The last round is apparently The Unforgiving Void.

For the final round, the game stops playing nice. Not that it was playing nice to begin with, but it kicks things up a notch to make sure there's no mistake about it- it's time for Alice to die. The enemies come thick and fast here, with no new faces to speak of, but plenty of old friends back for another pop at our perpetually peturbed pigtailed protagonist. But before we deal with that...

Yes, they did it again.
Round 9 is actually Round 1 in cunning disguise.

If I'm allowed to put my Sherlock Holmes hat on for a second, I deduce that Rounds 7, 8 and 9 were added late in development to pad the game out a little. Admittedly, the fact that these levels (well, 7 and 8 at least) have new enemies goes against this theory somewhat, but my theory would explain the rehashing of old levels- no easier way to make a game longer than to slap a different lick of paint on a level you've designed already. They also seem to share a huge, huge hike in difficulty- the game's not that easy as it is, but these later levels throw so much at you, the System 1 hardware can't handle it, and it slows down.

Just my idle thoughts. Let's carry on.

While it may share the basic layout of Round 1, Round 9 seriously ups the ante and gets downright vicious in its desire to make sure Alice never makes it to the final boss. The enemies pile in, and as I said, there's lots of old friends for us to fight- the life-jacket-wearing Penguins from Round 1, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the Molluscs from Round 7, the Dragonflies from Round 5, the Card Soldiers, the Skull Turrets, the Shades Snakes (who still hide in item boxes)... If you want to even have a chance of getting through this one alive, it's best to take a defensive approach- use lots of charged shots to take out as many enemies as you can in one shot, keep your distance, and... Be praying.

The final stretch of the level degenerates into absolute madness, and your only chance of survival is to get even more defensive, and take out a few enemies at a time before flanking back. As long as you don't go too far back, the enemies won't respawn, so it's perfectly safe. Besides, the Skull Turrets are really the biggest threat, next to the Shades Snakes, and neither of those guys ever respawn. You may think you'll be able to do what I did above, and go in while jumping over everything- it doesn't work like that. You'll be killed.

Amusingly, I managed to get through this section by being knocked by bullets, taking me up the screen rather than down. It's a bit risky, though.

So, here we are. The final boss. Let's get this over with.

Well, well, well. A bit of a stretch, perhaps, but the final boss is The Queen of Hearts.

Admittedly, she certainly doesn't look like the Queen of Hearts, but she looks a little bit like a queen, and her main attack is to summon Card Soldiers, so let's just humour my inner literature student, and assume it's ol' Queenie. Much like in the books (and this is a real stretch) she doesn't directly attack Alice, instead relying on her Card Soldiers to do her dirty work. Her pattern is really simple. She'll move around the top of the platform, and every few seconds, she'll open part of her gown (oo-er) to reveal a mirror that fires a laser beam- this'll summon a slew of Soldiers to attack you. She's only vulnerable when she's doing this, and can't attack you in any other way- even touching her does nothing- so get up close and pepper her with bullets, then take out any Card Soldiers headed your way. She'll go down soon enough.

And so ends Alice's adventures through the Looking Glass.

The ending's a bit of a cop-out, really, it's almost the same as the intro... On the plus side, it seems to keep in line with the original books, in that Alice's adventures are nothing more than a dream... Still, when your mirror tells you "Thank You", it's time to either start worrying, or move house.

Never mind the ending, though, here's enough cake for everyone! What's really weird is the distinct lack of names in the credits. There's just 10 names in the credits roll, and only 8 of them are unique. And bear in mind, one of them is Alice's voice- the only time you hear her voice is a little "OH!" sound when she's hit. However, while partaking in that crazy little thing called doing some bloody research for once, the reason the staff list is so small is because the game wasn't strictly developed by Namco themselves. It was actually the work of a company called NH System, who were an off-shoot of Namco, headed by a man called Hayakawa (hence the name- Namco Hayakawa System). Their work was very limited- as well as both the arcade and at least parts of the PC Engine versions of Märchen Maze, the only other games they're credited with are Blast Off (an arcade-only sequel to Bosconian) and Final Blaster (a PC Engine shmup which also had contributions from Aisystem Tokyo). According to their GDRI rapsheet, they went bump in 1990.

In any case, the game's over now, so it's HIGH SCORE TABLE TIME!!!

So, that's Märchen Maze for you. Another one of those games you can safely put into the 'interesting curiosities' folder, I actually quite like this game, despite moaning about it (but hey, I spend half my time whinging on this website anyway). Admittedly, there weren't nearly enough references to the original Alice books, but I guess I should be thankful it didn't go down the American McGee route and make everything as dark as possible- it retains the innocent, childish theme of the books. It's certainly a unique game, and it changes pace every other round, which is nice- some rounds are all about fighting off the enemy, others are all about negotiating the platforms, which is a good way to mix things up. That said, there's a couple of problems with it that prevent it from being really great.

The isometric perspective, for one. It works for games like Pac-Mania, perhaps, but not here. First and foremost, it makes the controls a little awkward, although you adjust to it eventually. However, no amount of adjustment gets you used to making jumps, especially when moving platforms are involved. You're given a little bit of help if you use Alice's shadow to gauge jumps (except for the chequered platforms, as Alice's shadow doesn't appear on them) but there are times when you've clearly, clearly made it across, and then the game decides that you're going to fall to your death anyway. The orange walls are also a part of the isometric problem- they're really hard to judge, which would be alright if it was hard but fair, but the collision detection will find a way to screw you over...

Rounds 7, 8 and 9 are also a little troublesome- even though Round 8 is my favourite level, they really, really seem tacked-on to extend the game's life artificially, and make the game too long. They're also a huge hike in difficulty, and this is another problem- the difficulty curve is really screwy. Rounds 1 and 2 are incredibly easy, Round 3 is amazingly hard for only the third Round, then Round 4 calms things down, before another huge spike in difficulty on Round 5, which continues across to Rounds 6 and 7, calming down a little for Round 8 (i.e. it goes into the 'challenging, not unfairly hard' section) before one final push for impossibility on Round 9. It just seems a bit strange, and renders the game pretty unbalanced. The difficulty of the 'tacked-on' rounds only exacerbabtes this...

In the end, if you're willing to accept that the game really drags things out from Round 7 onwards, that it can't make it's mind up about the difficulty, and you're willing to get used to the silly isometric perspective, there's a lot to like about Märchen Maze. It's a fun little game, has plenty of charm, and it looks pretty good for a game from 1988, horrible isometric warts and all. Give it a shot, at least, especially if you're a huge Alice fan... Just don't expect there to be much from the books, or you'll be disappointed.

And now, it's that time, folks!

Märchen Maze - Unofficial Soundtrack

Just like Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon (I continue to believe that reviewing that game was the single worst decision I have ever made), the music from Märchen Maze is hard to come by. Well, impossible to come by, given that I couldn't find a blessed thing on the internet. Bear in mind, this is the same internet that gave me the soundtrack from obscure dungeon crawler Izuna: Legend of the Unemployed Ninja.

So this is the whole soundtrack of Märchen Maze, ripped for your pleasure. It's a very subdued set of songs, sombre almost, and helps set the rather quirky atmosphere for the game. Please enjoy! Oh, and a strange quirk of the original game is that when it plays through the song of the first round (Sweet Land), there'll be a gap before it repeats itself. I've included two loops, so in the middle of the song, you'll hear a bit of silence...

As I said on the first page, Märchen Maze was given three real home conversions.

All of them were Japan-only, and two of them were on relatively obscure consoles.

Although it was the last home port to be released at the time, I'm going to talk about the Sharp X68000 version first- recoded by SPS (who did almost all arcade ports for the system) and released in 1991, this is fairly standard. Considering the specs of the system- it was a small powerhouse, and home to extremely accurate arcade conversions like Final Fight, Atomic Robo-Kid and Gemini Wing- it's no surprise that Märchen Maze is as close as possible to the arcade, with the only major difference being a slight reduction in screen resolution (you can't see quite as much of the screen as in the arcade). Really, it's hurt only by laziness. While most of the other X68000 arcade ports have a few options, be it the standard arcade dip-switches, display options, and even arranged soundtracks (as in The Fairyland Story), the Namco ports, including this and Baraduke, have... Nothing. No options, no display settings, not a thing. If you don't like starting with 5 lives, then tough shit. A better port- in terms of options- is probably the Wii Virtual Console Arcade port, which hasn't been made available outside Japan. Yet HA HA HA NOT GONNA HAPPEN.

The PC Engine version came out in 1990, and it's a bit more interesting. Namco had some bizarre obsession with porting their System 1 games (which was pretty powerful hardware at the time) to NEC's humble PC Engine (which is, for all intents and purposes, an 8-bit console) with a total of six making the jump- this game, Shadowland, Dragon Spirit, Galaga '88, Bravoman and Splatterhouse. For comparison, only two System 1 games made it to the Mega Drive, the terrible Dangerous Seed and Pac-Mania. It goes without saying that the PC Engine wasn't quite up to the task of keeping the rather nice-looking visuals from the arcade Märchen Maze, so for this home conversion, Namco made a couple of changes...

By that, I mean goodbye, isometric perspective, and hello, normality.

That's right, one of the defining (and irritating) features of the arcade game has been tossed out the window for this version- Märchen Maze on the PC Engine takes the basics of its arcade predecessor and tilts the camera back to a normal angle. As well as making jumps far easier to judge (especially since floating platforms now show Alice's shadow), this makes controlling Alice a let less awkward. In addition, it implements a whole load of changes, most of which serve to make the game... Well, I was about to say easier, but fairer seems more apt. Most importantly, instead of starting from a checkpoint when you die, your lives are represented by balloons, and they act exactly like in the arcade game- should you fall, you'll be respawned on the spot. Other changes include the removal of the timer, the chequered platforms at the end of a level being static rather than moving (hopping on to them robs you of control, and automatically takes you to the boss) and the removal of any kind of score- as such, picking up the Red Orb instead spins Alice around on the spot, and holding the fire button fires bullets out in every direction.

The biggest changes are reserved for the levels themselves. Forget any of the layouts from the arcade game, each level in the PC Engine port is completely new. Essentially, this is like a sequel to the arcade game rather than a port. The new levels address two problems of the original; every round is now different, and each has a sort-of 'gimmick' to it. Round 2, for instance, has conveyors belts that push Alice around, Round 4 is an ice level populated by penguins (and a new item, the Grey Orb, which stops you slipping around) and the best is probably Round 6- Alice must make her way up river, by hopping between oncoming rafts and trying to get to the safe platforms. They're certainly a lot more interesting than some of the more boring arcade rounds, and some of them feel like actual mazes... It actually lives up to the name of Märchen Maze.

Even better, Namco saw fit to add some more material from the original books, and so we get some new levels to do just that. Round 5 is devoted to the Cheshire Cat, and amid a background of the Salvador Dali clocks, you fight a small army of them, who characteristically fade away, showing only the eyes and the mouth. Round 7 is the Mad Hatter's level, and these guys hide under their ridiculous hats to protect them from Alice's attacks. Strangest of all is Round 8, which is populated with Alice clones that emerge from mirrors. That'd be interesting on its own, but they're all clad in blue- the colour of Alice's dress in most interpretations of the original books.

One final, major change is the general feel of the game. In the arcade, you can (with a few exceptions) usually get through by jumping a lot, and avoiding enemy fire while getting as far as you can. The PC Engine port forces you to take a far more defensive approach on every level, as while there are less bullets, they hit Alice much harder, and there's no room for negotiation- Alice doesn't bounce around, she just slides and comes to a dead stop, if you're lucky. In fact, getting hit is almost certainly going to kill you in this version! This makes the PC Engine version much harder than the arcade game... Or, rather, more consistently difficult, as rather than flim-flam about how hard it's going to be like the original, the PC Engine version gives you no quarter, and you are going to die. The one major flaw is that the collision detection is still a bit touch-and-go, and with the new less lenient physics, this can lead to several frustrating deaths. However, after you get a Game Over, you're allowed to pick any round you've reached so far- a nice concession, but it doesn't change the fact that getting through this version really isn't a picnic.

While the difficulty level may be a little too high for some players, this version's definitely a slight step up from the arcade game. If you ever get a chance to give this version a go, do it, it's probably a better choice- if a less unique one- than the arcade game.

Next, uh... Did anyone ask for a Madoka Magica-themed version of this game?

No? Well, tough. You're getting one anyway.

With the curious title of Labyrinthus Magi Madoka Mage, this is just Marchen Maze with a lick of Madoka-themed paint. There's a few additions- you can now pick one of four characters each with a different shot type and 'special' attack, and you get to select one of four levels from the start, but that's basically it. The rules are the same- your girls are invincible unless they're knocked off the stage, and you can charge shots to make them more powerful. That's... Pretty much it. I couldn't get very far as it's quite tough, due to the platforms requiring more precision jumping (the gaps are huge!) but, well, if you're in that curious intersection of being both a Madoka and Märchen Maze fan, then this is as good as it's gonna get.

You can play the game online here.

As an intermission, please enjoy some miscellaneous stuff about thisg= game.

First, we have this strange set of pics. What we have here are some cute drawings of Alice from the game... But I have no earthly idea where they could've come from. Well, I know what website I found them on- a really neat review site that seems to date back to 2002 (man, the internet is old, huh?)- but I don't whether the art itself came from the manual for the PC-Engine version (doubtful, seeing as the floor seems to be diagonal, like the arcade game) or perhaps promotional materials for the arcade version... I just don't know. They're here because they're obscure.

There's also this black-and-white 'colour-it-in' picture. Again, source unknown.

Next, a genuine Alice figure! Well, nothing too high-grade- it's a Gashapon figure.

This comes from Yujin's SR Namco Girls Part 1 series, and she comes with a little rabbit too. Bless.

Finally, Alice appeared as an unlockable character in 2002's Family Tennis Advance for (shockingly) the Game Boy Advance. Developed by Natsume, it's a fairly simple tennis game, and Alice takes at least one cue from her arcade appearance- she's a little slow. The problem is that basically no-one cares about this game enough to actually document anything about it, especially how to unlock all 16 hidden Namco characters. No-one, that is, except for Ragey0 who runs Random Hoohaas. He heard we were looking for info on this, and found this page which reveals the secret- to unlock the Namco characters you need to beat the computer in Exhibition Mode in a 5-set match. After winning, you'll unlock a random Namco character, and one of them is our friend Alice. The full list is... (Deep breath)... Alice (Märchen Maze), Bravoman, Hitomi Yoshito (various Namco sports games including MotoGP and Alpine Racer), Taira no Kagekiyo (Genpei Toumaden/The Genji and Heike Clans), Valkyrie (The Legend of Valkyrie), Klonoa, Heihachi Mishima (Tekken), Gil (The Tower of Druaga), Ki (The Tower of Druaga), Susumu Hori (Mr. Driller), Anna Hottenmeyer (Mr. Driller), WadaDon (Taiko no Tatsujin), Wonder Momo, Pino (Toy Pop), Rick Taylor (Splatterhouse) and Pac-Man.

As it's quite a task to beat the computer in 5-set matches sixteen times, I've come up with a makeshift solution for emulation users- click here to download a set of 16 save states (taken in VirtualBoyAdvance) that each unlock one (1) of the Namco characters for you. You can only have one of them at a time... But it's better than nothing, eh?

And now, to end on a rather amusing aside, some of you might be wondering what's up with Alice's red dress in the game, as nearly everything else- the Disney film in particular, among many other adaptations- shows her in a blue dress. Alice's dress has a habit of changing- it's not explicitly stated what colour it is in the books, but the Disney version made the blue version the most popular. Hell, in the first colour printing of the book (The Nursery Alice), she's got a yellow dress! For the record, though, at least one of John Tenniel's colour drawings for the original Alice book (possibly coloured in later) has Alice in a blue dress with a white pinafore and yellow shoulder dressings. If that's even the right word.

So where did the red dress come from? Was it Namco's idea? I decided, because I'm your resident Internet Detective, to look into this issue, and came back with some surprising results. First, the 1898 edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (above) has Alice in a red dress on the cover, and this is undoubtedly the first appearance of it. A UPA animated feature, Alice of Wonderland in Paris (which simply uses Alice as a device to tell different children's stories) is one of the first non-book examples of Alice presented in the red dress, released in 1966. There was also a made-for-TV live-action version of Alice in Wonderland, released in 1985 by Columbia Pictures Television, that has Alice in the red dress.

However, the clincher- pictured above- is an anime series called Fushigi no kuni no Alice, a collaboration between Nippon Animation (Japan) and Apollo Films (German), first shown in 1983. It was, of course, localised simply as Alice in Wonderland, although only half the episodes were dubbed into English. Call it assumption on my part, but this series may have been what led to Namco using the red dress, as both are from the same country, and in addition to the red dress, Alice has darker hair in Fushigi no kuni no Alice... Just like in Märchen Maze. Make of all this what you will, but it's interesting nonetheless.

And so we close the book on Alice's Adventures in Namco Land. Now, Mr. Hatter, would you kindly pass the sugar?

Back to the Index, and back to the real world...