Friday 8 December 2017

Mega Drive Review - Legend of Galahad (Game149)

'Legend of Galahad' may look Japanese but in reality it's a port of an Amiga game created by two Brits. Can a game with such humble beginning stand out on the Mega Drive?

Developed by Traveler's Tales

Published by Electronic Arts

Released in 1992

When you start collecting old games it's easy to justify purchases. First you obviously have to re-buy everything you had as a child; after all, that's the only way you'll enjoy waves of nostalgic joy. Next you'll pick up all the games you wanted but couldn't afford back in the day. then you buy all the games you've been told are "must plays". However, As the years of collecting pass, the justification to purchase a game become more and more tenuous. 

While researching an article I was reminded of an Amiga game called 'Leander'. It wasn't a game I owned, nor could I recall reading reviews about it. I did remember the striking main character sprite though and that was enough for me to seek out a copy. Staring at this character it's easy to see why it ticks so many boxes. I've always loved nicely drawn pixel art and this individual is clearly inspired by anime; another love of mine. Previewing the game, Amiga Action magazine was equally enchanted, though they seemed to think anime imagery was a novelty for western developers. "['Leander'] looks superb, really something to drool over [...] with strong oriental undertones. This one looks quite different from the others but nevertheless it looks really good". Amiga Format called it "a mythical tale of oriental misdeeds" also falling for the "fluid character animation, stunning sprites" and "a gallery full of class graphics".

Sadly though I discovered the game the beautiful character is linked to is a rather run-of-the-mill sounding game. "Welcome to our 'oh no more Japanese-style Platform games' slot" Amiga Power said looking at the game for the first time. "an arcade platformer free from any original features what so ever" Mark Ramshaw claimed in the magazine's review. "To be honest I could describe what happens in the game in one sentence. Walk, jump, slice, collect, go to the exit, go to the next level". "It sort of reminds me of 'Shadow of the Beast'" noted critic Richard Leadbetter. "But the gameplay has been radically improved, with a greater choice of directions and more interesting puzzles."

Leadbetter's observation was an astute one. The game was initially designed by Jon Burton based on what had impressed him in 'Shadow of the Beast'. Burton had bought a Commodore Amiga in the mid ‘80s and became interested in the system’s burgeoning demo-scene.  “I started to write a few of my own" Burton once said to Retro Gamer magazine. While showing off his latest demo in a computer shop in Southport, Burton met graphics designer Andy Ingram. “I thought, ‘An artist! Great! Let’s put a game together.’ So we did a test demo, which was a scrolling background and a dragon with a programmed neck and legs. It looked nice. And someone who worked at the shop got us an interview with [publisher] Psygnosis to show the game.”

Such a meeting was something the duo could only dare dream of, especially since they were building a game that was almost a carbon copy of 'Shadow of the Beast'; something Psygnosis had published. Evidently the pair regarded the publisher as “the pinnacle of games” at the time.  “We showed [the 'Shadow of the Beast' clone] to the director, Ian Headlington, and he said, ‘We’d like to finance and publish it,’” recalled Burton.  Intimidated by the enormity of the opportunity they initially rejected the offer. However Burton and Ingram eventually signed a month later, feeling more confident in their ability to deliver the game promised. It was quite an undertaking especially as the pair worked almost alone on what would become their first game. Burton remembers the many late nights in 1990 working on 'Leander'. “Our whole time of day had just skewed so badly because we used to work all night, going to bed at eight in the morning, [then] go to Andy’s house for breakfast, which was at about supper, then sleep. You just lived and breathed it. It was such a passion.”

The resulting game follows the legendary hero Leander. According to Greek Mythology this was a youth of Abydos, a town on the Asian side of the strait which separates Asia and Europe. Evidently Leander would spend his nights swimming to his lost love, eventually dying at sea in a storm. However the game presents him as a captain of the guards, setting off to rescue Princess Lucanna from the daemonic evil lord Thanatos. This is no small feat given that according to mythology Thanatos is the personification of death itself. Perhaps the game has been set in Abydos to justify the Asian anime look of the Main character. This would also explain The somewhat out-of-place Japanese text on the front of the Amiga box. It translates as "The Lion and beast compare strength" which may allude to the fact that Leander is Greek for "Lion-Man".

'Leader' clearly plays fast and loose with Greek Mythology, picking names seemingly at random to create a background story. However given that this is a somewhat generic hack and slash platform game, a rich narrative isn't really needed to render the game enjoyable. 

Unlike 'Shadow of the Beast' which inspired the game, objectives throughout 'Leander' are explicit. Each level has a predefined mission to complete which is explained to you before starting. It's always the same simple task though: collect a hidden item, then find the exit gate. Leander wields a sword that leaves a trail not unlike Hiryu's in 'Strider'. However by collecting coins throughout each level, he can purchase armour, potions and new swords in a shops - something that was almost a tradition in Psygnosis published games. "The infamous weapons shop which seems to appear in all their games nowadays is present" reiterated Amiga Action. Despite its regularity in games at the time reviewer Rob Bright felt the shop was a great addition. "Having to buy weapons and armour gave the game a challenge beyond the set task, and it meant I had to take educated risks concerning what to buy, and whether to go hunting for more".

Enemies encountered during the game range from fantastical dragons and elves to more mundane snakes and birds. Amazingly thought, the last of these pose the largest threat as birds move so quickly it is neigh on impossible to hit them before they causes you damage. Mean Machines magazine noticed that "There are some situations where you seem doomed to lose energy no matter what you do." This is most obvious when an enemy refuses to leave the edge of the platform you have to jump to.  Almost every enemy takes multiple hits to kill, however most won't make any acknowledgement that you're hitting them. Some even continue walking back and forth while you tirelessly slash at them with your sword. It's never clear if your attacks are even making contact.

Alongside re-spawning enemies are a number of other hazards in the form of water, spikes and such. There are also occasional triggers that will drop a heavy object on the player, killing them instantly. Thankfully there are also assorted treasure chests peppered throughout the stage which offer health replenishment, extra lives and rune bombs; helpful against the screen filling bosses. 

At the end of each world, Leander faces these gargantuan foes, which he must defeat to enter the next world. While these battles should be exciting they actually prove more frustrating. Despite their size they tend to exist in enclosed claustrophobic screens that won't scroll until the beast is defeated. 

The problem is that a single hit from a dragon will take a life from you, no matter how much health you have remaining. It's a valuable lesson; Brush against a dragon and its instant death. Admittedly while this may be accurate, it feels unfair. Fortunately the damage you inflicted doesn't restore when you die so it is simply a case having enough lives to sustain yourself while you're chipping away at a boss' energy.

There are a total of 3 worlds with 7 levels each. In order to progress beyond world 1, the game must be played at least on normal difficulty. However what starts off relatively simple quickly becomes excessively difficult. "By level four the map gets a little more complex" noted Ramshaw in his review. "Sheer hell. Platforms swing precariously above spike pits, plants sends deadly spores flying all over the place and our hero is faced with more evil knights than ever".
However it's not the number of enemies that'll put most players off progressing through the game, far more repellent are the blind leaps of faith that quickly become fixtures of levels. All too frequently you're expected to simply leap into abysses hoping you'll land on solid ground. Worse still on occasion you're expected to leap onto offscreen moving platforms, with instant death the result of getting the timing wrong. Such ridiculous expectations are the reason that save-states exist in emulators. "It may be a bit of a pattern learning experience" criticised Amiga Format. According to the magazine to enjoy the game you'll have to be someone "not afraid of going over the same ground a few times." I asked Jon Burton about this recently on Twitter and he was quick to point out it wasn't a fault exclusive to 'Leander'.  "You couldn't publish a game in the 80's without leaps of faith - mandatory." This is probably why Magazines at the time felt able to forgive a game that expects you to memories entire level lay outs. Amiga Format thought  'Leander' "is definitely a platform game worth leaping for". This was praise Amiga Power agreed with. "Against all odds, 'Leander' has managed to win a place in my heart" their reviewer wrote. 

"It rated really well, and sold okay as an Amiga game,” said Burton. Indeed It was so successful that it caught the attention of console publisher Electronic Arts who approached Psygnosis to request a port for the newly released Sega Mega Drive. As a result in 1992 'Leander' became 'The Legend of Galahad'; the same game with improved graphics. Compared to the Amiga original the game has multiple parallax scrolling background planes, which replace the Amiga "copper mode" gradients. 

The addition of a control pad has made character movement more intuitive, where a dedicated jump button has made it easier to enter doorways.  The bulk of the conversion was handled by Burton's friend David Dootson, although the project was overseen by the original design duo. "The development team has used the basic game structure and tailored it perfectly to take advantage of the Mega Drive's abilities" wrote Mega Drive Advanced Gaming in 1992. Presumably this magazine ignored the fact the game wasn't optimised for the Sega Mega Drive's higher resolution (resulting in a black bar at the bottom of the picture). The console port does include a number of ill-fitting references to other games to perhaps compensate.
The most ridiculous occurs towards the end of the game in World 3-3 where there are prisoners who need to be freed from a particular area. These prisoners turn out to be from 'Lemmings' and the player must clear a path for them to reach the exit. While it only lasts a minute or so its inclusion feels awkward, unnecessary and there only to satisfy a publisher's self indulgence. 

On the Mega Drive the bastardisation of Greek mythology has been replaced with a re-purposing of Arthurian legend. As the new name suggests the character the player controls is now Galahad the illegitimate son of Sir Lancelot. According to the US Genesis box "Mitagorn the wicked Wiz of the East has looted Camelot's treasure and made off with the fair Princess Leandra. To cover his escape he cast the knights of the round table into a deep keep leaving you, Galahad son of Lancelot as Camelot's only hope". 

Proving that plot had no bearing on gameplay both the Amiga and Genesis games are pretty much identical. Like  the Amiga's 'Leander', in 'Galahad' You walk, jump and slash your way through 21 levels, looking for lost treasure. True to the computer original you’ll find cottages tucked away where you can purchase better weapons and armour with the coins you collect from enemies and objects. However now you're recovering Camelot's lost treasure, any money you spend is surely stealing from the kingdom?  At least the dragon slaying that occurs at the end of each world makes a bit more thematic sense now. 

Matt Furniss ported the original Amiga music to the Mega Drive. While he'll usually compose new tracks for a console version, for the port of 'Leander' he preferred to remain true to the source material. "I liked the original music in 'Leander' so I convert it faithfully For 'Galahad'". Tim wrights original game score had an ethereal style, once again aping 'Shadow of the Beast'. However this style of music didn't always translate perfectly to Sega 16 bit system. Fortunately Furniss was a fan of the more abrasive brash almost metallic sounds it produced.  "I really loved how the Mega Drive sounded. I never found it hard to work with the hardware, I’d already been working with Yamaha FM sound chips on the PC AdLib and SoundBlaster cards -Sega Mega Drive was quite similar." 

On the Mega Drive you also get both sound effects and music together. While this ought to be par for the course in a console game, on the Amiga you had to choose between one and the other. 

All of these little tweets ultimately lead to 'Galahad' being this best version of 'Leander'. "Those of you who have seen the Amiga original will doubtless be aware that it's a superb product" said reviewer John Davison. "In my opinion though, this new Mega Drive version significantly improves on the original." 

While it may have been Jon Burton's first game in a long illustrious career it isn't a game that has a special place in his heart. "It was a lot of fun writing the game but I don’t really have much fondness for it as such." Taking to Gamasutra, Burton seems to have accepted an opinion that many reviewers threw at the game. "It was technically and artistically fantastic for the time, but the gameplay was pretty generic and repetitive.” I think Burton is being too modest. Admittedly I did pick this game up because of the appealing main character sprite but the game was much better than I hoped. It may have a completely irrelevant (interchangeable) plot, some infuriating jumping sections and badly designed boss battles but even with such glaring failings I enjoyed the game. An infinite lives password (LTUS) makes the cheap deaths palatable and what this leaves you with are a couple of hours of enjoyable hack and slashing. Made all the more pleasurable thanks to one engaging sprite, walking right in the middle of the screen. 

Where did I get this game from?

When the need to buy a specific game strikes the easiest place to go is eBay. When a game isn't that well known sellers are keen to compete for your custom. In this case I even had a cheeky "best offer" accepted meaning I got 'Legend of Galahad' for less than £10 including postage.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for a very enjoyable read. Always enjoyed this game on the Commodore Amiga and was not aware of its existence on the Sega Genesis. It looks pretty impressive on the Genesis.


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