This article was originally published at Another-Castle.com
Big Trouble in Ancient China
Water Margin – The Tales of Clouds and Winds
Platform: Sega Mega Drive
Developer: Never Ending Soft/Piko Interactive
Publisher: Piko Interactive
The existence of both the will and a market for producing new video games on discontinued consoles borders on surreal. But the reality is there is a small but healthy community of developers translating, reproducing, porting and even making new video games for old consoles. Much of this may be driven by the widespread nostalgia for retro video games but this enthusiasm has seen the release of games previously unavailable to many audiences. Many of these titles were previously released in Japan or Asia with no English translation. Some had such a limited production that getting an original copy is beyond the price range of the average consumer. Other games were never even published and later discovered in old development kits. Water Margin – The Tales of Clouds and Winds fits into many of these categories.
Water Margin was originally released in 1996 (re-released 1999) as Shui Hu Feng Yun Zhuan in Taiwan for the Sega Mega Drive. The game was not licensed by Sega and actually used assets and samples from other games. The original cartridge is extremely rare although the ROM is widely available on the Internet. Piko Interactive secured the rights to the game, translated it into English and removed the copyrighted content. The English title is a direct translation of the Chinese which is based on a classic Chinese novel. This edition was released for the first time in English this year and is currently only available to play on a Mega Drive/Genesis.
The Mega Drive has an excellent selection of beat’em ups, the most notable being the Golden Axe and Streets of Rage series’. The ancient Chinese setting for Water Margin is unique for the genre, especially on Mega Drive. There are three characters Shi Jin, Hu Sanniang and Li Kui. Shi is the all-rounder with good offensive and defensive capability, Hu who is female has good weapon reach, speed and defence. Li Kui is the more powerful and is a better option for advanced players. While characters have different stats, they all have the same move set with a basic combo, jump attacks and a special attack. Similar to the Golden Axe series, there is a magic system but the spells are power-ups found within stages and none are unique to any one character.
The game mechanics while responsive and easy to pick up, are dated even for the very late 80’s. Water Margin has fewer moves than the original Double Dragon, Final Fight, Golden Axe and Streets of Rage. There is no grappling or throw system and no character has any unique moves. There are also no weapon pick-ups outside of the magic power-ups. Some of this can be put down to the setting but for a game that came out in 1996, it is hard not to notice the lack of variety in character move sets.
It would generally be redundant to use the word ‘repetitive’ as this is a feature rather than a bug in the beat’em up genre. Fighting the same goons over and over again only with slightly different clothing or healthy bars is not unexpected and remains the case even in modern beat’em ups like Castle Crashers. Even with that in mind, the gameplay in Water Margin is very repetitive. In round after round there are wave after wave of enemies often clustered in seemingly thoughtless ways. Each stage will involve walking vertically before being stopped by two or more waves and then moving on. This is even more the case later in the game and even scenery is repeated. There are no events in any stages that break up the action and even most of the boss characters are seen more than once before the final round.
Where Water Margin excels is its soundtrack and visual design. The soundtrack is excellent and certainly up there with the best on the Mega Drive. Each round has a unique track and most are thumping, lively tracks that will get in your head. The sound effects aren’t very good at all and some previously stolen effects have been replaced. The clashing of weapons, enemy screams and magic effects pale in comparison with the soundtrack. The visual design is good all round and despite the usual colour swaps, there is a good variety of enemies. The generic names, ‘lancer’, ‘muscle man’, ‘tough girl’, elite soldier’ etc are disappointing but I assume they are direct translations. The visuals are colourful and all the onscreen characters are well animated. The backgrounds are also detailed and it is only a shame that many are often repeated.
Water Margin is a hard game to recommend to anyone but collectors. Fans of the beat’em up genre will likely be disappointed as the game was mechanically dated even for the time. Like most games of this type, it is a lot more fun in two player mode and there are difficulty levels to extend it; the easiest of which will not see you to the end. Even as a huge fan of the genre I can find little to recommend and I’m a collector as well. At the same time, it is very cool to see the game released in English and to see the Mega Drive library expanded. If you love the genre, play a lot of two-player and remain curious, I can give it a cautious recommendation. Lastly, it is important to mention that this release is aimed at a very specific market who want to see games like this released. If that\’s you then this is well worth supporting.
Water Margin can be purchased from the Piko Interactive Store