Tanglewood feels like an old classic for a new age. Having been developed solely on equipment from the 1990s, it serves as a true homage to classic 90s gaming.
Made for the SEGA Genesis – better known as the Mega Drive for those outside of the United States – Tanglewood follows the journey of a fox-like creature named Nymn who must find his way home after being separated from his family in the forest of Tanglewood. Along the way, Nymn will run into a number of friends to give him a hand, as well as hostile creatures, predatorial beasts and mother nature looking to make his journey a daunting task.
The backstory isn’t entirely lighthearted, however. There is a looming threat of a ghostly apparition that seems to haunt Nymn in the opening sequence. This makes the fun and lively gameplay take a thrilling and fast-paced turn for its finale and creates a memorable balance of calm and tense gameplay styles.
Even with the restrictive hardware used to make this game, Tanglewood prevails in its overall presentation. Having Nymn run through the forest, hop from branch-to-branch and push boulders feels smooth and enjoyable, while chase sequences are filled with a rushed atmosphere to get the hell away from your pursuer.
Most of the puzzles that are scattered throughout the game are relatively easy to figure out. The level design has a way of ensuring the player that they’re going the right way or doing the right thing. Little rocks are used as roadblocks to prevent pushable objects, like logs and boxes, from being moved too far away from the drop-off point. Tanglewood’s gameplay tends to hold the player’s hand in this respect, although there are the occasional “gotcha” moments. You know, those moments when you think you’re going the right way, then the next thing you know you’re cornered by a goliath or sleeping on a bed of spikes. These moments are spread out enough to provide enough confidence that Tanglewood will show you the way before unleashing its brutality on you. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself. In fact, it’s a pretty good way to keep someone on their toes. However, this does bring up an issue with the gameplay; checkpoints.
At the beginning of Tanglewood, there’s a fair balance of checkpoints between puzzles and objectives. As the game progresses, especially at the end portion, checkpoints become more scarce. Considering that the ending contains the tensest and drawn out moments of Tanglewood, the lack of checkpoints leads to a continuing cycle of dying and repeating the entire section over and over again, effectively taking the player out of the edge-of-your-seat intensity that otherwise comes from the last act.
Visually, Tanglewood is extremely impressive. The colorful 16-bit forest of Tanglewood feels alive and thriving. The leaves falling from trees, the squirrels with anger issues and water Nymn can splash in gives the feeling that this forest setting is a living and breathing world. It doesn’t feel empty or dead. Instead, it always feels like there some kind of life near Nymn at all times. If high resolution is your thing, then the PC version of Tanglewood comes out in much better quality than its Genesis counterpart for obvious reasons. Nonetheless, the downscaled, grainy appearance you’d get on the ROM version for emulators or the physical Genesis cartridge bumps up the nostalgia factor tenfold.
The game world is a beauty and is accompanied by a soundtrack that will take the player back to the 90s. Little noises like the thump from propelling out of a burrow to the gleeful sound of those fluffy little furballs can produce a grin and a chuckle. The music fits the narrative of each scene; the serenity of the day and the fear of the night. There were moments that the music faded out during the gameplay, leaving nothing but the ambience and the sounds of the world. This was a hit or miss feature; it worked in some cases, letting the player soak in the world that surrounds them. Conversely, it would have been beneficial to keep the music going to help retain the atmosphere.
Matthew Phillips, under the development company Big Evil Corporation, truly went the extra mile to make Tanglewood the labor of love that it appears to be. The novelty of it being a classically made video game does not bring down the quality or impact of the story. It’s a short story that can be completed in just a few hours, but the gratifying experience you get while playing makes it feel like a much longer experience.
Tanglewood releases today, August 14, on Steam and Itch. This comes with a ROM version compatible with an Everdrive. Alternatively, there is a physical copy that can be purchased from their official website for $68.95, or £54.00.