I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but sometimes you see a title screen and you can’t help but think “this game is going to be crap.” Ugly gradients, a blobby logo in a font where the holes in the letters appear to be a gaping orifices and a main character that looks like someone hastily drew a hobbit during a bumpy bus ride. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest Fantasy Land isn’t going to be some hidden masterpiece.
The game begins in a very Ghosts ‘n Goblins manner, as a cloaked villain swoops down and abducts our hero’s romantic partner. Differences from Capcom’s arcade classic include the villain having LED flashlights for eyes and the small parrot nesting in the hero’s hair. So, I’ll be travelling across a variety of landscapes, battling monsters and bosses until I rescue the kidnap victim and murder this floating cloak? Okay, I was just checking it wasn’t going to suddenly turn into a jet-ski racing game or something.
Nope, it’s your common-or-garden side-scrolling hop-n-bop platformer. It even begins with a forest stage, so I doubt we’re going to be seeing much divergence from the usual formula. You play as the small blonde person currently hiding behind his parrot, a character that the game doesn’t bother introducing to us. He may look like a once-ordinary chap who escaped from a car compacter just before his injuries became fatal, but there must be something special about him because he can fire magical bolts of energy from his fingertips. Let’s call him Steve, in honour of Marvel Comics’ sorcerer supreme Dr. Strange. Move to the right, jump over obstacles and annihilate all those who oppose you with the powerful mystic forces you command. You know, the usual.
Sometimes, when you zap an enemy they turn into a giant pear. I think that’s a pear, at least. Perhaps whatever extreme gravitational forces turned out hero into the lump he is also deformed an orange.
You can also jump on the enemies to defeat them, but I wouldn’t recommend this, for several reasons. They take multiple bounces to kill, you tend to spang off them at unpredictable angles and their faces transform into grotesque mockeries of human physiognomy when you jam your boots into their skulls. Stick to using you magic powers, that’s my advice. Your parrot will even help out. It hangs around until you take a certain amount of damage, and while it’s there it acts like an Option from the Gradius games, adding an extra projectile whenever you attack. You can even control the hight of the parrot by pressing up on the joystick, although this ability is rendered entirely useless by the endless streams of enemies that pour in from every corner of the screen. The constant attentions of the earring-wearing, ham-fleshed archers, bald warriors and whatever the hell those grey things are supposed to be means that you’ll never have the time to think about the best place to put your parrot.
This screen also serves as a good example of Fantasy Land’s wonky level design. You see that waterfall? You can’t walk across the top of it. If you try, you fall down the waterfall. That’s okay, I can understand that. So I tried approaching it from the bottom, but it turns out you can’t jump through the waterfall either. I say “though,” your character is clearly in front of the waterfall, but if you try to jump past it you hit an invisible wall and fall down. It doesn’t make sense with the way the geography’s drawn, and I think I'll simply have to accept that Fantasy Land isn’t going to make much sense in general.
The jumping physics work okay, I suppose. A little floaty, but I could generally get Steve the Munchkin to go where I wanted him. I did have problems with accidentally falling through platforms, though. To drop “through” the floor and land on a lower platform, you press down on the joystick… which is also crouch, so there’s a lot of opportunity to fall down when all you wanted to do was duck. That’s why most games map this command to down and jump, Fantasy Land.
Then a boss appeared, as bosses are wont to do. I kind of wish it hadn’t, mind you. Not because it’s a difficult boss to defeat – shoot it and jump over its head when it gets near is about the extent of it – but because it’s creepy as hell. What’s going on with its feet, for a start? I know it’s just an extra-large person in red boxers shorts and thus shouldn't be so unnerving, but I’ve realised why I don’t like it: it’s because its expression never changes. It’s always got that same look of resigned boredom on its face, whether it’s being shot by a pudgy magic-man or pounding said magic-man beneath its gargantuan fists. There’s something disturbing about my potential murderer not being interested in anything I do.
Stage two now, which is set in a castle of some sort. That’s fairly standard for a fantasy setting. Less usual are the men is executioner’s hoods and very snug-looking jockstraps, a garment which gives these enemies a very prominent groinal bulge. I can only assume that Steve’s assault on this castle coincided with the annual executioners versus prisoners football game, and nobody had time to get changed before rushing out to deal with Steve.
Also take note of that skull. It’s sitting there on the floor, not moving, not doing anything and generally being unobtrusive. It hurts you if you touch it, something I didn’t notice was happening as I stood on top of it and my health drained away. That’s another problem with Fantasy Land, it’s surprisingly difficult to tell when you’re taking damage, an issue that’s compounded by the fuzzy boundaries of Steve’s hitbox. He doesn’t get hurt when something physically hits him, he gets hurt when his personal space is invaded.
Also in this castle: some fairly adorable bats and far less adorable rats that don’t so much look like plague carriers but active agents in the furthering human misery through the spreading of the Black Death. There are also these teddy bears you can collect. I presume you can collect them, anyway. I wasn’t about to go near them in order to find out. Not with those soulless eye-holes staring out at me.
Once upon a time, a young man named Aladdin found a whoopee cushion in an ancient cave. The whoopee cushion was dusty, so he gave it a polish and out popped the Genie of Farts! The genie cannot grant wishes, but he does leave the lingering scent of rotten eggs and boiled cabbage wherever he goes.
I may mock the Flatulence Genie, but he’s managed to kill poor old Steve. There he goes now, divested of his mortal apparel and floating off to heaven why I try to figure out what that red mark on his belly is and why the artist seems to have given him very subtle pectoral muscles.
We’ve had a forest world and a castle world, but stage three combines the two with a castle in a forest. The next stage had better take place in a castle that has a forest growing inside. For the first half, this stage is pretty much the same as the previous two, but half-way through it takes a change of tack.
Steve finds some scuba gear and embarks on an underwater adventure! Given how generic Fantasy Land’s gameplay has been up to this point, you won’t be surprised to learn that this swimming section works exactly how you’d expect it to. You can swim in eight directions and, while you can still fire a projectile attack Steve launches dinner forks rather than his usual magical energies. It’s not a bad little section, honestly, although it’s still plagued by the same issues as the non-swimming areas: too many enemies appear with no warning and the zoomed-in playing area gives you little chance to avoid the enemies when they do appear. The swimming section also manages the remarkable feat of making the ruddy great sharks look like the least menacing creatures in the sea.
Also found underwater are gun-toting people in diving suits that remind me of Chelnov, if Chelnov made his helmet by cutting a hole out of a beer keg and covering that hole with cling-film. There are mermaids, too. The mermaids don’t look pleased to see our hero, or maybe they’re annoyed that someone has left a load of naval mines in what is essentially their front garden. Like almost all the enemies, the mermaids have soulless black orbs for eyes, but I think it’s a look that works much better for a half-fish creature of the deep.
Another boss arrives, and I’m calling it a boss just so I don’t hurt its feeling. It’s not much of a guardian, I’ll tell you that. Final encounter aside, the bosses of Fantasy Land are by far the easiest part of the game, because they fall into one of two categories. Either their attacks are very easy to avoid or, as with this stubby-limbed eel, you can hold your position and mash the attack button and the boss will die before you do. A boring fight to be sure, enlivened only by the realisation that the collectable gold bars on the ocean floor are only 18 karat gold. It seems fitting that a game such as Fantasy Land, a game that either can’t or won’t attempt to be anything but mediocre, wouldn’t have the purest gold laying around.
The level design reaches a nadir at the start of stage four, as Steve makes his way across an ocean liner that’s been overrun with pirates. It’s just a flat walk across the deck with the odd box to hop over, but Steve having changed costumes to get into the mood (or maybe to fool the pirates, he does have a pet parrot, after all) is a nice touch.
The second half of the stage takes place in an icy wilderness, where the pirates have wrapped up warm and the penguins are large. Hang on: ships travelling to the Antarctic, mountains in the background, giant penguins: please tell me this is going to turn into a colourful platforming version of H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. I want to see Steve driven mad by the unfathomable star-beasts that lurk in the frozen wastes.
Speaking of those penguins, they don’t half remind me of James Pond. This is partly because James Pond II was sponsored by McVitie’s Penguin chocolate biscuits, (a snack that I ate so often as a child that I’m not sure I could face eating one nowadays,) but also because Fantasy Land has a real “European computer game” look it it. If you’d told me this was an Amiga release, I could have almost believed you, thanks to the cartoony but not anime-inspired art style and the fact that there are hundreds of small, mostly useless collectibles in each stage.
Wow, maybe I wasn’t too far off with the Lovecraft connection. This boss certainly has a little of the Cthulhus about him, with his green bat wings and alien demeanour, but I don’t recall any of the Elder Gods having a grappling hook for an arm. Maybe if Lovecraft had focussed less on racism and more on giving his creatures totally sweet cybernetic upgrades, his books would make more palatable reading today.
This is another boss that’s very easy to defeat, thanks to its claw not being able to hit you while you’re crouching, but I do have a lot of fondness for it. There’s something very endearing about just how ugly it is. Like, if I was a parent and my young child drew me this as a picture it would get pride of place on the fridge door, you know? It’s part xenomorph, part Ridley from Metroid and part construction equipment, and that’s a surprisingly lovable mix.
Oh look, it’s another castle! This one’s got lava in it, so I guess it’s the “fire world” to complement with the previous stage’s “ice world.” The level layout is a bit more twisty-turny than that boat, which is an improvement, and there are even a couple of actual platforming challenges to get past, but it’s still lacking something. Excitement, mainly. The whole game feels rather half-arsed, as though the developers had ideas but couldn’t quite transform those ideas into gameplay. Take, for example, the keys. There are some locked doors in each stage that you need a key to open, but the keys are always so close to the doors as to render them entirely inconsequential. Of course, the alternative – maze-like levels in which you have to really hunt for the key – would be much less enjoyable given Fantasy Land’s hitboxes and relentless enemies, but still.
However, this is still the best stage in the game because of these enemies. What the hell are they? I’m not sure, but I’ve got a few ideas, most of which involve a combination of the words “vampire” and “sea creature.” Who was the incredibly brave vampire who sank his fangs into a shark to spawn Count Chompula over here? Did Dracula and the Gill-Man have a regrettable one-night stand after a well-lubricated Universal Monster party and nine months later these fish creatures of the night were spawned? Here’s my personal favourite explanation: they are beluga whales that are dressed as vampires for Halloween.
The game itself might not be much cop, but I’ve got to say I’m really enjoying these weirdo monsters. Here’s a jolly executioner, leaping around the room and trying to menace me with his axe, He’d be more menacing if he wasn’t wearing bright blue underpants and pink boots, but his axe is real. Real easy to avoid, that it. If the axeman could stop himself from prancing all over the room for a couple of minutes, I’d have no way to dodge his mighty axe, but for him gallivanting is a way of life so I had plenty of opportunity to run underneath him.
The final stage takes place, bizarrely, in a modern city. I think it might be Metro City, specifically: street punks roam the area and there’s graffiti everywhere, I’m on my way to rescue my kidnapped lover, this is basically just Final Fight, right? I was confused as to why the villain of a game named Fantasy Land would make his final stand in the urban jungle, but I think I’ve figured it out. He’s actually from the real world, and he needed to kidnap a princess so he hopped over to Generic Fantasy World #7894-B and kidnapped their princess. There aren’t many genuine “daughter of the reigning monarch” princesses in the real world, and if he did abduct a member of the, for instance, British royal family, he’d have the SAS tracking him down wherever he went. So, he abducts a fantasy princess, reasoning that one chubby wizard is going to be easier to deal with than one of the world’s deadliest special forces units.
The city stage is definitely my favourite of the bunch, because it at least offers a bit of a journey: you start off on the streets, climb up a few fire escapes, scuttle through the sewers and then jump across the rooftops. It’s almost not bad, which is a good description of Fantasy Land in general. Almost every aspect of the game is bad but not awful, and if a few areas were improved – most notably the collision detection, enemy placement and general level design – you’d have a game that wouldn’t be amazing but would at least be a passable way to spend thirty minutes.
While I’m up on the rooftops, please enjoy this billboard in the “extremely unsubtle sword-boner” category. Magic Sword, indeed.
There’s also this billboard which implies Silent Hill 2’s Pyramid Head has branched out into the hospitality business.
Eventually I reached the final boss’ lair, but before I can meet the head honcho I’ve got to take care of these jungle cats. All they do is run back and forth and can easily be stopped by Steve’s magic fingers, but it still takes quite a while to do so because they just keep coming. The kidnapped (presumed) princess spend the whole fight shouting “HELP ME!” from the background, as though I’m fighting all these jaguars just because I’m bang into animal cruelty.
Then the floating cape reappears. Seemingly flummoxed by Steve managing to penetrate his inner sanctum and thrown into anguished confusion by the deaths of his pets, the boss does little more than float about the screen like a moth with a hangover, occasionally throwing balls of energy in random directions. The balls eventually fizzle out and leave a solid core, which our hero can bounce on. That seems to be the best way to avoid the boss while you chip away at his needlessly long health bar. It’s hardly the earth-shattering clash of titans I was hoping for, but at least it’s simple enough that I didn’t have to do it for long.
“My hero!” exclaims the rescued princess. Steve looks dubious. Can anyone truly be considered a hero when they have toilet plungers for feet? Oh well, no time for self-reflection now. Fantasy Land is over, and there’s just the extravagant ending sequence left to enjoy.
There you go, that’s your lot. Steve and the princess get romantic, despite looking so similar that they’re almost certainly related, and Fantasy Land draws to a close.
Well, that was an arcade videogame, wasn’t it? Yes indeed, no-one can say it wasn’t an arcade videogame. That’s about all you can say for it, though, and Fantasy Land is an unsatisfying sludge of an experience. Bland gameplay and dull levels mean it’s something I certainly wouldn’t recommend anyone actually plays, but I will give it credit for having some interesting and often charmingly ugly enemies. Play Ghouls n’ Ghosts instead and pretend some of the enemies are vampire sharks, that would be my advice.
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