Yes you read that right, Mega Drive. The SEGA video game console from the 90s has a new game for it. Just the fact that such a thing can exist is amazing and should be applauded for the sheer technical feat alone. That being said we’ll have a look to see if the game holds up by modern gaming standards or does it deserve to be buried in the past?
Tanglewood is a 2D platform puzzler that isn’t trying to emulate a nostalgic retro feel with 16-bit graphics over a modern gaming system, the game runs an original Mega Drive file and emulates this instead. You can easily download the file yourself from the Steam game and emulate it using other software or systems (it ran fine on Gens and various others when I tried it). This is super handy as if you have a PSP or retro emulator system as you can simply transfer the ROM and saves to this and continue to play it on the go. It also means if you’ve a Mega Drive 1 or 2 kicking around you can order a cartridge and pop it in (as most people who backed this on Kickstarter are doing now)
If you’ve ever played the original Disney’s The Lion King on Mega Drive or any of the character platformer games of that age you’ll feel at home here. The running and jumping has that sort of slippery almost imperfect system that relies on inertia and memory as much as quick reflexes. It has the Sonic style spin-dash jump but don’t expect to be using it to attack anything, this is a 1 touch and your dead – trial and error affair. There are power-ups to mix things up but you will largely spending your time exploring for a power ball, rolling it around into a plant lamp and figuring out how to use it to progress further.
Progress throughout will likely be hampered by many issues that plague games of the period it’s emulating though. There will be times where you will need to look at the game’s manual to figure out what to do and how to progress. Also you’ll find you have to remind yourself often that it’s a Mega Drive game not a modern game with a bit of retro style as there are little niggles and slippery jumps that just feel right at home on the Mega Drive but not to a modern platform game. The trial and error nature of many of the later levels will lead to numerous cheap deaths and control crunching frustrated deaths that just feel like the game is being unfair and this is mirroring aspects of games from the period to the state where it didn’t need to.
Given Tanglewood is a single-player solo experience the story is going to be the main selling point and just like any indie darling it’s simple to start with but incredibly deep the further you get in. It’s easy to compare its setup to games such as Limbo and Unravel but it feels like the story has big moments that occur which are much more memorable. Tanglewood has a narrative that is sharp, painful and completely unexpected and its worth playing for those stand out moments when things do happen. There is a mechanic that opens up halfway through the game and it’s staggering how well handled and how functional it is. The annoying problem is that I can’t really go into detail as to how and why it works as it’s spoilerific and this game deserves to have its secrets naturally explored.
Tanglewood looks the part but given it was developed on original SEGA Mega Drive hardware it would be impossible for it not to. It’s technically impressive for what they manage to get the system to show and the frame rate is stable throughout (even when emulating on a netbook or the Wii) The strange thing is that the aesthetic really reminds me more of an early PC game rather than the Mega Drive. Especially with what little music is to hand and the sound effects that are very adventure game circa windows 3.1. All of the animation is repeated in various forms but it’s charming as hell so you’ll be overlooking this. The design work at play here is fantastic overall but it’s let down by the fact that most of the game will be in silence with the occasional sound effect. There are flourishes of music here and there but plenty of stages you’ll be rolling a ball to silence waiting for something to happen.
The Steam release does have a continue system but I would still highly recommend you take advantage of the password system. You’ll also want to have a go at emulating the game if only to have save states as you’ll find this cures a lot of the frustration from falling into spikes, running into a monster or various other deaths that you’ll swear more than a few times about. Tanglewood doesn’t have a lives or Game Over screen thankfully but the pause between a death and restart will be grating as you continue and the bosses don’t make it any easier. Puzzles rarely get more complicated than finding a thing and rolling it into a machine/plant and thankfully the levels are designed so you can’t break the puzzle by accident. This won’t stop you dying by accidentally missing a jump halfway through sorting it mind and you’ll find yourself restarting all over again.
There are moments of fantastic level design on show in Tanglewood. I noticed that the first area has a wall and a hole and if you try to just jump for the following tree you land in the bouncing hole. It alleviates the need for a tutorial to pop up and tell you that’s what they’re there for and it’s just one example. There are plenty of early moments of clever level design to get you to know how it works. It’s just a shame the difficulty curve stops being challenging and starts being frustrating the more you progress. It’s a Mega Drive game to the point of insanity especially in the later chapters where it feels like a trial and error game with no chance to stop and figure out how to progress, Just push on and then rely on memory of the stages layout. Aggravating doesn’t even come close to how it makes you feel and you’ll find yourself longing for a more modern and less punishing experience.
Tanglewood is a short game (4-5 hours) but this is largely due to it not over-staying its welcome and it doesn’t need to be any longer. Every chapter is clear and unique and despite the collectables being tiny and difficult to see when everything is moving, they are there to flesh out the exploring aspect of the experience. There are nods all over to games of the period and it does feel a bit like a greatest hits compilation of classic titles. The nods to the Lion King’s elephant graveyard and Sonic stages are a nice touch but they are nods and the game is so unique that it stands on its own paws easily.
The more you play of Tanglewood the more you’ll find your reminding yourself “This is a Mega Drive game”, the monsters can be incredibly frustrating and the jumping feels slightly unresponsive at times. Tanglewood’s biggest problem is that it’s hard to judge. By current modern standards it’s a bare-bones explorer with a unique aesthetic that has moments of absolute wonder akin to an indie darling but marred by common moments of intense frustration, silence and plodding gameplay. By classic Mega Drive standards it’s a wondrous marvel that would top lists of “must have classics” and you’ll struggle to find anything like it on the system. To that end it really deserves two scores;
Modern gaming standards – 6/10 – Tangled
Mega Drive gaming standards – 10/10 – Woody