I decided to skip the first Hydlide game for this series. Originally released in 1984 by T&E Soft for the PC-88 and quickly ported to other Japanese home computer systems, it predates even Dragon Quest, and, along with its competitor Dragon Slayer, it established the template for action role-playing games in Japan. There, it’s considered a hugely influential classic: its system of running into enemies to fight them would be used again in Ys I: Ancient Ys Vanished, while The Legend of Zelda stripped away some role-playing elements but expanded the action by including a dedicated attack button and items like the boomerang and bow and arrows that add tactical options. But Hydlide would not reach American audiences until 1989, after The Legend of Zelda, and by that point it just seemed simplistic and boring in comparison. I know, because I actually owned it as a kid.
Hydlide II: Shine of Darkness never made it out of Japan, and from what I’ve read is pretty similar to the first game. Hydlide 3: The Space Memories, however, did eventually get released in North America and Europe. The Japanese version appeared in 1987 (hence it showing up now in my timeline for this series) for home computer systems, but it was ported to the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis a few years later, including a US release in 1990 and a European release in 1991, both using the name Super Hydlide. Even so, I’d never heard of it. But it sounded intriguing when I read about it now: in addition to adding a dedicated attack button like The Legend of Zelda, it features a morality system based on whether the player attacks “good” vs. “evil” monsters, a 24-hour in-game clock requiring the hero to rest at night and eat two meals a day, and all items (including money!) have weight, so players must choose what to carry lest they be overloaded. These mechanics all sounded like those found in Western computer role-playing games, rather than the Japanese style that was more common on consoles. Perhaps that makes sense, given the game was originally a home computer game in Japan, but I was still intrigued. And then there’s that subtitle, which implies a science fiction element, reacalling some of my favorite classic role-playing games. And, since the North American release was on the Sega Genesis, it marks the first game in this series on a fully 16-bit console (the Turbografx-16 doesn’t quite count, even though it’s in the same generation).
Super Hydlide was not well received, again because it arrived late. In North America, Phantasy Star II was already available on the Sega Genesis (a game I’m very much looking forward to playing, when my timeline reaches its original Japanese release date of March 1989), and was a much more impressive game than Super Hydlide. Taken in the context of its original 1987 release date, however, the third Hydlide game is more interesting. It still has some idiosyncrasies, like the fact that the player character moves in a jerky manner, half a tile at a time, rather than smoothly like Link from The Legend of Zelda. The pixel art style is odd too, using small pixels and a lot of dithering to create a sort of dingy and dirty look. At the time, players likely thought this simply looked worse than other contemporary games, but ironically by modern standards both the art and the discrete character movement feel stylized and actually look kind of cool. I could imagine a modern indie game intentionally going for a “retro” look like this, and turning heads as part of #screenshotsaturday. The starting location of Forest City is suitably overgrown, with long grass, bushes and trees everywhere. Head outside into Fairyland and there’s a lot of dirt, uneven terrain, and patchy grass. This is a wild place, untamed by humans, fitting with the premise of a world that has just suffered a cataclysm.
The other reason Western players likely bounced off of Super Hydlide is its complicated mechanics, which unfortunately are not fully explained in the manual. First off, there are four character classes to choose from at the start, and some are more difficult to play than others, since they determine starting statistics like Strength, Life (health), Agility, and even MF (which I believe stands for “moral fiber”) that determines how much non-player characters like you and what prices they’ll charge you in shops. I tried a Thief first, tempted by his high Strength, but his low MF meant everything was extra expensive to buy. I quickly started over with a Fighter, realizing that the other classes were meant for experienced players who had already finished the game with a Fighter. Anyone who started with a Priest, for example, wasn’t likely to have a good time due to punishingly low strength.
Strength is extra important because it impacts how much the character can carry, which is probably what really put players off. Not only do characters have a total carry weight limit, they also have a “handle” weight, which determines the heaviest weapon they can use effectively. They must also keep in mind that they need to eat at 13:00 and 19:00 each day, which means carrying two rations (each weighing 500 units) with them. Starting with my Fighter, I bought two rations, and then the heaviest weapon I could handle, which in this case was a dagger weighing 2000 units (called a short sword in some versions). This came in just under my total carry weight. Perfect! Except then I went outside and fought a few enemies, and immediately became overloaded, because I’d forgotten that the coins they dropped also have weight (to make things worse, some enemies occasionally drop items too, which go into the player’s inventory unannounced and can weigh a lot). Unable to carry my money, my character’s movement was slowed to a crawl, and I realized I’d made a critical mistake and started over. I shudder to think of all the players who didn’t understand the weight system and just bought the best weapon they could afford and then found their characters barely able to walk.
Fortunately, there’s a nice online guide that fills in some gaps in the manual. With its help, I started over, bought the cheapest (and lightest) knife, and had a much better time. Once I’d made sense of the weight system, I actually really enjoyed it. It provides a way of gating access to powerful equipment without artificial level restrictions. I was forced to make careful decisions about what types of armor, helmets and shields to use because some were simply too heavy. Is it worth the extra defense if I won’t have much room left to carry other items, like herbs to restore my magic power out in the field? Often, when finding items during my explorations, I simply threw them away, unwilling to lug them around with me. Also, while Strength increases rapidly when gaining levels, I didn’t realize at first that it would taper off at very high levels. That meant I was still prioritizing items based on their relative weights all the way through to the end of the game. It’s not something that simply becomes irrelevant once characters grow powerful enough. Luckily, one of the earliest items I found was the money changer, which converts all carried coins into the most weight-efficient versions. This helps a lot and I used it often.
Hydlide 3 is on the grindy side, though, especially at the start. Since characters must eat two meals a day, and rest at night lest they become too fatigued to fight (staying up also means eating every 6 hours during the night, or losing health due to starvation), they must earn at least enough for two food rations and a stay at the inn every day. On top of that, they need experience points to level up and increase their carrying capacity. In a particularly frustrating move, learning magic spells also costs experience points, so players must decide whether to prioritize magic or character levels. My advice is to focus on character levels only at the start, and then pivot to spells, but it’s important to get the first six spells (which cost the same as the first six character levels!) before making a serious expedition away from Forest City. That’s because the sixth spell lets players teleport to any town in which they’ve slept in the inn, making it much easier to return from adventures without tiring out or starving. This is especially useful because Forest City is the only place where characters can level up, so players must return there often.
Early on, I was afraid to venture too far from Forest City anyway, because the surrounding Fairyland seemed like a huge open map. In practice, it’s not as big as it appears, and it features the same roster of low-level enemies throughout. My fears of being squashed by some huge beast because I wandered too far were unfounded. I’d managed to explore most of Fairyland around the same time I was ready to heed the townsfolk’s hints to explore the tower to the north, which is the first proper destination in the game.
Exploring Fairyland and the tower both involved a lot of fighting, which is an interesting endeavor. The dedicated attack button makes combat feel initially similar to The Legend of Zelda, with the crouch button used for dodging incoming projectiles in lieu of Link’s shield. But it soon became clear that combat is mostly based on stats under the hood. When I’d gained some levels and equipped better armor (which pleasingly changed my character’s appearance) to increase my defense rating, the simple enemies outside Forest City were unable to damage my character with their attacks, and I no longer needed to actively duck their shots. I also learned that standing in certain positions relative to enemies with ranged attacks meant they couldn’t hit with their projectiles, due to limited firing trajectories. Enemies that fight in melee are harder to evade, but approaching from behind or to the side often let me dispatch them before they could retaliate. Then there are some nuances introduced by different weapons. Some melee weapons have greater range than others, and can even strike enemies through thin walls, while ranged weapons let characters stay out of the fray and also have varying ranges. Missile weapons don’t benefit from a character’s high strength, however, so they’re generally recommended for the weaker classes like the Priest.
Another wrinkle to combat is the fact that many monsters are not hostile, especially near the start of the game. Battling hostile monsters will (slowly) increase a character’s MF rating, which is important later in the game and also grants better shop prices as a side benefit. Kill a non-hostile monster, however, and MF will drop rapidly. The manual warned me about this and gave some hints about which monsters might be friendly, but mostly I just had to experiment by seeing which creatures would attack me unprovoked. Those are safe to fight. Aside from two types of slime — one friendly and one hostile — that otherwise look identical, it usually wasn’t too hard to work out which creatures were safe to engage. In the narrow corridors of the maze-like dungeons, however, it can be frustrating when a friendly creature blocks the path. Fortunately, later areas tend to feature hostile monsters only.
There’s a nice progression to the adventure in Hydlide 3. That first tower was perhaps the most daunting location, if only because I kept heading in before my character was quite ready for it. But soon I was following various hints and leads, and having a great time. I explored a city high in the clouds, found secret ways into palaces, delved into subterranean settlements, and yes, even encountered some advanced technology and learned about the titular Space Memories. Most of the time I was able to find my own way through, although progression requires some lateral thinking and creativity. Late in the game, however, the hints from friendly people seemed to dry up. It turns out I needed to return to Forest City, where some (but not all!) of the townsfolk had new things to say. This was annoying, because these hints could have been provided by the people I’d just encountered in a new town, most of whom had nothing to say. I ended up consulting the same online guide, which includes a full walkthrough, on a few occasions.
The finale of the game is a mixed bag. There’s a final dungeon area which is a nice challenge except for the instant death pit traps. It’s one of the only places in the game that threatens to take longer than a day to explore, too, so players may want to invest in the useful (but heavy!) camping gear to rest up during the excursion. Soon, however, I was able to complete it easily in one day, because I kept coming back after losing to the final boss, which is a frankly ridiculous and unfair encounter. There are only a few boss battles in the game and most are fine, but this one all but requires a specific weapon that I didn’t have, having thrown it away to save weight since I was using a different sword. Fearing I’d screwed myself over, I was relieved to discover that I could return to the place I originally found this weapon and pick it up again. That done, I also had to turn the game speed up to the “fastest” setting in the menu (usually reserved for e.g. getting an overloaded character across town to sell off excess stuff), because this somehow doesn’t affect the final boss, it just made my character faster. Even then, it took many tries to emerge victorious, and after going through the final dungeon about five times I broke down and used a save state just before the boss.
That boss aside, however, I had a surprisingly good time with Hydlide 3. The encumbrance system turned out to be much more compelling than I expected, and the need to eat and rest gave a nice rhythm to play. Every in-game day I prepared for my expedition, buying food rations and sometimes other supplies like lamp oil to explore dark places, and then set out. I used magical healing to recover from battles, but made sure to keep my character’s magical reserves topped up by using herbs, so I’d have enough energy to teleport back to town in the evening to rest. Even when I needed to spend time gaining levels, I could simply set aside an in-game day for training, heading somewhere with tough enemies that gave large experience rewards, and leveling up once the day was done. Then I could rise fresh in the morning to pursue my next quest objective.
I’ve already talked about how the art style is actually really effective and even beautiful, but I haven’t mentioned the amazing music. This is one aspect that is surely attributable to the better hardware in the Genesis compared to Japanese computer systems that ran Hydlide 3 originally. The Genesis is one of the last consoles to use FM synthesis for its music, before systems like the Super Famicom switched to sample-based synthesis that could better imitate real instruments. As such, the Genesis is legendary for its synth-heavy music that was something of the end of an era in game scores. With Hydlide 3 as an example, I can see why Genesis music earned so many fans. The backing music for the towns is a catchy, jaunty tune full of synth organ lines and a few excellent glissandos. Step outside into Fairyland, however, and the music really kicks off with a downright funky jazz fusion tune. A synth imitation of rhythm guitar (or maybe a clavinet?) stabs rhythmically in the background, while a wailing synth takes the lead with plenty of pitch bends and vibrato. After a funky drum breakdown later in the track, the lead synth goes off on a full solo, really tearing it up. Great stuff.
Overall, I really liked Hydlide 3. If I’d played it as a kid when it released, I’m sure its relatively complex mechanics would have gone way over my head, and I’d have quickly given up. But for players willing to put in a little time to learn its quirks, Hydlide 3 offers a lot of interesting decisions throughout its enjoyable adventure. There’s some grind, yes, but it’s not as tedious as it could have been, and smart planning helps mitigate a lot of frustrations. I’m sure Hydlide 3 suffered from its late release outside of Japan, but taken as a game from 1987 it’s actually quite impressive. I could even imagine replaying it with the other character classes for a bit of variety, which would have been welcome on release when there weren’t as many other games available. Just watch out for that nasty final boss. I recommend consulting the walkthrough for that.
As far as I know, Hydlide 3: The Space Memories never got any re-releases, so the only way to play it is to get an original copy on original hardware, or play using emulation, as I did. Once again I used the Retroarch frontend, with the Genesis Plus GX core, which is the same emulator I used for Sega Master System titles like Phantasy Star (which actually released after Hydlide 3, because I didn’t have my timeline fully set up when I wrote that post) and Wonder Boy In Monster Land. If you do try Hydlide 3, I hope you enjoy your adventures in Fairyland and beyond!