Retro-style indie platformers are all the rage these days, so you'd be forgiven for thinking Sunsoft's Ufouria: The Saga is simply another in the long line of 2D NES-inspired modern titles on the eShop like Shovel Knight, 1001 Spikes, and Insanity's Blade. Released in 1991 in Japan and the following year in PAL regions, Ufouria wasn't localised for North America until it hit the Wii Virtual Console in 2010, so for some of us in the Western Hemisphere it arrives as an entirely new experience. At the tail end of the Nintendo Entertainment System's lifespan (the SNES had already launched by the time it hit stores), Ufouria suffered the fate of many late-period NES releases never to reach American shores. This Virtual Console iteration is a port of the PAL version of the game, which features entirely different character names and sprites from the original Japanese release.
While Ufouria is definitely rooted in the design philosophies of the early '90s, it sports some of the surrealist tones that wouldn't become commonplace until more recently; it's not a masterpiece, but Ufouria is a breath of fresh air for any Virtual Console veterans waiting for something new. It's a serviceable, fairly standard Metroidvania boasting a triumphant soundtrack by Naoki Kodaka and an art style with a cute-yet-creepy tone in the vein of dark children's cartoons like Rocko's Modern Life or Courage the Cowardly Dog. Perhaps it's only because it isn't already ingrained into our memories like Metroid and Castlevania, but despite fairly generic level designs and game mechanics, Ufouria still feels fresh and fluid in 2014.
You play as Bop Louie, a strange guppy-like figure who must find his friends and escape the foreign land they've fallen into. You traverse a non-linear world searching for your comrades, gaining power-ups along the way to help you reach new areas. There are also items littered throughout to help you traverse it better, like a map and compass reminiscent of dungeons in The Legend of Zelda; Bop Louie's three friends double as the major boss battles of the game, as the alien world has somehow turned them evil until you defeat them. Once you've conquered your friends, they join your party and you can switch between them at any time – each character has a different strength and weakness. All sporting very strange names, the protagonists are Bop Louie (the speedster), Freeon-Leon (a dinosaur who walks on ice), Shades (a ghost who jumps extra high), and Gil (an angler fish who can swim underwater) – much of the game's depth comes from using the right character at the right time.
Ufouria's controls are a mixture between Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 2; you run around with the D-pad and press A to jump, but you can also use B to pick up and throw balls that you can use as weapons. Strangely, you can defeat enemies by jumping on them, but only if you're holding the down button on the D-pad while you're in mid-air. While the controls aren't as buttery smooth as Mario, they're far ahead of rigid NES classics like Castlevania.
Enemies are your standard platformer bad guys: birds, blobs, and fish for the most part. You've got your token grass level, your requisite mine cart level, and your predictable ice level. While it gives the illusion of Metroidvania freedom, big arrows pop up onscreen whenever you're in an area you shouldn't be in, advising you to go elsewhere; perhaps this was ahead of its time, as this level of hand-holding would later become the norm with modern open-world games telling you exactly where to go all the time.
What keeps Ufouria interesting is the little touches: a happy cloud (maybe a reference to Mario?) whose drool you must use to climb up to a higher section of a level, or the goofy crouch animations for each of the characters that has them just lay down straight on the floor. When you enter a boss battle against one of your friends, your standard heart-based platformer health meter is replaced by a fighting game-style health bar, and the battle becomes a dodgeball match of trying to pick up the ball in the middle of the room and hit your opponent with it while dodging their own throws. These novel twists on an otherwise rank-and-file adventure game make it stand out among the pack of NES action-platformers.
It's wonderful to see rare, limited-release games like Ufouria: The Saga reach the Virtual Console; it's by no means a classic, but it's an adventurous little Metroidvania most retro veterans probably haven't tried before. The tried-and-true genre conventions mixed with a surrealist aesthetic brings to mind more modern 2D throwback games, but this is a golden oldie from the death throes of the NES. Does this mean we can finally get a Mother release on Virtual Console now?