Earnest Evans (Sega CD) review
"Vampire bats EXPLODE in waves of blue. Giant naked earthworms stroke the hero to death. Priests hurl Kris daggers across the screen, ceremonial knives whose length put even Shaq to shame. The designers even incorporated the best part of Gradius — that's right, there are MOAI HEADS in this game!"
Cynics have torn into Earnest Evans like carrion pigeons, pecking at the disc's digital corpse, pretending to be big and bad for recognizing the game's one glaring flaw.
"The worst non-FMV Mega CD game!" claims one such site.
Critics have been unkind to Earnest from even before the game's release, convinced the game must be a blazing pile of crap. They're wrong. They've mistaken the lipstick-red flames of passion for the blood-red fires of hell.
For someone, somewhere, Earnest Evans was their magnum opus. The technically complex graphics, epic soundtrack, and boundless creativity combine to form one of the most ambitious projects of all time, Wolf Team's first-ever CD title. True, it was later down-converted to cartridge format, but even Dracula X could have been released on cartridge with a few musical and cinematic downgrades. Love drips from the game, and it's clear that the developers were excited to (finally) be working on a CD-ROM.
But there's one horrendous problem with Earnest Evans. A case where the technical ambition is apparent, but the final, misguided result scars the entire game's visage. And this flaw has garnered Earnest his Legendarily Bad status, and will be, without a doubt, the first thing anyone sees when they play the game.
But let's not think about the flaw yet. Open this book and read a bit, before we examine its torrid cover...
The year is 1926 and the world is exciting!
Within the darkest corner of Peru waits the Necronomicon: dark magick arts practiced long ago, locked within a flesh-bound tome. It's no wonder that the diabolical cultist worshippers of Hastur (a powerful evil god) want to get their hands on it.
But, in fate's whimsical way, the Necronomicon was hidden from the cultists' hands... sealed within an ancient cavern, guarded by an enormous serpentine beast. Lost to humanity until a spelunking, treasure-hunting, whip-swinging archaeologist named Earnest Evans stumbled across the wicked tome.
"Stumbled" is one way to put it. "Raced through a worm-infested cavern while dodging vampire bats and scythe-wielding skeletons" would be more appropriate, and that's not even touching the poisoned arrows and the shocking Raiders homage, a grand finish that, despite having been seen once before on the silver screen, is still surprising in that the game's developers actually pulled it off. And in the game's first level, no less!
Then the real adventure begins... as the cult sends their minions after Earnest to obtain (steal) the Necronomicon for their own dark purposes.
The beauty of the story is that the man sent to purloin the precious book has motives of his own. Watching the three sides conspire against and cooperate with one another is at times dramatic, at times hilarious, and always entertaining. It's a power struggle between brains, brawn, and the hero.
Ah yes, the hero. Earnest is quite the contradictory specimen: endowed with book smarts, but boulder-dense when it comes to common sense. A bad-ass with a whip, but (shades of Rurouni Kenshin) a klutz when you take away his cherished weapon. These traits are exploited not only in the anime cinematics, but within the game as well. Take a peek at the opening seconds of the third level, as enormous spikes are shoved up Earnest's ass, sending him flying through the air!
Yes, you read that right. Hundred-foot spikes are shoved up Earnest's ass, and he soars uncontrollably through the sky before plummeting a hundred feet back down to the ground. This game is goofy, and makes no bones about it. Just watch Earnest fly over the windshield, arms flailing, when his incompetent teenaged driver slams the car into a stationary wall!
Our intrepid explorer, when not ravaged by vicious spikes and violent slamming, shows his colors in other ways as well. In the very first cinematic sequence, he announced himself in Onizuka cheeseball bravado as "United States treasure hunter — Earnest Evans!" Witness Earnest's pathetic mac-daddy efforts — and the utter shock on his face when those advances are actually returned! Behold his white-water rafting attempts, which of course go awry!
There's no way such a buffoon (not even a bad-ass buffoon like Earnest) can hang onto such a treasured book. Fortunately, Earnest's got a lot of tricks to get it back.
He can duck, he can jump, he can simultaneously duck and jump! He can crouch, he can crawl, he can crawl while crouching! Furthermore, he can even roll! [Be wary of this technique. Its sole purpose is to plunge Earnest headfirst into spike-laden pits, at which point he proceeds to roll his body all over sharp pointy sticks.]
Earnest also swings from tree-branches and whip-hooks, much like Simon Belmont in Super Castlevania 4. However, Earnest's method of swinging is less intuitive. To help out all the critics who have never mastered the Art of Swing, I now present....
[Zig's Mini-FAQ to Whip Swinging]
1) Use weapon button to snag rope.
2) Don't start tapping buttons.
3) Press and hold the direction you want to travel.
4) While holding that direction, press and hold the jump button. This is especially useful in the open forest, when trying to fly above the treetops to find the secret hidden red medicine.
5) If you want to swing a shorter distance, release 'jump' to perform a shorter swing. Hopefully you will land on the ground (do try to avoid the leech-infested swampwater).
6) Don't touch any enemies/spikes/etc when starting your swing — that will prevent you from achieving escape velocity. It's okay to get hit once you're airborne.
[End of Mini-FAQ]
A decent instruction manual would have explained all of the above, but we can't have everything, I suppose.
In addition to using his whip as a means of travel, Earnest can also use his whip as a weapon. Alas, he has no 8-directional lashing or chain-brandishing techniques. While both Earnest Evans and Super Castlevania 4 feature whip-wielding studs, the emphasis is entirely different. Mr. Belmont has a variety of attacks; Earnest has a variety of dodges. In this game's case, the result is a fast-paced, frantic game in which you CHARGE HEADFIRST at opponents, then dodge the monsters' blows with amazing mad dodging skills.
And if you're not amazing, then "United States treasure hunter — Earnest Evans!" gets hurt. Fortunately, Earnest can withstand a sizable dose of damage, so even bumbledums should be able to master this one with a fair bit of effort, although, partly due to the complex control system, it should require more effort than its less challenging predecessor, El Viento.
It's well worth the time to master. Not only is there the witty and involving storyline, but the game itself offers countless creative moments. Vampire bats EXPLODE in waves of blue. Giant naked earthworms stroke the hero to death. Priests hurl Kris daggers across the screen, ceremonial knives whose length put even Shaq to shame. The designers even incorporated the best part of Gradius — that's right, there are MOAI HEADS in this game! They're pretty cool, although the 500-foot-long python vines, enormous mountain snakes, and crumbling bridges (a blast from Wolfteam's past!) are all pretty cool, too. Speaking of the crumbling bridges... you'll eventually be surprised to come across a bridge that doesn't buckle beneath your feet. Cherish the moment, but don't cherish it for too long, as fireballs are spewing from the chasm below.
There are a lot of dangerous (and fun) encounters. Then there are moments that simply make your eyes bug out in joy. Watch Earnest blaze through a cavern... OH NO!!! A rotating bed of nails has swung up from the floor, skewering our hapless hero! Enhancing the smooth rotation effect is the impressive realization that each row of nails on the trap is individually parallaxed, providing a ridiculous (and pretty damn sweet) sense of depth to such a minor event. The game is centered around an explorer, and you'll want to explore every nook and cranny to find all the secret treasures and even to see all the traps — in no other game have I had so much fun getting hurt!
The excellent, epic soundtrack also helps keep the action moving. The first level's music is ridiculously energetic, easily one of my all-time favorite CD tracks. Believe it or not, that song pales in comparison to the majestic thematic revision that resonates throughout the wide-open forest. Incidentally, this grandiose musical piece is not used in the cartridge version, even though it's featured in the sound-test mode (in downgraded Genesynth form). It's a shame, as it's a magnificent work of art that you'd normally expect in the finale of an action-RPG. This composer has some serious skills.
He's absolutely out-done himself with the final boss melody, a track that isn't even replicated on the cartridge version of Earnest (the cartridge version re-uses previous, grungier, Genesis-guitar boss music). It's beautiful, mystical, and, combined with the description-defying visuals of the final encounter, adds up to a True Gaming Moment. Earnest Evans showcases an inspiring soundtrack, just a touch beneath the watermark set by its stunning sister El Viento.
So where does it all go wrong? What is the horrible flaw that leads people to (understandably) trash poor old Earnest? It's obvious from the game's opening seconds: the main character animation reeks. Wolfteam tried to be clever, animating each body part individually, even going so far as to use rotation effects. Well guess what: smoothly rotating limbs aren't realistic. Earnest looks inhuman, and I spent years of my life trying to come to grips with the macabre visuals. It looks bad. No, not "below average". I mean bad. Legendarily Bad.
I think two points is more than enough to deduct for "bad main character animation". Moving on now.
To quote my own review of the cartridge port:
"Evans does suffer from some gameplay faults. Foremost is the sparsity of combat... The game favors placing a few powerful enemies into large, expansive levels, rather than filling those massive locales with creepy opponents."
That's only telling half the story. Some levels are packed with enemies — I dare you not to notice all the creepy caterpillars, venus mantraps, and giant purple worms in the seventh level. But then, as my evil half claims, other levels are loosely populated... but the game is never ever — never ever! — slow. Whether you're being hurtled through the air by 100-foot-tall spikes, being flung across corridors by Hard Corps style rotating levers, or racing through exploding streets, the game keeps things moving at a hectic pace that only an undaunted hero like Earnest Evans could handle. The heavy emphasis on traps and frenetic escapades fits the game's treasure-hunter concept, and the goofy nature of the obstacles fits the goofy attitude of the hero.
This game is a prime example of cinematics improving the overall adventure, by taking attention away from the creepy animation and focusing it on the imaginative, epic nature of the action. Combined with an excellent soundtrack, Earnest Evans comes highly recommended.
Staff review by Zigfried (January 16, 2004)
Zigfried likes writing about whales and angry seamen, and often does so at the local pub.
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