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In February 1987, just over a month after Zelda II: The Adventure of Link released in Japan on the Famicom Disk System, another action role-playing game appeared for the system that shares some of its ideas. Esper Dream, developed and published by Konami, features free exploration from a top-down viewpoint and random battles that can be seen, and sometimes avoided, on the main screen, like the shadowy creatures on Zelda II’s world map. Also like Zelda II, triggering a battle leads to a separate combat encounter, although in this case it’s a single screen top-down arena rather than a side-scrolling area. Esper Dream also sets itself apart by rejecting the swords and magic fantasy setting that most role-playing games used at the time, instead centering on a young boy with psychic abilities. Falling asleep while reading a book, his dreams bring the world of the book to life, and he must set about saving Brick Town from invading monsters by exploring surreal locations and battling enemies with guns and psychic powers.

This setting made Esper Dream sound very unusual, and made me want to play it. Unlike the Zelda games, however, it was never released outside of Japan, and never had an official English translation. Fortunately, there’s an unofficial translation from Mute which let me play the game in English. Sadly, unlike the translation I used for Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei, it doesn’t include a translation of the game manual. But there’s good info in online guides to clarify what different items and psychic powers do. Also, yes, Esper Dream released about eight months before Digital Devil Story, because I totally failed to be chronological when starting this series. But I’m working to remedy that.

Since the unofficial translation is simply a patch for the Japanese version of the game, I had to emulate the Famicom Disk System hardware, which I haven’t done before. Thankfully the Mesen core in Retroarch, which I’ve been using for standard Famicom/NES games, still works, but there’s some extra fiddling involved. First, Famicom Disk System games require a BIOS file. That wasn’t too hard to find on the internet, and then I just had to copy it into the “system” folder within Retroarch’s install location, but I did have to rename the file to “disksys.rom” to ensure it would work. That done, the emulation ran fine, except that certain things (moving between towns and adventure areas, saving the game) would prompt me to switch the disk from side A to side B, or vice versa. Some quick online searching revealed that the “flip disk” function is mapped to a gamepad’s R1 button by default in Retroarch, and indeed, it worked perfectly. That was all I needed to start playing.

Esper Dream doesn’t have an explorable overworld like many of the role-playing games I’ve covered so far. Instead, Brick Town acts as a central hub, with portals to the five different areas that the player must explore. Technically they can be explored in any order, but the difficulty ramps up sharply in each world, so in practice they’ll be tackled one by one. The worlds aren’t too large, but they are highly varied: the first is a gigantic house, where players must use mouse holes to reach the tops of desks, and then enter computers to explore digital mazes that act like miniature dungeons. Later worlds include verdant islands, a crystal palace, a labyrinthine swamp peppered with burrows, and the “chess colony”, full of angry chess pieces. All of this is way more imaginative than a typical role-playing game, and I appreciated how each world felt different to explore as well. Some are more underworld than overworld, dominated by huge dungeons with relatively small outdoor areas. Some have a single dungeon that maps onto the world above, requiring players to delve through the tunnels in order to emerge in new locations, while others have many small, separate dungeons, and most exploration occurs outdoors. They’re also full of different creatures to fight.

Enemies appear as sets of black footprints, some stationary, guarding certain paths, and others wandering around. The wandering ones are actually fairly easy to avoid, unless players are looking for a fight. When running into a set of footprints, the game transitions to a single screen arena populated by a few enemies. These are just as varied as the locations: there are fish that lock onto the player’s position and spit projectiles, robots that wander around firing homing missiles, scuttling crabs, angry trees, even some pelicans who lay explosive eggs. The protagonist can (slowly) walk around in the four cardinal directions and fire his gun, or deploy various psychic powers provided he has enough esper points. Usually fights end by defeating all the enemies, but it’s also possible to find a specific block on the edge of the screen that can be destroyed in order to escape.

Our esper hero starts out with a water pistol and can eventually upgrade to a bazooka, but his gun never does that much damage, requiring many hits to defeat even weaker enemies. Instead, his psychic powers are where it’s at. These can be purchased in towns, but it’s better to simply learn then from defeating enemies and gaining levels, which will also raise his maximum health and esper points. The first power he learns is Psi Beam, which will quickly become his primary weapon against most foes. It launches a swirl of projectiles across the screen, capable of hitting several enemies multiple times each, and its damage scales up as he gains levels. It costs 5 esper points to cast, but his total will soon be in the hundreds, making it cheap and effective. Plus, enemies occasionally drop items that restore health or esper points to full. Which is good, because healing at the inns in towns is expensive, and money is pretty short early on.

In fact, at the beginning I was a little confused about how to approach the game. Coming from Zelda II, I was primed to think about defending myself and conserving health, but that’s not really possible in Esper Dream. Many enemies move much faster than the hero can, and spray projectiles that can’t be easily dodged. That meant I was taking a lot of damage, and had trouble getting very far in my explorations. The punishment for death is also harsh, stripping away half of the player’s money. I soon learned that armor upgrades are key. The shop in Brick Town sells some better armor at a premium price, but it’s absolutely worth it. I had to save up for a bit by fighting some random enemies (who will occasionally drop purses full of cash), but once I purchased the leather armor, I was able to weather attacks while taking only a tiny bit of damage, sometimes ignoring hits entirely. That let me last long enough to see the occasional health drop, and basically meant I never had to visit the inn again.

Until later, that is. In a strange inversion, money is a major concern in the beginning while players are slowly scraping together enough for the best armor, and afterwards becomes almost useless. It doesn’t take long to get the best equipment that money can buy, at which point the focus shifts to exploring in order to find items (including a final armor upgrade). But the damage dealt by monsters increases a lot in each new world, so towards the end I found myself retreating to the inn more often (made easier by my esper power that teleported me back to Brick Town). In fact, in the final world I found myself relying on my Barrier power, which conveys temporarily invulnerability, at the start of every fight in order to minimize damage. I would occasionally even use the expensive HP Repair power since I was losing health faster than esper points. But I rarely used the other esper powers. At first, I thought that switching between powers during battle would be clunky and awkward, but it actually freezes time for a moment to ensure players can select exactly the tool they need. But advanced powers like Time Stop or Flash (which damages all enemies on the screen) cost a lot of esper points and rarely seemed worth using over Psi Beam. Especially since Psi Beam can be boosted with powerups found during exploration, giving it two or even three blasts per cast, or simply upping the base damage.

Once I got the hang of these battles, they weren’t too tough, and they’re usually over quickly. But there are a lot of them, so they do get repetitive. Also, I’m not sure whose idea it was to make the pickups dropped by defeated enemies destructible, but it’s terrible. Trying to save up for new armor only to accidentally shoot and destroy the money purses littering the battlefield is bad enough, but blasting a rare health or esper point restoring item out of existence is maddening. It does at least encourage players to use the slower-firing Psi Beam rather than their main gun, which is generally good advice. Oh, and the final few boss encounters are big jumps in difficulty too, which means there’s finally a use for all that end-game money: buying items that automatically restore health upon death, effectively extending the hero’s health bar several times over and making it possible to survive. But it’s unfortunate that those items aren’t really needed before that point, so players might fight through a long dungeon in order to reach the boss, only to lose because they didn’t realize they needed to stock up.

Speaking of the dungeons, they can be frustrating as well. They’re overtly maze-like, which isn’t that bad initially, but I lost patience in the second world which started to introduce locked doors that can only be opened with single-use keys from the shop in Brick Town. Run out of keys, and there’s no choice but to retreat and return later, with all doors closed and locked again. Add in multiple fake exits which simply teleport the player back to the start of the maze — and close all the doors again! — and it gets obnoxious quickly. I turned to a walkthrough to help navigate that maze, and also consulted it on a few later occasions, but it turns out that this section is the worst offender, and things get better later. Working out how to navigate these areas is usually pretty fun, and since it leads to extra battles it will help players gain levels along the way too, without having to resort to grinding.

It helps that Esper Dream doesn’t outstay its welcome. I generally managed to finish each world in one or two sittings, making the whole adventure shorter than most role-playing games. That may have been a downside in 1987, when there were fewer games available, but today I have so many games I want to play that I appreciate when some are brief. There are moments that frustrate, but as I progressed I could see the logic the designers had used. Usually there is some key item or upgrade that turns the tide, so dangerous encounters become trivial. Figuring out that process was fun, as was seeing what crazy locations or enemies the game would throw at me next. I also liked the fact that what appeared to be the main quest — rescuing the mayor’s daughter Alice, because of course you have to rescue a woman — actually finished before the end of the game. At that point, I was instead tasked with figuring out how to exit the dream and return to the real world. That meant keeping track of clues given by townspeople in the various towns, trading items with them, and eventually assembling what I needed. It made for a more engaging finale than many games manage.

Esper Dream remains interesting despite a few problems, and is worth a look for anyone seeking something a bit different. It spawned a sequel (also released only in Japan) for the Famicom in 1992, which I’ll get to eventually. I was also curious to see an actual Famicom Disk System game in action. In the end, it’s not that different to a standard Famicom/NES game, but with slightly better sound and the ability to save progress easily, at the cost of long load times when switching disks. Esper Dream was re-released was in 2007 for mobile phones and the Wii Virtual Console, once again only in Japan. To play in English, you’ll have to use emulation along with the unofficial translation patch, as I described above. If you do try it, check out the guide I linked earlier for some explanations of controls and other game features, and even a walkthrough if you get annoyed by some of the more devious mazes.