Sunday 6 January 2013

Ufouria: The Saga

Your name is Freeon-Leeon and you can swim on the water and walk through snow and ice.

It's 2013, and that means it's time to give animals alcohol. This year it's the turn of the penguins, as featured in 1992's Ufouria: The Saga, otherwise known as Hebereke. It's a game for the NES - the PAL NES.

To reassess the gaming landscape once more for those who missed it - the Nintendo Entertainment System enjoyed a thrilling life in Japan (as the Famicom) before enduring a similar fate in North America during the 1980s and early 1990s. For many the NES is a classic console, but thanks to the perils of the Atlantic Ocean, Nintendo chose to watch its European stock fail at the hands of Mattel, before of course, starting its own disastrous campaign three years down the line.

The United Kingdom did not embrace the NES, and for very good reason - it cost too much, it arrived too late (1987), and its library of software was poorly optimised for our televisions. Its replacement, the Super Nintendo (also expensive and late), arrived in April 1992 ot try to ease the strain, but supporting that console would have been too logical for our friends at Sunsoft.

Instead, the company thrust Ufouria: The Saga upon PAL NES owners in November of that year, and its life was deceivingly depressing. Friendless and worthless, it was kicked off the shelves in a matter of weeks and copies now sell for over £170 second-hand on eBay. Mission accomplished.

Ufouria: The Saga was never destined to appease the British public, but the late release date comes with its fair share of advantages. Eight years of Famicom development experience leads to a high quality product - the graphics are great, the audio is great, and for its time, the style of gameplay on offer was still pretty fresh and innovative too. Sunsoft didn't make a bad game, they just knew nothing about the industry they were supporting, and that's why they no longer have a European branch.

Ufouria: The Saga is part of a platform game sub-genre reclassified towards the end of the decade as the "Metroidvania game", i.e. a non-linear 2D adventure infused with collectible upgrades (allowing you to reach new places) and features of that nature. But having debuted in Japan back in 1991, much of what this game offers pre-dates their uptaking in both the Metroid and Castlevania series - clever stuff considering it was dealing with outdated technology.

In Ufouria: The Saga you land on a "strange world" and are tasked with rescuing your friends and escaping back home. You start your quest with very little - Bop-Louie, former penguin, initially crawls across stages without any form of attack, but after brainwashed friends are battled and new items and upgrades are found, you soon become master of time and space and dispense your wrath on the alien populace.

It took until 1994 for Metroid to supply us with an in-game map. Nintendo's approach was to instead force users to invest in graph paper and a pencil (or buy their range of magazines) in order to progress. In Ufouria, the map is embedded in the select menu, and combined with the ability to play as other characters, makes this release very much ahead of its time. Certainly there problems - there's no way to save your game and deaths will cause you to spawn at the very beginning of the world, but it certainly represents a milestone in the genr and is still fairly unique to this day.

Ufouria is undoubtedly cruel with its often painfully slow pace and questionable life-bar sharing rules, but although the game certainly shows its age in many areas, compared to some of the console's earlier output, this would have been nothing short of revolutionary back in the day. Were this a Mega Drive game, it would be an instant classic, but the decision to side with Nintendo sadly forced Ufouria into obscurity.

Hebereke never made it to North America (until its inclusion on the Wii's Virtual Console), but the characters inspired a range of games on the Super Famicom - Hebereke no Popoon, Popoitto Hebereke, Hebereke no Oishii Puzzle, Hashire Hebereke and Sugoi Hebereke, some of which I'll cover in the coming weeks. Nevertheless, it's good to see the PAL region get top bidding over North America (lord knows it didn't happen often back in the day) and it's a game certainly worth a look if you get the chance.

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