Here's something fun to try next time you're in Seattle: When you run into Bill Gates on the streets, bet him a couple billion dollars that he can't talk about the old TurboGrafx-16 game Neutopia without ever saying the word "Zelda." Don't worry about a thing if you're not a multi-billionaire. Once Gates is finished stumbling through his not-so-Zelda-free explanation, you will be. Enjoy your retirement, and please think of Netjak - and myself in particular - if you decide to give some away to a charity.
A quick look through video game history finds an ocean of more technologically advanced ripoffs of older games following the release of any new console. In no game is an "I want money from your formula too!" mentality more blatantly obvious than it is in Neutopia. Neutopia simply reeks of Zelda, everything from the gameplay to the plot and everything else in between. This isn't just taking too much inspiration from a single game here; if Neutopia isn't illegal, then it's performing a delicate balancing act on the line. No, that's an understatement. Neutopia is more like that little kid who's crossed the line entirely, except for one foot which he keeps firmly planted in safe territory so he can taunt his sibling: "I didn't cross the line! I didn't cross the line! You can't say anything because I didn't cross the line! Nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah!" The game's designers better be thanking their lucky stars Neutopia was on such an unpopular console. If more people had heard of it, Nintendo's legal eagles surely would have swooped in and torn them to shreds.
Ask any veteran of both games to explain Neutopia without referencing Zelda, and you'll quickly learn why I opened this review the way I did. It's just not possible. The person in question doesn't necessarily have to be Bill Gates; he could be the world's greatest rocket scientist or the world's most eloquent speaker, or both. Ask about Neutopia, Zelda's gonna get mentioned. Therefore I'm not even going to try to explain this game on its own merits. However, I will list the number of Zelda references I've used at the end of the review.
This action-RPG begins with the obligatory RHC (really hot chick) being gracefully stolen from her residence by the obligatory DEV (dark evil villain). The RHC and DEV of Neutopia are respectively named Aurora and Dirth. The very morning after Aurora's kidnapping, our hero Jazeta shows up in the once-peaceful land of Neutopia (yes, the game is named after the kingdom it takes place in) with a sense of high adventure on his mind and a sword and shield in his hands. His mission: To go forth into the now-hostile land of Neutopia. To seek out new forms of life - and slaughter them like the lowly, evil scum they are. To boldly go where many have gone before - across the four spheres of Neutopia in search of eight legendary medallions which will open the gateway to Dirth's hideout at the North Pole. Let's see now... One hero setting out in search of eight relics which will enable him to fight off one evil villain in the name of one kidnapped princess. Gee, do we spot a certain resemblance to another video game in that objective?
Yeah, that could be the objective description of any other video game. But I'll describe just how Jazeta goes about accomplishing this objective: He wanders through a massive overworld, one screen at a time. In this overworld, he burns trees, crystals, spires, and pillars, and blows up weird-looking spots on walls in search of secret passages. In these secret passages, he picks up information, weapons, and items needed in the search for the medallions, which are hidden in dungeons that are also tackled in a screen-by-screen manner. The dungeons contain puzzles like locked doors and hidden rooms, which Jazeta has to solve by doing things like bombing walls and pushing rocks. To get the medallions out of the dungeons, Jazeta must defeat a boss (well, duh). Wash, lather, rinse, repeat until the kingdom is free of evil. He also does it all with the aid of a compass which points him in a general direction. In dungeons, he also has the aid of a map and a crystal ball when he finds them.
Among the items Jazeta picks up to help in in his mighty quest are a fire wand (one of the primary weapons) bombs, the Moonbeam Moss (Neutopia's candle) the Rainbow Drop (Neutopia's ladder) and various swords, shields, and armor. Are we beginning to see the Zelda-tribute picture now?
Okay, so Neutopia is a dumbed-down version of The Legend of Zelda for the kiddies. But aside from the stunning lack of originality, I'm not going to complain about much else - because, really, there isn't all that much to complain about. A novel could be written on the parallels between Neutopia and Zelda, but none of it will change the fact that Zelda was not a bad game. Therefore, a game which rips off Zelda in every way, shape, and form will not necessarily be a bad game. It may fade back in the shadows while the original version of it basks in the glory of being one of the all-time classic gaming breakthroughs, but that won't mean it isn't worth playing.
In a couple of ways, Neutopia is even superior to Zelda. While Zelda had one overworld for you to lose yourself in, the world of Neutopia is comprised of four of the biggest overworlds you've ever seen, with each one emphasizing a different theme. You start off in the Land Sphere, and finding the medallions will yield access to the Subterranean Sphere, Sea Sphere, and Sky Sphere. While the themes the four spheres are named after could have done a better job playing up their gimmicks, they all perform the function of getting you very lost quite well. The Subterranean Sphere in particular is a tricky world to navigate, but even if you completely lose yourself, there's an item in the game that allows you to return to the last place you saved. (Just don't save if you don't know where you are.) The dungeons aren't quite the fierce mindbenders seen in Zelda, but they're still filled with fun little surprises. I'm certain there are critics of Neutopia who cite the simplicity of necessary items in contrast to Zelda, but I don't consider that much of a complaint. There were times in Zelda when the game went over the top in its complexity. In Zelda, there were two different candles to light rooms with. In Neutopia, however, there's just one Moonbeam Moss which always performs when necessary for as long as needed.
While the overall simplicity is generally a good thing, there are times when Neutopia's lack of complication works against it. The most dangerous enemies in Neutopia are teleporting ghosts which aimlessly float from one end of a room to the other - a nuisance, but not exactly a threat. Granted the enemies in Zelda weren't exactly programmed to hunt you down either, but there were certain tricks and twists to some bad guys which complicated your battle approach. Neutopia's set of foes, while very diverse, can be entirely dealt with using the good old kamikaze approach - just walk up and start hitting. Things get more interesting when you meet bosses, but even those guys are still pretty hit-or-miss in the complication department. The game will give you a really easy boss like the dragon in the Land Sphere, then give you a more difficult boss like the gargoyles in the Subterranean Sphere. An action/RPG vet will have no trouble blowing through the game until the Sky Sphere, but even there the only existing challenge comes in enemies who can stand up to more punishment before going down. I'll even go as far as to say there are only four things about Neutopia which will really challenge anyone: Locating the necessary items, the crystal robot boss, the fake Dirth boss, and Dirth himself. You can include a fifth if you decide to neglect the Moonbeam Moss. Even opening the dungeon doors is no trouble. The door puzzle solutions are a select handful: Push the rock, kill the enemies, or kill the enemies THEN push a rock. Once you reach a certain point, those won't even matter because there's an item, the Bell of Heaven, which can open doors for you once you find it.
Someone got lazy while writing, or while translating for the English-speaking masses, or something. There's something weird about having almost every reference to Jazeta preceded by the words "our hero." "Our hero Jazeta has obtained the medallion!" "Our hero Jazeta has obtained the Boom Bombs!" As if we needed to be reassured that Jazeta has not joined the dark side or is a spy for them. Also, the strongest sword, shield, and armor in the game are called exactly what they are: The Strongest Sword, Strongest Shield, and Strongest Armor. (As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up.) It is almost like the names of the items were rushed and tacked on at the last minute before press time. Those are the only qualms with the dialogue, though. The rest isn't what would be called well-written, but it's easy to read so your little kids won't have any trouble understanding. Again, simplicity is the advantage.
Neutopia's graphics are what they're supposed to be: A gussied-up version of Zelda's. While Zelda looked two-dimensional, Neutopia's graphics pull off a pseudo-3d effect. That's about all they do. On their own merits, the graphics have color splashed all around, but are otherwise neither here nor there. Zelda, however, still gets the nod in sound. Neutopia has an excellent title theme and good background music in the Subterranean Sphere, but the soundtracks just can't be compared. Zelda's soundtrack has endured over the ages for a reason. No matter how many times you hear it, it's always synonymous with a big adventure. Neutopia's soundtrack, if remembered at all, will be so only for its mediocre simplicity. And there's nothing to say about the gameplay - both games use EXACTLY the same control interface, so if you've played one, you've played them both.
See my rating. I would not give that rating to a bad game. Neutopia is excellent for little kids who don't have the dexterous minds needed to enjoy Zelda, or for people who are new to action/RPG's. It's a justifiable purchase over Zelda with more variety in the worlds, enemies, and simplicity. But for those who have played Zelda, the difference between the two games is like the difference between George W. Bush and John Kerry: One panders to voters by pretending to be a Republican; the other is a real Republican. And when one pretends to be something the other one really is, the voters feel better just putting the real thing back into office for another four years. Therefore, this voter has spoken. Zelda for President!
I have used 24 Zelda references in this review, give or take a few.