Let’s take a look at one of my favourite games of the 80’s, and one of the stand-out titles for Sega’s Master System console.
Many centuries ago, on the planet Aries, there lived a boy named Alex Kidd. For seven years he lived on Mt. Eternal studying Shellcore, an ancient art that makes one strong enough to break rocks into pieces.
One day, as he was leaving the mountain for his spiritual homeland, he encountered a dying man who told him that the peaceful city of Radaxian was in grave danger. Before taking his last breath, the man gave Alex a piece of a map and a medallion made of Sun Stone.
What does it all mean? The only way to find out is to journey through the Miracle World looking for the answers.
Sega’s Plan of Attack
It’s difficult to talk about the history of Alex Kidd without mentioning the elephant in the room.
Nintendo of Japan closely aligned the completion of their Super Mario Bros. game with the release of their popular Family Computer (Famicom) to the North American Market in late 1985. The system was redesigned to mimic the look of a VCR with front loading cartridges, and renamed to the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).
"Sega's Mark III was already doomed with a paltry list of only 2 launch titles."
Super Mario Bros. would be released shortly after their initial New York launch, featuring a robust lineup of 17 titles, ranging from sports games, platformers, puzzle games, racing games, shooting games, and others. Upon the full release of the NES to the remainder of the North American Market, Super Mario Bros. was ready, and joined the others as a launch title. In the years to follow, subsequent NES Bundles would build on the growing popularity of Super Mario Bros. in North America by including the game, either in a standalone fashion or a dual cartridge with Duck Hunt.
Much to Sega’s chagrin, Mario was a hit. With the release of their own console a mere two days after the release of the NES, Sega’s Mark III was already doomed with a paltry list of only 2 launch titles. While they had several other titles in the works, the Mark III wouldn’t see a 3rd game released to the Japanese market until almost a full two months later, in the holiday season of 1985.
Alex Kidd would be their answer, and Kotaru Hayashida would be tasked with the effort.
Originally developed to be a tie-in for the Dragon Ball manga series, Sega was forced to restart their development of the game when their license for the game expired. With the development re-starting, the team shifted their focus to Alex Kidd, and the various ways to both compete with and differentiate it from Mario.
Among the ways Hayashida differentiated Alex Kidd was to reverse the buttons on the controller, so the left button jumped, and the right button attacked. This was the opposite of Mario, and left a lot of players feeling awkward when playing the game. He would also have Alex punch outward when he jumped instead of upward. Hayashida later conceded that both these decisions were “nonsense”, and that the game was harder to play with the altered controls.
So, did Sega succeed?
You are Alex. The Shellcore martial arts master in the red overalls. Your father is none other than King Thunder, ruler of Radaxian on the planet Aries.
You’ve spent the last 7 years atop Mount Eternal studying Shellcore, and now you’re prepared to return to your homeland.
You soon find out that Janken The Great, Emperor of planet Janbarik is planning to invade the beautiful city of Radaxian, and claim it for his own. Like all evil leaders, Janken the Great has an army of devoted followers who will try to stop you on your journey home.
In order for you to keep Janken the Great from taking over Radaxian City, you will have to journey through Miracle World, defeating Janken and his followers as you go.
Journey To Radaxian City
Despite the simple yet somehow grandiose story, Alex Kidd In Miracle World starts off quite unassuming. Quite plainly, you are a boy with monkey-like ears who has a twitchy jump and somehow managed to learn only one move in 7 years of training.
You traverse through 17 stages, ranging from a mountain decent, swimming in rivers and lakes, traveling through countryside towns, exploring deep caves, and racing through dense forests. The world is made up of rock-like blocks, so it’s a good thing you spend so long learning how to one-punch obliterate anything in your path! Some blocks are breakable, some are not, and there are many treasures to discover along your way.
The variety of the levels in Alex Kidd in Miracle World really is something to behold. Stages are varied and interesting, and the enemy types are mostly catered to a certain type of level in the game. On the mountain, you will see lots of monstrous birds. In the caves you encounter scorpions and balls of flame. You get the idea. Each level has its own feel, and while the game can be quite difficult for new players, and the game does a fantastic job of easing you into the difficulty and the mechanics of the game. Later levels will even test your newly-found Alex Kidd problem solving skills with some branching paths, more difficult platforming, and even (almost required) special item usage.
The tricks, traps and enemies are all of the one-hit variety, though. Alex has no health bar to speak of, and any small mistake will instantly kill you and cost you a life. Respawning is instant though, and you will be right where you left off, so there is no checkpoint or level-replaying here when you die.
"The variety of the levels in Alex Kidd in Miracle World really is something to behold."
Early on you're introduced to the various vehicles the game has to offer. There is a motorcycle that is extremely fast, and will easily smash through any enemies and breakable blocks. If you apply a bit of memorization to the obstacles in the levels, you can race through entire levels with ease, completing them in a matter of seconds. Be careful though, if you fall into a pit, you'll die instantly!
Later on you will find a personal pedal-powered helicopter called a Peticopter. This is my favourite one in the game! You fly by pressing the jump button to pedal, and you can use your attack button to fire missiles at your enemies. The stages with the Peticopter are filled with many floating blocks and treasures to behold, so you can spend the bulk of your time destroying blocks with your missiles, and collecting much-needed treasures for your store purchases later on.
The last, and least used vehicle you get is the Suisui Boat. It’s a special boat that you use to cross a river later on in the game. It’s a ton of fun, and has the same missile launcher as the Peticopter, but it’s also very fragile. You will blow up your boat if you hit any obstacle or enemy, so making it to the other side of the river without ending up in the water can be pretty tough. Don’t fret though, if you lose your boat, you can always swim the remainder of the way.
The Decision For Janken
The boss battles in the game are somewhat varied, but the bulk of them are handled via a quick round of Janken (rock-paper-scissors in the west).
It does seem a little silly that the conclusion to a level in a fast paced action platformer would be decided by a game of chance, taking away any level of skill from the player. Fortunately, the Janken games are not random, and a keen player will notice in short order that each playthrough gives him the same result each time. All you need to do, then, is make note of your results, and you’ve got a winning formula to destroy the most feared of Janken The Great’s henchmen.
When asked about the game of Janken being included, this is what creator Kotaru Hayashida had to say:
“That was also one of our concepts to differentiate our game from Mario. It was a very fanciful, absurd idea. There were various reactions, like “What the hell! Isn’t this supposed to be an action game?!” or “I lost the rock-paper-scissors match and its Game over!? This sucks.” Definitely, for people who are good at action games to lose everything and Game Over because of a rock paper scissors match… yeah, that sucks. (laughs)”
“The staff at Sega shared these concerns, but I wanted to know how players would react to it, so I left it in. (laughs)”
At this point, you may be asking yourself “Why Janken, though?”.
The reason is; In Japan, Janken is far more prevalent than in the western world. Janken became a cultural keystone in Japan long before the general population in the West had even heard of Paper-Rock-Scissors.
Created long before accurate recorded history, Janken made its way to Japan in the 1700s. Not only has it become synonymous with Japanese youth as a fun game, it’s also used widely for more than menial decision making. It has been used to make large business decisions, endorse promotional challenges, and in a tournament setting for prizes.
The other bosses in the game are more action focused, which is a breath of fresh air. The only real downside, is that they are mostly too easy. The stages in the game are more difficult than the boss battles, which I would think is the opposite of how it should be.
Baums & Abilities
As you start the game, you quickly learn that blocks with a star on them have bags of gold coins inside them. The gold coins are “Baums”, which are the currency in Miracle World. Littered throughout the game are shops with various items, and you can spend the Baums you’ve found to purchase abilities, vehicles, and extra lives to help you along your way.
"I never managed to finish the game until this year."
As a kid in the 80's, I didn't know what the items were used for. In hindsight, this is probably the reason I never managed to finish the game until this year, but I won't spoil anything for you if you haven't played the game. You see, while I do own my original copy of the game and the accompanying box, the manual got lost along the way somehow. I didn't find out until some time in my 30's that you can pause the game (by pressing the pause button on the console itself) to see a map, your score, lives remaining, and most crucially the items you have. You can select and use the items in your inventory to give yourself special powers throughout the game.
Alex Kidd is a twitchy game. Let’s just get that out of the way.
Alex’s movement is pretty difficult to master, despite its simplicity. He moves quite swiftly, and there is a short ramp-up period to get him to full speed. Couple that with the quick direction changes and large amount of air control, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for frustration. Using the jump properly can also be quite precarious, as the maximum height of your jump is very much controlled by not only how long you hold the button down, but also how fast you were moving along the ground before you leapt.
True to its genre, the platformer, the levels are chock full of platforms varying in width all the way down to single blocks (over spike pits). Good control of your character is needed to surpass these obstacles, and they can be a source of frustration for the new player.
I wouldn’t say the controls are bad, though.
After some playtime, you get used to the controls, and it’s very fun hopping from block to block expertly. You will slowly earn yourself a sense of stability and confidence in the controls, and it feels as though the game wouldn’t feel right at all if it moved any other way. It’s quite different than the somewhat floaty feel you would get from a game of Super Mario Bros, but at the same time there is a new sense of urgency and accuracy to it that makes it rewarding to see your skill level in the controls increase the more you play.
Sound & Music
The sound in the game is somewhat polarizing. Being an early title in the lifetime of the console, it lacks any sort of FM sound, and the PSG audio is the only option. The sound effects when breaking treasure blocks and collecting items is very high pitched, and can be a little annoying when listened to on headphones. The remainder of the sound effects are fine though, and they git the game quite well.
The music, though, is very good. The music is catchy, whimsical, and fun. You’ll find yourself humming along to the tune of the dungeon/castle theme from later on in the game, even though its meant to house a more serious, dreary tone. The music was composed by none other than Tokuhiko Uwabo, responsible for many of Sega’s classics from Space Harrier, Fantasy Zone, Phantasy Star, Choplifter, and others.
It would have been very interesting to hear what the game would have sounded like with FM audio expansion.
Does it still play well, though?
Having only managed to finish this game until this week, I can safely say that it certainly holds up well enough to play and enjoy today. I would heartily encourage you to experience this game. It’s bright and colourful, interesting, varied, and a ton of fun. Do yourself a favour and have a look at the manual to learn what the items are for, as it will make your playthrough much more enjoyable!
All said and done, the game probably only took about 3-4 hours to finish, well worth the time investment if you haven’t done so.
Alex Kidd in Miracle World is a wonderful game, and I feel as though the attention it got upon release was stifled greatly due to the sub-par launch of the Mark III and the Master system. Later on it the game’s life, it had gained enough popularity for Alex Kidd to become the face of Sega, and the Mascot for their console. The game was included in the later releases of the console, called the Master System II, as a pack-in game, and I think it deserved all the praise and more.
As with many successful games, Alex Kidd was seen several more times. He appeared throughout the history of the Master System, and even once on the Genesis/Mega Drive. Unfortunately, subsequent games would vary wildly in quality along with large differences in genre and gameplay, which lead to a quick faltering of the Alex Kidd name. Sonic was next in line to carry the mascot torch for Sega, and we all know how that turned out.
If you’re looking for more Alex Kidd after Miracle World, Shinobi World on the Master System is absolutely fantastic. One of the greatest games on the system, and an easy recommendation for any Alex Kidd or Shonobi fan.
Alex Kidd In Miracle World
Released: November 1st, 1986
Platform: Mark III, Sega Master System
I think the Octopus is hiding something.
– 17 levels to enjoy
– Tight platforming & vehicles to pilot
– Excellent music
– One of the best platformers on the SMS
– Controls can be twitchy
– Sound effects can get annoying