Retro Review: Alex Kidd in Miracle World (Sega Master System) – NichePlays

What do you get when you need a mascot to compete with the Super Mario Bros but haven’t learned how to run around at the speed sound yet?

Well, whatever you get sure looks plucked out of an 80s shonen.

Released in 1986, Alex Kidd in Miracle World is a 2D platformer for the Sega Master System and follows the titular martial artist Alex Kidd on a quest to rescue Prince Egle and Princess Lora from the evil Janken the Great. It was developed by Sega themselves with the intention of being the company’s mascot as well as their answer to Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros, who by the mid-80’s were already on their way to becoming the face of gaming. Despite positive reviews upon its release, and several sequels on the Master System and the Genesis, Alex Kidd would later be replaced by Sonic the Hedgehog as the company mascot and was then relegated to the sidelines with, well, let’s just say a lot of other Sega franchises. 

Now I’m a bit of a novice as far as my familiarity with Alex Kidd goes as, while I’ve always been aware of the character and even used him in my main racer in the likes of Sega All Star Racing Transformed and the fantastically underrated Sega Superstars Tennis, I actually only started playing his games about a year ago, and even then, I’ve only played through Alex Kidd in Miracle World and Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle, which I understand to be among the two less popular installments to the series. 

Still, I’ve always liked the character and idea of Alex Kidd in general and, because Miracle World is getting a remake later this month for modern platforms, I thought now would be a great time to revisit his inaugural adventure. Because, like I said earlier, the game did receive some positive reviews back in the day and the character was clearly popular enough to warrant being the face of Sega for a couple of years, so there’s clearly an alright game here.

But does it hold up? Because I may just called it alright, but whether or not this game is worth revisiting in 2021 is a different story entirely, especially given the fact that this game came out in a time when side scrolling platformers were still in their infancy. 

Gameplay

Alex Kidd in Miracle World takes place across 17 stages and juggles a variety of gameplay styles within them. While the majority of the adventure is a standard side scrolling platformer, Alex Kidd does mix things up with some vertical platforming, some optional vehicle sections that auto-scroll, and some levels that forgo scrolling entirely. There’s also one of the game’s most well known features, boss battles that revolve around games of rock, paper, scissors. And they’re exactly what they sound like they’d be; you select your attack, listen to a short jingle, and then pray to RNG-esus that you win two out of three rounds against your opponent. But more on that in a bit.


As far as each of the game’s individual gameplay styles go, they’re all executed quite well and play about as well as you’d expect them to. They do feel a little unrefined at points and could’ve probably used a bit more time in the oven, but is pretty good for a game that was released just a year after Super Mario Bros nailed the side scrolling platformer genre. Plus thanks to the variety of gameplay styles, you won’t actually spend that much time playing one particular style, which helps prevent the game’s slightly clunkier moments from getting too frustrating.

Speaking of slightly clunkier moments, it’s high time I brought up Alex Kidd’s combat. Being a martial artist, you can dispose of enemies by using a standard punch, which is hilariously misrepresented in the game’s American box art and makes Alex Kidd look more like Mr. Fantastic from the Fantastic 4 than a martial artist. However, the actual process of hitting enemies in the game leaves a bit to be desired. Simply put, it doesn’t have enough range to be all that useful and I also had some issues with how reliable its hitboxes were. Because of it, I actually found myself avoiding combat for most of the game as it made for more trouble than I thought it was worth.

However, it paled in comparison to what I thought might was the worst part of this game for me, which was the rock, paper, scissors boss battles that I had mentioned a bit ago. They totally break up the pace of the game by forcing the action to come to a halt and by making boss battles a complete game of chance, as opposed to a test of your abilities. And while it’s somewhat expected that losing at these boss battles leads to you losing a life, that’s still pretty frustrating and feels just a little cheap due to the inherent gamble of the boss battle itself. The game does step away from this towards the end of the game by giving you a few “normal” boss battles, as well as a few simple combat challenges after a rock, paper, scissors match, but by then its far too little too late. As a game about a martial artist, you just assume you’d do more martial arts or get to use weapons or items against a boss then you actually end up getting to.

That’s not to say that you don’t get any items in the game though, as you actually get to visit shops multiple times throughout your adventure that allow you to pick up power ups and other temporary abilities to help you on your journey. These abilities include being able to shoot fireballs, temporary invincibility, and even the ability to float through the air. These powerups really come in handy too, especially towards the end of the game. If it weren’t for the fact that I went out of my way to buy power ups whenever I could, I honestly think I would’ve gotten stuck in some of the final stages here, as Alex Kidd in Miracle World is actually pretty hard.

Part of the game’s difficulty comes from it often feeling like Sega built Alex Kidd’s engine around being able to quickly zip around the world, but also designed stages that were full of obstacles and hazards to stop you from doing so. In a lot of ways, it’s actually a lot like the first Sonic the Hedgehog game and how that game was built around a physics based engine but forced you to spend a chunk of the game waiting for blocks to move on lava or waiting for labyrinths to be zoned. Movement itself also feels a bit slippery here and makes trying to blaze through these stages an exercise in futility. This comes to a head in the games final levels, which play more like a traditional non-side scrolling platformer and has you navigating through a maze that’s complete with dead ends, traps, and hazards at every turn. On paper, there’s nothing wrong with this sort of design, especially when it’s coming up so late in a game, but I don’t think it was
implemented all that well here due to how out of left field it was.

It’s sorta like how the last castle in Super Mario Bros keeps looping endlessly until you can figure out a puzzle sequence to get to Bowser. And my gripe with that here is the same with my gripe with that kind of shakeup in game design in Mario 1; because this stuff isn’t telegraphed to the player in advance, it comes across as frustrating and unfair, as opposed to the culmination of an adventure. And as a result of that, it’s less satisfying to complete than a simple rehash of several of the gameplay styles from earlier in the game, done back to back.


I mean, it’s literally the same issue I have with the rock, paper, scissors boss battles; it kills the buzz of being close to the end of the game because it doesn’t feel like a reward for everything you’ve been through up to that point. And that’s no to say that doing something like that couldn’t be a fun or clever way to end an adventure. With a bit more work, it could actually be pretty subversive and be a part of the game’s charm. 

And honestly, maybe that is a part of the game’s charm for some players and, if it is, that’s awesome. But it just didn’t do much for me personally. 

Visuals

Visually, Alex Kidd in Miracle World looks pretty alright. I won’t claim that it looks like one of the best games on the Master System or anything, mostly because I’m not that familiar with the hardware, but everything looks clean and has a playful anime aesthetic to it that seems to be mostly inspired by the work of Akira Toriyama, the creator of Dragon Ball. In fact, the game actually began development as a Dragon Ball game and it kinda shows, especially if you’re a fan of the original manga and anime. For example, one of the levels ends with Alex fighting against a bull, which is similar to how Goku trained fighting a monster named inoshikacho when he was a kid. The levels also feature a pickup that even looks a bit like a recolored dragon ball, and I could totally see the environments you travel through in the game as having composites from the iconic manga. Hell, even the rock, paper, scissors mechanic from the boss battles appears multiple times in Dragon Ball, such as in Goku’s fight with Jackie Chun at the World Martial Arts tournament.

If you guys can’t tell, I kinda like Dragon Ball. I know, I’m like every other guy in his twenties for saying that, but it’s true.

Even if these similarities are coincidental at best, there’s no denying that Alex Kidd in Miracle World carries what could best be described as a playful permutation of that Toriyama-esque charm. It was developed at a time when the famous manga artist’s popularity was on the rise and back when he was better known for comedic series’  like Dragon Ball or Dr. Slump than he was for stuff like the slightly more serious Dragon Ball Z. Even though he wasn’t directly involved with this game, that comedic sensibility makes it into this game well intact.

Some of the environments that you’ll get to explore include lush 8-bit forests, aquatic ocean levels, the inside of a volcano, and several castles. Each of the locations feature their own slew of different hazards to avoid as well as original enemies in each of these areas. While that may not sound all too impressive, it actually is once you consider the context of the era in which this game came out. As a title released in 1986, it was likely still a relatively new thing for games to include this kind of variety in them due to how limited memory was back then. I know I’ve brought up Super Mario Bros a lot already, but it’s a great example of what I’m talking about here. While that game provided a ton of well thought out and fun levels to traverse, it managed to do so on a measly 256 kilobit cartridge thanks to the creative recycling of assets and music. And don’t get me wrong, Alex Kidd does this too from time to time, but it also goes out of it’s way to mix up the visuals and the action that goes along with it.


Despite the limited hardware it’s on, Alex Kidd in Miracle World is a joy to look at and does a fine job of illustrating it’s world and characters. While the game skimps on giving its characters more than a few frames of animation for any action, it did come out relatively early in the Master System’s life cycle and doesn’t look all that bad all things considered.

I really don’t have that much else to say about the visuals here, other than the fact that they’re colorful and get the job done. 

Music

The same also goes for Alex Kidd’s music, which is mostly inoffensive 8-bit goodness. While the main theme of the game is actually really catchy and, for whatever reason, reminds me of a mix of the Zyu Rangers theme and Madonna’s “In the Groove,” the majority of the games soundtrack doesn’t do much to impress me.

Thankfully though, the main theme is played throughout multiple levels and is likely the most used musical piece in the entire game. And while the main theme does get a little repetitive by the end of the adventure, it’s also fairly excusable given the point in gaming history that this game came out in. After all it was 1986, a time in which many of the rules and conventions for gaming were still getting figured out. It was still common for games to attribute songs to specific level types as opposed to the individual stages themselves in order to save space on a cartridge. The fairly small and limited soundtrack here isn’t a flaw so much as it is a convention of the medium.

Closing

So does Alex Kidd in Miracle World hold up? While the game may have gotten some very favorable reviews back in the day and also spawned a series that ran for around half a dozen games, I’ve unfortunately gotta say that I wasn’t the biggest fan of this one. 


I don’t think it’s a bad game, by any stretch of the word, and in the context of where gaming was a medium in 1986, it’s actually quite good. But 35 years later, it does come across as a little clunky and underdeveloped. 

And honestly, that’s my main takeaway from playing this. Alex Kidd in Miracle World is an alright game with good music, passable visuals, and a special place in my heart for it’s spotin the history of Sega, as well as in gaming as a whole. However, due to some clunky gameplay and boss battles that feel more like mini-games than anything else, I find myself stopping just short of recommending this one. It just hasn’t aged all that well.


Still, I did find myself having fun with it, so I can’t completely disavow this title. If anything, I think my lukewarm response to the game is proof that the game did need a remake, and I actually am really curious about how it’s soon-to-be-released reimagining is going to turn out.


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