A blast to the past from the past

  • Developer: New Corporation
  • Publisher: New Corporation
  • Original Release Date: June 3rd, 1999 (Japan)
  • Available on: PS1, PS3/PSP/PS Vita (via the Japanese Playstation Network)
  • Genres: Action, 2D Platformer

The Playstation’s library is so vast that games still seem to appear out of thin air on a regular basis. I’ve experienced many occasions where casual internet forays end up bringing new games to my attention through a passionate recommendation or some screenshots that look unbelievably stylish. The PS1 is truly the gift that keeps on giving and it’ll always be one of my favorite consoles for that reason. Chippoke Ralph no Daibouken (or “The Adventure of Little Ralph”) isn’t quite as recognizable as other PS1 cult classics like LSD: Dream Emulator or Moon, but it has its share of fans who recommend it for its top notch action, luscious 2D art, and import friendly nature (in terms of playability, not price because boy are those eBay prices wild). Released in 1999, The Adventure of Little Ralph is a love letter inspired by games that came before it, combining the methodical action of Rastan with the platforming of the original Wonder Boy and the fast pace of Quartet, all wrapped up in an aesthetic that’s filled to the brim with creativity and life.

New Corporation, the developer with a name ill-suited to the age of Google searches, set out to make a passion project, one that carried on the legacy of the 2D platformers of yore. The team was well aware of the push towards 3D console gaming in the 90s and thought it would lead to the genre’s decline. At the time, they had the right idea, but little did they know that 2D games would come back to consoles with a vengeance a decade later thanks to the still-booming indie scene. The Adventure of Little Ralph has a lot in common spiritually with contemporary indies too, in that it’s an attempt to recreate a very specific kind of game that the big names in the industry don’t have the guts or the desire to attempt nowadays. The Adventure of Little Ralph started development in 1991, so the fact that they labored on it for that long while passing up opportunities to make more money through faster methods (their first game was Boxer’s Road and a sequel to that likely would have been cheaper to develop and more successful at the time) show how serious they were with their intent. Reading through the Shumplations interview for this game gave me a strong appreciation for the people behind it and some of their responses resonated with me, like this one:

“To me, what makes a game is its gameplay. The expressive potential of games is expanding, and developers are all pursuing different ends now, and I thnk that is a good thing as far as it goes. But there’s something important that I don’t want them to forget as they make their games. And that is this: games are fun because they are games. It’s a battle of wits, a push and pull between the player and the software… or in other words, gameplay. Personally I think this element of games must be included. Of course I think exploration type games are fine, but if everyone starts pulling in that direction, I think it’s dangerous for gaming, you know?”

– Aoyagi Ryuta, Game Design and Main Graphics

I’ve always been a gameplay first kind of guy and I value the specific type of relationship that a game creates between itself and the player in much the same way that Aoyagi Ryuta does, though I’ve never been able to put it as eloquently as he did. There are few things more satisfying to me than whenever I pick up an old game and it simply is what it is. Maybe it’s obtuse and difficult, maybe it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, or maybe it just straight up makes no sense, anything goes when you pop in a mysterious relic of the past! I like unraveling what a game is all about and trying to find a way to defeat what the developers have devised with the tools given to me. Because of that, I’ve never been drawn to things like modding PC games or using cheats. Whenever a game is too eager to bend to my will, it feels more like playing in an aimless sandbox than it does a proper test of knowledge and I prefer when the developers are able to throw everything they came up with at me without compromises, warts and all. Providing options is certainly more important than ever now that gaming is so much more popular, but it’s always nice to know that there are games out there designed by people who happen to view games in the same way that I do, so this was encouraging to read and plays into why I enjoyed this game as much as I did.

These old school influences and design philosophies are likely what prevented The Adventure of Little Ralph from making it overseas, since Sony was notoriously gung-ho about pushing 3D games at the time and lots of people (in North America at least) bought into their evangelizing. Because of this draconian mindset, a lot of people only appreciated games like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Suikoden II years after the Playstation ended its run, but other remarkable 2D games never got their moment in the spotlight and that’s a huge shame. The ultimate purpose of this blog is to examine games that have been long forgotten by the gaming populace and The Adventure of Little Ralph is perhaps the ideal game for that purpose – it’s a genuine “hidden gem” and not one of the many “interesting but flawed” games that I’ll surely be covering down the line. To think I’d be so lucky with my very first pick!

As you’d expect from a game influenced by 80s arcade titles, story isn’t a significant factor here, to the point that it can be ignored without consequence if the player isn’t able to read Japanese. The game starts with a text crawl explaining that demons have invaded and humanity is powerless to stop them unless they can utilize the legendary holy sword. Our titular protagonist tries to put a stop to the demons invading his hometown, but their naked Adonis of a leader, Valgo, casts a spell that turns Ralph into a child, leaving him powerless and unable to stop them from kidnapping his friend Lutecia, who has a connection to an ancient civilization with special powers. In the midst of his despair, Ralph is visited by the holy sword and is offered a chance to use its power to set things right and save Lutecia. From there, the story mostly consists of Ralph following the trail of the demons, leading to conversations between him and the local bosses at the end of each stage.

It very much falls into a predictable pattern, but the proceedings are elevated by both the presentation and some charming characterization. Simply put, this game looks fantastic, and you can tell that love was put into each and every character. Everybody you meet has expressive reactions to what’s going on and character growth and storytelling alike are conveyed through animations unique to each character. Ralph’s despair when faced with his powerlessness in the beginning is enough to make you sympathize with his cause, even when he needlessly starts fights later on with his attitude! He calls the guy who runs the nearby waterworks facility an old fart and when he encounters a childlike demon in the aqueduct, he mocks its appearance even though Ralph himself is in a similar situation. Some might find it off-putting to play as a jerk lacking in self-awareness, but this is all part of the plan, as you’ll soon after see Ralph step up to the task and act more heroic when he’s faced with more serious opponents and continues to survive an increasingly perilous journey. Even if the main plot beats are unimpressive, Ralph’s growth into a true and proper hero is both inspiring and synergistic with the way the game wants the player to feel during the action. The Adventure of Little Ralph is a game that wants you to succeed and become a better player than you were at the start, but you can bet that it’s going to make you work for it even if you’re playing on the Easy difficulty.

On Easy, the game stops at stage five (out of eight), though it thankfully doesn’t scold you with a message telling you to “try harder!” nor does it give you a downer ending. Easy mode players still get to defeat Valgo and rescue Lutecia, but they won’t get to challenge the wizard Destarroza, the puppet master behind the whole conflict, unless they jump back in to face the challenges that lie ahead on Normal difficulty. This kind of gating was something that reared its ugly head every so often during the 8 and 16-bit console generations, but the fact that New Corporation showed restraint here and offered respectable compensation for those who aren’t interested in pushing themselves too hard shows that they aren’t afraid to diverge from the formulas of old where needed if it means providing a better experience.

Fundamentally, the action in The Adventure of Little Ralph is familiar enough that it warrants little explanation. You go right, hit things with your sword, and beat the boss while trying not to die. Simple, right? Well, in another prescient move, New Corporation realized that the greats of the genre worked because of a combination of thrilling challenges and creative stage concepts that allow for players to apply straightforward mechanics within complex scenarios, a philosophy that indie hits like Super Meat Boy and Celeste would continue to carry on years later. This is a game that doesn’t relent despite its simplicity, throwing gauntlet after gauntlet at you. One moment you’re swinging between ropes spaced precisely enough that you’ll barely make it past the fatal pits they reside above and another moment will have you jumping between mine carts in a high speed, high octane chase sequence that leaves no room for error and your butt thoroughly clenched the entire time. You’ll also take to the skies and single-handedly defeat an armada of flying battleships in one of the game’s most stylish set pieces, deal with icy platforms that make every jump scary inside a beautiful ice stronghold, and work your way through an elaborate, trap-filled castle that would be right at home in Castlevania. While not cited as an inspiration by the developers, The Adventure of Little Ralph really feels like the long lost cousin of a Treasure-developed game to me; it’s got mechanics that encourage mastery through repeat plays, wild level design that keeps you guessing the whole way through with absurd set pieces and wacky enemies, and gorgeous 2D graphics that remain peerless among their competition and make the game age like a fine wine.

Even with the odds stacked against you, this is a remarkably fair game, one that expects mastery but gives you all the time in the world to achieve it. Unlike many games of its era and those before it, The Adventure of Little Ralph gives you infinite continues and generous checkpoints. You still have to finish the game in one sitting, but you can use as many lives as you need, so there’s no reason to get too frustrated with the challenges ahead. Knowing that death is inevitable changes it into something entirely different – it’s no longer a punishment, but a learning opportunity, a chance to pour over every bit of level design like it’s a book in the Library of Alexandria and glean knowledge like it’s the only way to sustain your existence. Every trap is placed in anticipation of the player’s limited but effective moveset and every foe has a weakness. What might seem impossible suddenly makes sense with a bit of time and each revelation makes you feel like a genius as you laugh at the mistakes your past, slightly more naive self made; there’s a method to this madness and by gosh does it feel amazing to discover!  This overarching design exudes confidence and that is most apparent during the game’s final sequence – a gauntlet of twelve tiny rooms containing the game’s most devious traps, combining things like spike pits with electric deathtraps and fast moving platforms. They’re so challenging that checkpoints are provided after each one, which is a testament to both the elegance and frugality of the design here that just a few platforms and a single hazard per room can make a player wrack their brain like never before.

Much like Crash Bandicoot, there are also a variety of death animations, though they’re surprisingly grisly here. You’ll see Ralph get devoured by bugs, impaled by spikes, crushed into a pancake, and burnt to a crisp. These animations are really quite a shock the first time you see them, though there’s something oddly comedic about them as well and they serve as another example of how the game treats death rather lightly in general. If you want to play this game for yourself, take it from me – don’t worry about dying! Too often do I read and hear about people quitting games after a few losses and it’d be a pity to skip out on this one even after everything it does to assure you that death isn’t something to get mad at or be ashamed of. Put yourself in the right mindset and laugh along with the game whenever you do something foolish and you’ll keep pushing forward with glee to see what else it has in store for you.

Though he dies from a single hit (two on Easy), Ralph isn’t as weak as his newfound appearance may suggest. He’s a capable swordsman, able to attack quickly with a vertical slash, poke forward while crouching, and do a downward thrust in the air that’s thrice as strong as his other options. His jump goes pretty high but feels a bit stiff in the air and slippery when landing, which can make precision jumping take some getting used to. The goal was to intentionally retain a level of inertia similar to that of the original Wonder Boy and they sure succeeded, for better or worse. There are power-ups to support him too, including the ability to shoot fireballs, longer range for his sword swings, and a little buddy capable of shooting projectiles whenever he slashes. Perhaps most notable of all is the ability to charge up Ralph’s sword for a special baseball-style swing. This move isn’t meant to replace your standard attack but is instead meant as a reactionary maneuver, allowing you to reflect projectiles back or cleave through a line of enemies coming at you. Many bosses rely on projectiles, so if you’re willing to batter up, you can effectively shut down their most dangerous attacks and sneak in extra hits. It’s a rewarding move to time well and when you blast away a line of foes like they’re bowling pins and rack up points for it, you feel like a champ every time.

In general, combat is less about reflexes and more about knowing what move to use when. Crouching pokes are good against tall enemies and for attacking from safety, whereas downward thrusts are great for taking out foes hogging distant platforms but leave you vulnerable in situations with multiple opponents nearby. You can’t exactly afford to get hit, so the key is to always think before you act, never committing to more than is necessary, something that meshes well with the game’s “challenging but fair” design ethos. Bosses play into this as well, oftentimes requiring hit and run tactics lest you get too greedy and perish, though some do allow for quick kills as a reward for knowledgeable players who know exactly how to stay on the offensive.

Just like the arcade games that inspired it, scoring is also a factor here and provides another avenue of mastery for players who know how to deal with all the game’s surprises. By collecting fruit that pops up throughout stages, you’ll rack up points which in turn lead to extra lives. So far so typical, but the trick here is that fruit only pops up in specific locations and temporarily at that. This means that players will have to replay stages until they know what to expect and also be able to act fast enough to reap the rewards before their efforts are wasted. It sounds easier than it is because the fruit tends to disappear pretty quickly and you’ll also have to take the arrangement of the fruit into account as well, which is often set up in such a way that there’s an ideal angle to jump at them from. Other secrets can be found too, including alternate paths that provide incentive to dig around and replay levels to gain a new perspective on them. It’s an old school way of looking at replay value, but one I very much respect; this is a game you replay because it’s a great time every time, not because there’s a never-ending influx of carrots on a stick to chase. A scoring contest was held in Japan around the game’s release and if you were able to do well enough, you could win some fancy (for the time) tech like an iMac or a Walkman.

New Corporation’s bag of tricks runs deep and some bosses will take you out of your element and into something entirely different. The holy sword is capable of changing Ralph back to his normal size for certain battles and when it does so, it’s fighting game time. Using a combination of punches, sword strikes and fighting game inputs for more complex moves like a Hadoken or Shoryuken equivalent, you’ll have to win a round against your opponent. One round takes a fair bit of time due to some chunky health bars and the later opponents have some nasty attacks up their sleeves. I was dreading the idea of doing more of these, since the first battle against the lizardman Travant was pretty unremarkable and just felt like Street Fighter II (which I’m honestly not much of a fan of compared to later entries…), but the later fights do a good job of challenging you to get comfortable with Ralph’s moveset. By the end of the game, I was really impressed by these fights! I’ve never been great at fighting games, but I’ve always really enjoyed them, especially beautiful 2D ones like Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike, so it felt like New Corporation probed my brain for an idea that I’d dig on paper (surprise genre swaps are hard to get right!) and found a way to make it actually work.

To illustrate how some of these fights test you, Ferica, the third opponent, is hard to contest in the air thanks to her fast attacks, so the trick is to stay grounded and use her predictable approaches to your advantage. The final boss, Destarroza, ups the ante significantly by requiring you to win two fights in a row against two vastly different movesets. The first phase has Destarroza acting as a zoner, pelting you with magic from afar, meaning that rushing him down is the only way to end the fight with a decent pool of health left. His second phase has him ditch the cloak and spells for a fearsome martial arts fighting style and it’s by far the toughest battle. You can’t easily beat him at his own game and he’s statistically more powerful and durable than you, so you’ll have to combine what you learned from the previous fights (poking with your superior range, waiting for approaches, blocking and countering) to eke out a narrow victory.

Players used to fighting games will be able to do some basic combos thanks to the ability to link normals into specials (two crouching pokes into a fireball worked wonders for me, simple but effective!) and there are even some additional options like super jumps and air throws, all of which come in handy. The handful of games in the 90s that tried to mix fighting game mechanics with other genres usually fumbled the execution due to a lack of complexity or satisfying feedback, but The Adventure of Little Ralph maintains the basics of what make fighting games so enjoyable. If you have another person around and particularly enjoy these battles, a versus mode is included that lets you play as everyone, not just Ralph. It’s a cool bonus, and while I didn’t get the opportunity to try it out, I’d love to see if anyone has figured out some killer combos for each character.

The Adventure of Little Ralph is a fascinating game as a result of its place in time. It’s the ultimate love letter to bygone days, proving that tight gameplay is really all you need (its visual flourishes and energetic soundtrack certainly don’t hurt, I admit!), but at the same time was also a stark rejection of what gaming was and where gaming was going. Gamers wanted 3D story driven experiences, and big PlayStation titles like Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy VII were exactly what they were looking for. It takes courage to make a game you know the market will inevitably reject and New Corporation’s end result deserves far more acknowledgement than it gets. Even now, I find its simplicity and conciseness refreshing and in a world where gaming feels like it’s veering ever closer to being content with imitating movies and TV, The Adventure of Little Ralph arguably has more value than ever before.

New Corporation never got to make a sequel and instead followed it with a return to their boxing roots in Victorious Boxers: Ippo’s Road to Glory, which at least seems like a pretty good game based on the iconic boxing manga Hajime no Ippo, which I really need to get around to someday. New Corporation’s final release appears to have been a game called Matchstick for the DS in 2008 (according to Mobygames), but a few of its members are still in the industry with credits on somewhat recent games like Gravity Rush 2 and Monster Hunter: World. Still, it would have been amazing if New Corporation managed to last long enough to get a shot at a sequel because it would have fit right in with contemporary indies as a modern cult classic.

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