Thursday, 10 November 2011

Obscure gems part II: Turbans, capes and cartridge slots...

Turban? Check. Cape? Check. Weird egg mascot that you can throw? Check!
Following in the recent footsteps of Xandra's Big Adventure is another dazzling yet largely (and sadly) unknown masterpiece from the from the 16bit generation, this time for the Sega Mega Drive...or Genesis if you live on the other side of the big pond. The hilariously titled Magical Hat no Buttobi Tabo! Daiboken, loosely translated as Magical Hat Flying Turbo Adventure, is a platform game that was released by Sega in the pre Sonic era of 1990. To this day I still find it to be far and away the finest example of the platform genre on not just the Mega Drive, but on any Sega machine, period.

This game may seem strangely familiar to some people…even those who’ve never even heard of it. This is probably because it was developed by (the usually underwhelming) Vic Tokai, the same company responsible for the equally fantastic but ultimately shunned Psycho Fox on the Master System and Kid Kool on the NES. Whilst Magical Hat isn't a direct sequel to either of these titles, the lineage the three games share is plain for all to see, and many of the traits and ideas you come across in the Mega Drive title are derived straight from it’s 8bit ancestors. The other reason this wacky game may look familiar is that it did actually receive a release in the west...albeit in horrifically bastardised form, more on that travesty later though.
After 18 years, my very own copy...yay!

Magical Hat is something of a gaming Holy Grail for me. Back in 1993 I was among the staunchest of SNES fans, however the first time I encountered Hat’s fantastic world it left me floored. There were very few games around at the time that married such vivid and wonderful graphics with genuinely addictive game play. My love for it was such that I promised myself I would one day own a copy. I sort of forgot about that until recently though, and so some self-indulgent eBay action ensued and I'm now the very proud owner of an immaculate copy of Magical hat Flying Turbo Adventure! I have to say, it was worth the £20 for box art alone.

The bad news regarding this little impulse purchase is that I own a PAL Mega Drive…which doesn’t play NTSC games. So rather than bother with a boring universal adapter I decided to perform some minor "home surgery" on my console, which involved filing away the little plastic tabs that shape the cartridge slot. Once these had been rounded off, the game slotted in perfectly, I adore this novel approach to regional security from Sega, it's wonderfully barn door. To anyone who is thinking of attempting this little operation, I can happily confirm that it is fairly straightforward and only took me about 30 minutes in all. Just be sure to refer to one of the many useful internet guides, like this rather helpful one I happened across.

Back to the game then…

The story (I think) goes something like this; an earthquake has literally ripped apart our hero's island home and so he dons his excellent turban and sets off to reunite the scattered lands and defeat the (awesome looking) Demon King. To accomplish this feat, Hat must traverse seven different continents, each containing three stages laden with cunning traps, numerous secret passages and insane looking enemies. Although the game features the obligatory ice, desert and water levels, the design and complexity is nothing short of exceptional...especially when you take into consideration the game's age, eighteen years old! As well the traditional left to right routes, the player must explore the heights and depths of each level whilst scouring all over for hidden objects (necessary for progression in later stages).

I'm chuffed to say that Hat is a breeze to control, and his epic quest is made so much more enjoyable by the magnificent array of abilities he has at his disposal. Accompanying the main man on his journey is a strange grinning egg which can be hurled about the place to help fend off enemies. As well as helping Hat with attacking his enemies, the little maniacal egg also acts as a kind of extra layer of protection, offering to take a hit for you. Hat can also collect various different potions and pills which unleash a plethora of flashy moves such as; a rapid fire attack, a shield (which a certain Hedgehog seems to have took a shining to), a hidden turban gun and the best by miles...he can even transform into a giant robotic ape (how Japanese is that)!! It's true to say that every quality platfomer begins with a lovable and distinctive character and Hat's game is no different, his mannerisms are top notch and his wacky animations would put the likes of Bubsy to shame...the face he pulls when you accidentally walk off a ledge for example, is nothing short of hilarious!
Go go baggy pants...

In graphical terms, Magical Hat really is up there with the best the Mega Drive has to even rivals some of the more illustrious offerings from the Super Nintendo. The characters are large, bold and bursting with colour, the artists really outdid themselves by blessing the game with hoards of amazingly well designed sprites, all of which perfectly fit the setting and background of the game. Kudos must also go to the music composer because this game is awash with gloriously upbeat tunes that really get inside your head from the first level onward. It's this almost unnecessary level of detail that propels Hat's world to the top tier of the platform theatre.

Although this game looks cute and colourful, it also possesses a proper mean streak and it can easily catch you off guard. The difficulty level can make it extremely frustrating at times and as with most platformers of the day, one hit and you're dead. Luckily the delightful bonus levels in-between the stages will keep you stocked with extra lives, this is countered though by the fact that you'll probably end up ploughing through them at rate of knots.

Understandably Sega wanted to push Magical Hat into the lucrative markets of Europe and North America, at the time however, the localisation of many Japanese games went much further than mere text changes and a bit of censorship here and there. Games of Japanese origin were often considered a bit too weird and wacky for us easily offended westerners, as a result some would undergo a process known as Americanisation. This was a practice that pretty much ripped out any and all interesting content and ideas, and set about replacing it with stuff that was deemed more "familiar and acceptable" for it's new audience. Basically, it would amount to nothing more than removing the heart and soul of games that underwent the process, and Magical Hat along with Ranma 1/2 on the SNES (which became the appalling Street Combat) is by far the worse example of this that I've ever witnessed.

And so, as a result of this questionable and deplorable method of localisation, Magical Hat Flying Turbo Adventure emerged in the west as as Decap Attack.

"Whaa...where'd all the colour go!?"
Now to be honest, (and putting aside my bias for Japanese games) Decap Attack is actually a pretty solid attempt and if you've never had the pleasure of trying Magical Hat, then you quite could happily consider Decap Attack to be a title of real quality. However, when the two games are compared side by side, the ugly truth is impossible to hide from. Decap Attack is completely devoid of life and imagination, also (just to make matters worse) it was swathed in some of the most dull and drab colours you could possibly think of. It's worlds are home to boring characters who inhabit not very interesting surroundings. It is obvious to me that Sega were trying to make a game that would appeal to a mass market, but what depresses me most about Decap Attack is that by removing the patented Hat lunacy, they also took away the majority of the game's charm and identity...which is unforgivable.

The molestation of Magical Hat was truly abhorrent in my eyes and the fact that Sega, a company well renowned for bold (if possibly ill judged) gaming decisions, made the call to basically lobotomise it, makes the whole situation even more rancid. As is well known, the 90's thrust upon us an extensive collection of generic and unimaginative platform pulp in the form of smelly turds such as Family Dog and Cool World. Magical Hat would certainly have brought some welcome creativity and spark to these shores, had it arrived here untouched. As it was, we in the west were fobbed off with another run of the mill platform game, and this is truly a great shame because Magical Hat had so much to give us. It boasted not only the visual finery to match the very best of the generation, but also, terrific game play...most of all though it was fantastic fun to play.

So if you enjoy great platform games or just happen to be searching for a bit of the magic and humour that seems absent from many of today's games, then Magical Hat is an absolute must. Along with the likes of Streets of Rage 2, Gunstar Heroes and Phantasy Star, Magical Hat Flying Turbo Adventure finally made me acknowledge the Mega Drive as a truly great console…one thing I would say though is do yourself a big favour and play the proper Japanese version, it's just better.

In my humble opinion, it was this game and not Sonic that was the Mega Drive's true answer to Super Mario World, and praise doesn't come much higher than that.

As a final note, Magical Hat Flying Turbo Adventure also occupies a slot in my Underrated games list. It's a place where unloved games can be showered with much deserved attention, have a quick gander, you might just find your new favourite (old) game!



  1. Yeah! Magical Hat is one of my favourite MD games ever! :) I've had it for twenty-odd years now and I still don't get bored of it. Decapattack is a perfect example of how different a game can be depending on its audio/visual style. Bah, stupid dumb-arses! (>_<)

  2. Nice man, great to see another fan of the Hat!! I knew a quality title like this wouldn't escape your beady eye!