I wasn’t sure that I would ever get to write this review of La-Mulana. Seriously, I’m generally pretty good at games, but La-Mulana is truly soul-crushing. It took me a full month to get through it, basically concentrating only on beating it, game-wise. Many games make a claim at being old school and they’re not wrong. Still, what those games often mean is taking the things that we loved about old school games (say, Super Meat Boy’s beautifully spot-on controls and similarly brutal difficulty) but La-Mulana truly is what those others have claimed. To say it doesn’t hold your hand does not state the claim strongly enough. It doesn’t even notice your hand is there. It gives you hints as to what to do and where to go, but they are often cryptic at best. You could wander around for hours without the slightest idea of what you are supposed to do next until you find the right tablet and decipher its meaning. The game itself is reasonably difficult as well. The physics are consistent, but they take some getting used to. Lemeza’s (the main character of La-Mulana) jumping has a unique feel that will probably take a couple of hours to get used to, at least until you unlock double-jumping, at which point the whole thing opens up a little.
Oh, and there are a lot of things to find and unlock. Extra life, improved weapons, accessories that buff you, and a whole slew of sub-weapons like shurikens and chakrams. Some of the stuff is necessary to move on, but some of it is wholly optional (although finding the extra life is probably the most necessary element of survival in the whole game). You can also get ‘software’ that you can ‘install’ on your character in La-Mulana in certain combinations to give you cool effects like increased damage, bettere maps, and resurrection (one time) after death. Beyond that, the game is massive. My complete time for La-Mulana reads just about 17.5 hours (which would be massive for this type of game in any case), but that doesn’t count all of my frustration quits and my failures that weren’t saved into the game’s records. And I played pretty extensively with a walkthrough. I just wouldn’t have made it otherwise, honestly. It just wouldn’t have happened. It wouldn’t surprise me if you topped 40 hours playing without any help.
La-Mulana is also pretty nice looking. Everything is consistently designed and has a nice old-school aesthetic without being somewhat distractingly ugly like I found the original Freeware version. There are a bunch of enemies that you need to work out how to get around, deadly traps everywhere, obtuse puzzles, sensible puzzles, and bosses and sub-bosses all over the place. There are right around 20 areas to explore and most of them are pretty large. The game requires extensive back-tracking between areas and at least eventually allows you to teleport between areas, although if you get stuck dying repeatedly somewhere far from a save point (say, a boss fight) the whole thing can get pretty aggravating. Still, almost every time I quite La-Mulana in frustration I almost immediately loaded it right back up. I had to conquer it, even with the use of a guide (not for the whole game, mind you, but substantial chunks of it). If you’re not going to use a guide, I would certain recommend a pencil and some paper to keep notes about all of the little clues you see so you remember them when they start to make sense later. The guides available are much better now than they were when I started playing, as well, although the open-ended nature of La-Mulana can leave you a bit stuck even with a guide sometimes because the author may presume that you have already done something that you have not actually done yet.
I almost just quit at the beginning after a few hours. I was pretty sure I hated La-Mulana but, over time, my hatred turned to grudging respect. The game Is an homage to a time when games weren’t just hard, they were often obtuse about what was going on and where you were going next. It’s a beautiful exercise in design, a massive game with a ton of content, and an insanely rewarding experience when you finally manage to get to that next area or get past that boss (I probably fought one boss for hours before my final triumph, at which I literally jumped out of my chair and gave a triumphant cheer, which is not a usual reaction for me during gameplay). For $15 (only available from Playism)if you want a game that will grind you down, frustrate you, but ultimately impress with the sheer quality of design on display, I would highly recommend La-Mulana. If a game where you will die repeatedly, likely lose progress a few times, get lost several times, provides almost no guidance without you paying the utmost attention and a substantial amount of trial and error, and almost certainly get stuck a lot (even if the result is ultimately rewarding) sounds awful to you, well, you have been warned. La-Mulana is not for the faint of heart.
Has any one else played either version? Memories of playing old school games? As a kid with an NES I remember finding Metroid insanely frustrating for lack of direction. I never got very far in it. Talk about it below!