Sunday, May 1, 2016

Ufouria: The Saga (NES) Review

Written: April 24th-May 1st, 2016
Alternate Title: Hebereke [|O|]
Year: 1991 | Developed and Published by: Sunsoft | [|O|]

Hello everyone, StarBoy91 here; passionate about video games, big retrophile, and fan of all things 16-bit... only today we're talking 8-bit; awkward.  =|
Image from Wikipedia; Happy 30th Anniversary, Metroid!!!
In 1986 Nintendo unveiled unto the world the Alien-inspired non-linear sidescrolling adventure game Metroid for the Famicom Disk System in Japan, which saw an American and European release on the NES in 1987 and 1988 respectively.  The game was ahead of its time in that there was heavy emphasis on exploration (not to mention survival) as opposed to being a straightforward full-on actioner which would serve as an influence on various games that came after, and it was one of the first games to have a female lead (which came as a surprise to most everyone that played it at the time when male protagonists largely dominated, if they beat it in less than five hours that is).  Metroid, regardless how you feel about the original, has left a big impact in the gaming world that it became a success and spawned not only a franchise but also inspired similar titles.  =)

1991 (yay, my birthyear!!!) saw the return of bounty hunter Samus Aran in Metroid II: Return of Samus for the original Game Boy; not only that but Sunsoft created their own lighthearted take on Metroid for the Famicom titled Hebereke that September, which saw a limited European and Australian release in November 1992 as Ufouria: The Saga.  An American release was planned during its heyday but never materialized due to cancellation (which was rectified when released on the Nintendo Wii and Nintendo Wii U Virtual Console downloadable services in 2010 and 2014 respectively).  So how did Sunsoft do?

Since I only played the European version on the NTSC Nintendo Wii U Virtual Console, I'll be talking about this version specifically, since there were lots of changes made from the original Japanese Hebereke (as much as I wish I had the Famicom version, despite not owning anything that can play a Nintendo 8-bit game from Japan).  The story goes in this version that Bop-Louie and his three friends lived in a world called Ufouria, and when they noticed a crater they decided to stumble across it but fell in.  All except Bop-Louie have lost their memories upon entering this new world, so he must find them and convince them that he's not a threat to them.  Once everyone's been accounted for they all must search for three keys which will open the gate that takes them back to Ufouria, but it's easier said than done.

Ball toss!!!
Like Metroid long before it Ufouria: The Saga is a nonlinear sidescrolling adventure, meaning that the world you peruse is huge and you can go in any part that you please (provided you've got the proper items with you).  Unlike the aforementioned title however, whereas you only took the role of a single character, in today's game you have the option to play any one of four characters during any part of your venture.  At first you start off with the snowman Bop-Louie, but after you find (and do battle) with his amnesiac friends (dinosaur Freeon-Leon, ghost Shades, and angler fish Gil, as they were called in Europe) you'll be able to switch as any of them as you please.

Why must penguins be enemies again?  =(
Each member of the quartet has got diverse strengths that compensate for the others' weaknesses, and not only are they vital to your journey but in some cases they help overcome certain obstacles particular characters cannot.  Bop-Louie can walk fast and eventually learns to climb walls, Freeon-Leon is a bit slow but he can walk on ice and swim on the surface of the water, Shades is a slow walker but can jump high and glide down slowly (when you hold down the A button in midair), and Gil might be slow on land but he can explore and walk fast underwater.  Regardless of who you choose to play as the controls are similar: A lets you jump, B lets you pick up and throw a ball that an enemy and/or boss has left behind, and the main way to attack is by holding down as you jump on your foes.  You can look up your inventory to switch characters (or look up the map) with the Select button, and you pause with Start.

"Take this!"
Most of the time when you jump on top of enemies they'll leave behind a ball which you could throw if you wanted to, but once in awhile they'll leave behind a small fraction of health for you (which can only be largely replenished if you either consumed a potion or the hard to reach water of life to refill it all in the menu).  Scattered throughout this mysterious world are chests for which the contents inside will range from either potions, hearts that increase health capacity, a compass which shows you the password (a system which is pretty moot on the Virtual Console since your progress will be resumed after you came back from taking a break from it), a map to see where you are or where certain chests are located, one of three keys that will open the gate, and any one of the four characters' secret weapon.

Well, it's all fun and games until someone loses
their eyes...  I'll see myself out now
Utilizing the secret weapon involves holding down the B button until a heart is above your characters' head, and once you're ready press the B button again to unleash it.  Bop-Louie's secret weapon is his own head via his extendable neck (like a bobble head) in any direction in front of you (above, diagonally, or straight ahead), Freeon-Leon's secret weapon is the power to breathe ice unto enemies which will freeze them so you can turn them into a platform to jump on (but be quick because after awhile they'll break free from their icy prison), Shades' secret weapon has him knock his own head with his mallet which will make his eyes pop out and home in on any onscreen enemy until they return to his eye sockets, and Gil's secret weapon is a small but powerful bomb which he spits out of his mouth which will explode boxes impeding your path.  These are not only a good way of handling enemies but also an innovative way to make progress to areas which you previously had no access to.

Riding along in the mine
Ufouria: The Saga's soundtrack was composed by Naoki Kodaka, whose specialty was memorable music until his retirement in 2002; he was a Sunsoft regular who previously did music for the original Blaster Master, the infamous Addams Family license Fester's Quest, and the initial license to The Terminator before the rights to the film got lost which became Journey to Silius, and he would go on to compose music for Spy Hunter's unofficial Nintendo 8-bit sequel Super Spy Hunter (Battle Formula in Japan), the Sunsoft-developed MegaDrive cute'em up Super Fantasy Zone released by Sega, and more famously the Albert Odyssey RPG series.  Kodaka's music is well-regarded among the video gaming community and this game is no exception.

Venturing underwater
There has been a point of contention regarding this game's music tempo, since the original version on the physical cart had somewhat slower music than what the Virtual Console had in store which slightly sped up the music but maintained the actual game speed, which has drawn a mixed reaction.  Some people felt that the sped up music felt wrong and distracting (namely those who grew up playing it during the '90s) while others were more welcoming of it and appreciative.  I fall in the latter category as I actually don't mind the music being sped up, as I find that it actually energizes and enlivens the atmosphere as opposed to if it were being played slow.  =)  If you don't have access to a Nintendo Wii or Nintendo Wii U console and wanted to have a good idea of what I'm talking about, look up a song of this game on YouTube and listen to it on the Normal speed setting: that's the original version's tempo.  But if you up it to 1.25x speed when playing it: aside from a different pitch that is more or less the tempo of the Virtual Console release.

Swimming to the nearest platform
The songs in question are very good and do the job well.  The main theme when the game starts is bouncy and upbeat, the ice realm sounds menacing, the deep underground segment sounds very dark and mysterious in points, and one of the outer themes sounds so laidback and lighthearted.  The regular boss theme is alright by itself, but the final boss theme is brooding.  The intro theme for the story is fascinating, and the credits theme is really pleasant to listen to when all is said and done.  <=)  The sound effects that are used in the game are decent; the splash sound for when you get into the water sounds appropriate, the sound for when the enemies have been jumped on is cool, and considering the Nintendo 8-bit console's sound capabilities the sound effects for when you damage a cat boss lets out the most accurate meow sound you'll hear from the system.

"I must regain my friend's memory by fighting him!" 
The visuals are bright and colorful in this lighthearted romp, and for 8-bit standards they are good to a point.  =)  The best visuals in the game are for the areas that have got in-depth detail; such as the tree that you're climbing some times (even when you're near it underwater), the dark wall décor when you're inside rocky terrain or even the mines, especially when you traverse to the icy plains (and the shading of the ice near its walls is a nice touch too).  The final area near where you enter the gate is also nice to look at.

That's drool, alright; you mean I have to climb on it?  <=/
The rest is not bad to look at, really, just very under-detailed by comparison.  The skyline for when you begin is a nice hue of cyan, and when you're above the clouds there's some simple clouds on there which seamlessly blends in to said sky.  The underwater segments are an effective shade of blue, and as for the palettes that were chosen for the characters and enemies they're sufficiently chosen.  =)

Shades delivering an egg to make progress
Each member of the quartet, considering the Nintendo 8-bit software, have got quaint designs and surprisingly fluid walking animations; it's cool to see them swing their arms back and forth (and in Shades' case, bounce his body back and forth).  The jumping and throwing animation is sufficient, and I think it's cute how their icons in the menu smile upon being selected.  =)  The bosses are decently designed and they've got a simplistic anime charm to them (especially when they get jumped on or defeated by you), and the enemy roster is not bad: comprising of little cream puffs with eyes, personages in fish and penguin costumes, blackbirds who are not singing in the dead of night, scuba divers, and even sentient Rolling Stones logos (which may or may not have been intentional) among others.

"Special delivery, pussy cat!"
Like Metroid this game is simple to play but it is not exactly straightforward due the complex layout of the world; but in Ufouria: The Saga's it is slightly on the easy side, yet it does not stray from its structure.  So early in the proceedings you can only proceed to places where you can readily access since there are segments where you cannot quite get to on account that you do not yet have items (or characters) in which you can access them (you need Gil in order to fully submerge underwater, and finding the item that makes Bop-Louie climb is a necessity in order to get to previously inaccessible segments, et al).  The solution to each boss is more or less the same: jump on them which enables them to leave behind a ball which you can pick up and throw at them just enough times until they bite it; but what's cool is how once in awhile there's a bit more to the process.  One boss needs to be defeated through Bop-Louie's secret weapon because he's so well-protected, and another boss involves jumping on a white ball in order to get the ball to throw at the actual cat boss protruding from a pipe.  Losing all your health during any part of the game sets you back at the starting point, which is frankly understandable since it is a small and short game.

High-jumping ghost
Because it's been subject to changes from the original Hebereke (especially considering what came after in Japan) I may as well mention the changes that were made.  The original plot involved a war which affected space and time itself which resulted in the world collapsing and four heroes "falling to the cleft of time".  Hebe, the main character, was originally a wide-eyed penguin but got changed to a snowman named Bop-Louie; Oh-Chan, a female cat, got altered to a male lizard named Freeon-Leon; and while the ghost Sukezaemon and the angler fish Jennifer retained their masculine forms for the European edition their names got changed to Shades and Gil respectively.  The name Hebereke itself is derived from the Japanese colloquialism that translates to either "drunk" or "untrustworthy"; interesting name choice for an otherwise lighthearted title.  <=|

"You've sung 'Let it Go' for the last time!"
The European cart version Ufouria: The Saga had a very limited run that it's become a sought after item for collectors, but at least it's also available worldwide on the Nintendo Wii (U) Virtual Console downloadable services where it only costs about $5... unlike 1992's Famicom title Gimmick! which got localized to Mr. Gimmick for Scandinavian NES audiences in 1993 and the 1992 Game Boy platformer Trip World in which case they cost a ton (unless you live in Europe in which case you could access the latter on the Nintendo 3DS Virtual Console for cheap by comparison; lucky PAL gamers!), because God forbid Americans play these kinds of games (even though everyone is curious about and wishes to play them in this region).  -_-  In 2003 Hebereke got released on mobile phones in Japan and got rereleased on Windows by Project EGG in 2010; and in 2002 this lighthearted venture got paired up in the fifth installment of Sunsoft's Memorial Collection sextet for the PlayStation One alongside the serious Raf World (Journey to Silius in the West, developed by Tokai Engineering which also developed the first Blaster Master and ported Micro Cabin's breakthrough hit Xak: The Art of Visual Stage to the Super Famicom).
Because those two really go hand in hand together when you think about it.  =<

Snow place like home, right?
After Hebereke came out some of its characters would go on to make (cameo) appearances in Sunsoft property like Epoch's Barcode World for the Famicom (which included cards and an actual barcode), Yeh Yeh Tennis (Wai Wai Tennis 2 in Japan) for the PlayStation One, and even appeared in a single stage of the Sega 16-bit edition of the famous action/puzzler Lemmings.  Hebe and his companions would even star in four-panel comic strips for the Famimaga magazine in Japan until its cancellation in 1998 once said magazine became the Famimaga 64, and Hebe himself acted as Sunsoft's own mascot in Japan for awhile.
Eventually Hebereke became a franchise, spawning several games that largely appeared on the Super Famicom (a console which I own), partly on the Sega Saturn (which I do not own), and partly on the PlayStation One (which I do own, but only the NTSC model) straying from the very sidescrolling genre that started it all and focusing more on genrebending (ranging from puzzlers to fighting to racing to even more puzzlers).  A couple of them also made it to European shores, as is; then what was the point of making those changes in the first place???  >=(  You think I exaggerate when I say that people make no sense?

If I recall correctly I first found out about Ufouria: The Saga back in 2010 (before I learned what it really was in its original incarnation) when it arrived on the Nintendo Wii Virtual Console worldwide, and even though I wanted to play it I was in that phase where I was more into collecting physical cartridges (namely SNES) than I was into VC downloads; but luckily when I got a Nintendo Wii U console on Christmas 2013 I not only alternated between collecting physical carts but also once in awhile download games on its Virtual Console service, and on January 2015 I downloaded today's title.  Was it worth those years of curiosity?  For the most part it was.  =)
I thought it was fun as a lighter take on Metroid, and the way its structure was modeled after that title was sound.  I enjoyed Naoki Kodaka's music (even if it was sped up), visually it was pleasing to look at for 8-bit standards, I liked to search every nook and cranny, the easy difficult was fair, and each characters' various strengths and weaknesses and alternating between them given the situation was quite intuitive.  The main thing that dragged it down for me was the fact that it's so short.  =(  No lie, the first time I beat Ufouria: The Saga (after a day or two that I started) I played through the game again that night and wound up beating it in roughly an hours' time.  I just could not believe it, but hell, it was fun while it lasted.  =)

If you're looking for a fun nonlinear adventure alternative to Metroid, on its own merits it's a fun little romp (provided you own the proper systems it's available on).  If you expect it to be as complex or challenging like Metroid or even long for that matter you may want to lower your expectations a bit, but if you like a little bit of (surreal) charm in your games you'll dig it just fine.  It might be on the short side, but as a Metroidvania (before Metroidvania became a thing with the post-Symphony of the Night Castelvania series or in the most recent decade and a half Shantae) Sunsoft did a solid job all things considered.  =)  Maybe not as stellar as the likes of Super Metroid or Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, but it's still worth checking out if you're interested.

My Personal Score: 7.0/10
<( ^o^)^TO EACH THEIR OWN^(^o^ )>
P.S. Recently I got to play the first Hebereke follow-up, Hebereke no Popūn on the Super Famicom, out of genuine curiosity for the other titles that followed after today's game and so far I like it.  =)  Can't wait to try more Hebereke SFC games this Summer.  Also, today's title has got a ton of stuff that was left in The Cutting Room Floor.
Happy 25th Anniversary, Hebereke!!!!!!  =)
Thank you for reading my review, please leave me a comment and let me know what you think.  Hope you all have a great Summer, take care!  =)
If by "forever" you mean a dozen-plus years (three and a half not counting the Oh-Chan Picross series or the Famimaga comic strips) then yes, their saga did last forever; also, that's the subtitle.  Can I go back to talking about Nintendo 16-bit games now?  <=(

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