Neutopia is a Zelda clone. There, I said it. That's out of the bag. It's got the top down view, the combing of various locales for magical widgets that will get you to the end boss of the whole game, new weapons you can get your mits on, a musical instrument, bombs-like Ragu, it's in there. However, after playing a marathon of this game over the last week, it's not quite as “Zelda-y” as you might think and is just unique enough to give it a try. Before I tell you why you should take a gander at Neutopia, let me tell you what annoyed the heck out of me about it...
My first put off was the fact that it was a blatant rip off on the surface. This was NEC's Zelda and they weren't trying to hide the influences. Once I got past that I ran into the next issue: the enemies just kinda wander aimlessly. Of course, in the original Zelda the monsters do the same but with most being locked into more of a “grid “ style of motion, it didn't seem so obvious or the patterns were in such a way that it could be overlooked. Neutopia monsters just wander in any direction and if just a leg brushes against your hair, you took damage and the way you and monsters moved, it can happen a lot. Reminded me of the many homebrew “Zelda” clones were made for Klick n' Play or Games Factory on PC I played in the 90's.
As I delved deeper into the game I discovered that most of the items you come across are essentially useless or can only be used once. No stocking up of rings or wings to get you back to shrines. No, the only real permanent usable items are the bombs, the potions (which come in one or two doses that fills ALL of your life), bell (which is used to find hidden stairs but you get it near the END of the game that it's really not that useful except to open doors without needing to kill enemies) and the all powerful Fire Wand. This wand is basically your only ranged weapon in the game and gets more powerful as you gain more life, from a sputtering fireball to a line of flames that go up in great columns of fiery death. Get this sucker and most end bosses can be KILLED with this thing. And it doesn't wear out-just if you lose life you lose the intensity of the fire.
From there I found out what many would find to be a major turn off if they stacked this game against Nintendo's Hyrulian masterpiece: it's dim-witted. Every enemy, essentially, can be killed just by hitting it enough times. From your limited arsenal there isn't one item that better disposes of one enemy over another. No having to maneuver your way around a bad guy as its soft spot is its back. Even the bosses are straight forward: find out their pattern and whack/burn the heck out of them.
Of course I have to tell you about the one other major thing that shocked me: this game is linear. Sure, Zelda is linear with the necessity to visit eight dungeons but it's how you get there that sets the game apart to make it more open. In Neutopia you open up new realms by gathering medallions, which you can track down to where they are kept by following a compass in your inventory. Once a new realm is open, you move on, never needing to track back to past places again. So it's essentially the “light beer” of Zelda clones. Half the calories all around.
So you're probably wondering why I would recommend playing it after spending most of this time dragging it down the street. I'll give you two reasons: it's different enough and it's actually fun.
The linearity is what really separates the game. In Zelda, when you gain more weapons and abilities, you become more of a bad-ass. Traipsing across the map becomes less of a challenge as you can wipe the ground with the corpses of Octoroks and Tectites. In Neutopia, each new realm is like the next couple levels you'd get in say a platformer. No rest for the wicked, no reprieve from the constant attacks of the dark lord Dirth's armies. You don't get to feel like a bad-ass because it gets more difficult as you go on. Not impossible, though-you know if you had the crap armor or weaponry you'd get smashed about, but just right to keep you wanting to move on. The only time you get to really feel powerful is when you nip back to the first level to buy cheap health potions and it's not until you get the final sword that you actually serve up single-hit deaths on all enemies from that level. I definitely did not get bored as I progressed through the levels.
Fun is very subjective but what got me was the little quirks you discover as you make your way through the journey. The hit detection I complained about? Come to find out the enemies are just as susceptible-you have to stand in the right spot. Once you realize that, it will become clear that the many hits you've attained on your journey were pretty much your fault and not because the game was cheap. It keeps you honest, even though it gives you a death dealing flame thrower to make life easier on you. The graphics are a bit cheesy but it's endearing at the same time. The characters are fairly verbose and they get a little sappy as the game progresses, praising you for your courage and tenacity.
All in all, I was very satisfied once the credits rolled. The difficulty felt right, the controls solid and the pacing made me want to play “just one more time” as I scrawled down umpteen codes on three sheets of paper. As of this writing I didn't see the title in J2Games' stock but if you ever come across it or want to download it from the Virtual Console on the Wii, give it a shot. Put the Zelda comparisons aside and just play. You might be surprised at what you find, just like I was.