by Jed Pressgrove
The promotional art of Amazing Princess Sarah recalls the silly boob adventure games on Xbox Live Indie Games. The actual game has little in common with this vapid subgenre. Whether out of desperation, cynicism, or ignorance, developer Haruneko promotes his great platformer as something that values breasts over game, when in fact the opposite is true: Amazing Princess Sarah redefines “new game plus” — one of the most stagnant, masturbatory ideas in games — as a seven-part rite of passage for the protagonist, updating the “beat it twice” legend of Ghosts ‘n Goblins. Amazing Princess Sarah isn’t for satisfying lust; it’s for the reward and fun of discovering and overcoming challenges.
In every game within Amazing Princess Sarah, the central idea is picking up dead enemies and throwing them as weapons. Initially, one might compare Amazing Princess Sarah to Super Mario Bros. 2, but this comparison doesn’t account for the new problems in the former. Super Mario Bros. 2 was far more straightforward: jump on top of an enemy, press a button to pick it up, then throw it as a weapon. In Amazing Princess Sarah, you first must kill the enemy with either your sword or a thrown enemy/item (each stage has a few items you can pick up). Then you must pick up the dead enemy, meaning that you have to kill enemies in such a way that you can get to them (e.g., you don’t want them falling on spikes). In many cases, you have to avoid other enemies as you pick up dead enemies since one hit from a live enemy will make you drop the dead one (not to mention that Sarah lets out an insufferable, morale-killing yelp when she gets hit).
Although enemies generally follow predictable patterns (for example, the biggest enemies rush you when they face you), Haruneko has designed the stages in such a way that the preset quirks of the enemies can drive you mad as you jump from platform to platform to pick up dead ones. Balancing out the treacherous one-two punch of the level design and enemy patterns is the fact that thrown enemies have different trajectories and effects. Learning the proper distances and heights from which to throw specific enemies can mean the difference between a breezy or frustrating section of a level. The plentiful enemies in each stage also enable different playing styles. Some players will prefer a fire effect over an arrow effect during a particular chain of attacks, as fire travels across floors while arrows go up a bit and then rain down through floors and walls.
Even though Amazing Princess Sarah has Super Nintendo looks, the game doesn’t play politics by appealing to retro sentimentality while conceding to modern notions about “fair” game design (though the game has checkpoints and leveling up, the latter hardly makes a difference between life and death). Rather, completing the game’s five stages with different rules becomes a mantra of tension and triumph. The “new game pluses,” such as Angry Princess Sarah and Cursed Princess Sarah, neither champion simple difficulty increases nor stroke power fantasies. What’s easy during one “new game plus” is difficult during another and vice versa, inspiring new appreciation of level design and perspective. For example, by the time you get to Bat Princess Sarah, you are very knowledgeable about the game, but your primary weapon, a sword, becomes ineffective against all enemies, with the exception of bats. Throwing dead bats thus becomes essential to killing stronger enemies, but the increase of bats throughout the stages also means you have more obstacles to avoid during tricky platforming.
As suggested by my comment about the cover art, the sex-centered marketing of Amazing Princess Sarah is misleading at best and distracting at worst. Moreover, the mindless achievement of reaching level 69 belongs in a Bill & Ted game. Interestingly, Haruneko makes wet dreams into more than a marketing ploy. In the penultimate “new game plus,” Sarah is naked and has no sword. Upon seeing you as a nude warrior, most enemies stop in their tracks, entranced by Sarah’s muscular physique. The lack of a sword creates an interesting dynamic: you’re no longer able to kill bats with one strike, and although you charm most enemies, you have more trouble killing them with your bare hands. It’s more of a unique challenge than a nude fantasy (the “nudity” is blurred).
OK, one could still say the game is juvenile. Yet the simple creativity of Haruneko’s stages and enemies cannot be denied, and the interplay between the different rules of the “new game pluses” is something to behold. In most games, “new game plus” is actually “old game plus.” In Amazing Princess Sarah, every new game is another part of a journey. Despite a disappointing end boss in the final stretch, the game of Amazing Princess Sarah deserves more credit than the body parts its creator uses for marketing.