Paprium
Image: Nintendo Life / Damien McFerran

Paprium's road to release has been quite a tumultuous one, to put it mildly. The product of WaterMelon Games' 'Magical Game Factory' crowdfunding campaign which kicked off way back in 2012, this scrolling fighter was intended to push the Sega Mega Drive / Genesis hardware to its absolute limit via custom chips and ingenious programming techniques. WaterMelon, you might recall, is the indie behind Pier Solar, another Mega Drive release that eventually made its way to the Wii U. Given the surge of interest in retro games of late – and the mini-revival in the belt-scrolling beat 'em up genre – it's easy to see why Paprium garnered so much attention when it was officially announced for pre-order back in 2017. However, since then, there's been a mountain of negative press surrounding the title and WaterMelon's current boss, Gwénaël Godde, better known as Fonzie.

We were one of the many who placed a pre-order back in 2017 in the hope that we'd be playing a brand-new side-scrolling brawler on our Mega Drive consoles before long. However, as we've already covered on this very site, things didn't go exactly according to plan and WaterMelon's handling of the situation has been, at times, utterly abysmal. Paprium missed its proposed launch date and months of radio silence followed – so much so that even the game's lead artist was left out in the cold. Fonzie has laid much of the blame on a 'PayPal partner' which 'seized our funds for an unlimited period of time via a set of extortion techniques', which apparently included 'sub-contracting dirty business to China'. In 2019, it was revealed that development was back on track following a truly disastrous 'launch party' at the close of 2018, but the silence fell again until, in 2020, some people actually started receiving their copies of Paprium. We say 'some', because not everyone who pre-ordered in 2017 got one (including us), and in early 2021, Fonzie sent out a rather troubling email that did little to inspire confidence; he claimed that the game was being developed 'for free' due to the lack of access to funds and that WaterMelon was going to sell its IP or order to raise cash.

Amid all of this already considerable chaos, more issues began to emerge. There have been accusations of racism and homophobia, with one of the characters referencing an offensive Chinese stereotype and another a gay stereotype (clearly based on a similar enemy design seen in the Japanese version of Streets of Rage 3, which was removed from the western versions of the game). This was bad enough, but some eagle-eyed critics who studied early screens of the game spotted that many of the sprites seemed to take a large amount of inspiration from other titles, such as Streets of Rage, Capcom Vs. SNK 2 and King of Fighters XI, amongst others. This cheeky plagiarism is actually referenced in the gorgeous limited edition art book which ships with some versions of Paprium, and, given the game's '90s focus, could be argued as being authentic to the period – lest we forget how many times Arnie and Stallone appeared in video games without their permission. However, it has nonetheless added to the negative perception surrounding the game – which is a shame, because, on the whole, Paprium is a handsome-looking endeavour, given the vintage nature of the system it's running on.

There have been many accounts of what has happened during Paprium's protracted development (this one, in particular, is excellent, but please be mindful of some colourful language – while YouTube channels Game Sack and Slope's Game Room both have excellent videos on the game), but one thing is for sure – this ride isn't over yet. Despite Fonzie's repeated assurances that the game would never go digital, WaterMelon has crowdfunded Paprium with the goal of bringing it to modern systems; judging from the support message we got from WaterMelon regarding our still unfulfilled pre-order, it would seem that the funds raised from this campaign will also be used to produce outstanding copies for those who handed over their hard-earned cash way back in 2017.

Throughout all of this, one thing has been constant: Paprium artist and art director Luis Martins (who has also worked on the likes of Tomb Raider, Watch Dogs 2, For Honor and Rainbow Six Extraction), the same person who voiced his displeasure back in 2018, has kept in touch with us and fought to ensure that Paprium's beleaguered development doesn't completely overshadow the game's chances of finding the audience it deserves. Martins – who has since rebuilt his working relationship with WaterMelon – is the person we have to thank for the copy of Paprium which currently resides in the Nintendo Life office. Aware of the fact that we still hadn't received our copy of the game, he was not only kind enough to send out one from his own collection, he signed it as well (you can check out more of Martins' work on other 'neo-retro' games, like Demons of Asteborg, which is also on Switch as well as the Mega Drive).

Putting aside the manifold problems WaterMelon has had in actually getting Paprium into the hands of gamers like ourselves, the question remains: is it any good? There's no denying that the game itself really does push the Mega Drive to its maximum potential. The sprites are large and smoothly animated, the audio is impressively clear and the music – supplied by David "Groovemaster303" Burton aka and Trevin "Jredd" Hughes – is almost uniformly excellent. Certainly, this is a side-scrolling fighter that looks and plays well and is backed up by an inventive 'Original' mode that does some cool things with the conventions of the genre. For example, you unlock new characters and routes through the game as you play, and players can also choose to turn into the bad guy and occupy the 'throne' vacated by each area's boss. Upon doing so, that character is no longer playable until they're defeated – an interesting concept which is perhaps a tribute to the 'bad' ending of the original Streets of Rage.

Paprium is designed to work on original Sega hardware, and that includes the Nomad – although there have been reports that it won't load on certain variants of the machine
Paprium is designed to work on original Sega hardware, and that includes the Nomad – although there have been reports that it won't load on certain variants of the machine (Image: Nintendo Life / Damien McFerran)

The usual repertoire of moves is on offer, including grabs, throws, blocks, running attacks and the ability to inflict damage on downed enemies with the 'bully' move (this is mapped to its own button when using a 6-button pad, which the game encourages). You can also flip behind your enemy when grabbing them, Streets of Rage-style, and use them as a shield. In a neat touch, players can ingest the drug BLU, transforming their character into a super-powerful invulnerable monster for a brief period of time. The catch is that continual use of BLU results in your character forming a dependency on it, just like any drug, and part of your life bar turns blue. Should your health drop into this blue section, then your character becomes weaker and slower as they suffer from the effects of withdrawal. There are also Golden Axe-style 'rides' to exploit, as well as other power-ups which boost your attack strength.

Forgetting the drama which has surrounded Paprium since its inception, there's no denying that it's a very entertaining take on one of gaming's most well-worn genres. Characters control well, attacks connect with a satisfying thump and the selection of moves is elaborate enough to keep things varied and interesting – and at times, the screen is positively swimming with enemies without the merest hint of slowdown. Add in a second human player, and it becomes even more enjoyable (if you have the Mega-CD connected, you can use that unit's CPU to control the second player). There's a four-player 'Arena' mode to unlock, as well.

So, it's a good time, but does Paprium match more recent offerings, such as Streets of Rage 4? In all honesty, it doesn't – but it certainly holds its own when compared to '90s examples of the genre, even if there are some downright odd design choices here. For example, finishing the game locks that particular save file, along with all of the stuff you've unlocked – a truly maddening decision that means you have to start entirely from scratch. Also, the enemy AI, even on the hardest setting, is often painfully easy to overcome; many enemies remain rooted to the spot, waiting for you to attack them, and most can be easily overcome with jump kicks (even the bosses). Paprium even trolls you hard on its first boot; instead of displaying the full game, you're shown a massively simplified variant that makes you assume there's a compatibility issue; it's only on the second boot that the game proper is offered up. This simplistic version of Paprium is also shown when running the game on an Analogue Mega SG console (at least it was prior to a recent firmware update) – Fonzie is notoriously dismissive of anything that isn't 100% original Sega hardware, you see. What a prankster!

Much has been made of the 'custom' hardware that resides inside the cartridge itself, with comparisons being made between Paprium and Sega's own Virtua Racing, which contained the SVP chipset to augment the capabilities of the host hardware. WaterMelon has branded the chipset 'DATENMEISTER', but inspection of the final game reveals a selection of off-the-shelf components, including an Altera FPGA, STMicroelectronics microcontroller, Spansion microcontroller and ISSI semiconductor RAM, amongst other things.

These are covered by a thick layer of epoxy to disguise them, along with a totally superfluous metal plate that sits on top (this plate is often loose inside the cartridge, which creates an alarming rattling sound – Martins was kind enough to open up the cart and remove it before mailing it to us). One particular point of interest is the presence of a connector on the top of the cartridge which will (eventually) allow players to connect the 'MegaWire 4', which WaterMelon has earmarked for the application of downloadable content along with the ability to post scores online. This port could potentially allow WaterMelon to fix some of the AI issues with the game, but given what's happened so far, we wouldn't hold our breath. Such fixes are more likely to be actioned in the upcoming port to modern formats, which is promising a host of improvements over the base game.

So, after what feels like a lifetime, we finally have Paprium. It's certainly an interesting game, packed with secrets and sporting some amazing visuals and sound. However, it's far from perfect and its tortuous route to market will have sullied any goodwill people had towards the project when it was officially announced back in 2017. The crowdfunding campaign – which also includes a 'mini' version of the game for the Sega Game Gear – has been a success, and this will hopefully allow Fonzie and WaterMelon to fulfil the pre-orders they took all those years ago and present an even better version of the game on modern systems, where it will reach a much wider audience. Whether or not that will actually happen remains to be seen; Fonzie's previous behaviour certainly doesn't engender confidence, but that aside, Paprium is a solid enough experience to be worth a look – assuming you can get your hands on a copy, of course; we'd still be waiting for ours were it not for the kindness of the game's art director.