Alright, you lot, it's time for a brief literature lesson. Submitted, for your approval, the Alice books- Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass. Despite apparently being aimed at children, and in particular, aimed directly at a certain Alice Pleasance Liddell by its author (make your own jokes if you want, we won't) both of Lewis Carroll's nonsense fantasies are pretty dark upon closer examination. You've got babies transforming into pigs, an evil Queen of Hearts screaming "OFF with their HEADS!" every five seconds, and a cruel game of croquet played with live animals. That's not even mentioning Through the Looking Glass, which shows that, when you get down to it, Alice is a right little madam, especially when she so rudely eats a pudding she had just been introduced to, and she completely ignores the sound advice of an old doddering knight, whom she hopes injures himself on his horse. No, really. There's this understated sense of cruelty in the books, you see, with plenty of scope for interpretation, and...

Ah, whoops! Sorry about that, the English Literature student in me took over for a second there. Let's get back to it.

Sure, they're really intended for children, but mostly because of the complicated puns throughout and the sheer nonsense prevalent throughout, both Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass are rollicking good reads, even today. Trust me on this one. So, where am I going with this?

In 1988, Namco released an arcade game called Märchen Maze (I know the umlaut's not there on the title screen, but it's as plain as day on the arcade flyer) which, while not a direct adaptation, was very obviously inspired by the Alice stories, as it features Alice as the protagonist, the White Rabbit as an entirely useless 'helper', and other characters from the books. Much like The Outfoxies, it's one of Namco's 'neglected' arcade releases, as it was only released in Japan, and has so far never made it onto any of the numerous Namco Museum collections. In fairness, it got a better deal than The Outfoxies, as it got ported to the PC Engine and Sharp X68000 (and the Wii's Virtual Console Arcade) but of course, all these ports were Japan-only.

Now, before we begin, there are two things to point out:

#1 - Some websites claim that there was an English version of the game released, renamed Alice in Wonderland. Most arcade database websites list it as being released, and the esteemed Dumping Project (which lists all arcade games needed to be 'dumped' to be playable in MAME) makes the note that it's the last remaining Namco System 1 game to be found. That'd be swell, if there was any evidence for its existence aside from "It's on an arcade database, it must be out there somewhere!" If it does, though, I'll eat my hat.
#2 - It's a well known fact that when a country gets its hands on a different country's intellectual property, there are going to be some... Changes. This is most obvious with Western licenses that Japan gets its hands on...

... But let's not forget that it sometimes works the other way around.

With that out of the way, let's start.

Matching the nonsensical tone of the books, Märchen Maze is a weird game, and comes across as an incredibly unorthodox isometric shoot-em-up. Seriously, I can only think of two games that are even close to playing like it- Atari's Escape from the Planet of the Robot Monsters (cracking title) and the Atlus game Prikura Daisakusen (considerably less cracking title, as I can't pronounce it) in so far as all three of them are isometric, don't have forced scrolling, and in the case of Prikura, have little girls as the protagonists. Outside that, though...

Alice's mission is to get through nine 'different' rounds (we'll be looking at that later) and all she's got to defend herself with is a pea-shooter that fires out multi-coloured orbs. Holding the button down charges the weapon up so that Alice creates a huge ball to fire at the enemy- these giant ones, when fully charged, will plough through enemies and go across the entire screen, destroying everything in their path. You can't hold on to them forever, though, as charging too long makes them pop. The other thing Alice can do is jump, and that's it. The enemies aren't really the problem, though, and here's where Märchen Maze gets really, really odd.

Alice is completely impervious to damage, to the point where the only enemy that can directly kill her is the 'time out' enemy. Being hit knocks her back instead- some attacks only bounce her a tiny bit, whereas others send her careening through the air. This is you die- if Alice is pushed off the stage by a hit, you lose a life (fortunately, you can't walk off the stage by yourself). Weirdly enough, the enemies operate in the same way- aside from a few, you kill most of them by shooting them off the platform (although a fully charged shot is an instant kill). When Alice starts bouncing around, she moves about pretty erratically- if you're holding the opposite direction to where the bullet hits you, it knocks you back a bit less, but it's not an exact science, and the general weirdness of Alice's movements when hit cause some problems... If you're smart (or lucky) you can sometimes get into the situation where the enemy bullets aren't sending you to your death, but they're helping you get through the round faster... But don't rely on that.

To help Alice out, there's a couple of different items that appear in these giant green ? boxes. They are...

White Rabbit
A very welcome item when it appears, the White Rabbit surrounds Alice with a small army of little rabbits, destroying any enemy they touch, and deflecting any projectiles that get near them. This makes Alice even more indestructible than she already is, but it obviously can't save you from missing a jump and dying from the fall, even though it lasts for absolutely ages. When time's nearly up, you'll know because the rabbits all turn red. Why? Who knows.

The Balloon is probably one of the best items on offer, as it's essentially an extra life. If you fall and you've picked up one of these already, instead of dying, Alice will rise up holding on to the balloon, and you'll be put back right where you were just before you died. Since Märchen Maze makes you go back to a checkpoint whenever you die, this item gives you another chance rather than sending you all the way back.

I only saw this item twice in the game, but it's very useful, as it tremendously improves Alice's jumping ability- getting across huge gaps is child's play with these things on, and being in the air keeps you away from the enemy bullets that are probably swarming at you, whichever level you find it on (Round 2 or Round 8). This item is the only one that's semi-permanent- once you have it, it'll last until you die or you beat the level.

Pocket Watch
I have no idea what this item does. No, really, it's got me stumped... Ahem. In truth, this item adds 45 seconds to the timer.

Green Orb
Contra fans, rejoice! The Green Orb gives Alice the almighty and revered Spread Shot, but this one wouldn't make Bill Rizer proud at all- it still has the rather lame range of Alice's ordinary pea-shooter, but at least you can charge the shot so it'll go farther. Like the other extra weapon, this doesn't last for very long at all, so take advantage of it while you can.

Blue Orb
The Blue Orb strengthens Alice's standard shots so each shot fired is a fully-charged one instead. This also means that it'll go across the entire screen, rather than petering out like normal shots do. This is probably a better option than the Spread Shot, as it appears more often and can really tear into the enemy forces. Use it while you can, as it's on a timer.

Red Orb
Red Orbs aren't very fancy, they're just here for bonus points. The amount of points you get is random, though, and I've seen values of 500, 1000, 2000, 4000 and 7650 (Namco's lucky number) offered by these little things. They're also the most common item in the game, which is boring.

Purple Orb
This item speeds Alice up for a short amount of time. Generally, it's not that useful, as it makes judging jumps a little tricker (as if it wasn't hard enough already), but it's important on Round 8- given all the other equipment you find in the same area (specifically the Boots) it decks out Alice to become the deadliest killing machine that ever wore a little red dress.

Yellow Orb
The final item on our list doesn't appear too often- this is probably because it's usually situated on out-of-the-way platforms, which makes it even more pointless, because the Yellow Orb simply freezes the enemies for a short amount of time. To be honest, by the time you get back on track from finding this thing, it'll have worn out...

And that's all there is to it, really. The levels are rather interesting though, in that some of them clearly focus on throwing a slew of enemies at you to knock you off, and others focus more on extremely tricky (and frustrating) jumping feats, with very few enemies to pester you. One thing's for certain, though- this game is no pushover, but the weird changes in difficulty are something we'll address later.

With the basics out of the way, it's time to go back through the looking-glass... Let's play Märchen Maze!

Things gets curiouser and curiouser on the next page!