The Wii, and Nintendo platforms as a whole, have a short history of seeing the release of games initially made by independent developers. It happened with Cave Story, published by Nicalis, and now it happened again with La-Mulana. First released on Japanese WiiWare in June 2011, the game was supposed to be released in the West as well, by the same publisher. However, that never happened, due to Nintendo apparently refusing to give the localised version the green light with the DLC content from the Japanese version. This was also due to WiiWare sales declining at a frightening rate in the last couple of years. Indeed, it didn't help that developer Nigoro spent quite a long time working on the Japanese release, endlessly pushing back its WiiWare release to a period when interest in WiiWare had perhaps declined far too much to be truly profitable (Nintendo's minimum download amount threshold being the main reason for that). However, the team must be commended for such perseverance in trying to get the game into gamers' hands, especially in the West where the situation seemed impossible to solve. Behold the English version of La-Mulana on WiiWare, now courtesy of EnjoyUp Games! Cubed3 finally got the chance to see what the fuss was about with this much hyped and discussed piece of software.
Originally a PC freeware game made to look like an old MSX game, complete with an MSX boot screen mock-up, now cut from the WiiWare version for obvious copyright issues, the game was first released in 2005. The graphics at the time were purposely low colour, and the soundtrack made to sound like 8-bit music. Fast forward to 2011 and the WiiWare release (and the PC release from 2012 for that matter), the game now sports a completely overhauled visual style. What originally looked like a very early 8-bit game now looks and sounds like a late 16-bit/early 32-bit game, with highly colourful graphics, a higher resolution allowing for more detailed scenery, and a soundtrack that sounds like it's made of complex samples that come close to sounding fully orchestrated.
As for the story, things seem to have been pretty much left in place (comparison being made with the English fan-translation of the original 2005 PC-release), except perhaps for some much more refined and detailed dialogue to match the now more modern visuals. Players are put in the boots of Japanese-American archaeologist Lemeza Kosugi, gone to La-Mulana in search of his father who disappeared after claiming to have discovered that said ruins were at the origin of every antique civilisation found on Earth. Inside the ruins, not only are the skills as a player of platform games put to the test, but also the wits, because the key to progressing through the adventure is to solve extremely obscure riddles. There is the ability to jump, use a main weapon (a whip when starting but more become available further in), a secondary weapon that comes with limited ammo, and a third object that gives an additional ability depending on which one is set. In short, the only thing this game seems to lack is the Indiana Jones branding, and if present here would be the best video game adaptation of the franchise ever conceived (save perhaps for the LucasArts adventure games, but that's a totally different genre). The likeness of Lemeza to the famous professor Jones, right down to the attire and several-days-long beard, is indeed quite obvious.
Some differences are present, though. Lemeza never goes on an adventure without his trusty...laptop! Along the way, shops -- even inside the antique ruins -- will sell pieces of software for the laptop, the Mobile Super X system (a nicely disguised reference to the original allusion to the MSX. Clever!). Each programme consumes a portion of the 1GB of RAM initially available, limiting the amount of software that can be running at any given time. Some pieces of software are totally mandatory to progress in the game. For example, there is a need to buy an item that allows the reading of carved stone tablets found throughout the ruins, along with reading memories left behind by the skeletons of previous explorers who met their terrible fate within the depths of La-Mulana. However, said tablets are in the majority of cases written in odd scriptures that are incomprehensible. A piece of software for the portable PC will translate them automatically. Other programmes merely help with exploration, like one that rings every time a room holding a hidden shop is entered.
The whole game seems to draw inspiration from various great classics. The whole ruins being divided into individual areas, interconnected into one huge maze-like map is very reminiscent of the Metroidvania type of games. The inventory progressively expanding abilities, giving access to new areas previously inaccessible, resembles that of The Legend of Zelda. A hero equipped with a whip obviously reminds of Castlevania, as well. The big 2D side-scrolling world being divided into rooms is reminiscent of plenty of old-school games, primarily Konami MSX games like the original Castlevania, Vampire Killer. Admittedly, the most obvious source of inspiration seems to be Knightmare II: the Maze of Galious, of which it borrows many elements. If any of these elements is appealing, there's a good chance they will be just as enjoyable inside La-Mulana.
Like a lot of games that originated as freeware PC games, La-Mulana puts a lot of emphasis on the challenge. Though not quite up there with the likes of I Wanna be the Guy or Syobon Action, in which the challenge lay in learning the hundreds of traps by heart and the ways of avoiding them, the original PC version of La-Mulana proposed quite a heavy challenge without relying too heavily on such cruel devices. While some of the difficulty was toned down for this WiiWare release, namely by making the action more visible through refined graphics, reaching the end will still be easier said than done. Excellent skills with a controller will be required, or even with a USB keyboard, since the WiiWare iteration allows for playing the game the way it was played in the original freeware format.
The biggest challenge however, as Cubed3 was play-testing it, seemed to lie within the puzzles. To progress, one has to find in each area a red Ankh jewel -- usually well hidden -- to be used in front of an Ankh cross, also normally out of sight, which makes the guardian of the area appear, whom players need to defeat. However, even the way players progress in the game isn't made very obvious from the start, and there is a requirement to find someone in the ruins who will tell all. To find the location of both and how to make them appear, since they are normally impossible to see, Lemeza has to read pretty much every single carved tablet in each area, some of which are also hidden or locked away behind doors or walls that require the solving of yet another obscure conundrum.
Taking down notes of every possible hint found during the adventure, very much like would have been done in old school games from which this one is inspired, turns out mandatory for anyone to make progress. A piece of software can be found within the game that allows the recording of all messages, thankfully. However, it does not allow an infinite amount to be kept, and will not tell where they were encountered in the first place, meaning written notes remain the best way to figure things out, just like was required back when the MSX was still around. Likewise, a map system is included, which must also be unlocked, but doesn't provide much help other than giving the name of the room currently in, and the general position within the current area.
That being said, the game is well documented on the Internet to help with tricky sections, should a situation arise where something becomes unable to be solved due to the very obtuse enigmas on offer. However, the core of the experience La-Mulana offers lies right there: to find the solutions on your own. This is the epitome of the Metroidvania style - players are not told in what order to explore each area, nor where to go next. Figuring out a lot of things, in a very old-school fashion, is joyous. It seems fitting that one of the last big WiiWare releases, if not the last, offers possibly one of the biggest challenges any hardcore gamer could find in the current generation of home consoles, as a last cry to the world that the Wii isn't just about casual games. Indeed, even the most seasoned players out there might find their ego crushed by the brutal difficulty this game can demonstrate at times.
While the jumping physics take a little time to get accustomed to, due to it being a bit different from Mario, the reference of the genre, the gameplay in its entirety is perfectly crafted and shouldn't be any source of problems during the exploration of those dangerous ruins.
Some light traces of compression artififact can be witnessed on some of the 2D art, but it's not too noticeable and doesn't alter the art style in any negative way. Graphics are purposely made to look like a retro game, and this is a great success.
Excellent soundtrack and good sound effects will accompany players along the way and help make this adventure game a most epic one.
Even without the DLC originally available in the Japanese version, the game still remains quite meaty and is sure to provide hours of gameplay.
It took quite a lot of effort from all the parties involved in the release of this game to finally get it out for the North American and PAL markets. These people have to be congratulated for caring about Wii players who were still eagerly awaiting the release of this masterpiece of 'modern' old-school gaming. Rarely has such a well designed and nightmarishly difficult game on Wii been found, and it comes to fill the gap for those who love a good challenge -- and a tough one this truly is. Whether it's to show the world that people still care about old-school games or those with heaps of challenge, or just to send a message that there is still an audience for WiiWare content, with the hope to find more of those on the Wii U eShop, be sure to spend those Nintendo Points. Or even simply because of a sheer love of games in this genre, or the various series it clearly draws inspiration from, get this game. La-Mulana takes elements from fan-favourites, makes them its own by altering the formula a bit, and mixes them into a unique package that manages remarkably well to execute what it attempted to provide. It can only be hoped that more content from Nigoro appears on Nintendo platforms in the future, for that reason -- but to do so, players have to play their part, and give the game its chance.
I've just got the game and am about the dive in. Rudy, I have high hopes. This better not let me down
Readers, expect an interview with Nigoro very soon
Be sure to share your own view then, Adam.
I only had chance to play about 30 minutes yesterday, but it kind of reminded me a little bit of Faxanadu from the NES. The jumping really is awkward and I'm surprised they didn't sort that out before release...the way around it is to always run and then jump, rather than do a stationery jump.
There are occasions when you HAVE to do jumps starting from a stationary position. But I won't say any more. I'll leave it up to you to discover it. I didn't find it that awkward personally, after an hour or so, I got the hang of it. Perhaps not the most intuitive jumping ability we've seen after year of being fed tons of 2D Mario games, but certainly more realistic than Mario's ability to jump forward and inexplicably change direction in midair , and more intuivitive still than most classic 2D castlevanias which were also close in gameplay (Dracula X: Vampire's Kiss on SNES and Rondo of Blood on PC-Engine in mind here).
I think you have far more experience than me at this sort of game! Perhaps when I was younger, but nowadays my skills at tricky 2D platform-esque titles have faded considerably due to lack of time to practise!
I'm intrigued to hear the thoughts of other readers. The game's been the No.1 selling WiiWare game in the US and Europe since release, so clearly people are picking it up...
Actually yeah,, there's a bit of Rick Dangerous as well in it (Can't believe I didn't think of that Amiga classic myself before ). It's much more refined here though, especially gameplay-wise.