It worked. I knew it would of course, but, cradling the package on the bus ride home, I felt the giddy disbelief of a thief with a bag of jewellery. Time felt out of joint; I had left work in 2018 and arrived home in 1993. 25 years to get through the traffic around Shepherd’s Bush – perhaps it was a normal day after all. When I plunged the Tanglewood cartridge home, into the slot of the Mega Drive II, I felt the resounding click could quiet the storm of any soul. There’s nothing like the thrill of old hardware. As the title screen appeared beneath a scrim of dust on my CRT screen, I hesitated, wondering what share of the game’s joy hadn’t already been spent.
Tanglewood was developed by Big Evil Corporation, whose name belies the benevolence of a humble five-man team, one fueled with the sort of enthusiasm that lives in garages the world over, amidst motherboards and soldering irons. The game’s arrival – either by the pageantry of a full-on cartridge release or a discreet Steam download – is powered by a different energy: nostalgia. It’s the kind that, like a main circuit cable, connects Kickstarter with the memory banks in a million brains. And opens a million wallets.
This is the real thing, too: a genuine Mega Drive game coded in raw 68,000 assembly language, its world wrought with a 9-bit colour palette and churned out through the gears of SNASM2 MegaCD Development Kits. It sounds like the sort of process that might involve smoke stacks, but behold the beauty it has belched out: moss-hung forests, capering sprites, and gnarled brown branches. Along which scampers the nervous-eyed Nymn, a vulpine creature of vertical inclination, poised on two legs like a meerkat in a state of alert.
And quite rightly so. As a member of the Djunn, a race of peacenik critters at the bottom of the food chain, Nymn is wary of all Tanglewood's fauna. It's flora, on the other hand, is friendly. That is, if the Fuzzls count as plantlife: a polychrome crew of puffballs with eyes and not much else, which Nymn rolls along to activate switches and unlock a slew of spells. The yellow ones let him glide like a flying squirrel; the green ones enable him to halt the tick of time; and the blue ones grant him the power to play jockey atop the snarling Djakks – hulking brutes the size of buffalo, with the razor tusks of a warthog.
Elsewhere there are mollusks that shuffle with the snort of a swine, angler fish who wind up like chainsaws and launch like missiles, and giant gulping sandworms lifted right out of Dune. Stages have you scampering to and fro, avoiding these ghouls, collecting fireflies, and manipulating your surroundings: pushing boulders onto beasts, activating pressure-switch bridges, and using your powers to traverse obstacles.
The rhythms of play – which are meted out in lurid colours with a dusk till dawn cycle – are thwarted here and there when you run headlong into a scuttling nuisance and croak on the spot. The irritation comes not with your lowly place in the pecking order, but in your hampered attempts to escape its wrath. Unlike Limbo, which hired death as an on-the-spot tutor for its baleful puzzles, Tanglewood's only lesson seems to be ‘next time, avoid this nasty bastard.’ Further salt in the wound comes by way of lingering loading screens and rigid inputs, the helium-fueled jump occasionally sending you scrabbling from ledges. Fortunately, mastering Nymn’s nimble body is a reward in itself; the sight of his tail pinwheeling in mid-air makes the heart leap; and, later on, having him howl to an ally with a button-press is one of the smallest slivers of wonder I've felt this year.
The game’s peaceable approach evokes an animistic feel, the magic of its world inextricable with nature in a way that recalls Ori and the Blind Forest. But then, the broken bones of a civilisation jut through: metal rails and minecarts, soot-stained brickwork, and clapped-out contraptions. Who were these people, the remnants of whom we see cast in raster graphics, razed by something unseen, and rolling past with a silent sigh? You won’t get any backstory while playing the thing, of course; in the spirit of authenticity, the bulk of the game’s lore is tucked away elsewhere – Kickstarter pages, Steam descriptions. It harks back to the days of beefy booklets, when lore lived on pages and in the imagination, rarely on screen.
These flourishes betray the pendulum swing of Tanglewood’s influences: hurtling not only backwards, to the surreal hostility of Another World and the treetop frolicking of The Lion King, but forwards, to the unknowable history of ICO and the bleak machinery of Limbo. That’s so much of what Tanglewood is: history and machinery. At the risk of sounding like one of those pestilent vinyl-seekers, who speak affectedly of ‘warmer sounds,’ this is best experienced on Sega hardware. The game’s heart beats within and without the cartridge, the format of its release a fundamental part of its makeup. Nymn’s every movement is emboldened by the chunky slabs of the Mega Drive’s buttons beneath your thumb. Saving progress is a matter of physical inscription, noting passwords with pen and paper. And the colours of its world are scumbled with a greasy layer of pixellation, its skies threaded with static.
It’s this spilling over into spectacle that troubles Tanglewood. It’s the purest, most literal-minded attempt to fulfill our nostalgic urges, forging a new game in the same embers that once roared. It succeeds, for a time. But after the credits roll and you turn off the machine, it feels like an archaeological publicity stunt, a brand new fossil buried shallow enough for all to find.
Developer: Big Evil Corporation
Publisher: Big Evil Corporation
Available on: Mega Drive [reviewed on], PC
Release Date: August 14, 2018
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