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SRPG Game 89 – Rebus (Kartia) (PS1)

REBUS (レブス), released 3/26/1998, developed and released by ATLUS

Two Atlus games in a row. This is Atlus’ first SRPG that isn’t in the Megami Tensei franchise, although it still involves summoning monsters. It was localized in the US as “Kartia: The Word of Fate”. In a coincidence, a twitch streamer I follow named Karkalla has just started the game on Friday and should be playing it for a couple of weeks.

The art was done by Yoshitaka Amano, well known for his Final Fantasy illustrations that go against the typical anime style that you normally see in JRPGs. Now that we are in the fifth generation of consoles, Amano’s art can actually be directly used in the game rather than simply providing art for the instruction manuals that isn’t reflected anywhere in the actual game.

The story is presented in an unusual fashion. There are two protagonists with 18 chapters each, but the story is laid out in a total of 36 episodes that weave back and forth between the stories. There is a lot of overlap and interaction between the two stories and they are basically telling two parts of the same tale. You can either play one all the way through and then the other, or play episode order which requires you to switch back and forth between the two. The latter is what I did.

The game takes place in a world that is strongly controlled by a church — the terms “heresy” and “heretic” are constantly used in the game of people who question the church’s teaching, or even non-humans. There are a group of “inquisitors” who are given extra-judicial and extra-national powers to hunt down and punish heresy. The English translation blunted these terms by using “inquirer” and “heathen”. I don’t know if this was a conscious decision or if it was simply ignorance of the translators for what the terms mean. It can be something of a challenge to deal with this kind of thing because Japanese games frequently use terms that were originally coined to refer to the Catholic Church, but they are then applied to any fictional religion that is sort of Christian-like. Translators perhaps want to avoid the strongly loaded Catholic terms to avoid giving a connotation to the terms that they don’t have in Japanese, but I don’t know whether they think of it this closely.

Lacryma Christi, the woman protagonist, is a Holy Knight devoted to the church, with a strong belief in its teachings. She’s the daughter of Cainas, a deceased hero, and is revered as a holy woman. Toxa is the son of a merchant who dreams of being a knight. Both are involved with the local guard of the Crossland kingdom, operating in the Shinon barony. The story first involves fighting against a bandit group, but soon expands to involve a plot by certain people in the church to summon the holy land of Eden.

The story and characters are definitely a strong point of the game. Each character gets a fair amount of time and development, and the overall story is interesting as well. Amano’s art is also memorable in highlighting the characters.

The other worldbuilding aspect that has more to do with the system is Kartia. These are a type of card that people can use to “imagine” things, writing them on the materials to make them appear. They are used for a lot of things in the world, but all of the “texts” are copies of the Originals that can be used for great power, although often at a great cost to the user.

In terms of the system, you find “texts” in the stages (either from beating enemies, opening chests, or burning barrels/boxes/etc, or as a stage reward). These texts can be combined to do three primary things, and each use takes one or more of your materials (Silk, Mithril, or World Tree).

Most of the combinations are given to you and you just have to select them, but you can usually add additional texts to increase the power. For the most part the additional texts you add just up the power without any relevance to what the text actually is (each one is a kanji character), but there are a few hidden combinations that can make additional items not listed.

The first thing you can do with the kartia is make equipment. There are no shops in the game so this is the only way to get new equipment other than finding it in a stage. There are six types of weapons, and six armors (two head, two body, two leg/foot).

The second thing you can do is cast spells. It doesn’t look like I took a screenshot of that, but the spells window is similar to the others — you pick a base spell (which are sorted into about 8-10 basic types) and then you can add additional texts to increase the power. The different classes of spells are elemental types, some of which have AoE, can heal, or burn things, raise and lower the ground, etc. There are no buff or debuff spells.

The third thing you do is summon Phantoms (幻獣). These are summoned monsters that can fight alongside you. They come in three basic types, and the types operate on a rock-paper-scissors system (which applies only to the phantoms themselves, not the human characters). They can gain levels and equip things, but if they reach 0 hp they die and cannot be revived. You can summon them before a battle starts, or use certain characters’ turns to summon them during battle (although they appear with their turn already used).

Each route is made up of 18 stages, played back to back with no alternate routes or anything in between the battles (other than story scenes). The only thing you can do between stages is play the Arena, where you are provided with a stock of monsters to fight against a group of enemies. You can’t gain XP here, only Kartia materials. I never used it.

The battle system is relatively complicated with a lot of moving parts. In addition to the RPS system with the monsters that I mentioned before, height makes a big difference in weapons and armor. Spears work better when attacking from below, and axes work better when attacking from above. Helmets protect better against attacks from above, etc. Characters can counter attack unless they are ranged attackers. You can use Quake to raise and lower the ground.

The system has two aspects that I do not like. First, any human character reaching 0 hp means a game over. This means you have to be aware of letting monsters gang up on your guys. Second, the lower a character’s HP, the worse they fight. This is a system that is not commonly used in games, and I never like it when it is. It may be realistic but it’s not very fun.

The Phantoms are a big problem in the game. They are extremely difficult to keep alive. They always start at level 1, and because the RPS system has such a huge effect, it’s very difficult to keep them from getting killed by opposing monsters who have good compatibility with them. However, they are very cheap to summon, so especially early on in the game they can be used profitably as cannon fodder. I never had one higher than level 2, but I wonder how effective one would be if you actually managed to get them to a high level and equip them with some decent stuff.

However, it’s not particularly relevant because after the first 4 or 5 stages, the game is extremely easy. Your human characters quickly reach a level where the enemies can’t do much against you even if they gang up on you, and you can defeat almost any enemy with just a few hits. There are still a couple of situations that are easier if you summon some monsters, and the final bosses take a little bit of strategy (particularly on Toxa’s route), but for the most part you can just send in your human characters with swords and slice through everything.

Which was fine, because I found the system more cumbersome than fun, and so it was nice to be able to enjoy the story without having to worry too much about the battles. From what I can see, my opinion of “good story, meh gameplay” seems to be shared by most of the reviewers in both English and Japanese.

One other aspect that is commented on a lot is that because you can’t repeat stages, many of the Texts in the game are permanently missable. You definitely want to make sure that when possible, you do not clear the stage without getting all the chests and boxes/barrels, and defeating any enemies that are carrying Texts. There are also hidden items in the stages but I didn’t bother with any of them.

So overall this is an OK game, but give it a pass if you insist on having good gameplay — I do wonder what it would be like to play a game where you really try as hard as possible to build an army of the summoned phantoms. I have a feeling it would be more frustrating than anything else. I wish they could have made the phantoms more costly to summon, but have their levels and stats continue — unfortunately the disposable nature of the Phantoms is part of the plot.

The next random game I chose was another SRPG so next week will be Esper Dream for the Famicom Disk System.

Sekaiju no Meikyuu / Etrian Odyssey (DS)

Sekaiju no Meikyuu (世界樹の迷宮), released 1/18/2007, developed by Atlus

My next randomly chosen game came up as Elminage, which is a first-person dungeon crawler. It seems to be a nearly exact copy of Wizardry, and since I had already played a Wizardry game recently I decided instead to play Sekaiju no Meikyuu. The title means “Labyrinth of the World Tree,” but it was localized as Etrian Odyssey. I had heard about this game for a long time but never played it before.

Since it uses the stylus, I pulled out my actual DS to play it — this is the first time I’ve played a game on the actual console in years. Of course this meant I could not take screenshots so all the pictures will be borrowed from Atlus’ official site, Wikipedia, and other review sites (I took them from IGN and Ars Technica).

According to the JP Wikipedia article, the designers were also heavily inspired by Wizardry, which is not surprising — they were trying to make a new kind of “hardcore” game that would be more appealing in 2007 while also capturing the nostalgia for old dungeon crawler games.

The most striking aspect of the system is that you have to make your own map, which surely was done to recapture the nostalgia of the graph paper pads in the 1980s. The map is always on the bottom screen of the DS, even when you are in town. You can set it to automatically mark the squares you have traveled over, but you have to use the stylus to draw the walls yourself. The screenshot above has the map zoomed out to show the whole floor, but if you zoom in you can then draw the walls and drag symbols to the map.

I found this pretty well implemented and entertaining; it did capture that mapping nostalgia without being too annoying or tedious.

You begin the game by creating characters. You assign a class and distribute skill points. I went with a Swordman (“Landsknecht” in the localization), Dark Hunter, Paladin (“Protector”), Medic, and Alchemist. I’m not sure why they changed the names of some of the classes. You also assign points to skills — you begin with 3 and get 1 more every time you level up. You can take a 10 level penalty to reassign your skill points, and it’s also possible to change class.

The skills work on a kind of tree system — for instance, if the Medic gets Healer level 1 skill, that unlocks Cure (the weakest heal spell). The skills all take MP, which are pretty limited in the game.

The battles are exactly what you would expect from a game trying to emulate Wizardry — you fight a group of monsters and have the usual choices. “Boost” is the only new thing, it’s basically an overlimit/super power mode that you can use when your boost gauge hits 100 (it increases when you get hit).

In town, you have the normal services you would expect. You can also take Missions from the guild (which are major quests), and Quests from the pub (which are more minor quests). The first thing you have to do is map a large portion of the first floor for your first Mission. This unlocks some of the basic town services and also lets you proceed to the next floors.

The 1st floor has relatively easy monsters and a few small events, treasures, and item farming points (where you can use skills like Mine and Gather to get items).

When you get items, you go back and sell them to the item store. This is the main way to get money, and also if you sell certain items or combination of items it will unlock new equipment and items in the shop.

After mapping that first part, there were no more missions available, so I went down to the second floor. There was a huge difficulty jump in the monsters and I found my characters getting killed from full HP in one hit by the elk enemies. There are also “F.O.E.” monsters that are much harder enemies that wander around on the map (you can see them).

I made several forays into the 2nd floor because it was going to take way too long to grind levels on the 1st floor without emulator speedup. But I kept getting killed and having to go back. Ultimately I hit a point where 3 of my 5 guys were dead and I had no more money left to revive them or use the inn, and this is where I quit playing.

The Japanese wikipedia article notes the high difficulty of the early game, and apparently this was intentional (again, to capture the classic Wizardry feel). The article also says the developers didn’t think the game would sell very well but they misjudged and it very quickly sold out.

But for me it’s too tedious, slow, and difficult to keep playing. However, I think the series has a lot of promise and I would like to try one of the later entries — I have a DS and 3DS (but not a switch). If you are familiar with the series, please tell me if there’s a later entry that is particularly good and I will try it.

SRPG Game 88 – Farland Saga (SAT)

Farland Saga (ファーランドサーガ), released 1/29/1998, developed and released by TGL

I gave a basic introduction to TGL’s Farland Series in a previous post, and I have played the first two Farland Story games. This game was released very soon after the eight Farland Story games, and ported to the Saturn two years later.

This game is essentially the same as the previous ones but it makes two changes that address some of the biggest problems I had with the first games. The maps are a bit smaller but more importantly you don’t start so far away from the enemies, so you don’t waste half the playing time just moving your characters. Second, characters now do get new spells and powers when they level up, and the differences between characters are more than just “do they have a 1 or 2 attack range”.

Despite that, this is still a relatively bad game. One of the biggest problems that is probably unique to the Saturn port is how slowly the game plays. The load times are very long, and the enemy turns take forever. Possibly because of the limitations of the laptop I use to play these games, it’s basically impossible to use emulation speedup so this is a much bigger concern than when I play the Playstation games.

One other major problem with the game is that it’s now done in this 3/4 view, but you cannot rotate the camera. You can see from above that there are a lot of obstacles on the map, and it’s very easy to lose track of units or monsters that are behind obstacles, especially since there is no way to see who has not moved yet. More than once I figured out that I had forgotten about one of my characters because I couldn’t see them behind a tree, or forgot that a monster was on the screen. The only reason it works at all is that you can bring up an overhead map to see everyone’s positions.

Beyond the characters getting lost behind things, it’s also often very difficult to see where you can actually walk, or where the enemy units are in relation to your own guys. I often had to bring up the overhead map just to see what move I needed to make or to figure out why I wasn’t able to attack an enemy I thought I should be able to. The fact that you can’t move past your own allies is another annoyance.

The interface is another lazy annoyance. There is no between-stages part, so all equipment transferring, equipping, etc has to be done in battles. It probably won’t come as a surprise that there is no way to see whether one piece of equipment is better than the one you already have without manually checking.

The shop is another travesty — after every few stages you just get taken to a shop with no story reason for it, and you have only that one chance to buy things (if you accidentally press X you move on to the next stage). It also will probably not come as a surprise that it doesn’t show who can equip what or what the stats are, and all the equipment and items are in one long list that scrolls very slowly. Often when a shop came up I took that as a sign to quit for that session because I couldn’t face doing the equipment buying.

The system involves height and facing this time. The height part is a little bit half-assed though because it doesn’t affect missile weapons or spells at all. The obstacles also don’t block them at all — the sticks and spears that hit multiple targets can go through walls and trees.

Spellcasters recover a bit of MP per round so this allows for more spellcasting, although the most expensive spells will require some MP restore items to be able to use them well. They also grow in effectiveness as you level, which is nice.

Another big problem about the system is that the effect of a difference in levels, so that lower leveled characters are often ineffective in battle. This is coupled with the annoying system that grants XP based on how much damage you did, which makes it very hard for the behind characters to catch up.

The game has 25 main stages, and then after the credits roll you can load your save to play another 25 stages. While there is some story in that part, 20 of the 25 stages are just different floors of a tower, and I considered the game beaten when I had just done the first part.

The story is the best part of the game — it’s not great, but it’s entertaining enough and all the dialogue is voiced by well known (at least in 1998) voice actors.

The game takes place on a (large) island where there are two different kingdoms, Yohk and Barth. The two kingdoms have been in a long war that has recently concluded with peace. In addition, there is a land across the mountains called Thulk, which is home to the “mazoku” (demon/vampire/etc) species that is distrusted by both human kingdoms. Recently someone named Avi has appeared in Thulk and pushed for Thulk to be an actual recognized country, and he has worked to make peace with both Yohk and Barth. The game begins in southern Barth with a young man Leon and his friend Ralf, who have both lost their parents and are in the care of Brian, who used to be a knight in the service of the court.

They head to the capital, and there Avi is murdered, with the blame being put on the princess of Barth, named Fam. The mazoku use this as justification to destroy the capital, killing the king and queen, and sending Fam and the other characters into exile. The party then heads north to Yohk to inform them of the impending mazoku attack.

The story develops decently and has some interesting twists, but on the whole it’s not worth suffering through the bad gameplay and sluggishness to experience it. I can’t recommend this game at all. Unfortunately we have one more Farland game (later in 1998) but then the series will be over (at least as far as the console ports).

I chose randomly for the next game, and it landed on Elminage Original for the PSP. This is a port of a DS game that was ported from PS2. It’s a “blobber” first-person dungeon explorer, but it seems very close to Wizardry in its whole style and gameplay. Since I recently played a Wizardry game (Gaiden 4), I decided instead to try out Sekaiju no Meikyuu (Etrian Odyssey) for the DS — a game in the same genre that I’ve wanted to try for a while. So that will be next week’s post.

Dragon Quest II (FC)

Dragon Quest II (ドラゴンクエストII 悪霊の神々), released on Famicom 1/26/1987, developed by Chunsoft, published by ENIX

This is the first “random selection” game. The random draw gave me a strategy RPG, so I played the oldest game instead. Dragon Quest II is the second in the long-running Dragon Quest series, coming out only 6 months after the first one. As with the first one, it was released in the US several years later with a few changes (an added opening sequence and changing the passwords to battery save are the main ones).

There’s one thing I didn’t mention in my Dragon Quest review that I later noticed on the Japanese Wikipedia page, and that’s how friendly the game is in comparison to other RPGs and RPG-adjacent games at the time. If you look at every other game I’ve done for this early JRPGs segment of the blog, nearly all of them just start off by plopping you down in a starting screen with no indication of what you should do. The games are often full of incomprehensible secrets with no hints, and start you off with enemies that can kill you in a few hits if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Apparently this is how a pre-released version of DQ1 started, but when they tested the game out on some kids they didn’t figure out that they could enter the towns and had no idea what to do. So they modified the game to start you in the king’s chamber and force you to use some of the basic game mechanics just to leave the castle. On the whole, the game is much easier to finish without consulting outside hint guides/etc than any of the other games released at the time.

I think this represents the RPG genre’s slow emergence from the way that other games worked at the time. When you played a typical game in an arcade (or the first few years of Famicom releases), it was not that unusual to die quickly and get a game over in a few minutes. The idea that you might need to play the first screen a few times before you can even get much of a start was not that unusual. And few games could be “finished”, so the designers didn’t necessarily feel the need to provide fair hints and an easy way to complete the game.

Also if they looked to computer game models, they would see punishingly difficult games like Wizardry and Ultima that also had few hints, and not much of a sense of fair play.

All that is to say that I think Dragon Quest’s popularity may be at least in part because it was one of the first (if not the first) RPGs that was kinder to the player and didn’t seem to take it as a goal to annihilate the player’s party or character whenever possible.

Because of the quick development time, it’s not surprising that the game is essentially a refinement of DQ1. It is a much larger game than the first one, but the biggest change is that you now have 3 party members vs. groups of enemies, rather than just the 1 vs 1 fights of the original game.

The story is a sequel to DQ1, with the main character and his two companions being descendants of Loto (Erdrick) from the first game. You begin as the Prince of Lorasia (Midenhall). The King hears that Moonbroke has been destroyed by Hargon, and sends you out to defeat Hargon after collecting your two cousins, the Prince of Samartria (Cannock) and the Princess of Moonbroke. I believe this is basically all the story of the game.

At the beginning you have only Lorasia, who is essentially a fighter class that can’t use any magic. This means the early part of the game is very much dependent on levelling and having the right equipment, although as usual the “die and lose half your gold” system means that you do not have to be extremely cautious in your explorations.

In my Super Famicom reviews I often referred to games as having a “Dragon Quest II system” (which I sometimes called AMID for Attack, Magic, Item, Defend). I wanted to play this for at least the first few dungeons to see if that judgment was accurate, and I think it is.

The first task is to find the Prince of Samartria, and you start out on a fairly small island that you can’t leave until you find him, which is a kind way to start the game out. You basically have to follow him around to various places and hear that he’s already left, while at the same time trying to get more levels and money to make your character better. The fact that Lorasia has no spells means your healing is entirely dependent on herbs (and antidotes), and the game has no bag like the one added in later. So there is some inventory juggling needed.

Eventually after going around to various places (including the cave above), I finally found Samartria in an inn and he joined the team. He is basically a combination healer and attacker.

He begins at level 1, which means it’s good to do a bit of levelling before we leave this continent for the next one, hoping to find the Moonbroke Princess. Before leaving you can also get the Silver Key, which is technically optional. In DQ1 you had to buy keys that were used up after one use, but this game introduced the system that would be used at least through Dragon Quest VI, where you find increasingly powerful keys that open certain kinds of doors. I’ve always liked this system, where you have a locked door in an early town or dungeon that you know you will need to come back to later when you have the right key.

This is one of the passwords

The next continent has the destroyed castle of Moonbroke. There you can learn that the princess has been turned into a dog, and that the Mirror of Ra can cure her. Someone tells you about a marsh that’s near bridges — I didn’t find any clue that specifically said this is where the mirror is but I guess you assume that if someone tells you about a location it’s important.

Once you get the mirror, you can restore the Princess and she joins the team. She is a magician character — these kinds of characters are often underpowered and difficult to use. As I mentioned in many of my “DQ2 clone” reviews, it took a long time for JRPG designers to break out of the Dungeons and Dragons/Wizardry system which dictates that there is basically no way to restore magic points except to rest. This means that magician characters often cannot freely cast spells because their MP are so limited, and they’re usually worthless as attackers as well. Eventually designers figured out that it’s OK to let people restore their MP and cast more spells.

This is where I decided to stop. This game is well known for being quite difficult and having a lot of balance issues, and one of the main things the various remakes of the game do is smooth this out a bit. They allow better equipment for the companions, easier level ups, and just generally a better balance and less frustrating game. Many years ago I played DQ2 on Game Boy, but I found even that version fairly frustrating to play, so maybe this game’s day has simply passed. But at the time it came out I can see why it was popular; compared to everything else it shows a level of development and amount of content that no other console game could match.

SRPG Game 87 – Back Gainer (Awakening Chapter) (PS1/SAT)

Back Gainer (バックガイナー よみがえる勇者たち 覚醒編「ガイナー転生」), released 1/29/1998 (PS1), and 7/30/1998 (SAT), developed by Ving

The SRPGs are back! In 1996, Ving released a game called Harukaze Sentai V-Force, which was an attempt to make a game that would do its storytelling through high quality anime cutscenes. The anime scenes were well done (they were essentially at the level of a TV show or OVA of the time), but the reliance on these expensive anime scenes limited the amount of story they could tell. And also, perhaps because they had to spend so much of their resources on the anime, the game itself was poorly designed and not much fun.

At the time, I said that I didn’t think Ving tried this again but I was entirely wrong — this game is another attempt to do the same thing as V-Force, and it’s basically has the same plusses and minuses of the previous game. Even before getting into the specifics of the game, there’s a huge problem with the way it was released. For V-Force, I think they realized the limitations of what they were doing, and they chose to tell a story that had a conclusion, but that contained significant foreshadowing for a sequel (that was never released).

In this case, they chose to make a longer base story, and release the game in three separate parts. However, each part was not a standalone complete game — the first game has only 9 stages and takes about 10 hours to complete, and the second game has (I think) 7 stages. The third game was never released, probably due to poor sales of the first ones. So essentially you are playing a game that is only 2/3 complete, and the conclusion to the story is unknown.

Obviously that is a big reason to avoid this game, although in theory it still might be worth playing if the gameplay is fun (especially now when you don’t have to pay full price for both games). Unfortunately, the gameplay is bad — at least as bad as V-Force, if not worse.

Each mech has a “synchro level” and a “burning level”. The Synchro Level affects various things, but the most important is that if it falls below 5, you can only move and use the Synchro command (which takes Burning points). Burning is what you get from being attacked and taking damage. You can use it for special moves, to increase your synchro rate, and you can spend 60 (I think) points to enter “burning mode”, which lasts for one turn and greatly increases your stats and move rate. The enemies also have synchro rate and burning.

That doesn’t sound too bad, so what’s the problem?

For one thing, all attacks except for map (multi-hit) attacks are 100% hit rate. There is also no “zone of control”. This makes it very hard to protect your units. Second, too many of the enemies have map attacks. Third, the maps usually involve a pretty tight time limit plus numerous waves of surprise reinforcements.

But all of this is not necessarily bad; it could still add up to be a challenging but enjoyable game. What I think really pushes it over into being tedious and unfun is that there is little to no way to upgrade or change your own mechs. You can level up the pilots, but the stats of the mechs never change (including HP). There was one time when I was allowed to shift around the weapons equipped, but after that, I never found a way to do it again. This means that while the enemies keep getting stronger and more numerous, and the stages more difficult, your party basically seems the same, which feels frustrating.

Being attacked reduces your synchro rate, and so you can also find yourself having to waste a bunch of turns on the synchro command.

As with V-Force, each attack comes with a little anime clip, but you can’t skip it or turn it off the way you could in the previous game. This makes the stages take a lot longer.

The basic story involves the high school students Shin and Natsumi. When they stumble in to a fight between some monstrous things and some people in powered suits, it turns out that they have an amazingly high synchro level with the suits and are able to pilot them well.

They join a special attack group of the Japan forces, who are dedicated to fighting these enemies (and who are all women). As the story progresses, it turns out that both Shin and Natsumi are reincarnations of warriors, and in some stages they are able to become “Gainers”, a sort of hybrid being that fights much better than the normal suits.

The enemies are also reincarnations from the same place — they recognize Raizetsu (Shin’s Gainer form) as the most powerful warrior of the previous age, although he hasn’t awakened to his full power yet. The enemies are looking for vessels to act as hosts for their own reincarnated warriors, and they are particularly concerned about finding one for Lucita, who seems to be their leader.

The story has familiar elements — it’s heavily criticized for being a combination of cliches from other mech series (particularly Evangelion and Sakura Taisen). I actually thought the story was fairly interesting and better than V-Force, despite the cliches.

I made it up to stage 8 out of 9, but that stage had unlimited reinforcements and starts you off with only one unit — I tried to rush the boss but a bunch of powerful reinforcements arrived, and it just didn’t seem worth it to keep playing an unfinished game. I also will not be playing the second part — apparently they added an Easy Mode, and if the 3rd part had actually been released I might continue just to see how the story ends up.

My impression from the Japanese blogs and such is that V-Force was already considered a kusoge (bad game) and that this game is considered to be even worse. I’m certain this was Ving’s last attempt to do this kind of game (and almost their last game before they exited the game market), but I’m not sure if any other company tried it again. I just don’t think it’s likely to work unless you get a situation where a company is willing to give the game enough of a budget that both the anime cutscenes and the gameplay development can be fully supported.

SFC Wrap-up

7 years ago I decided to play all the RPGs for the Super Famicom that had not been released in English. I now have completed this, more or less. There are some games I skipped that perhaps I shouldn’t have, some games I didn’t finish, and a few that I “finished” on a technicality. But I feel like I fulfilled what I set out to do.

If you’ve read many of my posts this may not be a big surprise, but the games on the whole were much worse than I thought they would be. I wasn’t expecting to find a ton of games that could match up to the stuff Square was releasing, but I thought more companies would at least copy them. It’s amazing that Final Fantasy VI, if I had played it, would have been game 48 out of 129. And yet FF6 is miles ahead of almost every game that was released after it.

It was surprising to find companies releasing games well into 1995 that were offering almost no innovation over the system that Dragon Quest II had in 1987. Even when they do add a bit of stuff, it’s often poorly implemented. The interfaces are also not great.

So it’s unfortunate that overall I enjoyed the games less than I thought I would. The saving grace was that for a lot of them I could listen to podcasts or watch some football game (in the fall and winter) while I played them. There was a point at which I was wondering whether I just didn’t like retro games at all, but when I did the SRPG games I enjoyed those much more than the SFC RPGs, even the ones that weren’t so great.

Here are my top 13 favorite games I played on the blog (not counting the SRPGs):

And the 10 worst games

In closing, thank you to everyone who read my posts over the years, and especially to those who commented. Also thanks to my Acer Spin 3 for running all the games, and the DS4 wireless controller for handling most of the input. In the 7 years since I started the blog I moved three times and worked at 4 different places, but this was sort of a standard thing that I kept up…hopefully I can continue going forward for at least another few years.

SFC Game 128 – Solid Runner

Solid Runner (ソリッドランナー), released 3/28/1997, developed by Sting, published by ASCII

It was a strange experience starting up this game — it’s been sitting on my list for years as the final game I would play (at least once I started the SRPG project so that FE5 was no longer the last game). I didn’t know anything about it and have never heard anyone say anything about the game. But it’s probably a good final game in that it embodies a lot of the frustration that has arisen for me throughout the project. The game has a nice setting and the story has interesting aspects, but it’s hampered by a high random encounter rate and an interface that isn’t always friendly.

Of course as is true for most late-era SFC games, the graphics are good. The main character is Shuu Askin, who lives in Solid City. The game is taking place in 21XX in the real world; I think Solid City is supposed to be in Japan although the entire game is in the city so it’s not completely clear. Shuu uses a “runner” (basically a mech) to carry out various jobs for money. He’s engaged to Airin, the daughter of Tao who is the head of “Dark Dragon”, the town’s Chinese mafia. Recently they are having trouble with Babaria, a gang that has come in from Europe, who is selling drugs in the town.

The first part of the game is just taking some random jobs — a number of them involve “bio monsters” who are some kind of human-monster hybrid; this may be caused by the drugs or some other thing.

Shuu has a computer where he takes requests. You can also pay a small amount of money for rumors and information, but I was never clear on exactly what the purpose of that was. Maybe it unlocks some of the requests? (I think a few of them are optional). Once you have a request you have to go out to the town.

You can visit any place you know about (or at least is relevant) in the 10 sectors. At some point you will proceed to a dungeon area.

The random encounter rate is high. Every battle is 1 vs 1, which is pretty unusual for an RPG at this stage. You can use one of 4 weapons, which are generally two shoulder-mounted missile type things (which can reload at the cost of a turn), and then your right and left hand (which can be freely assigned but I usually had one melee and one shooting weapon). If you do a shooting weapon you can also hold left or right to strafe.

Both you and the enemy act at the same time. Depending on the moves chosen, one side might get an advantage — for instance, a strafe shot has the advantage over a melee attack. As far as I know there is no way to tell what the enemy is going to do except that enemies seem to have patterns that you can memorize (maybe even including bosses).

You can also “boost” which will increase your power for that round but runs the risk of breaking the weapon.

When you level up, you get stat bonuses and then you can go back to your base and pay the mechanic to raise the mech’s HP (and recover it to full). This is the only way to recover your mech’s HP aside from using items. Money is only gotten from completing requests (I think there are only 10 or so that actually give money) or selling drop items. Later on you can fight in a tournament that gives some extra money, but money is quite tight in general.

Buying things from the shop is frustrating because (in 1997!) the interface is still not very good in terms of showing you what kinds of items you are buying or how good they are compared to your current equipment.

The story is quite dark. Shuu used to be a soldier, but he quit after an incident he was involved in where civilians were killed by his troop. After a few missions, Babaria attacks Tao’s house, killing both him and Airin (Shuu’s fiancee). After that, Shuu’s goal is simply to take down Babaria.

Many of the requests are also quite dark stories, often ending with the deaths of people you were trying to save.

Around a third of the way through the game I lost one of my weapons to a boost, and I equipped an item I had found in a dungeon. This turned out to be very lucky because it was a melee weapon that inflicts the lightning bolt status on the enemy, which lowers their hit rate. This weapon made 90% of the remaining battles in the game trivial, including many of the bosses. The only enemies that presented any kind of challenge were ones that were immune to the status effect, and often I just ran from those fights.

I think the writer of the gamefaqs walkthrough was not aware of this because he recommends a ridiculous amount of grinding levels (especially near the end); I beat the game something like 30 levels below his recommendation.

The dungeons tend to be large and involve a lot of “throw switch to open door” or “find the keycard”. There were times when I turned on a no-encounter cheat because of how frustrating it was to figure out where to go when you are encountering monsters every few steps.

The storyline grows to involve Babaria’s research into bio creatures, and the attempts of some of the creatures to form their own way aside from humans. Babaria’s leader is I believe supposed to be a descendant of either Hitler or one of the high ranking Nazis.

Overall the story is not bad, and it’s unfortunate that it wasn’t paired with a somewhat better system — this is far from the worst I’ve played but there were so many ways that it could have been improved.

The end of the game at least is relatively happy, with Shuu finding a new love and continuing his work in Solid City.

So that is it — with game 128 I have (more or less) completed the project I set out to do when I started seven years ago nearly to the day (my first post was Feb 3, 2017 but I don’t know if that was the exact day I started playing GD Leen). It is very nice to have this off my plate.

I will do “final thoughts” post on the Super Famicom Games sometime in the middle of this week, and then starting next Saturday we’ll be back to 1998 SRPGs.

SFC Game 127 – Dark Law: Meaning of Death

DARK LAW 〜Meaning of Death〜, released 3/28/1997, released by ASCII

ASCII is responsible for a lot of the late Super Famicom RPGs. This one fits in to a kind of “spiritual trilogy” with Dark Lord (for Famicom) and Wizap! When I played Wizap! I found it difficult to play, with a rather inscrutable system and annoying gameplay. I have the same feeling about Dark Law. It’s interesting that even the positive reviews of the game (both in English and Japanese) spend most of the review trashing the game but then say that “despite this I enjoyed it” or “you will feel accomplished if you beat it.”

The story involves two gods that are normally in balance, but the evil god has gained too much power, and now in the land of Rayfoll, monsters have appeared. You begin by creating between 1 and 4 characters (just names, genders, and assigning stat points). You can use up to 3 of them at a time. None of them have any story.

There are basically two things you can do in the game. The first is go to a cave outside of the town where you can explore a large-ish dungeon, fighting monsters and finding treasures. The second thing is to find quests to do in town — there are a fairly limited number of these, and they depend on your level to appear. You get good XP awards from the quests, but not enough that you won’t also have to do some grinding in the dungeon. I believe that all the quests are optional except the final one, which you need to be at level 13 to access.

The first character you create begins in an ancient temple with no memory. She heads to a nearby hut of a farmer Oriona and his daughter. After doing some hoeing for the farmer, evil troops come by and burn his house, kill him, and (possibly) abduct the daughter. Your MC heads to the nearby town to tell the King about what happened.

Once you talk to the King it’s basically freedom until the end. The first huge barrier you run into is the severe money limitation in the game. It is very difficult to get money even to buy the most basic equipment for your characters. You get some money from clearing certain quests. When you level up, you get money from your characters’ jobs (which you assign to them at a building in town — the money listed there is the money you get, not the money it costs to take the job). You can also sell some things you find. However, the money you get from these three sources is nowhere near enough. Maybe some people like the idea of sweating over the purchase of even the weakest weapons and armor, but I didn’t find it particularly fun (and this is a frequently criticized area of the game).

The quests feel very much like a tabletop RPG — I think they were going for a similar feeling to a game like Sword World SFC. However, that game was far superior to this one. A big problem with the quests is that so much of what you have to do is counterintuitive and mysterious, often requiring you to check things 3 or 4 times. One particularly egregious section is where you are trying to get a prism out of a wall. You are told “The prism is impossible to move” but you just have to keep hitting circle several more times with that same message, and then the encasing will break and you get the prism. (This is even putting aside the fact that getting the prism is not an obvious way to advance in the first place). Other places you just have to keep wandering around talking to people multiple times and examining seemingly unconnected areas of the map.

The stories in the subquests are interesting, although frequently tragic and sad. The first one involves the sighting of a mysterious wolf being in the forest. The second involves a dog who seemingly dies of old age but then returns to life the next day. The third involves the visit of a grim reaper to someone who shouldn’t be ready for death. These little stories are definitely the high point of the game, but they’re embedded in a virtually unplayable system that makes them unrewarding to see through to the conclusion.

The combat is done in a TRPG style. Each character has an action point meter that depletes when you move. You attack by facing an enemy, and if you have enough attack points the enemy will flash and you can attack. It’s a workable system, but healing is so expensive and spells so difficult to get that it seems like you want to have missile weapons on all your characters so they can avoid as many attacks as possible.

There is a magic system in the game, but you either have to buy the spells (at great cost) or make them yourself using a character with the “scroll” ability (they still cost money and you have to know some formulas; I used a walkthrough so I don’t know how you’re actually supposed to know the formulas). However, getting the scroll ability is random on level up, and levels are very limited.

The last sentence brings up another huge issue with the game — the incredible amount of randomness. Your hits may do 1 or 15 damage. Level ups vary greatly in how good or bad they are. Certain screens have potential random encounters that are devastating. You can save at any time and there’s even a “reroll luck” in the status menu when shows (I guess) that the designers recognized how swingy the game is.

In the end, I just found very little to enjoy about this game. I played the first three quests but when I realized I was going to have to grind over 1000 XP in the cave to access the next quest I decided that was enough — fortunately there is a translation patch so I can move on. I do like the idea of the tabletop-like atmosphere, which is one reason I enjoyed Sword World SFC so much despite its problems. But this one just had way too many problems for me to continue.

Next up is Solid Runner, the final SFC game! (I’ve actually already finished it)

SFC Game 126 – BUSHI Seiryuuden

BUSHI Seiryuuden: Futari no Yuusha (BUSHI青龍伝〜二人の勇者〜), released 1/17/1997, developed by Game Freak, released by T&E Soft

We are into 1997! By this point the Playstation and Saturn had eclipsed the Super Famicom (with FF7 coming out in January 1997). If you look at this chart from Game Data Room, it’s clear how the trend was going:

This game was developed by Game Freak, which of course is best known for the Pokemon series. What we have here is an interesting blend of styles — it appears like an action RPG but is actually turn based. The subtitle means “Two heroes” and refers to the two characters that you control during the fight sections.

The opening scene relates a myth about the creation of the world, and then we start in Mamoshima with the main character who is turning 15 (who we’ll name Kurisu)

That dog just follows you around in the first area, he’s not an actual companion

The graphics are quite nice, as you would expect from a game developed this late. Kurisu grabs his father’s sword and goes down to the shore to practice with Ido, and then you are able to cut bushes away so that you can proceed north. The game works essentially on a series of screens that are top down like the above. In the woods, Kurisu saves a small spherical being called Wokuu, who claims to be a girl that was changed into a monster — she is the second hero of the title. Returning home, Kurisu finds his house on fire.

A monster has stolen Kurisu’s sister, and Kurisu (after getting a bit more training from Ido) heads out to try to save her. After this first screen, there are monsters on the top-down areas, which somehow I do not have a picture of. They move one square for each square you move. You can swing your sword at them to get first attack, although if your level is too high it will simply kill them instead. When you get in a battle, it switches to a separate screen.

First, you get a target number of turns (7 in this case). For each turn under that target, you will get 1 “magatama” bead. Kurisu soon learns that collecting these beads is essential to destroying a large tower that is spawning the enemies appearing in the world.

The battles take place on a 2D field. As on the overworld map, you trade actions — you take one action, then all the enemies each take one action. The actions include moving, swinging your sword, and using a charge attack (which hits multiple enemies but makes you lose a few turns recovering). Wokuu can pick you up, which is the only way you can jump in this game. She can do a short or high jump but can only carry you for a couple of moves. You can also raise a shield, which will get broken by an enemy attack or if you swing your sword. The shield can also be thrown to act as a distance attack. Finally, as you progress in the game, Wokuu will get more abilities (such as the ability to go attack enemies herself).

The system is well done, I think. The enemies have a variety of attacks and patterns, and you will have to make use of all of your capabilities to clear the battles, especially clearing them under the turn target to get the magatama. You have to change your tactics based on the specific enemy, as well as whether they’re above or below you, and you get a variety of additional moves as you progress through the game. It means that even fights against easy enemies are still worth thinking over because you need those magatama to win the game.

When you enter a cave or dungeon (or the like), it becomes a larger 2D side scrolling map.

In these areas the controls and gameplay are identical to the battles on the overworld, except that there is no target turn number and you can’t get the magatama. In these sections, Wokuu’s ability to stop your falling (by hitting X when you are falling) is more useful, and you have to use it to get some of the treasures. You can also hit select to see enemy HP, and in these kind of places it will reveal breakable walls as well.

The main goal in the first section is to remove the mushrooms from blocking your way to leaving the first island. Along the way you fight enemies and get some bits of info about the backstory of the war of the gods.

The second area is buffeted by snow; here we have two goals, one is to stop the snow, and the other is to get a more powerful sword that can cut through the stumps. Stopping the snow involves recovering a mirror that can reflect the sunlight back to the area.

After accomplishing these goals, Kurisu finally chases down the monster that captured his sister, and chases it through the next large dungeon.

The bird boss is not all that difficult, but at this point the game froze after I beat the boss. I could not pass this freeze — I tried changing the emulator settings, using a different rom, and even a different emulator, replaying the dungeon and fighting the boss again, and every time it froze. This isn’t a known bug, I don’t think, since people have played through the whole game with and without the translation patch. I’m not sure if starting over from the beginning would let me progress, but at least for now I’m not going to do it.

It’s a shame because I was enjoying the game — the gameplay is an interesting mix of action and turn-based strategy, the music and graphics are good, and the story is interesting enough.

One additional note — although this game gets generally good reviews, there’s one thing that everyone complains about. I mentioned above that you need to get the “magatama” beads by clearing battles quickly. The problem is that you end up needing an enormous amount of these beads just to get a bad ending, and a common experience people have is to reach the end of the game and find out that they need to do a whole bunch of grinding even just to get the worst ending. It’s definitely worth taking extra time as you play the game to get magatama beads to counteract this.

I’m disappointed I was not able to finish the game. I may replay it at some point in the future, or maybe if I can get a save game that starts after this boss I can continue there.

The next game up was supposed to be Milandra, but this is just a Mystery Dungeon clone so I will skip it and move on to Dark Law.

Zelda II – Adventures of Link (Famicom Disk System)

THE LEGEND OF ZELDA 2 リンクの冒険 – released 1/14/1987, developed and released by Nintendo

On my master list of console JRPGs this the 9th game. Out of those nine, only one of them (Dragon Quest) is the prototypical turn-based RPG that most people associate with the genre (particularly in the NES/SNES era). The other ones are adventure-style games (Zelda, Hydlide, Adventures of Valkyrie, Deadly Towers), action games that aren’t really RPGs (Druaga and Dragon Slayer), and one Wizardry-style maze game (Deep Dungeon).

The first Zelda game was one of those adventure-style games that I think many people do not consider an RPG, although I said in my previous post on the game that I’m not sure Japanese players at the time would have thought of it as fundamentally different from Hydlide or Adventures of Valkyrie.

Zelda II was intended by Miyamoto to be a totally different game, and it is — most of the game occurs on 2D side-scrolling maps, with a top-down overworld map. RPG elements are more strongly tied into the game.

The game, like Zelda 1, was originally released for the Famicom Disk System. This was a short-lived Famicom add-on that allowed for larger games, cheaper production, and the ability to save your progress, and also allowed you to use “disk writer” consoles to get new games. Although the FDS sold very well, there were a number of technical problems with the system and piracy was rampant. Within a few years, the technology for producing the cartridges had improved and become cheaper, rendering the FDS obsolete.

As with the first Zelda, this game was released in the US on a cartridge with a battery backed save. There were a number of changes, but most of them were small graphical or audio changes. The only substantial change is to the XP and levelling method.

In both versions, you gain XP from beating certain monsters and finding “P bags”. When you hit a certain amount of XP you can level up one of three areas – Life, Magic, or Attack. Life acts essentially as a defense stat, and Magic lowers the amount of magic points a spell costs.

In the US version that most people are familiar with, the levels cost different amounts of XP — for instance, level 1 attack is 200 XP but level 1 life is only 50. When you gain the necessary XP to level up a stat, you can choose to skip that one and continue saving for a different stat. If you die, you lose a life and go back to the beginning of the screen. If you get a game over, you go back to the beginning area of the game and lose any XP you have, but keep your levels.

In the Japanese version, when you get enough XP to level, you can choose any of the three stats to level up. The levels are also much cheaper than they are in the US version. However, when you game over in the original JP version, all of your levels reset to the lowest level you have — that is, if you had Attack 4, Magic 3, and Life 2 and got a game over, all three levels would be set to 2. This creates a lot more tension around a game over, and also means you want to keep your levels as equal as you can.

I did play (and beat) this game as a kid although I never liked it as much as the first Zelda game. This play was probably the first time I have touched the game since around 1990. I only played through the first palace.

The story involves Link trying to awaken Zelda (a different Zelda from the first game) by returning six crystals to temples and getting the Triforce of Courage. If he loses, Ganon will be reborn.

The overworld map is top down. When you step off the road, enemy icons start roaming around, and if you contact them, you get into a side-scrolling fight.

As in the first game, if you have max health you can shoot out a projectile from your sword.

The first task is to get the Shield spell from a nearby village and then head to the first palace in the desert. I had a strange problem where certain items were not appearing where they were supposed to be (a p bag, a heart container, and a magic container). Someone told me that I should use the third save slot, and when I did that the items were there. I’m not sure if this is an emulation bug or an issue with the dump of the ROM (the latter seems more likely).

I was able to get level 2 in all the abilities (which only takes 200 total XP as opposed to 350 in the US version). The palace is challenging to me, especially the yellow armor knights. Each palace has an item (as in the original Zelda); this one has the candle that lets you see in the dark caves. You have to find keys and explore the area until you get to the boss, who is not that difficult. He’s a horseman and you just repeatedly jump and hit his head until he dies. Restoring the crystal gives you a level up.

From there, it’s a while before the next palace — link needs to find a statue to learn the Jump spell, then go through to a new area of the land and find more items. This is where I stopped.

I don’t think this is a bad game, and I have a feeling that it holds up better than a lot of the action-RPG hybrids from this era, but we’ll see. There are a lot of them in the early slate of games. One thing I’ve really gained an appreciation for in doing this blog is how much certain games really did stand out among imitators and other things released at the time — it’s kind of amazing just how much better the original Zelda is than Hydlide, Valkyrie, and Deadly Towers.

No post next week, back on the 13th (I’m not sure if anyone actually checks on Saturday to see if I posted so this may not be a necessarily announcement…)