Believe it or not, there was a time when Sega’s mascot was not a certain blue hedgehog. Alex Kidd was Sega’s Mario for the Sega Master System. Although it sold very poorly despite actually lasting several years, this console retains a cult following. And I have to admit that there are some gems on the system, such as great ports of Ghouls ‘N Ghosts and Rampage, versions of the first two Sonic games that are very admirable in their own right, and of course, the first Phantasy Star, whose sequels on more advanced platforms would become the Master System’s most enduring legacy.
So why didn’t the Master System do well and why do few even remember it? Part of the reason was that once Nintendo found success, it rather unscrupulously put pressure on both stores and developers to exclude the competition. On the other hand, Sega did make its own mistakes. Although few seem to agree, I see one of them as being AKMW, arguably the Master System’s main game in its early days. In fact, a later model of the system would have this game built into it. It’s a good concept but suffers from awful controls.
Plot: 7 out of 10
How good a story do you expect from mid-’80s video games? On that level, this one is pretty good. There are regular updates to the story that reveal that Alex is a prince who was kidnapped as a child and separated from his birthright. We also learn that the bad guy, Janken, has kidnapped a Prince and Princess and turned many of their people to stone. Needness to say, Alex doesn’t stand for this. Dumb, but in 1986, kudos to Sega for taking the story beyond the manual.
Graphics: 8 out of 10
I must say, the Master System’s reputation for being technologically inferior to even the NES is undeserved; in fact, the Master System actually had the better color palette. Accordingly, this game looks great! The sprite and background details compare favorably to most of the NES’ earliest games. I don’t know why so few Master System games looked this good. I assume it was because Nintendo’s efforts to keep programmers away from competitors meant that few other than Sega itself got much practice.
Sound: 6 out of 10
The music isn’t very catchy, I’m afraid. It’s acceptable but no more. Given that I have played Ghosts ‘N Goblins and the original Super Mario Bros. and that they predate this game, I believe that I have a fair frame of reference when I say that I’m not impressed with AKMW’s sounds.
Gameplay: 3 out of 10
This is my real beef with the game. It’s a platformer in which your main attack is a punch but you get some other temporary weapons along the way. Sounds good, right? Well, no. You see, the movement controls are extremely sensitive, resulting in you moving extremely fast, often into pits. I actually reset the game a couple times early on because if I knew mid-’80s gaming, AKMW wouldn’t have continues. Sure enough, when you run out of lives, that’s it, though apparently there’s a code that lets you use $400 to continue.
Truth be known, AKMW does have some unique features for its time. You can use money to buy the temporary weapons I was talking about, along with vehicles. And there is some impressive level design. The concept of both destroying and using boulders as platforms is pretty cool.
But you what? None of that changes the fact that the controls are atrocious. There’s virtually no working around something like that. Basically, it’s a deal breaker.
Challenge: 6 out of 10
The controls make this game frustrating, but the difficulty is quite respectable. One-hit kills (again, a frequent characteristic of mid-’80s games) and clever placement of enemies can keep you coming back. I can honestly say that this game would be hard even if the controls weren’t so bad.
One awful thing is that some of the bosses don’t fight you. They just play games of Rock-Paper-Scissors with you in which the loser automatically dies. How lame. The fact that there are bosses that aren’t actually bosses goes to prove that this wasn’t the best-made game.
Overall: 5 out of 10
For those who think this is way too low, the awful controls tempted me to go lower. But the fact is that there’s enough good shit that crippled gameplay doesn’t do as much damage as it should to AKMW.
I know not if the sequels are any better, but this game is just OK. Actually, few of the Master System’s early games were anything to write home about, and I think that’s a big part of why the system didn’t do so well.