Popful Mail (Sega CD) review
"“Eat this, cookie face!” "
“Eat this, cookie face!”
That was the line that caught me off guard. Popful Mail begins with one of the most gorgeous amine-style FMV sequences to be found on Sega CD. A comely young redhead is in hot pursuit of an unseen criminal, squealing threats and brandishing a shiny sword. Then the above line is muttered, and sure enough, our heroine is seen slicing through hordes of smiling gingerbread men, with chocolate goo spraying every which way and little edible body parts flying in all directions in a scene that would be horrifyingly graphic if it had been done with real people and not, y’know, cookies.
When the slaughter ends, the girl manages to catch up to her primary target, a smirking, elaborately-dressed Italian fellow named Nuts Cracker. He whips out his sword, and… cuts off his own head and then runs away. The head then falls to the girl’s feet and explodes. “Get-a ready for a big surprise!”
I did not know what to make of this scene, other than that it was kooky, unexpected, and totally awesome – three descriptors that fit Popful Mail rather well as a whole. Here we have an anime-style fantasy adventure that was published by Working Designs and developed by Falcom, powerhouse behind the Ys and Dragon Slayer games. So surely we must be in for another typical RPG with been-there-done-that battles and dull dialog, right? But Popful Mail takes every chance it’s given to prove it is unlike anything else available for the Sega CD, and adds a distinct flavor to an already unique console-add-on-thing.
I don’t even know how to classify Popful Mail, and that’s one of the things that makes it so wonderful. I booted it up expecting some kind of RPG, yet it’s nothing of the sort. Falcom drops you into a side-scrolling world with fierce enemies and a rather high emphasis on platforming, so surely Popful Mail would prove to be an intense 2D action game that just happens to feature beautiful anime cutscenes! Think again – the title takes elements from nearly every major genre and slaps them together into a baffling stew of game types, and ultimately Popful Mail is short on nothing. Gripping swordfights, tricky platforming challenges, mind-boggling puzzles, relentless boss battles, charming plot developments (delivered with over two hours of spoken dialog!)… Popful Mail has it all.
That includes a sense of humor, and at the center of it all is Popful Mail herself, the title character and a truly unique figure in Falcom’s fantasy world. Mail (as she’s known to be called) is a stubborn, self-centered, arrogant bitch of a female mercenary, and it’s impossible not to like her. She does nothing unless she personally benefits from it. She’ll be willing to help you get out of a jam… for a price. And if you can’t pony up the big bucks, she faces no moral dilemma in simply leaving your wailing ass behind. Her mission – to hunt down the evil wizard Muttonhead – is not driven by her concerns for the well-being of the civilian population, but by her desire for the hefty reward promised to the one who bags him. There’s some sort of sadistic pleasure in controlling this brat.
The only two characters she allows to tag along with her are Tatto the youthful wizard and Gaw the miniature blue dragon. (When Mail first meets Tatto, he’s stuck because he can’t get past a bomber robot that’s blocking a vital mountain pass. Mail volunteers to help out, and you just know she’s only doing it because she happens to be going that way, too.) These two allies are only permitted to ride along because Mail knows their abilities will come in handy, and they deliver. Gaw’s jumping abilities are above and beyond thanks to his wings, and while Tatto is rather weak in battle, his magical powers provide a log-range advantage that is needed more often than you may think. The promising three-character mechanic delivers as an integral aspect of the Popful Mail experience.
The adventure is a little too linear, with straightforward level design and no side quests to speak of, yet Falcom makes up for this with challenge, consistency, and unbridled entertainment. What could easily have been a tired exercise in boring side-scrolling swordplay is instead incredibly varied, with a new twist – gameplay-related or otherwise – around every curve. Popful Mail’s enemy set is constantly changing and evolving, and one of the game’s joys is simply in figuring out how to deal with each new obstacle that is thrown your way. This includes the boss battles, which are some of the most artfully constructed of the Sega CD era and present more than a few unforgettable villains, right down to an Arnold Schwarzenegger knock-off who manages to reference at least four of the California governor’s films in a single sentence.
I could probably overload you with examples of why Popful Mail is not a typical Falcom production, or a typical side-scrolling action title, or a typical GAME in general, but I’m gonna stop. While I have no desire to play Popful Mail again, my one play-through kept me guessing at every corner, and every time I thought I knew what was coming next, Falcom managed to shock me once more. I was almost tempted to type up an incredibly misleading review, selling the game off as just another generic, unremarkable RPG; that way I’d preserve the element of surprise I experienced when I booted up Popful Mail for the first time. But if I did that, you’d probably just ignore this fantastic adventure altogether, and that’s the last thing I want.
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