Following the success of Super Mario Bros. in 1985/86, there was an explosion of games in the US, especially for the NES. Most of these, I must confess, were awful. But among the fields of thorns there were quite a few roses. These are the ones that almost made it into the bouquet, but had to be pruned off for the benefit of the fair recipient (that would be you).
Alex Kidd in Miracle World |Sega Master System|
Not only was Alex Kidd conceived of as Sega’s answer to Mario (and five years before Sonic, I might add), but this game was built-in to many Master System consoles. As a result, the cartridge version is one of the rarest for the system. The gameplay is your average platformer, but they tried to include a great deal of variety. Alex Kidd can punch, jump, swim, ride a motorbike, and more. The bosses in the game are defeated not by combat, but by a game of rock-paper-scissors. The main antagonist of the game is named Janken, which is the Japanese name of the game. Janken is very popular in Japan, as the Japanese are non-confrontational and like to use a quasi-random game in order to avoid disputes. Alex Kidd also has puzzles and other obstacles, which are made no easier by the strange physics and reversed buttons (you press the left button to jump and the right button to punch). AK was a difficult game and overall was not nearly as good as Super Mario Bros., but it was still a good offering for those who wanted a platforming game on their Sega.
As we saw in the 1970s Retrospective article, there was a slew of games based on Pong, and they got pretty creative. Among the best of these Pong-derivatives was Breakout!, in which the player moves a paddle at the bottom of the screen to bounce a ball against some bricks to break them. Arkanoid is essentially a clone of this. It has a few features that make it more varied and enjoyable. Bricks will sometimes drop capsules upon being broken, and if the paddle touches these capsules something cool will happen. My favorite capsule makes the ball split into two identical balls. Not only can you break twice as many bricks, but you are also less likely to lose a life because if one ball slips past you, there’s a back-up still on the board. Arkanoid is fun, but ultimately it ends up just being a time-killer. It’s just a fun novelty, a way to pass some time.
Here’s a video of me playing.
A slime draws near! Command?
This is the grandfather of all Japanese RPGs. Dragon Quest, sometimes called “Japan’s national game” for its popularity, longstanding status as a classic, and its influence on the genre and industry.
What made Dragon Quest such a smash hit, more than any other factor, was its simplicity. RPGs up until this point were usually over-complicated in every respect. This was fine for those who were already fans of the genre because they were hardcore, long-time players who had been playing tabletop RPGs such as “Dungeons & Dragons” their whole lives. But for everyone else, the genre was simply unplayable. This is why it was so impressive for the Ultima series to achieve semi-mainstream success–RPGs only had niche appeal. The designer Horii Yuji was motivated to create Dragon Quest for two reasons: one, to simplify the RPG and give it mainstream appeal, and two, to introduce the Western-style RPG to Japan. Dragon Quest simplified everything in the game, from the interface to the inventory to the very structure of the game itself. The ending castle where the antagonist lives is visible from the very first town and castle.
There are, in fact, only five towns and five castles in the entire game; only ten magic spells, and a very small array of weapons and armor. The whole game can be completed in 90 minutes if you know what you are doing, but 4-8 hours if you are new to RPGs or relish the exploration. To a beginner this would seem like an epic quest, and the game does its best to make you feel like you are really progressing and becoming a powerful warrior. Of course, it also introduced one of the worst characteristics of RPGs: grinding. The way that RPGs work is that the player gains XP, or Experience Points, from defeating enemies. After gaining enough XP the player will level up, and their stats such as HP (Health Points) will increase, making them stronger and more capable of taking on greater threats. Thus, once the player character reaches a certain level they can progrees through the game, and so on and so on until finally being able to confront the final boss and pass the game. But the designer of DQ, Horii Yuji, intentionally made leveling require a great deal of tedious enemy-hunting, referred to as grinding or level grinding (think of the term “the daily grind”). His reasoning was that having to put in all that work made the reward of progression more satisfying. And unfortunately, most RPGs followed this example. Grinding is such a waste of time and energy that it alone is usually enough to make an otherwise great RPG ineligible for a Games Appreciation spotlight. Keep that in mind going forward, please.
The controls were simplified partially to make the genre easier to understand, and partially because the Famicom controller only had eight buttons. Horii stated, “There was no keyboard, and the system was much simpler, using just a controller. But I still thought that it would be really exciting for the player to play as their alter ego in the game. I personally was playing Wizardry and Ultima at the time, and I really enjoyed seeing my own self in the game.” The interface was perhaps a bit too simplistic. Doing pretty much anything required opening a menu and then selecting the appropriate action–even opening doors. Fortunately the Super Famicom remake allows you to open doors with one press of the R button. The Super Famicom version also features updated graphics and sound. The baroque/classical-sounding soundtrack by Sugiyama Koichi is able to really shine with the SFC’s enhanced sound chip. Have a listen.
The music and art were instrumental in getting sales off the ground at first, but once Dragon Quest took off, it became a smash hit that many Japanese gamers consider(ed) synonymous with Japanese RPGs. DQ‘s influence on the genre is difficult to overstate. It laid the foundation that nearly every RPG would follow even unto today. The top-down perspective, the medieval setting, major quests and minor quests intertwining, a plot twist near the ending, an incremental use of magic spells, and so on. Miyamoto Shigeru, creator of Mario and Zelda, even said that the success of DQ made creative writers more important to game development in the industry as a whole. Although the next year’s Final Fantasy eventually far surpassed DQ in popularity and perceived importance, it’s still true that DQ laid the foundation upon which it was built.
Here is a video of me playing the first few minutes.
And here is an introduction to the RPG and a walkthrough that I wrote for DQ. I wrote it in May 2011, so please forgive the rough writing style. Also, this was meant to be the first in a long series which would guide new players (I initially had my parents in mind) through the wonderful world of RPGs, and let’s just say I wrote it before I really knew what I was talking about. The walkthrough is pretty solid, though. If you plan to play DQ, I recommend using this.
To be quite frank, Lock-On is really fun. It’s a rail gun shooter (meaning that the character has to fly down a “tunnel” but may veer slightly in any direction) developed by Sega for the arcade. It features a pseudo-3D view from behind the fighter jet that the player is controlling and allows for full-screen rotation. It is a blast to play and probably blew some minds back in 1986 with its convincing 3D effects.
Kid Icarus/光神話: パルテナの鏡 |Nintendo Famicom Disk System|
Light Myth: Palutena’s Mirror, or Kid Icarus as it’s known outside Japan, is an experimental title by Nintendo. As I wrote in the Metroid: Zero Mission article, it combines the platforming of Super Mario Bros. with the vertical/horizontal scrolling and shooting of Metroid, and throws in some elements from Legend of Zelda such as dungeon maps and item purchases for good measure. It takes place in an interpretation of Greek mythology, hence the American name Kid Icarus. The angel Pit must obtain three sacred treasures in order to rescue Angel Land and its ruler, the goddess Palutena (whose name is possibly derived from Pallas Athena).
There are three levels, each with a dungeon at the end. The first level, the underworld, is also the most difficult. Kid Icarus is quite unusual in that it has a reverse difficulty curve. The player who finally breaks through to the second level, the over-world (Earth), will be surprised at how easy the game becomes. The second level is horizontally-oriented whereas the first level and the third level (the sky world) are vertically-scrolling. The fourth and final level, which requires the player to switch to side B of the disk on the Disk System version, is a horizontal shooter that leads to the final boss, Medusa.
The best part of the game is its music, composed by Tanaka “Hip” Hirokazu. The opening theme is unforgettable.
Kid Icarus, like Metroid, is extremely ambitious and deeply flawed. It’s always good when developers experiment, mind you, and we owe a debt of gratitude to Kid Icarus for showing us what does and doesn’t work. An inverse difficulty curve isn’t really fun to play through, though it is ludonarratively consistent. A huge flaw with worlds 1 and 3, which are vertically scrolling, is that Pit dies when falling below the bottom of the screen, even if there’s a platform just a few pixels below the bottom. The stages are also far too long to be manageable. Dying causes you to lose far too much progress. Pit has a health bar (so enemies can never kill him with one hit) that can be increased to a maximum of four times in size, but with the inverse difficulty curve there’s little need for more health as the game progresses.
There are interesting RPG-like mechanics littered throughout. Pit doesn’t gain EXP for defeating enemies, but he does score points, and once you gain enough points Pit’s strength levels up. Enemies drop hearts which act as currency, allowing Pit to buy items, either temporary or permanent, in designated shops. One really cool item is a credit card which allows you to buy items worth more hearts than you have, and every heart you collect after that is immediately taken from you until your debt is repaid.
The last level of worlds 1, 2, and 3 is a fortress made up of rooms that take up one screen each. These fortresses present challenge not only in combat, but also navigation. They can be very difficult to find your way through, especially the third one which contains 64 (8×8) rooms. One of the most cruel enemies in video game history is the dreaded Eggplant Wizard. If Pit is stricken with their projectiles, he is transformed into a walking eggplant and must find a nurse who lifts the curse, all while dodging enemies because eggplants–as I’m sure you’re aware–have no combat capabilities.
If you manage to make it to World 4, you’re treated to a nice, relaxing side-scrolling shooter where you fly through the sky and fire at enemies. The final boss, Medusa, is comparatively a breeze to defeat, especially in the American version where you don’t have to repeatedly press A to flap Pit’s wings.
Starflight |Home Computers|
Starflight is a curious game. It’s a combination RPG/space exploration sim set in the year 4620. It was published by EA Games, which is fitting because it heavily influenced Mass Effect which was also published by EA 21 years later. The premise of the game is that stars everywhere are producing flares like crazy and it’s your job to explore the galaxy trying to figure out why and stop it.
While flying in space you’ll come across alien races from time to time and, depending on various factors, you can trade, talk, or fight to the death. But don’t get the idea that this is a shooter. You will usually want to avoid combat at all costs. Much of the fun comes from scanning solar systems, landing on planets, and exploring them in your ATV. You can find minerals to upgrade and refuel your ship. Some of the planets are populated by wild animals that may attack you, but you can fight back and loot their hides, so no worries. You also have to deal occasionally with natural disasters and limited time. If you can find good planets to colonize, your people will generate tons of money for you. The most important items to find are alien artifacts and cryptic messages that will allow you to piece together what is happening in the galaxy.
The UI is generally pretty good, and the Sega MegaDrive port makes it even better. The sound is average, but that’s OK. Starflight is a game that requires thought, forethought, patience, strategy, problem-solving, and a love of space.