Of course, not everything was Chrono Trigger or Super Metroid, and a recent flea market trip allowed me to pick up a couple of random, lesser-known SNES titles. So I sat down this past weekend to sample Young Merlin, developed by Westwood Studios in 1993 and published in early 1994 by Virgin Entertainment. It's an action/adventure game that feels rather like the British Dizzy games -- lots of wandering around to find objects matching images delivered via word balloons, and some minimal but punishing combat. (Fortunately, Young Merlin seems to have infinite lives, unlike Codemaster's egg hero.)
The title screen, with the benefit of hindsight, provides a pretty good summary of what we're going to get here -- some beautiful graphics, with a blue void of emptiness underneath:
The story begins as Young Merlin (I presume he's that Merlin) witnesses a young woman being swept downriver, and sets out to rescue her, ready to conquer any obstacles thrown in his way, building up his magical powers with various artifacts as the story progresses.
Westwood Studios clearly lavished care on this game from a production standpoint -- it takes up a full 8-megabits (one megabyte) of cartridge data, and the animation is fluid and detailed. There are a lot of special-case animations, and some very funny moments, like this one where we face a tiny enemy who keeps drawing a line and daring Merlin to cross it, all the while muttering high-pitched fighting words like a 1930's prizefighter:
The feel is a bit like Nintendo's Legend of Zelda series crossed with Westwood's Legend of Kyrandia adventures. Merlin's life force is measured in hearts, and he can pick up additional containers in open and hidden areas. And the early enemies are rather pig-like -- we have to alternately freeze and fire at this chubby punk pig to defeat him, before his thrown axes kill Merlin first:
Incidental characters are nicely detailed and animated -- this blue fairy delivers passwords after we defeat a boss:
But the gameplay hasn't aged well. We spend most of our time wandering around the sprawling levels, looking for specific objects that will allow us to progress. Combat is sporadic and frustrating -- some enemies are sitting ducks, while others move and fire so fast that it takes fancy evasive footwork and dumb luck to get a spell fired off successfully without getting Merlin killed in the process. The extra hearts we can pick up don't really help very much because they get used up so quickly in the heat of battle. Fortunately, when the inevitable happens and Merlin grasps his throat and falls to his knees (he seems to suffer asphyxiation no matter what sort of threat he is facing), we can resume at the frequent checkpoints:
The adventuring element gives the game some structure, but it starts to become tedious fairly quickly. Unable to get past a rapid-firing rock-throwing tree that was tougher than the first one I'd encountered, and guessing that I needed to improve my weaponry's range, I went wandering elsewhere.
I managed to find a lantern so I could enter a dark dwarven mine, and I figured out the right approach to kill the well-armored residents. But the mine is a large maze, with some one-way broken ladders and lots of dead ends, and the sheer sameness of the limited background tileset makes the going monotonous. I managed to locate a mine cart -- missing a wheel, naturally -- at a northern dead end, and then managed to make my way into a new area in the south. And then, just where I was hoping I might find the necessary wheel, I found myself staring into the abyss, literally:
I know there's an answer, and I could have pulled out the graph paper to work on this, but I decided to leave Young Merlin to his fate. It took me a while to put my finger on what's wrong with Young Merlin -- it's a nice-looking game, but while the ability to explore the world fairly freely is appreciated, the action isn't ultimately compelling. The enemies we can readily defeat become nuisances, and the ones we can't are frustrating obstacles, as are many of the object-based puzzles, some of which make no inherent sense beyond following the clues we are shown. The urgency of Merlin's quest fades quickly as we wander the world looking for the one object we need to progress, and it's easy to assume that the young woman he's set out to rescue will have either drowned, been abducted or gone off to college by the time he catches up with the situation. Young Merlin does a lot of things right visually, but it's ultimately generic and tedious. An easy one to put down.