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.

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