Several months ago, I acquired a Sega Master System and some games from ebay. For reasons I can't really explain, I decided the first game I'd conquer on this console would be Alex Kidd in High-Tech World. In retrospect, it probably wasn't the best choice. Although I've heard many die-hard Sega fans rave over other Alex Kidd games, there had to be a reason they never say anything about High-Tech World, and now I know why: It's a very poorly-designed game!
High-Tech World's graphics are very flat and uninspired. There are three major areas of the game - the castle, forests, and the town. The castle and town don't look too shabby, but it seems like the bare minimal effort went into the forest areas. The characters are very plain, and I had a difficult time figuring out what many of the "people" inside the castle are actually supposed to be. Some of them look like animals (Rockwell), and others don't look like anything at all (Barbara). Alex Kidd's walking animation is among the worst I've ever seen. It's not just because it's only done with two frames, but the walk itself looks ridiculously robotic. Alex Kidd also looks like a monkey to me.
High-Tech World's music has that stereotypical, "cutesy", light-hearted 8-bit sound, and it's very obnoxious. It's odd, because in some ways, it's actually catchy, but only in the worst sense. I can't say that anything in the area of music or sound effects impressed me at all.
Alex's play control is simple and basic in the adventure portions of the game, but in the action portions it is just barely adequate. Jumps are hard to control and Alex Kidd is a huge target, making it easy for enemies to gang up on you, leaving you nowhere to go. Since one hit kills Alex, surviving these areas is very difficult and frustrating. I don't mind challenges, but the control is so bad that I felt that just about every death I received was the result of cheapness. It's even harder to make leaps across tiny platforms over water without missing and falling to your doom. But when you look at the level design, which is just barely existant, it's obvious that if they had actually given you decent control, the game would be very easy.
This Alex Kidd story is about as convaluted as they come. Alex's friend, Paul, informs him of a new arcade called High-Tech World that has opened up on Planet Radactian (or is it Planet Aries? The manual and game box each give a different name for it.) Paul had a map to this arcade, but tore it up for no apparent reason (?), and so Alex Kidd now has to search through the castle to find it. He must find the pieces of the map before 5:00 pm, which is when the arcade closes. (If Alex doesn't find all the map pieces in one day, couldn't he just wait until the next??)
But things just keep getting weirder and weirder. Even if Alex succeeds in finding the map pieces, he must escape the castle, and work his way to the arcade before it closes. Alex Kidd is supposed to be the Crown Prince of his planet, but apparently that means jack squat, since he doesn't have power over anybody. Even lowly guards have the right to arrest him for no real reason. The game is also peppered with shameless Sega promotions (a sign that says, "Sega is No.1", a stereo that plays Fantasy Zone music, a question about Space Harrier in a quiz, and the purported "Sega games" in the High-Tech World arcade), which makes it feel more like a big advertisement than a game with a story and atmosphere all its own.
High-Tech World is set up in two major modes of gameplay - "adventure" and "action" portions. The adventure modes are vaguely similar to Maniac Mansion, in that the object is to interact with people and items you find in order to solve puzzles (such as finding all the map pieces or getting the passport in the town.) These areas showed some potential. It's nice to see gameplay styles that try different things. However, most of that potential was left untapped. The manual declares that you'll have to be "smart enough" to solve the puzzles, but that is a lie. Many of the solutions are so abstract, that they have absolutely nothing to do with thinking, reasoning, or logic, and you'll most likely solve the most difficult conundrums by accidentally stumbling upon the answer. This is especially true of the town area where you need to find a passport before you can move onto the final level of the game. In many cases, the "challenge" is just a matter of talking to the right people in the right order.
The restricting time limit also greatly hinders what could've been done with this game. The game begins at 9:00 am and you must complete the whole thing before the timer reaches 5:00 pm. And, no, time doesn't pass the same way it does in real life. Certain actions, such as walking in and out of doors, advance the timer a certain amount of "minutes". Complex puzzles that require lots of time and effort to piece together and solve obviously cannot be done if you're not given enough time in which to do them.
The action sequences, which involve running through forests while shooting at ninjas and other strange wildlife, are among the worst I've ever experienced. The bad play control, coupled with the large size of Alex Kidd, and the number of on-screen ninjas, ninja stars, animals, and what-have-you make it very frustrating to get through these scenes. There are even a few sequences in which you have to nimbly leap across water via small platforms, and the play control does nothing but work against you here. Essentially, any part of High-Tech World that is remotely difficult is a result of poor design.
I have to wonder if Sega reps were sitting around scratching their heads after this game's release, trying to figure out why the Master System was still behind the NES in sales. I have to admit that I did have a little bit of fun exploring the castle and finding the map pieces. I wish that the entire game had focused on that kind of gameplay, rather than have those god-awful "action" scenes. But there are still many things that keep even the castle sequence far from being great. First of all, there is a good number of bizarre, instant deaths. The back of the game's box declares, "As you look for the pieces you'll discover just how weird life in a castle can be!" They aren't kidding. Simple actions like trying on a piece of armor or turning on a computer can kill Alex instantly! I was especially disturbed to find out that Rockwell, Alex's "good friend and advisor" according to the manual, ends your game if you don't find him within a time limit! Did I mention that if you die or run out of time in the castle, you have to start again from the beginning? Once you leave the castle, if you die or run out of time, you must start again from the beginning of the first ninja forest scene, which is where you get the game's one and only password. Not good at all!
But what burned me the most about Alex Kidd in High-Tech World was the way it ended. The game's box, manual, and in-game dialogue are very deceptive, all leading you to believe that you'll actually be able to play some arcade games if you succeed in reaching High-Tech World. Maybe I was expecting too much. But it wasn't an impossibility, even with cart limitations back then, to have included at least one other game; Hang On and Astro Warrior were released on one cart. As terrible as High-Tech World was, I thought that slogging and stumbling through it would be worth it if I got to play a decent arcade game at the end. But no, that isn't what happens at all. As much as I hate to spoil the endings to games, if for some reason you decide to play High-Tech World, I'll feel I have done a great deed by warning you beforehand to not expect to be able to play any arcade games upon completing it. I'm sorry if this seems like a trivial complaint, but the back of the box clearly states, "Survive all the obstacles and you'll play in the hottest arcade in the land." Not only that, but the box also declares that the game has 4 "Scenes", and the manual says that "If you make it through the Checkpoint, you've won the game". That might lead you to the conclusion that the fourth scene must be the arcade, since the castle is Scene 1, the ninja forest is Scene 2, and the town with the checkpoint is Scene 3, right? No, once again, the manual lies! There is one more irritating "ninja forest" scene past the checkpoint!
If it sounds like I'm obsessing too much over the arcade fiasco, then rest assured that it still wouldn't have made the rest of the game any less terrible. It's a shame that my first true experience with both a Sega Master System game and an Alex Kidd game had to be this one. At this point, I'd rather just put this whole mess behind me and try to forget about it.
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