Uncharted Waters: New Horizons

Grade: B+

Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 19th

Publisher: Koei

Year: 1994

Genre: Travel

I hate to admit it, but Uncharted Waters: New Horizons has been one of the tougher games for us to write about. It’s not that this isn’t a great game, because it absolutely is It’s just that while we love New Horizons, it’s not that gushing, romantic infatuation we have for many of the other games on this list. It’s more like the quiet, respect-borne kind of love you might feel for your favorite author or a really talented monster truck driver.

Still, we’ll do what we can here, because damn it, this game deserves some praise.

Yes, please. Teach us to make fun of you.

Uncharted Waters: New Horizons is kind of like a sea-based Grand Theft Auto game – there’s a story, and you’ll have to complete certain missions to advance the narrative, but in between doing that, you’re pretty much free to do whatever you want. There a whole world to explore (literally), and plenty of side missions to keep you busy. Or you can just fool around – if you want to take an unsatisfying, pixelated version of that Mediterranean cruise you’ve always dreamed about, go ahead. Or if you prefer to go to a tropical area, buy a bunch of bananas, and then visit every town in Europe giving them away and declaring yourself the Banana Emperor, you can do that too. For those of you of a more serious mind, the most important thing to do in your free time is to make some money, because although the various kings and nobles seem to have no problem tasking you with carrying out important duties, they are a bit reluctant to actually fund these missions.

Go out and explore unknown areas for the glory of England! Just be sure to stop by Denmark first and do some wool-trading. Ships are expensive after all, and we’re running a kingdom here, not a charity.

Luckily, there are lots of ways to earn an income, such as trading commodities, delivering messages for guilds, and investing in businesses. Or, since those ideas are all kind of lame, you can just do them for a little while to make some money, then strap a bunch of guns to your ship and start raiding other ships to steal their cargo. I’m assuming that’s sort of the unspoken expectation a king has when he just hands a ship to some captain he barely knows without bothering to check if he’s, you know, actually from that country, and then gives him a dangerous task to do without any funding or guidelines.

Or, if high seas villainy isn’t you’re thing, you can gamble. Oh sure, you might lose everything in a hand of blackjack, but at least if nothing else, your king will learn a valuable lesson about trusting his navy and the fate of an entire nation to the whims of a gambling degenerate.

Perhaps the coolest thing about New Horizons is that the game world is a reasonable approximation of the Earth, you can sail just anywhere you want, except for the poles. Or places that are landlocked, obviously. Still, if there’s a coastline or a big river near it, you can sail there. It’s hard to convey just how much bigger of a world this is compared to what we’re accustomed to seeing in games, including modern ones. It actually came as a bit of a surprise the first time we left the Mediterranean Sea to sail up the Northern European coast and the game actually let us. Then we started sailing down the coast of Africa, the whole time thinking that sooner or later, the game would run out of room. Next thing we knew, we were rounding the southern tip of the continent, yelling at Bartholomew Diaz to suck it, and making our way to China to load up on bootleg DVDs which we planned to sell back in Europe to fund our next expedition.

It probably says a lot about how conditioned we’ve been by other games that even after this much exploring, the first time we attempted to cross the Atlantic, we still fully expected to hit an invisible wall at the edge of the screen. I mean, there’s no way they put the Americas in the game, right? In fact, we were so sure of it that we didn’t stock up on nearly enough water, and everyone died on the voyage. But on our second attempt, we managed to sail across the ocean, and before we knew it, we were cruising up and down the coastline of the future United States.

Of course, being a Koei game, the attention to detail is just insane. Forget about just managing inventory, the game actually lets you decide exactly which cargo you want on each individual ship (and knowing Koei, this probably has subtle effects on the ship’s behavior). You also assign your crew to various duties, splitting them between lookout, navigation, and combat. That might be a little bit of overkill on the game’s part, though, as I imagine being boarded by an enemy ship would be sort of a “everybody grab a sword and start stabbing” situation. Still, the game leaves no minor detail untouched – you can even adjust the crew’s wages, which goes a long way toward recruiting the best officers for your ship. Never, ever underestimate the importance of offering a good heath plan when trying to convince people to take on the Spanish Armada with you.

New Horizons gives you six different characters to choose from, and each one has a completely unique story, objective, and circumstances. That’s pretty impressive when you think about it. In most games, different characters may offer various strengths and weaknesses, and maybe a few unique special moves, but that’s it. Even in games where the characters have drastically different play styles, they generally still have those characters playing through the same levels, progressing through the same narrative, and striving toward the same ultimate goal. Not so in New Horizons – every character has a unique story, circumstances, and objective. It might be a stretch to say that this game is six games in one, but it’s definitely like getting one really good game with 6 full-length campaigns.

32 members of your crew saw this town had a zebra and decided that they wanted to spend the rest of their lives there.

 Of course, having all these characters is almost a moot point, because of those six characters, one of them is a superhot Spanish redhead named Catalina. Oh, and she’s a pirate. Let’s not kid ourselves here, when a game gives you a choice of characters – and really, it doesn’t matter if that choice is six, or two, or one hundred – and one of them is a sexy female buccaneer with flame-orange hair, that choice has already been made for you. It doesn’t really matter what the other characters are – you could have a choice between Catalina, Blackbeard, Batman, Macho Man Randy Savage, President Reagan, and a T-Rex, and you’d still have to be crazy not to pick Catalina. Remember all that stuff I said earlier about not feeling a romantic love for this game? That line of thought doesn’t apply to Catalina. It was all I could do to keep this review from turning into an incoherent 7 page love letter to an imaginary video game character.

 

Loss of her fiance? That means she’s single!

I know what you’re thinking – sure, but once you beat the game with Catalina, then you could play as one of the other five characters. Yes, you could. And about 5 minutes in, you’ll remember that you could instead be playing again as a superhot redhead pirate. At which point any sane person will be reaching for the reset button.

…and that’s kind of the thing about New Horizons in general – you get lots of great options throughout the game, but all too often one choice is so ridiculously awesome (piracy, redheads, not running out of water while crossing the Atlantic) that you’ll almost always take it. On one hand, it seems like kind of a waste, because a lot of pretty good options are being passed over. But on the other hand, those best options are so good you won’t even mind. Or to put it another way – superhot redhead pirate.

Did we mention that her chair is a puma?

 Availability: Like just about all of Koei’s games from this era, New Horizons is pretty rare, and it’s unusual to see a copy selling online for less than $30. To be honest, we sometimes wonder if Koei’s entire business model isn’t based on releasing games that they know people won’t be interested in at first, then hoarding all the unsold copies in a warehouse, and selling them on eBay 15 years later when they finally become popular. There’s a slight chance of coming across one at a really good used game store, but don’t expect to pay any less than you would online.

Fortunately, there are a couple of alternatives here. New Horizons is a sequel, and the original in the series, simply called Uncharted Waters, typically sells for about half as much. New Horizons is the better game of the two (hence it’s the one that made our Top 50), but Uncharted Waters is almost as good as it’s sequel, with the exception of one glaring flaw – no Catalina. That’s a sacrifice you’re going to have to think long and hard about before making. Unless you’re a Wii owner, in which case you can spare yourself the dilemma and just snag the nearly identical SNES version of the game on the virtual console, thereby saving some money and still getting all the sexy pirate action your little heart desires.

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Landstalker

Grade: B+

Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 20th

Publisher: Sega

Year: 1992

Genre: Pain

Do a Google search for the word “dominatrix” followed by whatever city you happen to live near, and you’ll end up looking at a listing of nearby ladies who, for a modest fee, will happily tie you up, whip you, walk on you, or – I don’t know, make you do the dishes or something? This sort of thing isn’t really my bag, so I’m not exactly sure how it works. Given how many professionals are out there though, I’m assuming this has quite an appeal for at least a fair number of people. When we first found out about this stuff (by the way, thanks yet again, internet), neither of us could really understand what would cause a person to get their wires crossed and start mixing pleasure and pain in such an extreme way. This is a completely alien concept – my love of Double Dragon instilled in me a supreme aversion of whip-wielding women, and Stryker prefers to get lady-tortured the old-fashioned way, through marriage. But now… now I think I know:

Those dudes probably all played Landstalker back in the Genesis days.

 

Kind of puts a whole new spin on this guy’s upcoming “session” with Madame Yard, doesn’t it?

See, Landstalker combines fun and suffering in a most dangerous sort of way – the enjoyable parts are so completely interlaced with moments of annoyance and outright sadism that it’s sometimes hard to know where one ends and the other begins. A typical game usually eases this transition – you might play through a hard level followed by an easy level, or an area where you face a bunch of pushovers followed by a challenging boss fight. By contrast, Landstalker flips back and forth between fun and frustrating like a small child playing with a light switch. If you’re not careful, both will start to blur together until each part of the game seems equally cruel and enjoyable, and that’s when you’re in trouble. Once that happens, you’re really only a couple of steps away from paying some leather-clad chick to kick you in the junk. And that’s probably not good.

In fact, to make sure that doesn’t happen, we recommend taking a break from playing Landstalker every couple hours or so to do something purely enjoyable and pain-free. Maybe have a bowl of ice cream or play with a puppy or something. You know, just to remind yourself that delight doesn’t necessarily require any suffering. It’ll be good for your mental health plus, hey, ice cream.

Or raw meat, I mean, whatever you like, really.

Landstalker is an Action/RPG, and simply by mentioning that hybrid genre we’re obligated to compare it to The Legend of Zelda. There’s actually a law that says that. Some have even gone as far to call Landstalker Sega’s own version of Zelda, but the games really aren’t all that similar. Yes, both of them have swordfighting, exploration, and puzzle solving, along with visiting towns and interacting with NPCs, but Landstalker  puts a much bigger emphasis on platforming. Whereas the Zelda games have little to no jumping sequences, getting from one ledge or floating platform to the next accounts for maybe as much as 50% of Landstalker’s gameplay and about 99% of the accompanying swear words. Have I mentioned that this game gets difficult at times? Oh, I have? Well, it does.

By the way, if you really want a truly Zelda-like game for the Genesis, check out Beyond Oasis or Crusader of Centy… actually, you know what? Just check out Beyond Oasis.

Before we go any further, let’s make something clear. Many games are hard. Landstalker is cruel, and believe me, there’s a difference. Usually, a game will present you with a difficult area, say a series of really hard jumps, and you might get stuck and have to do it over and over a thousand times before you get it right, but if you ever do get through it, you’re set and won’t have to do it again. What Landstalker will do will put the next series of hard jumps directly above the previous series, so that if you miss one on the second set, you fall all the way through the first area, and have to do that again, too. This is pretty standard stuff for Landstalker. There were some mean spirited people at work on this one.

Most games just test your skill, but thanks to its sinister design, Landstalker challenges your patience, too. The toughest parts of the game have as much to do with fighting enemies or making jumps as they do with not throwing your Genesis out the window. We failed numerous times on both fronts.

So why bother with a game that presents a hazard to the well-being of both your sanity and the Genesis you happen to be playing the game on? Because Landstalker, despite all its evil, is still a lot of fun. The combat is a simple, fast-paced affair that you don’t mind doing over and over again. There puzzle parts are even better – a lot of them require genuine brain power, and it’s not unheard of to get stuck on one for a while, before finally having that satisfying “Aha!” moment.

In fact, it’s the puzzle/exploration aspect that will really keep you coming back for more. What’s really impressive about this part of the game are how many false leads this game throws at you. Most games, both new and old, are actually very efficient; just about everything put into a level – a switch, a room, an item – is there for a reason. Once you begin to understand this, solving parts of a game become a lot easier. If you get stuck, it’s usually just a matter of looking around and going “Well, they must have put that ledge (or “empty” room, or dead hooker, etc.) there for some reason,” and then figuring out what to do with it. Even games that do include empty areas tend to put secret items there as a subtle hint to the player that they have no further purpose. Conversely, Landstalker adds in some legitimate dead ends, useless areas, and other red herrings. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle with a few extra pieces in it – you never know for sure if something that seems extra truly is or not, and it makes the game a lot more interesting. It’s noteworthy because this is such a rare thing in gaming. If you don’t believe me, think of a few other exploration and puzzle solving  games where you would expect to encounter this – Tomb Raider is basically an entire game just running from one thing you jump or grab onto to the next, and Zelda’s idea of throwing you off the scent involves adding an extra statue next to the one you have to push. Most games are remarkably streamlined when you really think about it.

Difficulty has sort of an interesting effect on how much you enjoy a game. Whether someone finds a tough game to be utterly frustrating or refreshingly challenging really depends on how much fun the rest of the game is. This makes sense – if a game is really good, you don’t mind as much if you have to play parts of it a few extra times before you get through them, and when you finally get through a tough part, you’re rewarded with new levels or areas to enjoy. This is completely reversed in a bad game – there isn’t much point to suffering through a level of Cliffhanger over and over, if the only reward is going to be having to play more Cliffhanger.

 

Whereas in Landstalker, your reward is a refreshing “NOT” joke.

Besides, there’s something satisfying about getting through a difficult game. Being good at Landstalker may not be as useful of a skill as, say, talking to supermodels or being Batman, but there’s something kind of cool about finally breezing through a tough part and thinking, “I used to be really bad at that, but now I’m pretty good.” I think that’s a feeling people crave psychologically, and it’s probably a big part of the appeal of video games in general… or at least it was back when they still made challenging games. It’s kind of hard to get that feeling these days when you’re beating everything on the first try.

In a weird way, you’re probably better off playing Landstalker now than you were then. The game came out in an era before the widespread internet, and back in a time when few games had hintbooks. Back in 1993, if you got stuck in a really tough part of Landstalker, your options were basically to either hand the controller to one of your friends and watch him die over and over in the vain hope he’d figure it out, or call a 1-900 hint line and pay $3 a minute to get helpful advice like “Stop sucking at the game”. By our calculations, it would have cost approximately $7,000 in phone calls to beat Landstalker in the early ‘90s. These days you can just look up a free strategy guide online, or go on YouTube and watch of video of the part you’re stuck on to see if you’re at least on the right track.

The story is good, too – it’s fun and moves the action along without taking itself seriously. There are some genuinely funny parts, and the game never gets too bogged down explaining plot points when it could be giving you more things to kill. The game centers around Nigel, a treasure hunter seeking the legendary treasure of King Nole. What’s refreshing about this is that at first, Nigel’s interest in the treasure seems to be purely monetary – as far as he knows, the treasure doesn’t have some great power, and isn’t the key to unlocking some ancient evil or destroying the world. Think about how rare that is. Two of the other games on this list – Shining Force 2 and Gunstar Heroes, center around stolen gems that unleash doomsday scenarios. Even games you think would be about pursuing treasures simply for treasure’s sake, like Tomb Raider, usually end up being about all-powerful world-ending artifacts. In fact, near the end of the Landstalker, when the treasure’s secret powers are finally revealed (I’d apologize for the spoiler, but I mean, really? It’s a treasure in a video game, of course it was going to have mystical powers), it actually seemed like a bit of a disappointment. What’s so wrong with going after a treasure just so you can get rich? That’s a lot more relatable if you ask me. There seems to be this notion that gamers need to have some sort of higher goal is order to play through the game, but… I mean have you ever met a gamer? We’re not such noble creatures as you seem to think.


Seriously. You could toss a bag of Oreos at the back of a cave and most of us would murder a hundred virtual giant dragons or demonic warriors to get at them.

One last thing that adds to Landstalker’s appeal is the fact that a lot of the people who made Shining Force worked on this (it was actually made by the same developer that made Shining in the Darkness, the game that Shining Force is the sort-of sequel to). Although the games are completely different in terms of gameplay, there is an obvious influence in both the graphics and (especially) the music, which is a very good thing. A game that looks and sounds like Shining Force and plays like Zelda, except with improved exploration and puzzles? Impossible jumping sequences or not, that’s something we’ll sign up for.

Availability: While Landstalker is respected by many hard-core gamers, it’s never quite achieved the cult status of games like Gunstar Heroes or Toe Jam and Earl, meaning that it also doesn’t suffer from the price inflation that those games have. See? The next time you complain that some great game never got the respect it deserved, just remember it’s that same lack of respect that allows you to buy it for considerably less. Anyway, we had no luck trying to find it in stores, but copies can be found online starting at around $10, or closer to $15-20 if you want a box and instructions. Alternately, it is also available for download on the Wii Virtual Console.