Working Designs seems to be largely remembered as a “has been” company that couldn’t keep up with the changing tastes of the videogame market, but in the early days of CD-ROM gaming they provided a valuable service—translating and releasing quality titles in the U.S. that otherwise would have stayed in their native Japan. Their best output arguably appeared on Sega CD. Of their four releases on the system, the two Lunar games are regarded highest. Vay turned out to be generic and rather bland. And then there’s Popful Mail, a comedic action RPG developed by Falcom.
You play as the titular Popful Mail, a female bounty hunter who is obsessed with money, and are later joined by Tatto, an earnest young magician, and Gaw, a cartoonish blue dragon. During the game, you can switch between the characters at will. They each have slightly different weapons and abilities, and often provide alternate dialog during cut scenes. That said, you’ll probably stick with Mail most of the time. The tone starts off in high comedy mode, but gets a bit more serious as the story progresses.
The top-notch graphics and audio make good use of the ample space afforded by the CD format. Characters are colorful and well animated, and as a nice detail, portraits pop up during voice over segments, and change expressions as the dialog requires. For the most part, the translation and voiceover work is a welcome upgrade from the dry, stilted English that was common in early ’90s RPG localizations. While the attempts at humor sometimes fall flat with a few too many pop culture references—now dated, and the character themselves seem to rely too often on bad accents (Hey let’s a make-a this-a guy Italian!), the producers did manage to record actual performances, something that was rare until well into the PlayStation 2 era, years later. And I have to admit, I enjoyed Sven T. Uncommon, a buffoonish amalgam of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dana Carvey’s impression of him.
For the first two stages, the game is mostly a straight action platformer. With loose controls, Popful Mail doesn’t really offer precision play, yet the game is forgiving enough to avoid too much frustration. As you navigate levels and kill enemies along the way, the game generally supports two strategies. You can either focus on learning the enemy patterns and boss tricks, or you can grind to be well-stocked with health and supplies. It helps that you can save at any time.
From the beginning there are a few RPG elements. Enemies drop gold, and you encounter various shops (each with a different shop keep) to buy health (in the guise of assorted fruit), better weapons, and a few special items. Once you get to stage three, the game starts to open up, with non-linear levels requiring some backtracking and NPCs that offer more than just humorous asides. The levels become quite varied, and the game is epic in scope without overstaying its welcome.
Once the spectacle of the game wears off a bit, the individual parts can seem a bit unpolished or corny, but as a whole it has a roguish charm. Popful Mail is dated now, but it’s still one of the top tier releases on the Sega CD.
Article by Ben Langberg
GameSpite Journal 12: Popful Mail