nothing. Here was an opportunity to one-up Nintendo at their own game, however foolish such action was and always will be, and Hudson didn't bother to step up to the plate. No, Hudson called in a pinch hitter while it had "private time" in a dark corner of the dugout. Glad to see you taking the competition seriously.
It's not that the game was bad -- I've always insisted that it's not possible to make a "bad" Zelda clone -- it just wasn't necessary. Was there a gap in the software lineup that needed plugging? What happened? Were your fifteen billion shoot-'em-ups not selling anymore? The TurboGrafx-16, purported to be a whopping four times faster (oooh!) than the NES, could only yield a Zelda-too that was nothing more than a simple palette swap?
Aside from what I mentioned above, you've got bats and mutant dogs with identical attack patterns to Keese and Moblins. You get a dungeon map by finding crystal balls, collect crypt keys to get into boss chambers, pick up cherries instead of hearts, score coins instead of Rupees, and snatch an hourglass that freezes enemies on screen momentarily like the watch that you probably don't even remember was in the first Zelda. Just the tip of the iceberg.
You know the ladder from Zelda? The thing that wasn't so much a ladder as it was a makeshift bridge? Stupid crap that no one would care to ever see in a Zelda game again, right? Lo and behold, it makes a grand appearance in Neutopia as the Rainbow Drop, a magical artifact that creates bridges out of bright rainbows and the joy and laughter of innocent children frolicking in the fields and oh my God, I think I'm gonna puke. Really? This couldn't hit the chopping block? It just had to be in there, right?
And those eight Medallions? They represent wisdom, power, and virtue. Isn't that last one supposed to be "courage"? I bet they thought they were being clever! Shame that "clever" wasn't one of the three almighty virtues! That's another thing... the third virtue is called "virtue." You can't do that! You can't name a subset of a set after the set itself! Wisdom and power are types of virtues, so you have to name the third one something other than "virtue," you asshats! That's like naming your hockey team the Vancouver Canucks or the Montreal Canadians! You live in fucking Canada! The redundancy is melting my brain!
The nomenclature throughout is phenomenal. The hero is "Jazeta." Woo! How manly! It's the perfect name if you were answering a casting call for To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. To return to the last save point, you use an item called the "Wings of Return." The bombs you carry are not regular bombs but "Boom Bombs," as opposed to the kind that file your God damn tax returns. And the nefarious Dirth (I've already covered him) awaits your arrival in the sinister "Climactic Castle." The Climactic Castle? Tell me that didn't just happen. Did that just happen? Oh my God!
Ha ha ha ha ha!
HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA HAAAAAAAAAAAAA HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!
So I'm walking around, blowing up walls with bombs to uncover hidden doors or burning bushes to uncover secret stairwells, when I feel a strange chill down my spine. This is exactly like the original Zelda only... off. In every respect, Neutopia is The Legend of Zelda, but the graphical boost implies an exploration of new concepts that never materialize. The power of the hardware doesn't yield a richer, more robust game, and that leaves me feeling disconnected. The original Zelda is extremely dated by today's standards, but at least I understand that it was a product of an earlier age. Neutopia did nothing to build upon that.
This is all disappointing enough, but then the game starts pulling shenanigans on me. Item drops, for starters, never happen! You can play the game for half an hour without seeing a single restorative cherry, leaving you to suffer the grating low-health warning chime until you kill yourself in game or out. Bomb drops are just as infrequent, and since you can only carry sixteen by game's end and you have to bomb all the time on every screen, you wind up bomb-less and paying a visit to the bloodsucking salesman in a store located God knows where.
For all the equipment lifted from Zelda, you don't have many offensive options. Take a look at your status bar:
Assigned are the fire wand and your sword. That's what you'll be using in every battle. There are no boomerangs or bows and arrows; as I've established, it would be foolish and impractical to waste bombs on combat. The fire wand is a distance weapon and its power and range are directly proportional to amount of health you posses. That's a big "up yours" when you are on the brink of death, six or seven monsters closing in on you, and the flames spewing from the tip couldn't light a birthday candle. That's when I need the thing to be at its most powerful! Not cool, dude!
Using the sword is deceptively tricky, especially against enemies that jump. Imagine you are playing catch with yourself. The ball travels skyward before gravity brings it down. Applying 2D overhead physics to the ball, instead of traveling perpendicular to the ground, it will be as if you are throwing it to the left or the right, parallel to the ground, before some magical force reverses its direction without gravity ever stopping by to say hello. In game, it would look like the ball is shifting one panel north; that's the panel you attack despite science telling you otherwise.
And what's up with the password function? You can enter a password to jump ahead in the game or you can store passwords you receive at save points to automatically be entered for you whenever you turn the game back on. The hag who saves your progress doesn't restore your health, and should you die, you will return to her with half your gold and only half your health refilled. However, if you reset the game and load your most recent password, you jump back in at full stamina! Why the inconvenience?
As if that wasn't backwards enough, in order to use the save function, you have to acquire the "Book of Revival" literally one screen below your starting point. Without it, death sends you back to the beginning of the game. It's not like it's difficult to find! It's right there! Why do I have to manually pick it up? Why can't I simply have the ability to save my game? Who benefits from this? Is the game encouraging me to attempt a no-death run?
None of that matters, though. What matters is visiting all the townspeople and listening to their sob stories. Almost every square on the overworld map has a hidden room, but all you'll find are NPCs who won't stop sucking up to you, and all you wanna do is punch them square in the sternum. It's room after room after room of repeated character sprites. The game feels less like a grand adventure and more like making house calls. The game is one giant gated community and I'm supposed to be the security patrol that drives off the riff-raff for breaking the homeowners' association conduct code.
At least the payoff is decent! All Zelda ever did for Link was give him a pat on the shoulder and a half-hearted thumbs up for a job well done. Princess Aurora? She literally throws herself at you and commands you to take her right then and there:
Now that's what I'm talkin' about! I think this just might be the only game in the history of gaming where you get to bang the princess in the end! Okay, it's not stated outright, but the implication is clear as day! Makes the whole ordeal worthwhile, doesn't it?
Seriously though, the game isn't that bad. I'm just a jerk.
THE BRUCEPLOITATION SCALE OF RESPECT FOR A CULTURAL ICON:
PREVIOUSLY, ON OFF-BRAND GAMES:
01 Power Blazer
02 Commando: Steel Disaster
04 Midnight Resistance
05 8 Eyes
06 Onimusha Blade Warriors
07 The Krion Conquest
08 Scurge: Hive
09 3-D WorldRunner
11 Chex Quest
12 Giana Sisters DS
13 Run Saber
14 Crusader of Centy
15 DuLuDuBi Star
16 Fighter's History
18 The Simpsons Road Rage