Nintendo’s widely beloved Super NES continued to get new games long after the Sony PlayStation and its rivals had brought in the “next generation” of gaming in 1994.
As you might expect, many of these titles from the latter days of the 16-bit era have very much flown under the radar over the years, and a lot of them have become expensive rarities that only those with deep pockets can hope to collect.
Incantation, a 1996 release by Titus, and a game that subsequently fell into the hands of the Interplay brand, is one such example, with carts commanding three-figure prices on the collectors’ market. As of the time of writing, you no longer need to pay through the nose for it, though, since you can find a modern rerelease of it on Interplay Collection 1 for the Evercade retro gaming handheld. Let’s take a look!
A side-effect of Incantation being so rare and expensive is that no-one seems to have kept hold of the original manual for it, nor does there appear to be a good archive of it anywhere online. As such, we can only guess about the context of the things you are doing in the game, but it appears that you are a short, dumpy little wizard with a healthy dose of ’90s ‘tude and a big wooden staff with a knob on the end, and it’s your job to make your way through nine levels and take out an evil wizard for… some reason. Probably just the fact he’s evil. By 1996 we’d got a bit past “save your girlfriend” for the most part.
You achieve this in classic “Euro platformer” style, meaning that the levels are relatively open in their structure, and require a decent amount of exploration to complete rather than simply running from left to right as quickly as possible. The main way that the need for exploration is enforced is through checkpoints manned by goblins; these otherwise non-aggressive beasties will block your path until you pay a toll of what appears to be three pieces of wheat found in various awkward locations around the level.
In this sense, Incantation can be considered a two-dimensional take on the “collectathon” platformer, particularly given that each level is also full of collectable treasures that add to a “bonus” meter. Completing a stage with more than a hundred of these provides you with an extra life. In order to find the collectables, you’ll often need to shoot green orbs to teleport you to other locations; sometimes, these will send you to secret areas filled with treasure and extra lives, and occasionally they just warp you back to an earlier point in the level — actually sometimes useful to bypass tricky jumps on a return journey.
Despite the high prices an original cart commands, Incantation is not an especially well-regarded game today. There are likely a few reasons for this. Probably first and foremost is the fact that its 1996 release meant that the PlayStation had already been on the market for two years and was playing host to truly “next generation” experiences such as Resident Evil, which also came out in 1996; this naturally left Incantation’s fairly conventional 2D platforming looking a bit dated.
Secondly, the game is widely regarded as being “for kids”, though there appears to be little concrete evidence for this; the game’s Wikipedia article, at the time of writing, cites a decidedly non-objective source and there do not appear to be any direct quotes from the developers anywhere on what their actual intentions were for the game. It’s plausible, though; the game is quite easy up until its final stage (where you’re suddenly confronted with a variety of opportunities for one-hit deaths) and its simple, cartoony style would certainly appeal to youngsters.
Thirdly, although the game features a gorgeous visual aesthetic packed with detail and personality — particularly in the main character sprite — there’s a lot of repetition. Whether or not this was due to lack of space on the original cartridge or for design reasons is unclear, but the fact is that on two separate occasions in the game, three levels in succession make use of the exact same tileset and boss fight, and this makes completing these stages feel somewhat less satisfying than if you were moving on to something completely unique.
There are also a few elements in the game that feel a little half-baked. Chief among these is the magic system, which in theory allows our hero to mix two different “elements” to produce different spells that can then be fired off from his staff.
This could have potentially been super-interesting and, say, provided access to secret areas by locking them behind the requirement to use various spells, but instead it’s mostly a case of “get the fireball and then you’re sorted”. The designers seemed to know this, since about halfway through the game they give you a single pickup that provides you with the fireball spell right away, and then there appear to be no other elements to pick up for the rest of the game. It’s as if they got halfway through building the game, thought “ah, fuck it” and gave up trying to implement what could have been a very clever system. Or perhaps they just hit a deadline. Either way, it’s a shame.
Despite all these flaws, if you take it on its own merits, Incantation is a perfectly competent 16-bit platformer with tight controls, enjoyable traversal puzzles, interesting levels and fun boss fights… the first time you play them, anyway. It’s also presented beautifully, with some truly, truly fine pixel art on both the characters and the backgrounds — and while the music isn’t necessarily what I’d call “tuneful” or “catchy”, it does a good job in creating atmosphere in the different levels; think of it as ambience rather than something you’ll want to listen to outside of the game.
Is it worth paying several hundred pounds/dollars/whatever for? Absolutely not, but thankfully now you don’t have to. The Evercade version — which costs £15 and comes with five other Interplay games — works perfectly, looks great in both handheld and TV mode, and allows everyone an opportunity to take a look at what a game from the real twilight years of the Super NES looks like… and mourn the amount of missed potential here!
Tips and Tricks
- Hold the B button (A on the original Super NES) to run. This makes it much easier to perform long jumps without having to be pixel-perfect.
- The different spells all have different firing arcs and power levels, but the fireball seems to be the most consistently effective.
- In stage 3, the fleshy parts on the floor can be destroyed by holding B (A on the original Super NES) to bang your staff on the floor, but this takes a while. The “bomb” spell you acquire in this level will blow them in one shot.
- Most stages have a collectable extra life you can grab every time you respawn; do your best to get back to it on each subsequent attempt for effectively “infinite lives”.
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