Sonic the Hedgehog: The Movie is a success. It has reviewed generally well across the board, made a Master Emerald’s ransom worth of money, and, in ten years’ time, people will remember it more fondly than Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore. While you could chalk this success up to any number of factors (I always say you can’t discount the unending charisma of Lee Majdoub), the internet at large has decided to take credit for this one. See, the original trailer for Sonic the Hedgehog featured a very toothy, un-Sonic looking hedgehog homunculus. This infuriated The Internet, and, in its anger, it slashed its mighty tentacles across the landscape, forever sundering the gulf between studio and creation. In the aftermath, Paramount and Sega had no choice: they had to rebuild the cinematic hedgehog, and produce an all-new cut of Sonic the Hedgehog: The Movie. Thus, months later, we were presented with the new hedgehog, and all was right with the world. And now that Sonic the Hedgehog: The Movie is a success, the fanbase that “made them change” has claimed any and all rights to this victory. And why don’t those crazy executives just listen to the fans all the time, ya know?
And you want to hear the kicker? This isn’t the first time that happened. This isn’t even the first time this happened with fans, executive meddling, and Sonic the Hedgehog.
In order to understand this little story, you have to understand the early 90’s. This was the heyday of Sonic the Hedgehog, when a mascot with attitude would inevitably be successful, whether you added that trademark arrogance to a t-shirt wearing cat or a particularly acrobatic bat. However, while begloved anthro animals were riding high in the sky, anime as a whole was still exotic “Japanimation”. Yes, it seems weird now to separate Japanese created cartoon creatures like Sonic from the very concept of anime (particularly after Sonic Adventure), but these were the heady days of Sonic’s birth. Anime was often disguised when it hopped across the pond, and our Journeys to the Wests suddenly became Whomp ‘Ems. Any and all anime-based media, like games starring Goku or Sailor Moon, never made it to our shores, and when something was too anime to ignore, it was heavily modified, and promoted as more Dungeons and Dragons than Record of Lodoss War. So it would only make sense if someone were to, say, drop the anime trappings from a game and replaced it with that hedgehog fellar all the kids are talking about.
And that was how, in 1993, one issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly mentioned a new game might premiere at the May Toy Fair. That game? Sister Sonic.
EGM’s Gaming Gossip section in its Issue #47 (with, naturally, Mortal Kombat on the cover) makes mention of a Donkey Kong follow-up for the Super Famicom CD, the Atari “mystery machine” codenamed Jaguar, and “a new spin on the Sonic saga called Sister Sonic… apparently an RPG starring Sonic’s lost sis”. That’s all Quartermann wrote about Sister Sonic, and EGM wouldn’t mention exactly what happened to the good sister until after another twelve issues (and it was Electronic Gaming Monthly, so that was.. if I’m doing my math right… sixteen years later?). While covering a level select code, it is mentioned (almost in passing) that the Sister Sonic project was scrapped, and now what was going to be modified to be Sister Sonic would be… Popful Mail! Hey! That’s today’s game!
What happened? Well, according to that same article (/oblique mention) in Issue #59, the original plan to mutate Popful Mail into Sister Sonic was dropped when word of this “localization” leaked, and fans of both franchises agreed to inundate Sega with requests for the real Popful Mail, and not some heavily modified localization. What does that mean? Well, obviously, the Sonic fans did it again! Or… the Mail fans? Whatever! Fans beat back those terrible producers in 1993! Hooray for our side!
Unfortunately, the only confirmation we ever had that this even happened seems to be from the pages of EGM (and mostly from a section literally called “Gaming Gossip”). This is a shame not only for historical accuracy reasons, but also because I would give my prized Battletoads-honed gaming skills just for a chance to see what the hell Sister Sonic was supposed to look like.
Popful Mail is not a game that plays like a Sonic title. Popful Mail seems most like The Adventure of Link (well, it’s really like Ys III: Wanderers from Ys, but no one played that), as it is a 2-D action game with towns, dungeons, and upgrades. The world map is little more than a course selection screen, but other gameplay elements, like healing in town or hording gold for fun and profit, is all about that adventure game lifestyle. And, while Mail starts with a stubby little sword like some kind of Hylian, she quickly distinguishes herself by upgrading to throwing weapons. And she has allies! We’ve got a little Castlevania 3 in here, as there are different party members that are always available for quick switching and slightly different movement mechanics. Mail’s adventures are a little aggravating for the rote repetition required in some dungeons (if you see a door that requires a key, you’re in for a bad time), but it’s a generally fun 2-D exploratory action-adventure. Oh! And the bosses pretty neat, too!
… But they ain’t no Eggman.
Popful Mail doesn’t run. If Popful Mail so much as saunters at an increased pace, she quickly loses half of her health to a skeleton monster. She’s got health, not rings, and it depletes far too quickly. She lives in a swords and sorcery fantasy world, not some loop-de-loop planet lousy with flickies. There is the occasional golem or sentient puppet, but there is not a badnik to be found. And, while Miss Popful Mail does seem to possess that general “spunky heroine” mentality that was popular in early 90s anime (I’d say she stole her whole shtick from Lina Inverse, but that would imply Mail and Lina could be recognized as wholly separate characters), she isn’t even on the same attitude echelon that Sonic achieved with the simple wave of a finger.
Is Popful Mail’s distinctive setting and gameplay a bad thing? Of course not. Players were hungry for 2-D RPG-ish titles in the early 90’s, and that genre is still only seen in a rare Wonderboy or two today. But does it put Popful Mail in a good position to be “Sonic’s Sister”. Absolutely not. If we’re going to say Popful Mail stayed Popful Mail thanks to complaints from the fans, then chalk this one up as another win for gamers. It’s impossible to imagine what Sister Sonic would even look like, left alone…
… Okay, maybe that’s a start. But Popful Mail is still nobody’s sister!
FGC #478 Popful Mail
- System: Sega CD in America, but also the Super Famicom and the PC-8800 in Japan. But what does that matter? How many people could possibly live in Japan? Like… six?
- Number of Players: One player at a time, but three selectable adventurers.
- Back to Work: Working Designs ultimately was responsible for Popful Mail’s translation. This means there are a number of Western cultural references that have aged about as well as the concept of Sonic’s Sister. And, just because WD was vaguely sadistic, the difficulty was bumped up with enemies being stronger and Mail taking way too much damage. So, ya know, thanks for that. Also, thanks for…
- Language, people: It’s funny/sad to remember how far colloquialisms have progressed since the 90’s.
Remember, kids, this was supposed to be an all-ages title for the pre-teen Sonic fans. Just imagine that passing standards today (well, except as a specially designated “gamer word”).
- But the fact that a prime villain is named “Nuts Cracker” doesn’t bother you? Nuts are supposed to be cracked. He’s like some kind of wee puppet man. What’s the problem there?
- Happy Little Critters: There might be some Sonic-adjacent beings in this universe, as Gaos are blue and loosely spherical. On the other hand, they’re born of the typical “anime whatsit” creature mold, but aren’t nearly as distinctive as a moogle or cabbit. But at least they’re hopelessly addicted to nicotine!
- Favorite Boss: Boney Rubbler is a skeleton riding a skeleton horse, and sometimes said skeleton horse splits in two. It is possibly the most interesting thing that happened on the Sega CD this side of Night Trap.
- Did you know? Like practically everything in Japan, Popful Mail wound up with a manga and a half a dozen drama CDs. But poor Mail didn’t get an official anime. Apparently a pilot was developed, but it was never picked up for a full series. And, considering that pilot sees Mail and the gang being pulled into “the real world”… well, actually, it was probably ahead of its time. Sarcastic elf girl from another world!
- Would I play again: Popful Mail is conceptually fun, but it is an absolute bear to make any progress with the Working Designs-mandated difficulty changes. I don’t think I’ll be trying Sister Sonic again any time soon.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Castlevania 3: Dracula’s Curse for the Nintendo Entertainment System! What a horrible ancestor to have a curse. Please look forward to it!