St. Augustine once said that "what is sought with difficulty is discovered with more pleasure" and this is precisely why Neutopia falls short of giving a player the same level of enjoyment that an overhead Zelda game provides. It's just way too easy. While Neutopia captures the basics of The Legend of Zelda series, it does not send you into the blissful fits of frustration that have you resetting your game into the wee hours of the morning.
Like every other review of Neutopia, this one begins with a comparison to Zelda; the similarities cannot be overlooked. This being said, the game should not be punished or belittled simply for imitating a tried-and-true formula. If the format works, why change it? After all, not every turn-based RPG is dubbed a "Final Fantasy clone." Additionally, Neutopia was published two years prior to the release of the groundbreaking Zelda III for the SNES. Countless reviews are quick to say that Neutopia seems most imitative of the third Zelda game, but the timetable does not allow for that accusation. When you factor in the release of the Neutopia sequel (Neutopia II in 1991) and its subtle improvements on the original (including eight-directional movement), you may see that the programmers kept pace with or were actually ahead of the Nintendo curve.
The game's back story of a kidnapped princess, eight hidden medallions, and a need to restore light to the world of darkness is so archetypal and rudimentary that it does not warrant a deep analysis. Princess Aurora has been taken by the evil Dirth, and Jazeta must free her since she is a conduit to the ancient benevolent gods of the land. Since you are not provided with an over-world map, finding the eight medallions may prove difficult and confusing, but there are enough landmarks and strangers with advice to get you through safely.
The first six dungeons are insultingly easy and bosses usually take only one encounter to decipher their patterns. In one such battle, a giant crab scuttles across the screen so slowly that you will find yourself growing impatient waiting for it to open its vulnerable mouth to strike. No matter how intense the music grows, the conflict seems boring and drawn out.
Another drawback to the whole experience is the glut of hidden passages strewn throughout. In many games, secret passages are so few and far between that they are special and coveted discoveries. Here, there are so many breakable walls and caves that their unearthing seems dull and routine. Many of these hidden rooms will lead to obvious or useless advice and so finding them seems more a chore than a blessing. Additionally, you are not supplied with a large enough bomb capacity to find all of the hidden rooms without searching for more explosives. And perhaps the most bothersome thing is that your progress map resets itself whenever you leave a dungeon, thus making all your discoveries invisible once again.
Despite all its shortcomings, the game still warrants a high score based on its size, looks, and good controls. The fire rod weapon is especially fun to wield, and as your life meter increases, so too does its power and range. For every two medallions collected, another world opens up to you and the new landscapes, enemies, and music are enough to propel the player to want to unravel the entire world of Neutopia. If you are playing with a console with memory storage, then finishing the game is just a matter of course. If you play on a non-CD based TurboGrafx16, you will need to carefully transcribe long, case-sensitive passwords. One letter off, however, and you may give up on the whole experience.
There are a few head-scratching moments in this game that deserve some quick mention. Early on, you meet an old man in a cave who calls himself "the monk of the Far East." He preaches his "life giving religion of Allahbaba" which makes one wonder if this game (like Square's Gaia series) is based on earthly folklore. Is this a reference to Islam with the almighty Allah as the provider of life? It may be just a throwaway line, but only a few screens later you are faced with a dungeon boss made of metal with a hard-to-miss Star of David emblazoned on his chest. Perhaps the programmers simply placed the emblem of Judaism just to liken the boss to a golem, a mythical Jewish creature created from inanimate materials. But when you couple the Allahbabba man with the golem battle, you may wonder if there is a minor holy war going on in this game.
Another curious moment happens near the end when an old woman wishes you good luck before the final confrontation with Lord Dirth. She say, "May the force be with you, oh brave one!" The programmers must have figured that if they were going to rip off one of the most recognizable game franchises, they might as well downright plagiarize the most recognizable line from the Star Wars saga. The perceptive gamer may then note that the dark-armored final boss, "Dirth", is only one letter away from "Darth" and that the men behind Neutopia were rather shameless in borrowing from various sources.
Some folks are so desperate for a new Zelda experience that they'll learn how to write code and program their own homebrews. To save yourself time, just buy Neutopia. It will not obsess your thoughts or have you showing up to gaming conference dressed as the brave Jazeta, but it will temporarily fill in the gaps waiting for the next Hyrule adventure.