Saturday, 2 March 2013

Popful Mail: Magical Fantasy Adventure (Sega Mega CD)

Popful Mail Sega CD US English title screen
Today I'm finally getting around to ticking another game off my insanely long and shamefully neglected Requested Games list: Popful Mail, on the Sega CD. I'm reasonably certain this has nothing to do with Pop'n Twinbee or Magical Pop'n, but the 'mail' part I'm not so sure about. I'm getting a mental image of an anime-styled platformer where I have to jump around a forest delivering letters to... I dunno, squirrels.

The US Sega CD version originally had a different name for a while actually, as it was going to be called Sister Sonic. The plan was to replace the cast with Sonic the Hedgehog characters, similar to how Super Mario Bros. 2 was a remake of Doki Doki Panic, but when news of this got out Popful fans managed to put a stop to it with a fan campaign.

The game begins with voiced narration while this image slowly scrolls by in the background. You can recreate the effect at home by cutting a thin letterbox shape out of a piece of black card and holding it up against the screen as you scroll down!

This seems to be a standard issue 'band of forgotten heroes fought a great evil in ancient times and sealed it away' kind of backstory, which might have been a lot more interesting to me if I hadn't seen it in a thousand other games already (thought probably not).

Though it did make me smile when the solemn narration ended by explaining that "the black seal stands fast, protecting mankind from certain destruction at the hand of the overlord", then cut straight to the title screen above, with this ultra-happy dopey theme tune playing over it.

Wow that's real classy, showing off the hero's breasts before even showing her face. It's good animation though I have to admit and it's nice to see it all done with sharp clean bitmaps, instead of being blocky compressed FMV. It makes for better screenshots at least.

I have no idea what's going on this intro, but I get the feeling this woman really does not like dolls. She's chasing a group of them through the forest, slicing every one of them she can catch.

Oh right she must be chasing after this guy, who speaks with a really exaggerated comedy Italian accent in the US Sega CD version.

The game came out on five different systems by the way. It was originally made for the Japanese PC-8801 computer in 1991 (which looks pretty ass, but sounds surprisingly good... no voices though obviously), then it was ported across to the more powerful PC-9801 a year later. Then in 1994, a (full three years after the original release) it reappeared on the PC Engine CD, Super Famicom and Sega CD consoles, looking a whole lot prettier.

It took until 1995 though before the game finally got a western release (apparently only in the US and exclusively on the Sega CD), with a localisation by the infamous Working Designs, who I last caught dropping Carl Sagan and Dr Dooittle references into fantasy RPG Cadash. They were a bit weird.

I... uh... what?

"Hey-a bomb-a! You want-a my head? Hoooo help-a yourself-a!"

"Get-a ready for a big surprise!"

Nice subtle Total Recall reference there, I'll let them have that one. Well it turns out our hero is a bounty hunter (not a postman) and her latest bounty's just given her the slip using the oldest exploding head trick in the book. Well she can get some cash by taking in the head at least.

...or not. It seems that the head is entirely worthless as the nearest town already has more of the ugly things than they know what to do with. Total disaster.

It's funny how early Japanese computer games have such a distinctive look to them. The PC-88 (not to be confused with the IBM-PC currently dominating the world) was a home computer capable of relatively high res 640x400 graphics before the low res C64 or ZX Spectrum had even been released, because it was an important feature for the Japanese market who needed the extra detail to display intricate kanji text. It could only have 8 colours on screen at once though, so games used the extra resolution for dithering to create the impression of extra shades. The end result isn't that pleasant to look at on a sharp LCD screen, but monitors were much fuzzier back then.

The average PC-98 in 1992 on the other hand was likely a 32-bit machine with a 386 processor, so it was a far more powerful piece of hardware. This means they could get away with less dithering and, uh... an entirely different angle for this scene. Also the guy looks half his former age and he's lost an eye. I guess they just felt like redrawing this art from scratch, so they did.

Sega CD
The Sega CD can only manage half the resolution of the PCs, but makes up for it with full animation and voices. I guess we're sticking with the one-eyed guy with the ponytail from now on then.

PC Engine CD
Weirdly the PC Engine CD has an entirely new animated intro even though it's basically telling the same story. My guess is that they were ported across by different companies that worked from scratch and didn't share resources.

Meanwhile, the SNES version doesn't actually have much of an intro at all. So there's not much to show there.

Anyway, our hero is saved from despair when she learns of another bounty: $2,000,000 for the magician Material. Or Matelial. Or Muttonhead, depending on what version you're playing. So off she goes to catch him.

Popful Mail Sega CD World map
Not the prettiest world map I've ever seen (you could've fooled me into thinking it was from a Master System game to be honest), but at least it has a world map. Shame I don't really have much choice in where I'm going though; I can either go up, or I can sit here and listen to this music, and that's it. Actually to be honest I think I will just leave the music playing for a minute, this tune's actually pretty catchy.

Hey it turns out that the game's a platformer and in a daring break from tradition the first level is set in a forest! It all seems like a typical console jump n' slash game so far; it's slick and responsive, and I can leap across ledges, slicing cute woodland creatures up with a sword to steal their sacks of money.

This is pretty unusual though; I'm not used to being able to save anywhere in a platformer. Or any console game for that matter. Shame it puts me right back at the beginning of the area when I load a save. It's almost like a manually activated checkpoint system.

Those stats seem to be related to my equipment rather than any character attributes, so it doesn't seem like I can gain experience or level up by killing enemies. I can only improve myself with hard currency.

Super Famicom
Meanwhile in the Super Famicom version, things are very different. For one thing I started off in the city instead of outside it and they won't let me out until I do... something. But I don't understand a word of Japanese so what I actually need to do here is a mystery.

I guess I'll go look for a king or village elder to speak to then.

Back in the Sega CD version my bounty hunter has encountered another character and two of them are having a good long fully voiced conversation, while all I can do is sit and watch. I'm kinda impressed with the amount of effort they've put into these portraits; they're very expressive and they even seem to be lip synched to the dialogue. The voice acting's alright too, which for the time is actually pretty impressive.

It's getting a bit tedious having to hit an enemy, wait for their invincibility to wear off, hit them a second time, then wait some more for them to finally die and drop their sack of cash. Every single bloody time. Otherwise the gameplay is fairly fast paced and fluid.

Oh, only the enemies get the second of invincibility by the way. They can get several hits in on me very quickly.

Weirdly the original game HAS NO ATTACK BUTTON. At all. To hit an enemy in this I have to run into them, Ys style, until they explode into money. Some of them need a bit of tricking first by jumping over them and stabbing them in the back, but it's still faster (and more fun) than just hacking away at something.

On the other hand, the game kinda looks like ass compared to the Sega game, due to the extreme dithering. Surprisingly good music quality though.


Super Famicom
Are you the king and/or village elder? Would you happen to know where I could find him? No? Well, I'm very sorry I barged into your house uninvited, interrupted your tea break and completely wasted your and your cat's time then. Don't get up, I'll go and see myself out.

Alright, time to try the next house along then. I'll trigger this plot switch eventually, you'll see. There's only so many things I can do in a town.

Man, don't you hate it when video game characters just won't stop blinking?

Well it seems that the Sega CD version also has buildings I can enter, as I've found an elf village in the forest with a few shops in which to spend my hard won coin. Just in the nick of time it seems as well, as I've only got 12 health left. The place sells armour and a shield, but I think I'll just grab a few health items for now as really don't have much cash on me.

I left the elf village and headed further up into the trees to find the exit to the next area. This time I have to deal with these bloody clockwork robots who like dropping boulders on me.

PC Engine CD
The thing is, on the original version of the game the camera was zoomed further out, so you could see them getting ready to drop a rock on you. In the Sega CD remake though you don't know it's coming until it's too late. In fact that's pretty true in general, as the the game lets you get a little too close to the edge of the screen as you're walking around, not giving you much space to react to enemies.

This screenshot's actually from the PC Engine CD version of the game, but it seems like a much closer port of the PC-88 original, complete with the 'run into enemies' style of gameplay.

Oh for fuck's sake, I got the landing perfect that time but she just bounced off anyway! There's no way to jump up to this chest from the ground, it can only be accessed by falling from the very top of the level, but I WANT what's in there and I'm going to keep climbing up and throwing her off until I figure out the exact right place to land.

I suppose it could be worse. She could have falling damage.

Super Famicom
Back over on the Super Famicom version I finally made it out of the city only to find that this is actually a different game! Sure the enemies are the same and the plot seems similar, but these levels are entirely different. The other games didn't have the forest floor lined with spikes for instance. Bloody hell, what's wrong with these elves, do they really hate visitors that much?

Well anyway, this is clearly a new game with the same name, so I'm going to stop talking about it and concentrate on the other versions instead.

An orange. All those times I've thrown her off that bloody cliff and all I get from it is an orange. I actually managed to get her killed along the way and used up my one and only absolutely invaluable elixyr resurrection potion to get this. Oranges are 90 gold each, but elixyrs are priceless.

Okay then, now I can climb all the way back up again and finally go into the door at the top.

The door led straight up to a boss fight against the Mad Bomber, who apparently likes hiding out in the treetops and harassing travellers just because he's a dick.

Aww look, it's actually little wizard man piloting a rusty old beady-eyed mech! He looks more scared of me than I am of him. Well I'm sorry man, but you're blocking my path so I'm going to have to cut you, but I'll try to make it quick.

That... was really bloody quick. He's dropping bombs at me from off screen, cutting right through my health bar in seconds. Lucky I found that orange really, because I'm seriously going to need it.

Popful Mail Sega CD US English inventory item screen
The oranges heal 20 points of health! Only 20 points for 90 gold, those stingy bastards.

Okay, so those clockwork robots and the mages gave me 10 gold each when I killed them, it costs 150 gold for a cherry, and I need 2 cherries and an orange to fill a health bar up. So I have to kill 39 enemies to afford the items to refill all my health once.

And this asshole strips it all away in seconds. Well that's my enthusiasm killed.

Popful Mail Sega CD game over
Yeah, somehow I didn't think that was going to work out. I took off about 10 points of his health before I got bombed into oblivion. Well my first instinct is to stop playing now and go do something else, but I've got to at least make it past the first boss!

Okay, this is my plan to defeat the boss: grinding.

These spiders drop 20 gold per kill and they respawn, so I just have to walk back and forth cutting them up for a bit. I'm going to need a 500 gold suit of armour and a 400 gold shield to survive this boss, plus 500 gold worth of health items couldn't hurt. So that's just 70 spiders I need to kill then and even after that there's no guarantee I'll be skilled enough to defeat this boss. Joy.

Meanwhile, on the PC-98 version I've found things are a little different. For one thing I can see the damn bombs coming down and dodge them! Plus I can just walk into the boss a few times to kill him, making this basically effortless in comparison. I'd bought some armour with just the spare cash I'd collected along the way, but it turned out to be unnecessary.

So just out of curiosity I checked out the Japanese version of the Sega CD version as well, just to see what would happen if I tried taking on the boss with no gear, and I cut him down no problem in that as well! So either I've suddenly become way more skilled in the last few minutes, or Working Designs really ramped up the difficulty for the US release.

I eventually beat the US boss as well wearing my awesome new armour, and finally moved on to the next area on the world map! Incidentally it turns out that to backtrack across the map you have to backtrack through all the levels again too, which seems a bit harsh. I would have thought you could just go from dot to dot to dot once a level has been completed.

Anyway now I'm fighting these spring-loaded mantis creatures, which like to pop out their torso at me when I'm trying to slice them. Which is a bit awkward as my sword doesn't have much range to it, and I was kinda trying to conserve my health as it's hard to get back. If I lose too much here I'm going to need to backtrack all the way to the elf village again to buy more.


Oh come on! What the fuck, game? Every other time I've fought a wizard so far it's been one on one, and they've died in two hits. This place has four of them shooting at me at once, with super powered shots, and they take 8 hits EACH. I can use my shield to block shots, but I can't hold off an entire firing squad, especially when they're walking towards me and I kinda need to hit them back.

Just out of curiosity I tried the same bit in the original game and the wizards are absolutely nothing here. There's only two of them and I can literally walk right through them in a few seconds. Only the US version has super wizards, apparently because Working Designs thought that difficulty spikes are hilarious.

I managed to lure them into a corner one at a time and wipe them all out in the end, but it took a long long while. After every kill I had to duck down on the ladder waiting for the survivors to walk across to the right, turn around, then disappear back off screen to the left you see.

But that's it, I've reached the limits of my patience with the US Sega CD version, so I'm stopping with it here. If the localisation team wanted to add a hard mode to the game they should have put an option on the main menu like sensible people.

Of course after whining that the Sega CD version was too difficult, I came to a dead stop in all the other versions almost immediately afterwards, as my poor bounty hunter hero was crushed under an endless torrent of logs. They're cutting the forest level down and using it against me as a weapon, I have no defence against this kind of attack!

Oh, I should probably mention that I've learned my character's name during a conversation and she's called... Popful Mail. Seriously, that's her name.


Hah, does this boss actually think he stands a chance against my new throwing daggers? Whoa shit, I just got a face full of bombs! It happened so fast and I have no idea how I could have dodged them. It kind of makes my new dagger weapon seem a little... inadequate now.

Yeah I know I said I was giving up on the US Sega CD version, but I never said I was quitting the Japanese game. I've actually been making progress in this one without tearing any hair out. Funnily enough the game originally had English text for the HUD anyway so it just looks the same 90% of the time.

You know I honestly think I can take this guy, but it won't be easy. My armour has given me the ability to take a few hits now, but I'm still taking more damage than I can deal with.

Oh you bastard, you total bastard.

The mech was coming my way, so I dropped down onto this ladder for a second to wait for him to turn around. He had 15 hp, I had 74, so it was basically over at this point I thought, but I was trying to play it cautiously. And then the asshole STOMPS ON THE GROUND KNOCKING ME DOWN THE LADDER TO THE PREVIOUS AREA. It's not a kill, but it does mean I'll have to do the entire fight from the start, except without any healing items left.

So that's how I lost the fight. It's not a total crisis due to the miracle of save games as I could just restart at the ladder, but it's worn me down, man. I don't have it in me to play this any further.

Popful Mail honestly seems like a fairly decent game, in all its myriad versions, but it's not really for me I think. There's actually basically three versions of it: the PC-88/98/Engine one with its 'run into enemies' combat, the Sega CD one with its zoomed in view and sword button, and the SNES game which is doing its own thing entirely. Out of the first two I think I actually enjoyed the gameplay of original version better because the combat is much faster and I could see a bit further in front of me so I didn't have to creep around everywhere, but I preferred the presentation of the Sega version due to the quality localisation work and the fantastic animation. Though if I ever see how Popful's daring adventure ends, it'll probably be through watching youtube clips.

But don't listen to me! Everyone else on the internet seems to love this game and it routinely ends up on 'Sega CD top ten best games' lists, so if you haven't tried it yet, please disregard my miserable opinions entirely. Just watch out for those difficulty spikes.

If you have anything to say about anything halfway related to Popful Mail, all those words I just wrote about it, or my humble site in general, please feel welcome to leave a comment.


  1. What the hell!? Who thought that second bomber wood robot boss was a good idea?!

    He fills (*FILLS*) the area where Popful is able to run with bombs, and then fires some more bombs and then fires some more bombs. He has hardly any flinch frames if you do hit him.

    That kind of thing ruins a game.

    1. That boss only launches bombs if you're far away from him. If you're close, he'll do the ground pound attack that only hits you if you're on the ground. So it's fairly easy to be right up in his face and constantly attack while jumping and moving back to avoid his attacks - using the platforms to jump over his head if needed.

    2. So the game letting you buy the throwing daggers in the shop immediately preceding the boss is a dastardly trick?

      I would never ever have considered getting close to the boss. Getting close to anything in PM is just asking for it to stun you momentarily and then walk inside you so it can instantly kill you (like the 'wizards' guarding that guy's cell).

      If I have that frustration with the second boss, I know it's only going to get worse. I'd much rather watch a Popful Mail anime than play this.


    3. When I was a kid, I always used the lift to jump over him and sat on the platform with the door. You can hit him whenever he goes up for a ground pound, but you have to jump immediately after you hit him. Takes forever this way, but you're relatively safe using this strategy.

  2. That doll getting its head chopped off in the early goings looks like Toad. Weird.


Semi-Random Game Box