Working Designs published four games total for the Sega CD – Lunar, Lunar 2, Vay and Popful Mail. Of those four, I’d still rank Lunar as my favourite, but Popful Mail is definitely the most unique of the bunch.
Originally developed by Nihon Falcom for the NEC PC-8801, Popful Mail is a side-scrolling action RPG along the lines of the company’s long-running Dragon Slayer series. Western gamers would mostly be familiar with installments like Legacy of the Wizard and Faxanadu (both for the NES). Popful Mail shares a lot of the same traits of these games, what with the upgraded gear, platforming, and even little things like Mail being in pain and doing a little hop when she falls too far from one platform to another.
Popful Mail is a bounty hunter…a pretty crappy bounty hunter. As the game opens we find her hot on the heels of the nefarious outlaw Nuts Cracker and his Gingerbread Grifter Gang. After a lot of running, slashing and explosions, Mail ends up with a useless head that’s worth zilch. At her lowest moment, though, she discovers a posting for a huge bounty on the wizard Muttonhead. And thus begins our story.
While the gameplay is pretty serious stuff, Popful Mail’s story is definitely all about the comedy. And thus, Working Designs’ notoriously pop-culture-y translation actually works really well in this context. And it’s a good thing, too, because the game features a tonne of digitized speech. So much, in fact, that the sample rate is noticeably low in order to fit it all on the disc, something that Working Designs itself cops to in the production notes found at the back of the manual.
Another thing Working Designs was notorious for back in the day was fiddling with game balancing. Popful Mail is a good example, as the English version of the game is actually a lot harder than its Japanese counterpart. Whether the game is too hard is debateable – I actually really dig the difficulty level – but there are definitely people out there that didn’t appreciate the tweaking.
Eventually Mail meets two companions, the wizard Tatt and the monster Gaw. Players can switch between each character on the fly in order to take advantage of their different abilities, which are mostly based on movement speed and jump height. This is, once again, reminiscent of the game Legacy of the Wizard, where players took control of an entire family of adventurers with different abilities.
The Sega CD isn’t the only platform that saw a port of the original PC-8801 game. Both the PC-Engine CD-ROM and Super Famicom got their own versions of Mail’s adventure. My understanding is that the PC-Engine CD-ROM version is very similar to the original PC game, while both the Super Famicom and Sega CD versions are quite different both from the original title, and from each other. The Sega CD version is the only one to be translated to English and released in the west.
The Super Famicom version was actually the very first game Nihon Falcom developed for the console.
The Sega CD version was developed by a company called Sega Falcom, which was a joint venture between Sega of Japan and Nihon Falcom. The label only lasted for four games, and Popful Mail is one of them. This Sega CD port is a much more streamlined game than the PC-8801 original.
Even more interesting to note is that this port was originally slated to be a Sonic game. Back around 1993, during the height of Sonic mania, EGM and other US mags started reporting on the existence of a game called Sister Sonic. Sister Sonic was to star Sonic’s long lost sister, and be an action RPG spinoff of the main series.
According to an interview with Working Designs head Victor Ireland on Hardcore Gaming 101, Sister Sonic was, in fact, Popful Mail. The Sonic reskin idea was apparently dropped due to fan complaints. Ireland claims that it was around this time that Mamoru Shigeta, the head of the Consumer Soft Division at Sega of Japan, offered him the game for localization.
Ireland also says that this working relationship directly lead to Working Designs localizing and publishing both Dragon Force and Iron Storm for the Saturn a few years later.
There would be a Sonic RPG released eventually, of course, in the form of the BioWare-developed Sonic Chronicles released in 2008 for the Nintendo DS.
Unfortunately there were never any sequels to Popful Mail produced. Falcom used some of the characters in some drama CDs, and was apparently shopping a pitch video to various anime studios of the day in the hopes of turning the game into an animated series…but to no avail.
Popful Mail is one of those games that you really should experience for the Sega CD.