1993 saw the release of what is perhaps one of the Genesis’s greatest cult favorite. Landstalker was unleashed to a gaming community that was as awed by its colorful and detailed worlds as they were by its incredibly difficult jumps and puzzles. From the deep, dank recesses of the Swamp Shrine to the cobblestone streets of Mercator, it was a massive adventure that pulled you in and didn’t let go. Though successful, the franchise never took off as fans hoped, and it was only recently that Nigel has been given another starring role.
The group behind Landstalker was Climax Entertainment (not to be confused with with Moto GP developer Climax Studios), which has earned a distinction as one of Sega’s “weaker” development teams. They’ve been around for almost two decades, and have taken part in some true classics, like Shining in the Darkness, and Shining Force. Founded in 1990 by Kan Naito and Shinpei Harada, they’ve created titles for just about every console to date, despite low sales and an ever-changing game market. To worsen things, many of the original team left in 1996 and released what many consider to be Landstalker‘s spiritual sequel, Alundra. They survived criticisms, failures, and staff departures, and in 2005 the original Landstalker team returned to Climax with an itching to make a difference. Naito and crew began work on a remake of their classic adventure and already are in the planning stages of releasing sequels on the next generation of PlayStation hardware.
One man in particular at Climax had a large hand in the creation of Landstalker, Shinja Nishigaki was the head of its development as both planner and producer. He first entered the video game industry as a promotion consultant for
Daiko Advertising Agency (currently known as Asatsu-DK) and soon found himself producing titles for Sega. In his time with Climax, Nishigaki was the owner, president, and CEO of Climax Graphics, which changed its name to Crazy Games in 2001. Their initial output was small — only two games, Blue Stinger and Illbleed — and both were about as under-the-radar as Landstalker had been (though Blue Stinger did go on to sell half a million copies). Nishigaki continued to work, even though Sega pulled the Dreamcast from the market and Crazy Games closed it doors. Tragically, he died of a heart attack at age 42 in July of 2002.
The story in Landstalker is nothing new. A young and brash hero is swept up in a tale of intrigue and long-lost treasure and sets off to aid a damsel in distress in exchange for riches and fame. Coming off as something of a fantasy Indiana Jones, treasure hunter Nigel accidentally bumps into a fleeing fairy named Friday. Bounty hunters are hot on her trail, and it’s only with Nigel’s help that she manages to elude them. It is then that she reveals the secret of King Nole’s lost treasure. The pair set off to find it and overcome obstacle after obstacle (including a very greedy Duke!) on their quest for fortune.
It’s strange that in this day and age of easy emulation and cheap used games, more people haven’t played Landstalker. Upon its Japanese release on October 30, 1992, comparisons to Nintendo’s flagship Legend of Zelda games were almost immediate. Neither Naito nor Nishigaki had intended to compete with Link, and to pair the two seemed slightly ridiculous, given just how different they actually were. While both are indeed action/RPGs, the execution of the gameplay in Landstalker is more platform-based. The vast majority of the puzzles require leaping around in some fashion, which is what made them so much more difficult than those found in Zelda. In fact, it is this key element that fans and haters remember the most about the game. Due to its isometric view, gamers found themselves constantly misjudging jumps, causing them to fall to lower levels and be forced to make the long trek back up to their previous location.
Though it may sound infuriating, the perspective was never enough to truly frustrate. There was a measure of trial and error to it all, but that was pretty common of the era. Power ups were always plentiful, and the cartridge featured four save slots so that you could start a new game but still retain your completed one for boasting rights (something a few games, like Wonder Boy in Monster World, should have done). The diversity of items and the sheer size of the environments prompted gamers to investigate every square inch of each screen. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who spent time at the beginning trying fruitlessly to open that cave blocked by two trees! In fact, it was then that I truly began to appreciate Landstalker’s scope. Everything was there for you to explore in due time. Climax had just been evil enough to put it all just barely out of reach, and you were eventually so eager to finally open that one chest or get that much-needed life stock that you didn’t mind the backtracking.
It has only been with the passage of time that Landstalker has truly begun to receive the praise and appreciation it deserved right from the start. Perhaps Climax’s failure to cash in on what momentum it had pushed the franchise to the brink of obscurity, or maybe it was the general indifference of the gaming community. Who knows. One thing is for certain: Sega and Climax could have handled the marketing better — something that can be said for many other overlooked Genesis classics.
Their first questionable decision came in 1995, when Climax actually created a pseudo-sequel entitled Ladystalker. It was distributed by Taito and attempted to recapture the innovation and challenge of the first game. It wasn’t entirely successful, as it seemed to lack the charm that made Landstalker so successful. Hurting its chances even more was the fact that it was never released outside of Japan. Perhaps the biggest knock against it Ladystalker was that it wasn’t entirely made by the same team. It was around this time that tensions within the company began to rise, eventually causing many members decided to head off on their own and form Matrix Software (Alundra 1 & 2, Dual Hearts).
Ladystalker boasted some excellent visuals, and was hardly a bad game on its own (aside from its dreadfully long and unskippable opening sequence). Although it shared the same isometric viewpoint as its predecessor, there were some notable changes to the gameplay. For instance, there was no jumping involved (at least not at the beginning). To cross crevices and hot spots, you needed to hold down the B button to make Lady run; she’d then safely race right over the opening. Combat was also different. Instead of having enemies by onscreen and avoidable from the get-go, battles were initiated in an almost random style, with opponents dropping into the screen, and You weren’t allowed to leave the immediate area until all were dispatched. Why Climax decided to go this route remains a mystery, but it tended to slow down the pace of the game dramatically in some parts. Still, it wasn’t such a major divergence and was fortunately quite easy to get used to.
I would have liked to have seen Ladystalker in English, and while such a wish will forever remain unfulfilled in cart form, there is still hope for a patched ROM dump. A group known as Magic Destiny was about to being translating Ladystalker, but the project stalled sometime in 2004 and has not been renewed. Someone needs to finish this up now!
After Ladystalker‘s Japan-only release, Climax didn’t sit idle for too long. They quickly began to work on a new title for Sega’s embattled Saturn. When gamers first saw teaser photos of the upcoming Dark Savior, they were understandably excited. Here was a game that seemed to follow in the classic Landstalker‘s footsteps. Many even confused its blonde hero for Nigel, though they questioned where little Friday had wandered off to. Using the Saturn’s true 3D capabilities, it was now possible to create a fully isometric world that was truly solid and defined. Well, as defined as the Saturn could make it anyway. Though some accommodations were made using the new technology, like the use of the L and R triggers to move the camera slightly, the game played more or less the same as the other two had before it. Again, Climax fiddled with the battle system, and players now took on opponents in one-on-one, three-round combat. You could block attacks, and even capture your foe when he was low on energy, collecting the bounty for his head and even using him as a surrogate fighter!
While it was nice to see Climax make some attempt at bringing at least the Landstalker gameplay to the next generation, there was even less about Dark Savior to tie it in spirit to that classic than Ladystalker before it. One of the key points in Landstalker was that you grew to care about Nigel and Friday. They were interesting and likeable characters. Dark Savior‘s Garian is hardly so attractive. The bounty hunter aspect wasn’t really appealing, and you never really wanted to buy into the whole plot of Garian’s quest to catch the killer Bilan. I suspect that Climax knew just how paper-thin the whole plot was, and for that reason they added multiple endings. After Bilan escapes custody on a prison ship while en route to Jailor’s Island, you were required to make your way to the captain’s cabin. Depending on how long it took you to get there, you’d get one of three different “parallels,” or storylines. With more than eight different endings, Dark Savior sounded like a game you’d play over and over. Sadly, the differences between each parallel was minimal, and the camera was actually bad enough to cause the same problems with depth perception for which Landstalker was so heavily criticized.
Even with its challenging and interesting puzzles, there really wasn’t enough meat on Dark Savior‘s bones to keep you interested once you completed all the parallels. It did have some great 3D, especially for the Saturn, and the presentation was excellent. However, poor character development, an awkward battle system, and a short quest kept it from reaching its full potential.
By now, Landstalker fans had all but given up hope for a true sequel. Climax had tested their patience and loyalty by releasing two games that bore a close resemblance, but weren’t the new installments everyone wanted. So what’s a company to do? Why not get to work on a title for the newly launched Dreamcast that will excite the fanbase again? That’s exactly what Climax did. Initial reports and screens of Time Stalkers caused excessive drooling for anyone who had longed to revisit the world of Landstalker. The thing was, Climax was being very, very naughty. While Nigel was playable, and even Lady herself made an appearance, this was not a true sequel.
Time Stalkers was something of an…oddity, for lack of a better word. The entire concept left you scratching your head, as it made little sense and wasn’t very well done. The whole game revolves around possibly the single worst main character ever: an arrogant and reckless adventurer named Sword. You read that right; his name is sword. Now, when you started off with that much originality, things just had to get better, right? Sadly, it didn’t. See, poor Sword opens a magic book that sucks him in to a world that could best be described as a dimensional crossroads. Hills and medieval villages exist side by side with modern Japan, and just about every whacky idea Climax had sitting around seems to have been tossed into this game.
I was somewhat upset with the first six months of the Dreamcast where RPGs were concerned. The random dungeon-inspired tedium of the Evolution series had me quite anxious for Time Stalkers. Imagine my disappointment when it turned out to be more of the same. See, the whole thing revolved around you repeatedly entering multi-level dungeons and taking out the boss at the top. As you moved on, several new adventurers joined your group, and you could pick which one you want to use. Dark Savior‘s monster capturing feature returned, and you could not only add them to your party but level them up as well.
What really made me seethe with anger was the massive potential Climax had squandered. Here was a game that let you play as Nigel from Landstalker, Lady from Ladystalker, and Pyra from Shining in the Darkness. Holy hell, if the thought of those three games coming together didn’t motivate you, then you simply weren’t a Sega fan. Why on Earth then, would Climax set out to undo any possible happiness that thought could create? First off, no matter how high you leveled up in each dungeon, you’d automatically revert back to level one upon exiting, losing just about all the upgrades and stats that you had worked so hard to earn. That also applies should you have left by accident, mind you. Moreover, your party needed food, badly! Fail to take care of them and they’d suffer the consequences. If the dungeon you were currently in yielded little in the way of provisions, you would have to leave to restock and then start the whole thing from scratch. Compounding this poor design was the fact that your character could only carry a meager amount of items, making longer dungeons excruciatingly frustrating. It was so sad to find a cool item, only to not be able to take it because Sword’s four — yes, four — crappy slots were taken.
Even combat was as poorly thought out as the rest of this train wreck. How does this sound for a Dreamcast game? You set two characters to attack the same enemy, and the first one killed him in a single blow. Does the second character attack the next available foe? Nope, he struck at thin air! Yes, this from a game in the next generation of consoles…
Climax? No, More Like Falling Action
Yes, no matter how you look at it, this definitely appeared to be a series in decline. So sad was the state of affairs that it actually took another company to come closest to the original Landstalker than anyone at Climax ever could. Remember those team members that left in 1996 to from Matrix Software? Well, they were the fellows responsible for Alundra, which was practically Landstalker in everything but name. This was the game Climax should have given us. This was what we’d wanted all along. Lush, 2D graphics, awesome anime cut scenes, the classic mind-numbing puzzles, and a sweet soundtrack were everything fans had been clamoring for for almost five years. The fact that Climax released Time Stalkers a full two years after Alundra appeared shows just how lost it really was with this franchise.
Working Designs was quick to recognize just how close Alundra was to the classic formula and snatched it up for a domestic release. Anyone who’s played both games can attest to their similarities, as well as just how playable Matrix’s effort truly was. The sequel did stumble a bit, but the fact that it was able to literally outdo Climax at its own game had longtime fans sadly thinking that we most likely weren’t going to get the sequel we all longed for.
Ready to Stalk Again?
It’s not all tears and gnashing of teeth, though. Since the original members (except, lamentably, Nishigaki) rejoined Climax in July of 2005, the company has announced that the original Landstalker will be remade for Sony’s PSP. This time, the game will be in full 3D, and promises all the bells and whistles the new technology can provide. Furthermore, Climax has gone so far as to announce that planning has begun on not one, but two (!) sequels for both the PlayStation 2 and its successor. It appears that our friends over the pond have decided to go back to what made them successful to begin with. The teaser website has little more than an image up, and it looks like this remake is quite a ways off. Even so, it’s nice to see that Climax is through experimenting and is finally giving the fans what they want. Had they done so from the outset, they’d probably be maintaining a successful franchise instead of trying to revive one that’s been tarnished over the years.
Whenever the Landstalker remake surfaces, Sega-16 will be there will a preview, followed by a full review. In the meantime, why not watch IGN’s awesome little video of the game’s early build? It’s set to the classic Landstalker field theme and really shows off what the PSP can do. Simply head over to our YouTube page and enjoy!
The complete release chronology is as follows:
- Landstalker, Genesis (1993)
- Ladystalker, Super Famicom (1995)
- Dark Savior, Saturn (1996)
- Time Stalkers, Dreamcast (1999)
- New Landstalker, Sony PSP (200?)