Hameln no Violin Hiki (Super Famicom)

Looks like I inadvertently set myself up for a manga double feature. Unlike Osamu Tezuka’s Hi no Tori last week, Michiaki Watanabe’s Hameln no Violin Hiki (“Violinist of  Hameln”) is far from a world-famous critical darling. Don’t let the manga’s relative obscurity fool you, though, because I found this 1995 Super Famicom puzzle platformer/child abuse simulator by Daft to be much more interesting and successful than Konami’s take on Hi no Tori. Note that I played it with the unofficial English patch by J2e Translations, although the game is still pretty self-explanatory without it.

Hameln no Violin Hiki made its print debut in 1991 in the pages of Enix’s Monthly Shōnen Gangan. If you’re like me, you probably had no idea Enix (now part of Square Enix) even had a hand in the manga game. Turns out their Gangan Comics imprint is still active today, so they must be doing something right. The gist of the series is that everything takes place in a vaguely European medieval fantasy world where music has magical powers. The central figure is the violinist himself, a self-centered wandering “hero” named Hamel who travels the land with his two sidekicks, a teenage girl named Flute and Oboe the talking crow. Their ultimate aim is to defeat the Demon King Chestra and his assorted evil cronies. Chestra’s name keeps with the music motif, too, as the Japanese rendering of “King Chestra” is “Ō Chestra.” Cute. I can’t say this sort of thing is really my cup of tea, but I’ll give its creator credit for not just serving up more ninja or giant robots.

What makes the Super Famicom Hameln no Violin Hiki so compelling is its unique style of puzzle platforming. The player controls Hamel and the computer-controlled Flute and Oboe follow along automatically. Hamel’s repertoire of moves is quite basic. He has modest jumping ability and attacks enemies by firing deadly notes from his oversize violin. The level design makes it clear early on this won’t be enough. There are stone barriers, high platforms, beds of spikes, and other seemingly impassable obstacles between Hamel and the exit of each stage. Enter Flute and her many costumes!

Yes, if Hamel wants to swim, fly, climb walls, cross spikes or do pretty much anything other than walk forward and shoot, he’ll need to instruct Flute to don one of sixteen humiliating costumes and then employ her as a beast of burden to physically carry him wherever it is he needs to go. She might need to dress up as a duck to cross a lake, an eagle to fly, a monkey to climb, etc. There are also some walls that can only be bypassed by having Hamel lift the protesting Flute over his head and hurl her so as to smash through the obstruction. All the while this is going on, poor Flute will be pulling a variety of shocked, pained, and indignant facial expressions. Conceptually, of course, this is all horrible. In the actual game, the cartoony animation of Flute and the sheer absurdity of her various sports mascot style getups renders it utterly hilarious. Hamel’s callous in-game treatment of his young ward also does a much better job of conveying his nature as a selfish jerk than standard cutscenes or dialogue would.

Thus, the typical stage involves Hamel taking the lead on order to clear out as many  enemies as possible and then summoning Flute in order to bypass any obstacles that require the use of a particular costume, all before the timer runs down. While you can never control Flute directly, you can tap a button to have Oboe instruct her to either stand in place or do her best to follow Hamel. This comes in handy for situations where Hamel and Flute need to trigger switches at the same time. Both characters need to reach the level exit in order for you to proceed. This isn’t as a big a challenge as it seems, due to the fact Flute can’t be killed by enemies or environmental hazards like Hamel can. Touching them will only result in the loss of some money (unless you bought the wallet accessory in the first town) and negatively impact her mood. Keeping Flute as happy as possible grants you access to bonus stages where you can stock up on extra lives. The game provides unlimited continues, however, so missing a bonus stage because she ended up getting knocked around too much is no real tragedy.

This gameplay is unlike anything else I’ve played on the system. Given your main hero’s reliance on a transforming sidekick, I suppose its closest antecedent would be David Crane’s A Boy and His Blob: Trouble on Blobolonia for the NES. Start with Crane’s game, up the combat and kiddy cruelty quotients significantly, and presto: You’ve made Hameln no Violin Hiki! The setup works very well in general here, as the levels are good about feeding you a steady drip of new costumes and ways to use them throughout. The lovely art and music are also worth mentioning. I’ve already praised the character animation for its scope and expressiveness and there’s no shortage of painterly backgrounds for it to play out against. As expected for a game with an overarching musical theme, a great deal of care was lavished on the score, too. It’s expansive and very catchy. You can argue that Daft cheated somewhat by basing many of the tunes on existing classical pieces, but it’s not as if it doesn’t fit the material.

So in terms of both its core gameplay and overall presentation, Hameln no Violin Hiki is the real deal: A bona fide Super Famicom hidden gem that’s long been rightly prized by savvy import enthusiasts.

Now that we’ve established that, kindly allow me to serve up a last minute buzz-kill by making you aware of this game’s two major flaws. First and foremost, it’s a very late example of a lengthy console release that doesn’t include any sort of save or password feature. Though fairly common in the ’80s, this design choice was downright archaic in 1995. While it’s great that the game’s four chapters (called “movements,” as in a symphony) each have a lot of content, having to push through them all in a single sitting can still be an unwelcome commitment. A complete playthrough of Hameln no Violin Hiki takes the best speedrunners over an hour. A more typical player will require anywhere from two to four, depending on how much prior experience they have. By this point in the history of gaming, there was simply no good excuse for a setup like this.

Hameln no Violin Hiki’s second failing is a purely narrative one. Despite apparently building to a final showdown with Demon King Chestra, the adventure actually culminates in an underwhelming tussle with another of his many lieutenants, followed by a cliffhanger ending teasing a sequel that would never be. I guess if you care how everything works out in the end, you can just go read the manga? Weak. Enix could have at least given us Hameln no Violin Hiki 2: Flute’s Revenge. Lord knows she earned it.

Soul Blazer (Super Nintendo)

The soul still burns!

I’m finally heading back to the Quintet well. It’s been far too long. I guess I had so much fun in 2017, playing through both ActRaiser games and the triumph that is Terranigma, that I instinctively hit the brakes before I could plow through their entire Super Nintendo catalog. There’s a sharply limited quantity of this stuff available, after all. Best to make it last.

My subject today is the studio’s second game, 1992’s Soul Blazer. Despite coming out hot on the heels of their highly successful action-platformer/God sim hybrid ActRaiser, Soul Blazer is not a sequel. Rather, it’s the first entry in a loose series that also includes Illusion of Gaia and Terranigma. Fans have dubbed these the Gaia Trilogy. Or the Soul Blazer Trilogy. Or the Quintet Trilogy. As if all these names weren’t confusing enough, some also point to a fourth release, The Granstream Saga for PlayStation, as a “spiritual successor” and the final entry in what’s more properly regarded as a quadrology.

Each game casts the player as a divine intermediary in the latest chapter of an endless conflict between two Manichean deities representing light and darkness. Much of the appeal for fans is based on the distinctive scenario design and writing of Quintet co-founder Tomoyoshi Miyazaki. There’s a strong focus on religion, death, and rebirth throughout the series. Miyazaki’s overarching thesis, or at least my best good faith take on it, seems to be the need for us humans to reject hubris and greed in favor of humble compassion for our fellow living things before our unchecked ignorance drives us to destroy both ourselves and our world. It was the unflinching way Quintet presented this material; their willingness to confront their audience with somber notions clearly meant to resonate beyond the games’ surface melodrama, that was so electrifying nearly thirty years ago and has since secured all three titles perennial cult classic status.

All this isn’t to say that the Gaia Trilogy is dour or depressing. There’s no shortage of fast action and tongue-in-cheek moments. It’s not even all that preachy, as there’s a remarkable degree of subtlety and restraint on display in light of the simplistic writing and brute force localization practices characteristic of the period. What these games are, however, is affecting. Haunting, even. They get under your skin in the best possible way.

Soul Blazer casts the player as an angelic being known as Blazer (or Blader in the Japanese original). Don’t feel too wedded to this moniker, though. You’re free to re-name him whatever you like. Taking human form, Blazer is tasked by The Master (aka God) with nothing less than restoring life to the world. It seem that Magridd, power-hungry ruler of the Freil Empire, coerced a brilliant scientist named Dr. Leo into creating a machine capable of summoning Deathtoll, “the King of Evil.” Against all odds, this proved to be a poor decision and Deathtoll promptly imprisoned the souls of the empire’s inhabitants in monster lairs, leaving the land deserted. It’s almost like you can’t trust the King of Evil or something.

Blazer’s mission is presented as a mechanically basic overhead view action-RPG of the sort that will be instantly accessible to anyone who’s ever played an old school Legend of Zelda before. He can move about in the four cardinal directions, strafe with the shoulder buttons, swing his sword with B, and fire off whichever magic spell is currently equipped by pressing Y. It’s an adequate setup for the hours of hack-and-slash ahead, but only just. Those that end up playing the series out of order won’t find nearly as much to sink their teeth into here compared to Illusion of Gaia or Terranigma. Soul Blazer’s solitary stab at innovation in the combat department largely falls flat. Spells don’t actually emanate from Blazer himself. Instead, they’re fired out of a glowing sphere that orbits him at all times. While this does look cool, it’s a right pain in the ass to aim sometimes, considering that the sphere is constantly spinning with no way to lock it in place. This is proof positive that different isn’t always good and I generally ignored the magic and stuck to the simple, effective sword for the majority of my playthrough.

So the action here isn’t really anything to write home about. Fortunately, its consequences are. Soul Blazer has a simple, powerful core gameplay cycle wherein every Gauntlet-style monster generator destroyed actually grows the game world by freeing the soul of the NPC trapped inside. That soul could belong to a human, an animal, or even a plant and each one will typically advance your quest in some way, large or small. Being an angel with the ability to communicate with anything living means that Blazer has no problem chatting up dogs, goats, fish, and even the occasional tree or flower. Visiting a new area for the first time and finding it completely empty, only to then gradually build it back up into a thriving settlement one inhabitant at a time as you slash your way through the local dungeon is immensely satisfying. I’d even call it addictive. If you’re not careful, the drive to take out just a few more monster lairs in order to see what sort of character pops out of each can get the better of you. Then, before you know it, hours have passed and you’re rushing off to the next area to do it all over again!

This theme of your hero’s actions somehow resurrecting a ruined world echoes throughout the trilogy. It would also inspire other developers, as seen in Level-5’s Dark Cloud series. Even in its embryonic form here, it’s a potent example of the positive feedback loop in game design. The action drives the narrative in about the most literal sense possible. Simultaneously, that narrative urges the player to dive right back into the action at every turn. The result is an experience more like its predecessor ActRaiser than meets the eye. On paper, each contains no spectacular gameplay per se, but the almost uncannily graceful interactions of their disparate elements induces a flow state in players that renders both much more engaging than the sums of their parts.

It’s entirely fair to deem this inaugural entry the weakest of the Gaia Trilogy. It’s also a mistake to dismiss it as such. Sure, the graphics have that flat early Super Nintendo look to them, the sound effects were lifted directly from ActRaiser, and the characterization of Blazer and the rest of the cast is pretty minimal compared to what would come later. Illusion of Gaia and (especially) Terranigma manage to nail most of the same beats with the added benefits of deeper combat, more confident and ambitious storytelling, and glossier coats of paint. This is all to be expected, of course, as Miyazaki and the rest of Quintet continually honed their craft over the console’s run. Regardless, Soul Blazer is a brilliantly conceived and paced adventure with a brooding, apocalyptic atmosphere that will satisfy genre veterans craving something more than another “save the princess” errand. Play it before its sequels, if possible, but play it. It’s a fascinating game in its own right as well as an auspicious start to a saga like no other.

Dragon Warrior III (NES)

Enough screwing around: It’s time to review the single greatest game of the entire twentieth century!

According to readers of Famitsu magazine, that is. In August of 2017, Japan’s most revered video gaming publication celebrated its 1500th issue by polling its readership to determine the 100 best games of all time. The number one slot went to 2016’s Persona 5. Number two was Dragon Quest III.

Surprised? I was, too. The game’s North American release, under the alternate title Dragon Warrior III, is remembered as a modest cult classic at best. Of course, it’s common knowledge that the RPG genre enjoys massively popularity in Japan and has ever since the very first Dragon Quest dropped in 1986. The remainder of Famitsu’s list is overwhelmingly stacked with Japanese-made console RPGs in the Dragon Quest mold, often called “JRPGs” by outsiders. In contrast, only a small handful of JRPGs like Final Fantasy VII and the main series Pokemon games have managed to attain comparable mainstream success in West over the years. But why is this specific entry in the long-running series held in such high regard? What does its country of origin see in it that the rest of us, for the most part, don’t?

One major factor is timing. There was a staggering four year delay between Dragon Quest III’s 1988 Famicom debut and Dragon Warrior III’s 1992 arrival on the NES. To put that into perspective, North American Super Nintendo owners had been gawking at Square’s flashy 16-bit epic Final Fantasy IV (under its misleading Final Fantasy II moniker) for three months at that point. That Enix bothered releasing Dragon Warrior III at all under these conditions is surprising. Most of its major innovations (a robust character class system, large world to explore, and dynamic day/night cycle) were either well established by 1992 or simply didn’t blow minds the same way 256-color graphics or faux orchestral soundtracks did. Dragon Warrior III’s party of silent protagonists undertaking routine fetch quests to slowly save the world from a motiveless evil overlord also came off downright quaint next to Final Fantasy IV’s flamboyant anime style melodrama.

On the other hand, as a 1988 release for the Famicom, Dragon Quest III was a massive leap forward for the series and for JRPGs as a whole. There was a greater increase in overall gameplay depth here than in any other single Dragon Quest sequel before or since. The original saw the player controlling a single, non-customizable hero. The second game upped the party size to three, with each character’s abilities still remaining fixed. Dragon Quest III expanded the maximum party size again to the now standard four and introduced custom character creation to the mix. While you’re still required to have the game’s main hero in your party at all times, the other three slots can be filled with any combination of male or female members of seven distinct character classes: Soldier, Fighter, Pilgrim, Wizard, Merchant, Goof-Off, and Sage.

The first Final Fantasy, released around the same time, also let you choose your party composition in this way, but DQIII did it one better by permitting characters to change their classes any time after reaching the 20th experience level. You could create a physically feeble Wizard, level him up to learn a variety of useful attack spells, and then change him into a heavily armed and armored Soldier without losing access to any of the magic he’d previously mastered. One class, the almighty Sage, isn’t even available at the start and can only be transitioned to later by meeting certain esoteric requirements.

Cultural context is another angle to consider. Veterans of old school Western RPGs are likely scratching their heads right now and asking, “What’s so amazing about getting to choose classes for your party members?” Absolutely nothing, if you cut your teeth on Wizardry, Ultima, and other Dungeons & Dragons-inspired computer games of the period. Bear in mind, however, that the JRPG sub-genre left most of that mechanical complexity behind at its inception in the interest of appealing to a mass audience of Famicom owners accustomed to the likes of Super Mario Bros. In this gaming milieu, the degree of unbridled freedom DQIII’s character creation system represented was nothing less than spellbinding. It sold over a million copies in Japan on release day alone. In an era before pre-orders and online shopping, that meant more than one million people flooding retail stores on the same day with cash in hand. This planted the seed of the long-standing myth that the Japanese government passed a law forbidding Enix from launching future Dragon Quest games on weekdays due to concerns over widespread truancy and lost productivity.

And…I’ve done it again. I’ve spent more time talking about the history of a Dragon Quest game than about the game itself. Like I said last year in my review of the first game, these early entries in the series play such a central role in defining what a JRPG is that they tend to come across as hopelessly generic when you actually start breaking down their stories and gameplay in detail. It’s a bit like trying to describe the flavor of unseasoned rice cakes.

Dragon Warrior III opens with the main hero waking up on his or her sixteenth birthday and being instructed to speak to the local king. The king explains that the young hero is the son of the legendary adventurer Ortega and consequently the only one who can save the world from an “archfiend” named Baramos. Strangely, even though you’re given the option of making the hero male or female, both versions of the character are represented by the same sprite and all of the dialogue refers to you as Ortega’s son in any case. Is it an oversight? Is the girl hero supposed to be just that butch? Beats me. After this little info dump, the king forks over a ridiculously small sum of money and waves you off to the local inn to create the rest of your party.

Once you’ve gathered your companions, it’s time to venture out into the field and settle into the usual series routine: Finding the next town, figuring out what the problem there is, sorting it out at the local dungeon, and being rewarded with whatever key or other item you need to access the next chunk of the map. All the while, you’ll be chugging through the constant stream of random turn-based monster battles needed to raise your characters’ experience levels and gain the cash necessary to upgrade their gear at the shops.

Depending on your temperament, this core gameplay loop is either hypnotically soothing or a mind-numbing living death. In any case, I found that this installment at least does a much better job than the original Dragon Warrior of giving the player new goals to pursue on a fairly regular basis. You’ll still have to deal with just as many repetitive random encounters as before, but a larger game world and more quest objects to fetch means that you’re rarely ever forced to stop exploring completely just to grind experience or gold. This one improvement single-handedly negates my biggest criticism of the first game.

On the subject of improvements, and despite all the wisecracks I made above about its generic story, Dragon Warrior III does feature one major plot twist at around the the 3/4 mark that’s quite clever and well-presented for the time. Credit where it’s due, this really would have been quite the jaw-dropper for fans circa 1988 and likely constitutes another major reason the game is so fondly remembered in Japan.

Between the added flexibility of the class system, the more fleshed-out quest, and that nifty plot twist, Dragon Warrior III represents a massive upgrade from its predecessors and is my pick for the first truly great entry in the series. Is it game of the century material, though? Hardly. I wouldn’t even rank it among my top three Dragon Quest games. For all the refinement it brought to the nascent JRPG formula, it still suffers from some woefully aimless and anemic storytelling. Your party of heroes are mute ciphers from start to finish. Only one is given the slightest semblance of a backstory or motivation (being the son of the great Ortega) and this still manages to amount to a whole lot of nothing in the end. The villains seem content to exist entirely off-screen until you eventually stroll right into their throne rooms, whereupon they recite a couple short sentences about how very evil they are before getting themselves killed. If the stars of the piece are this dull, you just know the regular NPCs you interact with in town don’t stand a chance.

Beginning with Dragon Warrior IV, the series’ creators would endeavor to include much more in the way of characterization. Every party member in that game came complete with a compelling reason why they chose to spend their days wandering the world beating up on assorted goofy Akira Toriyama monsters, be it duty, revenge, youthful rebellion, or just wanting to get rich quick. The main antagonist also had a tragic past and a coherent motive underpinning his genocidal ambitions. For me, this previously lacking human element was the final ingredient needed to make later installments like V and VIII some of my most treasured gaming experiences. With all due respect to Famitsu and an entire generation of nostalgic Japanese gamers, I find Dragon Warrior III to be, at the utmost, the greatest JRPG of 1988.

On the plus side, this does mean that I can keep on reviewing games, confident that it’s not all downhill from here. I was worried there for a second.

Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken (Famicom)

Murder was the case that they gave me.

Sometimes it’s good to branch out a little. I’m normally pretty content with my platformers, run-and-guns, action RPGs, and shooters. Okay, so “absurdly content” is more like it. Of the over 130 games I’ve covered in detail prior to today’s subject, there’s been only a handful which didn’t center on real time action of some kind. The most recent of these outliers was Chunsoft and Enix’s groundbreaking console RPG Dragon Quest (aka Dragon Warrior). It was in that review almost a year ago now where I briefly touched on Dragon Quest lead designer Yuji Horii’s first major success: Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken (“The Portopia Serial Murder Case”), an adventure game first published for home computers in 1983 and later converted to the Famicom in 1985, where its popularity exploded. Since that initial mention, I’ve known I would take on Portopia itself at some point.

Why? Because it’s completely unknown here in the West despite being one of the most influential games to ever appear on Nintendo’s 8-bit machine. I’m not exaggerating, either. For an entire generation of Japanese gamers, Portopia was a Super Mario or Legend of Zelda magnitude revelation. Clones started popping up almost immediately and the Famicom library as a whole is packed to the gills with menu-driven adventure games, many of which share similar detective mystery themes. Nintendo themselves eventually got in on the act with their Famicom Tantei Club series and celebrity game designer Hideo Kojima credits Portopia as the inspiration for his own Snatcher and Policenauts. Pre-Internet NES owners were largely oblivious to this trend, as none of these text-heavy titles were picked for localization in their day with the sole exception of Hudson Soft’s bizzaro fantasy epic Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom for some reason. The closest thing we had here in North America was the occasional port of a domestic computer adventure game like Maniac Mansion. It wasn’t until the era of the Nintendo DS that heavily Portopia-inspired properties such as Phoenix Wright and Jake Hunter (Tantei Jingūji Saburō) would find themselves a home outside Japan. I’m thankfully able to experience Portopia myself courtesy of DvD Translations.

As with the later Dragon Quest, Horii’s masterstroke here was to start with a genre that was already popular in the small world of early ’80s computing and adapt it for the Famicom owning millions. This involved making some clever tweaks to the user interface in order to ease the transition from a full keyboard to a two-button Famicom pad. The computer version’s text command line is gone entirely, replaced by a menu containing every valid command and a cursor to allow for interaction with people and objects in the game world via those commands. Anyone familiar with ICOM Simulations’ MacVenture titles (Déjà Vu, Uninvited, and Shadowgate) will know the routine. As an aside, actually seeing Portopia’s menu system in action makes me understand at long last what Konami was getting at with those strange first-person adventure segments in The Goonies II. They were consciously attempting to hybridize their first Goonies release with Portopia and doing it in a very tongue-in-cheek way. After thirty long years, beating up on helpless NPCs to progress in Goonies II (also necessary during some of Portopia’s interrogation scenes) finally makes some degree of sense! These bits still aren’t very fun, but at least I get them now. Hallelujah!

In case you’re wondering, the name “Portopia” itself comes from Port Island, a large man-made landmass in the Kobe harbor which was officially opened to the public with a massive festival called Portopia ’81. It was (and is) quite the tourist magnet and triumph of Japanese engineering, so it would have seemed like a cool place to set a mystery story around this time. In the game, the player assumes the role of a seasoned police detective dispatched to investigate the apparent suicide of Kouzou Yamakawa, a wealthy bank president found stabbed to death inside a locked room in his mansion. Of course, nothing is ever that open-and-shut in a tale like this and it doesn’t take you long to determine Yamakawa was actually the victim of foul play.

Now, when I say the player assumes the lead role in Portopia, I mean it. The game’s silent protagonist goes entirely unseen and unnamed throughout. For all intents and purposes, it’s you on the case. I love this choice, myself. It’s inherently immersive and takes advantage of the interactive medium to present the mystery in a way that just wouldn’t work in a detective novel, where the central figure obviously needs to be described to the reader in some fashion. You’re provided a Watson to your Holmes in the form of your junior detective colleague Yasuhiko “Yasu” Mano. Yasu is mainly there to provide exposition about your surroundings and backstory on the murder victim and the suspects. There turns out to be quite a lot to for the two of you to mull over as you delve into the sordid details of the not-so-innocent victim’s murky past.

This is a classic whodunit in the Agatha Christie tradition with all the red herrings and surprise revelations this implies. As a mystery lover myself, I couldn’t help but notice it bears a striking resemblance to one Christie work in particular. I won’t say which one, just in case you also happen to be well-read in the genre. While a lot of its beats are familiar, Portopia’s storyline actually works as a mystery yarn. Its ultimate solution is fair and the journey is even peppered with those seemingly irrelevant little details and apparent throwaway lines that only assume greater importance in hindsight. I love that trick.

So far, we’ve established Portopia as a historically important release with a nifty plot. How is it as an adventure game? In a word, rough. Portopia leaves much to be desired aesthetically. The graphics are decidedly crude and unappealing and I’m not just saying that because it’s an old game. For my money, there’s actually a tremendous amount of graphic design skill which goes into making the pixel art for a game as primitive as Pac-Man or Donkey Kong truly timeless. In contrast, Portopia’s in-game art looks like I could have contributed to it, and that is most definitely not a compliment. As far as the soundtrack goes, all I can really say is I’d critique it if I could. Enix didn’t see fit to include so much as a quick jingle for the title or end screens, just a handful of basic Famicom sound effects dotting a vast sea of stony silence. Conflict between the game’s extensive script and the severely limited space on early Famicom ROM chips likely explains why we didn’t get any music, but I’d venture to say the graphics could have still been much better drawn if the necessary care had been taken.

Portopia’s frequent game design sins also bear mentioning. While its mystery plot plays remarkably fair by literary standards, its puzzles chuck the point-and-click rulebook out the window with wicked abandon. Numerous plot-crucial bits of evidence are invisible, requiring the player to click small, seemingly empty areas of the screen more or less at random in order to progress. Even worse, one puzzle late in the game which involves finding a secret in a sprawling Wizardry style first-person maze is so cunningly oblique that it comes across as hateful. Suffice to say the method required to reveal said secret is completely unlike the ones used to investigate literally every other area and object in the game. As much as I generally advise against playing any game with a walkthrough by your side, Portopia’s more hair-pulling moments are so absurd one could easily argue it cheated first.

Capping this all off, there’s no password or other save mechanism built into the game. It’s short enough that you can beat it in mere handful of minutes once you already know the steps necessary, but if you’re working it all out the first time, expect to devote hours to the task. I hope you’re good at taking down notes in the event you need to break your playthrough up into multiple sessions. In fact, old-school paper note taking is encouraged in general, since adventure games of this vintage weren’t known for their user-friendly in-game journal futures.

What we’re left with here is a great game with no great gameplay in it. In a sea of simple early Famicom arcade ports, platformers, and puzzle games, Portopia was a watershed. A gritty murder mystery set in an authentic modern Japan! Real characters! Plot twists and shocking revelations! Unfortunately, precisely none of this initial thrill is reproducible now. There’s still a solid detective story to be had here if you feel like digging for it, but shoddy presentation and some egregiously unfair puzzles make the total package less of a whodunit and more of a whocares.

Dragon Warrior (NES)

Forsooth, thou art most rad!

Now this takes me back. What can I even say about 1986’s Dragon Quest, better known here as Dragon Warrior? It was the first turn-based RPG for the Famicom/NES and consequently the first that many gamers of my generation, myself included, were ever exposed to. It’s ground zero for an entire genre in the minds of millions. The wilds of Alefgard are where I scored my first experience point, achieved my first level-up, and cast my first healing spell. This is primal stuff, man. Archetypal.

I can start by dispelling a few common misconceptions about the game. For starters, it was neither the first console RPG (1982’s Dragonstomper for the Atari 2600 is the best candidate for that honor) nor the first Japanese RPG (domestic creations like The Black Onyx and Dragon Slayer were staples on Japanese home computers as early as 1984). It also wasn’t designer Yuji Horii’s first major success. 1985 had seen the Famicom release of Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken (“The Portopia Serial Murder Incident”), Horii’s port of his own “visual novel” style detective adventure game originally released for home computers in 1983. In converting Portopia for Nintendo’s machine, Horii wisely avoided limiting the game’s appeal by forgoing use of the Famicom keyboard accessory and instead replacing the text parser of the computer versions with a menu of fourteen standardized commands that could be easily managed with the default controller. As the first adventure game released for the Famicom, Portopia moved over 700,000 units and ignited a passion for visual novels that persists in Japanese gaming circles to this day.

As a follow-up effort, Dragon Quest can be seen as a return to form for Horii: Start with a complex and potentially intimidating game type that’s popular on niche computers and then streamline and simplify it for introduction to the much wider and more lucrative console market. He took a cup of Ultima, added a dash of Wizardry, and then garnished with a user friendly interface straight out of Portopia. Two millions copies later, it was clear that lightning had indeed struck twice.

Well, two million copies in Japan, that is. Enix had equally high hopes for the North American release in 1989, for which Nintendo themselves would take over publishing duty. They went all-out by springing for enhanced graphics, a top notch localization of the game’s script, a battery save option to replace the original’s cumbersome passwords, and a detailed 64-page strategy guide bundled with every copy. It was a resounding flop.

What went wrong? Well, it turns out that much of the game’s initial success in Japan was due to its artwork by superstar illustrator Akira Toriyama and its heavy promotion in the pages of the popular action manga magazine Shōnen Jump. Over here, however, it was a totally unknown quantity to consumers and the result was warehouses full of unsellable Dragon Warrior cartridges. The solution? Another, more desperate stab at a magazine cross-promotion: Readers of Nintendo Power were actually sent a free copy of Dragon Warrior with every $20 subscription! An estimated 500,000 copies were distributed in this way. The hope was that, once they were exposed to the game one way or another, players in North America would be just as hooked as their counterparts across the Pacific and turn out in droves for the sequels.

Again, things didn’t quite work out as intended. Sales of Dragon Warrior II, III, and IV on the NES were all lukewarm at best. By the time Dragon Quest made the jump to 16-bit, Enix had given up entirely and the West wouldn’t see another entry in the series until Dragon Warrior VII made it to the PlayStation in 2001. In the meantime, Pokemon and Final Fantasy VII would step in and become the long-awaited smash hit “gateway” RPGs for the North American market, finally succeeding were Dragon Warrior had failed.

Don’t feel too bad for Yuji Horii and friends, though. Dragon Quest may still only hold cult appeal in my neck of the woods, but the mania it kicked off in its homeland has never truly abated. Even now, new releases are virtually national holidays in Japan and the franchise’s grinning blue slime mascot is as recognizable as Mickey Mouse.

Geez, that’s a lot of background. What about the actual game? Well, it goes like this: You start out in a throne room talking to a king. The king tells you that an evil dude called the Dragonlord has stolen the magic artifact that safeguards the land of Alefgard and kidnapped its beautiful princess to boot. Since you’re the descendant of a legendary hero, it’s now your job to gather the tools needed to breach the Dragonlord’s stronghold, introduce him to the pointy end of your sword, and recover the missing magical thingy. Also, that princess, if it’s not too much bother.

In order to do this, you need to explore the game’s medieval fantasy world from an Ultima style top-down viewpoint searching for important items and interrogating friendly villagers for hints on where to head next. Random encounters with monsters will shift the perspective to a first person combat display similar to Wizardry’s where you can choose your commands from a basic menu that includes options to fight, flee, cast magic spells, and use helpful items like medicinal herbs. These battles are very frequent and you’ll need to win hundreds of them in order to garner the thousands of experience points and gold pieces necessary to power your initially wimpy character up enough to stand a chance against the Dragonlord.

What’s that, you say? This sounds like every console RPG ever made? Bingo!  When I called it archetypal, I wasn’t exaggerating. Dragon Warrior is the very mold, the template, the plain cheese pizza of JRPGs. This is what makes it so tricky to pin down three decades later. Even so, I’ll do my best to cover the highs and lows.

One thing that still stands out today are Toriyama’s stellar monster designs. Though I’ve never been able to find any enjoyment in his most famous creation, the Dragonball series, I’ve always been drawn to his “40% menacing, 60% adorable” take on traditional fantasy critters. Even when I was finally face-to-face with the fearsome Dragonlord himself, part of me wished I could rub his cute scaly belly instead of dueling to the death. The detail and charm packed into every foe’s portrait single-handedly justifies the choice of a first person view for the combat.

I’m also impressed by the sheer scope and quality of Dragon Warrior’s English translation and localization, which are credited to Toshiko Watson and Scott Pelland, respectively. Their work is years ahead of its time when you consider that the 1980s were the Wild West of game localization and many publishers couldn’t manage to produce so much as a single screen of translated text that didn’t read like drunken Mad Libs. Here, all the dialogue makes sense and the faux Elizabethan dialect the characters speak with is profoundly corny, but endearingly so. I’ll even admit to finding it pretty epic as a kid. There’s also a sweet extended in-joke included in the form of some character cameos that will be very familiar to former Nintendo Power readers.

If there’s one undeniable downside to playing through Dragon Warrior, it’s the extraordinary amount of mindless grinding required. While almost all RPGs expect the player to engage in endless random battles for money and experience, the best of them also give you plenty of places to go and things to do along the way. That way, you never have a chance to dwell on how repetitive these frequent combats can be on their own. Unfortunately, there are no side quests or diversions to be found here. Dragon Warrior has exactly two goals for the player: Kill the Dragonlord and rescue the princess. The game world is also quite small, which makes gathering the three key items needed to enter the Dragonlord’s castle is a simple task if you know where to look. The end result? About two hours of worthwhile exploration and excitement aggressively padded out into an excruciating 10+ hour slog. The late game in particular is a mess. By level 15, I had tracked down every key item, acquired all the best equipment, and even rescued the princess. There was literally nothing left in the entire game for me to do except kill the Dragonlord…which requires you to be around level 20. Reaching level 20 requires a total of 26,000 experience points, well over twice what I’d accumulated up to that point. So, stubborn fool that I am, I spent hours pacing back and forth over the same stretch of map, robotically striking down hundreds of generic enemies and pausing only to trek back to the inn when I ran low on healing spells. Then I killed the Dragonlord. Such fun.

Don’t get me wrong: As an introductory RPG circa 1986, Dragon Warrior’s approach is nothing short of genius. Horii managed to pare away every non-essential element from the popular computer RPGs of the time while still retaining the core appeal of a grand fantasy adventure where the player’s avatar continually grows in power and sharp wits and sound decisions matter more than quick reflexes. There’s no character customization to be found here, no class system, no multiple character party to manage, and the story is the most basic “princess and dragon” setup imaginable. This not only insured that the game had the broadest possible appeal, it perfectly set up Dragon Quest as an ongoing series, since follow-up releases could be predicated on gradually reintroducing these very same advanced mechanics in modular fashion. Thus, the second game included multiple player characters, the third added character creation and a robust class system, and so on. In this way, the series both birthed and raised a generation of Japanese RPG fans.

Dragon Warrior captivated me back in 1989. I played it day and night and even wandered its perilous fields and dungeons in my dreams. Next came Final Fantasy, tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons, and so many more. Revisiting it now, though, I’m reminded why I mainly play action games these days. While the presentation still has its charms, it’s clear that my elementary schooler self didn’t value his time very highly. Simple and repetitive as it is, Dragon Warrior is best approached today as either a nostalgia trip or an interactive history lesson. In either case, patience is a must. RPG fans in general are much better off seeking out the later re-releases for the Game Boy Color and Super Famicom, which both cut down on the grinding significantly. That, or skipping straight to the brilliant Dragon Warrior III.

Thou hast been warned!

ActRaiser 2 (Super Nintendo)

He’d damn well better live forever after everything he’s been through!

ActRaiser was a hit for Quintet and Enix, with surprisingly strong sales in all markets. This includes North America, where it was feared we coarse gaijin were all about the action and would be reluctant to embrace the game’s slower-paced simulation segments. This was emblematic of the shocking amount of cultural chauvinism present among Japanese game companies at the time. The ironic fact that the Japanese mania for RPG and sim games was sparked by classic Western-developed titles like Ultima, Wizardry, and SimCity in the first place was apparently lost on the leadership at Enix and many other major publishers. That the Super Nintendo saw as many great international RPG releases as it did is a bit of a miracle in light of this pervasive prejudice.

All this is to say that 1993’s ActRaiser 2 is a very different beast than its predecessor and it’s precisely because it was developed with this philosophy in mind. Gone completely are the menu-driven simulation maps from the first game in favor of a deeper, more challenging action-platforming experience. This change was not well-received by most, to say the least. It’s not uncommon online to see fans of the first ActRaiser hurling outright abuse at ActRaiser 2. They’re not simply cold on the game, they’re still mad about it. There’s a real sense of personal betrayal that still comes through almost a quarter century later.

Robert Jerauld, a former producer at Enix USA, had this to say in a 2014 interview: “ActRaiser 2 – This was one of my first – and most important – mistakes in my career. At the time, I was convinced that players wanted action…I pushed Enix away from retaining the sim part of ActRaiser and toward a more challenging action title. I made that decision because I believed I knew what the consumer wanted…I removed the soul from ActRaiser and that was a really tough lesson to learn, but it’s one that has really helped me along the way.”

So that’s it, right? Game’s a disgrace. It sucks. Case closed.

Not quite.

The way I see it, “black sheep sequels” come in a couple distinct flavors. The first either alters or discards much of what made the earlier installments in the series so beloved and is just a godawful excuse for a video game in general. For a good example of a legendary turd like this, look no further than the dire Rastan Saga II, the follow-up to Taito’s Conan the Barbarian-inspired arcade classic. It not only lacks the tight controls, thrilling action, and grand audiovisuals of its predecessor, it’s generally one of the worst side-scrollers ever made and would remain so under any other name.

The second type also gleefully slaughters series sacred cows, but still manages to be an all-around quality title on its own merits in spite of it. Zelda II, anyone? It’s in this latter category I would place ActRaiser 2. It’s simultaneously a failure as a sequel to ActRaiser and one of the best action-platforming titles for the Super Nintendo.

The plot is once again as simple as can be: Satan/Tanzra is a back with an army of hellish minions and it’s up to God/the Master to take up his sword and vanquish the Prince of Darkness yet again. The twist this time is that Tanzra’s seven main demon lieutenants are each based on one of the seven deadly sins (pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth) and this is reflected in their forms and in the various nasty ways they plague the Master’s helpless subjects. The gluttony demon, for example, sends a hoard of monster ants to steal all the food, leaving the people to starve. There are also some nice touches taken from classic literature. The final encounter with Tanzra depicts him partially encased in the ice of a frozen lake, mirroring Satan’s predicament in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno.

The level structure of ActRaiser 2 is fairly open. You can guide your sky palace over the map and complete the game’s stages in any order you want, but your angelic assistant will suggest a particular order which will make for the smoothest difficulty curve. While the choice is yours, I would recommend first time players take the angel’s advice and complete the stages in the “correct” order to minimize frustration.

Once you’re actually in control of the Master, the first thing you’re likely to notice is he’s very, very slow. Dude makes Simon Belmont look like Carl Lewis. There is a way to get around faster and it involves the second thing you’ll probably notice: Your brand new set of shiny angel wings. Tapping the jump button a second time while in the air will launch the Master into a forward glide. Don’t overdo it, though, because there’s no end of deviously-placed enemies and hazards designed to prevent you from abusing your wings to rush through the stages. In order to avoid this, you can halt a glide in progress in several different ways. Tapping the jump button a third time will simply drop the Master straight down, pressing down and attack will launch him into a sharp dive with his sword held out that will deal triple the normal attack damage to foes in the way, and holding up will cause him to slowly drift to the ground and is great for nailing precise landings. You’ll need to master glide cancelling if you hope to get past the game’s many pinpoint platforming challenges, since continuing a standard glide all the way to the ground will cause you to momentarily lose control of the Master and probably skid right into a waiting enemy or death trap.

The changes to the controls don’t stop there. The Master can now swing his sword above and below him and he carries a shield that can block projectile attacks originating from both straight ahead and above. Magic has also received a major overhaul. Instead of selecting a single spell to use at the start of each level, you charge up your magic by holding down the attack button and releasing it when the Master starts to flash red. This will produce one of seven different situational effects depending on whether the Master is standing, crouching, gliding, and so on.

It’s honestly all a lot to take in. For a character in a 16-bit action game, ActRaiser 2’s Master is about as complex as they come. This is in stark contrast to the last game, where his moveset was incredibly basic: Just run, jump, sword, and a single magic option. Here you have upwards of sixteen different actions available to you at any given moment and each one is useful at one point or another. This essentially means the game has one hell of a learning curve to it, which I believe is a major factor contributing to its reputation as one of the most difficult action titles for the system. It is a tough one, no doubt. The enemies are numerous and can take many hits to dispatch, while the stage layouts demand your gliding and jumping be on-point at all times. Even so, a lot of ActRaiser 2’s challenge is front-loaded into the first couple of hours, when the player is still coming to grips with the elaborate control scheme. Once you start getting the hang of how to advance with caution, attack, defend, and (most importantly) use your wings, the game really does open up and become a lot more approachable. You still have some rather fiendish stages to reckon with, but a little confidence in the Master’s abilities goes a long way. There’s also an easy difficulty mode for new players. Just be aware you won’t be able to access the final stage or see the ending if you’re playing the game on easy.

One thing even the most embittered fan of the first game can’t deny is that ActRaiser 2 looks magnificent. The level of detail and animation in the character sprites represents a high water mark for any Quintet game, rivalled only by Terranigma. The stage backgrounds are true works of art, very nearly as far above the original ActRaiser as that game’s were above its NES contemporaries. If I had been shown this game and told it was a 1995 or 1996 release for the system, I’d probably have believed it. It looks that good. The audio doesn’t fare quite as well. Many sound effects seem to have been directly recycled from the first game and returning composer Yuzo Koshiro’s score is very technically proficient in that it features high quality samples and intricate arrangements, but it lacks the stirring melodies which made tracks like “Fillmore” and “Birth of the People” so unforgettable the first time around. Still, the soundscape isn’t terrible here and easily exceeds the average game. It’s just not up to the sky high standards set by the visuals.

By the time I’d made my way through all fourteen stages of ActRaiser 2, I was convinced I was dealing with a true misunderstood gem of an action game. It’s true that the loss of the simulation mode from the original results in much less in the way of immersion and quality narrative. These segments may have been simplistic and easy, but observing your followers from a bird’s eye perspective as they prospered under your protection and working miracles to reshape the very land itself really did help the player get into the role of a benevolent deity. These story elements are still present in the sequel, but with no reinforcement from the actual gameplay, they’re window dressing and nothing more. Although the action here is challenging, thrilling, and nuanced, the Master could just as easily be any old musclebound fantasy warrior and it wouldn’t affect the experience all too much. The lack of sim interludes also affects the pacing, since it doesn’t allow for the first game’s hypnotic sense of rhythmic yin-yang flow between contrasting play styles.

All that said, I still feel compelled to judge ActRaiser 2 on the basis of what it actually is instead of what it was never really intended to be at all. What we have here is an extremely high quality action-platformer with a wholly unique feel to it. It’s deliberate, exacting, very technical, and a total blast to play once you’ve mastered its fundamentals. Seeing it all the way through confers the feeling of exhilarating accomplishment only a truly demanding game can, which is one edge it has over its older sibling. As a nice little bonus, it’s also one of the prettiest Super Nintendo games you’ll ever lay eyes on.

ActRaiser 2 may indeed be a child of a lesser god, but it’s more than worthy of salvation.

ActRaiser (Super Nintendo)

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You don’t step to the big G.

Here we have the legendary ActRaiser from developer Quintet and publisher Enix. This idiosyncratic hybrid action-platformer/simulation outing from 1990 was the first of six Quintet releases for the Super Nintendo and still seems to be the best known of the bunch by far. It made quite a splash back at the time of its release due to its innovative gameplay structure and some amazing graphics and music for an early 16-bit title. Since I picked up a copy of the very different ActRaiser 2 recently, I wanted to go back and experience the original again before I tackled its more obscure sequel.

The premise of ActRaiser is straightforward: You’re God and you have to save the world from Satan. Old Scratch has been wreaking havoc all across the land ever since he wounded you in a great battle and forced you to retreat to your heavenly palace and sleep for several centuries to heal your wounds. Now you’re finally awake again and it’s time to clean house. Of course, we’re talking about an old Nintendo game here, so the publisher was compelled to change God to “the Master” and Satan to “Tanzra” for the international release in order to avoid any controversy. Make no mistake, though: You are absolutely a sword swinging, ass kicking Yahweh in this game. It’s not often that you get to say that.

As mentioned, ActRaiser sports an unusual gameplay structure that I have yet to see replicated anywhere else, including in its own sequel. You start out controlling the Master (technically a stone statue animated by the Master’s spirit, but close enough) in a very traditional side view action-platforming style. The Master’s moveset in this mode is limited. He can run, jump, and swing his sword. Later on, he’ll gain the ability to perform some limited use magical attacks that can deal heavy damage and are best saved for boss fights. Defeating the first boss will transition you into the game’s other mode: Simulation.

ActRaiser’s simulation mode presents you with an overhead view of the planet below your hovering sky palace and tasks you with guiding your tiny human followers in six different regions and protecting them from rampaging monsters while they rebuild their civilization. It’s important that they spread and multiply, since a bigger population nets you a bigger health bar for the action stages. You don’t control the Master himself during these segments, but rather one of his servants: A tiny, cherubic angel with a bow. This portion of the game is often compared to SimCity, Civilization, and other such “god games,” but I’m not convinced that these comparison are very accurate or useful. Unlike in those games, you have very little control over what your people build and how they develop. Instead, your responsibilities are mainly limited to using your various acts of god (lightning, earthquakes, and so on) to clear away obstructions and indicating which section of empty map your followers should colonize next. The rest is basically automated. This wouldn’t be very engaging on its own, so each of the six simulation maps also includes several monster lairs that will constantly disgorge a stream of flying baddies to harass your followers and smash up their newly built real estate unless you keep your little angel buddy busy zipping around the map and shooting them down as they spawn. Thankfully, you don’t have to do this indefinitely. Once you can direct your people to build over a monster lair, they’ll seal it up and stop the flow of enemies from that lair permanently. Seal up all the lairs and you can then take on a second side-scrolling action level before returning to your sky palace and moving on to the next region.

Once you’ve pacified all six regions, it’s off to hell (aka “Death Heim”) to confront Satan/Tanzra himself. After you re-fight enhanced versions of the six main bosses back-to-back in a classic boss rush, that is.

That’s pretty much all there is to ActRaiser. It may sound like I’m selling it a bit short, but it’s just not a very deep game for the most part. Both gameplay modes would be hard to recommend to anyone as standalone experiences. The action segments are short, simplistic, and devoid of any real challenge. They were actually made considerably easier here than they were in the original Japanese release. The simulation mode allows for little in the way of choice or customization, outside of the option to use natural disasters to raze older structures so that your followers can rebuild higher capacity ones in their places and increase your total population. You couldn’t even lose the game in simulation mode if you wanted to. Your angel avatar can’t die and even allowing the monsters to kill off your entire population (or doing it yourself with lightning and earthquakes) will only set you back a bit temporarily until it rebounds.

So why then is this game considered to be such a timeless classic by so many gamers, myself included? Why would I want to revisit it at all? The real brilliance of ActRaiser and the secret of its lasting appeal is the unique synergy between its two halves. It’s all a matter of pacing. Switching back and forth between a frantic hack-and-slash combat stage and a slow, methodical town building exercise doesn’t seem like it should work at all, but somehow it just does. The result is a game that’s deeply relaxing to sit down and play without ever becoming boring.

The grand faux-orchestral score by Yuzo Koshiro reflects this dynamic perfectly, lending epic bombast to the action scenes and calm serenity to the simulation mode. Koshiro is a game music legend and is on record as saying that ActRaiser represents some of his best work. I’m not included to argue.

There’s one more excellent reason to play ActRaiser, though it’s a little less tangible than the genius pacing and stellar presentation. It’s that certain special touch that Quintet also brought to several of their other Super Nintendo classics like Soul Blazer and Terranigma: Profound ideas presented in a beautiful, understated way. ActRaiser is by no means as densely written and story driven as Illusion of Gaea or Terranigma, but there are still some lovely little moments scattered throughout. Ask anyone who’s played this game about the dying man in the desert and they’ll know just what you mean. Nintendo of America’s heavy-handed alterations also couldn’t completely erase ActRaiser’s explorations of spiritual and religious themes, as in the game’s ending, which offers up the notion that the best god of all might just be the one that nobody needs. Oh, and you get to stab the devil right in his big stupid face.

Amen.