In a new weekly column, writer Bob Mackey will alternate between two of his passions: the Japanese RPG genre and classic games. "Before you register any complaints with the management, remember one thing: I'm new here," Mackey says.
Kicking off my new column at Joystiq, I thought I'd put my best foot forward with an article focused on a game that's gone completely forgotten over the years – a strange fate, considering the pedigree of talent involved. Of course, I speak of Nintendo's Marvelous: Another Treasure Island (Marvelous: Mōhitotsu no Takarajima), an oddball Super Famicom release from 1996, that marks current Zelda honcho Eiji Aonuma's first turn in the director's chair.
It's not surprising why Nintendo declined to bring Marvelous stateside; by 1996, the company had shifted nearly all of its efforts to launching the Nintendo 64, which led to anticipated games like the fully completed Star Fox 2 to get the axe. Funny thing, though: Marvelous doesn't seem to have much of a following in its country of origin – even the Smash Bros. series, which obsessively collects the most obscure Nintendo ephemera, doesn't give the game a single lousy trophy. It's a shame, since Marvelous hints at the future greatness of Aonuma, and provides a fantastic example of classic Nintendo at the top of their game.
Marvelous plays very much like Ron Gilbert's The Cave: a classic PC adventure game, but in a more immediate and action-esque form. Marvelous puts players in control of three young boys, each with their own innate abilities: Dion plays the tiny spitfire of the group, Jack acts as the team's Donatello (doing machines and all that), and Max makes up for his girth with sheer strength. The thin story presented by Marvelous merely acts as an excuse to throw these characters into bizarre and hilarious situations that rely entirely on their proclivity towards teamwork.
Even though the action of Marvelous feels (and looks!) a hell of a lot like Zelda, it still features a point-and-click interface borrowed from the PC adventure genre; hitting "A" will bring up a cursor, which can be steered around the screen to investigate areas in closer detail. In a refreshing move that cut down on a lot of the hassle implicit to the genre, inventory management in Marvelous really isn't a thing; any item players receive immediately goes to the character that can make the best use of it. Much of the game involves splitting the characters up and using their unique abilities to overcome obstacles and solve puzzles.
Seeing as Majora's Mask remains my favorite Zelda installment – as well as one of my favorite games of all time – it's no surprise that I took to Marvelous so quickly. With this game, players really feel the seeds being planted for the direction Aonuma would take Miyamoto's series. Like Majora's Mask, Marvelous largely relies on vignettes: Each chapter of the game introduces the three boys to weird characters desperately in need of their help with the trio able to chat with the various people they've helped before moving on to the next area. Marvelous also brims over with the dark humor and slightly sinister tone that makes Aonuma's black sheep Zelda so special; one chapter features a plot inspired directly from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and offers a genuinely creepy and off-putting atmosphere rarely seen in a first-party Nintendo game.
Despite my praise, Marvelous does have its problems, perhaps due to its late release in the Super Famicom's lifespan. The last chapter in Marvelous feels rushed, and replaces the game's personality-laden puzzles with a fairly straightforward dungeon that would feel right at home in A Link to the Past. Said dungeon also features a mandatory sliding tile puzzle, a game design crime that should be punishable by death – but I digress.
Regardless of its few faults, Marvelous is pure, 16-bit Nintendo fun, and actually pushes the classic adventure format forward in a way that wouldn't be revisited until more than 15 years later with The Cave. While it's not officially available in English, an industrious person from the ROM translation scene quietly released a mostly complete translation nearly a year ago – it's a bit rough in spots, but still allows the humor of the game to shine through. Try it for yourself, and who knows: if enough people get on board, maybe we can form a rabid EarthBound-like cult dedicated to getting a legit version of this to play on our Wii U consoles.
Bob Mackey is a freelance writer based out of Berkeley, California. Since 2006, he's written a semimonthly column for the comedy website Something Awful, and his work has been featured on outlets such as 1UP, Gamasutra, Electronic Gaming Monthly, and Cracked. You can follow him on Twitter at @bobservo.