Yeah, you read that right: this week saw the release of an honest-to-goodness new Sega Mega Drive game. In this Year of our Lord 2018. That game is Tanglewood from Big Evil Corporation. A platform-puzzle game that obviously takes inspiration from a bygone era, the developer decided to go one step further than '16-bit style' and make it actually 16-bit, with the final touch being its release on a Mega Drive cartridge.
Tanglewood was born out of a successful Kickstarter project. Originally set to ship in 'winter 2017', it's been a little delayed, but now it's here delivers exactly on what Matt Phillips, the game's Manchester-based designer and programmer, set out to do. When I first heard of a new game coming to Mega Drive, my first question was "why?" But having subsequently seen Phillips' passion as documented in his blog and on the Kickstarter page, that question soon shifted to "why not?" Seeing the splash screen of a Mega Drive game containing the phrase "Copyright 2018 Big Evil Corp" is rather surreal – and it definitely raises a smile.
Seeing '2018' on a Mega Drive menu screen is bizarre, for sure.
Before Big Evil Corporation was a games studio, it was Phillips' blog, where he's chronicled his love of playing and programming on the Mega Drive since 2012. Tanglewood's Kickstarter page also cites him as being part of SEGA's homebrew community for five years, so this is clearly a project of love and passion. It really shows. For most of us, playing a Mega Drive game in 2018 on the original hardware is probably going to involve some inconvenience, but Tanglewood makes that venture into the attic seem worthwhile.
I never had a Mega Drive as a kid – I was a SNES kind of lass. Plenty of people I knew had one though, including my cousin, and I spent many a weekend at his house, scrunched up around a tiny CRT screen, fighting over who'd get Sonic and who'd be Tails (his console or not, I was the oldest so usually won.) It's only really a fluke that I happen to have a Mega Drive in my house now, just as Tanglewood releases. My partner bought it off eBay for about twenty quid a few weeks ago to test some old cartridges. It's sat dutifully by the side of our TV since, gathering dust and insecurity, bearing the greatest name in console history but surrounded by newer, sleeker, and much more powerful machines.
Beat it, Switch! MEGA DRIVE is here!
The biggest hurdle was getting the damn thing to display on our modern LED Smart TV. With no old CRT to speak of, getting a Mega Drive to display required the good old aerial socket, and the TV needed tuning (something I haven't done in at least a decade) before the Mega Drive's input inexplicably shows up on channel 57. It also took a few minutes to work out why, even when the console was turned on, it still wasn't showing anything. DUH: it needed a cartridge in first – we're well before the days of dashboards!
Another thing I'd forgotten was how short the cables on Mega Drive controllers are. Barely a few feet: I had to perch on the edge of the foot stool to be able to play. I suppose this was never an issue when playing on a 14" TV in our childhood bedrooms, when sitting directly in front of it was the only way to clearly see the thing. The controller, being probably over 25 years old and previously owned by god-knows-who, is clicky and not that pleasant to use. I have fond memories of old pads like this, but when you hold them again in 2018 it really shows how far the ergonomic side of controllers has come.
What all this means is, playing a game on the Mega Drive isn't quite as fun as the novelty of it appears. Unresponsive buttons on a controller attached to a three-foot wire; a TV screen that really isn't made for delivering analogue images... perhaps you're a retro enthusiast, with pristine hardware and a perfect CRT-ready setup, and fair enough that would make for a better experience. But without that effort of finding other specialised hardware, playing Mega Drive in 2018 doesn't quite line up with the 90s golden era that exists in my memory.
It's a shame too, because Tanglewood is absolutely a lovely game, and I was genuinely excited to play it in its 'ideal' form. In Tanglewood you control of the adorable fox-like Nymn. Jumping through trees and running along forest floors, its your job to get Nymn to safety, and to do that you'll need special moves, to out-manoeuvre dangerous creatures, and generally keep your wits about you. On my rickety Mega Drive that was easier said than done: the jump button regularly failed to recognise my input and the incorrectly-proportioned, slightly odd-coloured display of the TV made it more difficult than it should be to see (especially when sat so freaking close to a 55" screen). Thankfully, Tanglewood is also available on Steam.
Oh Steam. Oh PC gaming, with your modern controller support and sharp, sharp displays. I'll never take you for granted again. I'm not denying there's something quite special about playing a new game on an old console, but loading up Tanglewood on PC was so much nicer. And so easy.
The game itself, boxed to the correct size and resolution, played so much better on Steam. And with a modern and responsive controller I'm more familiar with, taking control of Nymn became a much more pleasant affair. On Steam I was able to start enjoying Tanglewood, rather than getting annoyed with old hardware.
And there is a lot to enjoy. Tanglewood is hugely charming. Sure, its Mega Drive sensibilities are aligned with games of that era, but it unsurprisingly feels smarter and more refined than games of the 90s ever were. It has time-travelled; bringing all the knowledge of decades of game design into a bygone technical era. It mostly pulls it off, too, though sometimes is just a little too cute for its own good.
This is very much a 90s experience in terms of the core design and storytelling, though. Tanglewood never tells you anything and so, unless you read the instruction manual – yes, it has one of those! – expect to spend quite some time wondering what on Earth you're meant to do. Thankfully the Steam version of the game has a PDF of the instruction book accessible from the menu, and I'd advise any new player give this a brief glance to get the most out of the game, otherwise some of its nuances may pass unnoticed.
Many things you'll likely discover for yourself, though. Like the cute little squirrel creature that seems to want to run along the ground with you. Yeah, it's cute alright – until he starts to feel threatened by your presence, and turns on you. Key to Tanglewood's gameplay is delivering cute little orbs – known as Fuzzls – to their nests. Coming in three different colours, once a Fuzzl is in a nest, it can grant Nymn a special skill for a limited time. Yellow Fuzzls grant the ability to fly, green allows you to stop time, and blue allows you to tame some of the ferocious beasts that linger around Tanglewood.
Navigating the treetops and finding the Fuzzls can be tricky – it's very much like a puzzle and can require you going back and forth a few times before finding the right path to take. Often, too, you'll be required to make a leap of faith off the side of the screen, not knowing what's on the other side (but hoping it isn't dangerous).
Speaking of danger, despite the luscious forests of Tanglewood's opening world appearing to be comely and inviting, don't get too relaxed. Beasts lurk in them there woods, and the game's soundtrack is your first clue about that. The game uses music and sound effects very cleverly. Rather than having twee music tracks play continuously – as most Mega Drive-era platform games would – Tanglewood utilises silence to its advantage, employing sound sparsely and effectively to ramp up the tension when most needed. It really succeeds in creating a sense of unease: the silence making you question what's waiting nearby. And when the music does kick in, you know everything's about to kick off.
The hulking beasts that lurk throughout Tanglewood are ferocious and a force to be reckoned with. As soon as they catch sight of little Nymn they're on your tail, quickly catching up unless you can dodge out of their path. The only way to beat them is to outsmart them – which usually means utilising the environment's verticality to get somewhere safe, before dropping a rock on the ugly beast's face. One of Nymn's acquirable skills also means you can tame a beast and ride on its back, but beware – these skills wear off very quickly, and you don't suddenly want to find yourself powerless, on the back of a beast, now do you?
It's easy to like Tanglewood. The authentic 16-bit charm shines through – even on Steam – and it's clearly been a passion project for Matt Phillips and the team who've worked on it. Simple at first glance Tanglewood's world is surprisingly deep, packed with intricate elements to discover and interact with as you progress.
If you're a hardcore retro gamer and happen to have a Mega Drive, and the ideal setup, then by all means try to get hold of a cartridge copy of Tanglewood for the true experience. For the rest of us, it's probably not worth rummaging through the cupboards or ebay to try and recreate those childhood memories. Play the game on Steam; it's more accessible, much more enjoyable, and the love for Sega's 16-bit glory days still shines brightly through.