Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Nippon: The Age of Sail

My discoveries in the top half of the game world.
I'm not ready to say that it works particularly well as an RPG, but Nippon is turning out to be an interesting game that puts an emphasis on open-world exploration. It has an Ultima III-V quality of needing to find cities, people, and clues, but with less guidance as to your overall mission and goals. 

Combat plays such an incidental role that I suspect you could win the game without it. I don't know for sure. It's possible that later stages will have some necessary combats, and I'll be grateful for whatever time I spent in weapons training and character development. So far, however, I think I could have avoided every fight by just ignoring enemies and running past them. They don't really pursue you. In fact, your icons can run right over each other, so they're not even capable of standing in your way. Moreover--and again I could be wrong about this, but I don't think so--the game doesn't seem to have any dungeons. Most of your time is spent in cities and towns where combat isn't even an option.
 I still fight a lot between cities in case experience points become important.
After the last session, I decided to get more serious about my approach to the game. I brought the world map into ArcGIS as a raster and created a layer on top of it to record the locations of cities, castles, and other physical features. I spent a long, snowy day exploring all of the landmasses in the top half of the map, recording as many locations as I could find. I'm sure there are some others hidden behind impassable mountains, but I have to find some manner of flight before I can record them. There were more than a dozen cities in this area, and almost 150 NPCs. 
Unsurprisingly, ArcGIS can't figure out the projection and coordinate system for Nippon.
I ended up re-visiting some of the cities I'd already visited, because I discovered something new (and somewhat annoying) about the NPC "stance" system. Not only do NPCs refuse to speak with you if you pick the wrong stance, but some of them don't offer all of their dialogue keywords unless you choose a particular stance. All this time, I thought I'd chosen the "right" stance because I picked something like "normal" or "friendly" and the NPC continued to talk with me. But it turns out that I needed to pick a different one to get the full story. Expecting players to get it right, or to go outside and return several times for every NPC, was terribly unfair of the developers. There are a few places in which NPCs give you hints about the right stance to take, but they're certainly not ubiquitous.
Finding the in-game maps of cities continues to be vital, but so far I haven't been crazy enough to bring them into my GIS system to pinpoint NPCs.
Also, based on the fact that a few NPCs in early cities had more to say after I visited other cities, I suspect that some keywords don't unlock until you've spoken to other NPCs. Fortunately, such cases are usually determinable through the context of the conversation. For instance, if Yoshimoto tells me that he heard a rumor from Takagi in Yugure, I know I have to revisit the latter NPC.

I won't give you a blow-by-blow of my visits, but here are the summary highlights.

Gold turns out to be a non-issue if you're willing to spend some time. Since cities re-set every time you leave and return, so do the hordes of gold. In Ubamachi, I could pick up almost 600 gold pieces per visit for the cost of two keys. In Takedo, it was double that amount. This revelation had the effect of making combats particularly pointless. Picking up gold, leaving the city, swapping disks, re-entering, and walking back to the gold is somewhat boring, but if you're binging Jessica Jones at the same time, it's not hard to get into the tens of thousands of gold pieces.
Your riches are limited only by your patience.
Weapons and armor upgrades, and the associate weapons training, cost a bundle--far more than I could have made from killing enemies at 30 gold pieces a pop. I thought weapons were cheap because they started out at 80, 100, 120 gold pieces in the first few towns. But for good weapons, you need to spend many thousands. Every time I thought I'd seen the most expensive weapons, I found a shop that sold even more expensive ones. And the more expensive the weapon, the more expensive the training. You need three training sessions to get at 100% with the weapon. I wanted to keep a ranged weapon for its obvious benefits, so I finally settled on a kind of bow called a dai-kyu, which I think cost 4,000 gold pieces plus another 7,500 in training.
That was a lot of trips to the treasure rooms.
It was a long time before I found a shop selling good armor. They're not nearly as plentiful as weapon shops. I bought a set of samurai armor for 2,000, and it looks pretty elaborate on my character portrait.

Character development came from visiting the various Buddhas and solving their riddles. I eventually found my way to both of the Buddhas described last time: the "invisible maze" had a solution by walking through a false pillar, and to solve the other one, I had to purchase a yari for 4,000 gold pieces and give it to a statute.

Each of the Buddhas poses a multiple-choice question about the game's lore, and I'm honestly confused about the whole thing even though I got some of them right. For instance, the Buddha in Samusa-Toshi asks: "Once there were war magicians. They fought in a warlike time. What are these wars called?" The answers were "Battles of the Shugenjas"; "Wars of Power"; "Wars of Shatun"; and "Battle of Yugure." I found the answer--Wars of Shatun--in the "story" labeled "version 3" on the Nippon Museum site. But several of the later questions had answers found in version 2 or version 4, so I'm more confused than ever about which versions were presented to the original players, and in what format.
Buddha poses a test of knowledge.
Another puzzle, having to do with the city in which the "first tree" is found, doesn't appear in any of the backstories and can only be answered by visiting that city. 
It was pretty clear when I got there.
The Buddhas I answered correctly all provided increases to my attributes--I guess. If you look at my attribute bars, you'll see that the lower portions are shaded and the upper portions are lighter. Generally, only the upper portions increased. What's the difference? At first, I thought the shaded portions represented my actual attributes as opposed to my maximums, but when I fight in combat, the unshaded portion of my health seems to disappear first, suggesting that it is real health, not theoretical health. Then I thought that the shaded portions simply represented my starting attributes, so I could easily see how far I'd come, except that the shaded portion of "agility" increased at some point. So in the end, I really have no idea what's happening.

Experience points also continue to be a mystery. I gain them with every battle, but what do they do? Why can't I see how many I have? Do they affect the attribute increases conferred by the Buddhas? Do they do anything? Seriously, I'll take explicit spoilers at this point.

The game apparently has a few skills for you to learn. In a dense forest in Kokuso-Do, I met a man who taught me the "Hide" skill, which will supposedly make it even easier to elude enemies. Learning the skill added yet another menu icon. There's also apparently a "Swim" skill to learn in the city of Mizu-Do (which I have not yet found). I need it to visit the Buddha in Hayashi-Tori, among other locations. I might have missed another potential skill in Hayagake-Do, where a monk said I could learn to stay awake for a long time, but then didn't give me any way to do that. There was also a Buddha in the city that wouldn't respond to me no matter where I burned incense in front of him.

Part of my time was spent tracking down special items. I can't remember exactly where I first got a lead on a magic ring. It had been stolen and re-stolen from so many NPCs that I lost track, but I ultimately traced it to Bakamana in Namazaki. When I spoke to her--she had been cursed to stand still by witches--she told me that she hid it on a "rocky island north of here." That island is unfortunately fully enclosed by mountains, as well as surrounded by water, so I'll need some flight mechanism.

In Hayashi-Tori, I learned of the Stone of Toshi, hidden in the far corner of the forest. It wasn't too hard to find the spot. When used, the stone reveals the entire surrounding area, even if the tiles would have been obscured by trees or mountains. 
Most of this area would normally be dark because of the trees. (My character has no clothes because I had to give up my outfit to a statue.)
A common theme is for little bluish statues to demand an object to allow passage to otherwise-inaccessible areas. Most statues, when you stand on them and search, are unremarkable. But a few demand something. I lost my suit of clothes in Hayashi-Tori to reach the center island, for instance. There was the one that wanted a yari to show the way to the Buddha. Others have wanted specific food items. I have a "to do" item to return to Kokuso-Do when I have a honeycomb.
"Thank you. Go freely," a statue says, opening the way southward, after I give it a fish.
Only late in the game did I make any kind of progress with a potential magic system. I gather you have to find the game's half dozen spells on individual scrolls. In Haygake-Do, an NPC named Fuji-San said he made a counterspell to work against witches, and I could find it on an island west of the city. I did find the location, but when I searched, the game just said I found something but couldn't use it now.

Some time later, in the town of Teijnashi, I met a sensei named En-No-Gyoja who taught me zaubern, which translates either as "conjuration" specifically or "magic" generically.
"All wizards start" with this sensei, so perhaps I needed to learn from him before I could learn any other magic?
I got a new icon, but nothing shows up when I try to use it. I wonder if I need to go back to the island and search for the scroll again, or whether there are different types of magic, and I need the right types before the associated scrolls will work.
Learning zaubern.
As for the plot, despite all the discussions with NPCs, I still only have threads. I'm sure the endgame is going to have something to do with the Wheel of Time I found on one of the northern islands. It allows you to set a year, month, and day. I fooled around with it but kept dying "in the course of time," so I assume something is necessary to protect the player from the ravages of time travel before you can fiddle with it.
Setting things randomly turned out to be a bad idea.
In Tsusho-Jo, I met King O-sama Siramoto and his court. He was depressed after losing his daughter, Princess Kikoro, to Emperor Subarashii. This is the story related in the game's backstories, and I suspect I'm going to have to go back in time to prevent the marriage.

There was something going on with the entire northeast island, containing the cities of Fuko-Mura and Yugure, as well as a pool of lava on a western peninsula. I learned in Fuko-Mura that the volcano had recently erupted because a careless wizard messed around with it. The eruption destroyed the other two cities on the island, including Yugure. Yugure, in turn, was populated by floating heads who proudly announced that they served a demon and were planning to conquer the world.

Miscellaneous notes:

  • The world has an edge, like Ultima VI, and if you sail too close, the currents pull your ship over it. 
My character spends forever in the void.
  • I kept meeting "horse doctors" who offered grooming services. I have yet to find a place that sells a horse.
  • My slave, who just sits in my inventory, apparently allows me to carry an extra weapon and armor set. I also bought a guard dog who watches over me while I sleep and prevents me from getting attacked in the night. 
  • I found two mountains that appear to have some kind of force field across their tops.
Preventing the volcano from blowing?
  • I'm not going to test everyone's patience by repeatedly complaining about it, but I also don't want my silence to be taken as a sign that I've come to terms with the joystick-only interface. It is a constant and unnecessary pain.
  • In some cities, I've found masses of what look like teleporters, as in the image below, but they don't seem to do anything.
This is where a (L)ook command would come in handy.
In probably the most interesting and yet useless adventure, I discovered a "town" called Ulti-Toril on one of the western islands. The interior of the town was shaped like Sosaria in Ultima III, and NPCs stood at the locations of cities, dungeons, and special encounters in that game, relating information about those locations and the roles they played in Ultima. I didn't find anything actually useful in the city (although I was unable to speak to Exodus; I suspect I need to "Swim" skill), but it was a fun homage.
An NPC represents the castle of Lord British and explains what happened there.
I started this series of entries wondering if the developers really did base their approach on Ultima. This city at least makes it clear that they played it.
Though they were incapable of actually depicting the silver snake.
That's about all I learned in 16 hours of exploration and note-taking, and in some ways I remain more confused than ever. But I'm committed to exploring the second half of the world and seeing if things become any clearer. I am somewhat curious to see how it all plays out.

Time so far: 16 hours


  1. I must say, I'm becoming seriously impressed with the scope of this game, considering this is running on a C64. Does the game reload from disk, or is this all held continuously in memory?

    1. My comment below was supposed to be reply to your comment. Pushed the wrong button.

    2. David, the game was packed on 4 floppy disks (Program, Main map, 2 Town Disks). Walking the land of Nippon was at that time one of the key features, because Rüdiger implemented a non interrupting routine to allow continuously loading of the map as you explore the environment. In those days this was not easy at all and Rüdiger managed to implement a communication routine into the Floppy RAM. So this made it very difficult to play in any early emulator

    3. That is impressive. My memory of the 1541 is pretty hazy. I remember people were devising all kinds of trickery to overcome its legendary slowness, but I didn't know that you could manage to load in the background during gameplay.
      And oh my god, I'm just seeing that Urs Heckmann from u-he fame did the music. I'm using his VSTs pretty much daily, especially Zebra and Diva. That guy's a legend.

    4. I was also quite impressed that you can walk through the huge world without additional loading time. The trick is to store the map in patches and a decent caching. The 1541 had its own CPU with 4kB RAM and was therefore programmable. This enabled the drive to load the data in the background and copy the data to the C64 fairly quickly from RAM to RAM. I'm quite sure it took a while to develop that.

    5. The reason for a whole new loading routine was because we didn't want the animation to stop while loading fragments. This could only be achieved by disabling the NMI (non maskable interrupt) as far as I know. Traditionally loading fragments were possible but at the cost of stopping animation while loading the data from the 1542

    6. Actually, and even worse, the nmi stopped all faster interrupts, destroying the graphics. The screen is parted in three, using two completely different font sets and 24 sprites. 4 characters on the map, with possible Projekt time weapons, all the clothing and weapons on the doll and obviously the famous (single color) GUI icons spinner with the joystick.

      I actually (really!) looked into buying a used car, getting the assembler out and implement the damned keyboard control. After 30 years! ... Too expensive... But this crpgaddict sure stirs things up. :-)

    7. Not faster but raster interrupts...

    8. Damned autocorrect, ned to write on PC instead of tablet from now on. Obviously 'Projectile weapons' and 'used C64'

    9. I guess the walking speed is fine tuned. A little bit faster and the scrolling would stutter.

  2. When CRPG Addict wrote in his first line of this game, that this is a LITTLE german game I smiled. He was so naive :)

    The game comes on 2 disks, data written on both sides. All in all, that's 750kB. As I can see, most of the data is umcompressed. The game constantly loads from the disks and ask to switch the sides when you enter or leave a town.
    Note that CRPG Addict make his life much easier with the map and the speedy emulator with snapshots. To get that far on the real C64, you easily exceed the 40 hours mark.

    1. Bad memeory. 4 disks and only written on one side. Still 750kB.

    2. No game with 4 disks is "little." I'm not sure why I used that term.

  3. I really like to read how this plays out, the game seems to become more interesting to you.

    Some small translation nitpicks:

    "Danke, geht in Frieden" means "Thank you. Go in peace." "Go freely" would be something with "frei", but I can't come up with a idiomatic use.

    "Zaubern" is the verb "to cast". "Conjuration" should be something like "Beschwörung/beschwören".

    I had to look it up, but I knew I've heard it before: "subarashii" is "splendid, glorious, excellent, superb" (it's Japanese this time). A fitting name for a lord.

    And as always, I praise you for taking the time to play all these games so I don't have to. Ganbatte!

  4. And I foolishly thought 1988 would be over in a few weeks, judging by how quickly you got to the 14th letter of the alphabet.

  5. You need to find a GPS so you can figure out what projection that is and generate some topographical features.

    1. The world appears to be flat, so there's not much to project. On the other hand, maybe the world is disc shaped and projected onto a square...

    2. @Buck: The world IS flat. You may notice that on the edges, water runs down into the void. I believe in "Shin-en" they talk about the world's shape. It was never designed to be projected on a globe, though we had a coordinate system. You could find an artifact for reading the current position, which was translated to "japanese" corrdinates, resembling weird syllables for the numbers

  6. Good to see that this one is becoming more interesting. The world seems big, gameplay unique, and German is my native language so I would easily understand everything if I played it...

    ... but I'll just keep reading your posts about the game because putting up with cumbersome interfaces isn't really a thing I feel like doing. :P

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Perhaps the force fields on the mountain tops are only snow or clouds?

    2. @Florian: There are no force-fields on the mountain tops. These are graphical glitches. Graphics was build with characters as block graphics. They could only have a single color. So the mountains consists of several blocks, the top being drawn as blue. I was not able to blend the blue grass into the standard color - thus the glitching effect.

  8. Good news. After more than 30 years I gave the game a second chance and I finished the game with a lot of help. And it looks like I am not alone as Buck has also finished it. So it is definitely winnable with the current version. But you need the hidden clue from the nippon-museum website at some time. At the moment it is too early.

    You shouldn't skip combat. The experience points are necessary for you "Stand" (social class), which you can find in your status screen. In the beginning it is Eta. The "Stand" might trigger something.

    1. Folks, you make an old man happy! :-)
      Short comment on the 'reloadable' cities, treasures and other things. There was simply no storage on disk to keep track of all things taken or talked to. On second thought one could have used less cities and NPCs and impleelima more consistent world with the freed space. But then, it was 1988, you were expected to suffer a bit.

      BTW, Thorsten, don't tell the fine folks here about our ongoing running joke.
      And definitely not about the developer cheat joystick acrobatic still in the code...
      Maybe when crpgaddict has finished the game or given up all hope.

    2. We really suffered a "bit", but that's another story, neh?

    3. Hey, guys. Thanks again for commenting. Would either or both of you mind shooting me an e-mail at crpgaddict@gmail.com so I can send you some questions in preparation for the final entries?

  9. Ulti-Toril?
    I guess... a mix of Ultima and Toril (Forgotten Realms)?

    1. Our hommage to Ultima. You are right. It was created after the original map of Ultima 3 with all NPCs representing towns in Ultima. "Tori" just meant those big gate-like japanese shrines (???).

  10. I find this game intriguing to read about. The game sounds rather unreasonable, but it also feels like something crafted, instead of produced, manufactured.

    Thank you for your dedication, both in playing these games and in the ways you write about them. I do love reliving old, fond memories like Ultima Underworld a lot, and possibly wouldn't keep up with the blog if this blog only had the more obscure titles like this one. Yet these are quite often very satisfying reads in addition to being informative. In this very useful field of old CRPGs. Encountering these games that obviously draw influences from other, more famous games does somehow highlight the developments of the field better than just noting the notable, historic games.

  11. Also, has anyone mentioned yet how awesome it is that the developers of this game are commenting here? :D

    1. Thank you. Wish I would have read the threads earlier. We are glad Sebastian wrote me a mail after my last contact to him, 14 years ago ;)

    2. It is very cool. I'm sorry I haven't been around to respond more. I scheduled these postings in advance because I knew I'd be on the road this week. I should be engaged more next week as I explore the southern half of Nippon.


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