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Tanglewood (PC/Mega Drive) Review


Usually when a modern game bills itself as “retro” that means it features a design philosophy or art style meant to evoke games from the 80s or 90s, but in reality makes use of graphical effects and features that are beyond what hardware at the time was capable of. The idea behind these modern retro releases is to capture what makes games from past decades feel special to many people, while ignoring the graphical flicker, slowdown, and cheap design filled reality that gaming often was in the 80s and 90s. Tanglewood, a puzzle platformer developed and published by the small team Big Evil Corporation in 2018, takes a different approach to being a modern retro game. Tanglewood is a genuine Sega Genesis/ Mega Drive game, developed specifically for the platform and released as an unlicensed cartridge before an emulated version came out on PC storefronts later that year. Purchasing the game on PC even nets you a Mega Drive ROM file, allowing you to run this game in your favorite emulator or other device capable of running ROMs. This means that unlike other modern retro games, Tanglewood’s design is limited by what hardware from 1988 is capable of. This certainly makes the game an interesting novelty, but were the developers able to make a good game with these limitations in place?

For the purposes of this review, any description of the game's control scheme will refer to the default controls when played using a Sega Genesis/ Mega Drive controller.

After starting a new game, Tanglewood begins with a brief cutscene showing the fox-like main character Nymn being visited by a menacing creature in his sleep. Nymn wakes up the next morning, and the player is immediately given control. Like many games from this era there is no in-game explanation of what to do or what is going on in the game’s world. This lack of explanation or context within the game itself is likely the result of technical limitations, or a desire to abide by old-school game design philosophy. This context is provided through the game’s manual like many other releases from this era. Fortunately, the PC version comes with a digital copy.

The manual offers a brief explanation of the game’s plot. Nymn is a young member of his species who has been separated from his family and is lost in the dangerous Tanglewood. Despite his fox-like appearance Nymn is very low on the food chain, his only concerns are spending each day looking for a safe space to spend the night and trying not to get eaten. I found this setup to be a refreshing departure from typical save-the-world style narratives found in other platformers, it is easy to connect with Nymn and his plight. This plot is expanded on as the game progresses through brief cutscenes with no dialogue, with some surprising and dark events that motivated me to keep playing.

The controls for Tanglewood are very simple. The D-pad is used to move Nymn left and right and nudge the camera up and down, C is for jumping, B uses Nymn’s color abilities (more on those later), and A interacts with objects. The game progresses like a typical side-scroller, as the player must move from left to right using either their platforming or puzzle solving skills to reach the end of the level. Levels are structured in chapters, with each chapter beginning during the day and ending during the night. Night levels introduce enemies that need to be avoided, as Nymn has no combat abilities and dies in one hit. Levels also have an element of exploration, as the player can obtain collectible fireflies by exploring off the beaten path. The number of fireflies collected in a level and the amount remaining can be viewed at any time by pressing Start. Collecting all of them unlocks a different ending.

If you are familiar with Mega Drive games, the first things you will likely notice when you start playing Tanglewood are its technical accomplishments. The main character’s sprite is detailed, expressive, and smoothly animated. The natural environments the game takes place in make great use of color and are full of subtle details like falling leaves, wind, or rain. There is a surprising amount of variety to these environments, with every chapter taking place in a different area. Each area has its own unique graphical assets, which ensures they all stand out and gives them all an atmosphere to call their own.

Tanglewood has a remarkable commitment to atmosphere and immersion, with every aspect of the level you interact with being contextualized as part of this world’s natural environment. Even mechanisms like moving platforms are contextualized as abandoned human machinery. Even more impressive is the game’s day to night cycle. This transition, which heavily affects a level’s color palette, occurs during gameplay instead of during the transition from one level to the next. Moreover, I only noticed a few instances of graphical flicker and no slowdown during my time with the game. All of this leads to Tanglewood being successful in terms of immersing the player in its world, an impressive technical feat on dated hardware that must have required very intimate knowledge of what the Mega Drive was capable of.

Tanglewood’s immersive qualities are further enhanced by its use of sound, which I found to be its most surprising technical accomplishment. The Mega Drive was known for its lacking sound capabilities compared to its competition, which is why I was so surprised to see what Tanglewood was able to do here. The game has minimal music which doesn’t loop for the most part, usually calm tunes or more intense music for sequences when you are being chased. Most of what a player would hear throughout the game, and what I found most impressive, is environmental ambience. You can hear unseen animals, crickets, rain, wind, and predators among other things. The constant pitter-patter of Nymn’s feet is a notable effect that gives the main character a sense of presence in the world. All these sounds have that crunchy quality to them shared by other Mega Drive titles, and the game can’t play too many of them at once, but I found myself very impressed by what the developers accomplished here. This soundscape, in tandem with the graphics, makes Tanglewood the most immersive 16-bit title I’ve ever played.

The game’s opening area is relatively safe and will give players a chance to get the hang of how Nymn controls without any harsh punishments for making mistakes. Controlling Nymn will take some getting used to, as he is heavily affected by his momentum. Pushing the D-pad left or right will initially cause Nymn to move slowly on two feet before he picks up speed and starts moving using all four of his feet. It takes a few seconds to reach full speed, and Nymn’s jumps are heavily impacted by how fast he was moving before leaving the ground. You have just enough control over Nymn in midair that he never feels clunky to control. After running around the opening area for a bit, it wasn’t long before I came to really enjoy how Nymn feels to control. Running along branches and jumping from tree to tree at top speed feels great, this was one of my favorite things about the game.

Unfortunately, this opening area also left me feeling confused, as it is not clear how to progress at first. Tanglewood has some unique mechanics that are not explained to the player outside of the manual. I was able to learn these mechanics eventually through experimentation, but I could see the game making a bad first impression on players who decide not to read the manual. The mechanics in question that are required to progress are Nymn’s color powers. Nymn can push objects like boxes and boulders by pressing A, but this mechanic is mainly used to move tiny round creatures called Fuzls. Moving a Fuzl to an empty nest in the game’s environment and pressing A again when Nymn is standing next to it will temporarily grant him one of three color powers. Yellow Nymn can glide, Green Nymn can slow time, and Blue Nymn can tame and ride beasts. Color powers and the mechanics that activate them are a little esoteric and not immediately understandable at first. Starting the game with a simple screen explaining that moving Fuzls to nests gives Nymn new abilities would have gone a long way to improving the game’s first impression. Other mechanics a player is required to learn, like avoiding lightning or using human mechanisms, are well taught purely through gameplay. It was only the color powers that I feel need some sort of in-game explanation.

Moving Fuzls to a specific location to use color powers is a key component of many of the game’s puzzles and obstacles, especially early on. I often found getting a Fuzl where I wanted it was too easy, however. The game uses small rocks and other obstacles to cordon off where you can push Fuzls so they don’t end up somewhere that could make a puzzle unsolvable and force a restart. The problem is this often means there is only one direction a Fuzl can be pushed in, meaning the player doesn’t need to know where a nest is before they start moving a Fuzl. The paths that Fuzls can be pushed along essentially lead players to where they need to be pushed to. It would have been nice if this mechanic could have been used to test the player’s environmental awareness and understanding of a level’s layout. This becomes much less of a problem as the game progresses, as around Chapter 3 the game introduces man-made structures and mechanisms. The puzzles from this point on are usually built around how different objects in the environment interact with each other and your color powers, instead of simply requiring you to get a Fuzl to a location. These puzzle platforming segments were consistently well designed, and my favorite parts of the game.

As chapter’s progress the game will transition from day to night. Nighttime levels introduce enemies that need to be circumvented, either by running away or avoiding them or by leading them into traps to kill them. My enthusiasm for Tanglewood’s core gameplay waned a bit during these segments because they ended up highlighting the game’s two biggest problems: hitboxes and the camera. As I mentioned earlier, Nymn dies in one hit, and night brings with it many more things capable of doing that. The most notable obstacle players will encounter during the night are large dog-like predators called Djakk. These creatures are fast and constantly pursue Nymn, encountering one immediately changes the game’s atmosphere and forces a player to focus all their attention on avoiding or circumventing this threat.

The Djakk are used to successfully create the feeling of being hunted, but the problem with them is their hitboxes. At one point in the game a Djakk caught up to me while I was running from it and did a biting attack that looked like it should have hit, but narrowly missed. At another point I jumped out of a tree and ended up dying instantly by grazing the air behind a Djakk. Hitboxes for anything that can kill you often feel larger than they should be. Jumping from high places into unseen danger was another semi-frequent frustration that I encountered. Even though some of these situations could have been avoided by tilting the camera downward, some obstacles can end up being too far below you to see. There were also instances of cheaply placed obstacles in Nymn’s path I couldn’t react to fast enough when moving at top speed. This issue became more prevalent during the game’s later chase or platforming sequences. As the game goes on checkpoints become less frequent, making segments with frequent obstacles that are hard to react to and blind jumps mostly cases of trial and error. Fortunately, this game gives players unlimited lives. These segments feel good to complete once you learn how to clear them because of the fun character movement, but they required some frustrating retries on my part to complete.

There are some levels around the game’s halfway point that introduce an A.I partner who is used to solve some of the game’s puzzles. This A.I partner is actually one of the best I’ve ever seen in a platformer, any challenge that required them to interact with an object almost always worked as intended. Its implementation still isn’t perfect though, sometimes it can get confused or stuck. Since the player dies if they are separated from their A.I partner for too long this can be another source of frustration. I also had one instance of the A.I glitching into a wall that forced me to die and restart the area.

The last type of gameplay a player will encounter in Tanglewood are boss fights. There are only two in the entire game so they’re not a big part of the experience, but I thought they were worth mentioning regardless. The first boss fight is ok, it occurs around the halfway point. It requires players to solve a clever puzzle involving moving platforms and a boulder, but it is easy to die from the projectiles it fires that come from offscreen with little warning and have hitboxes that feel too large. The final boss is the only other encounter like this, and it is easily the lowest point of the game. This encounter is far too long and involves a lot of standing around and waiting. It occasionally requires ridiculously fast reflexes to avoid attacks. On top of those issues it can also fire projectiles that track you, which once again have hitboxes that feel too large. It is a shame the game ends on such a low point.

Overall, I would recommend Tanglewood if its technical accomplishments and origins as a genuine modern retro game sound interesting to you. I am impressed by what Big Evil Corporation was able to do with the Mega Drive, and that they made a platformer that feels extremely unique instead of derivative of classic games on the platform. The main character is fun to control, and the puzzle-focussed platforming segments are well designed. The game’s roughly 4-hour runtime is filled with a wide variety of environments and obstacles. Just be aware this game’s challenge doesn’t always feel fair due to the camera and hitbox issues, and that you might end up getting stuck early on if you don’t read the manual.

If Tanglewood sounds interesting to you, I highly recommend trying the free demo available on Steam and Itch.io.

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About BlackAdlerone of us since 2:08 PM on 04.15.2020

You've reached BlackAdler's game review blog! Here I'll be experimenting with game reviews for titles that I haven't seen getting a lot of attention that I think look interesting, probably using a lot of words.

I've been playing games since I was young on Nintendo consoles and the PC ecosystem, but there are a lot of gaps in my experience of the game industry as a whole I've been slowly working on filling.

This review blog is an experiment to encourage myself to play games I've heard very little about and approach playing them with the intention of developing a critical perspective, and sharing it! I hope you find the results of my efforts interesting.