The ‘tude era of gaming has been glossed over time and time again. While most retro gamers are familiar with the walking meme that is Bubsy the Bobcat and perhaps a handful of other “me too” characters from the 90’s, I never hear anybody bring up High Seas Havoc. Those who follow my content can probably conclude that I really like platformers- especially ones starring cute critters. Somehow, even this one slipped my radar back when I was younger and would dig through shops and flea markets looking for anything that might’ve involved running and jumping for my Genesis. It wasn’t until an episode of Game Sack that I was introduced to this purple seal and was immediately drawn in by the stellar presentation and art style. It certainly looks a hell of a lot better than Bubsy, Aero or Zool…but at the end of the day gameplay is king. Does Havoc deliver on both fronts or is it a one trick pony best left to the annals of time? Let’s find out!
As mentioned earlier, it’s hard not to look at High Seas Havoc and think “Holy shit, this has a lot of production value for a riff on Sonic the Hedgehog” and compared to its contemporaries, it most certainly does. The title screen alone and the epic music playing as Havoc stands upon a cliff shows that Data East put a considerable amount of time into making the character’s first impression a good one. Sure, it’s painfully obvious that this guy was inspired by the blue blur, but at least he isn’t cracking one-liners or being killed by gumball machines of all things.
Even the story, which is more or less the same good-versus-evil shtick these games are known for, appears to have some effort put into it. In an age where plots were still primarily reserved for manuals, this storybook-like opening was a nice touch and pretty charming.
The game itself is structured just like any other linear 2D platformer. There’s a goal post to reach and a ton of enemies, collectibles (diamonds in this case), platforms and secret passages on your way to it. Each area is divided into two acts (save for the last area), culminating in a boss battle. Absolutely no surprises on this front.
The first level does a fair enough job of introducing you to Havoc’s controls, the lone power-up in the game and the fact that springs almost always lead to goodies. You’ll no doubt discover that springs can also be “hidden” in the ground and, if you play your cards right, you might just drop down onto one that launches you into a row of floating platforms giving you a ton of extra men. If I have any advice for first time players, it’s this- use the fact that the 1-ups respawn not only here but during the rest of the game. Throw yourself in a fire pit or two just so you can repeat and stock up. If you have any intention of finishing this game legitimately, you’re gonna need every last one. (More on why later)
As for Havoc’s moveset, there’s not much more other than jumping and a flip-kick that can be triggered by pressing the jump button whilst in the air. Either or will suffice when it comes to the game’s enemies and sometimes the bosses. The flip kick does take some getting used to and I think the designers understood this given that the first level offers ample opportunities to score extra lives and health. Havoc himself handles pretty well. He does accelerate a bit in speed, especially going down inclines, but by no means is it that “so fast you can’t see what’s coming” situation with the aforementioned bobcat. Jumping also works fine no matter Havoc’s speed, which is a heavensend considering the kind of precision platforming the game calls for later on.
It won’t be long until your first confrontation with Bernardo- this game’s primary antagonist. Let me just say I love how they introduce this guy. He tears apart a mast, resulting in Havoc having an “uh-oh” moment with his eyes bugging out of his head before Bernardo leaps away to the edge of the ship. This kind of charm permeates through the rest of the game, be it when other bosses are introduced or Havoc gets injured. He’ll waddle around for a moment if a bucket lands on his head, his skeleton shows when he gets zapped and he fades out to black and blinks when roasted. If Data East was aiming to make this game like “playing a cartoon”, they absolutely nailed it.
The first three acts of High Seas Havoc are very strong in terms of level design and the setpieces. Burning Hamlet first sees Havoc being chased by a giant fireball and having to hop onto plungers to extinguish smaller fireballs blocking his way forward. It’s here that the game’s difficulty begins to pick up, as there are more pits to worry about and the giant fireball in Act 1 will kill you off if he so much as grazes your ass. It’s what comes after where the level design slowly starts to take a nose-dive.
The obligatory snow level throws small birds at you that will come seemingly out of nowhere and at the worst possible time- when you have to make leaps across often times tiny moving platforms. As this is the 90’s and there was a fetish for knock-back in platformers, this means you’ll often be knocked off your bottom and land right into a lethal bed of spikes or pits. There is simply no way to get past these two stages without memorizing the level design and a copious amount of trial and error, but at least the giant falcon waiting to fight you at the end is enjoyable and has a pretty kick-ass theme.
Following a trip through a power plant and beating up Tails’ buff cousin, we arrive at Fort Bernardo and whoo boy…they really up the BS factor here. Surprise enemies and stalagmites everywhere? Check. Leaps of faith? Check. Anxiety-inducing rides on little bugs across tightropes littered with obstacles that will no doubt throw you into a pit upon contact? Check. Again, it’s all more of a memory test than anything followed by one of the toughest bosses I’ve ever faced in any game period let alone a platformer.
Introduced again by quite an outstanding track, Mr. Purple Wolf spends half of this battle invulnerable. You’ll be tasked with dodging a wave of bullets (simple enough), followed by a wave of seemingly random stalagmites which you can kind of influence if you make incredibly subtle movements. While you can hit him during this period…good fucking luck. Chances are, you’ll just bounce off of him and right into a stalagmite that will chip off a good 30% of your life bar. Next up, he uses telekinesis to leverage some rocks out of the floor and into the air in an arrangement you’ll have to ever-so-carefully weave out of as they shift left or right. This is perhaps one of few times you’ll ever need to use the roll move (down plus any button on the pad) which of course the game never properly teaches you to do. Finally, he’ll chuck the things at you before leaving himself upon to attack again and then clones himself (there’s no tell for which one’s the correct copy from what I can gather after three playthroughs) before repeating this process all over again. If it sounds complicated for a game like this, that’s because it is. You’re basically fighting a Mega-Man boss but with Sonic controls and only a few chances to screw up. Unless you’re perfect, this fight can drag out for a good three to four minutes thanks to how much health the dude has and it’s going to eat up a ton of lives until you finally master him (or spam the pause button to create your own slow-down effect). While I dig the concept, this guy simply takes way too many hits considering just how much you have to commit to memory. It takes the fight from being tough but fair to being downright cheap. Now, I know someone out there is going to go “you just suck at the game” but please. Go get this game. Get to this point and try to kill this boss. No save states or if you’re doing it on the real deal…no Game Genie. After doing it three times, I still can’t help but feel it was made arbitrarily difficult.
Assuming you can get past the wolf, there’s just one more level to go before finally confronting Bernardo for the second (and last) time. Again, there’s a lot of crap flying everywhere and plenty of opportunities to be blown back into pits, but it can be done with a bit of memorization. As for Bernardo himself…well…I’ll just let the video speak for itself. Absolutely no spot on screen is safe and I had to wonder if Data East forgot this was a platform game. Again, you can kind of manipulate where the meteors land. For this fight, I kept close to Bernardo and ducked under most of the smaller rocks and scoring hits when I can. It still took a grueling twenty minutes on my first playthrough, but I eventually copped him with one chunk of life to spare. The level of satisfaction it rewarded was similar to when I took out Shredder on TMNT for the NES in my high school days on a tiny CRT. The ending sequence is well done- the same quality as the introduction and rightly so for the amount of work it takes to finish this game.
So, all said, can I recommend High Seas Havoc to fellow platform fans? In short, it depends. While the art and soundtrack are some of the best this genre has to offer on the system and the overall gameplay is strong through the first three acts, the quality of the last half of the game is wildly inconsistent and full of arbitrary challenges that abuse both the knock-back and the field of view. In addition, the final two bosses almost seem as if they were thrown in just for the sake of keeping kids from beating it on a weekend rental period back in the day. It’s clear that there was a deadline to meet somewhere and the game suffers for it. While I can personally forgive its shortcomings thanks to the strong first half and abundance of charm (perhaps my love for this niche helps), I can’t say it’s a game for everyone. Give it a go on an emulator if it looks interesting- it’s a $30-50 game cart only these days otherwise and has not been officially re-released. It’s leaps and bounds better than the other “me too” games of the era, but I doubt it’s gonna be worth that price for anyone but hardcore platform or Genesis fans in 2019.