It didn't take very long for Japan to develop its own subset of the RPG world. The first commercial RPGs in the U.S. came out in 1978, but it arguably took until 1981, the year both Wizardry and Ultima were released, before they got good enough to be worthy of international notice. After that, Japan only lagged by a year: the first Japanese RPG is generally given as Dragon and Princess (1982), essentially a text adventure with tactical combat. (I tried to play it but couldn't get past the language barrier.) 1983 brought eight titles that we know about, including Bokosuka Wars (perhaps the first strategy-RPG hybrid), Dungeon (an Ultima clone), Panoramah Toh, and Poibos Part 1: Dasshutsu (Japan's first science-fiction RPG). From what I've read online, while these games all have their admirers, they very much feel like a country finding its RPG legs.
1984 seems to be the first real banner year in JRPGs, bringing Dragon Slayer, one of the first action RPGs, and progenitor of a line that lasted through 2007. Hydlide, another popular action RPG, seems to be the earliest JRPG to eventually receive a western release. In the Psychic City is often listed as a landmark sci-fi RPG. Finally, there were two first-person, multi-character RPGs inspired by Wizardry: Lizard and The Black Onyx.
The Black Onyx is the earliest JRPG that I'll be playing, and it's only possible through a fan translation (we'll talk more about that later). Given this, it's somewhat ironic that its developer was a westerner: Henk Rogers, born in the Netherlands and raised in the United States. In late 1970s, according to several interviews, he "chased a girl" to Japan and ended up staying there for almost a decade. (He also ended up marrying the girl, so that turned out okay.) At some point, he was exposed to Wizardry and noted that Japan had nothing like it; although the game would grow hugely popular in Japan, it wasn't translated and sold there until 1985. Sensing an opportunity, Rogers decided to reverse-engineer the basic experience of Wizardry. He did it in nine months despite not speaking Japanese (his wife helped him with the translations). After a slow start, The Black Onyx went on to become the best-selling Japanese computer game of 1984.
The Black Onyx isn't as good or complex as Wizardry, but it's fun in its own way, and you can see how it inspired a nation that didn't have much to compare it with. It distills RPG mechanics to their bare essentials--fight, get stronger, fight harder foes--but in a way that does a good job balancing difficulty and length, and it has a few fun innovations to its credit.
Unfortunately, the fan translation doesn't come with a translation of any documentation, so I'm not sure of the full back story. From what I get on web sites, it takes place in Utsuro, a town under a curse of eternal night. The party is seeking the legendary Black Onyx, which will somehow break the curse.
|Where most RPGs have you select race and class during character creation, this one has you choose from among a ridiculous number of hairstyles and outfits--none of which matter once you get some armor and helmets.|
The party consists of up to five characters. They can be created by the player or recruited from among the townsfolk. I don't know how to get back to character creation if a character dies, so I think perhaps recruitment is the only way to replace lost characters. All characters are warriors--there are no magic or thieving systems in the game--and character creation is solely about choosing their names and appearances. The game rolls values for strength, dexterity, and health behind the scenes, but you don't find out what your characters got until you add them to the party and embark on your adventure. The game warns you to "Beware the Beast!" as you set out.
The characters start with no equipment and a little money. The town offers four shops--weapons, armor, helms, and shields--and each shop has a selection of goods that progressively increase in value and effectiveness. As you arm and dress your party, their little icons change to reflect their equipment, which is perhaps the first time we see this in any RPG.
|Buying a mace. Note that my little portraits now have leather armor and shields. Chester on the far left is holding a mace but the other characters all have knives. You may have to enlarge this to see.|
The town itself is fully explorable (unlike Wizardry, it must be said), and in addition to shops, it offers a hospital, a jail, a few pubs, and an inn--although since there's no crime, food, or sleep system in the game, the latter joints are simply occasions to encounter NPCs. A cemetery area offers a few mini-dungeons where you can encounter skeletons and the like. There are a few oddities in the town, including a single wall panel standing in the middle of an open area, labeled "The Wall," a tailor shop whose owner says they're out of business, and entrances to an arena, a temple, and gates out of the city, all of which say I can't go there yet.
|The town level. Rogers clearly didn't feel enslaved to symmetry the way many developers did in the early 1980s.|
The hospital includes an "examination room," and paying 10 gold pieces there is the only way to see the character sheet. In the southeast corner, there's a zone of darkness with crackling lightning that seems ominous.
|I have to pay to see these facts about myself.|
A well lets you descend about 8 levels before you're destroyed by a Kraken. Finally, a building in the center of the city offers a stairway down to the main multi-leveled dungeon.
|The well offers an unwinnable combat against a Kraken. Perhaps I'll be able to defeat him later, when I'm more powerful.|
You navigate all of this through a 3D interface that looks like Wizardry with color. As in most of these early 3D games, you can't actually see enemies and NPCs in the environment; they just suddenly appear in front of you when you step in the right (or wrong) square. The interface is quite simple and consists of the number pad to move, the arrow keys to go up and down, and commands to check how much gold you have and drink some medicine. There's no way to see a character sheet or inventory, except oddly the option to take your helm on or off. I'm not sure why that exists. You can save anywhere, but I honestly don't know how you reload. I've been using emulator save states.
The town has numerous fixed and random encounters with parties of NPCs, for which you have the options to fight, talk, or run. Talking sometimes produces "Good luck finding the Onyx," but usually the NPCs just attack. Maybe they're supposed to be rival adventuring parties. Combat with them produces a modicum of experience but no gold. If you're short one member, you have the option to ask an NPC to join you or rob him; strangely, the option to rob NPCs doesn't come up when the party is full.
|A character I created died early, so I got this NPC to join us.|
Combat is an extremely basic affair. You only get to choose what enemy to target, and in between rounds you can choose to flee. There's no parrying, magic, or use of items. You and your foes exchange blows and watch your respective health meters drop.
|Battling a group of kobolds in the dungeon.|
Combat is also highly predictable. Enemies and your own weapons do an amount of damage fixed within a very small range. Daggers always do 1-2, clubs 2-3, maces 3-5, and so on. There are some signs that some monsters are able to resist some weapons more easily than others. Occasionally, you get a "good job!" message indicating a critical hit, which seems to always do 50% more damage than a regular hit. The only real strategy is to study your enemies' hit point bars, guess how many blows it's going to take to kill them, and concentrate (or spread out) your attacks accordingly.
|These skeletons require about three hits a piece to die, so I'll concentrate three attacks on Skeleton B and two on Skeleton C. Hopefully in the next round I can finish off C and kill A.|
So far in the game (the first two dungeon levels), I've encountered skeletons, bats, kobolds, goblins, lions, wolves, zombies, and Aztecs--an odd but original inclusion. No one seems to have special attacks like poison or paralysis. Successful combats reward you with experience, and a status bar under each character's name tracks progress to the next level. When it reaches the right-hand side of the screen, you automatically level up. Leveling up produces a modest increase in the maximum health bar, and it may cause more combat damage (I've only leveled up twice, so the effects are subtle). You get gold rewards in about half the combats in which it would make sense for the enemy to have gold (i.e., not bats and wolves). A neat touch is that you get both experience and gold even when enemies flee.
|Leveling up. Since experience is shared equally among party members, everyone created together levels up together.|
The sound is more tolerable than a typical Apple or DOS RPG of the era. You get a 7-note tune when an encounter appears, and other brief motifs play in particular areas (e.g., a haunting minor theme in the cemetery). Crunches and swooshes accompany combat.
I don't yet know if there are any special encounters in the dungeons. So far, it's just been twisty corridors, doors, and combat. I haven't mapped the dungeon levels yet, but I probably will have to eventually, as I found at least one secret door on the town level. On the first two dungeon levels I explored, there were 2 x 2 patches of darkness that seemed to correspond with the one on the town level, which was kind of interesting.
The game probably sounds a bit banal, and it is, except the sense of character progression is relatively strong. At least in the early game, about 15 minutes spent in the dungeon produces enough gold to buy everyone one equipment upgrade, and the effects of that are immediately detectable in the next series of combats. I've found that I can forgive a lot of deficiencies in a game if it offers relatively rapid leveling and other character development. Ultimately, the length of the game will determine whether I thank or curse Onyx's English translator: LordKarnov42.
|The price of the best equipment suggests that perhaps this will be a long game.|
LordKarnov42 is or was an avid gamer with his own YouTube channel. He used to comment a lot on my blog--enough that I named a Pool of Radiance character after him--but we haven't heard from him in about two years. His channel has been quiet for a few years, too, and he hasn't posted to Reddit in over a year. I hope he's okay. Anyway, Karnov translated the PC-88 version of The Black Onyx several years ago and was kind enough to e-mail it to me, along with Japanese versions of Dragon Slayer II: Xanadu, Genesis: Beyond the Revelation, and Hydlide. I had less trouble learning the PC-88 emulator than I've had with a lot of western PC emulators.
This gives us three active games that offer very little story, featureless towns and dungeons, and repetitive combat. Which I play next is anyone's guess.
Time so far: 2 hours
Reload count: 5 (after every character death save the first one)