T&E Soft (developer and publisher)
Released 1984 for PC-88; 1985 for FM-7, PC-6001, Sharp X1, and MSX; 1989 for NESDate Started: 22 May 2015
Date Ended: 22 May 2015
Total Hours: 5
Reload Count: 100+
Difficulty: Hard (4/5)
Final Rating: 11
Final Rating: 11
Ranking at Time of Posting: 12/187 (6%)
Well, Hydlide is what it is: a bad RPG that nonetheless serves an important place in Japanese RPG history. Maybe. Some articles claim that it influenced the Zelda and Ys series; others claim that Dragon Slayer is more responsible for those games. I won't have an opinion until I play Dragon Slayer (soon), but for now Hydlide is the first of a peculiar yet oddly-enduring genre: real-time action RPGs in which a little childlike character runs around maps and attacks creatures by bashing headlong into them.
The game wasn't originally on my list because it never had a western PC release. I assumed that its PC release in Japan was in Japanese. This turns out not to be true--it's not true of Dragon Slayer or Dragon Slayer II, either--and it makes me wonder what part of JRPG history I'm missing. Why would so many games be released only in Japan but in English? Were Japanese youths in the 1980s so versed in English that developers could simply assume they could read the text? Either way, why not Japanese? Was it harder to display Japanese characters even on Japanese PCs?
|In contrast to a lot of later Japanese games, the English here is reasonably good--and they weren't even writing it for English-speaking players.|
Most people are familiar with Hydlide from the 1989 Nintendo version. By the time it was released in the west, The Legend of Zelda had been out for over three years, and most players saw Hydlide as laughably primitive by comparison. As reader Joseph Curwen recounted in my post on The Black Onyx:
Hydlide was so poorly regarded among kids who owned the NES that when one of my friends stole a copy from his cousin, it was passed around school like a hot potato until finally someone threw it onto the school's roof during recess.
Such attitudes seem typical. In my online searches, I found numerous threads in which commenters, apparently unaware that Hydlide had a Japanese PC release in 1984, thought that the game "ripped off" Zelda.
|The Nintendo version includes a magic system and slightly better graphics, but is otherwise very similar.|
If players thought the 1989 version was primitive, they'd be positively horrified by the 1984 version, which lacks the magic system of the later NES port. All there is to do is charge around killing things and finding a few treasure chests. The only commands are the four cardinal directions on the keypad to move and the SPACE bar, which toggles between "Attack" and "Defend" modes. Even in 1984, it's rare to play an RPG, or even a quasi-RPG, so bereft of tactics and strategies.
The backstory, told on a single screen, sets up the game as such:
In other dimensional space, three jewels kept the kingdom in peace. But the jewels were stolen and Varalys woke from sleep. Varlys made Ann into fairies. A man called Jim who could not endure to see people tortured decided to exterminate the devil. He tried to attack the monsters to reestablish the kingdom.
I have played a lot of PCs in RPGs, most with names chosen by me, some with names chosen by the game, but never before have I gotten to role-play "a man called Jim." I hope that if there's ever a Hydlide movie, that's the title.
There's no character creation: after the welcome screen, you're immediately launched into the game. The outdoor world consists of maybe 9 screens that wrap around on the edges. Some areas are blocked by a river, and to access them you need to cut through one of the game's 4 small maze-like dungeons.
Enemies wander around randomly and constantly. Killing one just makes another respawn. They include standard fantasy monsters like slimes, kobolds, goblins, and skeletons, and the only rule for fighting them is to avoid hitting them head-on. You want to maneuver around their sides and backs; otherwise, even a late game character can rarely stand up to more than a couple of seconds of combat. Success is thus almost entirely based on controller agility rather than tactics or strategy.
Every kill increases your "experience" bar, and when it reaches the far right-hand side of the screen, a little victory bloop accompanies an increase in strength and max hit points. However, every time you level up, some lower-level monster stops producing experience, so you can't run around and kill slimes forever.
|Slimes, an impassable river, and the entrances to a couple of dungeons.|
Lost hit points regenerate while you're standing on grass. Later, you find some artifact--I was never sure which one--that also lets your hit points regenerate, albeit very slowly, while in dungeons.
The game is laughably deadly even for those with good reflexes. Especially in dungeons, where you have limited avenues of maneuverability, it's not always possible to hit enemies from the side and rear. The AI governing their movement was something I couldn't discern. They appear to operate on a kind of random walk until the PC is near, at which point they are slightly more likely to favor a direction that brings them in contact with the PC. Their movements are erratic enough that flanking them is more a matter of luck than skill. Fortunately, you can save any place you want with a couple of keystrokes. I stopped counting my reloads at some point, but the total was well over 100 for the 4 hours it took to win.
|Getting killed by stirges. These bastards can fly over walls, making them particularly hard to out-maneuver.|
Winning the game involves collecting a series of artifacts, including a sword, a shield, some gems, a magic vase, a magic lamp, a key, and a ring. I'm not sure what all of them do, but each increases your power and abilities to some degree. The magic lamp, for instance, allows you to see inside dungeons--an absolute necessity. The magic lamp is guarded by a vampire, and you first need to find a cross to defeat him. It becomes clear fairly early in the game what dungeons and areas you can survive and which you can't, and you ultimately find the right path through trial and error.
|Getting killed by wisps in a dungeon before finding the lamp.|
You also have to free three fairies to win. The first two are hidden in trees; you've got to bump into the right ones (and suck up damage from the wrong ones) to find them. The third, you obtain by allowing yourself to be hit 5 times by fireballs from little "wizard" enemies, then killing one of the wizards. I had to Google this solution on a message board; I can't imagine how players of the era could possibly figure it out.
Freeing the third fairy causes them to transport you across a river to an island with Varalys's castle. It's guarded by a "water dragon" who you cannot kill in a single attack session before he kills you first. Fortunately, enemies don't regenerate hit points like you do, so you can kill him by attacking for a while, retreating when your health gets too low, letting it regenerate, and attacking again.
|A dragon guards the evil demon's castle.|
The water dragon's death causes all the rivers to dry up, revealing two chests with the final artifacts. One, a healing potion, automatically resurrects you if you die. This is not something you want to waste on a random mook.
Entering the castle triggers the endgame. A few screens of dungeon maze, swarming with skeletons and guards, culminates in a room with Varalys himself. He shoots fireballs, teleports randomly around the screen, and is invincible at first, so you have to go one screen past him and destroy a gravestone there to make him vulnerable. Even then, like the water dragon, he can't be killed in a single attack sequence, not even if you get resurrected by the potion to continue the offensive. I had to keep retreating, fighting skeletons, slowly regenerating health, and leveling up a couple of times, before I was finally able to whittle down his health enough for the killing blow.
|Taking on Varalys and his henchmen. I need to level up a little more.|
Once Varlys dies, the three fairies recombine into Princess Ann and you get a congratulations screen.
The game barely squeaks by as an RPG under my rules. Its limited character development is actually its best RPG foundation. In terms of combat, while your strength and inventory affect damage done, the mechanic is 90% about luck and your speed with the keypad. As for inventory, it doesn't really have a flexible inventory, in the sense of being able to wield, equip, swap out, and drop things. Instead, you just pick up a series of items that become permanently grafted to the character.
In a GIMLET, I would give it:
- 1 point for a barely fleshed-out game world.
- 1 point for extremely basic character development with no creation.
|I was never able to defeat this giant octopus in the water. Defeating the water dragon made it moot, I guess.|
- 0 points for no NPC interaction.
- 2 points for encounters with generic mooks, a few boss-level creatures guarding treasure chests, and a handful of puzzles that can only be found out with a lot of guesswork or outright cheating.
|Lots of skeletons in the endgame area.|
- 1 point for an incredibly primitive combat system and no magic.
- 1 point for a basic inventory of equipment that is more like an adventure game than an RPG.
- 0 points for no economy.
- 2 points for a main quest.
- 2 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics and bloopish sound are very primitive, but the controls work pretty well.
- 1 point for gameplay. Linear, non-replayable, repetitive, and extremely deadly, it at least offers a short duration.
The final score of 11 is among the lowest I've given, and among the lowest it's even possible for a game to receive. I know some people find it enjoyable regardless, but remember that my GIMLET rates games as RPGs specifically, not how fun they are in general. In my case, I didn't even find it fun as a quasi-RPG. This is absolutely not my genre.
I wish I could cap by saying that it was worth playing for its legacy, but as I discussed, even that's questionable. I guess it had an unmistakable influence on its own limited series. Hydlide II: Shrine of Darkness (1985), which from descriptions sounds like a remake rather than a sequel, introduces magic and a limited character creation process. Super Hydlide (1987) includes a choice of character classes, a game clock, a food system, and a karma meter. Virtual Hydlide (1995), only for the SEGA Saturn, turns the action to the first-person. I think all but the last one kept the defeat-enemies-by-running-directly-into-them mechanic, which is perhaps my least favorite combat system in history.
Before we go, we have to figure out what Hydlide actually means. (I'm not an expert on Japanese pronunciation, but I think we're supposed to pronounce it something akin to "HE-DRE-DE" rather than "HIDE-LIDE.") None of the review sites for the game tackle this question. Wikipedia gives the Japanese title as ハイドライド and says that the Japanese phonetic equivalent is Haidoraido. However, if I throw those characters into Google translate, I get Hydride. That's not an English word I'm familiar with, but if I Wikipedia it, it turns out that it's "the anion of hydrogen...an alloy or a compound in which one or more hydrogen centres have nucleophilic, reducing, or basic properties." Glad we cleared that up.
In general, I suspect that the developers were going for something with a hydro prefix, perhaps having something to do with the game's water theme, including the rivers flowing through the land, the water dragon, and the sorcerer's island. The r became an l through the stereotypical Japanese way of confusing or conflating the two characters. If anyone has a better explanation, I'd be grateful to hear it.
That makes two Japanese RPGs that I've played in 1984. Between them, The Black Onyx is clearly the superior game. If I were a Japanese player, Onyx would have left me wanting more, but Hydlide would have left me wanting something entirely different. For this reason, I'm glad we don't consider too many games in this mold to be RPGs.