SRPG Game 90 – Sakura Taisen 2

Sakura Taisen 2 (サクラ大戦2), released 4/4/1998, developed by Red Company, published by Sega

This is the sequel to the original Sakura Taisen, which I covered earlier — the game is essentially the same as the first one so I won’t go over the basics again. There are only a few new features in the battles. There are combination super moves (which I never found useful), and then if two of your characters are both in range of an enemy there’s a random chance that they will join together in a combo attack. Finally, Ogami can change the overall tactics of the group which raise or lower move, attack, or defense. This last one is the only new feature that I found really changed the in battle tactics.

Ogami has been away from the theatre troupe for a year, and now he is back to meet his one true love Sakura. But of course new enemies threaten Tokyo. All of the girls from the first game return, along with two new ones.

Orihime is a half-Italian woman who seems to hate all Japanese men. Her mech has an area of effect attack although it does not target the spaces immediately adjacent to her.

Reni is from Germany; everyone thinks she’s a man at first but it turns out she is a girl. Her attack is like Sumire’s but it’s a 3-range rather than just 2.

The first stages proceed along the same lines as the first game — they’re a chance to introduce the new characters, revisit the old ones, and introduce the enemy group. This time the group is five demon-like characters headed by “demon mask”, called the Black Five.

Tsuchigumo, one of the five

In these first stages there’s not a whole lot of information about what the enemy’s goal is; they are doing everything for a certain unnamed person, and their main aim at first seems to be just to eliminate the Flower Battalion. In the first set of stages we manage to kill two of the five (Kasha the fire obsessed guy, and Suiko the ice person). At the same time, the Battalion is facing pressure from the army. One of the higher ups in the army (Kyogoku Keigo) does not like the group and uses political pressure to cut the funding, although we manage to reinstate it later.

Eventually these two strands come together as Kyogoku tries to take over the government with the help of the Black Five. However, we manage to thwart the group and Kyogoku commits suicide after the rebellion fails. After this there is an entire chapter that has no battles. For me, Ogami went to visit Sakura’s house but I think that’s because my love value with Sakura is the highest — I wonder if there are different scenes for all the different characters.

But of course the game is not over yet because there are still 3 stages. In the first game there was also this kind of double plot, but the second part went into some pretty bizarre places. The story this time is a little more grounded, I suppose. It turns out that Kyogoku did not actually die, and all the battles in the first part really had nothing to do with overthrowing the government. They were actually to gather power to revive an ancient flying fortress called Musashi that Kyogoku will use to cleanse the capital and rule over it as a new emperor.

But we use the revamped airship from the last game to make it to the Musashi. It turns out that the Demon Mask is Sakura’s dad, who has been revived by Kyogoku.

After a tearful reunion he helps us defend against Kyogoku’s attack but dies again in the process, and then we have to get to the main room to destroy all the power generators. Eventually Kyogoku ends up getting absorbed into a big robot called Shinno that serves as the final boss.

The game ends with Ogami getting promoted but then sent off to France on assignment which sets up for the third game.

Overall, I think the story was enjoyable enough. It had some similarities to the first game but I liked the links to the Kouma War that had been mentioned before and the new characters were interesting. The gameplay wasn’t as interesting. One reason I’m doing SRPGs instead of just strategy games is that I like to have some control over the development of your characters, and here it’s basically just fixed upgrades (along with the trust bonuses from the adventure part). I still don’t like how you can waste time wandering around to empty locations during the free time sections. I think I have to give this game a B rather than the A rating I gave to the original game; I don’t think that means that ST1 is a better game than ST2. I think it’s simply that I was more interested in ST1 because it was new and a shorter game overall, and it’s in a genre that I’m not going to like as much as true SRPGs. I will play the third one, though.

For the next game, I wanted to play a PS1 RPG so I asked Karkalla‘s discord for suggestions. The first one was Grandia, a game I have always heard about, so that will be next. However, Grandia seems like a rather long game so I think what I am going to do is switch off between that and Shining Force III Part 2 each week.

Märchen Veil (FDS)

Märchen Veil (メルヘンヴェール), released 3/3/1987, developed by System SACOM

For various reasons I was not able to play that much in the past couple of weeks so I’m still not quite done with Sakura Taisen 2; I don’t think that game needs two posts so I will do another early RPG this weekend.

Märchen is a German word meaning “folktale” and was borrowed into Japanese; the “veil” in the title refers to a fictional race or monster type in the game. This game was originally released in 1985 for the PC88, and then ported to a bunch of other systems, including the Famicom Disk System in 1987. Unfortunately this is only half of the game, Märchen Veil II came out for computers but was not ported, so console players can only see half of the story.

You start out by creating a save file just like in Zelda.

You then are presented with the “Visual Stage”, which gives you the story, although it continues off what must have been the introductory story in the instruction manual. It’s fairy tale like, fitting the title — the main character is a prince of the lake kingdom, and after going through many trials he earned the love of a princess. But a wizard didn’t like this and teleported the prince away, changing him into a monster called a Veil. The prince finds that he has his sword as well as a bracelet that the princess had given him, and he sets out to find his way back to the princess.

Each of the eight stages has one of these “visual stage” at the beginning. In 1985 this was quite unusual; most RPGs and adventure-style games had no developing plot at all, and only a handful of games even had any dialogue in the game. For consoles, the two Dragon Quest games did have a lot of town dialogue, but even DQ2 doesn’t have all that much of a developing plot. So I suppose this was a selling point of the game at the time (of course by modern standards the cutscenes are pretty thin).

Then the action part begins. The original computer version operated on multiple screens like Hydlide and Zelda, but the FDS version has a scrolling map. It doesn’t scroll very smoothly, and the whole game is a bit choppy and sluggish.

It also follows the general pattern of the action-RPG-adventure hybrids from this area in that the difficulty level is pretty high and a lot of the content is hidden in secret areas with no hints. It’s not as bad as some games, but if you don’t use a walkthrough you will be wandering around a dying a lot before you figure out what is going on.

Your weapon is a sword that shoots things out of it. If you find additional hidden swords in the levels you can increase the number of projectiles (and maybe the power?) You get more hearts by killing certain monsters that drop fairies, and if you collect 4 fairies you get a heart upgrade. Refilling your health can only be done by finding full heals hidden in the stages, or sometimes beating enemies or destroying things on the map will give you a small refill.

There are a fair number of items in the game, like boots that make you walk over rough areas without slowing down, or a cape that lets you finish the first stage by flying over one area. But there are a lot of places on the map where you fall into a pit if you walk into it and you can only escape by mashing the attack button. There are other times where I suddenly died without really understanding why.

In the first stage you have to walk off the right side of the map, taking you to this weird area with random things shooting everywhere. If you get the cape above you can then finish the stage.

Once you reach that castle, it’s time for the second Visual Stage.

The prince meets Phoebus, who can’t help him but tells him to seek Neptune — this will require beating a monster, though.

Fortunately the monster has a safe place you can stand in (near the top) where you can just shoot it without dying.

That’s as far as I played — this is a pretty bad game; even in 1987 it was not reviewed very well. It’s nice to see that contemporary reviewers also complained about things like inscrutable secrets and high difficulty because it feels then like I’m not judging the game unfairly from a modern perspective. Even if you did want to play it for the “visual stage” aspect you only get half the game unless you hunt down Märchen Veil II for a computer system.

Next week will be the Sakura Taisen 2 post, then I am playing Grandia. I may have mentioned this before, but I basically missed the entire PS1 era of RPGs with the exception of the Final Fantasies, Xenogears, and Chrono Cross. So I do want to try some of these well known titles as well.

Esper Dream (FDS)

Esper Dream (エスパードリーム), released 2/20/1987, developed and published by Konami

This is the next early JRPG, another Famicom Disk System game. It’s an action RPG, but I think it’s the best of these early action-RPG-adventure hybrid games I’ve played next to the original Zelda. It also fully qualifies as an action RPG under my original criteria, having both experience levels, equipment, and exploration.

There are two big things that make it a better playing experience than other games of this early era. First, the game ramps the difficulty up slowly, it doesn’t immediately drop you in a place where you are going to die in 5 seconds if you don’t immediately figure out the system (which is true of Hydlide, Valkyrie, and Deadly Towers). Second, the game doesn’t rely on hiding everything in random places with no hints as to where anything is. It would be perfectly doable to finish this game without a walkthrough.

The story is fairly simple and mostly just in the instruction manual. The main character is brought into this dream world (perhaps from the real world?) to use his psychic powers to save the mayor’s daughter Alice, defeat the demon Geerasauzan, and return to the real world. You begin in Brick Village, which has the mayor (who saves your game), a few shops, and entrances to each of the five worlds. Once you walk around and gather some information, you can go to the first world. One of the few issues with the game that still reflects the early era of video games is that the five worlds have a definite order of difficulty that you should do them in, but there’s no indication of that in the game, you just have to try them out to see which ones you can actually do.

The first world is a computer-themed one. Once you enter the worlds, you see paw prints on the ground. Some of them are fixed in one place, others will appear and move towards you. When you hit one, you get taken to a separate screen for combat.

In the separate battle screen, you move around and shoot at the enemies. At first that’s all you can do. You can also escape from battle by shooting one of the wall segments (randomly chosen, but it will turn red) and then escaping through there.

Beating the enemies leaves behind gold purses, or more rarely, capsules that restore your HP and EP. Unfortunately you destroy these if you hit them with your attacks.

Once you level up, you gain more max HP and EP, and at certain levels you will learn new Esper powers. You can also buy some of these powers in town, but that’s a waste of money. The first power is a “psi beam” that creates a wave across the screen, damaging enemies. Other powers include a town warp, a brief invincibility barrier, and healing. The powers take EP to use.

You can spend your money on equipment. Unfortunately there are only a few weapon and armor upgrades, and they are pretty expensive, but they help a lot. There are also some items you can buy like keys and items that restore you when you hit 0 hp. You can also find a fair number of items in the dungeon areas, including items that increase the power of your psi beam.

Each world has a boss that leaves behind a capsule you need to win the game.

I went through the first three worlds, but once you get to the fourth world the difficulty of the enemies raises sharply and there are no more buyable equipment upgrades (only one more armor upgrade in the last world). So you pretty much have to rely on the invincibility psi move, which requires a fair amount of EP. This is where you have to do some grinding, and where I decided to stop playing.

But as I said, this is a strong game for 1987 when it was released. If you can look past the disk swapping and the sometimes clunky mechanics, it’s a very playable retro game for someone who likes games from this period. There is an English patch.

There is a 1992 sequel to the game, released at the end of the Famicom’s life. According to Hardcore Gaming, it preserves the basic gameplay of the original but is a huge improvement and refinement. Maybe I will give it a try later, since I’m not locking myself into a chronological playthrough of these early games.

Next week, the Flower Division is back to save the capital again in Sakura Taisen 2.

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.