When Sega’s Dragon Ball License Expired, Alex Kidd in Miracle World Was Born

Alex Kidd in Miracle World

There was an awkward period in the history of the platformer where developers were still figuring out what worked and what didn’t. A similar thing happened in the mid-1990s with the emergence of the 3D platformer, but I’m rewinding a decade earlier, when the side-scrolling 2D platformer was starting to get its legs in the mid- to late-1980s. And that’s the period that birthed Alex Kidd.

There was a rumor that Alex Kidd in Miracle World was originally intended to be a Dragon Ball game before Sega lost the license. The rumor persisted for years before it was officially confirmed by Alex Kidd’s creator Kotaro Hayashida in a 2018 book called The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers Volume 3: Monochrome by John Szczepaniak. In an interview for the book, Hayashida revealed:

Sega were planning on making a Dragon Ball game… I guess this happened long enough ago that it’s okay for me to talk about this! The project began as a Dragon Ball title, not as a direct competitor to Super Mario Bros. But when we were told we could not use the Dragon Ball license anymore, we were forced to come up with our own ideas instead.

Back in the 1980s, it wasn’t completely unheard of for a development studio to begin working on a licensed project, only to lose the license midway through and be forced to shift gears. In fact, this is the story of Sunsoft’s Sunman (which was intended to be a Superman game before DC pulled the license).

Alex Kidd in Miracle World

For whatever reason, Sega lost the Dragon Ball license and was forced to reimagine the platformer they’d been working on since 1984. Thus Alex Kidd was created.

When the game begins, the player steps into the role of Alex Kidd without any explanation as to what his motivation is for risking death in these platforming levels. Jumping over pits and dodging enemies is just what characters do in platformers, so there was never any need to question this. However, Alex will eventually meet an old man who explains some of Alex’s background with a massive block of text.

Alex Kidd in Miracle World

As it turns out, Alex Kidd is a prince who was kidnapped as a small child, and now he needs to reclaim his crown to save the country of Radaxian from the rule of the evil Janken the Great. Later in the game, Alex learns that he has an older brother who is imprisoned in Radaxian Castle, and rescuing him will become part of his quest.

The gameplay is your standard side-scrolling platforming action, though with a lot of interesting twists. For one, you’ll get to ride in various vehicles throughout the course of the game, from a motorbike to a boat to a flying vehicle called a pedicopter. Interestingly, many of these vehicles are completely optional, purchasable by a vendor who often sets up shop at the beginning of levels. In most of these levels, if you crash the vehicle, you’ll lose it, and you’re forced to complete the rest of the level on foot (or by swimming).

Alex Kidd in Miracle World

Alex’s main attack is a punch, which was repurposed from the Power Pole of the Dragon Ball version of the game. In the interview I referenced earlier, Kotaro Hayashida explains:

…when it was Dragon Ball, Goku fought with his Power Pole, but we changed that to a punch attack. It was only after we came up with the plan to restart the project as Alex Kidd in Miracle World that we starting thinking about Mario, and looking for ways in which to differentiate the title from it.

Clearly, there are a lot of great ideas in Alex Kidd in Miracle World. Unfortunately, Sega wasn’t able to implement them as well as they could have. I assume there were two factors at play here:

  1. They were still trying to figure out what a side-scrolling platformer was supposed to be, before anyone had a clear understanding of what it is that makes these games fun to play.
  2. There were limits to what they could do with the technology at the time.

One concept that Super Mario Bros. really cemented was the idea that a platformer has momentum, and that successfully navigating a level should have its own sense of rhythm. Sega would figure this out eventually with Sonic the Hedgehog (released in 1991), but Alex Kidd in Miracle World came out in 1986, a half decade before the Blue Blur’s debut. And that means the game features a whole lot of obstacles that get in the way of this rhythm. You can never lock into a flow in Alex Kidd in Miracle World because things are always stopping you, or forcing you to adjust your trajectory in awkward ways.

Alex Kidd in Miracle World

And swimming in the game is notorious for feeling terrible. Alex will always float upward if you’re not actively forcing him downward. And even then, he still wants to move up in waves, so you’ll push him downward, and then he’ll start floating back up a little bit, even if you’re trying to move him down. It feels horrendous, and it causes many gameplay sections — like the one with the octopus shown above — to be nightmarishly finnicky.

One huge issue I’ve always had with this game is that Alex is slightly taller than a single brick. This means he can’t fit through one-brick-tall openings, even though it looks like he should be able to. In fact, there’s a section in the very beginning of the game that sort of walls him in by spacing several floating islands just a single brick apart.

Alex Kidd in Miracle World

It’s a design choice that I’ve never been able to understand.

In my opinion, the biggest design misstep is that Alex will always die after a single hit. This limits the scope of what the game can ever do, because every platforming sequence and boss fight must be designed with this in mind. The game is never allowed to throw players into a true multi-stage boss fight, and it uses projectile attacks only in rare cases because projectiles feel straight-up unfair when you only have a single hit’s worth of health.

The game does work around these limitations. Checkpoints are rarely spaced more than a screen’s width apart. Many of the bosses challenge you to Jankenpon, or Rock Paper Scissors, which creates a non-combat phase for boss fights.

By the standards of platformers in 1986, it’s hard to deny the brilliance of Alex Kidd in Miracle World. Viewed through a modern lens, though, its muddy controls and poorly planned stage layouts hold it back from being truly special. That’s not saying it was ever a bad game, but for me, it’s a hard one to come back to after having played fluid, rhythmic platformers.

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