When I started this series about console game history, the first game I wrote about was Final Fantasy. That was before I got more organized and realized there were older games I wanted to cover as well. Games like Cleopatra no Mahou (which translates roughly to “The Cursed Treasure of Cleopatra”), the first role-playing game that Square made, before getting their breakout hit with Final Fantasy. The story goes that the “Final” in Final Fantasy referred to the fact that it may well have been Square’s final game, although that may not be wholly accurate. But Square were in financial trouble at the time, because their earlier games hadn’t sold well. I wanted to play Cleopatra no Mahou not only to see what Square’s early foray into the role-playing genre was like, but also because I was intrigued by its modern day Egyptian setting and blending of role-playing design with adventure game elements.
Cleopatra no Mahou was released in July 1987 for the Famicom Disk System, the same system that powered several games I’ve already covered in this series: The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and Esper Dream. Unlike all of those save Esper Dream, however, Cleopatra no Mahou was never translated or released outside of Japan. Fortunately, there’s a fan translation from DvD Translations that allowed me to play it in English. To use it, I had to run the game via emulation as I have done for the other games in this series. Specifically, I used the Retroarch emulator frontend with the Mesen core. Since Cleopatra no Mahou is a Famicom Disk System game, I also needed the appropriate BIOS file (as outlined in my post about Esper Dream), and use my gamepad’s R1 button to simulate flipping the disk when prompted.
The fan translation goes the extra mile, actually. Not only does it include a web-based translation of the game manual, but it also offers three options for English fonts to use in the game. Players can even choose separate fonts for menus and body text (chosen with SELECT+UP or SELECT+DOWN). Unfortunately, the default font choice is really hard to read. It’s a cursive font that the translators liked because it looks a bit like Arabic text, but I quickly changed it to the block capital font. The third option is a lowercase font that matches other Square games, but I thought the block capitals were easiest to read.
Cleopatra no Mahou casts players as the son of an archeologist who mysteriously disappeared. Traveling to his father’s excavation site in Egypt to investigate, our hero discovers that his father had awoken an ancient curse, and now the hero must stop the evil god Karado from escaping and enslaving the world. Despite these high stakes, the game is pretty simple. There are just a few locations and a handful of enemy types in the whole game. The role-playing mechanics are quite simple too. Battles always feature a single enemy, and the only choices players have is to attack or flee (or use an item, but that’s only useful in specific, puzzle-like situations). Attacks always do the same amount of damage, although there’s a chance to miss or to land a critical hit. Gaining levels simply increases our hero’s health, with no other benefits. Equipment (of which there isn’t much) is the sole way to increase attack damage or reduce incoming damage.
All of this means the math behind the fights is quite transparent. There are many moments where the player must defeat a certain enemy, which means exchanging a specific number of blows, which means the hero must have reached a certain level first in order to have enough health to survive the battle. Without any real randomness, this part of the game quickly becomes stale, and it made me appreciate just how important a few random dice rolls are for these types of role-playing designs.
Fortunately, Cleopatra no Mahou isn’t just about battling enemies. Outside of combat, it plays more like an adventure game, in which players must acquire items and use them to solve puzzles. There’s no movement on an overhead map like there are in many role-playing games; instead, players are shown a first-person viewpoint in the top left corner of the screen, and move around with menu commands. Some locations are just a single screen, where players must figure out a simple puzzle or chat with someone to gain information. Many menu commands, such as LOOK or SEARCH, actually spawn a cursor over the first-person view, which players can move around in order to select a specific thing in the scene to interact with. Actual pointing and clicking! Although nowhere near as involved as most point-and-click adventure games. Cleopatra no Mahou reminds me most of the late generation of text adventures, where scenes were often accompanied by a graphical illustration. Those games asked players to type in commands, but since the Famicom Disk System did not have a keyboard, the interface instead uses a set of menu commands (which are often contextual) and a bit of pointing and clicking to interact with people or objects.
Other locations, like the town that acts as a base of operations, are larger than a single location, and are navigated with the “GO” command to move between different spots (in town, that’s streets and shops). Selecting “GO” prompts a choice of four directions, although many spots have only a subset of these available. This movement style also recalls classic text adventures, where every location was a “node” with paths to other nodes traversed by typing directions like “NORTH” or “WEST”. While the manual recommends drawing maps while exploring — and I did — the maps are not very complicated, so making one’s own maps may not be strictly necessary. While exploring, players will find clues and use their items to bypass obstacles or solve puzzles. For the most part, solutions are pretty clear, but there was one puzzle in the middle of the game that felt totally random and I had to look up the solution.
The whole game is on the small and short side, and if it were just the exploration and puzzles it would be over in a flash. But the combat slows things down a lot. Enemies do not only appear when moving around, as they commonly do in Japanese role-playing games, but can pop up when taking any action. Want to look at that inscription on the wall? Open that treasure chest you just found? A monster might jump you before you have a chance. Annoyingly, that can even happen when saving (which can be done at any time from the menu), so a last-minute ambush is always a possibility. Typically, our hero can only battle a few enemies on a given outing before he needs to return to town to heal up, and he’ll need to buy expensive weapons and armor to survive tougher areas. This means the game feels pretty grindy, although I was usually able to get a bit of exploration done in between strategic retreats. It’s also not that hard to run from enemies, so I was able to venture pretty far into dangerous territory before turning around, running from everything as I made my way to the exit. Sadly, the ending doubles down on the grind, requiring that my hero reach the maximum level in order to defeat the final boss, and by then there was nowhere left to explore. At least there was an easy way to heal between fights at this point.
Another annoyance is that the protagonist can only carry a limited number of items at a time, so he has to sell old stuff to make room for new treasures he’ll find in his adventure. But it’s not always clear which ones he needs to hang on to. In fact, there are some items that are actually useless, but I still lugged them around for most of the game because I thought they might be needed for a puzzle. The amount of money awarded for defeating enemies ramps up pretty fast, though, so items purchased from shops early in the game can be safely sold back (to the Tool Shop only, not the original shop they were purchased from, contrary to what the manual says!) and simply purchased again if they turn out to still be useful.
I had a good time with Cleopatra no Mahou, despite its weaknesses. I can see why its simple design wasn’t a hit at the time, but its unusual setting and adventure game elements give it a distinct feel from the other games I’ve covered in this series so far. And it’s short enough that the repetitive combat and grind don’t get too tiresome. It features music composed by Nobuo Uematsu, who would later gain fame for his scores in the Final Fantasy series. His music here tends to feature short melodies, since they restart whenever players move, but it’s evocative of the Egyptian setting through use of the double harmonic scale. The music, like the rest of the game, has hints of what was to come from Square, yet is also rather different from their later work. As such, Cleopatra no Mahou will likely interest Square fans who are curious about the studio’s early days. Be sure to grab the fan translation and check the online manual before getting started, if you want to try it. And switch the font!