Friday, 13 July 2012

La-Mulana (Remake) (PC)

We all have that moment in gaming that was special to us. It didn't have to be gaming's peak, but it was that point in our lives when gaming was the perfect pastime and when everything felt new. The original La-Mulana, released on PC in 2005, was a carefully crafted homage to its creators' childhood memories of the MSX home computer, and especially Konami's formidable contributions to its library. With its ugly, 16-color palette that perfectly copies the awful Texas Instruments graphics chip found in so many MSX, ColecoVision, and SG-1000 systems, and even a choice of soundtracks that emulated different MSX audio chips, it was the ultimate MSX game; a loving recreation of the system's games not as they really were but as awesome as its author remembers them being.

Of course most of the potential audience out there has never played an MSX and Easter egg references to Tokimeki Memorial and SD Snatcher sail right over their heads without so much as a glimmer of recognition. Nigoro's remake attempts to take the great game that La-Mulana was and recontextualize it in a way that more retro-gamers can understand. The graphics have been redone in a recognizably retro but considerably updated style that evokes the Super NES but could fall anywhere in the 16-bit spectrum. Music likewise maintains its retro sensibilities, if not its authentic sound. Even the framerate has gotten a nice bump, and the game is now very fluid.

All of these retro-minded upgrades are certainly preferable to a completely modernized remake, but they sometimes clash with the game's residual 8-bit sensibilities. The sprites are still tiny 16x16 blocks, the screen doesn't scroll (except to pan to the next fixed screen), and the stiff controls, while representative of the style the original was going for, feels out of place in a 16-bit style game.

Underneath it all, La-Mulana still has to succeed on its merits as a game, and in that regard it still shines. Players take control of an unapologetic analogue of Indiana Jones as he explores the ancient ruins of La-Mulana. It's a sprawling platform adventure, not entirely unlike Cave Story, and vaguely modeled after Konami's oft-forgotten 8-bit triumph, Maze of Gallious. There are light RPG elements along side some pretty brutal Castlevania-style whip-cracking action, and everything is unapologetically old-school.

Some of these hardcore leanings seem like they might be a bigger barrier of entry than the MSX-style graphics, and yet the remake seems to embrace them fully. La-Mulana is sprawling, the kind of game we used to map out on graph paper to keep from getting lost, and there is very little in the way of story, dialog, or even signs to really tell you where to go. Save opportunities are infrequent and the need for trial and error is high, which will probably chase away many of the more casual gamers just looking to reconnect with some of their Super Nintendo memories.

For those of us who aren't as easily intimidated, however, La-Mulana is epic. This latest iteration adds even more content to what was already a 20+ hour undertaking, with a Metroid-like progression of unlocking interconnected areas. Like any good ancient ruin, there are tons of secrets to find, and for those so inclined, it feels like the kind of game you could sink a truly unhealthy amount of time into. In a landscape of disposable retro games that can be surmounted in a couple of sittings, La-Mulana stands out as a serious challenge for committed gamers.

Undeniably Nigoro's remake is a better looking, better sounding affair than its predecessor. The pixel art is actually quite lovely, and accented by a lot of transparency effects that add atmosphere without breaking the illusion of being a 16-bit game. The music, too, is as catchy and evocative of old-school gaming as ever. Despite all this, I have to question if moving the game from the 8-bit to the 16-bit era is really going to open it up to a wider audience, given its unabashed lack of hand-holding and high difficulty level.

The original La-Mulana was a very personal game. It was the work of a very small team focused on recreating a very specific moment in gaming, and whether or not we shared those memories, it could be understood that they were sharing their childhoods with us. In moving to a broader mish-mash of retro styles, it moves from celebration to a looser sort of homage, and there a bit of joy lost in the translation, even if the result is easier on the eyes and ears. Had Nigoro simply reimagined the entire game as a 16-bit relic, rather than just the graphics and sound, perhaps we could have found something new to fill that void, and opened the door for meaningful improvements to the gameplay as well.

As it stands, the enhancements to the original feel like a bit of a wash to me. Like those certain Commodore 64 games that made the leap to Amiga and somehow didn't feel any better, Nigoro's efforts never really cross the line, but I find myself hard pressed to endorse them as a real improvement either. The original graphics were authentic in their garishness and the new visuals feel a bit strange atop the same old chassis. For those less concerned with the particulars of the presentation, however, La-Mulana still oozes old-school charm in any form, and giving nostalgic gamers two flavors to choose from certainly doesn't hurt.

Nigoro's remake of La-Mulana is available to buy from the Playism store for $14.99 from the 13th of July 2012.

Download the English translation of the original freeware game here (from the Aeon Genesis website).
Purchase the PC Remake here (from the Playism store).
4 out of 5

Second Opinion

Let me step in with my opinion here: despite popular belief, La-Mulana is not a difficult game. Super Meat Boy is a difficult game; I Wanna Be the Guy is a difficult game. A difficult game feels daunting and occasionally looks impossible; you die endlessly to scrape another inch of progress. The idea of 'this is hard' is just not the right context.

No no, La-Mulana is a bully. It knocks you off platforms, annoys you with incomplete clues placed all over the game, and has the occasional arbitrarily opaque solution. But you never feel like it's a challenge per se. Instead, you constantly think "this *should* be easy, so what is wrong with me?"

A game like Super Meat Boy makes you feel like a newbie as you aspire to each challenge; it may cruelly slap you down but it always taunts and lures you forward. La-Mulana makes you feel like an idiot; it also doesn't care that you're there and it'll do whatever it wants whether you like it or not. And that casual indifference will make you angry. Very very angry. At one point, I was so pissed off I literally bled from my nose. I played the rest of that area with a cotton ball hanging over my lip. For the curious, it involved a very particular Life Orb in a very particular spot. You know the one. This game "crosses the line" several times at the expense of your sanity. It never does so with glee (like I Wanna Be the Guy), but rather with an infuriating shrug.

In my naivety, I hoped the easier controls and new enemy patterns would soften the game just a little bit. No no no. The new puzzles, replacing a few lost block puzzles, go way off the scale in "Suck it up, Princess". The fact that you must now manually use key items, means no more stumbling onto a solution by accident. If you're an arrogant masochist like me and insist on no walkthroughs (you won't make it, you will break eventually), you need a notebook to track any progress. This game surpasses Riven in difficulty; take notes about *everything* you see. Summarize every tablet, sketch all strange backgrounds, mark down exits to each area, write it all down. At one point, you'll need to learn how to count in La-Mulanese. Also, attack every wall.

You do not "play" La-Mulana. That word suggests fun. You suffer through La-Mulana, you *conquer* La-Mulana's puzzles, you childishly dance in your chair when you *defeat* La-Mulana's bosses. Did I enjoy this game? I honestly don't know. It's a merciless, frustrating, depressing, stressful, awful, wonderful experience. Yeah, you read that last word right. I love this game. I don't know why. It won't stop hitting me, but I love it anyway. I'm not sure what's wrong with my brain, but that's not the focus of this review.

I gotta say, I was initially worried about the remake. Losing all the Konami + MSX references was and still is a big deal to me (being a huge fan of them both). The loss of the mini-games is sad, but all the new stuff is very cool and it still retains that Maze of Galious feeling. Overall, I'm surprised to admit I think the remake is a stronger experience. Do I recommend it? Uhh. Well let me put it this way: if this review doesn't scare you away then you are definitely in the target audience. If that's the case, this game is a definite classic. It is right up there with all the best of the best and you'll still be reminiscing about it decades later. It literally has the power to change your life. Yeah it's one of *those* games.