The Tale of Clouds and Wind (QUByte Classics)
Not The Suikoden Re-Release I Was Expecting
As always I want to give thanks to the publisher for giving us a chance to cover Water Margin - The Tale of Clouds and Wind. As the name in the infobox implies, this console port was made courtesy of QUByte, based on the PC port handled by PIKO Interactive. I'm surprised it took me this long to cover a PIKO title as they have been known for re-releasing several retro titles over the past few years. Some have been iconic, like Glover, while others have had an interesting history. Water Margin - The Tale of Clouds and Wind definitely fits the latter and it's part of the reason why it's difficult to pinpoint the original developer.
Originally, Water Margin was released in Hong Kong under the name Shui Hu: Feng Yun Zhuan (水滸風雲傳) for the Sega Mega Drive. Only available in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, the game was originally a bootleg Golden Axe-inspired game that utilized assets from various titles at the time. There's an archived blog post on Yahoo Japan that gives more information as well as an image of what the many box arts of this game were like. Piko Interactive somehow gained the IP for this game, replacing the stolen assets with original ones, and painstakingly turned it into an authentic game with an official English translation.
With that said, I suppose not only is this the first time that Water Margin was officially released in English, but the first time the game had an official release, period. Due to the game's history and turning coal into diamonds, it's enough for me to give respect to the publishers and those who worked on the port. Originally released on the PC in 2019, it would be ported to consoles thanks to QUByte. Unfortunately, this is the height of my praise for this game. While the porting and the publishing was the best part of this game's history, Water Margin - The Tale of Clouds and Wind is average.
Those familiar with Chinese literature will know of Water Margin as it is up there with Journey to the West and Romance of the Three Kingdoms in terms of notoriety. Perhaps the most successful series to use Water Margin as a base is the RPG franchise Suikoden. It should have been interesting to see a beat-em-up version of the story. Even if the player knows little of the original text, the game very loosely follows its plot. Each level has the heroes, Shi Jin, Hu Sanning, and Li Kui, who face off against the Liao dynasty, with the names of the enemies named accordingly (Lady of Liao, for example).
While each character has a specific niche and purpose in the original Water Margin, they are regulated to the "Hero," "Woman," and "Strong Guy" archetypes seen in many beat-em-ups. I didn't feel much of a difference between the trio as Li Kui is just a slower Shi Jin who hits harder and Hu Sanning is a faster Shi Jin. In the latter levels, Hu Sanning was my preferred character as her movement makes the density of the enemies bearable. Each enemy has a specific attack pattern; Some phase into the screen and attack, others do a diving elbow drop like Kairi Sane, and bosses tend to flop around like floundering fish.
If the enemies aren't incredibly mobile, they tend to snipe at you with arrows and darts. This wouldn't be an issue if the movement didn't suck. In almost every beat-em-up I played, you are able to have freedom of movement. Even the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games on the Genesis, the same platform released a few years before, by the way, allowed this. The background scenery changes, but the environment remains the same; Go right, smash barrels, don't attack the contents inside to lower the rewards you get, and survive.
For some reason, if you attack an item on the ground, it'll split into pieces, diminishing the rewards and punishing players for "spamming attacks." The one thing that you're supposed to do in a beat-em-up. There are items that are used as spells, including fire, ice, lightning, and even summoning a dragon. While the visuals are impressive, all I could think about was Golden Axe. Even Golden Axe, a game released in arcades during the late 80s, had the ability to move up and down, diagonally, and incorporated traps.
At some point, Water Margin became a test of "how many enemies can clog the screen and stun lock the player before they burn through their lives and continues." If a beat-em-up turns into a test of strength in how much I can mash before the opponent can get several over me, then it's lacking that soul. I've been reviewing this game as if I was in the mid-90s and I had dozens of side-scrolling 2D games to play on the Genesis over this.
I played this on our Xbox Series X and the game had all of the settings you'd want from a modern port of a retro game. Save States exists including the option to restart and several graphic options are all available. I was nervous because I read the reviews for the Steam version and how the player couldn't move diagonally. I'm happy to report that in this version, you can walk diagonally. This would make the console ports the best authentic version to own in this regard.
While it's a good game to experience a piece of obscure gaming history, there's a reason why this was a bootleg for so long. I'd recommend Water Margin - The Tale of Clouds and Wind for its novelty and the dedication the publishers went to porting this to modern consoles in English. Adding a bonus star for the good work on localization, but for literally everything else, it's best to wait for a sale.
Water Margin - The Tale of Clouds and Wind is available on Steam, with a console release including the Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Series X/S, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation 5 on December 22nd, 2022.