Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Black Onyx: Won! (with Final Rating)

The winning screen, such as it is.

The Black Onyx
Bullet-Proof Software (developer and publisher)
Released 1984 for PC-88 and Sharp X1; 1985 for MSX, FM-7; 1986 for PC-6001; 1987 for SG-1000
Date Started: 12 February 2015
Date Ended: 14 February 2015
Total Hours: 9
Reload Count: 31
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 21
Ranking at Time of Posting: 24% (43/177)

If I was a Japanese computer enthusiast in 1984, checking out a role-playing game for the first time, The Black Onyx would leave me wanting more. The game's featureless dungeons, blunt approach to combat, and one-line NPCs aren't quite enough to satisfy the RPG craving that both sides of the Pacific seem to experience.

However, The Black Onyx would indisputably leave me wanting more, in that it gives players a taste of the veritable feast of RPGs that would soon be available. It is a generally unimpressive game that nonetheless fulfills its core purpose: to introduce the Japanese market to the kinds of games being developed in the west during the period. I haven't had a chance to play its contemporaries from the year--Hydlide and Dragon Slayer, predominantly--so I don't know how The Black Onyx stacks up against them, but taken by itself I can see how it became immensely popular for a brief period of time, until more advanced games came along.

Level 4 had several sections with lots of teleporters and one-way walls. I think it's cool that the developer didn't feel compelled to cram everything into a 15 x 15 space or something.

The dungeon ended up consisting of six levels, all wonderfully asymmetrical. Levels 3-5 introduced a fair number of navigation obstacles like secret doors, one-way doors, one-way walls, and teleporters, all necessary to maintain some interest in a dungeon that has no special encounters or other puzzles.

Character development--probably the strongest part of the game--remained rapid and oddly satisfying until the game's final hours, when there was nothing else to buy and it took forever for the meter to get from Level 6 to Level 7. Until then, every dungeon level brought a corresponding increase in character level and a corresponding amount of money necessary to buy the next equipment upgrade.

Eventually, I was able to buy the most expensive item in the game.
             
Some odd rules emerged as I explored. Some combats would result in money and some wouldn't, and I ultimately realized that only the fixed encounters led to cash rewards (and even then only if the enemies were humanoid); random encounters give you experience only. This turns out to be a non-issue, however, as you ultimately have more cash than you can possibly spend. Each character maxes at 15,000 gold pieces each (and there's even a bank to store excess!), but once you have the top weapons, armor, helms, and shields, the only place to spend money is on doses of medicine at the low price of 55 gold pieces each; each character can carry up to 5 at any one time.

I never did understand what was going on with the helmets. The game kept taking them off automatically, and I had to manually put them back on. Thankfully, there was a command for that purpose. I have no idea why there was no comparable command to equip or remove other items or why helmets were singled out this way.

Monsters escalated in difficulty but not interest. On higher levels, kobolds and skeletons gave way to cobras, slimes, vampires, spiders, ghouls, "blaabs," demons, and trolls. Some of these monsters were able to kill characters more or less instantly, so I found myself reloading a lot, particularly since I found that "run" almost never works. Players of the era were probably expected to grind a lot more before hitting the lower levels. I finished the game on Level 7, but I'll bet that "in the day," levels of 10-12 were probably more common.

This was a "run" situation for me at any level.
                   
On higher levels, monsters occasionally dropped magic versions of the items you could buy in the stores, and I was never really sure how to evaluate them. In the store, for instance, the progression goes knife > club > mace > short sword > axe > spear > broadsword > claymore > battle axe. (I stopped at broadswords because I wanted the characters to be able to carry shields.) So where does a "magic spear" fall in this hierarchy? I ultimately adopted the expedient of locating it halfway between the regular item and the next item, which the damage rolls seemed to bear out.

Yay?
                
The "well" in the city turned out to be a shortcut to Level 5 of the dungeon, so once my characters were powerful enough to defeat the Kraken at the bottom, they could go from the town to the bottom without having to trudge down 5 full levels. 

Level 6 of the dungeon was separated into six color-coded sections. After I mapped them and still couldn't figure out what to do, I consulted the Internet, which indicated that the player needed to progress through the six sections in a particular order to unlock the way to the black tower. The color order was different on each type of computer, and I couldn't find anything that told me the right order for the PC-88. I wrote to LordKarnov42, the translator, and he suggested that it had to do with the colors that flash inside the "O" in "Onyx" on the main screen. I had to call in Irene to tell me what the colors were ("this looks like a really stupid game"), but sure enough, they provided the correct order to progress through the maze. What an obscure solution to a puzzle!

Fortunately, the game told me the color of each area as I transitioned into it, so Irene didn't have to hang around the computer for too long.
            
Oddly, when you start the game, it gives you the ability to specify monochrome graphics. I'm not sure how the puzzle works if that's what you had.

Anyway, solving the maze allowed entry into this level's version of the 2 x 2 "dark squares" that had been on every level preceding it. It became clear that these squares represent the black tower thrust into the middle of the city, as seen on the main screen.

It's even in the position that the four black squares occur on the town map. That's pretty cool. Note that in this screen capture, the color in the middle of the "O" is green or red. It cycles through all six colors on the actual main screen.
               
The tower had 6 levels going up, all with more navigation puzzles, but in all cases the stairways up were really close to each other, so if I got lost, I just reloaded and tried a different direction.

Working my way up the tower.
               
At the top, I passed through an outdoor area and then into an area where, I don't know, I seemed to be among the stars or something.

The weird final area.
         
Eventually, I bumbled into a square that told me, "I found the Onyx!!! The keyword is YGGDRASIL. Please remember!"

And then we were back on the main screen.

"Yggdrasil" is a holy tree in Norse mythology. Apparently, the first 100 players to complete the game could send that word to Bullet-Proof Software and receive a real black onyx gem.

(As a side note, The Black Onyx vies only with Dungeon as the worst game in the world to try to Google. No matter what other terms you put with it, you're overwhelmed with jewelry pages. Even "Black Onyx" and "Yggdrasil" returns a ton of pages selling representations of Yggdrasil made out of black onyx.)

Three inaccessible areas in the main town--a temple, the front gates, and the arena--remain a mystery. I guess they were used in some expansions to the game, but I can't find a lot of reliable information whether the expansions were ever released or, if so, how they interacted with the original game.

I never was able to enter the Arena.
               
Here's my GIMLET:

  • 1 point for the game world. Granted, I didn't have a manual, but the back story seems underwhelming and is not represented in any way during gameplay or in the game's conclusion.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. This is the first game I've played to give far more consideration to the character's appearance during creation than any other aspect. (Since you can't set a class, sex, race, or any attributes, appearance is really all you have.) Nonetheless, leveling is relatively rapid and rewarding.
  • 2 points for NPC interaction. There are NPCs you can talk to, but all they ever have to say is "good luck finding the Onyx!" The game gets an extra point, though, for allowing the player to recruit and rob NPCs.

The extent of most NPC interaction.

  • 2 points for a fair number of standard fantasy foes, distinguishable primarily by their hit points and how hard they can hit. There are certainly plenty of grinding opportunities.

Late-game creatures were very hard and occasioned a fair number of reloads.
             
  • 1 point for magic and combat. There's no magic and only one combat action.

Monster parties occasionally substituted quantity for quality.
          
  • 2 points for equipment. Very basic, but a reasonably good mechanism of character development.
  • 3 points for the economy, which remains strong until the game's final quarter. Players who jettison dead characters instead of reloading would get even more use out of the economy as they constantly replace dead characters' gear.
  • 1 point for a main quest that doesn't really make any sense and doesn't have any effects in-game.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. They're all somewhat primitive, but the game gets some credit for paper-doll portraits (the first I know to offer portraits that change based on equipped gear), and the keyboard interface works fine.
  • 3 points for gameplay, awarded for the even level of difficulty, good pacing, and short duration.

Added together, we get a final score of only 21 for this early JRPG, but while it's hard to recommend the game for modern readers, in 1984, it did its job. It was the best-selling game in Japan in 1984, and second-best in 1985 despite an incredibly high sale price, equivalent to $72 USD in 1984, or over $160 today. The sheer number of ports indicates how well the game was loved throughout the 1980s.

              
Its legacy is hard to nail down. Some histories credit The Black Onyx for inspiring other landmark Japanese games, like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. On the other hand, a critical look at the history in a 2011 post by Sam Derboo on Hardcore Gaming 101 suggests that these later JRPGs were primarily inspired by the game that inspired The Black Onyx: Wizardry. In any event, I don't think there can be any question that The Black Onyx served to excite Japanese interest in RPGs in a way that otherwise might have taken a lot longer.

At some point before 1986, Bullet-Proof developed The Black Onyx II: Search for the Fire Crystal, published by ASCII. Some sites say that the original game had an expansion called The Fire Crystal, and I'm not sure whether these are two separate games or whether it was originally offered as an expansion and then developed into an entire game. (There are also tales of expansions titled The Moonstone and Arena, though I'm not sure if they were ever published or just planned.) Either way, Fire Crystal seems to have introduced classes and a magic system while keeping the same overall engine. In 1988, the original game was remade for the NES as Super Black Onyx.

As for the Dutch-born, American-raised Henk Rogers, he went on to achieve greater fame for brokering the deal that allowed Nintendo to purchase the exclusive rights to Tetris from developer Alexey Pajitnov; the game went on to help establish Nintendo's Game Boy as the predominant handheld device of the late 1980s and early 1990s. When the rights reverted to Pajitnov in 1996, he and Rogers (who moved back to Hawaii at some point) formed The Tetris Company, which continues to license Tetris to this day.

Somewhere in there, Bullet-Proof Software became a division of Nintendo and continued to develop games under its own name throughout the 1990s. Only one of the company's other games--Dimensional Fighter Epsilon3 (1985)--is classified as an RPG by MobyGames. I can't find any evidence that Rogers ever worked on another RPG, either.

Thus we fill in one small hole in the development of early JRPGs. For those of you who want to see me play more of them, I may go back and start picking up the most important Japanese console RPGs once I finish catching up on non-DOS 1980s games that I missed on my first pass. Until then, I'll be happy to play any more fan translations that you tell me about.

For now, it's back to either Moria or Quest for the Unicorn depending on how I feel.

38 comments:

  1. A reload for every 18 minutes. Crikey. Just as well I guess, if I only had one RPG, I'd want it to be non-trivial.

    That puzzle is a bit brutal, especially the monochrome bit.

    I look forward to seeing more of the Japan/US interweave.

    Henk seems to have been quite an important person from early gaming history.

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  2. Glad to see someone finally beat it. I guess I can mark the translation "Complete" then, I got stumped at the color maze and translated the rest blind while hoping I didn't miss any text in the (really really ugly) BASIC code.

    I'm working on the expansion, "The Fire Crystal" at the moment, but it could be a while (work, etc.). Plus my Japanese isn't great and this one seems to have an actual ending with sentences more complex than "You hit X for Y damage."

    That said, it is coming along:
    http://imgur.com/a/FvESH

    (Accidental bonus images of Hydlide and Hydlide 3 [with hilariously awful English dialogue], must have been in the same folder)

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    1. I think I recognize one of those games! Hydlide 3 was released on the Genesis as Super Hydlide, wasn't it? My dear boyfriend (bless his lack of taste) loves that game.
      I eventually made him play the other Hydlide games out of a sick curiosity, and ... well, he still loves Super Hydlide, but the others were the source of great agony.

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    3. Yep, Super Hydlide is Hydlide III. It's definitely the best of the trilogy, especially the music.

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    4. Great to hear you're working on The Fire Crystal, Marc. Will the eventual patch be posted at ROMHacking.net?

      I like Super Hydlide too! It definitely stands out among all the cookie-cutter JRPGs, that's for sure, and I like the fact that it deliberately makes itself kind of a pain in the butt.

      Anyway, congratulations to the Addict. The PC-88 version looks waaaaaay better than the SG-1000 one, so I'm glad you went with that. And nice to know that there's at least some in-game clue to the color puzzle, even one as obscure as that; maybe the original manual drops a hint?

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    5. "puzzles" like that aren't really that uncommon in the games of that era for example a shooter game "Trantor" is to be completed by collecting letters that spell "trantor".
      Game was shipped with a manual that says "you're Trantor the last Stromtrooper" with a list of joystick controls and that's it, have fun figuring out how to beat the game.

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    6. Thanks again, Marc, for the translation.

      If Hydlide is already in English, I guess I don't have any excuse not to play it--if it's an RPG. It doesn't seem to have an inventory, though, and I don't think combat is dependent on anything but player action. There is an "experience" bar, so I imagine that the player's level does increase.

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    7. It's about as much of an RPG as the Ys games are, but more of a tedious slog. It's thankfully short though. Hydlide III is definitely an RPG. Equipment, (weight-limited) inventory, inns, classes, etc.

      There are some really interesting takes on the Wizardry formula on the PC-88 ('The Demon of LaPlace', a horror-themed one that takes place in a haunted house and the surrounding menu-town --- and --- 'The Screamer', a post-apocalyptic/cyberpunk style one with pretty terrible action-based combat) but there haven't been any translations yet, as far as I know.

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    8. The "so bad it's good" part of me loves Virtual Hydlide, but Hydlide 3 has one of the most epic final boss battles ever. Love the hyper simplistic morality system as well, marking half of the games evil looking creatures as "friendly" evil looking creatures. I need to play Hydlide 2.

      Anyone know if T & E Soft made any other worthwhile PC88 RPGs? Rune Worth looks cool, but the rest of their output looks like crummy action titles.

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    9. They did the interesting DAIVA series of games, each one on a different platform in a different genre, and they did an adaptation of the Japanese tabletop RPG 'Sword World' on the PC-98. Most of their other games were, yeah, action and golf. They made a LOT of golf games.

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    10. Marc: Actually, there's a nearly-done translation of the SFC version of The Demon of Laplace that has been sitting in limbo, but I dunno how that version compares to the PC-88 version. Also, there is someone, I believe over on the RPG Codex forums, that is translating The Screamer (and keeping the infamous "Dehumanize yourself and face to bloodshed" line as well) and has released a few WIP patches - or at least that was the case last time I saw it.

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    11. The PC-88 Laplace is a straight up Haunted House Wizardry, the SFC one's all top-down and plotty and stuff.

      PC-88
      http://imgur.com/a/oKNoD

      SFC
      http://imgur.com/a/s7sqo

      I'd just call them completely separate games. There are a few Super Famicom games that are strange re-workings of PC-88/98 games. EVO: The Search for Eden is another one.

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    12. Rune Worth? Wonder if it has anything to do with the CRPG named Words Worth?

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    13. The Screamer's been fully translated for the Sharp X1, so you can apply the patch and get playing. None of the other games mentioned have full translations (let alone ones worth playing), but Rune Worth has a partial translation for the MSX2.

      Laplace no Ma is different between the PC and console versions. The SFC port ties into Hiroshi Yamamoto's light novel series based on the original game and Hitoshi Yasuda's Ghost Hunter tabletop system based off that. The PC-88 and Sharp X68000 versions focus more on character building and varied playthroughs; inside the mansion there's lots of items to find and mechanisms to interact with allowing for more world-building and puzzles. I know the PC game also has mental shock and illnesses for characters afflicted (they can be frightened and/or horrified by what Eldritch horrors surprise or attack).

      Sword World RPG for Japanese PCs isn't by T&E Soft at all! It was developed by Xtalsoft (we got a localized version of their game Babylon for DOS via Broderbund's imprint Kyodai), and the game was their last before folding assets and ownership into T&E Soft. Xtalsoft also did the Mugen no Shinzou games, which Derboo's series linked above mentions as one more influence on subsequent Japanese RPGs. The first installment in 1984 adapted Ultima I, the second a year later was heavily influenced by Ultima III (main difference I know of is that you have to hire party members through a kind of mercenary contract, and they can leave of their own volition), and the third was more similar to another JRPG series of theirs called Crimson. Kazunari Tomi programmed and designed the first two Mugen no Shinzou games before leaving to work on Sorcerian and Dinosaur (a story-centric dungeon crawler) by Falcom.

      Rune Worth is much like Ys, but focuses more on the world itself, unlike how Ys hops from region to region in the name of adventure and fast action. I'm not certain there's commonalities between RW's three installments and the Hydlide games, but the lineage is there.

      There's way too many interesting examples of Japanese RPGs from this period for me to remember at night, lol.

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  3. I don't know for sure, but I suppose the helmet trigger thing has cosmetic purposes. With helmet your adventurers more look like clones.

    I think this feature is also rediscovered by some modern RPGs.

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    1. The previous post said that the developer invested a significant amount of limited memory space providing heads so that characters would look different. I'm not surprised he included a toggle so that their faces could be seen. He could have provided different models of helmet. Heck, why not just not eliminate helmets instead of providing a toggle switch? Sounds like he out-thought himself on that one. Goldbox games get on quite well with no helmets. Other RPGs too.

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    2. It'as a thing in World of Warcraft - you can set a toggle to make your helmet invisible so your character is more recognisable.

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    3. In Dragon Age: Inquisition there's also an option to show helmets or not. The implication is that you're always wearing them, but the switch allows you to continue to see characters' faces. I was grateful for it, as my wife refused to allow me to equip helmets at all in Dragon Age II.

      I assumed in BO that the toggle was actually taking the helmet off and putting it back on again, but maybe it was just adjusting the visual appearance of the characters. I guess in this early era, some people were highly invested in their tiny depictions of hair and face.

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    4. Mass Effect also had options to take your helmets off, unless you were in vacuum.

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  4. What font is that on the game box cover, the one the title's written in? It's nagglingly familiar.

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    1. WhatTheFont says it's almost certainly Arnold Boecklin:

      https://www.myfonts.com/fonts/adobe/arnold-boecklin/normal/

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  5. I know that you can't spend too much time on JPRGs but I'm really interested in your take on the first Final Fantasy game.

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  6. If you want a "feel" for early console JRPGs, I suggest:
    Dragon Quest(Dragon warrior in America) - NES
    Final Fantasy - NES (the SNES Final Fantasies(IV, V, VI) are also very good)
    Phantasy Star IV (you could play the earlier ones but IV is generally considered better) - Sega Genesis
    Chrono Trigger (arguably one of the best CRPGs ever made) - SNES

    Just some suggestions. There are obviously many more CRPGs from the late 80s and early 90s that are fun, but if you want the essentials I suggest those above. (Although watching you attempt 7th Saga would be entertaining, at least for me).

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  7. I found some japanese retro blog with descriptions off old RPG games

    http://towerofretrogame.blog.fc2.com/blog-category-9.html

    And btw, information about early japanese CRPGs on english can be found on HG101...

    http://blog.hardcoregaming101.net/2014/06/dark-age-of-jrpgs-11-mugen-no-shinzou.html

    mpx

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  8. I hope you play Moria some more. Even if it isn't the best roguelike I'm interested in it far more than Quest.

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  9. "Until then, I'll be happy to play any more fan translations that you tell me about."

    A fan-translation of the MSX version of Final Fantasy I supposedly exists (I couldn't get it to work when I tried it before, and I'm having a little trouble locating it at the moment, so it's possibly vaporware). The MSX emulators are pretty user-unfriendly, the MSX port has significant load time issues, and it would probably make far more sense to simply play the NES version (note that all pre-PS1 console emulators are practically idiot-proof and nearly all of the time spent on configuration would be trying to find a comfortable keyboard layout), But, it would technically be a PC game.

    As for your comment about going back to the "more important" console RPGs after you get through your "missed non-DOS" list, I have to say I think that's almost as bad an idea as ignoring them completely. A big part of the appeal of this blog is the sequential comparison, looking at how games at the same time compare to one another, and this tactic would leave them out of sync with everything else, making it harder to do so. Given the very small number of console RPGs (and even smaller number with official English releases) between your current backtrack point and blog point (Dragon Warrior (Quest) I was released in the US in 1989 and Final Fantasy I in 1990 (two to three years earlier in Japan), simply slotting a few into your list by release date seems like the easiest (and least disruptive, if the experience makes you reconsider your general policy) means of giving them consideration.

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    1. The key years in console gaming, I believe, are roughly 1991 to 1995 (roughly FF2US through Chrono Trigger), but that exposes some of my biases. I like plot-driven games and that roughly corresponds to the gap between the Gold Box series to Baldur's Gate. I would argue that is when we start to see some of those ideas come back from the consoles and make cRPGs great. But since I have not played a fraction of the games that the Addict has, I leave that conclusion to the test of time.

      (Oh yes, I know there are some truly great character-driven cRPGS in that period too, especially "Ultima 7" in 1992, but I think there was a bit of a gap.)

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    2. That's a pretty good summation, although I'd extend it to the early 2000s (when the console/PC divide began to dissolve thanks to the Xbox (which made porting a lot easier due to shared APIs), to the point where nowadays the main difference between a console game and a PC game is interface) as the console-type games remained narratively focused.

      I'd also like to reiterate an offer I made quite some time ago to assist in filtering the "junk" console games (non-RPG, no translation at all, potentially offensive, etc) from the list. I was able to find half a dozen non-RPGs on the first page of the master list with just a quick skim, and filtering out the bloat would allow a much more accurate view of the potential for list bloat.

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  10. As you mention the connection between Rogers and Pajitnov, here is an interesting piece of gaming history:
    Rogers and Pajitnov were working on a Sequel(?) to Black Onys in the Late 90s, which was called "The Secret of Black Onyx". Not much is known about the game (which was eventually cancelled), other than a preview in a German gaming mag and a video floating around youtube.
    Roger Dean and Michael Kaluta were hired for the graphics.

    There was a discussion about this on the RPG Codex, preview and youtube link can be found there:
    http://www.rpgcodex.net/forums/index.php?threads/felipepepes-top-15-cancelled-rpgs.95707/page-3#post-3630193

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    1. Isn't The Fire Crystal the sequel?

      Or is it a '90s reboot of the same game?

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    2. Gah! The discussion there quickly descended into an Elric-Vs-Geralt thingy fast! Why did I ever step into that 'orrible cesspit!?

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    3. Ahh Geralt. The embodiment of what 12-year old nerds think is cool, in one of the most sexist rpgs of recent years.

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    4. That is interesting. Thanks, Flash. Kenny, it appears the original idea was to make a trilogy. You're right that FC is the first sequel.

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  11. "American Fantasy Roleplaying Game"? That's amusing, considering this is what we'd consider a JRPG today. :P

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  12. Cool to see this game covered here!

    Regarding my earlier comments about the game's influence on Hardcore Gaming 101: I've since read a Japanese conversation between Yuji Horii and one of his friends and co-workers, Akira Sakuma from 1988 (I suspect it was from the magazine Micom Basic, but the Japanese website that hosted the text didn't give the source), where Horii talks about how he used Black Onyx to get his friends into RPGs because no one else around him had an Apple II. So it was certainly influential among Japanese RPG developers, just not the single root of the genre in Japan as it is often painted in mainstream-ish publications (even in Japan).

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  13. "(...) like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. (…) a critical look at the history in a 2011 post by Sam Derboo on Hardcore Gaming 101 suggests that these later JRPGs were primarily inspired by ... Wizardry."

    It's obvious that DQ as well as FF were inspired mainly by Ultima I-III, not Wizardry, gameplay-wise, but also as story-driven overhead adventures. DQ's Combat system was Wizardry inspired, not the rest of the game.

    Many regards from Germany, Winnie

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