It took five entries before arriving at a game that received different different box art in the various regions, and it’s hard to really tell which one is worse. The western Alex Kidd has the eerie displaced eyes of a serial killer pushing down the vivid fantasy world going on around him as he visually marks his prey. Bizarre stabs at literal interpretation were more or less the norm for western box art at the time, but in this case even that haunting tableau is preferable to the complete apathy that went into the Japanese art, which features one of the mercifully few depictions of jiggling knee fat in modern entertainment media. I brought this up with in conversation earlier with internet superstar and Pre-Sonic Genesis regular commentator Nicola who aptly responded with “I get the distinct impression that no one really cared.” Coincidentally, this just about sums up the entire Alex Kidd franchise.
A bizarre scrambling response to Mario’s popularity, Alex Kidd became the mascot of the Sega Master System more or less by default. But his console debut never saw a true sequel on the system, instead being bogged down by endless mediocre spin-offs in a way that just cemented him as a bizarrely prescient parody of the Mario franchise. But while Mario’s Parties, Tennis games, and Brawls are harmless fun at worst, the likes of Alex Kidd’s BMX racing could tear at a man’s soul. Much about the character’s design even fails to make sense, even by the free-association standards of the era that are frankly missed in these more focus-tested times. He could be a monkey, or he could just have awful facial hair. Again, you get the feeling no one really cares. Sega certainly didn’t, as Enchanted Castle represents Kidd’s Mega Drive debut and the only true sequel to Miracle World before being shunted back to the dregs of Europe for one last Master System game and a semi-graceful retirement gig as being paraded about as a collective Sega icon of ostensible worth for us to laugh at and share memories of a collective childhood where we ignored him (if we were cognizant of his existence to begin with) and just played Space Harrier instead.
So with all of that out of the way, it’s my pleasure to cover the best platformer on the system yet. Osomatsu-Kun and Altered Beast were both average games that mostly relied on the spectacle of their presentation to move units. In comparison, Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle is a very slightly above-average game that manages to succeed despite being astoundingly ugly, even for the time. This isn’t to say there isn’t any spectacle at all, as the game opens up a few levels in with bizarre set pieces and more semi-linear levels that let you head anywhere you please as long as you understand that you are eventually going to be heading right to finish the level to find the rice ball Alex Kidd seems to have a compulsive need to bounce on his head to motivate himself to the next bizarre level. This would all actually add up to a solid and more fondly regarded title, but the game features two crippling flaws that, again, can only be attributed to utter apathy on the part of the designers.
The biggest concern would be that the inhabitants of Alex Kidd’s hyper-vivid coma dream seem to have affected a rock-paper-scissors (or jenken, after the Japanese version. Not to be confused with the drug panic urban legend jankem) based economy, bringing to life a very real fear of the United States Republican party. In this harrowing simulator of a world ruined by soft-hearted liberal janken-based political reform, not only does Kidd have to pay for everything he buys like an honest and hard-working Miracle World inhabitant but the corrupt and morally bankrupt shopkeepers hide behind the safety of their union and demand he play a game of janken for what he purchased. At least Kidd can take solace in the fact that once he’s defeated the forces of corruption, a ten ton weight sends the offender straight to Hell, a practical example of his long harbored Tea Party sensibilities. In the Japanese version, this is changed to sudden nudity, thus cementing that I will never understand Japanese humor.
This would be more of a minor inconvenience than anything else, except that bosses also follow the same pattern, leaving boss fights to random chance more than anything else. Naturally, playground/internet rumor has it that there is a hidden shop that will sell you the item that lets you read opponents minds, but I didn’t find it during my mostly-complete playthrough, leaving boss fights and gyrocopter shopping to chance and outright savestate abuse.
Nearly as obnoxious as the janken based mechanics would be the fact that Alex Kidd is incapable of manually attacking in the air. When fighting enemies on the ground, Kidd swings out with a boulder-sized fist capable of transmuting a car into a sack of janken-ready coins. But anytime Kidd takes advantage of his platform-requisite freakish vertical leap, he waits until he has reached the apex of his jump to stick out his foot, which makes the several mid-air block smashing puzzles more or less impossible. Beyond that, the player actually has to line up the enemy with the foot, making huge portions of the levels more or less unplayable. Like so many other aspects of the game, one can only assume this can be attributed to wanting to move past the iron-wrought albatross that was the Master System legacy in Japan and explore something new. Still, given that this was the only game that came out for nearly two months after Osomatsu-kun, games-starved early adopters could surely do a lot worse.
It’s really easy to mock Alex Kidd, something Sega referenced when, in a rare moment of self awareness, the Dreamcast release Segagaga saw him wistful for the days when people knew the name Alex Kidd. The games themselves are all average at best, each with half a dozen crippling flaws. The entire franchise more or less reeks of a committee effort to beat out Mario that no one really felt the need to bake further than absolutely necessary. But Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle – the mascot’s penultimate effort before rightfully being put in the great dustbin of misremembered nostalgia – is one of his better excursions. While the game is arcane and counter-intuitive in the way that so many games were in the latter days of the bubble economy, Alex Kidd has enough personality to slide by with a half-hearted shrug, embarrassingly sincere smile, and the acknowledgement that you paid, at most, pennies for the experience.