Märchen Maze

Also Known As: Alice in Wonderland (English release?)
Platform: Arcade (Namco System 1)
Other Platforms: PC-Engine, Sharp X68000, Wii Virtual Console
Developer: NH System/Namco
Publisher: Namco
Released: 1988
Genre: Shoot-em-up - Maze
Players: 1-2 (Alternating)

Märchen Maze is one of the very few isometric Commando-like games released in the arcade, and when you play it, you quickly find out why they aren't so common. Based loosely (and I really mean that) on Lewis Carrol's Alice in Wonderland books, you play as Alice making her way through nine stages of absurdity, and fitting with the theme, the game mechanics are a bit bonkers too. Rather than focus solely on combat like other games in the Commando vein, Märchen Maze mixes platform negotiation into it- while Alice has a pea-shooter weapon to defend herself with (that can also be charged up to launch a huge projectile), she can only be killed by being pushed off the edge, so enemy shots just shove her backwards rather than kill her outright. Naturally, this means that you'll be jumping over bullets a lot, and you'll also have to be wary of moving platforms and other elements you'd usually associate with a platformer.

Because of the odd mix of genres, the levels come in two distinct styles, usually alternating between the two- ones where they just throw as many enemies at you as possible before the whole game starts to slow down, and ones where there's only a few enemies but lots of tricky jumps to negotiate. The combat-focused ones work pretty well- there's always lots of enemies on screen and they're fairly tough to shake off, but it's perfectly feasible so the key to victory is learning how to take them out efficiently- but the platforming ones fall spectaularly on their ass. See, the isometric perspective doesn't really lend itself to pixel-perfect jumping- which the game demands of you pretty frequently- so in a lot of cases, it's too hard to accurately judge your jumps. The collision detection isn't too great either, as sometimes you've clearly landed on the platform, but the game tuts disapprovingly and kills you anyway.

The collision problems are just one sign of the game's major failing; it feels uneven and rushed, like they really couldn't be bothered to iron out the little problems it has. Most obviously, Rounds 7, 8 and 9 actually rip their layouts wholesale from Rounds 2, 4 and 1 respectively, just changing the background and enemy layouts. That's prime laziness. While Round 8 contains a great moment (when you're completely surrounded by bullets, finding a secret alcove uncovers a special item cachet that lets you tear through the enemy hordes) the fact that they're reusing the layout makes them feel like they were tacked on at the last possible moment. Worse still, the difficulty curve is all over the place- while Rounds 1 and 2 are kid's stuff, from there the game's difficulty shifts up and down like a kid on a see-saw, with Rounds 3 and 6 being particularly obnoxious and the levels inbetween being pretty easy.

The thing is, aside from the sloppiness exuding from the game, it does a lot of other stuff pretty well. The graphics are all very cartoony and quite charming, the music's pretty impressive considering the era the game was released in (it's barely audible, it's more atmospheric than what you'd expect, a bit like Spatterhouse that runs on the same hardware) and for the first few levels, it's a lot of fun. From there, though, it all goes a bit downhill with dodgy collision detection and uneven difficulty, which is a shame. Marchen Maze was definitely the first game of this kind released in the arcade, and I can literally think of only two others (Escape from the Planet of the Robot Monsters and Prikura Daisakusen) so the genre really didn't take off. The fact that the PC-Engine port ditches the isometric view completely is probably the biggest indication that it doesn't work too well. Still, it's fairly unique, so if you're willing to put up with its problems, it's worth a look.

For being an interesting but not necessarily excellent adventure, Märchen Maze is awarded...

In a sentence, Märchen Maze is...
A Wonderland with an unfortunate lack of care given to it.

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