Thursday, 27 October 2011

Obscure gems part I: Platforms, pitch forks and a green Jelly Baby...

I never really liked the 'green ones' until I played this game...
I've recently been remembering some of my favourite lesser known treasures from the 16 bit era, and first up is a marvellous offering from Namcot (Namco's old Japan only brand), Xandra's Big Adventure. Believe it or not, this wacky looking game actually made it (almost) unscathed to Europe back in the day, but to be honest, very few people paid it any interest and Xandra sadly toiled away in relative obscurity...which is something of a shame, because what we're looking at here is one the Super Nintendo's most enjoyable and polished platformers.

Thanks to the success of Mario and Sonic et al, platform games were massive business back in the early 90's, as a result of this popularity a whole host of 'imitation brand' titles flooded onto the shelves. The likes of Pugsley's Scavenger Hunt, Out to Lunch and Plok were actually pretty good, but on the whole the genre became home to many efforts that were ropey to say the least...the likes Home Alone and Lester the Unlikely spring to mind. Fortunately though, Xandra slots nicely into the top bracket, sitting just below the first and second party titans like Super Mario World, Yoshi's Island and Donkey Kong Country 2.

I first laid eyes on Xandra no Daibōken: Valkyrie to no Deai in 1993, whilst perusing an old issue of Super Play Magazine. After reading their review I was totally captivated...a Japanese game, starring a green Jelly Baby, wielding a pitch fork?? Count me in!! Years later and via the joys of emulation, I finally got the chance to play it, and as suspected I'd missed out big time.

Although the star of the show does indeed look like he belongs in a packet of Bassetts finest, Xandra actually started his gaming adventures on the PC Engine, as a side kick in Namco's famous Valkyrie series. The transition from cohort to main man (or Jelly sweet) went well thanks in no small part to the harrowing (though quite thin) storyline within the game. The evil Zona unleashes a deadly and mysterious virus upon the land, causing the inhabitants of Xandra's village to turn to stone, and Xandra's own son to become gravely ill. So, armed with nothing more than a pitchfork he sets off on the obligatory quest to collect the magic herbs necessary to save his son.

Happily the little green guy is a joy to control and you'll be genuinely amazed at just what he can do with his humble pitchfork!! Visually the game is impressive for the time, the stage backgrounds can get a little bland but as you might expect, Xandra's animations are top notch. His facial expressions range from hilarious to actually quite sad and, rather unusually for a platform character, he oozes charisma and you really do want him to do well. It's this kind of detail that in my eyes makes Xandra one of the most memorable characters of the period and makes it even more of a travesty that the likes of Bubsy gained much more limelight than he did.

Also really worthy of note is the musical score which, for a platformer from the 90's is pretty awesome. There are lots of melancholic tunes that are more akin to an epic RPG than to a game that involves much running and's a glorious surprise and something that really helps the game to stand out from the crowds.

The gameplay is solid but as a warning, there are parts of this game that you'll need saint-like patience to get through. The game spews out passwords at decent intervals but anyone too used to modern games is in for a shock, Xandra's Big Adventure has a ball breaking learning curve and can get pad smashingly difficult in me! If challenge is what motivates you then you're sure to enjoy this side of the game. Also keeping things fresh and the replay value high are a multitude of endings...many of which are 'bad'.

As mentioned before, this game did receive a limited release in Europe, where it was re-branded as Whirlo: the Bubble Boy, discarding any references to Xandra's previous exploits in the Valkyire series. I can only assume this new identity was due to the PC Engine's lack of release in the PAL territories, even so, it's a pretty feeble title. On the plus side though, a lack of US release meant that Xandra was thankfully spared the awful act of Americanisation which blighted many 16 bit games that crossed from east to west (Ranma 1/2 becoming on the SNES Street Combat for instance).

So what's the bottom line on on Xandra's Big Adventure then? Well, while it can't quite touch the majesty of Super Mario World (what can though eh?), it is cute, fun and immensely challenging. At a time when generic platform games were two a penny, this represented something different and interesting, it also boasts one of the most memorable lead characters from any platformer of the period. So if you're a fan of the genre, Japanese games or just green Jelly Babies then it's definitely worth a look.

By the by, Xandra's Big Adventure is also featured in my Underrated games list, it's worth a look, you might just unearth a little gem in there.


  1. Nice feature sir, I will indeed take a look at this game soon :) By the way, thanks for adding my page to your 'Recommended Reading' thingy, I'll return the favour forthwith :)

  2. Thanks for the kind words my friend!!

    Not a problem re the link, your blog is one of my favourites out's not often I read a blog and I think "wow, someone else loves this stuff too". Great stuff.