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My slow quest to play the early Japanese-style role-playing games continues. I’ve even expanded the scope to include some games outside of the genre, like the one I played most recently, The Legend of Zelda. When I wrote about that game, I briefly discussed the action role-playing games that had inspired it, most of which released on Japanese home computer systems like the PC-88, which boasted high resolution displays in order to properly render Japanese writing. Compared to hardware in the Western market, these computers could render incredibly detailed images, although they were much worse at displaying animations than the console systems that would follow like the Famicom or Master System.
Miracle Warriors: Seal of the Dark Lord, by Kogado Studio, was originally a PC-88 game from 1986, although it was later ported to a variety of other systems. One of these ports was an official English translation for Sega’s Master System, which is the version I played, using emulation via the Genesis Plus GX core (which emulates both the Master System and the Genesis) in Retroarch. This port is actually rather different than the original PC-88 version; the differences are discussed in this article. With new art, music, a mini-map view, streamlined controls, and a completely different world layout, the Master System incarnation is more of a remake than a port, with additional development in-house from Sega.
It was also the first ever Japanese role-playing game to reach American shores. The initial PC-88 release arrived just two months after Dragon Quest, the game usually credited with starting the entire Japanese-style role-playing game genre. But Dragon Quest would not appear in Western markets until 1989 (under the title Dragon Warrior), whereas the Master System version of Miracle Warriors arrived a year earlier, sometime in 1988 (I’ve found conflicting release dates, from late January 1988 to October/November 1988, and I’m not sure which is correct). Given the short time between their release dates in Japan, it’s unlikely that Miracle Warriors borrowed any ideas from Dragon Warrior, and I suspect they instead shared common inspirations in the Ultima and Wizardry games. Sega, however, had time to incorporate design elements from Dragon Warrior, including simple movement and menu controls, which makes their Miracle Warriors port feel oddly similar to Dragon Quest, yet different in several key ways.
Exploring the world in Miracle Warriors is done via an Ultima-style top-down tile-based map, just as in Dragon Quest. But instead of this map taking up the entire screen, it’s limited to one small corner, in which only a few tiles around the party’s position can be seen. The bulk of the screen is taken up by a window representing the party’s view, with current characters (one at the start, up to four by the end) shown with their fairy guide standing on a plain, with mountains and other landscape on the horizon. The horizon shifts subtly during travel, providing the illusion of movement, but the scene doesn’t change when exploring forests or mountains, and ultimately this view is useless while playing. Below this, a health and experience bar for each character is shown, and finally a box indicating the party’s current supply of money, healing herbs, fangs collected from defeated monsters, and character points (sort of a measure of reputation) is displayed. This last set of info is useful to have on the screen, but during travel my eyes were glued to the small map view in the upper corner. I soon realized, however, that the limited map view is part of the challenge. Players are meant to explore the continents, using the physical printed map from the game box as a guide, searching out towns, villages, and caves which are not marked already. With a wider view, these hidden places would be revealed immediately, and the mystery of exploration would be lost.
The other sections of the screen get their chance to shine during combat, which happens randomly and frequently. The encounter rate would be frustratingly high in any other game, with a new fight sometimes starting just a single step after the last, but the combat in Miracle Warriors is mercifully quick due to the health and experience bars. Rather than displaying a ton of text messages describing the amounts of damage done, like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy do, every hit is shown visually as chunks are removed from health bars for characters and enemies. This means turns fly by and players can return to exploring. Battles are also a treat because they feature beautiful artwork. While only one enemy is fought at a time, each has a lovely unique illustration, and unlike most other games I’ve played so far, none are simple palette swaps. A few come close, such as the ankylosaurus-like Sesaig and its relatives, but even these have differences like a spiked or smooth shell. The majority of the creatures are completely different from one another, offering wonderful visual variety. The creatures also appear against a detailed, colorful background that changes based on the current terrain, be it plains, forest, mountains or desert. Here Sega took advantage of the superior hardware in the Master System to render more impressive art than was possible on the PC-88 or even the Famicom.
Some other details of the combat are also interesting. Some encounters are with friendly folk, like merchants or travelers, who offer hints when talked to, but players can also choose to fight them to take their money at the cost of a hit to their character points. These apparently gate entry to some of the villages scattered around the world, but I never had a problem with this. When fighting rather than talking, experience is awarded for each successful attack, rather than all at once at the end. This means it’s possible (but risky) to get a few hits in against a tough enemy for experience, and then try to run away. It also means that each party member earns experience individually, because unlike Dragon Quest and its ilk, only one character will fight on any given turn. If players choose one of the recruitable companions to attack, then they will be the sole combatant, and they’ll take the damage from the enemy’s counterattack (unless the enemy casts a flame spell, which will hit the whole party). Despite the option for casting a spell appearing in battle, the player’s party only uses magic at specific story points (such as awakening a new party member), never during combat, so fights become a matter of judging which hero has enough health to enter the fray each round. In lieu of spells, there are a small array of magical items acquired from various sources that can be used to inflict damage in combat. Juggling characters’ health, experience, and a finite stock of magical items feels like resource management more than anything else, especially since there’s little to distinguish each hero. Medi, the only female member of the team, occasionally deals a “crushing attack” for a little extra damage, but in practice this makes little difference, and the other characters are functionally identical to one another.
This is just one manifestation of a general feeling I had when playing Miracle Warriors, that its systems are a little too exposed and obvious. One detail that I actually liked is that there isn’t a constant stream of better weapons and equipment in the game. In towns, my characters could purchase a knife or sword, armor, and a shield, but that’s it. To face the tougher challenges, I had to seek out legendary weapons and armor for each hero, often guarded by powerful adversaries. But while it was cool to get special, named items for everyone, they all have the same attack and defensive power, so fully equipped characters at the same level are exactly the same in a fight. And since fights are mostly just trading blows with an enemy, I sought out these legendary items just so my party could outlast stronger enemies. Each of whom always left precisely the same reward, in the form of guilders (money) and/or fangs. There’s also little difference between towns, with each offering the same services, and a few hints. There are no wandering townsfolk either, just buildings scattered around which contain the relevant shops or talkative residents, so walking around towns feels pointless. Apparently the original PC-88 version didn’t have explorable towns at all, just menus for the healer or blacksmith or similar, which I may have actually preferred.
Miracle Warriors is also very heavy on grind. At the start of the game, my first hero (who I was able to name) was alone and without any equipment whatsoever. Most enemies were too tough for him to defeat, and indeed I went through a few heroes before I learned to survive. One of the few monsters I was able to defeat was an Unmutag, a sort of small two-legged dinosaur, which dropped 100 guilders and 1 fang. I then found my way to the first town, and sought out a vendor to buy some weapons and armor. The cheapest item on offer was a knife for a whopping 3000 guilders. I’d already had to spend some of my measly 100 guilders on healing. How was I ever going to afford this stuff? It turns out I needed to seek out certain enemies with more lucrative rewards. Thieves aren’t too tough and drop a decent 300 guilders each, but the real key was evil merchants, who carry a swollen purse of 2000 guilders each. Defeating a few of them let me afford to fully equip my hero, but it still involved a lot of wandering just outside of town looking for evil merchants to waylay. And once I had equipment, I learned I needed to constantly get it repaired lest it break. Fortunately I was soon able to hire a blacksmith to travel with me and automatically fix my equipment, effectively disabling this busywork, but he required a hefty sum of guilders before he would join.
Most monsters drop fangs instead of guilders, which can be exchanged for guilders in towns or saved up and traded directly for certain things. As I explored I soon learned that castles often offered things in exchange for fangs, towns acted as base camps where my party could heal, villages sold special items, and caves tended to hide the legendary equipment I was after for each party member. Many of these things require huge sums of money or fangs, leading to more grind. I also learned that terrain types dictate which enemies may be encountered. Plains are relatively safe, but forests, mountains and deserts — as well as water, once the party acquires a ship — hide more dangerous foes. Again, the systems were transparent, and I felt I was optimizing numbers more than anything else. This was never more obvious than in the final battle, which is very clearly a test of whether the party is high enough level yet. I brought a full set of magical items, used them all, then started trading attacks with the villain, but my party couldn’t quite defeat her before falling. So I wandered around and fought random battles until each of my characters had gained one more level, then returned to face the villain again. This time, the extra bit of health and slightly higher attack and defense statistics for my higher level characters made the difference, and they emerged victorious. I never had to make any strategic decisions, it was simply a matter of being high enough level to outlast the enemy.
The best part of Miracle Warriors was the lead up to that final showdown. There aren’t many dungeons in the game, and even the final one is fairly simple to explore, but locating it is another matter. Players must take heed of hints they’ve received during their explorations, and must also avoid an incorrect, red herring solution. This was the only time I found myself stuck as to how to proceed, and I ended up checking the internet for the answer, although I might have figured it out on my own if I’d stuck with it. The actual solution is pleasingly clever. I only wish I hadn’t needed to abort my dive into the final dungeon because my party hadn’t reached an arbitrary level yet.
I thought that party would make Miracle Warriors feel more complex than Dragon Quest, with its single hero, but the simple and transparent systems at work make Miracle Warriors feel simpler instead. Choosing one out of four (nearly) identical heroes to fight each turn is barely any different than fighting with Dragon Quest’s lone hero, and he gets to use magic in combat to add some variety to fights. Plus, exploration in Dragon Quest is far more involved, with secret locations scattered around, and special items opening up new paths or unlocking treasures in previously visited places. Miracle Warriors ends up feeling smaller in scope, its world easily traversed, its inevitable power curve clear. I’m not surprised that it didn’t catch players imaginations the way Dragon Quest did, or the remarkably good Phantasy Star which would grace the Master System in 1987 in Japan, after Dragon Quest II and a mere two days after Final Fantasy. But Phantasy Star arrived in North America just a year later, before even the first Dragon Quest appeared in English, and not long after Miracle Warriors. That makes it the second Japanese role-playing game to hit the Western market. While I haven’t played them all yet, I suspect Phantasy Star will be my favorite 8-bit Japanese role-playing game, and it was certainly a much better reason to purchase a Master System than Miracle Warriors.
But that’s not to say I didn’t have some fun with Miracle Warriors. It plays quickly, for all its grind, and players can save anywhere they like, choosing from five save slots. That means very little repetition if misfortune strikes, and little fear of getting stuck in an unwinnable situation. I liked that the world design and story took inspiration from Greek mythology, rather than the more common Tolkienesque fantasy setting, and I enjoyed how my next task was usually clear. My party were the prophesied Miracle Warriors, and everyone I met knew how that prophecy goes. Nothing to do but get to it.
Still, I wouldn’t recommend Miracle Warriors unless you share my historical interest. It wasn’t particularly influential, with most of its design eclipsed by the games that would follow, and it’s honestly not that interesting either. It’s pleasant enough, but simple and a bit repetitive. It felt shorter than Dragon Quest and its ilk, but I’m not sure that’s actually true or just my faulty memory. If you do want to check it out yourself, emulation is probably the only way to do so today, other than finding an original cartridge and Master System to play it on. The Genesis Plus GX emulator I used (via Retroarch) worked great, and I’d suggest finding a copy of the manual and printed map as well, which you may want to annotate as you discover new locations. If you’re looking for a seminal game that shows off the capabilities of the Master System, however, then Phantasy Star is what you’re after.