Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Barely Marvelous (Review)

In 1996, Nintendo released a Super Famicom game entitled Marvelous: Mōhitotsu no Takarajima, which translates into English as Marvelous: Another Treasure Island.  This game harbors a lot of idiosyncrasies, not the least of which being it was the first game directed by Eiji Aonuma.  Also, this game runs on a modified The Legend Of Zelda: A Link To The Past engine, and it shows.  Well if you've played any of Aonuma's Zelda titles, you can certainly recognize his influence here as well.  (There's time travel, sailing, even boats with dragon heads.)  Sadly at the time of this writing, Marvelous has not yet been released in English officially in the last 18 years.  However, there's a "mostly complete" English fan translation available.  I was able to play and complete Marvelous via SNES9X thanks to this, without needing a walkthrough.  Before I get on with the review let me tell you a few things concerning the translation all the same.

The translator/hacker "Tashi" did a great job, all things considered.  Unfortunately he wasn't able to complete the game's translation 100%, more like 90%.  The most significant issue is that graphics utilizing the Japanese language have not been altered, and remain in Japanese.  The above screenshot is an example of this, here's another one.  The good news is, almost all of the spoken dialogue in the game has been translated.  Unfortunately I ran into a few instances where this wasn't the case, such as:

However this was a very rare occurrence.  I have to commend Tashi for doing an overall bang-up job for a one man army approach.  I was able to finish the game and enjoyed a translation that felt mostly like something Nintendo would have localized themselves.  (Outside the occasional instance that is.)  Now let's get back to the actual game review.

Marvelous has a simple premise.  The game stars three young boys; Deon, Max, and Jack.  They along with their class and teacher Ms. Gina, have taken a field trip to visit a tropical island.  It just so happens that some pirates have visited this same island as well.  The pirates are there seeking out a fabled treasure called "Marvelous", supposedly hidden there long ago by one Captain Maverick.  This treasure is rumored to be guarded by unsolvable puzzles and vicious traps.  It doesn't take long before the boys and the pirates inadvertently cross paths, and Ms. Gina ends up being kidnapped by the ruffians.  The three boys decide to seek out and rescue their teacher, uncovering more and more of the mysteries surrounding "Marvelous" as they do.

Let's talk about the game design.  I've read a lot of people on the internet contrasting Marvelous with Zelda, claiming it has the same kind of gameplay.  No.  I do not believe that is an accurate description at all.  Marvelous does not play like Zelda, by and large it plays like an adventure game.  As in the oldschool Lucas Arts or Sierra sort of adventure games.  While it's true you move with a d-pad and use objects in real time, the puzzles are more akin to The Secret Of Monkey Island than the kind of stuff you'd see in Wind Waker.  You do in fact occasionally have real time combat, that's true.  There are even boss fights in the game.  You have life bars and can "die", but it's just not the focus.  These combat situations are very rare.  The truth is most of the time you are running around solving crazy puzzles or talking to NPCs for clues. 

As the boys you will find yourself exploring not one, but four different islands.  This is made possible by the acquisition of a ship, which you sail as the linear plot dictates.  Every island has its own themes, populace, and variety of puzzles.  The key word there is VARIETYMarvelous does a tremendously good job at continuously throwing new situations and puzzles at you.  It's a very rare occurrence to come across a puzzle that utilizes the same solution you've done before.  Typically these puzzles are solved using items the boys collect.  See the picture below for an example.

You probably noticed the 48 crystal looking things too.
These are "Luck Rocks", and are the currency of Marvelous.

You find Luck Rocks, and are rewarded them, throughout the game. You can use them to either bribe people or as a source of fuel for your ship. You rarely use Luck Rocks as puzzle solving elements though.  Rather each boy has their own individual items that only they can use for that.  Also each boy has their own inherent ability, such as Deon's small size for squeezing into areas that Max and Jack can't fit.  Sometimes you will need to split the boys up and have them work things out individually.  You can control all three boys independently across an island and swap between them on the fly using a radio.  Or call them back together as a group again using the whistles they carry.  Indeed as a group there's a special command called "Team Work", that causes all three boys to work together simultaneously.  All of these unique items and controls lead to some pretty devious puzzles towards the end.

Before we go any further with this review, I want to point out Marvelous's greatest strength.  Aside from sheer variety, this game has an awesome sense of humor.  It has been a long time since I found myself laughing out loud as often as I did playing Marvelous.  That's partly due to dialogue, but often due to the sheer insanity of the situations the boys often find themselves in.  I'm tempted to talk about a bunch of them, but I'd be doing the player a disservice.  I hate when reviews let loose with spoilers, so I'll just post a few images below instead.  Some of the solutions you come up with for puzzles are hilarious as well.

Taking a moment to talk about aesthetics, as you can see, graphically Marvelous is pretty good.  It's worth noting that at times Marvelous even utilizes the high resolution mode of the SNES/SFC.  But while Marvelous has consistently good art direction, it doesn't do much in the way of snazzy special effects such as Squaresoft was fond of back then.  For what it might lack in advanced graphical effects however, Marvelous does make up for it with a breezy feel good OST.  Here are a few examples of the tunes you'll hear: 1, 2, 3.  (That's not to say Marvelous doesn't have any ominous tunes for ominous moments.)

A puzzle game lives and dies by its puzzles though, and I'm happy to say Marvelous does a great job overall on that aspect.  I've already spoken about inventory items being used as a catalyst.  You might do something as simple as use a hammer to pound a nail.  But plenty of puzzles are based off abstract uses of everyday items.  This being a real time game, many puzzles are also based on your reflexes.  One example would be timing your grab right to steal an egg from some dung beetles. Or even kicking bushes to clear a path.  These action based puzzles start off pretty easy, but eventually get pretty tricky.  (You will hate the spider race, I promise.)  There are also situations that rely on combat alone, that you have to beat to continue. The worst puzzles are the ones that rely on luck to beat, and there's a few of those.  Helpfully there's a Navi-like bird you can summon for tips, at the cost of Luck Rocks.  He's helpful at times, but it doesn't always go so well.  Overall though, the vast majority of Marvelous's puzzles are well thought out and fun to solve.

Well so far Marvelous sounds like a pretty great game I'm sure.  And for the first 4/5ths of it, Marvelous is a GREAT game indeed.  Unfortunately the final part of Marvelous really stunk.  Whereas the first four acts consist of a constant barrage of ingenious puzzles, witty dialogue, and jokes galore... the last act is anything but that.  Instead of taking place on an island, the final area takes place in an ancient temple.  A temple that is designed to do nothing but piss you off big time.  I swear this last part of Marvelous feels like it was designed by a completely different person than the rest of the game.

Whereas before you were solving clever conundrums, suddenly you're relegated to something as rote as a slide puzzle.  You'll find yourself using multiple elevators to navigate a confusing labyrinth of floors.  You'll face pitfalls that do nothing but eat your time.  Treasure chests that don't work like the rest of the game's do.  Boring as can be, you'll be having to locate keys, and not just that, upgrade them.  Yes, you will have to upgrade a set of three keys no less than four times... just to agitate your bile I suppose.

The absolute worst thing of all is an invisible pitfall maze that involves a remote controlled robot.  You have to move this robot across an invisible floor, slowly trying to suss out a path.  Every time you hit a pitfall, the robot berates you and falls.  Then you have to go through the same conversation with it again each time you reinitialize it using a special item.  I cannot even begin to describe how utterly maddening and stupid this one "puzzle" was.  It was long enough and bad enough to almost make me quit the game at the very end.  All I can say is this final area of Marvelous felt rushed and halfhearted compared to the rest of the game.  A rotten cherry on top of an otherwise delicious sundae. And it didn't help either that the ending did little to wrap up the mystery surrounding this game's namesake.  You do find out what the "Marvelous" is... but not how Captain Maverick got it, or why he prized it so much.

Don't let my late game griping stop you though.  Overall this is still a fantastic Super Famicom entry that has aged remarkably well.  Truly Marvelous: Another Treasure Island is a totally unique experience with a lot of heart.  I honestly cannot think of any particular game that is a proper analog to this.  The majority of this game is actually quite fun and totally worth your time.  Best of all, you can tell its creators legitimately cared about crafting a game that would bring smiles to the faces of its players.
Ardent's score: 8 some kind of sexy gorillas outta 10

Let us end this review with the video "Marvelous" by my favorite DJ, Towa Tei.

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