If there’s another game with as convoluted and confusing a history as Magical Flying Hat Turbo Adventure, I’ve yet to hear of it.
Vic Tokai’s jaunty platformer essentially had four different lives, with the same game appearing in slightly modified forms on the NES, Sega Master System, and the Sega Mega Drive. To make matters even more befuddling, there were two NES and Mega Drive versions, each tailored for different markets due to licensing issues.
For this writer, Magical Flying Hat Turbo Adventure may be the best of the lot. But before we delve into exactly why, let’s head back to the year 1988, where the game’s curious story first began.
The Quest for the Seven Wonder Herbs
It all seemed to begin with a Japanese child star named Kenji Sagara, better known by his TV name Kakefu-kun. The kid’s popularity was such that he got his own NES game courtesy of Vic Tokai, which went by the katchy name Kakefu-kun no Janpu Tengoku: Supido Jigoku (or, according to Wikipedia’s translation, Kakefu’s Jump Heaven: Speed Hell).
Here’s the Japanese box art, in case you’re interested:
The game itself’s a simple yet fun platformer in the Super Mario mode, where the baseball hat-wearing Kakefu runs and jumps on the heads of Goomba-like enemies on his journey to the end of each stage. The twist is that Kakefu has a little furry friend he can use to throw at enemies. After a short time, the critter returns to Kakefu’s shoulder, making it a useful ally in an otherwise unforgivingly harsh game.
Of course, Kakefu meant nothing at all to western audiences, so his game was localized under the title Kid Kool and the Quest for the Seven Wonder Herbs for its 1990 release in the U.S. A name change and a few graphical tweaks aside (the main character is hatless in the western version), Kid Kool is essentially identical to its Japanese counterpart – right down to the different endings you’re presented with depending on how long you take to complete it.
Between the release of Kakefu-kun and Kid Kool, Vic Tokai released what was essentially the same game again for the Sega Master System.
Called Psycho Fox, the game replaced the slightly bland-looking little kid with an athletic mammal and his trusty owl. The graphics are enhanced for the Master System’s expanded color palette, and there are a few additional bonus rounds and level design tweaks, but the underlying mechanics are clearly the same. But with its wealth of secret portals, expansive maps, and surreal usage of Japanese folklore (the hero can turn into a variety of creatures, including a monkey and a hippo), Psycho Fox is among the very best platformers ever released for the Master System.
Psycho Fox was never released in Japan, which means that its distinctly Japanese cultural references were never fully appreciated on its own shores. Weirdly, a localized version of Psycho Fox was released in Brazil in 1995 – six years after it first appeared on the Master System in Europe and America. Called Sapo Xule, its graphics were changed to tie in with the popular Brazilian comic book character (a luminous frog) of the same name.
Magical Flying Hat
A year after the release of Psycho Fox (1990 – the year Kid Kool came out in America), Vic Tokai released Magical Flying Hat Turbo Adventure. Based on Studio Pierrot’s anime series Magical Hat, which ran from 1989 to 1990, it once again evolved the basic platforming mechanics from Vic Tokai’s earlier iterations. As the young hero Hat, you run and leap across a series of colorful, themed levels with a small companion you can throw at enemies – this time, a little smiling mechanical egg.
The graphics have been improved to take advantage of the Mega Drive’s 16-bit grunt, with parallax scrolling to add the illusion of depth and some charmingly detailed sprites. While the backgrounds are a little repetitive, the shading and animation on the central character are superbly wrought – it really does feel as though you’re controlling the hero from a late 80s anime series in Magical Hat‘s best moments.
The soundtrack also has more depth than its 8-bit predecessors, with synth drums and a breezy, infuriatingly catchy melody that is capable of lodging itself in the brain for days.
Most of all, though, Magical Hat‘s best improvements are mechanical. Unlike its predecessors, Magical Hat lets you run back and forth through the expanded, maze-like levels, which means you can backtrack and locate items you may have missed. Thanks to his magical turban, Hat can also control the rate of his descent after a jump. Okay, so he can’t actually fly as the title suggests, but it does make the action a bit more forgiving when you’re trying to time the perfect leap to a distant platform.
The strange transformations of Psycho Fox also make a return in Magical Hat. Collect the right items, and you can transform into a helicopter, submarine, or even a rocket-firing mechanical gorilla in moments of crisis. Oddly, the game’s quite strict about when these special powers can be activated, which means you can go through much of the game without ever using them. The mechanical gorilla seems to be the only transformation you can select during a boss battle, for example.
Of all the iterations Vic Tokai made of its same basic platformer, Magical Hat is by far my favorite. Sure, it’s far from perfect, especially when placed alongside the kinds of things Nintendo was putting out at the time. But Magical Flying Hat‘s a relatively low-budget offering compared to, say, Super Mario World, so comparing the two’s a bit like comparing Primer to something like Avatar.
For what it is, Magical Flying Hat stands up as a fun way to while away a few hours. Some of its design decisions are really, really strange, admittedly. On one hand, its attempts to kill you with hidden enemies are immensely frustrating, but on the other, it liberally showers you with extra lives at every turn (there’s a secret trick that will give you about 14 or 15 of them on certain levels). But even with all this in mind, there’s a charm and pace to Magical Hat that keeps me going back to it. Certainly, before Sonic the Hedgehog, Magical Hat was the speediest platformer on the Mega Drive, and the breadth of its levels gave it more of an epic feel than the more restricted stages of, say, Castle of Illusion. It’s also far more entertaining than the disappointing Mega Drive iteration of Alex Kidd.
Like Kakefu-kun, Magical Hat was based on characters that wouldn’t have meant very much to western audiences. So when Vic Tokai couldn’t get the license to release the game in Europe and America in its unexpurgated form, the decision was made to give its graphics and sound a fairly major overhaul.
The result was Decap Attack, a cartoonish, horror-themed game which replaced Hat with a mummy-like character named Chuck D Head. Instead of a furry helper or mechanical egg, his special attack involves (you guessed it) chucking his own head at the game’s army of grotesque enemies. There are a few other mechanical changes, too: Chuck can take four hits from enemies before dying rather than Hat’s one-touch-death, while extra lives are no longer in quite such abundance.
It’s still a fun, quirky game, but for this writer, the decision to replace the vibrant colors of Magical Hat with the drab browns and greys of the western version was more than a little disappointing. I can still recall having a couple of copies of the 90s magazine Mean Machines, comparing the Japanese version’s graphics to Decap Attack, and wishing that Magical Hat could get an official release in the UK.
Released in 1991 in the U.S. and in Europe the following year, Decap Attack brought Vic Tokai’s very odd dynasty of interlinked platformers to a close. Spanning two console generations and no fewer than three separate systems, the games suffered from something of an identity crisis, but there was always a certain energy and sense of fun to be found in all of them – particularly the delightful, extremely odd Magical Flying Hat. For me, it’s one of the most entertaining games ever released for the Mega Drive.