Popful Mail
Platform:  Sega CD
Players:  1

    The Sega CD platform is one usually scoffed at by many people on both sides of the video game industry.  However among all those horrible live action video games there were a few titles that genuinely shined and restored some luster to the promise of CD based gaming.  Magical Fantasy Adventure Popful Mail was originally released on the PC-8801 platform in Japan by RPG powerhouse Falcom.  The title did well enough that it was soon ported to the PCEngine CD format where it was given some slight visual enhancements and some exclusive stages.  However the core gameplay was left as it was on the PC88, with tiny sprites and very large status displays.  The game did well enough to yield a Mega CD version which would be translated and released in the United States on the Sega CD platform.  The game was completely reworked for the Mega CD / Sega CD and large, detailed sprites replaced the tiny characters of the earlier releases.  The changes didn't stop there, virtually every gameplay mechanic was reworked and the result was a fast action platformer that played much smoother than the previous games.  These changes also made the game a lot more fun than the previous incarnations.  A third version was later released for the Super Famicom but it played like a truncated and slightly reworked version of the Sega CD release.  Still, the only release to make it to the US was the Sega CD version and it has become legendary among the gaming populace as one of the reasons to own a Sega CD.

Description:  Popful Mail is a cute little female elf with a rather large sword.  Although quite skilled in battle, she is also horrible at her job as a bounty hunter.  Rather than going after small bounties, Mail is always looking for the fastest way to make as much cash as possible, which usually leads to her biting off more than she can chew.  The game opens with her in pursuit of Nuts Cracker, a mechanical villain with a knack for manufacturing explosives.  Most well known of his creations are exploding dolls, which surround Mail although she makes quick work of them.  However just before Mail can capture Nuts Cracker he detaches his head, which works like a makeshift grenade, and throws it at her to cause a distraction.  With Nuts once again getting away, the discouraged Mail takes his head into town hoping that she can at least get something for her troubles.  When she arrives it turns out that many people have tried to sell one of Nuts Cracker's heads, making them completely worthless.  Asking a shopkeeper where she may inquire about large bounties leads her to the town square where a recent posting has been made.  A bounty of two million gold has been placed on the evil magician Muttonhead.  Unable to resist the call of big money, Mail sets off to track down Muttonhead and make herself filthy rich.

The game is broken into five main areas with multiple smaller areas in each.  As Mail progresses on her quest she will gather the help of a wizard named Tatt and a small winged creature that goes by Gaw.  The game plays like a traditional side scrolling hack and slash with a lot of platforming elements.  It's quite a bit like Cadash but much smoother and with a higher emphasis on platforming.  RPG elements are abound and the plot is very much story driven with plenty of plot twists and a few side quests.  While each character doesn't earn stats, nearly every enemy drops gold which is used in a number of shops to buy more powerful weapons and armor.  The shops also allow the player to purchase special trinkets that grant special abilities such as being able to walk on spikes without incurring damage.  Fruit may be purchased in healing shops or found in chests throughout the landscape.  The more expensive the fruit, the more vitality it will replenish.  The importance of these items makes killing enemies and picking up gold all that more critical and are equivalent to leveling up a character.

There are a number of boss battles at the end of select areas and each one requires special tactics to defeat successfully.  A nice feature is that the game can be saved at any time outside of dialogue sequences and during boss battles.  With three save slots and the ability to save pretty much anywhere, one would think the game to be a cakewalk.  However Popful Mail puts up a solid challenge and the save method does a good job at giving the game a fair balance between challenge and fun.

Graphics:  Throughout the game the graphics maintain a high consistency of quality and a dead solid frame rate.  All sprites are beautifully rendered and well animated, giving the entire game a cartoon look.  The cutscenes are fully animated and are some of the best work to be seen on the Sega CD platform.  All the full motion video titles could have taken a lesson from this game.  While the cutscenes don't take up the entire screen, they do cover quite a bit of it and are truly beautiful.  It's hard to explain how incredible animation like this was during the time of this game's release.  It's not ground breaking now days but it is still very impressive.  A text popup appears whenever there is a dialogue scene or a conversation.  During the dialogue scenes, large fully animated portraits of the conversing characters are displayed.  These contain a wide variety of expressions and are synched perfectly with the spoken dialogue.  Boss sprites are big, colorful, and nicely detailed.  This plays into the strategy of how to defeat them, as watching for subtle changes in their appearance is often the first warning of a specific attack or an opening to counterattack.  On top of that, each of the five main areas has a very distinct look when compared to the others and even the map screens are very nicely rendered.  This is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful games ever to grace the Sega CD platform.  Nearly every shop has a different proprietor, all of which are very well drawn.  Additionally each town is populated by a different race of creatures and many enemies are area specific.  It's simply all very well done and there is a great deal of variety to keep things fresh and interesting, which makes exploring areas enjoyable.

Sound:  Working Designs translated and published Popful Mail in the United States so you know the audio work is going to be top notch.  Every character with spoken dialogue, no matter how minor, is wonderfully voiced.  This game was released during what, in my opinion, was the golden age for Working Designs and the quality really shines through.  The dialogue is funny when it's supposed to be and serious when it needs to be.  Without a doubt my favorite characters are my favorites because of their voice work.  Nuts Cracker has a pseudo Italian accent and when he's going on about "bomba" this and "a'bomba" that it's really quite funny.  Sven T. Uncommon, a villain in the later parts of the game, has been dubbed to be a parody of Arnold Schwarzenegger.  His dialogue mentions many of Arnold's films in a candid and indirect manner but the humorous writing would be nothing without the superb voice work.  It's a shame that Working Designs no longer exists and voice work of this caliber is so hard to find in games now days.  Of course a good deal of this humor was added by Working Designs but that's why I've always loved them as a publisher - they made games for their target audience, not for the bottom line.  The music is all generated using the Genesis sound hardware but is still very nicely done and if you didn't know any better, you'd assume it was being streamed from the CD.

Play Control:  With a platforming game control is everything and Popful Mail does not disappoint.  The directional pad takes care of movement and holding down allows your character to defend.  One button attacks, one jumps, and one opens the options screen.  At first it seems annoying that the options screen can be brought up via one of the face buttons.  Yes, you will hit it a lot by accident early on but after playing for awhile it becomes apparent why it's there.  Since healing, special item selection, and weapon equipping are all accessed through the menu it is important to be able to gain fast access.  Even more important are the save and load options which are also found here.  This makes saving your progress quickly as you progress very easy.

Replay:  Pure enjoyment of the game itself is reason to play though Popful Mail again after completing it.  Depending on what character you are using at specific times, the dialogue will change during spoken dialogue sequences.  Additionally shopkeepers will address you differently depending on who you are playing as.  I suppose going through the game to experience the differences is another reason for replaying the game.  Of course loading a save game just before these areas, changing characters, hearing the differences, then doing it again with another character is an option as well.  If you want to have a enjoyable time playing, talk to nearly everyone, hear all the audio and be at proper power levels at the proper times - the game will take between five and eight hours to complete.  That sounds short but every moment is great and some of the boss battles are truly intense.

Final Verdict:  There are very few Sega CD games that still command a premium price on the second hand market.  Popful Mail is worth every cent.  Since it's a Working Designs release you get a foil stamped deluxe instruction booklet as well as excellent disc art.  This would be nice alone but the game contained on that disc is amazing and simply put, a lot of fun.  It is yet again another great Sega CD release because Working Designs took the time to localize it correctly and bring the game stateside.  Sure some people have criticized Working Designs for taking some liberties with their translations but the pop culture jokes and so forth are to make the game fit in better with US gamers.  All of this is done with care and the core story of the game is kept as it was originally.  All the humor fits in perfectly with the premise and style of the game, and if you didn't know any better you'd think this game was made start to finish to contain those lines and references.  Nothing is out of place and everything flows perfectly.  If you own a Sega CD there is absolutely no reason you shouldn't own or at least give this game a try.  Among a hardware platform that was plagued with bad games, Popful Mail stands tall as a textbook example how to do things right - both in game design and localization.

Written on 11-18-06 by David, insanedavid@classicplastic.net

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