You can smell the high-octane fuel, but you are looking at what appears to be a stock Chevy Nova as you sit at the light revving your engine, waiting for the almost-ruby-red circular signal to transition to the distinctive astro-turf green. Instinctively, almost primordially, you take your Rebok Pump off of the stainless steel auto parts store brake pedal, and as you mash the gas you feel like Princess Leia must have felt when Vader showed her that the battle station was, in fact, "Fully armed and operational." The Nova spits a cloud of nitrous as it peels away from you, and you realize the Nova is a "Sleeper." That means it looks like a normal car with stock parts, but under the hood lies something "more."
Alex Kidd in Miracle World personifies the definition of a sleeper. This game looks and sounds like a vanilla side-scroller action game, and just when you think you paid 35 bucks to play a Mario Brothers clone, it grabs you by the imagination and refuses to let go. Alex Kidd has the hardest punch in all the land and he jumps as high as Princess Peach. Alex Kidd is not your average protagonist. He is the James Bond of the Sega Master System. Alex rides pedal-powered helicopters and fast motorcycles, and he uses an enchanted rod to fly high above dangers that seek to destroy him.
The design effort put forth for this title is exemplary. You might ask yourself how a Sega cart with the same palette and hardware manages to squeeze out more complex design elements? That's a fair question. Game designer Kotaro Hayashida pioneered a technique that uses more than the usual number of pixels for rendering sprites, resulting in more detailed characters in a given pixel space. Unfortunately, the industry didn't have much need for this technique because hardware capabilities were constantly doubling and tripling in the early nineties.
Alex Kidd was Sega's flagship title before Sonic the Hedgehog took over that role, and it's easy to see why. If you purchased a Sega Master System II, you didn't even have to buy the game. It was built into the console. Kidd has elements of action games and RPGs, and even has a game within a game. It was meant to compete with Super Mario Brothers, but that failed when Nintendo's marketing team secured retail contracts with Neiman Marcus, solidifying the NES' U.S. market share right before Christmas. The last nail went in Sega's proverbial coffin.
There are only two action buttons on the Master System gamepad. They are aptly labeled Button 1 and Button 2. On the cartridge version of Alex Kidd, jump and punch were executed by pressing the opposite of what you had to press on Super Mario Brothers—at least layout-wise. These buttons were reversed on the built-in version of the title, reportedly because people were already used to sending Mario through the air with the button on the far right of the controller, and it just seemed Communist to do otherwise—relatively speaking, of course.
Some obstacles require a slide and duck method, again similar to the technique used in some areas on Super Mario Brothers. Alex Kidd is what I like to call an OHD game, or one hit and you're dead. There is a way to continue where you left off, but only if you have collected enough cash before meeting your maker. I'll leave it up to you to find out how.
In our story, Alex is a prince. His brother and father have been kidnapped, and he must find them and save them. Trained in a mysterious technique called Shellcore, Kidd has the ability to break stone with his bare hand. Our boy finds out he was kidnapped as a child, and his true place is with his real family. To claim his birthright, he must overthrow the evil Janken The Great. Janken has been misgoverning Kidd's home city of Radactian with an iron fist.
Janken is named after the Japanese game with the same name. Most parts of the world simply call it "Rock Paper Scissors" or "Roshambo." Paper beats rock, rock beats scissors, scissors beats paper, but there is no hierarchy, so paper doesn't beat scissors. Clear as mud? Well as a child it was perfectly clear to me, and a lot of very important disputes were settled using this game—like who would serve first in tether ball.
Janken has three minions to do his bidding, predictably named Scissor Head, Rock Head, and Paper Head. Alex meets up with these not-so-scary looking individuals at the end of each area on the characteristically Shinobi-themed map. There is no real secret to beating them. As a matter of fact, the game within a game is played here. You challenge each mini-boss to a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. Two out of three rounds won makes the enemy disappear… or does it? Kidd finds himself face to face once more with the funny-faced fellows later on down the road. This time after you beat them at Roshambo, each one of their heads lift off their shoulders and fly through the air after you. There is a technique to beat them, which I will leave a mystery. If only we could continue with this effective method of problem solving as adults. You cheated on your wife? Roshambo to see who gets the kids!
If you read the manual before you play Alex Kidd, you may notice a few discrepancies. The name of our hero's home town is spelled differently when the old man in the game begins to narrate the story, and Alex's brother's name differs a couple of times. I suppose this was to be expected back when Japan carried less than a 15 percent market share of the video game industry in the United States. There just wasn't much stock put in translations. I think the incomplete sentences make the story interesting.
Alex Kidd in Miracle World even had a characteristically-Japanese soundtrack. Theme music stays very repetitive throughout the story—almost irritatingly so. At times during the gameplay I even harked back to a time when Commander Mark stood in front of millions and drew similar characters on a huge chalk board while hosting a show called The Secret City. His theme music had the same overtones as Alex Kidd.
Alex has quite the cult following. There's even a song with the same name produced by a band named "Chunk! NO, Captain Chunk!" It's an instrumental piece that lasts a little under two minutes and gives you the nostalgia-shakes if you have played Alex Kidd for any length of time like I have.
The Alex Kidd franchise spawned many unique game styles and innovations in the industry. There were six titles in all, plus a couple of walk-on performances in the likes of Superstars Tennis and All-Stars Racing. There's even an homage to Alex Kidd in Altered Beast, where the names of Alex Kidd and Stella (Alex Kidd's girlfriend) appear on gravestones in the first round. Any gamer worth one's sodium chloride has heard of Alex Kidd, and has probably beat one or two of the franchise titles.
At the end of the day, what I took from playing in Miracle World—after years of overstimulation from modern games—is that it doesn't take fancy graphics or soundtracks from popular music groups to make a great and enjoyable game experience. Throughout my many years of playing, from MUDs on Linux to insanely high-paced FPS shoot 'em-ups, that theory applies to every game, from Duke Nukem to Call of Duty.