I’ve decided I want to start blogging about retro games more regularly, so that’s exactly what I’m doing with this continuation of my Retrogasm! video series. The clips were a ball-ache to put together so I’m opting for written articles instead.
I wanted to kick off the new round of Retrogasm! with Alex Kidd in Miracle World because it came up during a podcast I guested on recently about our top five games of all time. You should listen to it, it’s insanely Scottish and full of at least five instances of borderline offensive patter. Get your gran round and stick it on, she’ll love it over a pack of Abernathy biscuits and a pot of tea, guaranteed.
So why Alex Kidd? Well, and I say this without a hint of being a hyperbole-riddled prick, I’m certain it was the game that convinced me to get into the hobby at a young age. See, when I was wee my tonsils were insanely prone to infection. They’d swell up to the size of one of those swinging punching bags, and get so raw it actually felt like Mike Tyson was punching fuck out of them. This happened every three or so months without fail and I was sick of it. My parents decided it was time to get them out.
Off I went to the Sick Kid’s hospital here in Edinburgh. It was set up to give wee ones a less-terrifying breed of hospital, with loads of toys and things to keep them occupied through the rough experience. I remember they had a game room through the back with tonnes of things to do, as this was back in the days where post-operation, patients would be kept in hospitals for days, not like now where they’re practically drive-throughs.
They had a Sega Master System II in there. For those born in the late ’90s onward, this is what I’m talking about:
To the one guy who is laughing at the image above, you have to understand that this machine was a wee beauty back in the day, and came from a time before frame-rates, resolution and poly counts were the most important part of a game.
Actually, fuck that, they’re not even important now. Story, gameplay, musical composition, acting, balancing and pace are just a few things that come well above frame-rate, and it pains me to see just how much ‘values’ have shifted these days. The point is that games like Alex Kidd in Miracle World, Sonic the Hedgehog, Wonder Boy 3: The Dragon’s Trap and all of those charming 8-bit titles had clunky gameplay, a lack of story, bleepy-bloppy music and no voice acting to speak of.
Yet, they were endearing because of those very ingredients. It’s a weird thing to explain. When I first turned on the Master System II to play this game there was no intro text or cut-scenes, or any context whatsoever for that matter. To gain insight into why this elf-eared prince was going around slapping bulls with his elephantiasis hand, you had to read the story in the manual. Because the booklet wasn’t anywhere to be found, I made up my own story. It was ambiguous, but I filled in the gaps. Alex Kidd was my hero, who followed a quest I made up in my seven-year-old mind, and lived in a world forged by my own imagination.
It was my game.
But what a game. It came three years after Mario Bros. started taking the world by storm, and the appetite for platfomers was still healthy. Sega could have just cloned the plumber’s escapades and ridden the clone train to moneyburg, but designer Kotaro Hayashida and his team decided to take a different route. The screen above looks a lot like Mario sure, what with the floating boxes and all, but instead of just bopping them with Alex’s head you had to punch them open. That one mechanical difference resulted in something that felt unique and additive to Nintendo’s work, but that’s not even the half of it.
You’d guide the pint-sized prince through colourful worlds full of these blocks, punching buggery out of any beast foolish enough to get in your way, and then fall down the first stage into the water level, before emerging in a bike world. There were so many neat mechanics in there that went far beyond the realm of Bowser and his legion of Koopa Troopers. Money in Alex’s world wasn’t collected just to raise your score of life count, but it could be used to buy goods and spells at the many shops found around Radaxian.
It had a bloody inventory system, which may not sound all that brilliant by today’s standards, but it literally blew people’s minds in ’86. The repulsion of brain matter as a result of opening that menu screen actually led to a ministerial inquiry at Westminster.
No really, this actually happened, you can check it out in this documentary. Don’t forget that this came at a time where videogame violence wasn’t such a big issue, but parents and politicians were starting to question the ethical implications of gaming on young minds. The inventory scandal was similar to that old image of that family huddled around their television, leaping out of the way of train coming towards them on screen. We had never seen anything like it before.
Anyway, using items like the ring, which would give Alex’s punch a fireball effect, was a pretty big deal, and changed the way people navigated through each stage. There was a wand that could make him float and a range of vehicles as well. I mentioned the bike stage earlier, and it really was exhilarating to behold in that hospital play room. It was so fast, and because it came before the original 16-bit Sonic the Hedgehog there was nothing to compare it to at launch. I had a Mega Drive by this point though, and I was still impressed by the pace.
The bike stage was full of glass orbs that could be smashed through, and red ones that’d send Alex’s ride exploding in a ball of fire. Christ almighty it’s gutting when that happens. Then you have to hoof it on foot, dodging scorpions and ultimately having much less fun. The same thing happens if Alex’s helicopter hits a red orb, but swimming to the next stage is definitely not as fun as walking.
All of these ingredients had me utterly hooked back then, in that hospital play room. That, and because I just had my tonsils out I had a limitless supply of ice cream to cool my throat. I was a chubby wee sod back then, so I was in some kind of heaven at the time. But this was all secondary to Miracle World’s biggest draw.
In the world of Radaxian, there are a few bosses that will challenge you to a game of rock, paper, scissors, or ‘Janken’ as they called it. You’d stand there facing off against your rival, frantically skipping between the three choices in an attempt to outfox and defeat them once the timer ended, while this utterly nostalgic tune played overhead.
The bosses had tells though, largely denoted by the shape of their head. There was a scissors guy, a rock guy and a paper guy, and based on that you could figure out what choices they’d bang out. If memory serves, one of them always changed his mind at the very last minute, so you’d always beat him if you followed suit. It was a bit like working out your opponent’s ‘tells’ in NES classic Punch-Out!! I hadn’t seen anything quite like it and back then I loved the tension of the face-offs, as well as the weird character design and funky music.
In fact, the whole game had a weird, colourful aesthetic that just sucked me in and refused to let go. I rarely left that gaming room while I was in hospital and my parents used to tell me about how they almost had to drag me out of there when it was time to finally go home. I’m confident that if this hadn’t happened I might not have gone on to be the game-obsessed individual I am today, and in turn be someone who writes about them for a living. When I played scrolling beat-em-ups for 24 hours in December 2013, I raised money for the hospital so it could buy more games and toys for the wee ones. I felt like I owed them.
That’s why I’m kicking off these Retrogasm! blogs with Alex Kidd in Miracle World, a game that holds a dear place in my heart, and in those of my friends. I’m sure there’s plenty of people out there who have fond memories of it too. If you’re one of them, please do share your thoughts below.