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I’ve been slowly playing through the early Japanese-style role-playing games, and at this point I’ve given up any semblance of playing them in release order. I keep finding out about other intriguing games that I want to try, that came out before some of those I’ve already played. For example, The Magic of Scheherazade by Culture Brain, a game I’d never heard of despite it getting an official release in English in North America. It released in September 1987, so of the games I’ve covered so far, only Dragon Quest and Dragon Quest II predate it. Reading about it, I was intrigued by its use of Arabian legends as inspiration, and by its attempt to combine top-down action in the vein of The Legend of Zelda with turn-based battles inspired by the Dragon Quest series. That sounded like such an odd mix that I had to check it out.

As far as I can tell, The Magic of Scheherazade has never been re-released, so the only way to play it today is to find an original cartridge and run it on an original Nintendo Entertainment System, or to use emulation. I did the latter, once again using Retroarch and the Mesen core. I found a PDF version of the manual and read through it before starting, and I was impressed by all of the ideas on display. The hero of the story is the descendant of the magician Isfa, and is destined to defeat the evil sorcerer Sabaron who has subjugated Arabia with his demon allies. But Sabaron has wiped the hero’s memory and flung him through time. To prevail, the hero must recruit allies and travel both to different lands and different times, fighting Sabaron’s demons and eventually facing the sorcerer himself and rescuing the princess Scheherazade.

Already, the talk of time travel made me think of games that would come later, like The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, or Chrono Trigger. The Magic of Scheherazade is spread across five chapters, and in each players will transition between two time periods as they work to take down the local demon. Perhaps players will find help in the form of a magical tree, but must travel to the future where the sapling has fully grown. Or perhaps the demon has already conquered the land, and players must travel to the past to defeat him. The landscape and towns change between the time periods, lush forests becoming arid deserts, or once-proud towns swallowed by lakes. The implementation is simpler than in the more famous games I mentioned, but it’s a similar idea, and I never realized those games may have taken inspiration from this one.

That’s not the only idea in The Magic of Scheherazade that may have inspired them, either. The turn-based battles, which can randomly occur as the hero moves between screens during the Zelda-esque exploration, are styled as larger conflicts with full enemy armies, where the hero must enlist the help of his allies for the fight. It’s also possible to hire troopers for these battles, who will automatically attack the enemy every turn, and can draw attacks away from the main party. That party is made up of specific allies with their own personalities and connection to the story, much like the heroes in Phantasy Star (which actually made it to North America before The Magic of Scheherazade did). Players recruit these characters as they explore, and often they are necessary for bypassing certain obstacles or providoing invaluable aid when battling the demon at the end of the chapter. During each turn-based battle, the hero may bring two of these allies with him to the fight, to take advantage of their unique set of spells. But there are also pre-set formations with specific allies, that let the entire party combine their powers to cast a powerful attack spell. Enemies can be found in their own formations too, like the Gilas Regiment or the Fire Squad, and players must use the appropriate formation to counter each of these. Again, this recalled Chrono Trigger, in which different party members could learn techniques that combined two or all three of their skills together to defeat their enemies. That design seems based on the simpler version here.

The turn based battles in The Magic of Scheherazade are relatively infrequent, however. Most of the time, the game plays more like The Legend of Zelda, as the hero moves around each screen and fights enemies in real time. The hero still earns experience points and can even level up from defeating enemies in this mode, and — something I did not immediately appreciate — can use the magic spells that I thought were reserved for the turn-based battles in this real-time mode as well. The interface for this is a little awkward, requiring players to pause the game and choose a magic spell (or jump) to assign to the B button, and a weapon or item (or talk) to assign to the A button. Entering one of the many towns means players must manually switch to “talk” instead of attacking with a sword or magic rod, which feels clunky by modern standards, but was perhaps better than Dragon Quest’s menu system which required picking “talk” from a menu for every conversation. Anyway, once assigned, the hero can move around, cast magic, or attack with his sword or rod with ease.

Each screen, however, is not particularly interesting. Everything is constructed with huge square tiles, which means characters and enemies are large and detailed, but screens feel small and cramped. Just a few trees or damaging floor tiles are all that fits in each, a far cry from the intricate screens in The Legend of Zelda a year before. And where that game packed its open world with cleverly hidden secrets and encouraged nonlinear exploration and tackling challenges in any order, The Magic of Scheherazade’s chapters and relatively simple maps make for a more linear affair. The hero has a magic spell that reveals secret entrances, but he is always notified by one of his allies or one of the townsfolk when such a secret entrance is near, defeating the whole “secret” part of it. I should note that the original Japanese version of the game, which would more accurately translate as “Arabian Dream Scheherazade”, is apparently significantly different to the North American version, and one of the major differences is that it features much larger outdoor areas. While that might make exploration more engaging, I doubt it. Without interesting things to find across the various screens — something that The Legend of Zelda managed very well — the larger locales would just be confusing and tedious.

It’s no Zelda, then, but The Magic of Scheherazade keeps throwing more ideas in the mix. In its version of Arabia, the blue star Airosche watches over the land, and its power is strongest during the Alalart Solar Eclipse (which occurs periodically), during which time the hero can use special great magic spells, or plant a magical seed that will grow into a full free in a later time period. The hero can adopt one of three classes: Fighter, Saint, and Magician. The fighter specializes in swords, able to attack with a longer reach than the others, and at high levels can even throw smaller swords with his strikes, similar to Link’s sword beams while at full health in The Legend of Zelda. The Saint is a defensive class, weak with both the sword and rod but able to shrug off damage from many environmental hazards and weathering all manner of attacks. The magician specializes in magical rods, great for ranged fighting but less good at tackling large packs of enemies. Since rods are used to fight the demons at the end of each chapter, I tended to favor the Magician class. In fact, I stubbornly stuck with the rod for the early parts of the game, eventually learning the hard way that the sword is more effective against certain enemy types, because the rod’s rate of fire is simply too slow. But even the Magician’s weaker sword attacks can work well, and since players can only change class at a mosque — and it costs money to boot — I rarely changed. Except, of course, for certain points where a specific class was needed to progress the story.

The Magic of Scheherazade has two types of indoor areas: caves, and the demons’ palaces. Caves are overtly maze-like, with narrow corridors that lead players back and forth across various screens as they try to find whatever is hidden within. One of these, in the final chapter, was particularly confounding, and I only found my way through after belatedly realizing that I could buy a map from the town shop that would help me see which screen I was on. The demons’ palaces, by contrast, are more like the room-by-room dungeons from The Legend of Zelda, although once again each room is less interesting than those in that game. Even the palaces, however, have weird surprises in store. Occasionally, when traveling between rooms, the hero will find himself trapped in an enemy wizard’s “field”, a kind of pocket dimension. These play out like a standard screen, but with a much deadlier adversary, requiring careful dodging of projectiles lest the hero find himself transformed by hostile magics. And of course, at the end of each palace is a battle against the demon, in which the hero’s movement is restricted to only the lower portion of the screen. These fights feel almost like shoot-em-ups, and each is very different. They don’t all work, with some featuring cheap tricks or frustrating interruptions, but I kind of love that they tried all these crazy things.

The Magic of Scheherazade is not a particularly long game, and unfortunately it occasionally tries to add challenge through cheap instant death encounters. If the hero falls into water he dies instantly, although he does have a few spare “lives” that let him respawn in the same location. Other instances are worse: sometimes, choosing the wrong conversation response ends the game, and near the end there are ways to instantly die just after working through a lengthy and challenging area. Some caves have invisible trap doors that force the hero to navigate the whole maze again. After doing that four or five times, I finally resorted to using save states to pass those places, lacking the patience I would once have had for repeating these challenges. I also used save states to continue my game, as entering the passwords from mosques is tedious. Mosques can be few and far between too; I was often surprised to find that after defeating a demon and moving to the next chapter, there was no mosque immediately available. Chapter transitions would otherwise be natural stopping points.

Aside from these frustrations, The Magic of Scheherazade suffers from the fact that many of its ideas never fully coalesce. The recruitable allies are a diverse bunch, including spirits who emerged from lamps, a mischievous monkey, and even a robot, but there’s little opportunity to explore their stories. Most have one-note personalities, and a simple connection to the overarching story. The banter between the party members as they take a flying carpet to the next chapter only served to remind me that there was otherwise little character development happening, perhaps due to the game’s relatively short length. The turn-based battles superficially resemble those of Dragon Quest II or Dragon Quest III, but manage to feel quite different due to the use of different party members and their special formations. Yet these fights are infrequent enough that they never build the same sense of progression found in the Dragon Quest games, or other role-playing games that focus solely on turn-based battles. The Magic of Scheherazade does many things at once but lacks the focus to excel at any of them.

Still, it’s an interesting game. It got a mixed reception on release, and a rumored sequel never appeared, which may partly explain why I’d never heard of it before. But it’s clear that others played it, and developers were inspired to more fully explore some of its ideas in games that followed. That’s exactly the kind of thing I love to find when writing History Lessons posts. I’d hesitate to recommend The Magic of Scheherazade purely on its own merits, but if you are curious about tracing influences and inspirations for more famous games, you’ll find a lot to interest you here.

It also made me realize just how early, and just how seminal, The Legend of Zelda really was. Which makes me want to play it again…

Next on Console History: The Legend of Zelda