TRISTABYTES FALLS IN LOVE WITH WITH A CUTE FOX JUST TRYING TO GET HOME ON THE SEGA MEGADRIVE
One of the wonderful things about retro games, especially in the 8 and 16-bit eras is that the love for them has never truly gone away. As technology progressed and polygons became king, there was always a core fan base for these older styled games. I myself have never lived anywhere in my life without my childhood Mega Drive Model II which has remained by my side since I saved up for it and carried it lovingly home from Argos when I was a child.
There is something about classic RPGs and platform games that age really well and the resurgence of 2D games with releases such as Sonic Mania, Streets of Rage 4 and Shredders Revenge, as well as the wealth of indie titles utilising old-school pixel or 2D art recently has shown that there is still a huge demand today. That fan base remains a strong part of gaming both due to those original fans retaining a love for the medium and also a new generation who grew up with mobile games sharing a love for the classic pixel art style. We very much live in an era of gaming where the biggest titles can simultaneously be ray traced ultrarealistic movie quality visuals, or highly stylized and simplistic cute graphics. It is wonderful to see that not only are existing retro games retaining their popularity, but
that there is such a strong demand for new 8 and 16-bit titles, especially when those titles have releases on original hardware. Here in the UK there is a small yet booming scene of bedroom indie coders creating games for systems including the Spectrum, C64 & Sega Mega Drive. And it's a modern Mega Drive game that we're talking about today.
Tanglewood is a platform puzzler released in 2018 and is the first Mega Drive game created by Matt Phillips at Big Evil Boss. Matt grew up playing 16-bit Mega Drive platformers from Sonic, The Lion King, Aladdin and Another
World, as well as Menacer Light Gun games. The entire project was a labour of love and the realisation of a childhood dream for him as a creator. Taking six years to create, including restoring an original Mega Drive dev kit and learning assembly code, everything about this game tells you it was made with love.
Tanglewood stars a small fox-type character called Nymn who has become lost far away from home after dark and must make their way back. You help Nymn in their journey by evading or fighting monsters, solving platforming puzzles and utilising five types of Fuzzles; small fuzzy ball shaped animals with big cute eyes native to the land, who temporarily lend you their powers in return for helping them find their nests. From gliding, stopping time, powering mechanisms or taking control of monsters as mounts, each colour of creature shares a different ability with you for limited time. The different coloured Fuzzles have strong 80s Studio Ghibli dust bunny vibes, although they're actually inspired by the Fuzzles you can fire from a crossbow in
Abe’s Odyssey, who are nowhere near as cute. Each borrowed Fuzzle ability in Tanglewood allows you to traverse to different parts of the level and solve different puzzles, as well as having their own unique animations and feel. These really help deepen the gameplay and add variety, whilst also feeling very much part of the world Nymn inhabits, adding to the intuitive and lovingly thought out feel that persists throughout the entire game. The character design of Nymn appears to combine elements of a fox, meerkat and a little flying squirrel, to create a protagonist who is nimble, versatile and incredibly cute. You will very much want merch of this little animal and the Fuzzles before you have finished the game. The little creature truly looks terrified at times and you will be hard pressed to not want to see this adorable little beast reach its home safely. The design perfectly encapsulates the speed and agility you will need to traverse and explore the levels and the colour change that's applied to the sprite based on which Fuzzle's abilities you have borrowed at the time is a lovely touch. Think Super Sonic style, but Super Cute. The enemies, especially the large creatures that often chase you, feel substantial and scary enough to be very threatening, but still feel like animals living in the forest itself, rather than monsters per se. Also pretty much everything except the Fuzzles kill you in the game, and when I spoke to Matt he joked that they probably would too if they had arms or legs to do so with!
The game takes influence from classic titles including Flashback, Another World and Abe’s Odyssey to name a few, plus some strong influences on the fluid animation style from the beautiful 16-bit Lion King game of the 90s. I think for me that Disney game influence and animation
style was what initially drew me to this game, along with the adorable character design and detailed world — even from a distance at the gaming event where I first saw Tanglewood, I could see I had stumbled onto something special and wanted to know more. And I wasn't disappointed, the game was lovely to play — challenging in places with a natural complexity and difficulty progression but without feeling like you were ever grinding at the game, restful at times to play but can also get your heart pounding a little when danger approaches.
Overall it's a delightful throwback to many of the things I loved the most about 16-bit platformers in my youth. The controls were easy to pick up and the level design and navigation felt familiar yet unique. The game uses the simple trick of introducing each new ability Nymn can use one at a time, with a simple task to train you in the basics of the game mechanics. This feels very natural and adds a nice progressive element, as the abilities become necessary to advance through the game. The sound design has, for the most part, a peaceful feel where effects and sounds are used sparingly to great effect to suit the mood of the moment. As time passes and the environment gets darker as night falls, the music develops more of a sense of foreboding and fear, as the creatures of the forest begin to wake up and the world starts to become more dangerous.
The colour design of the game is gorgeous and visually striking. The levels use a changing palette of limited colours to allow the overall hue to reflect the mood and time of day, clearly indicating impending danger in a subtle and intuitive way. The world just starts to ‘feel' more unwelcoming and dangerous, without you needing to have it telegraphed to you. To further aid this, the music always fits perfectly with the action and reflects the emotions our character is experiencing. This helps deepen our connection to a protagonist who never has their own voice. The high frame rate animations are incredibly fluid and breathe life and personality into every sprite on screen.
Everything in Tanglewood feels alive and it feels like a real world we could inhabit. The danger feels real and the relief you feel when you escape a chasing enemy is palpable. The game has no UI during gameplay and the (at times very quiet) soundtrack, with only your footsteps audible, coupled with the minimalistic feel give it a very lonely quality, which really suits the narrative. There are no points, no flashing power-up animations, no rings to collect or health meter to watch — this feels much more like a real
experience, as our little furry fox tries to survive the journey home, in what is truly a beautiful yet dangerous magical land.
Tanglewood was entirely hand-coded by Matt in pure 68000 assembly language using one of only two known remaining working Sega Mega Drive dev kits in existence. The dev kit itself was a labour of love, with the parts being sourced from specialist groups and secondhand parts to get it fully working. The game took 6 years in its entirety to code with the creation of their own tool kits and coding assets from scratch, which included learning how to code in assembly as well. Originally funded on crowd sourcing site Kickstarter with a goal of £48,000, this goal was exceeded by about £13,000 due to demand, based on their original demo prototype. The game continues to sell well today, both in its physical Mega Drive / Genesis cartridge version, as well as digital releases on Mac, PC and Linux today.
The cartridge based release of the game is region-free, however design-wise comes in both Mega Drive or Genesis packaging variants and both have a reversible cover with alternative artwork, which is a lovely touch. There was a very limited edition collectors box version released, however the cost to find one of those on the resale market (if you can find one at all) is astronomical. The game also has had a dual pack Evercade cartridge release, with another wonderful 16-bit modern Mega Drive game called XenoCrisis by Bitmap Bureau, which I would also highly recommend if you enjoy tough-as-nails top down co-op shooters and a Dreamcast version is said to be in the works as well. When I last spoke to Matt he voiced a desire to make a prequel to the game potentially in future — so this might not be the end of the adventures of our nimble furry friend. It's a very strong first entry into indie Mega Drive coding for Big Evil Corp (the quiet unassuming & friendly owner of which embodies none of those words) and the 6 years of hard work have paid off, as there are no game-breaking bugs or major issues that I could find.
Whether you pick the game up on Steam, GOG, Mega Drive or Evercade, I really think this is an experience not to be missed. The game has peril and danger, but not so much as to exclude children from enjoying it and a mix of retro nostalgia and modern day indie charm to please most fans of platform puzzlers, with enough variety to be worth a second playthrough in future. You can find out more and pick up a copy over on tanglewoodgame.com where they also have a demo, if you would like to try the game out for free. As an avid fan of the Sega Mega Drive and also indie games, this blended two things I love perfectly into a delightful little game that I thoroughly enjoyed playing, made by someone who was a joy to talk to as well. I really hope in future we continue to see more of these games being produced and the indie 16-bit scene in the UK continue to flourish and inspire more gems that we can enjoy on the consoles of our youth.