Popful Mail - Reader Retroview  

Popcorn Mail Was a Lawsuit Waiting to Happen
by JuMeSyn

5-6 hours


Rating definitions 

   The Sega CD was the home of far too many lousy games. While not the complete disaster the 32X would be, it managed to deliver very few quality games in between the FMV non-games and the utter crap. Naturally, a large percentage of the quality titles fell into the RPG category. Working Designs had a pretty good record on the Sega CD, and its decision to localize Popful Mail turned out to be a good one for any RPGamers interested in a cute little action-RPG graced with a very amusing translation.

   In discussing any Working Designs localization, it must be acknowledged that Popful Mail diverges to a great extent from the original Japanese dialogue. To those offended by this, be prepared. The core of the story seems roughly the same; Mail is an aspiring bounty hunter interested in gold above all else. The beginning of the tale finds Mail trying, and failing to capture a bounty with the name of Nuts Cracker, who torments her with his odd Cajun/Italian accent. Her desire to nab an enticingly large bounty by the name of Muttonhead brings her into contact with the pupil of Muttonhead, a quite prim fellow named Tatt. Upon journeying farther these two will encounter the interesting little… thing named Gaw, and eventually it becomes clear Muttonhead is working for something quite nasty. These three are selectable at any time the player wishes to change characters, and while the overall story is the same no matter which one is currently onscreen each of them has plentiful individual dialogue that is well worth seeing and hearing. It is the amusing touches Working Designs put into the dialogue that make the story intriguing, for at the core this is not complex stuff in any way.

A man with an indecipherable accent is holding out his finger… do I need to say more? A man with an indecipherable accent is holding out his finger… do I need to say more?

   Popful Mail was a Super Famicom game before it came to the Sega CD, and its usual graphics reflect this. They would be pretty good on the Super Famicom, and remain that way on the Sega CD. In its look Popful Mail resembles countless other platform titles from the 16-bit era, with good animation and a reasonable amount of it. The FMV’s are unusual for 1994 in that they are full-screen and show some actual movement, although not much.

   Music in Popful Mail is alright, but not much more. It gets the job done without imprinting itself onto the mind. Sound effects are insubstantial, although there are worse instances that spring to mind. Voice acting, on the other hand, elevates the overall audio. For 1994, a game with about 2 hours of voice acting was highly unusual, let alone voice acting of good quality. The Working Designs approach may or may not strike one as the best means of localization, but here it assuredly made for an entertaining play. Every voice actor is at the very least tolerable, and many of the more outlandish more memorable than is really reasonable to expect from such a short game.

   How Popful Mail actually plays can be understood instantly by anyone with firsthand side-scrolling platform gaming experience. The currently selected character (Mail at the beginning, Tatt and Gaw are available later) runs about onscreen, jumps at a height varying according to the character, ascends via platforms around the current area, and engages in combat by pressing the attack button when (hopefully) outside the attack zone of the enemy. Falls in Popful Mail are dangerous, as a drop from too high will result in damage dealt. Each character in Popful Mail starts with 100 HP, and ends with the same amount. Most enemies also have 100 HP, with some early ones having fewer. While the HP may not increase, the damage done by attacks will thanks to armor, which the player will have to purchase. Later weapons have the ability to shoot across the screen, which will be most welcome – but there is a recharge time associated with shooting across the screen. The time of invulnerability after being struck by an enemy is very short, so quick reactions are demanded. There is no experience in the game, but enemies do drop money.

SOMETHING about that snowman just doesn’t seem trustworthy…. SOMETHING about that snowman just doesn’t seem trustworthy….

   Menu usage is vital in Popful Mail, from near the beginning onward. A single button press brings up the menu, which freezes action onscreen. Here items can be used to recover HP and equipped. Only one item can be equipped at any time, meaning on occasions where effects must be juggled quickly the player will be very busy switching back and forth. Switching back and forth between items is frequently mandatory; meaning the mastery of this skill should be swift. Items are shared between the three characters, but equipment is not, meaning that switching characters to purchase equipment for all is necessary unless the player wishes to take the risk of filling valuable inventory space with weapons and armor.

   Popful Mail packs a respectable challenge at any rate. Bosses are all about side-scrolling platform tactics, with the ability to heal using items when hit. Bosses tend to do enormous damage with their attacks, and the player lacks the ability to hit them nearly as hard. Regular enemies do a fair amount of damage also, and the inattentive will suffer. The nearly nonexistent interval of invulnerability after taking a hit must be dealt with, as death can result very quickly without care.

   As action-RPGs go, Popful Mail isn’t very lengthy. It CAN be completed in under 5 hours, although accomplishing that on the first play will be very strenuous. Given its short length, replay is easy. The replay incentive is mostly to see scenes take place with another character, because of the very different dialogue the three playable characters have in their responses to different situations. There is, however, the Working Designs treat of outtakes at the end of the game – completing it faster results in more outtakes.

   As Sega CD titles go, Popful Mail is quite worthy. Its short playing time may not seem worthwhile when its standard eBay prices are looked at, but it manages to be very entertaining. Naturally a large part of its entertainment factor is due to the Working Designs localization, so importers are forewarned. While hardly the greatest action-RPG ever created, it stands the test of time (as of 2006) to remain an enjoyable title on a system that could have used more of them.

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