Phantasy Star (Master System)

I’ve long wanted to give the Phantasy Star series a go. And when I say “long,” I mean it. Gaming magazines of the early ’90s are how I first became aware of Sega’s premier take on the turn-based RPG. I was fascinated by their colorful blending of sword & sorcery iconography with the spaceships and laser guns of pulp science fiction. This same genre-bending approach is what kept my eyes glued to cartoons like He-Man and the Master of the Universe and Thundercats for much of the ’80s. Cool as the games looked, however, they were never quite enough to get me to defect to non-Nintendo hardware at a time when most young gamers were expected to settle on a single machine and stick with it for the long haul. No way was I rolling any dice when my Mario and Zelda were on the line.

That accounts for the lack of Phantasy Star goodness in my now depressingly distant childhood. What about the current century? Well, there’s no sense in sugar-coating it: I was avoiding having to map the original Phantasy Star’s dungeons. One thing I knew was that this game is packed with dozens of those old-school Wizardry style first-person mazes where everything looks alike and there’s no built-in map. Since my preferred approach to older games is to dive in with nothing but the original instruction booklet by my side and figure the rest out on my own, there was no way around having to meticulously fill a notebook with hand-drawn floor plans for these suckers. So I put it off, year after year.

No more! I finally took the plunge, and I must have fifty pages of twisted little corridors set down in ink to prove it. What I discovered was a technical marvel on the Master System and a respectable start to a legendary fantasy saga, albeit one with gameplay that’s best described as archaic, even by the standards of 1987.

Phantasy Star is a straightforward revenge story at heart. The opening cutscene introduces us to heroine Alis Landale, whose brother, Nero, is murdered in the streets by troops under the command of the tyrant Lassic. Alis swears on the spot to avenge Nero and overthrow Lassic. What follows is an extended multi-planet scavenger hunt for the allies and equipment needed to take down the most powerful man in the Algol star system, which I only learned today is a real place situated approximately 93 light years from Earth. I suppose this gives Phantasy Star the edge over its contemporaries in terms of realism. I defy you to point out Dragon Quest’s Alefgard on a star chart.

Any RPG fan will recognize the broad strokes of Phantasy Star. Town and wilderness exploration uses the customary zoomed-out overhead perspective, while the dungeons are depicted exclusively in first-person. Alis and friends are subject to a steady stream of random monster encounters whenever they venture outside town walls. These clashes serve as your primary source of the money and experience pointed needed to power-up the group. Leveling up, talking to NPCs, acquiring key items, and solving ever larger and more convoluted dungeons will eventually see the party ready to take on Lassic himself.

One thing this dry rundown doesn’t account for is just how utterly spectacular everything here looks relative to other 8-bit RPGs of the period. Sega assigned a virtual dream team of top talent to this project and it shows on each and every screen of the finished game. Some of this stuff could pass for early PC Engine graphics. The first time you approach one of the squat NPC sprites to initiate a conversation and the screen transitions into a detailed full-body portrait of the speaker instead of displaying a basic text box, you know you’re not playing Dragon Quest anymore. An even more striking effect for the time was the monsters having attack animations. Seeing a colossal squid-like enemy flailing its tentacles at the party or one of the dragons breathing fire would have been jaw-dropping to players on launch day. The crowning glory in this regard has to be the dungeons themselves, which feature stone corridors that appear to smoothy scroll around you as you traverse them. It took the programming genius of none other than future Sonic Team leader Yuji Naka to pull off a 3-D effect of this caliber on the Master System. In its own way, Phantasy Star is part of the same flashy Sega tradition as Hang-On, Afterburner, and other high-octane “super scaler” arcade cabinets of its era. It may be slow and menu-driven, but it still manages to showboat like nobody’s business.

The game’s setting also does a lot to set it apart from its more traditional fantasy peers. There are swords here, yes, but also laser swords! The Star Wars influence is obvious from the opening sequence, which depicts Lassic’s soldiers clad in some very familiar white armor. One of the three inhabited planets you’ll visit, Motavia, is a desert teeming with hostile Jawa analogues (alongside some Dune sandworms for good measure). These little flourishes are largely cosmetic. You don’t actually get to pilot any spaceships, for example. They merely act as fixed warp points from one self-contained section of overworld (“planet”) to another. That said, strong visual design like this can do a lot to engage the player’s imagination and make the whole affair feel far less generic. Phantasy Star absolutely succeeds on that front.

I’m glad I love Phantasy Star’s aesthetics so much, because its moment-to-moment combat and exploration is honestly kind of a drag. Ironically, this seems to be a direct side effect of the design team’s overarching emphasis on visual flair. Those cool animated monsters I mentioned? There’s no way the Master System was going to be up to the task of rendering more than one of them at a time. Thus, every encounter consists of your party squaring off against a single enemy type. This one limitation hinders the game’s combat system tremendously. Phantasy Star’s most prominent competitors, Dragon Quest II and Final Fantasy, both allowed for countless enemy formations made up of multiple monster types. Some baddies had abilities specifically designed to compliment those of their allies, echoing your own party’s dynamics and giving you more to consider over the course of the average battle. Combat in Phantasy Star gets old fast. Once you’ve fought a given monster, you’ve fought it. Nothing new is going to come along to recontextualize that same fight the second, third, or fiftieth time.

Similarly, smooth-scrolling 3-D dungeons that looked better than anything the competition could muster were a great selling point. Are they any fun, though? I certainly didn’t think so, especially since I was expected to conquer dozens of them. Even as a D&D lover who enjoys drawing a map or two on occasion, that’s way too much to ask. If you’ve seen one of Phantasy Star’s bare stone corridors, you’ve seen them all. Unless you find altering the shade of the masonry from blue to green to be truly transformative, that is. With everything looking the same, getting hopelessly lost is inevitable unless you’re either mapping every square of every maze religiously or you’re content to cheat and use somebody else’s guide. The thing is, you wouldn’t need to resort to either of these unpleasant alternatives if only the game’s designers had gone with the plain old utilitarian overhead view for dungeons. They opted to turned heads rather than prevent headaches.

I can definitely see how Phantasy Star won so many Master System players’ hearts with its offbeat setting and sheer presentational pizzazz. Sega pushed the hardware big time with this one, producing one of the foundational Japanese console RPGs. As for me, I’d much rather play one of its higher tier NES rivals. Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy are dowdier, sure, but at least they don’t bore me to tears or give me hand cramps. Looks aren’t everything. Thankfully, I feel like I’ve gotten my series homework out of the way and am now fully equipped to one day move on to the trio of Phantasy Star sequels on the Genesis, all of which feature more robust combat mechanics and easier to navigate dungeons. How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?

Gate of Thunder (TurboGrafx-16)

Having recently experienced an excellent action-platformer (Castlevania: Rondo of Blood) and an iconic RPG (Ys Book I & II), I’m understandably eager to continue my exploration of the PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 CD-ROM library. Given the system’s reputation as a shooter fan’s paradise, 1992’s Gate of Thunder seems like a natural choice. It was, after all, a pack-in title for the deluxe TurboDuo version of the hardware here in North America, sharing a disc with Bonk’s Adventure, Bonk’s Revenge, and Bomberman. If that’s not the best selection of software ever bundled with a game console, I couldn’t tell you what is. It was certainly a long-delayed step in the right direction. Sure, the TurboDuo was far too late and too pricey to salvage the TurboGrafx brand in this part of the world, but at least anyone who did buy in at that point got more to show for it than a measly copy of Keith Courage in Alpha Zones.

Gate of Thunder comes to us from developer Red Company, makers of the beloved Bonk series of mascot platformers and its spin-off, Air Zonk, which I consider to be one of the finest horizontal shooters available for the TurboGrafx. In other words, I had every reason to look forward to this one, and I’m pleased to report that Gate did not disappoint. It delivers just about everything you could want in a 16-bit shoot-’em-up: Blistering action, powerful weapons, intimidating bosses, exotic backdrops, flashy pyrotechnics, and a driving soundtrack. It’s also a shameless copycat so desperate to associate itself with Technosoft’s Thunder Force III that Red couldn’t be bothered to leave “Thunder” out of the title. Bit of a bad look there.

You play as space cop Hawk, captain of the Hunting Dog space fighter, out to defend planet Aries from the private armada of interstellar crime boss General Don Jingi. It’s hinted in the cutscenes that Hawk might have some sort of personal vendetta against the baddies, since he’s prone to brooding over a locket containing a picture of his (dead?) family. I’m sure the nameless hero of Konami’s Axelay can relate. Hawk is aided throughout his seven stage crusade by his partner, Esty, who periodically swoops down in her own Wild Cat ship to dispense power-ups. This is strictly a one-player game, so you never get to control Esty directly. I guess it’s still nice that they put some thought into to where all these helpful icons actually come from. Most other games don’t bother.

Like its Technosoft namesake, Gate of Thunder is a fast-paced affair. This is no cautious checkpoint shooter in the R-Type mold. Aggression is your best friend here, a fact emphasized by your ability to respawn in place after a death and continue the fight uninterrupted. The overall flow of the action is exhilarating and seems to effortlessly straddle that thin line separating challenge and frustration.

The Hunting Dog’s default attack is a simple straight-firing blue laser. Collecting those color-coded power-up orbs I mentioned grants access to two additional primary weapons: Green waves that fan out to deal slightly less damage over a wider area and the red earthquake, which deals immense damage to targets situated above and below you. Your ability to toggle between these three shots at any time forms the basis for much of the game’s strategy beyond the usual bullet dodging and enemy pattern memorization common to virtually all shooters. In general, the laser is best against most bosses, waves are for swarms of weak foes, and the earthquake makes short work of those pesky ceiling and floor targets.

Grabbing a second power-up corresponding to a particular weapon will upgrade it to a more powerful form. After that, every subsequent icon of that color will instead cause a huge energy wave to sweep across the screen in classic super bomb style. You do need to exercise some caution, however, as a death will strip you of your currently equipped weapon, with the exception of the laser, which can only be downgraded.

Rounding out your arsenal are an incredibly important shield that allows you to withstand three extra hits, a secondary homing missile weapon, and a pair of Gradius-inspired “option” satellites that flank your ship and mirror your primary shot. You’re able to manually pivot your options around to fire behind you when necessary, although rear assaults aren’t terribly common.

The blazing speed of the gameplay is complimented by Nick Wood’s relentless score. One could argue that the Red Book audio is the only thing here that truly required the CD medium. That’d be missing the mark in terms of criticism, though, as this sort of early ’90s instrumental hard rock is simply ideal to wreck aliens to.

There’s no mistake about it—from its visual design to its controls and weapon system, Gate of Thunder really is just Thunder Force III with real wailing guitars replacing the synthesized ones. If you were somehow able to swap entire levels around between the two games, I reckon the effect would be seamless enough that a player unfamiliar with the originals wouldn’t be able to spot the difference. That said, I’m not complaining! Ripping off an all-time great pretty much perfectly is a win in my book. In the context of a genre as traditionally no-nonsense and gameplay-driven as the auto-scrolling shooter, imitation can indeed be the sincerest form of flattery. Love Thunder Force III? Well, here come Red Company and Hudson Soft to essentially double its length while introducing no real flaws of note. I’ll take it, thanks.

If you must insist on something with more in the way of creative vision, you could skip over Gate in favor of its fantasy-themed pseudo-sequel, Lords of Thunder. Me, I’m not so hung up on innovation that I can’t recognize the entertainment potential in accurately recreating a masterpiece, even one that isn’t technically your own.

The Revenge of Shinobi (Genesis)

Can you believe it’s been over two-and-a-half years now since I’ve treated myself to a Shinobi outing? I did take a look at the tongue-in-cheek spin-off Alex Kidd in Shinobi World last Fall, but that game, while not without its charms, hardly counts. Time to remedy this with 1989’s The Revenge of Shinobi.

Revenge is the third entry in the series and the first to be developed specifically for a home console, as opposed to the arcades. Although not a launch title for the Genesis in North America, it’s remembered as a highlight of the system’s critical first year. Before the Super Nintendo hit the scene, it served as a vivid demonstration of Sega’s cutting edge 16-bit technology. This was no accident. Director Noriyoshi Ohba has stated in interviews that The Revenge of Shinobi (or The Super Shinobi, as it’s known in Japan) was intended from the start to showcase the new hardware’s strengths. Large sprites, multi-layered backgrounds, and Yuzo Koshiro’s sublime FM synth soundtrack collectively achieved their intended effect. One look at a commercial or even a magazine ad was all you needed to know that this one wouldn’t be coming to your humble NES.

Historical context is nice. A ninja game that’s a blast to play in the here and now is nicer. Since I was never a “Sega kid” growing up, it’ll be interesting to dive in and see if Revenge fits the bill.

Ninja master Joe Musashi is back. Unfortunately, so are his arch-foes in the Zeed crime syndicate. Now going by Neo Zeed, their agents have mortally wounded Joe’s master and kidnapped his lover, Naoko. This calls for one thing and one thing only: Revenge. Can Joe take down Neo Zeed and save Naoko before it’s too late? With two possible endings, that depends entirely on you.

Clever? Hardly. It’s clear what kind of guilty pleasure ninja movie vibe Ohba and company were aiming for, however, and I can’t fault them on that account. This is a game that proudly wears its pop culture influences on its sleeve, often to an absurd degree. Joe’s in-game resemblance to martial arts star Sonny Chiba is undeniable, for example. He also squares off against such luminaries as Batman, Spiderman, The Terminator, John Rambo, and Godzilla! Shockingly, Sega had no legal right to use any of these famous characters. The very idea of one of the world’s largest game publishers including this much stolen intellectual property in a marquee release is unfathomable today. It’s truly a testament to the Wild West nature of the ’80s game biz. Most of this offending character art was altered in subsequent revisions, so be sure to seek out the original for the most brazen, over-the-top boss fights possible.

Joe’s journey has been streamlined somewhat this time. There are no kidnapped children, time bombs, or other secondary objectives strung along the way, just eight stages of rock hard action-platforming to survive and eight bosses to kill. You get a solid lineup of level themes, encompassing an old-fashioned Japanese village, an airship interior, a busy freeway, various urban and industrial locales, and more. Many of these areas have their own environmental hazards to negotiate, such as the freeway’s speeding sports cars and the airship’s doors, which have a bad habit of popping open as Joe draws near and sucking him out mid-flight for an instant death. The only stage I didn’t end up enjoying was the very last one, a trite trial-and-error maze composed of countless identical doors. I know sewer and water levels get a bad rap, but does anyone out there actually like door mazes? I can’t imagine so.

The flow of the action here should be familiar to fans of arcade Shinobi. Joe Musashi isn’t exactly the swiftest ninja around with his measured walk and floaty moon jump. In other words, the breakneck “dash-and-slash” approach of a Ninja Gaiden is right out. Instead, it’s all about adopting a precise, methodical approach to threats.

All attacks are mapped to a single context-sensitive button. If an enemy is in melee range, pressing it will prompt Joe to lash out with sword swipes and kicks. If not, he’ll toss one of his shuriken blades. Unlike in the arcade, his shuriken supply is finite. Running out of ammo when facing a boss is something to avoid at all costs. Try to kill as many regular enemies as possible with melee strikes and keep an eye out for breakable crates containing bonus shuriken and other goodies.

Another new twist is the double jump. If you’ve played other platforming games, you’re likely already acquainted with the concept. Tap the button a second time during a jump to miraculously rebound off thin air and gain some added hang time. Might as well hoist a middle finger or two at physics while you’re at it. This technique is absolutely vital for success in Revenge of Shinobi. Too bad it’s a pain to pull off. There’s seemingly only a split-second near the apex of Joe’s first jump during which the command to initiate the second one will be accepted. Many of the game’s most frustrating moments are the result of just barely missing this strict input window and having to watch Joe plummet to his doom. It would almost be funny if your opportunities to continue after game over weren’t limited. A welcome addition on the whole, this feature really should have been made more user-friendly.

Your saving grace against the finicky controls and overall steep challenge is Joe’s potent ninja magic. There are four spells to choose from, each useful in its own right. You’re encouraged to choose wisely, since magic can only be used once per life. Unless you’re lucky enough to stumble across the rare hidden pickups that grant extra charges, that is. Your options are a fiery blaze that damages all on-screen opponents, a lightning shield that temporarily nullifies damage and prevents knockback, a jump booster, and my personal favorite: A suicide attack. Yup, you can cause Joe to explode and lose a life. Why would you do such a thing? Well, it deals heavy damage to foes. More importantly, it allows Joe to start his next life on the spot with a full health bar. There’s no break in the action and no getting sent back to the last checkpoint like usual. If you’re at death’s door near the end of a tough section, the sacrifice can be worth it to seal the deal and guarantee progression. It’s not often you see such a grim idea molded into a compelling game mechanic. I approve.

In fact, I approve of The Revenge of Shinobi in general. Its final stage is a bit of a letdown and its double jump one of gaming’s roughest, but these missteps don’t come close to torpedoing this slick, stylish Sega classic. The later years of the Genesis would see it exceeded by faster, glitzier, more full-featured action-platformers, including its own direct sequel, Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master. Are those games going to let you huck shuriken at Batman and Godzilla, though? I think not.

G.I. Joe: The Atlantis Factor (NES)

G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero was one of my most pleasant NES discoveries of recent years. This feature-packed 1991 action-platformer is easily one of the better licensed releases for the system. Since I’ve been watching a ton of the classic Sunbow era G.I. Joe cartoon lately to unwind, I figure there’s no time like the present to check out Real American Hero’s Capcom-published 1992 follow-up, The Atlantis Factor. Is it another home run from developer KID? No, Joe!

Okay, okay. So I couldn’t resist a line like that. Truth is, this is far from the worst NES title I’ve come across. KID was a talented outfit and they seemingly made a good faith effort here to build on the team mechanics and persistent power-ups of Real American Hero while adding a touch of non-linearity to the stage progression. These flourishes don’t amount to much without the first game’s quality level design and general playability, however.

As you may expect, our story involves the ruthless terrorist organization Cobra raising the ruins of Atlantis from the ocean floor and harnessing some of sort of strange Atlantean energy source to threaten world domination. It falls on G.I. Joe, America’s most elite fighting force, to infiltrate the lost continent and foil Cobra’s villainous ambitions. Routine Saturday morning silliness, all told.

The mission is headed up by the Joe head honcho himself, General Hawk, who functions as a baseline character with no special skills. He must have forgot his jet pack back at home base. Completing specific stages will allow you to add new Joes to your team, and each of them does have some sort of unique advantage. Duke can fire his gun upward (previously a universal ability in Real American Hero), Roadblock can crawl through low passages, Wet Suit can operate underwater, and both Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow have access to ninja sword attacks.

Teamwork is the name of the game, as you’re able to choose up to three Joes to take into a given level. They all have their own separate health bars and weapon skill ratings that can be permanently enhanced by collecting power-up icons. You’ll constantly be swapping characters via the pause menu in order to ensure none of them kick the bucket on you or hog all the precious upgrades. If you’ve played Konami’s first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game before, you know the drill.

One excellent new addition is the concept of support Joes. Your reward for finishing most stages is a single-use radio. When activated, the radio will put you in touch with your choice of Gung-Ho, Spirit, or Big Bear. Gung-Ho replenishes your ammo supply on the spot. Spirit does the same for your health. Big Bear can instantly revive a “dead” Joe, something that normally involves a long wait and a stat penalty for the returning character. Whatever you do, try not to let these valuable items go to waste. Continues are thankfully unlimited, but unused radios are lost on game over and can’t be recollected.

Atlantis itself is depicted as a Bionic Commando style map screen containing six main Cobra bases (labelled A-F) connected by a series of sixteen numbered outdoor routes. Because there are multiple paths to the final confrontation with Cobra Commander in area F, you don’t need to visit every location to reach the end. Although the game rewards thoroughness with an expanded character roster, new weapons, and extra radios, a good amount of its content is technically optional. In theory, that’s fine. I just wish more of it was interesting. The outdoor levels in particular are defined by their dull layouts and repetitive enemy placement. Every one of Real American Hero’s sixteen stages had its own unique boss, not to mention a lot of cool touches like multiple types of Cobra vehicle you could commandeer and pilot. There are no vehicles to be found this time. Worse, only the six bases have proper bosses, a huge loss when you consider what a highlight these battles were in the last installment.

The character upgrade system has its flaws, too. You can’t revisit areas you’ve already completed, nor can you “farm” stat boosts from enemies. The enemies will respawn, their item drops won’t. This means that any Joes unlucky enough to join your team late in the game will be pathetically underpowered with few good opportunities to catch up. When I recruited my last character, Snake Eyes, he came with a measly two health. Two! Compare that to eleven for my fully upgraded Hawk. Taking Snakes Eyes into a level at that point meant he was more likely to get himself killed trying to snag power-ups than he was to see any real gain. So I didn’t bother. I did the sensible thing and kept using the same team of experienced Joes I had for ages all the way up to the end. What a waste of a fan favorite character. I suppose I could make it a point to seek out Snake Eyes sooner on a repeat playthrough. There would still be somebody who ended up joining last, though, and leveling him up would be still be a waste of time.

Again, G.I. Joe: The Atlantis Factor isn’t a terrible game by any stretch of the imagination. Despite being a step down from its older brother in virtually every way that counts, it has its strong points. It makes decent use of the license, with plenty of familiar heroes and villains. The music is catchy.  Some of the new weapons, such as the laser rifle, are cool.  The radio support mechanic offers utility and flexibility. I especially like how increasing a character’s unarmed combat rating adds new attacks to his repertoire rather than simply increasing damage. Kick Master, anyone? Bottom line: Real American Hero’s blend of strategic team management and furious run-and-gun action is present here, it’s just a muted shadow of its former self. Not unlike the DIC run of the cartoon, now that I think about it.

Ys Book I & II (TurboGrafx-16)

I hear boob orbs are going to be all the rage this summer.

Precious few entries in the role playing canon are as revered as Nihon Falcom’s Ys I and II. Originally released for NEC PC-8801 computer systems in 1987 and 1988, respectively, Ys I: Ancient Ys Vanished and Ys II: Ancient Ys Vanished – The Final Chapter kicked off a series that’s still going strong and have been ported and remade enough times to give the makers of Doom and Street Fighter II pause.

Looking back, it’s easy to see why. The early Ys titles were a major step up from previous Japanese computer action RPGs. Their thrilling combat and stunning presentation made them must-plays for anyone gaming on one of these platforms. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, given that Ys was the creation of Masaya Hashimoto and Tomoyoshi Miyazaki, who would end up leaving Nihon Falcom in the wake of the franchise’s runaway success to make some of my favorite Super Nintendo games under the Quintet banner.

According to its creators, Ys I and II were initially designed as a single game. This conjoined 1989 remake of the two from Hudson Soft is thus less a compilation and more an enhanced restoration. Hudson’s Ys Book I & II is also historically important in its own right, being the second RPG published on CD (after their Tengai Makyo: Ziria) and the first to be given a North American release in 1990. For many players in both regions, it would have served as an introduction to recorded music and voiced cutscenes in video games. That’s bound to leave an impression.

Ys Book I & II focuses on Adol Christin, a wandering swordsman looking the solve the mystery of the fabled lost kingdom of Ys. Interestingly, Ys (pronounced “ease”) is a real place. Or a real mythic place, anyway. It’s supposedly an Atlantis-like sunken city somewhere off the coast of France. Like its Gallic counterpart, Adol’s Ys was a peaceful, prosperous land until a sudden catastrophe caused it to vanish from the world at large. Nothing a dozen hours of fetch questing and monster slaying can’t fix!

The storytelling here can come off a tad threadbare to those more accustomed to post-’80 RPGs. Sure, discovering the fate of Ys and its people should be enough of a hook to get you going and there are a couple of effective twists along the way. Don’t expect much in the way of characterization, though. Adol is the very model of a silent protagonist and his villains are “evil for evil’s sake” types mostly content to wait patiently at home until it’s their turn to eat sword. Hudson Soft was clearly banking on the bleeding edge CD soundtrack and anime cinematics to lend some gravitas to this material. Fortunately, it worked.

The impact of the audio in particular can’t be overstated. Ryo Yonemitsu’s soaring arrangements of tracks composed by Yuzo Koshiro, Mieko Ishikawa, and Hideya Nagata are strong contenders for the finest music heard in any game up to this point. They’re about 50% serene, atmosphere pieces you’d expect from a fantasy game and 50% energetic ’80s synth rock punctuated by frenzied Yngwie Malmsteen style guitar shredding. Legendary.

Similar care care went into the story sequences and their English localization. Voice work in early TurboGrafx-CD games tended to range from slightly amateurish and goofy (Valis II) to brain-meltingly absurd (Last Alert). The Ys team wisely hired professional actors like Alan Oppenheimer and Thomas Haden Church, resulting in line readings that largely hold up today. If there’s one major weakness of the English dialogue, it’s the way every enemy character in the game is referred to as a “goon” by NPCs. It doesn’t matter if they’re talking about evil wizards, slime monsters, or the walking dead, they’re all a bunch of goons, apparently. Such an odd scripting choice.

I wouldn’t want to leave you with the impression that Ys is all flash, however. This is one exciting action RPG, primarily due to the one thing I expected to dislike most going in: The bump combat. That’s right, using Adol’s sword requires no button presses. Instead, he simply rams into foes to deal damage. There is a degree of skill involved, as touching monsters from the side or from behind will result in more damage for them and less (or none) for Adol. This was a common mechanic in old Japanese computer RPGs, although Western audiences mostly know and loathe it from the ill-fated NES port of T&E Soft’s Hydlide. The key difference is that while Hydlide is a slow, generally clunky little game, the fighting in Ys is impressively fast and smooth. Adol can really haul ass, and mowing down an entire line of baddies without missing a step feels amazing.

Ys’ take on bump combat is so superb, in fact, that it indirectly gives rise to the first of my two major complaints. The opening act of Book II introduces a magic system and grants Adol a projectile fireball attack with practically unlimited shots. Enemies in Book II tend to inflict huge damage if you misjudge the timing of your bump attacks. In effect, this heavily incentivizes you to forsake the awesome swordplay in favor of less satisfying fireball lobbing from that point on. Why would the designers want this? Beats me.

I was also let down by the final dungeons. They’re not bad per se, just ungodly long. The last dungeon in any RPG is almost always the longest and most challenging, of course, but Nihon Falcom really took it to the extreme here. You reach these areas (Darm Tower and Solomon Shrine) at around the halfway mark in each game. After that, you’re effectively done exploring the world. There are no new environments or towns awaiting you and little new art or music. Tracking and backtracking through the same set of corridors is all you have to look forward to for the next few hours. Perhaps this structure is a relic of the limited floppy disk space on ancient computers? In any case, it makes for some seriously lopsided pacing. It may even lower the replay value, depending on your tolerance for monotony.

Despite these few rough patches, I came away from Ys Book I & II with a profound appreciation for what makes it so beloved by fans on both sides of the Pacific. By setting a new audiovisual high water mark for home gaming as a whole, it managed to feel more like a bona fide fantasy epic than anything that came before. Thirty years on, it stands tall as a good-looking game filled with incredible music and brisk, addicting action. It was, is, and shall remain a highlight of the TurboGrafx-CD library.

Akumajō Dracula X: Chi no Rondo (PC Engine)

The PC Engine was a machine well ahead of its time. Not only was it the first home console to employ 16-bit graphics, its CD-ROM drive add-on served as gaming’s introduction to the format in the absurdly early year of 1988. If anything, you’d expect the world of high end home computing to have brought us that particular innovation. Nope. The PCE’s initial crop of CD games are widely acknowledged to be the earliest ever produced.

Until just recently, I’d been limited to running cartridge games on own PC Engine. As much as I wanted to dive into its expansive CD library, I didn’t feel like bothering with the upkeep a finicky decades-old disk drive usually requires. This changed when I got my hands on the Super SD System 3, a nifty aftermarket accessory that uses flash memory to replicate the function of a CD unit without all those troublesome moving parts. That’s what I call an upgrade!

Now where to start? As a die-hard Castlevania lover, I can’t help but opt for 1993’s Akumajō Dracula X: Chi no Rondo (“Demon Castle Dracula X: Rondo of Blood”). It’s the most famous Japan-exclusive title for the system, after all. Konami wouldn’t deliver an official international release of Rondo until 2007, when it was finally ported to the Sony PSP as Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles.  The years in-between saw the rise of the Internet and game emulation, so it should come as no surprise that this fabled lost epic has built up quite the cult following here in the West. Is it truly the greatest old-school Castlevania of them all, as many of its admirers maintain? Well….

First off, this is my kind of Castlevania game: A pure 2-D action-platformer with no experience points, no backtracking, no menus to futz with, just your wits and reflexes pitted against Dracula’s army of the night. It’s a damn attractive one, too. The PC Engine’s broad color palette was put to masterful use rendering these vibrant backgrounds and richly detailed sprites. The enemy sprites in particular are so good that many of them were reused wholesale in 1997’s Symphony of the Night for PlayStation. Rarely is in-game art able to bridge a hardware generation gap in this way.

The soundtrack is equally stellar. We do get the predictable nostalgic reprises of mainstays like “Vampire Killer,” “Bloody Tears,” and “Beginning,” but it’s not all golden oldies. Original tracks such as “Divine Bloodlines,” “Opus 13,” and “Den” can stand toe-to-toe with anything that came before. The CD medium also means we get to enjoy the historic debut of real instruments in a Castlevania score. I can’t imagine this material disappointing anyone with a fondness for the saga’s signature brand of Baroque-tinged prog rock.

Rondo’s central figure is Richter Belmont, descendant of Simon and heir to his family’s warrior legacy. The year is 1792, and a group of cultists led by the corrupt priest, Shaft, have used blood sacrifice to resurrect Count Dracula once again. Dracula abducts Richter’s girlfriend, Annette, and three other young girls, intending to use them as bait to lure the young vampire hunter to his castle. It works, of course, as Richter promptly rides off to the rescue with his ancestors’ enchanted whip in tow. It’s a plain, functional, business-as-usual plot, albeit one bolstered somewhat by periodic voiced cutscenes. Not that I can understand a word of them in the Japanese, mind you.

Richter handles in the traditional Belmont manner, with a leisurely walk speed, stiff jump, and slightly delayed whip attack. The whip can be supplemented by a selection of sub-weapons that draw on a limited supply of hearts for ammunition. Sub-weapons include the long-established dagger, cross, axe, holy water, and stopwatch, as well as a newcomer: The Bible. I’ve never really found a good use for the Bible, myself. Its weird spiraling trajectory renders it awkward to deploy. Oh, well.

Also introduced here is the concept of Item Crashes. These are more powerful versions of each sub-weapon’s regular attack that’ll run you somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-20 hearts per use. While not all Item Crashes are created equal, the more punishing ones can easily lay waste to most bosses. I’m looking at you, cross and holy water. I’m a fan of this mechanic. It leads to interesting scenarios wherein you have to weight the immediate benefits of using your sub-weapons on regular enemies against the long-term goal of saving as many hearts as possible to Crash bosses. A solid risk/reward dynamic.

All these capabilities make for a formidable protagonist indeed. Richter doesn’t have to go it alone, though. There’s a second playable character in the form of one of the kidnapped girls, Maria Renard. If you’ve ever wanted to beat down the undead as a little kid in a pink dress, she’s your chance. Maria is more agile than the plodding Richter and has her own separate set of animal-themed weapons. She’s actually a much stronger character on the whole, despite having less health to work with. She’s such a force of nature, in fact, that I found playing as her to be rather boring. The novelty of carelessly plowing through the opposition as a silly joke character didn’t last nearly as long as I’d hoped. John Morris and Eric Lecarde from Bloodlines serve as a far better example of how to implement two distinct, relatively balanced heroes in a Castlevania game.

In addition to Maria, Rondo’s other defining feature has to be its abundance of secrets. Every area is teeming with hidden power-ups, cute visual gags, and even passages leading to entire alternate stages with their own unique bosses. This effectively encourages you to keep your eyes peeled at all times, lest you miss out on some cool piece of bonus content. The game automatically saves your progress, too, so you can easily revisit conquered stages in order to scour them more thoroughly in pursuit of that elusive 100% completion rating.

All of this raises the question: If Rondo of Blood looks and sounds great, plays great, and includes all this great stuff to discover, why is it not my favorite 16-bit Castlevania? I certainly like Rondo. I have ever since I first encountered it on the PSP over a decade ago. Now that I can play it on my PC Engine, I expect it to become a staple of my action gaming rotation. Still, when it comes to this period in the franchise’s history, I generally prefer both Castlevania: Bloodlines and Akumajō Dracula (aka Castlevania Chronicles) for a couple of reasons.

An overall lack of difficulty is one. Super Castlevania IV catches its share of flack for being too easy, yet I tend to lose more lives to random platforming flubs there than I do to anything in Rondo. While playing as Maria is a cakewalk by design, taking down the same levels as Richter is only marginally more taxing. A couple of the late game bosses, specifically Death and Shaft, put up a respectable fight, but that’s about it. This is obviously a highly subjective critique on my part. As a hardened veteran of the series, I can see how less experienced players might view this “failing” as a major plus. I just happen to favor a Castlevania experience with more bite.

More crucially, I’ve always gotten the impression that much of the tremendous creativity that went into making Rondo could have been better directed. Sure, the locations you visit are packed with wacky Easter eggs, secret passages, and the like, but how do they stack up as Castlevania stages? I find you mostly leap over some pits, climb a few staircases, swat at knights and skeletons, and collect hearts on your way to the boss room. In other words, it’s fundamentally nothing we hadn’t seen before on the NES. This game features no equivalent to the rotating rooms and whip swinging of Super Castlevania IV or the many elaborate set piece platforming challenges of Bloodlines (the rising water in Greece, the swaying tower in Italy, the hall of mirrors in England, etc). Instead, the lion’s share of the work on Rondo seems to have been devoted to polishing its presentation to a mirror sheen and cramming in as many quirky peripheral elements as possible. I’d gladly trade a little of that for some more ambitious level design.

I’m not about to declare Rondo of Blood overrated or imply that anyone who’s head-over-heels in love with it shouldn’t be. On the contrary, it’s an impeccably charming adventure fully worthy of its pedigree. I dig it. That said, I do think its grandiose reputation stems more from its history as a rare and expensive import item than from any sort of inherent superiority to similar games in the series. At the end of the day, however, it doesn’t need to be some mythic über-Castlevania that towers head-and-shoulders above its peers. It’s plenty good, and that’s good enough for me.

Cadash (TurboGrafx-16)

Baarogue the Destroyer is ravaging the peaceful kingdom of Deezar. He’s kidnapped Princess Sarasa and spirited her off to his lair in Castle Cadash, where he plans to conduct a magic ritual to join with her and gain ultimate power. The king of Deerzar summons four heroes and implores them to rescue his daughter before all is lost. Fighter, mage, priestess, and ninja brace themselves for the trials ahead as they set off for Cadash.

If you think this sounds like the most generic setup for a fantasy epic imaginable, you’re not wrong. What made this 1989 release from Taito remarkable wasn’t its stock plot or equally conventional side-scrolling gameplay, but rather its format: Cadash was an action RPG for the arcades! Your adventurers explored dungeons, racked up experience points to level up, spent money at inns and shops, the works. Some dual screen cabinet configurations even allowed you to do all this with up to three friends at once. It stood out in a sea of spaceship shooters and Double Dragon style beat-’em-ups, that’s for sure.

This 1991 home conversion for the PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 was the game’s first. It’s also widely considered to be its best, seeing as the later Genesis edition omits two of the four playable characters for some reason. Commendable as this arcade accuracy is, however, it doesn’t quite make up for the TG-16 port’s lack of substance relative to most of its console native contemporaries. Cadash is ludicrously short by genre standards. Its five interconnected dungeons can be conquered in about a hour, give or take. For this reason, it’s a rare example of an RPG with no form of save feature. There’s simply no need.

What little longevity Cadash has is derived from its four mechanically distinct heroes. The fighter and ninja are your close and long-range physical combatants, respectively. The fighter’s heavy armor and shields theoretically compensate for all the extra hits he’ll be taking. Personally, I found the ninja’s “hang back and lob shuriken” approach much more pragmatic and fun. The mage and priestess are both given magic to offset their relative lack of weapon proficiency. In true Dungeons & Dragons fashion, the priestess specializes in healing and protection spells while the mage prefers to wreck fools with fireballs and lightning bolts. Pity the controls make playing as the two spellcasters unnecessarily frustrating. You select a spell by holding the attack button down as a series of icons slowly cycle by. Releasing the button when the icon corresponding to the spell you want is displayed triggers that spell. Good luck managing this while a humongous boss monster is whaling on you! I can’t help but feel a more elegant approach was possible, especially since the Select button goes wholly unused.

A curious aspect of this iteration of Cadash is its total lack of extra lives or continues in single-player. If a lone hero runs out of hit points, the game is over. Contrast this with the co-op mode, where either player can spend gold to revive a fallen partner. This gave me considerable pause at first, since it seemed like it would make a solo playthrough one hellishly difficult ordeal. Imagine my surprise when the exact opposite turned out to be true. I completed Cadash twice with two different characters (the ninja and priestess) and never once died. My secret? Grinding, baby! The arcade Cadash forces you to cope with some very strict time limits. It makes sense there. What arcade owner wants some punk hogging a machine for hours on a single quarter? The home versions ditch the timer, so you’re free to cut down droves of easy enemies at the start of a dungeon and power your character up well beyond the point of common decency. Sporting? Not at all. Effective? Hell, yes.

As an undistinguished action RPG with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it runtime better suited to the arcade than the home, Cadash doesn’t have a whole lot going for it. On the plus side, the graphics are crisp and colorful, the music is decent, and any kind of two-player simultaneous functionality is always a rare boon in a game like this. One final thing I enjoyed was the text by Working Designs. For those unacquainted with the company, they handled English language translation and localization duties on behalf of numerous Japanese game publishers between 1991 and 2004. Their work is controversial within the classic gaming community due to their tendency to insert absurd gags and anachronistic pop culture references into their scripts at every opportunity. Some find this relentless goofiness compromises authenticity and dulls the impact of serious moments. Others get a kick of out of filthy innuendo and fossilized O.J. Simpson jokes. Depending on the game, I could go either way. I think it works in this context. Cadash has so little story to begin with, and what is present is pure cliché. Having the villain name check Carl Sagan in his pre-fight monologue may be ridiculous, but you can’t accuse Working Designs of undermining great drama here.

Ultimately, I can recommend this one for a quick burst of casual monster bashing, particularly if you can rope a second player into it. It’s likely too brief and basic to hold your attention for long, though, and it’s hardly worth the mad sums authentic copies command on the secondary market these days. Keep those expectations in check and you should be fine. Cadash is here for a good time, not a long time.

Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters (Game Boy)

So that’s why they call him Kid Icarus! It finally makes sense!

I’ve always been partial to Nintendo’s Kid Icarus. Rough around the edges and quirky to a fault, it’s clearly the odd man out alongside its fellow 1986 alumni Metroid and The Legend of Zelda. Regardless, its satisfying challenge and screwball take on Greek mythology are enough to keep me coming back for another playthrough at least every other year or so. A flawed NES classic, but a classic nonetheless.

Nintendo themselves don’t seem to share my enthusiasm for the property. They were in no rush to continue the saga, and when they finally did, in the form of 1991’s Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters, they seemingly sunk the bare minimum of effort and resources into it. OMaM is a Game Boy exclusive that never saw a physical release in Japan. What’s more, much of the work on it was farmed out to Tose, a prolific “ghost developer” with a spotty at best track record. Sounds like a recipe for disaster. Fortunately, OMaM is anything but. It’s a worthy follow-up, albeit one which adds so little to the formula that it feels more like a handheld expansion pack for the ’86 game than a true sequel.

Winged warrior Pit returns to defend Angel Land at the behest of the goddess Palutena. The threat this time is a demon named Orcos, and stopping him will require recovering the same three sacred treasures as last time in essentially the same manner. Like the original, OMaM is a side-view action-platformer with very light exploration and RPG elements. Pit’s odyssey is divided up into an underworld, a surface world, and a sky world. Each world consists of three linear stages capped off by a maze-like fortress where a boss guards ones of the treasures. Once he’s gathered all three, all that remains is for Pit to equip them for a major power boost before heading off to the final confrontation.

What about those RPG elements? Well, the points gained by killing enemies function as experience, increasing Pit’s maximum health at certain preset thresholds. Every level also contains numerous doors. These can lead to strength upgrades for Pit’s primary weapon (a bow), new weapons entirely, shops where he can spend in-game currency on various goods, health-restoring hot springs, and more. It’s no Final Fantasy, just enough to allow for a pleasing sense of discovery and character growth throughout.

Everything I’ve described so far is a carbon copy of the NES game. Does OMaM bring anything new to the table? Yes. A couple things, actually. Too bad I came away largely indifferent to one of them and let down by the other.

The secret doors are fairly innocuous. Pit can uncover these by striking at suspicious walls with hammers and will usually be rewarded for it with some extra goodies or healing. Nothing in these chambers is required to finish the game, however, so there’s no need to fret if you miss a few.

More questionable in my view is the decision to remove falling deaths entirely. The first Kid Icarus is renowned for its high stakes platforming, particularly in vertically scrolling areas, where touching the bottom of the screen at any point spells Pit’s doom. A lot of players understandably loathe this design choice, since one missed jump is all it takes to force a restart of the current stage. Not me, though. One man’s unwelcome stress is another’s thrilling suspense, after all. Climbing higher and higher, making death-defying leaps between minuscule platforms as I fend off a constant stream of flying enemies is my idea of a great time. By contrast, falling in OMaM is a non-event. Pit will simply land on a slightly lower platform and you’ll have the opportunity to try the same section again right away. While I do understand why some prefer this more forgiving approach, give me the added tension any day.

Apart from the handful of hidden doors and the reduced difficulty, Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters is effectively pure retread. Fine by me! I’m a simple man, and more of a game I already love is an easy sell, especially when it looks and sounds fantastic by Game Boy standards. So long as I can still get transformed into a sentient eggplant with legs, I’m down.

E.V.O.: Search for Eden (Super Nintendo)

Who’s ready to dive into what may be the strangest game in the Super Nintendo library? I’m not sure I am, but here goes anyway.

E.V.O.: Search for Eden is a side-scrolling action RPG set on prehistoric Earth and centered on an extremely…well, let’s just say “unique” interpretation of the scientific theory of evolution. It was published in 1992 by RPG heavyweight Enix and developed by the considerably more obscure Almanic Corporation. E.V.O. seems to have been heavily inspired by (if not outright based on) Almanic’s 46 Okunen Monogatari: The Shinka Ron (“4.6 Billion Year Story: The Theory of Evolution”), a turn-based game with an identical premise that debuted on Japanese PC-9801 computer systems in 1990. The two are so similar that Enix was able to reuse 46 Okunen Monogatari’s cover art for E.V.O.’s North American release. Oh, and the acronym “E.V.O.?” It stands for absolutely nothing, as far as I can tell. Somebody in Enix’s marketing department must have thought it sounded intriguing. It did get me curious enough to try looking it up, so good call, I guess.

A game about evolution doesn’t seem overly weird in the abstract. Unusual, sure, but Will Wright and Maxis pulled it off pretty well in SimEarth, which isn’t remembered as a particularly bizarre exercise. The creators of E.V.O. weren’t as content to play things by the biology book, however, so expect to be served up mystic mumbo jumbo, half-baked sci-fi, and a side of gossiping cucumbers with your Darwin.

To give you an idea what you’re in for, the story proper begins with a sentient Sun telling its daughter the Earth (personified by nude anime girl Gaia) that the various life forms on her surface must compete to see which is the most fit to survive. The winner of this eons-long struggle will get to dwell in an ill-defined Eden as Gaia’s partner and implied mate. The player then assumes the role of a puny fish who must eat as much of his fellow sea life as possible in order to gain enough “evo points” to move onto land. Once there, he’ll continue devouring and developing over four additional geologic epochs before finally taking his place by Gaia’s side. In other words, this is a game where you play as a super horny and amoral fish who commits mass murder in hopes of impressing a goddess’ dad enough to be allowed to bang her. Hey, at least you’re not rescuing another princess.

All kidding aside for the moment, I wouldn’t want to be misconstrued as condemning E.V.O. for attempting something completely different. On the contrary, its surreal, meandering plot, delivered by Gaia herself and the host of talking animals you meet along the way, doesn’t go anywhere you’d expect it to and is easily the game’s best feature for me. E.V.O. is a trip, pure and simple, and the more games I can say that of, the better.

The next strongest element here is the evolution system. As mentioned, killing and eating representatives of the dozens of animal species you encounter will earn you evo points (EP). The larger and more dangerous the meat source, the more points earned. Note that you can only gain EP from animals. All munching the occasional plant will do is restore a small amount of lost health. Take that, vegans! EP are spent on the pause screen to alter your creature’s form in a multitude of ways. Bigger jaws, stronger fins, a larger body, armor plating; you name it, it’s probably on the menu. Take my advice and ignore the horns, though. They tend to break easily in combat and take your hard-earned EP with them. I have to give credit to the sprite designers for ensuring that any given combination of parts results in a more or less cohesive looking animal. Depending on the evolutionary path you take, you could end the game as a fairly realistic example of a mammal, bird, or dinosaur, a goofy fantasy critter, or even…a human. Gross.

As much as I admire E.V.O.’s unconventional story and the breadth and depth of its character customization, it is one profoundly flawed action RPG. First off, there’s a distinct lack of intermediate goals to accomplish along the way. Each of the five epochs is predicated on wandering around a Super Mario World style map ceaselessly grinding the same targets for EP until you’re strong enough to take on the boss. Thus, the majority of a given playthrough inevitably consists of “walk right, chomp a couple dudes, retrace steps, repeat.” On the few occasions you’re not engaged in mindless grinding, you’ll find the level design to be all but nonexistent. A typical stage in E.V.O. is five or six screens of flat ground populated by ten or twelve copies of the same enemy. That sounds like an exaggeration, right? If only.

The combat isn’t going to win itself many fans, either. Most of the player character forms strong enough to withstand more than a couple hits will be fairly bulky and sluggish. There’s also a heavy emphasis on bites for offense and these naturally have next to no effective range. What could possibly make life worse for chunky, slow combatants who need to be practically smooching their opponents to register damage? Gold star for you if you said “wonky hit detection!”

Sloppy as these battles are, E.V.O. still manages to be almost entirely challenge free. This is down to the ease of avoiding virtually any opponent merely by jumping over it and continuing on your way. We are dealing with miniscule, mostly flat stages here, remember? The bosses are the sole exception to this. Until you realize that any expenditure of EP will fully heal your character on the spot, that is, at which point defeating them becomes trivial as well.

E.V.O.: Search for Eden is not a good video game. What it is is one hell of an experience, and that’s why I’m giving it an enthusiastic recommendation. It wrangles Darwinian evolution, gooey New Age spirituality, laser sharks, space dragons, undersea dance numbers and more into an unforgettable 16-bit freak show with a knack for transitioning from slapstick absurdity to savage nihilism and back again in the blink of an eye. It’s so simultaneously high-minded and silly, in fact, that it reminded me of a Quintet production. Turns out it was directed by Takashi Yoneda, who previously worked on ActRaiser, so I was close. Do you really want to miss out on all this due to something as mundane as lackluster level design? Perish the thought!

Unfortunately, E.V.O.’s uncompromising eccentricity seems to have to worked against it at retail. It marked the end of 46 Okunen Monogatari as a series and it’s tough to come by an authentic copy of the cartridge for less than $150 these days. Personally, I wouldn’t spend that much. There are countless better games available for less. Then again, there are plenty of less fascinating ones that’ll run you more.

Final Fantasy (NES)

Christmas 1990 was my season of Final Fantasy. Enix’s Dragon Warrior (aka Dragon Quest) had served as my introduction to turn-based RPGs the year before and I was chomping at the bit for more of that same monster bashing, treasure hunting, level grinding fun. Nintendo Power magazine had been pushing the game like nobody’s business over the lead-up to the holidays, going so far as to make their October issue a dedicated 80-page strategy guide. I suppose they were still banking on RPGs blossoming into a national craze here the way they had in Japan. Sorry, guys. Between my own recent gaming experiences and this unrelenting press hype, I couldn’t shut up about Final Fantasy. There was no doubt in my mind it’d be waiting for me under the tree, although that might just be because I made it a point to discover where the presents were secreted away beforehand so I could check.

Obsessed? Maybe a little. In any case, it’s tough to blame me. Square’s little Dragon Quest killer that could represented a major leap forward for Famicom RPGs when it debuted in Japan in December of 1987 and that impression carried over to its eventual American release. To understand why, it’s useful to compare it to its most prominent Japanese competitor, Dragon Quest II. Not only did the much flashier Final Fantasy clean up in the graphics department, its RPG mechanics were exponentially deeper. Dragon Quest II’s party of three predefined characters was child’s play next to Final Fantasy’s four member team built from the player’s choice of six distinct character classes. Combat also received a shot in the arm. Dragon Quest’s static first-person view was replaced by a revolutionary battle screen that showcased both the monsters and animated versions of the player’s party. Even the methods used to navigate Final Fantasy’s sprawling world felt like a step up. Both games give the party a sailing ship for ocean voyages, but Final Fantasy threw in a canoe for rivers and that almighty franchise staple, the Airship. In short, lead designer Hironobu Sakaguchi and his team really threw down the gauntlet with this one. Final Fantasy is a bold, swaggering title that’s better than the first two Dragon Quests combined and knows it. In retrospect, it had “flagship” written all over it. It’s no wonder Square swiftly abandoned its eclectic roots to become a highly focused purveyor of RPGs thereafter.

What does one actually do in Final Fantasy? Well, in terms of story and overall gameplay structure, it’s an archetypal late ’80s console RPG. Four heroes known as the Light Warriors are prophesied to appear when the world is in peril, each bearing a darkened orb representing one of the elements. Their mission is to restore light to these orbs by defeating the four Fiends, an alliance of evil magical beings responsible for turning said elements against humanity. This is accomplished via the usual mix of open-ended wilderness exploration and dungeon delving fetch quests, during which thousands of randomly appearing monsters will be slaughtered for their precious gold and experience points.

Like virtually all other RPGs of its era, Final Fantasy lacks the extensive characterization and constantly evolving plot lines that would become synonymous with the genre in the decades to come. NPCs express themselves with the most concise of declarations and none of the Light Warriors are given a single line of dialog. It’s a basic “save the world” errand with no elaboration furnished or required. The primary reason anyone would want to experience it, then and now, is the wealth of meaningful choices baked into in its core mechanics.

The main attraction is that character class system I mentioned. I can’t say enough good things about the six options on offer here. Three of them (the Fighter, Black Belt, and Thief) are primarily physical combatants, two (the Black and White Mages) are useful only for spellcasting, and one (the Red Mage) attempts to split the difference. Within these broad categories, care was taken to ensure every class shines in its own way. The Fighter, for example, is a rock. He can use any weapon or armor and is a steady, reliable source of melee damage throughout the game. The Black Belt, on the other hand, starts incredibly weak and the few items of equipment he can use only tend to make him weaker. By the late game, however, the Black Belt’s bare hands will drastically out-damage the Fighter’s best weapons. The Red Mage works much the same, except in reverse. His combination of magic with decent weapons and armor makes him the strongest class by far early on, yet he ultimately can’t keep pace with all the high-end spells and gear of his more focused counterparts. On top of all this, some classes can gain all new abilities partway through the game as part of an optional quest. This system of trade-offs makes Final Fantasy exceptionally replayable. Want to try an all physical or all magical team? Go for it! Four White Mages? You’re insane, but the game won’t stop you!

Another facet of Final Fantasy I enjoy is the combat. This is mainly due to one very controversial quirk of the battle system: Specific enemy targeting. Unlike in most turn-based RPGs, you don’t target whole enemy formations with your characters’ physical attacks, only single baddies. This feature is often perceived as a flaw or annoyance, since if two Light Warriors are going after the same monster and the first one kills it, the second hero’s strike will whiff for lack of a valid target. Most later revisions of the game remove this penalty in favor of a more forgiving automatic re-targeting. That’s a pity, as I think the older method is great. It forces you to plan each and every turn carefully in order to avoid wasting valuable moves. You need to consider the average damage output of your characters, the hit point totals and defenses of their opponents, etc. All these mandatory mental calculations are a perfect antidote to the mindless “mash the attack button to win” default of many other RPGs. If you’re looking for a solid reason to consider the classic NES version of Final Fantasy over its many remakes, this more involved and challenging take on combat is it.

On the flip side, the best argument for those remakes is the ludicrously buggy nature of the original. Final Fantasy shipped with an extremely ambitious magic system for the time and most of it either doesn’t function as intended or doesn’t function at all. The intelligence statistic is supposed to govern the strength of spells. In reality, it’s meaningless and this greatly hampers the effectiveness of late game attack magic. Some spells, such as TMPR, SABR, and LOCK, do nothing. LOK2 has the opposite of its intended effect, making the foe you cast it on harder to hit rather than easier. There’s also a whole cycle of enchanted swords meant to deal increased damage to particular enemy types. None of this bonus damage was actually implemented, resulting in a bunch of mediocre “non-magic magic” weapons you’re better off simply selling. I’m only scratching the surface here, believe it or not. While not quite game breaking, this avalanche of cumulative programming blunders serves as an unfortunate beginner’s trap for anyone not already well-versed in playing around them. If you have the ability to run patched game ROMs from a flash cartridge or in an emulator, do consider loading up AstralEsper’s Final Fantasy Restored or a similar fan-produced bug fix.

Looking past its bare bones narrative and litany of baffling bugs, I’m still in love with the first Final Fantasy. I love its timeless Nobuo Uematsu score, highlights of which were destined to be reverently repackaged into every subsequent series entry. I love its eldritch and intimidating Dungeons & Dragons-inspired monster designs by master illustrator Yoshitaka Amano. Above all, I love its anything goes class system. Case in point: Halfway through writing this review, I got the urge to see how a group of two Black Belts and two Red Mages would fare. Just like that, I’ve started my next playthrough! So here’s to my first thirty years with Final Fantasy. Maybe I’ll finally be bored of it when 2050 rolls around. I wouldn’t bet on that if I were you, though.