Étoile Princesse: Fail Land is a huge success

Étoile Princesse is an X68000 exclusive action adventure by Exact, the same developers responsible for the incredible Geograph Seal as well as the later Jumping Flash series. As you may hope from a colorful game set on the magical floating islands of “FAIL LAND” (yes, really) this is a light-hearted sort of journey for red haired heroine Rilule and her spell-flinging friends, a game content to roll with whatever sounds like the most fun thing to do at that moment in time. Thanks to this easygoing approach there are plenty of genuine laughs to be had along the way, from the fourth wall breaking daftness of Rilule directly asking an intimidating cloaked figure standing on a pentagram in the centre of what is obviously an arena “Are you the boss?” to the tonal whiplash of fighting a red-eyed Death-like being at the top of a tower one stage and a googly-eyed tree the very next. It’s playful without ever sliding away into sickly cuteness; in spite of the squat proportions and exaggerated expressions this is a game that wants to amuse above anything else.

The whirlwind of exuberant energy found in the pint-sized cast is expertly echoed by the game design, Étoile Princesse offering a linear set of fifteen short stages to work through using a small party of Rilule plus two other pleasantly cartoonish characters of your choice from an eventual choice of six. They all possess a unique style of attack – a simple close-range sword, a staff you can direct mid-flight, weak shots that cover all sides, and so on – and also have their own screen-wide magical spell to unleash, which could involve anything from falling stars to briefly slowing down time. There’s no XP to gain or gold to spend, and what equipment you do find is going to be something like a special multi-use key to open a particular sort of locked chest or a pair of glasses to read an important book as opposed to traditional fantasy land gear, so carefully considering who should wear what is a problem that simply never comes up.

All sorts of clever little touches exist to help keep the above described as streamlined instead of simplisticsuch as the single life bar shared between your entire party, meaning every permanent health boost potion discovered along the way can only be applied to everyone – no new favourite arrives too weak to be worth using, and no forgotten character is ever too neglected to add to your team. In fact all party members share everything all the time even though only one character can be active at any given moment, encouraging you to view their unique shot types as helpful tools – the one with the long reach, the one capable of hitting a whole swarm of enemies at once – to be swapped between as you see fit rather than as big-haired “lives” to exhaust before switching to the next fresh face down the line (I should mention that although some characters will definitely find certain parts easier than others, you can honestly tackle anything with anyone). Consumable items are available in abundance via the numerous green chests found in every level, although as your team are limited to carrying only one spare health restorative and two magic refills at any one time you still find yourself flinching at every hit and making a real effort to avoid taking damage. Helpfully if you find another herb when you’re already at your inventory’s limit you automatically use the new one on yourself, sparing you the usual menu-fiddling dance of drinking a potion to pick up a potion. The one detail that takes a while to sink in is not how to fight monsters using your magical attacks but whether you should be fighting them at all – as there are no levels to gain there’s often no reason to not jump straight over little slimes and carry on.

Which brings us to another of Étoile Princesse’s understated yet enjoyable ideas: Even though everything’s been drawn using the X68000’s not inconsiderable 2D prowess the game always, always, keeps all three dimensions in mind, making it possible to see a chest or path down below and jump off your current ledge to get to it (barriers willing, of course), leap across rooftops to reach new areas (by design), or carefully walk along wooden beams in a building’s roof before dropping down into an otherwise inaccessible room. It also means that if you’re standing at the top of a flight of stairs and cast magic then your shots will harmlessly fly straight over the head of whatever enemy’s lurking at the bottom… but the good news is the reverse also holds true – and becomes a vital tactic during boss battles, your chances of survival greatly increased if you learn to hop over an angry squid’s long swords or can time your jumps to avoid missiles fired by a crudely built robot copy of Rilule. If this had been executed badly it would have ended up a playable horror story of fussy and unfathomable collision but Étoile Princesse is always easy to read, with every elevated object given a clear shadow enabling you to quickly judge its height even as you bound from one disappearing platform to the next in a dark cave or dodge dragon fire.

Considering this game is contained on just three five inch floppy discs there’s a heck of a lot of variety packed in here, each new area guaranteed to showcase a unique feature included purely for creativity’s sake (just look at the shmup-ish section in the video I’ve hopefully embedded correctly into this post – nothing like this ever happens again), and every boss existing at the imaginative intersection between a programmer’s might and a designer’s ingenuity: There’s a bright red dragon, so large it forms the backdrop as well as the boss. You’ll also face a giant grinning skull capable of blending in with the background, your only clue as to its whereabouts the slight skull-shaped offsetting of the floor it’s floating above. Thanks to the game’s pitch-perfect difficulty these clashes feel exhilarating, always putting up enough of a fight for you to try your best and still wonder if you’re going to win, but never so challenging that in defeat you felt you never stood a chance, or that the next time around you couldn’t swing things in your favour. To ensure you always face these stage-ending fiends as prepared as you could possibly be each level places a pair of chests just before the final encounter, and they always contain one full-health item and one complete magic recovery leaf, guaranteeing everyone will at the very least will start the fight with everything filled up to the brim and ready to go. Should the worst happen Étoile Princesse allows you to continue as many times as you’ve got the patience for, either dropping you just outside the boss room if you died during that fight or at the beginning of the stage if you perished elsewhere, no mistake kicking you back to the title screen unless you decide that’s where you want to be.

The end result of all this clear focus on getting things done is that “long” stages take perhaps ten minutes to clear, with the entire game lasting somewhere around two to three hours (according to the in-game timer – you can save whenever you’re on the world map – it took me 2hr26 to reach the final stage on my first go). Under these circumstances the option to replay any previously cleared stage feels like an extended delight even for someone as retread-averse as me (especially as stages are kept in the state you left them in, meaning any unlocked doors stay unlocked), with equipment gained later sometimes leading to new treasures and further health boosts in old stages, or maybe nothing more than another joyous run through the tall grass. Étoile Princesse is easy to like; an excellent action game that knows how to get its chirpy theme and cheerily challenging design singing in perfect harmony, makes great use of its host hardware, and is a heck of a lot of fun to play.

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