Working Designs is now, well, defunct. But let us remember the happier times. Sega CD was not the first console that Working Designs published games for, but thanks to a little franchise called Lunar, the system did help put the company on the map. In between those two releases came another quality localization in the form of the sidescroller Popful Mail.
Titular character Mail is a hot elf bounty hunter with above average spunk, and below average luck. She is not, however, discouraged from going after the two biggest bounties around-those on the heads of Nuts Cracker and, when she fails to catch him, the deranged magician Muttonhead. Mail later discovers that the two are working together to collect orbs for a sinister purpose, and for the first and only time in video game history we are forced to prevent some crazy fools from raising a dark demon who has conveniently been asleep and waiting for some deranged megalomaniac to bring him back. It is a touching, epic tale of human...okay, the plot is not really that important. It is more about the characters and the situations. Mail soon runs into the well-meaning Tatt, who was once a pupil of Muttonhead. Later on they run into the third playable character, Gaw, who looks like the product of a union between a dragon and a dodge ball and refers to himself in the third person at times. There is a lot of dialogue in the game, and tremendous effort went into ensuring that none of it would be boring. Bosses (Sven is a popular one online, and with good reason), side characters, main characters and even otherwise useless saps on the street have something to say. Some text is only intended to get a chuckle. Other dialogue exchanges are nothing short of hilarious, especially some of the ones between Mail and the mercilessly incompetent Slick. Mail, Tatt and Gaw each have their own unique spin on each situation, and it is well worth loading a game to see what the other two had to say (considering you save often). How much a person enjoys this game will rely heavily on how much they like Working Designs' sense of humor. However, there is plenty of game here, too.
The game play is not revolutionary, but functional. "Action/RPG" is what the box says, and there is definitely more of the former here, along with a healthy dose of platforming. There are shops with armaments and items to buy, people to talk to and puzzles to solve. But like Zelda, the first things that come to mind when the acronym "RPG" is mentioned-experience points and leveling up-are both absent. Each of the three has his/her own life meter and the player can switch between them via the game menu, an extremely cool and useful idea. You die, however, if the health of the character you are controlling runs out, no matter how the other two are doing. Combat and the controls are about as simple as can be, not that there is anything wrong with that. On the contrary, simple controls are a GOOD thing. There are branching paths here and there, but level progression is largely pretty straightforward. While the gameplay lacks depth, the fun factor stays high thanks once again to imagination. The level designers used a variety of puzzles, traps, etc. to keep the game fresh. Backtracking is optional, but rarely required. Boss fights could make or break a game at the time, and Popful Mail made it. A few are way too easy (one can be defeated by standing in one space and ducking at the right times), some can get tedious; most had the ingenuity and style in both look and attacks to make them memorable. While the plot sucks, the situations the trio get into are clever enough to keep the player motivated.
The music is not among the best out there, but you will not be suffering if you do not have another source of music handy either. Voice acting, on the other hand, is excellent, especially compared to your typical American dubbing. Some parts are played better than others, to be sure, but overall the actors enhance the game's humorous dialogue rather than detract from it. This is good, considering there is almost three hours of spoken dialogue.
PM comes in the characteristic vivid, shiny packaging that looks pretty snazzy on your shelf, and the game itself looks good in your Sega CD. Thanks to the vibrant 2D sprites and nicely animated cut-scenes, as opposed to the grainy 3D and FMV scenes of most games on the system, this game also holds up much better visually than most of the more "high-tech" Sega CD games do today. Not that the visuals will blow you away, but the colorful everything and large, cartoon-ish sprites (even the enemies look cute!) give the game some style points and enhance the lighthearted tone the developer obviously wanted to convey.
There are some minor complaints. On a few occasions it is easy to accidentally leave the room in the middle of a boss fight and have to start over. The invincibility time after getting hit is minimal, which can make situations like falling into flames or getting trapped between a wall and a boss excessively difficult to get out of and allows for some cheap unavoidable double or triple hits. Fortunately, that does not happen too often. Some complain about the complete overhaul in the translation department, the lack of RPG elements and the lack of innovation. And then there are also those, myself included, who enjoyed the spin that the publisher put on their localization, did not mind the action-oriented approach and felt that the game does a perfectly good job of being fun even without breaking any new ground. On the whole, some of the best times I have had playing my Sega CD.