In Sega’s self-referential 2001 Dreamcast swan song Segagaga, the player at one point encounters an elfin boy named Alex working in a retail store selling the company’s products. “I was in a game or two once,” he tells the player character as they sit and watch the sunset. “Ever heard of Alex Kidd?”
If you’re under 30, the answer is probably no. But Alex Kidd’s star once shone bright, with Alex Kidd in Miracle World for the Sega Master System positioning him as Sega’s answer to Nintendo’s Super Mario. He would go on to star in five more games before being dethroned by none other than Sonic the Hedgehog in 1991 and doomed to obscurity, making appearances from then on only in games like Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing alongside Opa-Opa, the Bonanza Bros., and other lesser-known Sega characters.
The advent of Sonic the Hedgehog was such a monumental point for Sega that the company’s history can be divided up into the pre-Sonic, Sonic, and now — arguably — the post-Sonic era, as the developer has increasingly branched out into more genres and franchises, lessening its reliance on its blue mascot as his reputation flagged during the last two decades. Alex Kidd is emblematic of that first, pre-Sonic era of the company, and Alex Kidd in Miracle World DX (PS4, Switch, Steam, Xbox One) is a loving tribute to the character’s first game, which remains a frustrating but inventive experience today.
Alex Kidd Must Die
Like many games of its era, Miracle World is hard. It’s probably even harder now than it was when it was released, because players have so many expectations around how platformer games work in 2021 that the game simply doesn’t adhere to. A new player might instinctively attempt jumping on the first enemy they see, only to realize that any contact with a foe spells instant death for Alex. Our hero’s capabilities are extremely limited, with only a jump, a rarely-useful duck, and a pathetically-short punch to work with. Punching is your only means of dealing with enemies, though much of the time you’re better off avoiding them entirely and reserving your fists for breaking open blocks that contain money, which you can use to buy items at shops.
Even if you’re an experienced platformer, Miracle World is going to take some getting used to. You’re going to die, a lot. In the original game, losing all your lives meant getting kicked back to the beginning of the entire adventure. In Miracle World DX, you’re mercifully only sent back to the beginning of the level. Still, it can be a painful experience to make it all the way to a boss and find yourself hurled back to the beginning of a stage when you’re defeated.
The stages themselves are sprawling affairs that can scroll horizontally or vertically, and can sometimes be traversed in a few different ways, including via one of Alex Kidd’s vehicles, on land, or underwater. Most of the stages are built out of simple objects — destructible blocks and indestructible red balls — that show the game’s age and can sometimes cause problems when it seems like Alex should be able to fit into an area but simply can’t because his hitbox is bigger than his visible sprite.
At the end of most stages, you’ll encounter a boss — one of the most original and weird aspects of Miracle World. Alex Kidd has to defeat each boss in a game of janken, better known to Western players as rock-paper-scissors. The bosses do have particular patterns, and you can find an item that will reveal what they’re planning to throw, but for the most part these battles come down to pure luck. Worse, they can drag on when you and your opponent repeatedly throw the same sign.
All this may sound like it amounts to a lot of frustration, and I won’t lie — it does. I hated Alex Kidd’s guts for the first little while I spent with the game. I hated his useless little punch, I hated how the times that the game gave you a fun vehicle to play with always ended almost immediately, I hated the boss battles, I hated basically everything to do with Alex Kidd and I was glad that Sonic had killed him.
What’s Old is New Again
I kept playing, though, because Alex Kidd in Miracle World DX is so clearly the work of people devoted to the source material. People loved, and still love Alex Kidd, and I wanted to figure out why. Thankfully, Miracle World DX brings a slew of features that make it easier to share that love.
Most obviously, the game is presented in a completely new pixel art style, full of beautiful animation and bathed in atmospheric lighting effects. You can switch between the new and original visual styles at the press of a button, and I found myself stopping often to take in the changes. The visual update isn’t perfect, as the new style changes the apparent size of Alex Kidd and some objects, as well as occasionally throwing up foreground scenery that can block your view, making things considerably less readable. A few details, like the comic book-style onomatopoeia when Alex punches an enemy, also look a little cheap. But overall it’s a beautiful treatment and the ability to switch back and forth gives context to the new look.
Mechanically, Miracle World DX is pretty much the same experience as the original game, with a couple of minor exceptions. As previously mentioned, running out of lives will kick you back to the beginning of the stage rather than the beginning of the game — but Miracle World DX goes a step further, offering an infinite lives option. This is going to be the ideal way to experience the game for most players as it feels much closer to a modern platforming experience, where the challenge is still there but you can attempt a section repeatedly without having to claw your way back to it when you fail.
Completing the game unlocks a Boss Rush Mode as well as a recreation of the original Alex Kidd in Miracle World, with all of the modern flourishes — aesthetic and mechanical — stripped away. Dedicated players can also search out a number of items related to Sega and Alex Kidd history throughout the game, and there are a few new levels here that weren’t in the original release. Superfans might notice and be upset by minor tweaks to the feel of the game, but none of these minor changes should bother most people.
It’s a Miracle World
By the time I finished Miracle World DX, I couldn’t help but feel for Alex Kidd. The character has been through more than most platformer mascots, having been massacred on his US box art, left to languish on the relatively unpopular Master System, and finally replaced as Sega’s number one guy by Sonic the Hedgehog. It would be easy to argue that Sonic is the more iconic character with the better games, but that would do a disservice to Alex Kidd, whose games helped carry Sega into the 90s and played with ideas that went far beyond those of contemporary games like Super Mario Bros.
Alex Kidd in Miracle World DX is a loving tribute to a little guy who was ever the underdog, and whose debut title was a flawed but ambitious attempt to create a true adventure. In a world where 2D platformers are a dime a dozen, it can feel outdated at times, but its earnest charm and weird world still shine through. Alex Kidd is finally back, and speaking as someone who didn’t know him from Wonder Boy before I started playing Miracle World DX, I’m glad he’s here.