The Mega Drive celebrates its 30th anniversary with a new fan-made game that pushes the 16-bit marvel to its limits.
Despite all their long years of service few consoles can ever look forward to a happy retirement; the move to a cupboard or charity shop window usually happening swiftly and without chance of reprieve. There is, after all, only so much room underneath the television. But no video game format really dies, not while there are fans that remember it. And especially not when there are some crazy enough to make new games for it, despite the last official release being two decades ago.
Fan-made retro games are actually extremely common, particularly on home computers like the Sinclair Spectrum, C64, and Amiga. But its not rare on consoles either and after a quick google we werent at all surprised to find fan games for formats as obscure as the Atari Jaguar and Virtual Boy. Compared to that, making a new Mega Drive (or Genesis as it was known in America) game seems perfectly reasonable.
Tanglewood started in 2016 as a Kickstarter campaign by ex-Travellers Tales and Dambuster Studios (née Free Radical Design) developer Matt Philips, who has worked on several Lego games and Homefront: The Revolution. Although he had some help from fellow fans involved in other modern day Mega Drive games, such as Pier Solar, Tanglewood is almost entirely his own work, made using original 1990s Sega development tools and programmed in raw 6800 assembly language.
Tanglewood didnt need to be made that way, its just the way Philips wanted to do things. Many indie games today may look retro but something like Shovel Knight, for example, isnt tied to any particular format and regularly does things no console of the era could manage. But Tanglewood is an actual Mega Drive in every way, right down to the restricted colour palette and equally limited sound chip.
Its so authentic that not only does the PC download come with a Mega Drive ROM, to use with an emulator, but you can buy a real cartridge that runs on any official Mega Drive or Genesis console from anywhere in the world (although that does involve pre-ordering here and waiting for another batch to be manufactured).
Its all a work of mad, obsessive love but whats interesting about Tanglewood is that its not the simple platformer you might assume from the screenshots. Whereas something like Pier Solar is a fairly straightforward homage to old school Japanese role-playing games, Tanglewood isnt quite like anything that existed on the Mega Drive in its heyday. The closest comparison is probably Oddworld: Abes Oddysee on the original PlayStation, but even then the similarities are mild.
Tanglewood is essentially a platform puzzler, in which you control a fox-like creature called Nymn. Although its not immediately obvious, the setting is not Earth and Nymn is right near the bottom of the food chain when compared to giant carnivorous wildlife and demonic-looking energy creatures. Hes essentially defenceless on his own and so his only options are to run and to use the various contraptions that litter the game world to neutralise his pursuers.
While the platform elements can get very tense when youre being chased Tanglewood isnt trying to be Sonic The Hedgehog, and the pacing is generally slower and more thoughtful than any normal mascot platformer. You can sense some influence from the Lego games in the puzzles, as you push blocks, activate machinery, and drop boulders on enemies heads. And while we wouldnt have minded a few that were significantly harder, the fact that we were never bored or frustrated suggests the balance is probably about right.
The game wouldve been perfectly acceptable if left at that, but theres several further complications that revolve around little fluffy ball creatures called Fuzzls. If you guide one of these back to its nest then it imbues you with a colour-coded power such as the ability to glide or ride on the back of larger creatures.
This immediately expands the range of possible puzzles, while another wrinkle is introduced in the form of a second fox who you can give a piggyback to and use to jump to higher platforms or help you through other hazards. Its all surprisingly involved and varied, and while death can come a bit too easily at times Tanglewood features both a modern checkpointing system and old school passwords to save you progress.
The only aspect were not entirely sold on is Nymns controls, which seem a touch frictionless at times. Were not clear if this is a mistake or something done on purpose to emphasise his vulnerability, but as a pure platformer this does not rank amongst the Mega Drives best. In terms of gameplay complexity and visuals though theres no question it wouldve been regarded as a classic at the time.
The graphics might look a bit drab in screenshots but the animation for Nymn is great and the way different colour palettes are used in each area works perfectly. Theres parallax scrolling, weather effects, and some especially beautiful sunset sections where Nymn is just a silhouette against a burning sky (and yes, we know the recent Donkey Kong Country games used a similar trick but this is running on a Mega Drive, dammit!).
Were always wary of neo-retro games that just try to copy what already exists but Tanglewood is fascinating for the fact that a game like this couldve existed back in the Mega Drive era but nobody thought to make it. But whether you take this as a lesson in changing trends in game design or simply a homage to a beloved console Tanglewood is a real triumph. Were glad the Mega Drive isnt dead and we take this as proof that it really can live forever – not only in our hearts but also on Steam.
In Short: The Mega Drive lives again with a new game thats both a technical marvel and a surprisingly complex puzzle platformer.
Pros: Incredibly good graphics, animation, and music. Interesting puzzle mechanics and a wide range of additional abilities. Clever level design and well-paced mix of gameplay elements.
Cons: The controls could do with more a little more grip. Puzzles never really evolve into anything genuinely brain-teasing.
Formats: Mega Drive (reviewed) and PC
Price: £13.99 (PC)/£54.00 (Mega Drive)
Publisher: Big Evil Corporation
Developer: Big Evil Corporation
Release Date: 14th August 2018
Age Rating: N/A