Thursday, June 30, 2016

Neutopia (TG16) Review

Written: June 27th-30th, 2016
Year: 1989, 1990 | Developed by: Hudson Soft
Published by: NEC

Hello everyone, StarBoy91 here; passionate about video games, big retrophile, and fan of all things 16-bit.  On February 1986 Nintendo unleashed Zelda no Densetsu on the Famicom Disk System in Japan which got localized in North America and Europe as The Legend of Zelda in 1987, with a Famicom edition coming out in Japan in 1994.  While far from the first action-adventure game ever made, at the time (emphasis on "at the time") it was a breakthrough hit and a bestseller for Nintendo and it was highly lauded by many thirty years ago that it partially set the standard for action-adventure games to come.  And as is true with every successful product another company would attempt to cash in on said product's success and try to have its own cake and eat it to.

On November 1989 Hudson Soft created a game made from the same exact ilk as The Legend of Zelda in the form of Neutopia for the PC Engine in Japan which would end up getting an American TurboGrafx-16 release in 1990 courtesy of NEC; Europeans would get a chance to play it for the first time on the Nintendo Wii Virtual Console in 2007.  And when I say that today's game is a direct Zelda clone, it is a direct clone of the first game.  Normally when it comes to clones and knockoffs you just cannot top the original even if it is good; but could today's title be the rare exception to that rule?

Deep in the night in the land of Neutopia an evil being named Dirth has captured and abducted Princess Aurora who has been watching over the people during its peaceful prosperity in the Sacred Shrine.  Not only that, but the eight spiritual medallions (representation of the ancestors who sealed Dirth into stone) which were used for good by Aurora were scattered across Neutopia's four different spheres by Dirth: land, subterranean, sea, and sky.  Enter young warrior Jazeta who arrives at the Sacred Shrine and is given the medallion-powered charmed compass and is beckoned to retrieve the eight medallions, defeat Dirth in the Climactic Castle, restore peace to Neutopia, and rescue Aurora.  Only you can right this wrong.

"Your name is Jazeta which sounds so much like
Vegeta it's not even funny!"
Neutopia has you take control of Jazeta, who uses the sword with the I button and utilizes the secondary item with the II button; both options also have the turbo setting to use them swiftly and consecutively by just holding them down.  And since it apes the structure of the original The Legend of Zelda that means you can only walk left, right, up, and down.  The Run button has you view the charmed compass and access your other items that you can use throughout your adventure.  One of the ways you can defeat your foes is if you lunge your sword at them and once in awhile they might leave behind an item which you can take by walking towards it and/or reach with your lunged sword (gold, one of a few single-use or multi-use secondary items, and cherries to replenish one block of health--the last ones very rare to come by).

Enemy vanquished
This top-down action-oriented adventure comprises of a multitude of screens, and likewise with The Legend of Zelda the only time there is any scrolling occurring is when Jazeta transitions from screen to screen regardless of any of the four directions you emerge from.  During the overworld sections there's a multitude of NPCs that will either converse with you or help you in any way (i.e. merchants or healers); and they can be accessed by entering a door-shaped hole in the wall (sometimes required to blow up with a bomb), pushing a stone or eradicating all enemies onscreen to make random stairs appear, or by entering stairs concealed by objects which you can burn down with the Fire Wand in stow.  By thoroughly searching the current sphere you're in you'll be able to get places and possibly find a vital item that'll help you in your journey.

Y'know for a real pudgy dragon he sure has got
disproportionately skinny arms  =/
Each sphere has got two labyrinthine dungeons with the individual medallions being guarded by one of Dirth's minions inside the crypt section of the labyrinth which will only open if you found the key to it beforehand.  In each dungeon there are a few chests if you search thoroughly; one of them will comprise of an equipment upgrade for Jazeta (sword, armor, or shield), one of them will have a crystal ball which will reveal on the map rooms you've been to and have not been to, and in a secret room (usually not tracked with the crystal ball) there will be a chest with a vitality potion which will restore all your health no matter how low.  Occasionally you might also find a poor elder chained up to a wall who may talk to you.

Sentient spiked fungi?  Oh no!  That's worse than
Poison Mushrooms!  ={
If there's a secret room or passage nearby your charmed compass will go haywire when you access it via the Run button; and as was the case with the overworld said secret room (or stairs or normal door) might be accessed in the same manner in that you either defeat all enemies or push a block.  While in the overworld it's pretty obvious which spots can be bombed it's much more subtle deep in the dungeons which means making due with some trial and error (but only if you have enough at your disposal).  Once you've claimed the medallion you'll be whisked back to the Sacred Shrine and earn yourself an extra block's worth of health capacity.  By collecting two medallions in the same sphere you'll be on your way to the next one which you can transport yourself to by walking towards those stairs.

Australia???  O.O
Also, your head is shaped like an onion!  Just sayin'
Neutopia's soundtrack is not very big, but what is there is decent to listen to in its own right.  Composed by Tomotsune Maeno, who also provided music for other Hudson Soft fare Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom and Tengai Makyō: Ziria, its sound samples and compositions are quaint despite the songs' overall brevity and each sphere has got a distinct theme that sets them apart from the rest.  The sky sphere's theme sounds appropriately elevated given how high up above the clouds it takes place and the land sphere theme does its job adequately.  The NPC/shop/Sacred Shrine theme sounds too perky for this kind of game though (considering how frequently you'll enter these rooms), but it is made up for with the rich moodiness of the labyrinth when you explore below ground which is actually my favorite song from the game (even if at times said moodiness does get cheesy) and the boss themes work well.  =)  Sound effects are all right, such as the flaming sounds of the Fire Wand that you use and the "shing" sound of the sword when you use it, though I could've done without the obnoxious bloop sound any time an enemy touches you or the annoying as hell constant beeping sound any time you're dangerously low on health (of all the things you had to derive from The Legend of Zelda, Hudson Soft, why did you have to have that as well?  Better question, why does Nintendo keep using it in their Zelda games despite the general public's annoyance by it???  Seriously, do you want us to yank our own ears out; what, is, the, deal????).  x_x

Jellybean blobs, of course!
The visuals in Neutopia are solidly sharp throughout and the color schemes are decently chosen.  The land sphere's grass is vibrantly green with well-drawn stone murals on the walls (easily discernible on flatscreen TVs than rounded standard TVs), the subterranean sphere has got an interesting ground décor with crystal-like props, the sea sphere is Atlantis-like with water all around, and the sky sphere oversees a sky with some clouds as you roam the castle halls.  The dungeons all have bricked patterns albeit with different color palettes; some will have green and blue hues with certain rooms that have water while others will have brownish hues with red lava in certain rooms to name a couple examples.  The inside of the NPC rooms sometimes have water that waves smoothly.  =)

Firing this room up
Jazeta is designed decently for he has got okay walking animation when he moves, and his sword-lunging and item found sprites are cool; though when he loses all his health he spins around like The Legend of Zelda but unlike The Legend of Zelda it culminates in him lying on the ground with a halo on his head as if he was pre-Mario Jumpman in Donkey Kong and the Arabian prince in (Super) Arabian.  My nitpick is that his left and right sprites are flipped which means his sword and shield magically switch hands when they shouldn't; why couldn't today's game be more like the Ancient Ys Vanished diptych or Lagoon where these things stayed in their proper place regardless of the direction you're facing?  =(  Oh, that's right, Lagoon didn't exist yet when Neutopia was made, never mind.  -_-  One thing I'll say is that I like all the differently colored armor Jazeta finds in his adventure (starts out gray and everything that follows is more colorful) and there's no armor color choice I object: at least there's no brown cape that meshes with the main character's hair as was the case with Nasir in Lagoon and it is much better than going through the bulk of the game with puke green armor like Alex would in Dragon View, ugh!  XP  The various shield designs are good, and even his sword changes color with each upgrade.  =)

Horned skeleturtles
Funny thing about Jazeta though is that he's virtually the only human character that actually incorporates animation throughout, while the NPCs you meet up with are like motionless statues (seriously, they don't move a muscle or alter their position); the exception to this is Princess Aurora whom you save after you defeat Dirth, but by then it's too little too late.  Among the roster of enemies you'll bout in your journey there are blobs, sentient armor, iguana men, bats, skeleton turtles, reptilian soldiers, bouncing crickets, and more.  The bosses are designed nicely but have okay animation; some examples being an upright blue dragon, a giant crustacean crab, a three-headed skeletal turtle, and a pair of eight-way knife-throwing gargoyles.  Dirth has a neat design too, and when they're defeated it culminates into a big and brief explosion.

Game cover image from Wikipedia; happy 25th anniversary game I have not played
When Neutopia did really good Hudson Soft created the sequel Neutopia II which came out for the PC Engine on September 1991 (two months prior to Zelda no Densetsu: Kamigami no Toraifōsu on the Super Famicom) which had you take control of Jazeta and Aurora's son which saw an American release in 1992 by NEC (the same year The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past was localized for the American and European SNES market); and just like its predecessor Europe would play it for the first time in 2007 on the Nintendo Wii Virtual Console.  Reportedly it received a lot of good praise and apparently improved upon its predecessor on pretty much every aspect but ultimately did what games such as Ardy Lightfoot and Equinox did and promised an upcoming sequel that never got made (and never will be made since Hudson Soft merged with Konami back in 2012).
"You see what happens when you attack bats all
the time??  You get Yooka-Laylee's release delayed!"
In the Summer of 2008 I only downloaded two games on the Nintendo Wii Virtual Console (five less than the previous Summer): the first one was the original Neutopia and the second one was the very first Super Famicom game I played which partially inspired me to import games from Japan DoReMi Fantasy: Milon no DokiDoki Daibōken.  I recall having been curious about it given I heard that it was a blatant Zelda clone, which it is.  Although if I have to be frank I was never a fan of the original The Legend of Zelda in the first place (I acknowledge its place in video game history, but I don't feel it's aged well by today's standards), I didn't grow up with it (I first played it in 2007) and I personally found it to be far too cryptic even for me (which is why I like most everything else that followed as they were easier to follow and fun to play, including Zelda II: The Adventure of Link which I actually prefer to the first Zelda; A Link to the Past spoiled me).  There's a fair share of people out there who find Neutopia to be an improvement over the first The Legend of Zelda, which I honestly found to be the case.

Create an entrance to the neighboring room
The best I could do with the original Zelda is get past the first dungeon and then find myself hopelessly lost from there on account that there's no guide on hand (even when I try to give it a genuine chance), while Neutopia made it a little easier for me with easy to understand NPCs (who were sometimes subtle) and I could actually manage to get farther than the first dungeon because it was so much easy to follow in and out of comparison.  That said, back when I first played it in 2008 I had gotten up to the sea sphere and got stuck in the fifth dungeon because ... well, I'll explain in detail why that was and the problems surrounding this game ... but because I found said sphere to be huge because I wasn't familiar with it at first and didn't want to go in with half my health I just stopped my progress altogether.  But I didn't dislike it from what I had played and it was a superior game to the first Zelda in my opinion; so fastforward to March 2011 and I decided to give Neutopia another go from the top... and this time if I felt lost I consulted VGmaps and GameFAQs (and when I saw the sea sphere map on the former site I was surprised at how not far the route to and from the fifth dungeon was from the Sacred Shrine).  I ended up beating it as a result, which I'm glad did.  I didn't do it as much on my recent playthrough (it's been five years since I last played it) but all the same it wasn't so bad an experience.

You know, blobs in games like these are so common
that they've become a staple to the genre
That said, there are problems which wind up lessening the experience (the annoying constant beeping sounds when you're super low on health has already been addressed): from the onset Jazeta walks at such a Ruin Arm-esque pace (if even that) but once he finds these special boots in the sea sphere he walks at a faster pace which is much more bearable.  Any time you're at the Sacred Shrine or a room near a dungeon with an elderly mother figure you're given a password--a needlessly elongated and complicated (but not The Legend of the Mystical Ninja complicated) password which ironically also involves a save file.  Um, what???  o_O  So, in order to continue your progress if you were to play Neutopia on the PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 console (and not the Virtual Console which alleviates that problem) you had to load one of four save files and then input a password?  What sense does that make???  >=(  Whoever keeps asking for long complicated passwords in their games or (more likely) whoever assumes people want long complicated passwords in their games: stop it, stop it now!!!

Secret stairs revealed in Atlantis
When it comes to action-adventure games or A-RPGs I'd personally rather play ones where the main character(s) have the freedom to roam around in all eight directions; that's not to say I won't play games where you only move in a four-square direction, because I do sometimes--among them Ys Book I & II, Lagoon, SoulBlader/SoulBlazer, Ys IV: Mask of the Sun, and even Brandish, all of which I personally enjoy.  <=)  In Neutopia Jazeta can only move in four directions (just like Link did in the original The Legend of Zelda) which isn't so much a problem so much as faulty enemy mapping and collision detection.  I'll elaborate: say that an enemy was in front of Jazeta as he was facing either West or East, obviously if an enemy collided or shot a projectile at Jazeta directly in front of him he would take damage; what should not happen but does anyway is Jazeta taking damage from an enemy while said enemy was a step or two to your left (up or down) or your right (down or up) while in any other game that would not transpire.  Most enemies are okay to contend with but there are some who'll move constantly that can easily hit you if you're not careful or rather yet be caught offguard by a non-land enemy spouting a projectile lest you're careful.  This makes for a slightly broken gameplay structure even though the gameplay itself is not bad.

"You look a little cold, let me warm you up!"
Most of the time you're constantly relying on having two vitality potions at your stead because half the time you'll lose damage because of that unfair structure I just covered (though the Fire Wand makes for a great long-distance weapon to a point), but the problem is that vitality potions cost a lot which means that if you're low you have to money farm in order to procure them (lest you find one in a secret room for free).  And should you lose all your health not only will you lose half your currency (figures) but you'll be brought back to the last "saving" point (if you could even call it that) with a low set of health (unless the last "saving" point was the Sacred Shrine in which case your health will be filled all the way), and unless you're familiar with the spheres' layout and design it can be easy to get lost and confused as to which NPC rooms are shops, which are warps that take you back to the Sacred Shrine (in exchange for money), and which are rooms with young soothsayers that heal you all the way; especially since enemies leaving behind cherries to heal one block of health are few and far between.  While the Fire Wand is the preferred weapon of choice, it's the close-ranged sword that causes the most damage and that's only lunged ahead of Jazeta while the Fire Wand can be shot in any which direction.

Vermin all over the place
Which leads to the main issue that Neutopia suffers from the most and that's the fact that it can get quite repetitive more often than not.  You lose all your health in a dungeon you must walk all the way to it and start it all over again 'til you get to the boss in the crypt room and hope that you have a sufficient amount of health to survive, and if you're out of vitality potions and in some cases bombs you're reduced to money farming to the point that you can afford them before you can get to said dungeon again to prolong your chances of survival.  Add to the fact that you have to maneuver and avoid the unfair collision detection lest you want to lose health cheaply and it's just grating since it takes the fun out of it all.  =(  But if you're getting by with confidence then it does get better, it just could've been so much more.

Welcome to the Subterranean Sphere
Neutopia is a decent Zelda clone that actually manages to be better than the very game it's aped its structure from (in my opinion), but it's not without its slew of problems that wind up dragging its quality down some; but if you can look past most of them it can become fun at times.  The land and subterranean spheres are simple enough to explore but by the time you get to the sea sphere the maps become bigger and complex; the dungeons are good to navigate the first time around (and some rooms do require you to be careful; i.e. don't step on the switch unless you want an arrow flying in your direction) and it's fun to bomb some walls to see if there's a secret room nearby.  Some items can be very helpful in your journey like the Ring which can turn most if not all enemies in the same room into weaker versions of themselves for your benefit (namely if you're surrounded or overwhelmed) and the Fire Wand which you'll find yourself using liberally (the higher your health the more powerful and far-reaching it is, but if your health is very low you're kinda screwed as its power has waned so much).  Plenty of the bosses are simple enough to combat with easy to follow patterns but a handful of them may take some challenge and require vitality potions at your stead; plus your shield can deflect most projectiles your way (should it be positioned properly that is).  If it wasn't so repetitive and unfairly structured at times it would've been a great game, but alas it wasn't meant to be.  But I do like it, moreso than the Zelda that started it all, so that's something I guess.

But for my money, egregious amounts of level grinding/money farming/level requisite equipment buying and equipping and mostly disappointingly short boss fights aside, Micro Cabin's Ys clone Xak: The Art of Visual Stage is a much better clone of the first The Legend of Zelda than Neutopia is as far as sword-lunging controls are concerned (sucks that it's the only installment on the Super Famicom, though; also originally a 1989 title).  =)  Its gameplay and structure was good, it was fun to explore the dungeons and overworld areas as Latok Kart moved at a slightly swift pace, its world was engrossing, not to mention you can move in all eight directions which was a plus and overall is a really good game (even if its item handling and usage was quite particular).  Also its soundtrack is kickass=D
I'd also rather play Lagoon than Neutopia, and while a lot of people didn't come out liking that Ys clone in particular I did find it to be more involving and reasonably structured than Hudson Soft's take on the action-adventure genre.  No, it's not devoid of problems; yeah there's the close-proximity consecutive sword swipes which upset many, but if you had the proper magic and crystal combined you could shoot magic projectiles to your enemies far away from you (except during boss fights which involves the sword all the time).  If you took damage you could hold still as your health replenished itself gradually and like Xak you could save in most any part of the game to your heart's desire (beats having to search high and low for the place to save).  Its scarce usage of sound samples also gives it a sometimes eerily quiet and atmospheric feel for it as there's not a sound for when you're taking damage, when you're dead, or when you're severely low on health (take notes, The Legend of Zelda and Neutopia).

Entrance matches the respective environment
The period from January 2007 (when I got a Nintendo Wii console) and May 2009 is when I downloaded games on the Nintendo Wii Virtual Console, and by the time I gave Neutopia a second chance I was more into buying physical SNES games for I had moved on from digital downloads.  I never played Neutopia II, and my chances of catching up with it are extremely low because I don't own a PC Engine or TurboGrafx-16 console (I'd only own one if it had the yellow-white-red AV cables and not that annoying A/B switch you had to fiddle around with in the back in order to get picture perfect quality on your TV--yeah, remember those?  I do, unfortunately) and Nintendo Wii Points cards are no longer made since the Nintendo Wii U started its Virtual Console downloadable service (and I don't want to expose information from my credit), and the handheld equivalent of NEC's console Turbo Express is too expensive.  I guess I just didn't want to jump into the sequel immediately because I only got halfway in the first game; which is too bad, because I had the opportunity to download it and I didn't take advantage of it.  Both games have been made available on the Nintendo Wii U Virtual Console by Konami in 2014, but only in Japan though.  =(  Still, I'm lucky I did experience some PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 (Bonk's Adventure, Bomberman '93, Bonk's Revenge, the original R-Type, Dragon's Curse, this game, Detana!! TwinBee) and PC Engine CD/TurboGrafx-CD (Ys Book I & II, Star Parodier) titles during this period.

Almost rock solid, but better than the game it
borrowed its structure from at least
I know it's not fair to judge a game by its age (and I don't wish to take it away from anyone), and people born in the '70s and early '80s will likely have a bigger appreciation for The Legend of Zelda because for them it may have been one of the first (if not the first) adventure games they played, while those born after 1986 (I was born in 1991) are more prone to play through its sequels (easy to follow) than the original Zelda (far too cryptic) because in my case I don't quite get what the fuss is about (I played it late in life and not as a kid like I did A Link to the Past, my foray to the Zelda series) but do understand how it partially helped set the standard for these types of games and kind of view it as a product of its times.  Neutopia's aged slightly better than the first Zelda for me, and while quite flawed it is fun during moments where it doesn't get cheap and repetitive.  If you like action-adventure games this game is decent on its own terms, but if you don't wish to put up with cheap structure and needlessly long passwords or repetitiousness there are far better games in the genre you could be playing.  It's worth playing through once, maybe twice; it could have been so much worse, but Hudson Soft found a way to make Neutopia an all right Zelda knockoff (but still no A Link to the Past).  <=)

My Personal Score: 7.0/10
<( ^o^)^TO EACH THEIR OWN^(^o^ )>
P.S. Flashback credits sequence and ending visual is good and all, but I much preferred it when HAL Laboratory did it with Alcahest, another eight-way roaming action-oriented adventure game that's better than Neutopia!
P.S. 2 If you grew up with this game and loved it and expected it to get a higher score I'm sorry to disappoint you, but its flaws were far too apparent for me to overlook them.  The worst thing I probably did with this review is inadvertently invite people to make wrong assumptions that I only like playing games from 1991 onward; not true, I do also like playing games that came out before I was born sometimes.
P.S. 3 One of Neutopia's assistant programmers Toshiro Kondo shares the same last name as veteran Nintendo composer Koji Kondo.  I'd speculate if there's any relation, but the last thing I want to do is misinform people so I'll just leave that be.
P.S. 4 On the subject of "topias", time to revisit Zootopia on Blu-Ray/DVD, it's going to great!  =D
Thank you for reading my review, please leave me a comment and let me know what you think.  Hope you have a great Summer, take care!  =)

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