Thoughts on Popful Mail

9 minute read

So in the interests of writing something here, I thought I'd write a bit on a game I played recently, with a really silly title. Popful Mail was released on the Sega CD, which was itself an add-on to the Sega Genesis, back when add-ons to video game consoles were seen as a good way to keep making more money off a console without having to release a new one.

I can't say if any of them were that successful, apart from the Super Game Boy maybe. The Sega 32x, the Nintendo 64DD, all fading into obscurity with only a few games released on them.

The Sega CD fared better than most and had some quality games on it, particularly Sonic CD. I would even hazard to call Popful Mail one of them, too...but also maybe not.

I actually discovered the game in college, maybe nine years ago. Back when I used StumbleUpon, I'd spend lazy hours stumbling through the internet, and I recall finding a few great little websites that way. Most relevantly, a review of a quirky Sega CD game named Popful Mail, by a site I'd never heard of, Hardcore Gaming 101. Here's the page, if you're interesting in reading about it (and also want pictures, because I'm too lazy to load up an emulator and take my own).

So it's this 90s platformer about a cute elven bounty hunter named Popful Mail (because this is a Japanese game and why the fuck wouldn't she have a name like 'Popful Mail'). She goes on a quasi-adventure to save the world from an ancient, sealed away evil, and the reason I put 'quasi' there is because she spends the entire game whining about money and trying to persuade everyone she comes across to give all their gold to her in exchange for her help. Along the way, she meets a mage, Tatto, and a mascot character, Gaw, who eventually join her and can be switched between on the fly, all with different attacks and ways to move around.

In that regard, it's pretty interesting. The game controls pretty well and the attacks are very responsive. In particular I really like the animation where Mail swings her sword, there's a nice starry path of the blade swishing through the air

In general, the sprite art is really well done for the era. Which isn't surprising, because this game was made by Nihon Falcom, they of the Ys franchise, which I can attest are just freaking great games all around, with beatific music and excellent art. Usually their character design is also top-notch, but Mail spends the entire game in a breastplate with oversized pauldrons and an anime leotard, so maybe something got away from them there.

There are five major areas of the game, and all look really cool and detailed. I really like the ice stages, which have an aurora up on the top edge of the screen that sways around as you go through the level. It's admittedly a simple animation, but I like it.

But, if you know anything about Popful Mail, you probably know the script.

See, it was made back when CD games were just catching on, and everyone wanted to make a game with cutscenes and voice acting and all that jazz. So Popful Mail has a ton of voiced lines, and a few animated cutscenes.


They're terrible.

Well, the cutscenes are pretty good, at least. But the voice acting.

Mail's voice actress is pretty good, definitely the best of the bunch. Everyone else is just abysmal. Accents are given to characters seemingly at random (one of the main villains is an Italian stereotype for some reason, and the miners in the mining levels are Southern, one villain is Austrian, I'll get back to him), and the script they're given is probably one of the most offensively poorly written scripts I've ever seen for a video game.

Falcom games tend to have what I'd like to call delightfully simple stories. Ys I and II in particular. They're pretty generic JRPG fantasy, but told well. The characters are likeable, and the plots are straightforward and touch on all the tropes you'd expect in a JRPG fantasy, but done in a way that's nostalgic and oddly comforting, instead of boring. It's kind of like eating Hershey's chocolate. It's not the most delicate or rich chocolate you'll ever have, but there's something just comforting about eating it, and it's still pretty tasty chocolate anyway, even if you've had it countless times before.

I really like Falcom games for this reason, their stories are just interesting and fun enough for me to look forward to playing through them, without having to worry about slogging through boring sidequests or grinding.

I can tell Popful Mail probably had a story like this! It doesn't anymore!

The English localizers, the now-defunct Working Designs, decided to use the original Japanese script as mere inspiration, following the story in broad strokes but with a baffling number of unnecessary jokes and 90s references.

That Austrian character I mentioned before? His backstory, from what I can tell, is that he was one of the heroes that originally sealed away the Big Bad hundreds of years ago, but was probably corrupted by that same evil, and then twisted and kept alive unnaturally to break the seal he strove to create in the first place. So you fight him and his demonic transformations, all with the undercurrent that he's actually a pretty tragic character.

In the English version, he's a Schwarzenegger expy. When you first meet him, his opening speech has so many references to Schwarzenegger movies that I laughed aloud at the sheer audacity. He never gets better. He spends all his screen time shouting shitty jokes in an Austrian accent and then you kill him. Any subtlety, any tragedy the character might have had has been eliminated. Just for the sake of a joke.

I don't even know the guy's real name. He's called Sven T. Uncommon in the English script, but there's no way that's his actual name in Japanese. Then again... Danganronpa had Sonia Nevermind so who the fuck knows.

Anyway. The actual story of Popful Mail is still there, with inklings of the fun Falcom plot buried under all the drivel. I wish I could have read that! Maybe someone will come around and do a fan translation, like the difficulty patch I played the game around with this time. I'd even try my hand at translating the script by hand, but my Japanese is nowhere good enough, nor do I have the time.

One other thing people know about Popful Mail is its difficulty. In the English version, Working Designs jacked up the stats for pretty much all the enemies, as well as the prices for every item in the shops. It generally made the game next to impossible to beat, I hear, and I recall it being needlessly frustrating when I played it back in the day.

There's a fan patch, however, that fixes this. It restores all those values to what it was in the Japanese version, heavily streamlining the game and making it much easier to complete, not to mention heavily cutting down on the grinding for money to buy all the equipment. I won't link it here, but Google's your friend.

For a long time, Popful Mail was a very special game to me, and I'm not sure if I can explain why.

It stood in my mind as this sort of... I would almost say shrine of 90s platformers. I would look back on it and realize that this was essentially what I wanted in this genre. I love other platformers, don't get me wrong, but Popful Mail stood out as special to me. I loved the art, the gameplay (apart from the shitty artificial difficulty), I loved the main character and the beginning of her quest.

It should be noted that until I played through the entire game a couple of weeks ago, I had never gotten past the first area, the forest. For nine years, I had basically no idea what happened or what the game looked like. I formed this little mental shrine to 90s Japanese fantasy gaming based off a couple of stages and a bit of character dialogue.

I still think I pull some kind of inspiration from it, whether it's my love of elven characters, or just this fun, cutesey idea of a down-on-her-luck elven bounty hunter who can never hope to make it big, but is always hopeful for the future. The beginning of the game is her pretty much doing her normal thing, chasing down a lead through this elven forest, and it's light on story. She's just exploring this forest, that she's probably been through countless times, interacting with the villagers and slaying monsters. I'd call it timelessly nostalgic for me personally, just thinking about this girl and her silly sort of life, before the story picked up and she was tasked to save the world.

Even though I've played through the game and have seen the ending, where she finally does strike it rich, I always think of that beginning segment. Her world's just about to unfold, but for right now, she's just living her normal life. Always after a big bounty but never quite able to get it. Living a quaint but I would argue fun fantasy life.

And hell, even after the end of the game, I can still see Mail in the same forest, now a heck of a lot richer and retired from the bounty hunting life, still exploring and adventuring. Maybe she's bored, maybe it's just a hobby at this point, but it's an image that I always feel a bit drawn to when I think about this silly little game.

I do this all the time, and I'm sure everyone else does it too: building these sort of idealized versions of something in my head, wholly separate from the reality. The reality of Popful Mail is, unfortunately, that it's a badly written English script that's barely a story, full of unlikable, parodical characters in a game that's actually not that complex or innovative for its era. Apart from the fact that it has animated cutscenes and voice acting.

But to me, it's beautiful. Not for the reality, but for the Popful Mail I've built up in my own head, based only on nine years of knowing the first area and only hints of what came next. After playing it all the way through, I still have that image, not tarnished with the reality, but improved by it. I can still see what drew me to it in the first place, with even more to pull from to make it special.

I'm a pretty sentimental guy, I'll admit, and this is a prime example of why. But it's this sentimentality that fuels my writing, and for that, Popful Mail holds a special place in my heart. I used to call it one of my favorite games, which is wildly inaccurate these days, but I will say it's one of the more interesting. Not in a profound way like Planescape: Torment or Persona 3, but quietly meaningful.

But jeeze, I wish I could play a fan retranslation one of these days. Hope for the future, I suppose.