Popful Mail: Magical Fantasy Adventure (ぽっぷるメイル) - PC-88, PC-98, Sega CD, PC Engine CD, Super Famicom (1992)
I really wish I could tell you what the allure of elves and the whole pointy-eared thing is, but it's really something inexpressible in words. Legions of female fans drool (and continue to drool) over Legolas from Lord of the Rings and even today, people are still writing stories of Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk getting it on, much to the dismay of pretty much everyone on the face of the planet.
Sadly, female elves are disappointingly underrepresented. But elf fetishists, take heed: deep in the annals of gaming history, there's Popful Mail, a pink haired elven bounty hunter with a dazzling set of legs and plenty of sass. Created by Falcom, publisher of popular Japanese RPGs such as Ys, Popful Mail is a fun little side scrolling action adventure with anime style graphics and loads of personality. If you're a fan of fantasy anime like Slayers, you'll find a lot to like from Popful Mail (Fun fact: Megumi Hayashibara, who does the Japanese voice of Lina Inverse, also plays the voice of Mail).
A cute little elven bounty hunter who is, unfortunately, terrible at her job. She refuses to stoop to taking menial jobs and instead sets her eyes on big prizes. The end result is usually failure. Still, Mail is determined, has a sharp demeanor, and enough sword skills to keep her alive.
A somewhat naive magician who is searching for his missing teacher, Muttonhead. As it turns out, Muttonhead has gone off the deep end and is now working for the forces of darkness, so Tatto tries to help out Mail to set things right. Although he seems overly polite and is really just an apprentice, he's pretty good at attacking from a distance with magic. Also, he wears a goofily large hat.
The game begins with Mail attempting to apprehend the mechanical villain Nuts Cracker. After failing miserably, she decides to hit down the bounty on a renegade magician named Muttonhead. Along the way, she meets the aforementioned companions and stumbles upon the usual fantasy RPG plot of bad guys resurrecting old demons to create chaos on earth. This being primarily an action game, the plot isn't a terribly important aspect, and the charming characters make a good counterpart to the usual dark melodrama.
Although the game begins with only Mail, Tatto and Gaw join within the first two worlds. You can switch between them at anytime, and each has their own separate life meter. However, when one of them dies, it's Game Over, so you have to be careful.
While there aren't any experience levels, you do spend a lot of time killing enemies to get gold, thus buying weapons, armor and curative items. There are five worlds total, each divided into several substages. While the game starts off linear, later areas require at least a little more of exploration and backtracking to find stuff. You can even revisit old levels on the world map, to gather anything you may have missed the first time, or use new skills to find previously inaccessible areas.
While concept, plot and structure of the three versions of Popful Mail - PC98/PC Engine Super CD, Sega CD and Super Famicom - are the same, they're all drastically different games.
Popful Mail first hit the scene in 1991 for the PC98 home computer, and was later ported by NEC for the PC Engine Super CD in 1994. They're mostly the same game, although the PC Engine version benefits from having a larger color palette, CD music and voiced cutscenes. It also adds a set of stages exclusive to the PC Engine port, where each of the characters splits up to fight their way through factories and ship graveyards. These versions play like a side-scrolling version of Ys, with all kinds of tiny midget characters. Attacking is done by running into bad guys, although you sometimes have to jump on them. Eventually, you get throwing and distance weapons, which makes things a little easier, but the platforming feels a little awkward with such tiny characters. The screen display looks more than a little reminiscent of the old Falcom game Legacy of the Wizard (aka Dragon Slayer IV) and the graphics, while tiny, are quite vibrant and generally pretty good.
The Sega CD version - programmed by Sega and brought to the US courtesy of Working Designs in 1994 - is an almost entirely new game. It plays like a regular platformer, pretty similar to Sega's Wonder Boy series, and is just much more fun overall. Parts of the plot have been streamlined so there's less annoying backtracking, and everything is much better for it. The graphics aren't as bright and the character designs in the cutscenes are lot different, as everyone looks older and less cutesy than the original versions. Still, the animation in these scenes is spectacularly good, especially considering that it isn't full motion video. The music is all chip generated so there's no redbook audio, but it sounds damn fine for the Genesis sound synth, and in many ways better than the PC Engine version. There's also a whole lotta speech, all of it very well done, in typical Working Designs style. While a lot of people don't care for their loose interpretations of the original Japanese version, a lot of the dialogue and extra gags that they added really fit the game. In a part where you come across two soldiers, whom were just regular boring characters in the Japanese version, they toss in a Dragnet reference. However, Working Designs did decide to toy with the difficulty level for the American version, making it a very difficult game. Three hits from a bad guy will usually send your character down for the count, and your invincibility time after being hurt is almost nil, making it fairly easy to get destroyed quickly. Luckily, you can purchase an almost unlimited amount of healing items to counterbalance this, but it still feels a little unnecessary.
Popful Mail was also ported to the Super Famicom by Falcom in 1994. Much like the Sega CD version, it's a typical side scroller, although the actual game is much different. The graphics and stages have been entirely redone, and while the basic plot remains intact, there are some minor changes here and there as well (you can actually visit the first town, as before it only appeared in cutscenes). For some reason, the gameplay is slightly awkward - enemies don't recoil when you hit them, so you have to be extra careful when fighting them. Your moveset is a lot more versatile though, as Mail gets a downward jumping slash and you can throw projectiles in any direction. While it's a good game, the limitations of the cartridge format definitely show through. You can only save the game at inns, which are often scarce. And when you die, you're sent back to a checkpoint, usually making boss battles more tedious. The bosses themselves are pretty crappy - you fought some pretty mean creatures that took up half the screen in the Sega CD version, and these have been noticeably downsized. Similarly, a lot of the goofy fun that came from the cutscenes is gone entirely. The music works reasonably well, at least.
Even with the three entirely different versions of Popful Mail, the Sega CD one is definitely the best, so if you only stick with that you won't be missing out. The series was popular enough to inspire several radio dramas, although despite the potential, it never received an anime series. Regardless, it's a fun little action game with some incredibly amusing moments, and well worth investing in.