Friday, March 30, 2012

East vs. West: Neutopia (1989)

It was 1989, the 8-bit NES was still leading the market, and NEC knew they needed something to compete with Nintendo's major franchises.  Keith Courage was no Super Mario, but Hudson Soft managed a creditable Legend of Zelda clone with Neutopia.  I played the US version from beginning to end at the time of its release, and enjoyed it immensely for what it was.  Now I'm finally getting around to sampling the PC Engine version (and adding Volume 23 in Hudson Soft's numbered HuCard series to my collection.)

The title screen of the Japanese version is completely in English:

The North American version differs only in the year of release (1990), the customary added "FROM NEC" legend, and minor layout details:

The gameplay is so clearly and completely lifted from Zelda that there's not much for me to write about here.  There's more RPG-style human interaction, with lots of characters hidden behind bombable murals and down hidden staircases; most offer hints (in Japanese text), and some sell potions or offer free healing services.  Neutopia's color palette is rich and subtle compared to its NES forebears, bringing its world to life with rounded, shaded imagery and animated water effects, without skimping on the color.  It really does feel like a 16-bit upgrade of its inspiration, although the overworld musical theme is not nearly as stirring as Link's enduring march.

Beyond the look of the game, this is wannabe-Link territory all the way through.  Our hero was known in the US as Jazeta, and the primary villain as Dirth, and in both regions the game begins with a short cutscene as the villain makes off with a princess/priestess/heroine of some sort:

Some of the enemies are clearly, shall we say, "inspired by" Nintendo's series:

And our hero joyfully lifts bombs, potions, and the Holy Bible the Book of Revival over his head when he finds them in treasure chests, just like that other fellow:

Eventually we pick up a fireball weapon that's slower but more controllable than Link's boomerang, and we can use bombs to blow holes in certain walls to meet new people and find secret (bonus and/or required) dungeon passages. And of course there are 8 dungeons to explore and conquer, with the expected aid of compass and automap -- this interface will look very familiar to Zelda fans:

 The dungeons feature simple combat, with plenty of flicker-free enemies roaming about, as well as puzzle rooms where we must push blocks or kill all the monsters to escape or gain access to a treasure chest.  There are gold and silver coins, and various powerups and new abilities to acquire, like improved armor and a fireball-throwing sceptre.  There's a boss to fight in each dungeon, and if our hero dies, he is soon resurrected back at the beginning of the map to fight his battles anew.  

If he defeats a boss and collects a medallion, he returns to the same location, with one of the empty slots on the temple floor filled in to track his progress, and the adventure continues.

That's Neutopia.  It's not a bad game at all -- the production values are solid, it controls well, and I thoroughly enjoyed playing it back in the day.  Of course, at that time, The Legend of Zelda and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link were the only existing titles in Nintendo's now long-running series.  A few decades later, Neutopia's derivative nature, and the continued popularity and advancement of the original franchise, means this game doesn't hold up as well as the more original titles in the PC Engine library.  But it sold well -- a sequel, Neutopia II, was released in both Japan and North America -- and while it's just a classical old-school action RPG, there's nothing wrong with that.

If you wish to explore every incarnation of the land of Hyrule, even the unofficial ones, you could do much worse than Neutopia.  This game isn't particularly hard to find -- it was popular on the TurboGrafx-16, and is also available on the Wii Virtual Console (Nintendo circa 2007 apparently coughing politely and looking the other way.)  The American version can be readily found at Amazon:

If you prefer -- remembering that this is a HuCard, so you'll need original PCE hardware to play it -- you may be able to find the Japanese edition for sale here.


  1. I'm going to be buying this soon. Is the Japanese version as fun without understanding the text?

    1. I would guess you can figure out most of what's going on without understanding the text -- shops and items are presented visually, though there may be some clues you miss. In the age of the readily available walkthrough, that's probably not a huge roadblock.