I’d never heard of Lord of the Sword before doing research for this series. Released on June 2, 1988, a little over a month after our last entry Ys II: Ancient Ys Vanished – The Final Chapter, Lord of the Sword was allegedly inspired by Wonder Boy In Monster Land, the arcade platformer with role-playing elements that released a year earlier. That game was a pleasant surprise when I played its Master System port for this series, so I was intrigued going in to Lord of the Sword.
Tag: History Lessons Page 1 of 5
When I first started writing about early console games, I was only planning to play through the Final Fantasy series. Then I decided I should probably go back and play the Dragon Quest series too. Then I decided I should also play a bunch of other role-playing games, and then that I should add some action role-playing games… the result was something of a mess in terms of the timeline, jumping back and forth as I kept expanding my list of games. This post, however, brings my (now massive) list back into order. My last post was about Hydlide 3: The Space Memories, which originally released on November 22, 1987. The original Final Fantasy (the very first post I wrote in this console history series) appeared about a month later, on December 18, 1987. A mere two days after that, the excellent Phantasy Star released. Next came Dragon Quest III on February 10, 1988. And, finally, that brings us to Ys II: Ancient Ys Vanished – The Final Chapter, originally released in Japan on April 22, 1988 for Japanese home computer systems like the PC-88. From here on out, we should be going in chronological order!
As the name suggests, Ys II is a direct sequel to the original Ys that finishes up the story. The connection is so strong, in fact, that both games were later remade and re-released as a single title, Ys Book I & II, for the PC Engine CD/TurboGrafx-CD in December 1989. That’s the version I played, and I’ve already written about Ys I. I then paused my playthrough to cover other games that released between Ys I and Ys II. Now, I’ve gone back to finish off Ys II.
This is Backlog Roulette, a series in which I randomly pick an unplayed game from my backlog and play it. This particular entry is also part of the History Lessons series. As always, you may click on images to view larger versions.
About a year ago, I picked an unplayed game at random from my terrifyingly organized spreadsheet containing all the games I own. The random number generators selected Wild Metal Country, an oddity from 1999 that I found surprisingly calming for a game about tank battles. Now, I decided to roll the digital dice again, officially making Backlog Roulette a series of sorts. But this time the dice popped up a far more recognizable game: The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition. I acquired this some time ago, intending to write a History Lessons post about it eventually, so… here it is.
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).
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.
When I wrote about Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, I mentioned that it inspired many other console games to combine platforming action with role-playing elements. I hadn’t expected it to inspire arcade games to do the same, but that’s exactly what happened with Wonder Boy In Monster Land. The original Wonder Boy from 1986 (which I did not play for this series) was a straight arcade platformer, a design which works well as a coin-operated game. There are discrete levels of increasing difficulty played one after another, and players must start over from the beginning if titular protagonist Wonder Boy perishes. Learn the levels after depositing enough coins for several attempts, and maybe players could make it to the end, or at least reach the high score list.
Role-playing games, on the other hand, tend to be longer adventures that last for many play sessions, with characters gradually growing in strength and abilities along the way. That’s not typically a good match for the short form, repetitive nature of arcade games. Yet it seems to have worked in the case of Wonder Boy In Monster Land. Its Sega Master System port is fondly remembered as one of the better games for that console, and its sequel Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap earned such a cult following that it saw a full remake in 2016, followed by an entirely new spiritual successor in 2018. Curious about the enduring appeal of this series, I decided to play the Master System version of Wonder Boy In Monster Land, developed by Sega and released in January 1988, about six months after Westone Bit Entertainment’s original arcade release in July 1987.
One of the reasons I wanted to play the early Japanese console role-playing games is that so many have become enduring series. Everyone knows the behemoth Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy franchises, which have been running for more than thirty years, but there are so many others too. Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei, which released in 1987, spawned the Shin Megami Tensei series and its spinoff Persona series, which had new entries in 2021 and 2020, respectively. Tales of Arise was a big hit last year, the latest entry in a series that started way back in 1995 with Tales of Phantasia on the Super Famicom. And of course, we got Ys IX: Monstrum Nox in 2019, which traces its lineage all the way to Ys I: Ancient Ys Vanished in 1987.
I’m cheating a little bit with the timeline. Nihon Falcom released the first Ys game in 1987, a few months after Esper Dream (the subject of the last entry in this blog series), on NEC’s PC-88 home computer system, although ports quickly appeared for other Japanese home computers such as the X1 and MSX2, as well as Famicom and Master System ports a year later. But the version universally regarded as best among fans — not counting more modern remakes, like the 2013 version currently sold on Steam and GOG — is an enhanced remake (credited to Alfa System) from 1989 for the PC Engine (rebranded in the United Staes as the Turbografx-16) that bundles together Ys I: Ancient Ys Vanished and its sequel Ys II: Ancient Ys Vanished – The Final Chapter in a single release. This was actually the only time (again, not counting modern remakes) that Ys II was officially localized in English, which made my decision about which version to try a bit easier (although I’m waiting to play the second game until my timeline reaches its original release date). But by playing the 1989 remake instead of the 1987 original I’m making a fairly big jump in terms of technology. You see, the PC Engine version used the CD-ROM add-on, and was in fact one of the first games developed for CD-ROM.
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.
Other History Lessons posts can be found here. As always, you may click on images to view larger versions.
Three months ago, I wrote about The Legend of Zelda, after playing it to completion for the first time. It’s still impressive today, absolutely deserving of its classic status. It also reminded me of Metroid, which released six months later in Japan but only one month later in the United States. Both games let players loose in open worlds, to explore and find upgrades that let them reach previously inaccessible places. Metroid simply trades the top-down, screen-by-screen exploration of Zelda for side-scrolling action platforming with a science fiction theme. This combination was so influential that it spawned an entire genre: the metroidvania (named for Metroid and Castlevania, more specifically the second Castlevania game, Simon’s Quest). Unlike The Legend of Zelda, I never played much Metroid myself when I was a kid, I just saw bits and pieces of it at friends’ houses. But the third game in the Metroid series, Super Metroid, is one of my favorite games ever. So I decided to go back to the beginning and play the original Metroid.