by Nicholas Tristan
Stop me if you’ve heard this one — in 1920s New York City, Al Capone (who is famously from…Chicago), a cult leader, and an evil sorcereress named Restiana plot together to summon and awaken an ancient, eldritch evil straight out of the works of HP Lovecraft to destroy the world.
The only one who can stop them is a beautiful anime girl from Peru (okay) named Annet, who is descended from the chaos god thing and only she can defeat it. So you lead Annet on an adventure through gangland New York, a series of progressively more insane airships, and fight some of the wildest, Cronenbergian monsters in video game history to stop...uh, magic Al Capone.
I know, I could be describing any AAA game of the last twenty years. But of course, this is the singularly weird and wild El Viento by Japanese developers Wolf Team, released for the Sega Genesis/Master Drive in 1991.
Wolf Team are strong developers, though best known and respected in Japan rather than the west. It’s easy to see why — their delight with anachronism, genre-blending, and tonal incongruity is more Japanese culturally than genre-blending elements in the west. So while games like Flashback and Deus Ex revel in paying homage to science fiction and action films through sly references, El Viento has a wild, anarchic syncretism to it that is closer to Hideo Kojima’s work (certainly Policenauts, which is Lethal Weapon in space, but done oddly realistically so everyone has bone problems and is slowly dying of radiation poisoning. Too old for this shit, indeed.) and the joyful tonal whiplash of the Yakuza series.
El Viento is actually the second game in a trilogy set in the same world, weirdly enough. 1991’s physics-based action platformer Earnest Evans (and oh — we’ll get to that one) comes first, then El Vineto, then 1993’s side-scrolling beat-em-up Annet Futatabi on the Mega CD/Sega CD rounding it out.
So, let’s start with Earnest Evans. Evans is a dashing, handsome anime hero seeking three ancient idols that have the power to destroy the earth and for some reason you as the player control all of his limbs.
Yep. That’s where we start with this. It’s like QWOP decades ahead of its time and…not a joke. Having an intricate action platformer with difficult timing based sections is…a choice, alright.
The game is often lambasted as one of the Genesis’ worst and…I get it. The puzzle sections are as atrocious and unfair as I’ve seen in any platformer. But my God…my God, this game is a total head scratcher. When you can just recklessly blunder and barrel through stages, it’s both incredibly hilarious to watch and weirdly satisfying as you almost manage to get control of your sweet out of control son Earnest.
The sprite work is lovely — in fact, Earnest’s bizarre controlling is due to the level of detail that went into his design — his character sprite is a composite of several different sprites, all moving independently.
And this game is infamous for slowdown. When there are more than a few enemies, or a hugely scaled boss comes in, this thing chugs down to a ridiculous speed. Sometimes this makes a battle easier, sometimes it’s a pain, but it’s always kind of frustrating.
And this just exemplifies Earnest Evans, and Wolf Team’s vision for this whole trilogy. Everything was attempted, and logic, common sense, or technical considerations didn’t seem to apply. It’s weird, performative and transformative in its brilliance, but it’s also virtually unplayable. So.
Luckily, El Viento keeps the weird and over-ambitious and gives you a more…conventional control of your character. Annet handles brilliantly, actually. and that’s critical — this game has weird, inconsistent difficulty spikes that keep you on your toes.
The enemy designs in El Viento are all timers. A mixture of anime, Lovecraftian, and steampunk aesthetics…work! The anarchic tone and breakneck speed stop it from being just a tonal mess, and the first 2/3rds are surprisingly excellent story-wise. Mounting repetition and some baffling level designs in the last third do hurt the game, but it’s still a game everyone should try. It’s…got a lot going on.
Annet Futatabi does the unthinkable, though, and pulls back the weirdness. Ditching the platforming for a Streets of Rage style beat-em-up. Annet Futatabi is just…fine. The colours are bright and sharp, the kind of gauzy pallet that’s seen in some earlier SNK games. With more time in development, in fact, this could have been a smashingly good arcade game. But as it is, it really falters in comparison to Streets of Rage 2, the Final Fight series, or even something like Golden Axe. Hell, Data East beat-em-ups play technically better than this.
And since it was a Sega CD game, it’s got…basically just a bunch of pretty anime cutscenes. The sound and graphics are barely enhanced over what a Genesis game would be.
El Viento is just wild enough that it makes sense it only really worked once, but Wolf Team’s psychedelic, never-say-no philosophy in admirable, and missed in today’s triple A gaming world.