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Sylphia (Turbografx-CD) artwork

Sylphia (Turbografx-CD) review

"Sylphia throws so much at players early on, but somehow still keeps producing surprising new opponents for every level. This is not native Japanese mythology, but the designers immersed themselves in the spirit. Winged gargoyles carry crossbow-wielding Spartans. A skeleton charioteer -- one horn broken from his ram's head helmet -- whips at you from afar. The flying chariot is pulled by manticores instead of horses. It's as though the developers stole some child's sketchbook and made a game based off of it. It's as though they stole my sketchbook."


This is the tale of a valiant woman warrior reborn as svelte sylph. She died protecting two children who had sought shelter inside Athena's Temple; unfortunately, even the holy shrine provided no sanctuary from the monsters' onslaught. This was war, and the swordmaiden was just another casualty. Her last thought: more beasts will come for these children.

The temple goddess admired the maiden's pure-hearted wish to protect her beloved homeland . . . and so, the slain warrior's innocent soul was transformed into a leggy tool of destruction. Sylphia was then sent far, far away to massacre all who dared oppose her.

That wasn't the maiden's wish, but seek-and-destroy makes for a more interesting game than sit-and-defend.

After such descriptions of swordplay and magic, it might come as a surprise that Sylphia is a vertical 2D shooter. Our heroine flies above the landscapes of ancient Greece while obliterating the forces of evil with bullets, bombs, and laser beams. Although competent, the quest lacks challenge; it builds slowly and never reaches the heights of Compile's best. There is some dispute as to whether Compile even created this game, since their name does not appear during the credits. In my book, when a reputable company lists a game in the "products" section of their website, that's proof enough.

For shooting masters, challenge is the primary factor that makes ultimate victory feel like an achievement, be it challenge to acquire massive points or challenge to simply finish the game. With an abundance of extra lives and ultimate Giga Fairy Beam special attacks, attaining a one-credit clear with a ridiculous score is more of an expectation than a bragging point. As such, even though the game is far from "broken", my mind cannot justify ranking Sylphia among the best.

My heart disagrees. A good friend of mine once called games like this a "magnificent eight" -- speaking of neither samurai nor gunmen but of great games that touch us personally, invoking love beyond reasonable expectations. These are games that come with caveats to accompany the frothing adoration. My caveat has been delivered; there is now much for me to froth about in Sylphia.

Before vikings, pirates, or ninjas, the fantastical creatures of Greek mythology captured childrens' hearts. Sylphia delivers a cavalcade of such opponents. Bare-breasted harpies and sharp-beaked hippogriffs attack from the air. War galleys and trident-bearing dragons attack from the sea. From the land, burly gladiators heft spiked iron balls, with the intent to smite the heroine as one might smite a bird with an enormous stone. When Sylphia shoots a gladiator's body, he explodes, leaving only the spiked ball on the ground as a memento. Meanwhile, large colossi launch their rocket-fists like the Shogun Warrior Gaiking; Sylphia effortlessly blends Western childrens' favorite monsters with Eastern childrens' anime fantasies.

After flying above turreted ramparts and collecting power-up bee icons (escapees from Milon's Secret Castle, perhaps?), the grand colossus awaits. This enormous, static boss has nothing on the colossus from God of War II, but it's a nostalgic encounter. Once upon a time, such enormous bosses -- this one swipes at Sylphia with his hands -- evoked a genuine sense of awe. The clever bit about this scene: before the battle, a little man runs inside an open door on the grand colossus, then activates it for battle. After Sylphia annihilates a slew of ferocious beasts, the big boss is a tiny little man at heart.

He's only the second level boss. Sylphia throws so much at players early on, but somehow still keeps producing surprising new opponents for every level. This is not native Japanese mythology, but the designers immersed themselves in the spirit. Winged gargoyles carry crossbow-wielding Spartans. A skeleton charioteer -- one horn broken from his ram's head helmet -- whips at Sylphia from afar. The flying chariot is pulled by manticores instead of horses. It's as though the developers stole some child's sketchbook and made a game based off of it. It's as though they stole my sketchbook.

Compile then attached all of this wonderful imagery to one of LMS Recordings' finest techno soundtracks. It's too quiet in relation to the sound effects (the same problem as Gate of Thunder) but the strong melodic lines evoke a sense of fantasy while the pronounced beat imposes a sense of urgency. It's not quite like anything else, and it's completely unlike any soundtrack you're likely to hear today.

Sylphia has become one of those expensive rarities that PC Engine collectors house inside glass cases for photo opportunities. My first copy had a hole in it -- a puncture clear through the disc -- and I still got $100 for it. I later realized how foolish I had been, and paid far more than $100 for my second copy. It's a very good game that can't possibly live up to the heightened expectations set by its price, but I love it to death anyway because its atmosphere happens to resonate with my heart.

Sylphia is my "magnificent eight". What's yours?


zigfried's avatar
Staff review by Zigfried (April 11, 2010)

Zigfried likes writing about whales and angry seamen, and often does so at the local pub.

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Masters posted April 12, 2010:

Wonderful review, Zig.

There's a lot to like here: your handling of the heart vs head issue stands out. And a Nick Evil shout out is always appreciated. Your final line rocks: "What's yours?" But perhaps best of all, is your nod to me: "For shooting masters, challenge is the primary factor that makes ultimate victory feel like an achievement...". It's so subtle--but it's there!


But yeah, seriously, nice job.
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zippdementia posted April 12, 2010:

I'm afraid now that any time I dish out unsolicited praise, people are going to think I'm trying to put down a disclaimer on the inevitable criticism. However, it must be said... with pictures, personality, and pizzaz, it's hard to beat most any Zigfried review. You know this is a solid review, Zig, so I'm gonna get straight to what little criticism I have. And no... that's not a disclaimer.

If this review had one area of weakness, it's that I'm not sure I come away actually knowing that much about the game. I come away feeling like I've had a good read, but in some ways your writing and personality took over in this one.

For instance, the first three or four paragraphs are spent on the game's miniscule backstory and then, a little later on, another two or three paragraphs are spent on talking about the joys of Greek aesthetic. The review also throws in references to a friend of yours and then ends by talking about the physical game disc and the game's worth.

After all that, I've been entertained. But I'm not sure I could tell anyone else what the hell this game is about except that it's a somewhat easy shooter. Maybe that's all there is to it.

In any case, I sort've feel like I'm criticizing gold for being too shiny. After all, you got me to actually care about a game that has absolutely no relevance to my life whatsoever and that I will never play. You do that a lot. I've got to start learning your secrets.

At the same time, I do think some of those paragraphs could've retained their personality and fun and been a little more connected to the way the game handles, rather than on what your best friend thought about it or how much it sells for on ebay. Especially with your finale being that the game was worth paying over a $100 for and is one of the Sega greats... I would like to have seen a bit more of the product itself and less of the paraphenelia.
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Masters posted April 12, 2010:

That's an interesting take, Zipp.

What of the huge meat of the review, from the "Before Vikings" paragraph to the "Compile then" paragraph -- four of them in all?

It's a shooter, so we know we'll be shooting, and there is some rather tasty description of just what that shooting will look and sound like. How it felt for Zig to fly through this childhood fantasy of vertical shmupping. How wonderful the experience is despite being devoid of challenge.
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Felix_Arabia posted April 12, 2010:

Zig, I'm glad you were able to include the fun fact about how your original copy had a hole in it. I remember you and Ruder telling me about that a while ago, and it's pretty cool that of all the games it could possibly happen to, it happened to one that is very difficult to come by.
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zigfried posted April 12, 2010:

Masters --
Thank you for the compliments! You are indeed a shooting master, as your hard labor spent on Sol-Deace proves.

Zipp --
Based on your comments, it sounds like you came away knowing everything you need to know about Sylphia. Your entertained heart realizes it; your analytical brain tells you otherwise!

Like many old games, it is a straightforward concept filled with a lot of "this would be cool, and this would be cool too". I've written shooter reviews in the past that discuss mechanics, and I will do so again in the future, but such details would be misplaced here. The Sylphia experience is all about the atmosphere. I love the game because it is pretty and has great music. In a society that criminalizes "graphics whores", cheapens visuals by calling them "eye candy", and nostalgically recalls the days when "games were all about gameplay", it's sometimes hard to believe that many of the 16-bit greats really weren't particularly deep.

It is indeed a somewhat easy shooter. The imaginative theme, visuals, and music are what make it feel like so much more.

Felix --
I'm just surprised the thing worked... the sound didn't even skip.

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zippdementia posted April 12, 2010:

Well, I loved the review overall, so you'll get no further complaints from me. The review doesn't... well, I don't think I'd pay $100 for this... but on the other hand I'm fairly convinced you would, for better or worse.

And I do appreciate that that was, as stated early on, more the point than really selling this as a fine shooter.
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Felix_Arabia posted April 12, 2010:

You'd be making a nice little investment if you bought Sylphia for $100, Zipp. I think the going value tends to be about twice that.
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zigfried posted April 12, 2010:

Yeah, it sells for prohibitively high amounts of money now. Like, $200 or even higher at this point. If you ever decide to get into Turbo CD shooters for some reason, Gate of Thunder and Lords of Thunder are much better deals!

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zippdementia posted April 12, 2010:

Really? That's crazy. But, then, who was it here that showed that NES game going for, like, 20,000...?
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randxian posted April 17, 2010:

To a certain extent, I see where Zipp is coming from. The review sputters slightly in paragraph six, where you mention "caveats." Somehow, that paragraph seems a bit strange at first glance. Probably because prior to that paragraph, I got the sense you really didn't care for this game.

However, the rest of the review recovers. The best thing you did is by connecting with your readers with the "children's picture book bit." That alone explained everything that apparently makes this game so great.

At this point, paragraph six made perfect sense, as did the entire review.

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WilltheGreat posted April 19, 2010:

Gladiators were Roman, not Greek. :P
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zigfried posted April 19, 2010:

Good catch. They look like those dudes from 300, so maybe I'll call them runaway Spartans (which I almost did, except that Spartans were known for not running. ARGH, the historical inaccuracy!)


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