Tag Archives: Sega

The A-Z of Sega games: A is for Alisia Dragoon

Volumes 1 and 3 of The Complete A-Z of Sega Games, a series of review compilations from games magazine SegaPro, were the gaming bibles of my youth. As I mentioned in my Master System Sonic retrospective, I spent endless hours reading them, and while I did use them to guide the odd purchase, the primary pleasure I derived from them was of indirectly experiencing a vast range of games I would never be able to play. But today the wide range of games in the two volumes are closer to my grasp than ever before. They’re available as inexpensive digital downloads, eBay bargains, and even as free ROM downloads if other methods fail. And so I’ve decided to create my own A-Z of Sega games: I’ll take one game for each letter of the alphabet, play it, and then see how both the game and the SegaPro review hold up to modern day scrutiny. I’ve decided to start with Alisia Dragoon, a shooter/platfomer for the Mega Drive.

SegaPro reviewer James Scullion had high praise for Alisia Dragoon, describing it as “graphically great, musically masterful, particularly playable and delightfully difficult” and “a great combination of quality gameplay and excellent aesthetics”. He gave it a final score of 85%. I played through the game from beginning to end. Do I agree with his assessment? Um, well… no.

A screenshot of Alisia Dragoon showing the opening level

Whoops, wrong way.

In Alisia Dragoon you guide the titular Alisia through a range of hazardous levels, striking down foes with your lightning as you go. You can also fight off enemies with a relatively innovative extra feature – a range of magical familiars that attack enemies. There’s a mild RPG element too: both Alisia’s lightning magic and her familiars can level up, gaining extra power and health bars. Alisia herself is a pretty decent stab at a female protagonist, visibly feminine but not scantily clad or exploitative. All this sounds pretty good for a Mega Drive game, and it would make a reasonably promising foundation for a game even today, but unfortunately Alisia Dragoon squanders its potential.

We’ll start with the superficial – Alisia Dragoon just isn’t that aesthetically pleasing. The review in my guide is dripping with praise for the aesthetics: “The backdrops are excellent; all the enemies are particularly well-coloured and animated; Alisia moves in a no-messin’ kind of way which the programmers have taken great care to invoke.” But while the graphics aren’t terrible, particularly the character sprites, they don’t seem especially well-crafted and feature a dreary washed-out colour palette. None of it stands out today; all of it is forgettable. Except, that is, for the well-crafted opening sequence, where detailed hieroglyphics scroll by to a suitably atmospheric piece of music. And speaking of music, my guide speaks well of that too.

There are 21 kickin’ in-game tunes, including Elizabethan waltzes, techno moshes, medieval fripperies and New Age meditationals, all of which add marvellously to the scenario.

It hardly feels like we’ve been playing the same game. The music starts out reasonably well, the opening sequence is nicely composed and some of the early music is quite catchy but the soundtrack becomes completely forgettable fairly quickly. You certainly wouldn’t buy the soundtrack album. But while James Scullion is impressed with the music, he’s positively thrilled by the sound effects.

Sound effects number a staggering 100+ (the largest number I’ve come across yet!) and range in diversity from alien cats meowing to bongo drums in space. All are loud ‘n’ proud, and deserve full volume, despite what your neighbours might say!

This is the review at its most cute and anachronistic – remember the days when reviews discussed things like the number of sound effects? Alas, these effects are nowhere near as interesting and diverse as they sound.

A screenshot of the third level of Alisia Dragoon

This is an artist's impression of what the end of the third level looks like. No-one has ever seen it because it's impossible to get through the endless gauntlet of vicious, virtually invincible cannons at the start.

As a whole, Alisia Dragoon doesn’t really work. The core gameplay isn’t particularly fun. It sounds good on paper – frazzling enemies with giant bolts of lightning – but in reality you just hold down the lightning button and the enemies are automatically targeted with beams of lightning, which can spray out across the screen to deal with multiple foes. There’s a certain lack of autonomy that makes it unsatisfying – because you can’t target the lightning properly, the experience doesn’t feel personal or satisfying. You aren’t experiencing smiting enemies with lightning, you just feel like you’re pressing a button to make the computer hurt the enemies. This means you’re more inclined to blame the game when things go wrong – it’s difficult to target particular threats – and that’s not good for a game as difficult as Alisia Dragoon. Also, later in the game it requires ridiculous amount of lightning to destroy enemies, even at high levels, which makes combat tedious.

A screenshot of one of Alisia Dragoon's later, sci-fi themed levels

An example of the odd juxtaposition of fantasy and sci-fi.

Alisia Dragoon‘s most promising feature, its selection of summonable familiars, doesn’t really work either. Properly implemented they could have been a real asset to the game, something to make it stand out from similar fare. Unfortunately familiars aren’t very useful and die quickly; they become unavailable until you find a revival item and reset to level one when they perish. This even stood out to the reviewer in 1992: “All the familiars protect your rear but seem rather ineffectual in heavy flak. Still, their intentions are honourable.” And that, of course, is the most important thing.

The game’s campaign is a bit weird and inconsistent. The first level is split into three sub-levels, giving the impression of a fairly meaty game, but the subsequent levels are much more brief. The setting abruptly veers from fantasy to sci-fi and back again, and while there is an interesting-looking level set in a stricken alien spaceship, it ends in a rather baffling boss battle where your fantasy heroine faces off against an evil priest manipulating guns with his telepathic powers in a rapidly descending, nigh-on epilepsy-inducing, lift. The structure is strange and unreadable – what appears to be a mid-level mini-boss turns out to be the final boss of the level, a viciously hard boss encounter signals the end of another level, only for the player to be cruelly thrust into an upward ascent up a rock face, pelted with damaging boulders all the way. To top it all off (spoiler alert!) the game ends with Alisia turning home, victorious in her battle to save the world from the game’s evil super-villain, to find that her only reward is a handshake from the village priest. Baffling.

A screenshot of the end of Alisia Dragoon, showing Alisia receiving a handshake from the village priest

This is the climax of the game.

What really breaks the game, however, is the difficulty and structure. In Alisia Dragoon you get one life. One. One life and a tiny health bar to last you eight horribly, utterly, difficult levels, levels containing bosses with almost unlimited endurance, levels filled with enemies constantly spewing out attacks which the not-very-dexterous Alisia struggles to avoid. It’s artifice, the kind of difficulty that comes from the desire to transform a short game into an impregnable behemoth worthy of £40. This wasn’t as apparent in 1992. The review notes that bosses require a ‘phenomenal amounts of hits’ – but as a positive. Another positive: “Life energy runs out all too soon”. Yay for death! But times have changed – Alisia Dragoon no longer has to justify the £40 price tag that it was designed and distorted around, leaving a game that seems frustrating and badly designed. I cheated to see the end of Alisia Dragoon, and I’m frankly not ashamed to say it. I’d have struggled to scrounge up the ability to reach the end of Alisia Dragoon, but finding the will would have been impossible.

So no, I don’t agree with James Scullion’s assessment of Alisia Dragoon back in 1992. I can understand why his enthusiasm for the graphics and sound exceeds mine – standards have changed and it’s also hard not to unfairly compare early Mega Drive titles against later ones like Sonic the Hedgehog 3. His views on difficulty seem anachronistic now – I can’t see many reviewers praising unreasonably small health bars these days. Another anachronisms are more charming. In one place he notes that the levels are “professionally programmed”. Simpler times.

Ultimately, Alisia Dragoon is a product of its time, a mediocre early Mega Drive game, artificially padded out with a crushing difficulty level. The levels, however professionally programmed they are, lack charisma. Alisia Dragoon is a game that is difficult to play but easy to forget.

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Retrospective: Sonic the Hedgehog (Master System version)

When I was young, one of my most treasured possessions was ‘The A-Z of Sega Games Volume 1’, a compilation of Sega reviews published in 1992. I spent hours flicking through its pages, reading about mysterious games I’d probably never see at the second-hand game store I frequented, let alone play. One of the games I read about in this revered tome was the Master System version of Sonic the Hedgehog. According to the sacred texts, the Master System version of the game was even better than the Mega Drive original, but since I never owned a Master System I had no way of experiencing its tantalising delights. Fast-forward to 2011, where a remastered version of Sonic CD is about to be released. Struggling with the wait for this previously-unconsumed treat, I decide to whet my appetite with another previously-unconsumed treat – the hallowed Master System edition of Sonic the Hedgehog, downloaded using the Wii’s Virtual Console service.  Was it worth the wait?

Developed by Ancient, Master System Sonic the Hedgehog is only the second Sonic game ever created. It borrows the visual templates of a few Zones from the Mega Drive version but is otherwise completely comprised of new content. Because of the lack of precedent, a few levels deviate from what we would now think of as the Sonic formula. One level automatically scrolls onward, and in another you ascend vertically but cannot scroll downwards, meaning you die if you touch the bottom of the screen. Another level contains an unusual little switch/door puzzle, which has you warping around the level. Some of these elements feel a little Mario-inspired, and it’s possible these Mario-esque elements are the reason my old review guide preferred this version to the original. While these little deviations from the now-established Sonic template are noticeable, they don’t feel especially incongruous with the rest of the game and, in general, Master System Sonic does a very good job of staying true to the Sonic experience – the look is right and, most importantly, the physics are right (which is more than can be said for Sonic 4 Episode I).

A screenshot of the Bridge Zone in Master System Sonic

Bridge Zone, one of the original Zones

Although the graphics aren’t as sophisticated as those in the Mega Drive version (there’s no parallax scrolling here), they’re more than acceptable – Sonic looks like Sonic and the Labyrinth Zone in particular is almost a doppelgänger of its Mega Drive counterpart. A combination of the PAL borders (a leftover from the bad old days of European gaming) and the unused space at the top and bottom of the screen meant I was able to get the picture to fill my widescreen display without stretching or cropping off parts of the active display area. I did this using the zoom function of my TV, and it made playing the game a slightly more comfortable experience, compensating for the outdated 4:3 display ratio. The music, as you might expect, isn’t as sophisticated as the Mega Drive game’s either, but the new tunes are pleasant and jaunty.

A screenshot of Scrap Brain Zone in Master System Sonic

Scrap Brain Zone makes an appearance, but with new level designs

The difficulty level is somewhat higher than in your average Sonic title. I think this is partly because, unlike in other Sonic games, you can’t recover your rings when you take damage. Take a hit and the various obstacles become lethal hazards until you can source more rings. Also, most of the boss levels don’t provide you with rings at all, so Eggman/Robotnik (delete for preference) can take you out in one hit. It’s not an especially frustrating game but it can be surprising (and a little amusing) to see a Sonic game occasionally showing some claws.

According to my old review compilation, the Master System version of Sonic is “as close as you are going to get to the perfect game”. Alas, I’m not quite sure I can agree with that. The gameplay is generally faithful to the Mega Drive version but the little differences eventually grate. I’ve mentioned the irreversible loss of all rings when taking damage above. In addition to this, the knockback from damage feels awkward and is a bit of a nuisance. Sonic is unusually slow and awkward to control in water, and this is particularly noticeable in the Labyrinth Zone, which contains significant underwater segments. The collision detection is also less than pixel-perfect in places, despite “accurate collision” being mentioned as a plus point in my old review compilation.

One design decision in particular doesn’t make sense. The game features the same Chaos Emerald collection quest as the original game, but now the gems are hidden in the levels themselves, with the Special Stages reduced to bonus stages that just contain continues and extra lives. In the original Sonic, there was no real definitive point at which it was no longer possible to collect all the Chaos Emeralds – you could enter a Special Stage and collect one at the end of any level if you collected enough rings. In the Master System version, once you reach the end of a Zone without collecting a Chaos Emerald along the way, you know you’ve fluffed getting the good ending – and if you want it you’ll just have to restart and try again. The way the gems are hidden can actually be quite clever in places – but the mechanics of the original Mega Drive version make more sense.

A screenshot of one of the Bonus Stages in Master System Sonic

Lots of rings but no Chaos Emeralds – one of the colourful Bonus Stages

Sonic the Hedgehog for the Master System is, in the end, merely quite good. It has its flaws, but at the same time it does successfully recreate the Sonic experience for 8-bit hardware, and there aren’t very many sources of classic Sonic gameplay around. It’s perhaps not the game that ‘The A-Z of Sega Games’ led me to believe it was, but I’m glad I played it. With the re-release of Sonic CD featuring a rebuilt version of the game on a new engine, it seems Sega is moving towards remaking, rather than merely emulating, old Sonic games. Master System Sonic might not be the perfect game but if it were remade, if its little 8-bit kinks were knocked out… well it would certainly be a little bit closer.

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