A month or so after the original Japanese release of Exile, subject of the last entry in this series, SpellCaster released in Japan, although it would take another year for the US version to appear. Developed in-house by Sega for their Master System console, SpellCaster isn’t really a role-playing game, but it sounded interesting enough that I wanted to play it anyway. Besides, I covered Metroid and Lord of the Sword in this series, and they’re not really role-playing games either. What intrigued me about SpellCaster is its combination of side-scrolling action platformer sections and first-person, menu-based adventure game sections. That sounded like such an odd mix that I just had to try it.
The original Japanese version of SpellCaster was a licensed adaptation of the Kujaku Ou manga series, about a Buddhist demon hunter. Since US audiences had no familiarity with this series, references to it were removed for the US version, which is the one I played. What remains, however, is a surprisingly detailed story for games of this era. Protagonist Kane is one of the fabled SpellCasters, having dedicated his life to training in both martial and magical arts. His charge is to protect the innocent, and the story begins when an army of men and fantastical beasts start attacking nearby temples. Daikak, the leader of Summit Temple, had sent warriors to defend the other temples, but they never returned. So, he instructs Kane to investigate.
This opening conversation with Daikak is part of the game proper, using the adventure game interface. It looks quite similar to that used in Cleopatra no Mahou (although I’m certain that game was borrowing from even older designs), with a menu of actions in the top right of the screen, a view of the current location in the top left, and text descriptions or dialogue in the bottom left. An interesting addition is Kane’s face in the bottom right of the screen, as he speaks up in conversations often and even furrows his brow when facing an adversary. The available actions are immediately familiar from Cleopatra no Mahou, including talking, using items, looking around the scene, or moving to new locations. Kane can look at his general surroundings or at a specific thing in the scene, in which case a cursor pops up in the view window that can be moved freely to select what he wants to examine.
Something I did not learn until I started writing this post and looking up historical tidbits is that the adventure game sections of SpellCaster are essentially copied from a different game, a Famicom adaptation of the same manga series simply titled Kujaku Ou. The basic script is clearly the same, and I can recognize specific scenes from screenshots that also appeared in SpellCaster. The actual art for these scenes is entirely new, however, with different art direction. The modern cities of the Famicom game are replaced with scenes that more closely resemble medieval Japan, although at one point Kane visits someone’s home and there is a television set visible. Character art is also updated and far more colorful. It looked familiar, and I discovered that is because much of it is by Rieko Kodama, who was the main artist for Phantasy Star, including the design of protagonist Alis Landale. It turns out she had also done some art for Miracle Warriors: Seal of the Dark Lord, which I’ve also covered in this series. Sadly, my research also revealed that she passed away earlier this year. She deserves more recognition as one of the first female artists and designers in the games industry, especially for console game development.
In SpellCaster, the adventure game scenes tend to be fairly simple, without too many tricky puzzles. That’s because many sections from the Famicom game are reimagined as action sequences. Often, when Kane travels somewhere, SpellCaster transitions to action platformer mode, where players control Kane as he moves, jumps, and fires his Ki magtic at enemies. The action is fast-paced, and Kane’s ranged attacks make it feel more like a run-and-gun style platformer than some of the other platformer hybrids that have come up in this series so far, like Lord of the Sword or Zelda II. At first, SpellCaster felt a bit clunkier than those games, without much weight or momentum to Kane’s movements, and little sense of power to his Ki blasts. But SpellCaster makes up for this with a ton of versatility. Kane has access to seven spells (eight, if you count the Password spell used for saving the game in adventure mode) right from the start of the game, and can unleash them in battle as long as he’s collected enough magical energy from the orange orbs occasionally dropped by defeated enemies. While Kane only starts with 20 energy, he can collect up to 999, and there’s nothing stopping him from doing this right from the start of the game.
Spells range from a laser-like attack that’s little more than an upgraded version of Kane’s standard Ki blasts, to lightning strikes that rain down on the screen, a whirlwind that sweeps forwards and damages everything in its path, and even a defensive shield spell and a healing spell. Most standard enemies can be felled easily enough with Ki attacks (which do not consume any energy), and at worst might require Kane to charge up his Ki attack (by holding the attack button) before blasting them. But spells are very useful against the bosses and mini-bosses that frequently appear. Many of these duels almost feel like puzzles, where identifying the correct spell to use will be of great aid. Sometimes I could guess easily, like casting a cyclone against a flying creature that was otherwise difficult to reach, but other times I had to experiment. In one satisfying fight, I used the powerful (but very energy-intensive) spell Fudo to hurl a fireball at a boss and defeat it in a single hit.
My favorite spell, however, is Makiri, which allows Kane to fly. Early in the game, I fought through an area with a bunch of pits to leap over. Falling into one meant instant death, and they were even more frustrating (and more numerous) than those in Simon’s Quest. Kane could jump over them, but only barely, and if he took a hit mid-jump, or even while standing on one of the narrow platforms, he would plummet to his demise. After a few attempts, I realized I was being silly. Kane could simply cast Makiri, and just fly over it all. Which is exactly what I had him do, ignoring the hazards and even most of the enemies as he soared over the chasms. It was awesome.
To be fair to SpellCaster, those instant deaths aren’t that punishing, because the game is very generous with restarts. There are no limited lives like in Lord of the Sword or Simon’s Quest. Death simply triggers a brief conversation with Kane’s mentor Daikak, who offers words of encouragement, before presenting the option to continue from the scene where Kane fell (even if it’s a boss battle!) with full health. The only downside to continuing in this way, versus using a password to start from the last adventure section, is that Kane respawns with a measly 20 energy. Any energy he’d been hoarding up for spells is gone. In practice this meant I used magic a lot less than I otherwise would have, which is disappointing. There are also a few specific points in the game where having a lot of energy in reserve is very helpful, most notably a sequence in which Kane must fly over a long stretch of lava. Enemies appear to harass him during this flight, and if Kane takes a hit he will start to fall. Quick-fingered players can re-cast Makiri to save him, but only if he has enough energy in reserve. When I reached this point I only had enough for a few casts, so it took me many tries to get past. I could have gone back to an earlier area and fought enemies repeatedly to get more energy, but I couldn’t be bothered with that.
While I’m nitpicking about spells, the controls for casting them are a little awkward, since the Master System gamepad only has two face buttons. These are bound to jump and Kane’s Ki attack, naturally, leaving spells to be cast by holding the attack button and pressing down on the d-pad. That combo can be a little tricky to pull off in the thick of the action, and it’s made even trickier by having to press the start button (on an original Master System, this was located on the console itself, not on the gamepad!) to bring up a pause menu in order to select which spell should be active before casting. A third face button, like that on the Sega Genesis gamepad, would have helped immensely.
Overall, however, I loved all the options the spells provided. And in a pleasing twist, they’re all available to cast during the adventure segments too. In fact, many puzzles are centered around casting the correct spells, rather than collecting and using the right items as is more traditional in adventure games. Early adventure scenes are very brief, usually just a conversation or two and perhaps picking up an item. That made me fear that they would be little more than glorified cutscenes, but I was relieved to see more fleshed out adventure parts later on. These saw Kane employ his spells in thematically appropriate ways, and also added some context to his magic. While he fires off spells as fast as desired in the action scenes, the adventure scenes have Kane speak the full incantations when casting. That revealed that each spell is actually named for a god, upon whom Kane calls to smite a foe, or exorcise a spirit. Which at least explains why the spell names give no indication of what they actually do. Sometimes Kane even gets into a fight in adventure mode, which acts kind of like the turn-based and menu-based combat of something like Dragon Quest, complete with reports on damage numbers as Kane gets hit. Except, these are usually actually puzzles, where the correct item or spell will see Kane through, without needing to trade blows first.
For the first half of the game, the puzzles weren’t too difficult, and I was able to figure them out with some logical thinking. Later on, however, I ran into situations with poor guidance on what to do next. The first such occasion was after Kane fought through some tricky areas and dropped back into adventure mode when he reached his destination. I solved a few puzzles to get inside, but then couldn’t figure out what to do. Turning to an online guide for help, I learned that I was supposed to just leave, retrace my steps back through the platformer areas, and go talk to someone. I didn’t even realize it was possible to get back through these areas, and SpellCaster never gave any hint that it’s what I needed to do. Even just having Kane say something like “I guess I’ve found all I can here, I should report back to Daikak” would have helped a lot.
The adventure segments do allow for a much more involved story than the minimal narratives of most games at the time. There might be almost too much story, actually, I assume because the writers were trying to condense a whole manga series into a single game. Characters are introduced left and right, and quickly fall to the wayside, never to be mentioned again. Twists and double-crosses abound, making for something of a wild ride. Played on its release in 1988 (or 1989, in the US), SpellCaster must have seemed impossibly cool. There’s so much going on! A mystery to unravel, full of colorful characters, spirits and demons! Action platforming with an array of spells, all available right from the start! The pacing is varied, constantly throwing new things at players. Early on, things switch between action and adventure often, with neither lasting too long, but then Kane has an extended adventure session aboard a boat. Not long after that is an huge action sequence within a massive, labyrinthine pyramid, which absolutely requires drawing a map (or at least taking extensive notes), totally unlike the simple stages Kane had fought through before. Then comes the most open part of the game yet, with Kane traveling between many different platforming areas to talk to different people and figure out some puzzles. Unfortunately, it was never clear who would have the next clue Kane sought, and traveling became tedious when it meant going through the same platforming sections over and over. I found myself resorting to the online guide again for this. But I couldn’t stay frustrated, especially when the game threw a complete surprise at me for the climax.
While I had never heard of SpellCaster before playing it for this series, my research suggests it’s one of the more fondly remembered Master System games. Despite some annoyances, I can see why. Its combination of different styles of play is ambitious and works more often than not. All the different spells mean there are lots of tactical options, even within the relatively simple design of the action platforming sections. The story has way more going on than anything I’ve covered for this series so far, and the forgiving treatment of failure means players had a better chance of reaching the end of that story than they would in most other contemporary games. Even taking into account the maze-like areas and unclear puzzles later in the game. Which, if I’m honest, probably just would have seemed epic and cool at the time, instead of a bit frustrating like they do today.
If you’re inclined to give SpellCaster a try, I’m pretty sure that your only options are to find an original cartridge and Master System hardware, or to use emulation as I did. As I’ve done for other Master System games in this series, I used the Retroarch frontend and the Genesis Plus GX emulator core. An interesting technical tidbit I learned while playing: many Master System games had two different soundtracks, the original one and an enhanced one that used an optional add-on module enabling FM synthesis. Playing SpellCaster via emulation gave me this enhanced music, which I only realized after looking at some online videos of the game when I was stuck and hearing the difference in the music there. The melodies are the same, but the FM version has fuller bass and better percussion. A nice bonus!
Last time, I was so pleased to be back on track with the timeline for these early console games. But now — spurred, in fact, by reading about Rieko Kodama’s work for Sega — I’ve decided to go back in time again to play a couple of games I had originally decided not to include in the series. I just can’t help myself. Stay tuned for those posts at some indeterminate point in the future.