Review: TANGLEWOOD - A new and original game for the SEGA Mega Drive / Genesis

MD - Tanglewood screenshot start

When a designer and programmer who has helped produce a number of celebrated video games in the modern era with AAA studios such as Traveller’s Tales announces that they are going to be creating a new game for the 16-Bit Sega Mega Drive (or Genesis to our North American friends), here at Retro Collect we invariably sit up and take notice.

The result of that announcement is Tanglewood, the highly anticipated debut game to be released by UK based Indy studio Big Evil Corporation. Headed up by Matt Phillips and his team, Tanglewood's arrival follows a successful Kickstarter campaign that ran between November and December 2016. Retro Collect has played through the game to provide you with a review and as you would expect, details how the game plays on original Mega Drive hardware.

Tanglewood is a puzzle-platformer that is easily recognisable aesthetically to other 2D titles of the 16-Bit era. That it has been produced and released for the SEGA Mega Drive on a cartridge for those of us who celebrate the physcial product should be exciting enough, but the game has also been developed using only 1990s SEGA development tools and programmed in pure 68000 assembly language to help create that authentic16-bit experience. This means that gamers can once again experience the nostalgia of a new 16-bit title running on all official variants of SEGA’s original 16-Bit classic console. As you may expect in 2018, Tanglewood is not just limited to a physical Mega Drive cartridge, it is also available on Steam (PC, Mac, Linux) and the digital versions also include the Mega Drive ROM for emulation/flashcart use. However, this is Retro Collect, so we got our hands on the physical cartridge to provide you with the low down on how game plays out on SEGA's 16-Bit console.

MD - Tanglewood logo 2

Tanglewood follows a young, fox-like creature called Nymn. At the start of the game, we find the games main protagonist lost after waking to find himself separated from his family in the heart of a dark and menacing forest that gives the game its name. The backstory tells us that Nymn is unable to find his way back to his pack and their underground home, so you are initially tasked with navigating Nymn to survive the night in the Tanglewood. Of course, no dark and forboding world is going to be complete without a few inhabitants who don't take so kindly to your presence, so Nymn must use his skills of evasion, special abilities, traps and puzzles to progress through the games 8 distinctive chapters, each coming with their own "Acts". Thankfully, help initially comes in the form of Fuzzls, who populate the game world but who seem to enjoy placing themselves in places that only a combintion of traditional platforming and puzzle solving can reach. Sometimes, returning a Fuzzl to its nest can be a puzzle in itself as they have to be rolled to their destination and the game world is beset with obstacles (in the form of physical objects, living things or the elements) that ensure it's never quite that straight forward. Succesfully returning a Fuzzl to it's nest, however, embues Nymn with an ability that corresponds to the colour of the fluffy ball-like creatures you've helped. Once rescued, Nymn can change the colour of his coat to match that of the Fuzzl. Rescuing a yellow Fuzzl, for example, will grant Nymn with the time limited ability to glide through the air, putting previously inaccessible platforms within reach. Green Fuzzl's Colour grant the temporary ability to freeze time, which is crucial for natigating some of the games very well thought-out puzzles. There is a temporary ability granted to possess one of your main hunters, the Djakk, by rescuing a blue Fuzzl, which in turn allows Nymn to gain your nemesis' speed and huge leap as he rides on its back. Each colour ability brings with it a means to progress to the next check point in each act or complete the chapter, so playing around with your new abilities allows you to identify what you need to do next and where to head.

MD - Tanglewood screenshot 1

The one thing that becomes more evident as you progress is that Tanglewood isn't your typical left to right platformer. The emphasis leans on the player to learn the layout of each Act and then working out how to get from A to B. This may sometimes find you doubling back on yourself equipped with a new ability or object to make something elsewhere happen within the level. You may be climbing up high or powering a mine shaft lift to get to parts of the act that become accessible. The game provides some traditional platforming staples, such as the use of check points (represented by totems) that you will start from again should you die; walkways that break after you walk on them; pushing or pulling of objects; pressure plates that trigger something to happen elsewhere and there may even be the odd minecart or two to ride in. More modern era platforming traits are also evident later on with some Halo-esque running to the end of the level whilst all behind you is left to destruction. Nymn gets to traverse land and water and without revealing too much, he will find further help on his quest as you move through Chapter 3. The gameplay mechanics thereafter employ additional abilities and puzzles that remind of  Mega Drive classic, World of Illusion, in more ways than just the ambient score that plays out through the Mega Drive's sound chip. The excellent AI of your helping hand is also notable too, as once they are helped to get to their intended destination that is inaccessible to Nymn, they instinctively know where to go and what to do. Such reliance on the AI doing what you anticipated it to do when instructed could have led to a frustrating gameplay experience if the supporting cast didn't play along, but Tanglewood is one of those titles that makes you feel like YOU made a mistake and the sense you can put it right the next time. Gamers who have grown up with 8-Bit and 16-Bit platformers will be returned to the familiarity of needing to jump from the right spot from platform to platform and expect your timing skills to be put to the test at times. 

MD - Tanglewood screenshot 2It's fair to surmise that homebrew coding has been with us for almost as long as gaming systems have existed. Historically, “bedroom” coders recreated games from the arcade’s for their generation of home computers so that they could be played at home. The trend typically leaned towards the creation of games that replicated titles from the same or previous era’s. Over recent years. it’s become increasingly more commonplace to see new titles emerge for previous generations of gaming systems and this evolution has not only led to the realisation of new titles for some of our most celebrated gaming platforms, but the recreation of physical media and packaging to instill an authentic and tangible buzz of excitement.

We can certainly appreciate why new games are being developed for previous generations of games consoles, given how these systems continue to be celebrated from legions of a fans around the world. There is a significant point to note in recognising that the inspiration for new titles on previous gen hardware can also come from titles that didn’t exist in the time of the system it is playing on. Tanglewood exemplifies this in providing Mega Drive gamers with an opportunity to experience a new game on Sega’s 30 year old gaming system whilst employing game mechanics and inspirational nods to more recent titles. If Tanglewood had been released in the Mega Drive’s retail life, it’s not difficult to imagine the reviewers of yesteryear celebrating the originality of a game that had no score displayed on the screen and no set amount of lives to lose before it was Game Over. It's perhaps easy to forget that such concepts were not readily accepted before the likes of ICO or Dark Souls, so whilst Tanglewood has sought to provide that authentic16-Bit experience, it does so by utilising some gaming traits that are more reminiscent of the modern era. Matt Phillips has cited gaming classics such as Another World, Abe’s Oddysee and Play Dead's modern masterpiece, Limbo, as three of Tanglewood’s main influences and this is represented not only in some of the visual style (the latter notably when you reach Chapter 6), but also in the gameplay, where a dark foreboding ambience and storyline shows itself at work. What this means is that Tanglewood feels like a 16-Bit Mega Drive game, but brings with it experiences that could only have been inspired from more recent generations of gaming to provide something of a unique experience on the console. The limitations placed on the game was of course going to be dictated by the ability of the hardware it is running on, but it's to Big Evil Corp's credit that we get to to see how some modern game mechanics can transfer succesfully to a 16-Bit title. 

There are little things that Tanglewood does that may not be readily apparent unless you are able to consciously go back to the Mega Drive’s era to be able to observe that what you are seeing would have been something of significant note if this had been coded 30 years ago. For example, pressing the Mega Drive’s “start” button pauses the game and in so doing, the games colourful visuals revert to a greyscale palette. In the modern era, with seemingly limitless memory in which to programme what the development team’s envisage, we take the use of colour and graphical trickery for granted. In the Mega Drive’s retail life, games such as Traveller’s Tales own Mickey Mania used similar visual trickery as a selling point. Here with Tanglewood, we can see the same visual treats being used without fanfare but it’s subtle things like this that shows off the care and attention to detail that has gone in to creating the game. Similarly, we have some clear, audible thunder claps coming from the Mega Drive’s sound chip that are instrumental in providing the cues as to when to navigate Nymn through the forest as a big storm brews towards the end of chapter 2. The use of sound to inform your timing and actions is certainly not new to gaming, but if you employ the perspective that what you are experiencing on your beloved 16-Bit Mega Drive isn’t something that you would typically find in the console’s library, it provides you with a sense that you are playing something that could only exist as a result of some influence from games that have been borne from more recent times.

The Mega Drive pad doesn’t possess any of the analogue button sensitivities that the modern era controllers enjoy, yet the level of control that is extolled on Nymn’s jumping ability is something to celebrate, with variation on the height of the jump and manoeuvrability in flight being available to the player. The tight controls mean that you very rarely feel that you have been cheated when you die, and you are absolutley going to die a lot. Harking back to some of the games that have inspired Tanglewood may have indicated that this would be the case, but this is more than a traditional 2D 16-Bit era platformer, progress requires that you learn from your mistakes to advance next time. 

MD - Tanglewood screenshot 3

As could be said of all video games, the particular genre is likely to dictate Tanglewood's audience to a point. There is certainly much here for the traditional platform fan to enjoy. The aforementioned influences to the games creation should equally serve as indictors as to what you can expect. Being able to play a game on the Mega Drive that doffs its cap in the direction of some more recent celebrated titles is something that deserves to be experienced. The game's visuals appear a little repetitive at first as Nymn navigates the forest canopy, but they certainly become more varied and colourful as the game progresses, notably in the wonderful Limbo-esque sillhouetted Deadwood area of Chapter 6. Sound for the most part is functional, with the use of ambient sound and a sometimes subtle but fitting soundtrack provided by Freezedream. There are some nice samples that further remind of the Oddworld series beyond the puzzle solving and non-linear traversing through levels. Much of Tanglewood's success lies in it's requirement on the player to discover and learn what to do, so invariably, this may have some impact on how many times that game can be played through compared to some of the systems platforming big-hitters (where there are times to be beaten and high scores to be broken). That said, this is similarly true of the titles that have inspired Tanglewood. The password save feature allows for progression to be resumed from the last Act and with the game being on cartridge, you are not left waiting long before Nymn is in under your control again. There are also some knowing nods to the Mega Drive titles of old in that a Sound Test is available from the title screen and of course, leaving Nymn alone for a short while will see him go through little animations until a button is pressed on the Mega Drive's control pad (Big Evil Corp clearly recognised how important this was to include but also highlights their attention to detail). Completion brings up the ever welcome level select from the title screen, allowing for a return to parts of the game for the perfect completion, including finding all of the hidden objects that are to be found within the game to afford some additional replay value.

Tanglewood is a game that once again demonstrates the Mega Drive's ability to provide a quality 2D platform adventure experience. The inclusion of some mechanics from the modern-day means that it comes highly recommended and a worthy addition to your gaming library. If you were one of the kickstarter backers eagerly anticipating the game dropping through your letterbox soon, you should find the wait to have been worthwhile. For those who didn't, as a physical product, the game can be purchased for a price that is equitably commensurate with the price of what a new Mega Drive game would have cost back in the console's retail life, resplendent with a choice of cover art that is synonmymous with your region of choice. Tanglewood can proudly take its position alongside the systems established library. It provides a different experience for the console and we can now look forward to seeing which direction Big Evil Corp take their next game in, especially if Matt and his team can recapture a similar moody, dark style that doesn't typify the 16-Bit console era again.

 Tanglewood was released on August 14 2018 for SEGA Mega Drive and Steam, priced digitally at £13.95 / $17.99 USD / €14.95.The cartridge version can be ordered for £54.00. Boxed cartridge for SEGA Mega Drive, Genesis, and compatible clones. The Multi-region cartridge supports PAL, NTSC, and NTSC-J format consoles.

Game FAQ's:

Developer: Big Evil Corp

Platforms: SEGA Mega Drive, PC, Mac, Linux

Genre: Platformer

Steam Price: £13.95 / $17.99 USD / €14.95

Release date: August 14, 2018 (Digital) / Coming soon (Mega Drive physical)

Order your copy here:

 MD - Tanglewood press release pics of carts

Last Updated ( 25 October 2018 )  

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