It's not often I happen across a SNES game with a European release that I've never heard of. That's not meant to be a boast about my encyclopaedic knowledge of the 16-bit era - I'm not sure that's something you can boast about, not with a straight face at least - but more of a reflection on my voracious reading of game magazines at the time. They do exist, though, these gaps in my mental database of SNES carts, but after today there'll be one less empty space as I play through Titus' 1996 boy-wizard-em-up Incantation!
Incantation's title screen shows a smiling blonde sorcerer riding a flying broomstick, which is odd because the game stars a dark-haired, angry little tyke who never once rides a broomstick. Let's meet him now, shall we?
One glance at this screenshot tells you almost everything you need to know about Incantation. It's a cartoony, run-and-jump adventure starring a wizard (but not the wizard from the title screen) who blasts enemies with magic from his wand. There's no story provided by the game and I can't find the manual online, so his motives will have to remain mysterious. My leading theory is that he's trying to fuse magic and whole grains to create the ultimate breakfast cereal. Wait, come back, I have evidence.
See that icon on the left that looks like a stalk of wheat? There are three of those in each level, and you have to collect all of them otherwise a pig-demon in a tollbooth won't let you proceed to the end of the stage. Maybe I'm wrong about the super-cereal thing, and there's a deeper problem with this universe in that wheat has become such a valuable commodity that monsters will blockade roads just to get hold of the merest handful.
There are bouncing pumpkin enemies, which is more interesting than the wheat situation because, hey, pumpkins! I love Jack-o'-lanterns in games, and their inclusion is enough for me to state that Incantation is not a completely irredeemable waste of time. Spoiler alert - they may be the only things keeping it from earning that title. Even in this very first area, the flaws in Incantation's gameplay descend on the player to irritate and frustrate them, like a poorly-knitted woollen jumper thrust upon you by a well-meaning relative. Kid Wizard has too much momentum in his movements, so the action feels slippery and imprecise. The first stage tries to draw you into the action by being as flat and boring as possible, complete with the almost mandatory "forest" theme that has plagued the opening stage of many a cutesy platformer. Collision detection? More like collision defect-ion! Oh Jesus, that was bad. I'm sorry. Here's a picture to illustrate the problem instead.
That pumpkin is not hurting Kid Wizard, despite being inside his head. While he may look like a big target, Kid Wizard actually has a very small hitbox... except when he doesn't, and these wild fluctuations in just what parts of Kid Wizard's body are vulnerable to harm will infuriate anyone who plays this game.
"But the graphics look nice," I hear you say, and that's a point I will concede. The graphics do look pretty nice, but then again they should do because Incantation came out in December 1996, well into the next generation of consoles.
Speaking of the graphics, the end of Kid Wizard's wand looks like a blue butt. Kid Wizard and his Staff of Ass, Harvester of Grains. That's who you're playing as in this game.
Here's the toll booth I mentioned. You'd think whoever's in charge of collecting these wheat taxes would have provided a larger booth or a less muscular orc to run it. The poor guy's really crammed in there.
Paying the toll allows Kid Wizard to move on to the boss fight. It's a purple dinosaur-dragon thing, seen here in the process of trying to sit on Kid Wizard's head. I think he's angry that I didn't save him any wheat.
The boss has an extremely basic attack pattern of firing two balls (that you can shoot and destroy) at you before jumping to the other side of the screen. I know I don't need to tell you that you shouldn't stand underneath a dinosaur that's falling from the sky, but that's all the boss does and if I didn't mention it I'd have nothing to say about this battle.
With the boss defeated, Kid Wizard stands within the Ancient Portal of Skulls and menacingly thwacks his staff into the palm of his hand, the promise of violence glittering in his sub-human eyes. Where's that nice blonde lad from the title screen? I want to play as him.
Stage two is set in the mountains, and the platforming aspects of Incantation come to the fore. This is a shame, because the combination of narrow platforms and Kid Wizard's greasy, frictionless movements makes for a less than stellar gaming experience. As if sensing my mounting disappointment with the game, Incantation tries to keep me sweet by providing a power-up that lets me shoot exploding pumpkin bombs from my wand. It worked, for now.
As wonderful as the power of pumpkin bombs is, and I will cherish it forever, it didn't do much to keep me invested in Incantation because there's not that much opportunity to use them. Enemies are scarce in most stages and especially so in this jumping-centric vertical level, so let's hope they're effective against the end-of-stage boss...
...which is the same boss as the first stage, only a different colour and with a tail that doesn't seem to do anything. It's just as easy to beat this time round, although I should point out that in Incantation "easy" and "fast" are not the same thing - bosses take ten times as many hits to destroy as you'd expect, which quickly becomes tedious once you've figured out their easily-avoidable attack patterns.
At the top of the mountain and beyond the recycled stage two boss lies the gaping chasms of hell itself, because catacombs built from the wailing souls of the dead are the obvious thematic follow-up to "forest" and "mountain" stages. I thought this stage, which definitely feels more mystical than the two that proceeded it, might advance the plot or give an insight into Kid Wizard's motives, but no. It's still just about collecting wheat. Kid Wizard is facing and downgrade to Kid Farmer at this point. Or maybe Kid Demolitions Expert, because another power-up has replaced my pumpkin bombs with, erm, bombs. Not sure it was necessary to differentiate between those two spells, Titus.
The stretched section of floor just to the right of Kid Wizard can by destroyed by the bombs, giving you access to the area below. Just thought I'd mention that.
With all the wheat collected - not a difficult task, thanks to the linearity of the stages - Kid Wizard does battle with a giant ant. The ant's abdomen is on backwards. The ant is bitter about this, and so takes his frustration out on anyone who approaches him by causing grinning stalactites to fall from the ceiling. The stalactites always fall from the same place. Yes, this boss is somehow even easier than the previous two, as the stalactites can be avoided with a simple side-step and because the boss doesn't jump about as much you can concentrate on shooting it. It takes well over one hundred hits to kill. You can get five or six hits in during each stalactites / repositioning cycle. There is no turbo-fire option. This boss is awful. This game is awful, pumpkin content be damned.
Stage four, and Kid Wizard is still in hell. He's finally found a place where he belongs.
It's more of the same as you hunt down the wheat, and as ever all you need to do is to go to each corner of the stage because the wheat will either be there or you'll see it one the way past. I suppose I should mention the crystal balls that appear in some stages. They're green. There's one stuck in the wall in the screenshot above. If you shoot them, the teleport you somewhere else. I think that about covers the crystal balls.
Oh, hey, I replaced my bombs with a fireball attack. This is disappointing. Fireballs are, like, Wizard 101. First day of Wizard School - you get a pointy hat, sign the blood contract granting the Dark Lord dominion over your soul and then learn how to shoot a fireball. If magic spells were piano tunes then the fireball wouldn't even be Chopsticks, it'd be opening the lid over the keys.
The boss is another ant. This one is coloured like a wasp. I don't know who he thinks he's fooling.
There's yet more twisted hellscape for you to enjoy in the next stage, and for a while I thought I was going to be trapped here forever. In the screenshot above, you can see a breakable floor impeding my progress. Previously I would have blown it up with a bomb, but I picked up the fireball weapon which replaced my bombs and left me unable to destroy the floor. There were no other pick-ups to be found and losing a life didn't reset the spell I was using, so for a while I thought I was unable to progress, trapped by an oversight on the developer's part. Before you think it's harsh of me to imply the developers were stupid enough to create an impassable obstacle, I should remind you that Titus also developed Superman 64.
I eventually figured out that if you hold the run button without moving, Kid Wizard smacks the ground with his wand, destroying the floor and letting you advance. Do you know how I felt when I figured this out? Disappointed. Part of me was hoping that I was totally and inescapably trapped, forcing me to stop playing Incantation. Instead, I plodded onwards with a heavy heart. I think says it all about the quality of this game.
Oh, and the boss? It's another ant. Three identical bosses in a row. Lovely.
Finally, a change of scenery as Kid Wizard makes his way through a swamp. Why is he here? What does he desire? I'm not interested any more, he could be on a mission to kick every puppy in the world for all I care, I'm just glad that the swamp stages are straightforward action-platformer affairs with no irritating gimmicks and plenty of space to jump around in.
Yes, I said swamp stages, because there are three swamp areas in a row. You can go underwater in some places, with Kid Wizard having an oxygen bar that slowly depletes while you're down there. You know, it's funny, but after all the complaining I've done about this game it never occurred to me to force Kid Wizard to stay underwater until he drowned. I must be getting soft in my old age.
The swamps are protected by frogs, big frogs with a disturbing lack of eyes, frogs that spit magical rocks at you because if there's one thing frogs are known for it's rock-spitting and not their long tongues or powerful hind legs or often-toxic skin I mean come on Titus, couldn't you have made even the slightest bit of effort? It gets better, because these frogs attack in exactly the same way as the first two bosses - spit two projectiles, hop to the other side of the screen, repeat. The only difference is that the frog's projectiles can't be destroyed, so you have to jump over them. There are three of these frogs. Three! Titus didn't even bother giving them a different palette. For shame
I said it before, but at least Incantation really does look nice. You know what else it looks like? An Amiga game. This seems appropriate, because most Amiga platformers aren't much fun either. I think that when it comes to pixel art, in my mind "like an Amiga game" and "European" are essentially the same thing - if I'd seen Incantation without knowing it was made by a French developer I'd still have known it was European. I wonder why that is? It's not like the Japanese are shy of making cutesy, cartoony platformers, but games from Japan always look that bit different. Perhaps it's the lack of the anime influence in Western games. Kid Wizard's perpetually furrowed eyebrows probably have something to do with it, too. I'm sure you've seen what they do to Kirby's face when his games are released in America.
Welcome to stage nine - The Terror of Wolf Catapult Mountain. These beastmen really don't want Kid Wizard to reach the summit, and they'll do anything they can to stop him. Of course, the only thing they can do is use their oversized slingshots to launch boulders at Kid Wizard, but as the boulders do kill him in one hit it's not too bad a plan.
A stage about avoiding insta-death projectiles and jumping between small ledges in a game with terrible collision detection and jumping physics that I'd struggled to describe without using the phrase "like a greased eel"? Sounds like fun, right? Well, it isn't, but neither is it the most frustrating thing to be found in these mountains.
That would be the boss, a goblin-thing riding... what the hell is that? A giant leaf? Yeah, sure, whatever. He's riding a giant leaf, let's go with that. He flies overhead, trying to drop bombs on Kid Wizard despite his handicaps of being shit at dropping bombs and of his bombs being slow enough to dodge easily. He flies in from the right, you shoot him a couple of times, walk between his bombs and he flies off to repeat the cycle. So far, so much like every goddamn boss in Incantation, but this goblin has a trump card - hit points. All the hit points. Every hit point ever created, crammed into his invisible health bar, giving him the durability to withstand, oh, two hundred fireballs from Kid Wizard. This fight just goes on and on and on, fifteen minutes of chucking magic at Dingus the Flying Goblin Bastard and avoiding his bombs. "Aha," Dingus seems to say, "you have managed to evade my bomb attack. Well done! But can you dodge it... one hundred times?!" Yes, Dingus, I can. It is very easy to avoid. Any idiot could avoid it. So why are you making me avoid it over and over again? If this boss took one hit to kill instead of what feels like seventy thousand, you would lose nothing from the gameplay experience. It might well be the shittiest boss fight I have ever encountered, although that might be my lingering resentment talking. Once I've calmed down a bit, I might think of a worse boss fight. Maybe.
There are two stages set in a city. It's snowing, I guess? I'm sorry, I've got nothing. This is just the swamp stage in a different outfit and with less water. Well, there's plenty of water, I suppose, but it's all frozen and sadly you can't drown Kid Wizard in a snowdrift. At least the city stages have a larger area to explore, even if finding all the wheat boils down to the same "check the corners" routine of every other level. Also, a helpful hint if for some bizarre reason you decide to play Incantation - you can move the screen around by holding a shoulder button and pressing the d-pad. This can help you avoid dropping Kid Wizard into the many deadly crevasses that are otherwise hidden off the bottom of the screen.
No. NO! Not Dingus Mark II, his flying leaf replaced by a hovering ham joint?! It's true, he's back, but in an act of mercy so generous I must have saved a bus full of orphan nuns in a previous life, he only takes around one-tenth of the damage before he dies. It's is for this reason, and this reason only, that I continued on with Incantation.
Another snowy city level, with barrels that act like trampolines and spring you upwards when you jump on them. Why are the barrels springy? Hell if I know, but it seems like someone at Titus was vehemently opposed to drawing an actual spring because there are also treasure chests that work like springboards. There are also treasure chests that have - surprise bloody surprise - treasure inside. These treasure chests are not springy. Would it have been that difficult to draw a spring or a cannon or anything that might look as though it would launch the player upwards, instead of relying on people to jump on the traditionally not-bouncy barrels and treasure chests? Apparently it was very difficult, so they didn't bother, just like they didn't bother coming up with a new boss for the end of this stage and so I had to destroy another Dingus.
Kid Wizard is then abruptly thrown in the final battle, a winner-takes-all(-the-wheat) showdown with menacing, horned, armour-clad behemoth the Chaos Warrior. How does this soldier of evil intend to rid himself of the pesky Kid Wizard? Will he gore him with his horned helmet, or twist the sinister forces of the cosmos into a demonic blade, or will he just kick him? No, he will do none of those things. They would all be too interesting. What he does do is jump up and down. This causes the maggots to fall from the shelf above him. These maggots then slowly crawl towards Kid Wizard, hurting him if they manage to touch him before he incinerates them with his fireballs. Oh yeah, did I mention that I'm still using the fireballs? My weapon hasn't changed since I picked them up in stage four. I think it's fair to say Incantation has some pacing issues.
The Chaos Warrior does have another trick up his sleeve: quite literally, as it happens, because when you do him enough damage his hands fall off to reveal stumps that fire energy at you. That's your final opponent in this game, the Chaos Warrior, the (presumably) evil force behind the general evil that has been happening and doing evil things lately. An armless warrior forever crab-walking back and forth, ineffectively squirting out projectiles and calling on maggots - maggots, of all things - to protect him. Good grief. The Kid Wizard is going to end up ruling this world, isn't he? There seems very little capable of stopping his rise to power, least of all the Chaos Warrior who is quickly and efficiently despatched.
"Oh, you want an ending?" says the man from Titus. "Here's your ending, now fuck off."
That's all you get for finishing the game, and even this brief message makes no sense because I didn't defeat an evil wizard. The game clearly stated that the final boss was a Chaos Warrior, not a Chaos Wizard or Chaos Sorcerer or even a Chaos Children's Magician.
So, Incantation ends with one last flicker of stupidity, a fitting finale for a game so utterly packed with bafflingly poor design choices. The controls are bad, the repetition is bad, the bosses are bad - pretty much everything about Incantation is bad, and just to make it perfectly clear I am saying you should not play it. I can't even tell you that there's a decent game lurking somewhere underneath all the nonsense, because there isn't. It's just a lazy, identikit, by-the-numbers 16 bit platfomer that raises only one enduring question: what the hell was the deal with the wheat?