A few steps from greatness

  • Developer: ASCII Corporation
  • Publisher: Titus Software
  • Release Dates: November 26th, 1993 (Japan), February 1994 (North America), October 31st, 1994 (Europe), December 1996 (Brazil)
  • Available On: Super Famicom/SNES
  • Genre: 2D Platformer

Remember Ardy Lightfoot? I’m guessing not many people do. I sure didn’t know it existed at the time even with the Super Nintendo being a mainstay of mine for years. Even if you did know about it, it fetches a pretty penny on the secondhand market nowadays (the North American release, anyway), so I have to assume they didn’t print a ton of copies in 1994. It also had a release in Brazil in 1996, which is notably late into the system’s life. I wonder if it got any traction in Japan because their version of the game was far flashier with its market presence, featuring much nicer box art and a gorgeous little manga included in the manual that summarizes the prologue (and has been translated into English by Tumblr user vgperson). It’s seriously cool as heck! But I digress…

I could go into the whole obligatory “mascot platformers were huge in the 90s and everybody wanted a share of the Mario and Sonic pies” spiel, but I’ll spare you the Deja Vu and focus on what Ardy Lightfoot does and doesn’t bring to the table. Ardy Lightfoot aspires to be more than just its appearance – this isn’t a mascot platformer looking to hop on a trend, this is a game that wanted to bring video games closer to the world of movies long before modern AAA games started doing that. It’s an admirable aspiration for the time and the game does a remarkable job with presenting itself, so much so that it still looks great today. As a culmination of mechanics and gameplay ideas, it’s less consistent, oftentimes brushing up to but not quite reaching greatness. While it’s not perfect, don’t let the US/European box art or concept fool you – this is unquestionably a game with a legitimate, sincere vision worthy of respect.

ASCII Corporation had some serious talent in their midst and even though you don’t exactly hear about them often, it does explain how Ardy Lightfoot has such an exceptional presentation for the time. ASCII Corporation has quite a range of achievements under their belt, ranging from the MSX to some RPG Maker games and even horse simulation games called Derby Stallion! Even looking at games they did support of some kind on, this game is quite a bit different from their usual wheelhouse. Ardy Lightfoot was directed by Masami Yamamoto, who went on to direct the stylish ChainDive and also had producer credits on visually inspired games like Speed Power Gunbike and echocrome. Eventually, he became a manager and producer for Sony Computer Entertainment and got executive producer credits on games like Bloodborne! One of the game’s composers, Akiko Hashimoto, went on to do sound and music design for Virtua Fighter 2 and Shenmue I & II, which certainly explains why this game has such lovely music! The package design for the game was credited to Ryuichi Onuma and Hiroko Takeda, who have similar credits on games with awesome box art like Dark Law: Meaning of Death and Sword of the Berserk: Guts’ Rage. If you want a bit of really bizarre trivia, here’s one that’ll catch you off guard – the CG work and character designs in this game were credited by a man named Takashi Torii. What do you think he went on to do? If your guesses were somehow character designs for Senran Kagura: Bon Appetit! – Full Course and Senran Kagura: Estival Versus, you’d be correct! Amazing how much of a ride looking up people’s credits on Mobygames can be, huh?

Upon booting up the game, you’re presented with an attract mode demo of the prologue stage, which certainly isn’t a new thing, but what makes this one so interesting is that it starts with the words “An Ardy Team Film” followed by mentions of some of the game’s main characters. This is a cinematic experience, one that chooses to tell its story entirely through animations and visuals instead of words (aside from a brief text crawl after the prologue that moves way too fast), and it succeeds admirably in this regard. This philosophy extends throughout the game with the use of things like a gorgeous world map that depicts Ardy’s journey across the world using a different art style and title cards for each stage that refer to them as “scenes”. Much like Hammerin’ Harry: Ghost Building Company, this idea isn’t a gimmick, but is instead something that you could tell the developers felt passionate about and wanted to use to give the game something greater to say and make a lasting impression beyond a weekend rental.

After a discovery in the ruins seen in the intro, Ardy learns of seven rainbow gems that can grant a wish to anyone who gathers them all in one place. Being the treasure hunter that he is, Ardy sets out to find them, a goal that quickly becomes all the more urgent once the villainous Visconti makes his intention to gather them clear through an invasion of the mining town where Ardy’s friend Nina lives. Along the way, Ardy encounters a rotating gallery of villains that all seek the gems for Visconti, a mysterious adventurer named Don Jacoby who helps Ardy out and has unfinished business with Visconti, and a group of pirates that end up helping Ardy make his way to the finale. It all resembles a feel-good Disney movie with its bright, luscious visuals, moments where Ardy relies on his new friends as they make noble sacrifices, and even a fairytale ending where Ardy uses his wish to do the right thing and save the day. If this sounds cliché to you, try looking at it from a different perspective – if ASCII Corporation’s goal was to emulate the emotions that something like a Disney movie back during their creative peak can evoke through familiar ideas, they absolutely succeeded!

The moment-to-moment storytelling is easy to follow even without dialogue and the animations do a great job of indicating how characters feel and evoking emotions out of the player. Ardy has a variety of expressions like surprise, anger, and sadness reserved for moments during levels and for cutscenes alike, a treatment that extends to the supporting cast too. Techniques like flashbacks are used to tell the stories of specific regions of the world and each villain gets an arc of sorts that makes them feel as fleshed out as the main cast. The music in particular does an excellent job of adding to the storytelling by evoking a varying degree of emotions at just the right moment. The world map music is both jolly and slightly melancholic, giving the player a chance to reflect on their journey thus far as they watch Ardy travel to the next destination. This is particularly effective after Ardy witnesses a (seemingly) tragic sacrifice by Don Jacoby after barely escaping the pyramid level with his life – Ardy stands there, expressionless and without any movement beyond a speech bubble indicating his contemplation, speechless at what just transpired and echoing what the player is likely feeling as well. He’s obviously sad about what just happened, but he’s the hero of the story and has no time to mourn or regret what just happened. He can only keep moving and do his best to ensure such a sacrifice wasn’t a waste. It’s a powerful moment and one that really stuck with me for how it was done with such a vibrant and otherwise cute looking game.

Ardy Lightfoot gets surprisingly dark with its storytelling at times even beyond the moment I just described. There’s a scene where Nina, Ardy’s friend, gets kidnapped by a character named Beecroft that’s made startlingly harrowing by the use of effective animation. The scene is framed in a way that shows Nina in the basement of her house praying that she doesn’t get discovered by Beecroft, who barges in and knocks out her grandpa as he attempts to keep her hidden. It’s legitimately kind of unsettling! Another example relates to the fate of one of the game’s bosses, Catry, who you chase across a few scenes to get the gem she stole. After defeating her in a boss fight, she and Ardy end up getting eaten by a giant worm, which serves as scene 7. Once you get to the end of the level, you’ll discover an unconscious Catry and the gem you’ve been looking for. While the idea of Ardy just leaving her to die is pretty messed up as it is, it was even worse in the Japanese version, which shows her skeleton lying underneath dripping acid! Though the story is a simple one on paper, the visuals, surprising tonal shifts, and storytelling techniques used really elevate it into something exceptionally memorable for the genre.

I know Catry is supposed to be a villain, but dancing above her “corpse” is just plain cold!

Perhaps to avoid too much “gamification” getting in the way of the presentation, most levels in Ardy Lightfoot are remarkably short and Ardy’s capabilities are mostly pretty lean. The HUD doesn’t even have any information beyond your lives and number of stars collected (the equivalent of coins or rings), which smartly keeps the screen clean enough for the graphics and scenery to really shine. You might get some whiplash at how frequently scene changes can occur, even – the mine cart level is like a minute long, and the level that takes place inside the belly of a beast that I mentioned? That one feels like it barely even gets started before it ends! It’s an interesting choice that I initially felt down on, since I wanted time to soak in each level, but after some thought, I realized that it really works well for what Ardy Lightfoot is going for. A typical movie is around an hour and a half to two hours, right? That’s about how long Ardy Lightfoot is too, which is the absolute perfect length for both a game in this genre and for what it’s trying to accomplish. With seventeen scenes, they need to get you from one to another pretty quickly to keep the pacing fresh and constantly moving like a movie would be. If you got stuck on a level for an hour, that wouldn’t feel very cinematic, would it? Instead, this structure alongside conveniences like password, infinite continues, checkpoints, and extra lives in abundance mean that you’ll never get stuck too long and you’ll get to see new sights as often as they wanted you to. Ardy Lightfoot isn’t the easiest game or anything, especially with its gauntlet of unique challenge rooms at the end that happens to be very similar to what The Adventure of Little Ralph does with its finale, but it’s a game that very much feels like it wants you to succeed unlike many other games of the era that came before it.

Ardy can jump and then bounce on his tail to get more height, and he also speeds up automatically after running a short (too short) distance. The tail bounce seems like an elegant solution on paper, being both a double jump and a means of attack in one maneuver, but it never feels comfortable or reliable to do. In theory, all you have to do is press and hold jump after jumping, but I often found that my bounce would just not come out or would come out slower than I needed it to. I don’t think I was doing anything wrong, but the game has some surprisingly tricky jumps that ask you to tail bounce multiple times quickly and accurately, so it could have been a matter of me not holding the button long enough or trying to let go quicker than I should have. It doesn’t help that holding a tail bounce on the ground greatly restricts your movement until you let it rip, which makes you want to learn how to time it so it fires off as soon as you land instead of holding it in. Still, this maneuver is just a bit too complex for what the game often throws at you and I can’t help but feel like a standard double jump or a single higher jump would have made more sense while also being more fun to control. Ardy has one more maneuver that you really wouldn’t expect in a game like this – if you hold up on the D-pad, Ardy puts up a pane of glass and hides behind it, granting him complete immunity to anything that touches him! I probably don’t need to tell you this, but this trick is a real lifesaver! It lasts for a surprisingly long time and there’s no limit on how much you can use it, so if you remember it’s there, you can avoid most attacks with ease. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this in a 2D platformer and I had fun learning how to apply it to seemingly arduous situations, so I think ASCII Corporation was really onto something here!

Astute readers will probably have a pressing question at this point – what’s up with the little blue guy on the title screen? That’s Pec, Ardy’s friend who happens to closely resemble the Pepelogoo from Monster World IV, which released not too long after Ardy Lightfoot did. Funny coincidence, that! Pec isn’t quite as capable as Pepelogoo is, but he still has plenty of uses in certain scenes. Pec’s primary function is to launch forward at Ardy’s command and eat anything he can get his mouth on. Certain scenes provide power-ups for Pec that grant him new abilities temporarily, including the ability to break walls and inflate like a balloon for Ardy to ride on. These abilities are pretty rare, but the game gets a lot of mileage out of them when they do show up. Navigating a spike maze using Pec is a tense, exciting affair, and using his destructive abilities to navigate a level in search of switches to pull serves as a nice change of pace from the linear platforming you’ve been doing up to that point. Pec also serves as a hit point, going away if you get hit once but keeping Ardy alive in exchange. You can reclaim him from most treasure chests like a DK barrel in Donkey Kong Country, but going without him for even just a little bit makes you feel seriously vulnerable. An indispensable long range attack is a lot easier to use than trying to tail bounce on things, especially since the hit detection in this game isn’t so hot.

Talk about taking a bite out of crime!

If you’ve ever played Bonk’s Adventure and made it to the end, you might remember the last boss being super frustrating because your means of attack (your head) causes you to collide with the boss’s gigantic hitbox, forcing you to trade blows nearly every time. Well, that problem extends to a significant portion of Ardy Lightfoot’s enemies and boy, is it a huge pain to deal with! I died far too many times trying to bounce on things, only for the game to decide that I somehow got hit before my body even made contact with theirs. Normally, I’d just opt to not use the tail bounce for offense, but bosses are all immune to Pec’s attack, requiring you to tail bounce most of them with two exceptions, both of which happen to be the most enjoyable bosses in the game (that’s not a coincidence!). Since Pec is tied to your health and vanishes upon being hit, they had to design every boss encounter under the assumption he wouldn’t be there, so if you have him around, he can only serve as your safety net. Considering that some of the bosses offer really creative challenges like having to press switches to activate boxing gloves in the walls to punch Catry before she does the same to you or finding a way to reflect the lasers of Beecroft’s gigantic golem back at him, it’s a shame that they couldn’t find a way to create a boss fight that puts Pec to proper use.

Pec is perhaps the most curious element of the game, now that I think about it – he’s simultaneously essential for many sections and his presence is always a welcome one, but the game is also designed in a way that hypothetically makes it so he never has to be there at all. Because of his technical optionality, they weren’t able to integrate him into the game’s story at all either. I fully expected a moment in the storyline where Pec would save the day or get a moment where his origins or what exactly his deal was would come to light, but he’s really just… there, floating around and living his life without a care in the world. It’s so strange to me, especially since he gets introduced alongside Ardy in the pregame intro! For a game that’s so well put together, there are a couple of other things like this that feel oddly random or like ASCII Corporation put it in “just because Sonic did it”, something I really don’t like to assume considering how high effort the game is.

There are some sections that require Ardy to run fast, which is as easy as holding forward for a second or two until he accelerates, but this causes a lot of friction in sections with precision platforming because it’s so easy to speed up. It’s important to keep in mind that Sonic got this right on the first try years ago; despite his reputation, going slow in Sonic is easy and essential and to account for that, it takes a bit of effort for Sonic to actually hit full speed, which makes changing your course and game plan feel natural. You’ll fail a lot of jumps in Ardy Lightfoot because of this feature and the game’s physics never feel right because you so frequently shift from normal speed to full speed, which makes some sections like the gauntlet of falling platforms in “The Tower” much more difficult than they need to be. Between this and the seven rainbow gems (which are very similar to the Chaos Emeralds and in turn the Dragon Balls), it feels like ASCII Corporation initially had the idea of making Ardy Lightfoot heavily inspired by Sonic the Hedgehog in particular (his name even evokes the thought of speed), only to dial it back during development when they had a more unique and interesting vision arise from their progress without going back to remove or tweak the ideas pulled more overtly from their inspiration. For a game that otherwise has such a strong vision and identity in its final version, these features feel like the remnants of what could have been, an alternate reality where Ardy Lightfoot was made just to cash in on a trend in the most cutthroat way instead of trying to do something worthy of attention that people could look fondly back upon.

Have you ever heard someone say that a game is perfect for a weekend or is a “perfect popcorn game”, or anything in that vein? Well, Ardy Lightfoot is exactly that on the surface – it’s quick, it’s a good time, and it doesn’t (usually) expect a lot out of you. It doesn’t necessarily stand with the best platformers of the era, but it’s a really solid one that deserves more attention than it gets, which is practically none from what I can tell from trawling Twitter, Reddit, and wherever else. It’s rare that a game in this genre can evoke so many different emotions, from pleasure to shock to excitement, even displeasure and discomfort, and it’s worth commending this game for how easily it manages to invest players in its wordless narrative. Even hot off the heels of moments that I found annoying, the game was able to bring me right back in with a well animated cutscene or a gorgeous environment that made me instantly forget the uglier parts of the game I had just experienced. “Experience” really is the key word when it comes to Ardy Lightfoot – one could just boil it down to a series of mechanics and how they compare to the big shots like Mario and Sonic, but to do that would undersell the game. A lot of platformers of the era were condemned to such a fate, destined to be made fun of and neglected in service of the status quo, but dig deep the way that Ardy did to begin his journey, and you’ll be rewarded with a fresh take on the genre that you probably didn’t even think was possible at the time! Just don’t expect them to make good on that “To Be Continued” screen at the end…

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