Spare a Second Today to Remember Sega’s Other Mascot, Alex Kidd
Before Sonic came the Kidd that couldn’t – but without him, Sega might never have found their place in console history.
Alex Kidd in Miracle World wasn't the first Sega game I ever played—I think that was Hang-On—but it was the one that I switched on first when I had a Master System to call my own. Because the game was built into the console, you see—hit the power without a cartridge (or card) in place and bingo, there's Alex Kidd, swimming in the sea, riding on a boat, stuck inside some kind of helicopter contraption. Imagine that, today: you get your box-fresh PS4 home, fire it up and Knack is just there, blinking at you, beckoning you towards it. C'mere, kid, and play some Knack. The Xbox One would have walked it.
But who was Alex Kidd? To younger gamers today, he's a bonus character in Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed—ergo, he's technically a Sega "all-star." But his star power wasn't what it needed to be for the Japanese company when he made his debut with Miracle World, a game celebrating its 30th anniversary on November 1st, 2016.
In the mid-1980s, the Alex Kidd character was designed to compete against the rising force that was the Super Mario games. The original Super Mario Bros. of late 1985 had been a huge seller on Nintendo's Family Entertainment Computer in Japan, and for the system's stateside model, the NES.
Mario and his brother Luigi's adventure through the Mushroom Kingdom turned America back onto gaming following the industry crash of 1983, and Sega, knowing that its Master System (or Mark III in Japan) needed to make a dent in Nintendo's massive market share, went for the route that'd historically served rival companies so well. The project: essentially a Mario clone, a cartoony platformer with a cute character bouncing around exotic environments, bopping enemies as he goes. To look at a screen without playing the game for a minute was to see a manufacturer desperately following its market leader's formula for success.
There were no princesses to speak of, but most game stories of the 8-bit age were single-paragraph synopsizes, read once and immediately forgotten.
Except, Miracle World didn't play like a Mario rip-off, save for its traditional genre trappings—all of that jumping, mainly. Levels didn't always run left to right—the very first one, for example, was a race to the bottom, more falling than leaping. You couldn't defeat enemies—pterodactyls, scorpions, frogs—by introducing your butt cheeks to their faces; instead, you used an oversized fist to pound them into oblivion, or (more often) just avoided them altogether.
There were no princesses to speak of, so I recall—the internet tells me that Alex is on a quest to rescue his lost brother, a captive of the evil Janken the Great, but I don't think I knew that when I was actually playing the game as a kid. It didn't matter—most game stories of the 8-bit age were single-paragraph synopsizes, read once and immediately forgotten.
The game's one-hit kills sucked, that I do remember, seeing Alex's little ghost ascend to the clouds on the regular. But with all enemies spawning in the same locations, it was a simple enough process to map each stage and find the best racing line through it. But then came a roadblock, or rather a succession of them, that I never quite got over.
Above: a longplay video of 'Alex Kidd in Miracle World'
Miracle World didn't have standard bosses that you beat with agility and power-ups—at several points during the game you face off against one of Janken's minions in a best-of-three bout of rock-paper-scissors. ("Janken" is the Japanese term for the hands-behind-backs game of chance.) I wish I was joking, but there you go: you could be the best at the level preceding said encounter, breezing through its narrow passages and around its deadly spikes with amazing dexterity—not easy on those old Master System pads — only to lose all progress because of what appeared to be simple bad luck.
Of course, now I can read up about the game online and find that each boss's hidden hand gestures would always come out the same way; but the pre-teen me never thought to note down the shape of their fist each time and learn through trial and error.
Reading further, there's a stack of things I never experienced in my numerous failed attempts to complete Miracle World. (Quick aside for a true story: the first game I did finish on the Master System was Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse, renowned as a tough proposition both then and now. That was a total Mario rip, though, albeit a brilliant one.) For one thing, you could continue.
Uh. Apparently you needed to hold up and hammer button 2 eight times, before the game over music ended. Old video games and their stupid "cheats" (just ask Just Blaze, who instantly activated infinite shurikens when he dropped in to play Revenge of Shinobi on our 72-hour stream). If I knew then what I do now, et cetera.
Alex wasn't a character that school-age Sega gamers truly connected with, that they could stand up for in the playground in opposition to the Mario supporters.
I'm not here to give you a comprehensive deep dive on Miracle World, though—truthfully, it was never that good of a game, however gently fond my memories of it are. And though it spawned several sequels, culminating with Alex Kidd in Shinobi World, I never played any of them. I suspect I'm not alone—Miracle World's inclusion with the Master System, buried within Sega's chunky black box (and the remodeled, curvier Master System II), guaranteed it time aplenty on screen, especially with new games costing around the £30 mark. But Alex wasn't a character that school-age Sega gamers truly connected with, that they could stand up for against Mario supporters on the playground.
That mascot would emerge in 1991, when the debut Sonic game came out (and the rest is history, and further clichéd rhetoric). But even before then, the Master System was home to much better platformers than Miracle World: Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap was a personal favorite, likewise Castle of Illusion, and Psycho Fox showed that Sega knew its way around anthropomorphized garden intruders long before it made a hedgehog a hero.
Alex Kidd hasn't had his own game since 1990 — and probably never will again, officially— but, 30 years since his introduction, spare the boy a thought, and offer a little respect. It usually takes a few failures for any success to truly shine through, and without Alex Kidd's commercial floundering against Mario et al, we might never have gotten Sonic the Fighters. Just let that sink in.
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