Monday, November 18, 2019

Game 347: Mirai (1987)

I believe these characters translate literally as "not yet come," which is as good as any way to say "the future."
     
Mirai
Japan
Xain (developer and publisher)
Released 1987* for PC-88, PC-98, MSX, and Sharp X1
Date Started: 13 November 2019
Date Ended: 17 November 2019
Total Hours: 6
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)

*Various sites have Mirai's releases between 1985 and 1987. I'm persuaded that its earliest release was probably 1987 for the PC-88; some of the other platforms may have followed in subsequent years.
       
When I was compiling my master list, I rejected from the main list any Japanese game that didn't originally receive a western release. This was because I assumed that everything in the game would be in Japanese, and that it would therefore take me too long to translate the text, given that (unlike, say, German or French) I can't even type the characters into a translation tool. Yes, I realize it's possible to use some tools by taking pictures or even scanning over the screen, but none of these are fast or accurate enough to make gameplay truly possible. I tried with The Dragon & Princess (1982) but ultimately couldn't get anywhere without a full translation from helpful commenters.

However, I didn't count on the fact that a number of early JRPGs were in English, or at least mostly so, even in their original Japanese releases. We've had some speculation as to why this was true, but nothing that's ever fully satisfied me. Whatever the reason, I've been slowly re-investigating some of the titles originally rejected, to see if they are in fact playable in English. Mirai was one of those that made the cut, and it recently came up in a more-or-less random sort of my backlog.

The title means "future" in Japanese, which is why it is also the name of a Toyota hybrid sedan and a 2018 animated film about a time traveler. Several sites have translated the backstory that scrolls up the screen in katakana: It is the year 720 in the space era. Because of the destruction of the Earth's environment, humanity is seeking other planets to which to emigrate. Seven planets have been identified in the "Reinbow Nebula," but they are swarming with ferocious aliens. (These aliens are totally not just protecting their home.) Enter the protagonist, a legendary soldier, with his jetpack and power armor.
        
The game's primary RPG credentials are found in its inventory.
           
Mirai is a side-scrolling action RPG. The player begins on Planet 1 with 200 energy, 100 fuel, and 100 cash. The joystick moves the player around, including up and down, expending fuel with every move. Energy is like hit points--when enemies attack, it depletes--but it also serves as an emergency fuel reserve.

Enemies start swarming from the game's opening seconds, and they vary in lethality, durability, and patterns of movement. Mostly they damage you by hitting you directly, though a small number are capable of firing missile weapons. There are frog-like aliens that seem to move around randomly, colorful ships that always attack in a line, making them hard to avoid, and little flying saucers that like to swarm the moment you enter a tight corridor. You have to be quick on both the trigger and the movement keys. As with the recent Deadly Towers, once you fire your weapon, you can't fire again until it hits something or the missiles clear the screen, so it's important to time your fire carefully.
          
Grinding outside a warp center.
           
Killing enemies increases both experience and the "Shoot P" statistic. Each jetpack level has a "warp center." Finding it is a priority. There, you can change your "Shoot P" numbers for cash, then spend cash on fuel and energy (which are relatively cheap), weapon upgrades, and special items. After some grinding on the first level, I went from a "Beam" weapon to a more powerful "Needle" weapon to a "Triple" blaster that shoots three shots in a spread every time you fire.

There are also special items to purchase. I don't know what some of them do. "U_Jump" allows you better jumps on underground levels (more in a second); "P_Barr" creates a defensive barrier temporarily; "P_Hour" stops time for enemies temporarily. The ones I've figured out are useful enough that there's a real incentive to grind for cash.
           
"M_Scan" makes a little minimap of the level.
         
The warp centers are also the only places to save the game. It costs 80 credits to save. I like the idea of having to pay in-game currency to save. Only a few titles have implemented such a system so far.
        
Having to pay to save means the player is encouraged not to save-scum.
       
Levels have occasional boss creatures. When they appear, their names show up in the lower-right screen along with their hit points. On the first level, they were flowery things called "B_ameda" that were able to shoot missiles. (Some of you Japanese-English experts tell me what all the underscores are supposed to signify.) They were also immune to the starting "Beam" weapon, so I had to upgrade before I could kill them.
          
Shooting the "B_ameda" with the triple blaster.
         
Killing boss creatures is necessary to activate various portals between areas of each level. Once you pass through a portal from a jetpack area, you find yourself in an "underground" area where gameplay is very different. Instead of flying around with a jetpack, you walk around, and instead of shooting enemies, you punch and kick them. It looks to me like you're playing a female in these areas, too, although I'm not sure how that squares with the backstory.
          
Near a portal to the other half of the level.
          
You move around by climbing ladders and jumping from platform to platform, and the rules of both are different in Mirai than any other platformer I've played. You can't grab ladders in the air, for instance. The only way to use them is to start climbing on them from the bottom. When jumping you can move latterly a little distance in the air, but not very much. It's frankly hard to nail down the specific rules.
          
Climbing a ladder, although it looks more like a vine.

         
In the underground areas, all creatures are "boss" creatures, and there are only a few per level. The first one I played featured monstrous mushrooms called "Blueka" and beholder-like blobs "Dminga." A later area had something I can't even describe called "Norm" and little round balls with teeth called "goblins." To fight them without losing too much health, you have to time your approach carefully, trying to punch or kick them from the rear before they have time to react. There are no warp stations in the underground areas, so you need a stock of good gear from the jetpack levels.
          
The freaky "Dminga."
        
There are places where you can get stuck, unable to jump out unless you have one of the "u_jump" items from the store. These effectively double the height you can jump but also seem to make your jumps more maneuverable.

Eventually, after you've passed through enough portals, you meet the level boss. Special items don't seem to work in his presence, so defeating him is a long process of learning his patterns, hitting him while his back is turned, and using jumps to avoid his missiles.
            
The level boss kills me as I take this screenshot.
          
Once I defeated the first boss, I found myself on the second planet. It also proved to be a trade-off between jetpack areas and walking areas, with different enemies and different bosses. Eventually, I got stuck in a small area that has a warp center but otherwise no exits. I thought maybe I'm supposed to grind here until I get enough money for one of the "U_Teleport" devices, but this warp center doesn't sell items. Unfortunately, I saved over the only save slot at this warp center.
       
This warp center has suit shops, but I'm low on cash.
        
Even if there was a way to proceed, it took me about 6 hours (with quite a bit of reloading; I'm not good at action games) to reach this point, and it's hard to see spending another 36 hours, assuming that each planet takes the same amount of time. One level, one boss sounds about right for a side-scrolling action game that barely achieves RPG status.
          
Micro-bosses on Level 2 are "beetles."
      
If you're curious about the end you can see a one-hour LP of the MSX version done by someone who cheated with maximum power-ups at the very beginning and had a map. The levels get more elaborate, the enemies more numerous and quicker, the bosses tougher, but the game remains fundamentally the same. The final boss is named Kariguls. Unfortunately, the conclusion in this particular video is in unpunctuated, poorly-translated English.
           
The hardness of the world the seven two one cosmic century the war of aggression at Reinbow Nebula was brought to the end as a result of an increase in population many war had been over again I think you had a hard time of it in the case human forecast the future feel uneasy and cherish a desire but hope love and peace I wish you happiness.
             
Glad we cleared up. On the GIMLET, I give it:
          
  • 1 point for a bare minimum game world, including a framing story that isn't well-referenced in-game (who is the woman?)
  • 1 point for the most minor kind of character development with no character creation.
  • 0 points for no NPCs
  • 2 points for encounters and foes. I like how JRPGs often feature boss-level creatures that force you to adjust tactics on the fly, but the implementation of that system is at its most basic here.
           
The female hero fights a "mool" on Level 2.
       
  • 2 points for magic and combat. There are some minor tactical considerations in combat.
  • 3 points for equipment, its most developed RPG area.
         
I never figured out the use for some of these items.
        
  • 3 points for an economy that works well, rewarding grinding and conservation of funds.
  • 2 points for a man quest.
  • 1 point for a barely-acceptable interface, mediocre graphics and sound, and sluggish keys.
  • 0 points for gameplay. This is a highly subjective category, but there wasn't really anything I liked about it. Far too linear, far too large for its limited content, and by the second level it was already getting too hard.
         
That gives us a final score of 15. I doubt even players who like side-scrolling action games would find a lot of value in this one. As for me, it's probably my least-favorite sub-genre, and I'm going to want to see a lot more RPG and story elements (like Nihon Falcom's Sorcerian from the same year) before I invest any more time in one.
            
This ain't no soft action RPG.
         
Xain, also known as Zainsoft and Sein-Soft, published only a handful of games in its short history in the late 1980s. It is best known for Tritorn (1985) and its two sequels, which are also on my backlist and are also side-scrolling platformers. The company's last title, 1990's Valusa no Fukushū, is also a side-scrolling action game, but I don't think I'd call it a "platformer" anymore.

Although side-scrolling action with platform elements isn't what most players would later think of as "JRPGs," it's notable how many early Japanese entries featured these characteristics. The earliest was perhaps Xanadu: Dragon Slayer 2 (1985), although there are quite a few 1984/1985 games I haven't yet investigated. Later ones include Sorcerian (1987), Zeliard (1987), Castlevania II (1987), The Scheme (1988), and parts of Zelda II (1988). The sub-genre is virtually unknown outside of Japan. [Edit: I worded that poorly. I meant that development of such games rarely occurred outside Japan, not that players in other countries weren't aware of such titles from international releases.] But of course Japan had also led the way with non-RPG platformers (Donkey Kong, 1981) and side-scrolling platformers (Jump Bug, 1981, and most notably Super Mario Bros., 1985). It makes sense that some developers in that country would try to attach RPG elements to a successful template.


Saturday, November 16, 2019

Challenge of the Five Realms: Treasure Hunt

A literal treasure hunt in a game that plays a lot like a treasure hunt.
            
I started Challenge of the Five Realms over again for a few reasons. First, after I finished Farinor for the first time, I realized I probably had left Ballytogue too quickly, failing to stock up on weapons, armor, spells, and other items first. But when I went back to Ballytogue, I found everyone slaughtered and the shops therefore closed. That was no fun. Also, I read the manual more carefully and found out about the portrait editor that I could have used during character creation. It supposedly allows you to import pictures while also editing the default portraits and constructing new portraits.
             
Playing with the portrait editor did me no good.
           
Unfortunately, none of it really worked. The import button did nothing, and none of the bizarre and frankly alarming changes I made to the default portraits seemed to save. But the exercise did make me realize there was a choice of portraits at the beginning. I ended up choosing the black portrait, partly because I think black character options are under-represented in CRPGs of the time, and partly because it amused me to think that my jackass father had been cuckolded (although, admittedly, we know nothing about what Queen Feya looked like). It would have explained the king's treatment of his son in the backstory.

As I explored Ballytogue for the second time, I decided to see what would happen if I returned the brooch to Ms. Frazetti. She was very grateful and my courage, leadership, and morality all went up. But I was then unable to enlist Sir John Oldcastle. I debated for a long time whether to move forward without him (a commenter opined that it would have left me walking dead). I finally decided to reload and give the brooch to Sir John, even though it annoyed me that the game would punish the player for making a role-playing choice. Later, when I met Cagliostra, she didn't have any special dialogue involving Oldcastle, and I suspect I would have been able to recruit her without him, and thus the game is winnable even if you return the brooch to its rightful owners. On the other hand, without Oldcastle's direction, I wouldn't have known to go next to Farinor.
            
And yet I then reloaded and gave it to someone else instead.
        
I did return the bracelet to its owner for a 500 gold piece reward, then sold some of my mother's jewelry at the pawn shop for even more gold. I bought good armor for Chesotor and Sir John plus a few extra sets for anticipated future companions. I bought all the spells sold at the spell shop (I guess my father only outlawed the casting of magic, not its sale) plus a shovel, a rope, a lantern, oil, lockpicks, and other common adventuring sundries at the pawn shop.
             
Every adventurer without a shovel eventually wishes he had a shovel.
          
I also ran into an NPC I'd missed the first time, Spiro the Clairvoyant. He warned me that Grimnoth's "plague of darkness" was approaching from the south, and that if I planned to journey south (which I did), I should do so quickly. He also warned against a violent clash with Duke Gormond, the usurper looking to take control of Alonia. "Gormond must understand that this is not the time for struggles of power and vanity."

My departure from Ballytogue brought up the map of the larger game world, with the key locations clearly annotated. It appeared that I could travel to any location except for those reachable only by ship. Just for fun, I went to what I assume is the endgame area, Castle Thiris. Almost immediately, Sir John complained that there was no "action" there, perhaps a subtle hint that I was out of order.

Mindful of commenters who warned that the time limit was no joke, I reloaded and went to then next "obvious" location, the town of Farinor, where Oldcastle thought I might find the witch Cagliostra. (I keep wanting to call her Calistoga.) It's too bad that what otherwise looks like an open game world in fact isn't. I'd much rather have headed directly for Vinazia to deal with Gormond and get my crown back.
        
The overworld map.
         
As I left Ballytogue, I also got a cut scene of Duke Gormond in his castle, getting news about the fall of Ballytogue from Sir Erigreen. Erigreen looks sinister and serpentine enough that I'd figure it was Grimnoth in disguise, except that if Gormond has the crown, Grimnoth hardly needs to wait for me to bring it to him at Thiris. Anyway, Gormond proclaimed himself the new King of Alonia and announced his plans to ride for Ballytogue.
           
Something is going on with this guy.

My cousin commits treason.
          
Things were pretty grim in impoverished Farinor. "Filth, disease, and decay overwhelm the streets," a title card said as I entered the village. I guess it was the first time that the prince has been out of Ballytogue, so he was unprepared for such sights.
             
Innocence is lost.
             
The NPCs were all rude to the prince, arguing that it doesn't matter who your ruler is if you live in squalor. Plus, apparently Cagliostra had been popular, and the people resented my father for banishing her.
            
Typical attitude for a Farinor resident.
          
All the stores were closed and boarded except for the stables. There were several beggars on the street. One sold me an "enchanted spirit lamp." Another offered to join the party, saying that he would "prove that the even the lowest beggar can be of use to a mighty noble." I took him. Beggar (as the game names him) comes with some strengths in large blades, missile weapons, and the "Persuasion" skill.

The mayor, living in opulence in the center of town, was unapologetic. "People are best ruled by steel and splendor," he argued. "This sword I wear is the steel; all you see here the splendor." When I chastised him about the condition of the town, he suggested loyalty to Duke Gormond. Annoyed with him, I tried the "Threaten" option, but it didn't seem to accomplish anything.
            
You're walking on thin ice.
          
Outside, NPC reactions spiraled downward. A group of guys threatened me openly ("you'll answer for your father's crimes"), and one of them named Aramanian even attacked me. We killed him and I gave his sword to beggar.

Finally, a couple of NPCs alerted me to a growing rebellion in the town. They pointed me to Thurias Foolkiller (awesome last name), who knows the leader. Thurias at first refused to say anything, and I couldn't get the "Truth" spell to work on him. But he responded to threatening and told me to check out a hut to the north. The hut turned out to be full of traps, one of which damaged my party severely.
             
That wasn't cool.
             
I returned to Thurias and threatened him again, and he finally told me that the rebellion was led by Cynna Bane, an NPC who had previously insulted me when I entered her house. I returned to her and she confessed to leading the rebels. "I support your goals," the game had the Prince say without my input. "I had no idea life was so hard in Farinor." Cynna said that I should take action. "Kill that terrible mayor and bring me his seal. Appoint me mayor, and I'll rebuild this town."
              
That was pretty easy.
          
After our previous spat, I was happy to remove the mayor. He didn't last long against the three of us. On his body, I found a treasure map that led me to a corner of his garden. Fortunately, I had the shovel. (Disclosure: failure to purchase the shovel on my previous trip is one of the reasons I re-started.) I dug up a treasure chest with a lot of gems and gold; the game has not been very tight with its economy so far. Now with plenty of wealth, I bought horses and a wagon for my party at the town's stables. You don't see the horses in the game, but they speed up trips between maps.
                
Sounds like just what we need in a game with a time limit.
            
Instead of remaining in town as mayor, Cynna joined the party. I noted that she has stronger magic skills than anyone else so far.

In the southwest corner of the village, an old man was looking for medicine for his ill granddaughter. I gave him a Potion of Healing and he told me that I'd be able to find Cagliostra in Southfrost, a village at the southeast edge of the world. I don't know what happens if you don't save the one Potion of Healing you find in Ballytogue for this occasion. I guess you have to explore the world and fine or buy another one.

Southfrost turned out to be a snow-covered village on the edge of a sea. It was occupied by "Eskimos" living in igloos and a group of priests of the Cult of Lamsha, guardian of the sun. The priests were freaked out by the approaching pall of darkness from the south; they insisted that it heralded the return of "the evil one, the reptile King Vendret." One of them suggested that "Grimnoth" might be an alternate name for Vendret.
             
Arriving in Southfrost.
           
The Eskimos--whom, I note, the Prince addressed in far less respectful language than the priests--were concerned about the darkness but also had more mundane worries. A group of yeti-like creatures called "reyals" had recently attacked the village, killing a family, and there were more out there. One of them told me that he'd help us find Cagliostra if we killed the remaining reyals.
            
This entry is now the only Google result for "Hold your tongue, Eskimo."
           
We found the creatures to the northeast, and it took me several tries to kill them without suffering a party loss myself. Spells, which I'll discuss more in a bit, turned out to make a big difference. The real-time-with-pause-and-commands system is quite a bit like Darklands (also a MicroProse title) from the same year, and we can only assume that the two development teams shared some code and resources. I am relatively fond of it so far.
          
Combat with the two reyals.
         
The Eskimo rewarded me with a magic orb that absorbs damage from traps. This was necessary because Cagliostra's caverns were full of traps, and I don't think I would have been able to cast enough "Disarm" spells to remove them all even if I had successfully found them all with the "Search" command. It would be nice if the globe continued to serve this purpose throughout the game.
         
This message came up about 50 times as we explored the caves.
          
We found Cagliostra in the caves, living with a bunch of other witches. They were aware of my father's recent demise. At first, they threatened me, assuming that I shared my father's hatred of magic. When I assured them otherwise and reminded Cagliostra of her friendship with my mother, she relented and gave me a chance to "prove [my] worth by traveling into the darkness" along with a "sphere of impenetrable light."

I thought I would have to journey to the darkness, but the game dealt with it via a cut scene. The encroaching "darkness" isn't just darkness but something along the lines of The Mist in the Stephen King story--a deadly miasma populated by demons.
                
This was freaky.
           
When I returned to Cagliostra's lair, I found that she had been transformed into a beautiful younger woman, which she said was her true form. She said that to defeat the darkness, I would have to find the five legendary crowns, which would first involve finding the portals that connect the realms, for which I would need a "Revisibility" spell. Obviously, I would have to find a way to get my own crown back from Duke Gormond. To weaken Grimnoth himself, I will need a "Spell of Restoration" (I'm not really sure why), whose components I might be able to get from a powerful mystic at Thornkeep. Cagliostra said that I would need a second spell ("Slay Evil") to destroy Grimnoth after weakening him, but she'd need to do some more delving to figure out that spell. Finally, she also said that my mother's spirit was not at rest and I'd have to consult her for one of the "Slay Evil" spell components. "Our search should begin in Fremont," she concluded. "The greatest sorcerers in the land once lived there."

She idly wondered if "the noble and just Sir Valakor still lives." At my prompting, she mentioned that Valakor was my mother's "true love," but their relationship had been platonic. Nonetheless, that wasn't enough for old Clesodor, who had banished Valakor.
                 
"And...uh...what did he look like?"
          
Cagliostra didn't join my party in a conventional way, saying she had to work with the other witches to discover more about Grimnoth, but she gave me a mirror that I can use to communicate with her, and in which she will occasionally pop up with advice.
            
Cagliostra has some advice as we enter Fremont.
           
Fremont was in the far southwest of the map, and I figured it made sense to go there next, as it would soon fall to the darkness. There, we found another squalid and dilapidated city, its economy devastated when King Clesodor banished magic. As in Farinor, I was insulted by many of the villagers and even attacked a few times.
             
These five-on-one combats are starting to feel unfair.
          
The townspeople wanted me to restore their right to practice sorcery, but I couldn't figure out a mechanism to do that. The mayor, meanwhile, wanted my help in destroying the leaders of the hidden mages' guild.

A sorcerer named Deostrus offered to assist me if I would travel to the city of Pendar and bring back his lost love, Marinda, whose father--the harbormaster of Pendar--is forcing to marry the odious son of the mayor of Greenberry. Deostrus gave me a letter to bring to Marinda. Meanwhile, a sorceress named Helfura offered to join the party and I accepted.
             
Helfura's stats.
          
Pendar was a harbor village with all the buildings elevated on a massive wharf. It had the first full set of services--spells, weapons, armor, healing, lodging, stables, pawn--since Ballytogue, and I bought everything that was worth buying, but that didn't put a scratch in my money.
           
Most of my party lacked shields, which I rectified here.
              
There was a bit of a bug here. When I spoke to the harbormaster, a random NPC walking around the docks, he mocked me, said "so you found my ledger," and attacked me. This was the first I'd heard of the ledger. I was forced to kill him. Later, an NPC named Horric Fairlost asked me to break into the harbormaster's office and find his ledger to prove his illegal dealings. To open the safe, I first had to find Marinda, who happily joined the party (and gave us the safe key) once she learned we were sent by Deostrus. The safe held the ledger and a lot more gold and gems, which we didn't really need. I'm not sure why we even get to keep it instead of redistributing it to the town.
             
I hope there's a better opportunity to spend this wealth coming up.
          
A few other NPCs talked about the mer-creatures that live off the shore, and a shop sold passage to some nearby islands. I suspect I'll have to come back at some point to visit the underwater realm, but it seemed too soon for that now.
                   
It's not really that much of a risk when the world is going to be destroyed anyway.
              
At this point, I spent a lot of time with spells. Characters can learn spells as soon as you have all the components necessary to cast the spells. Components consist of things like candles, conch shells, dragon scales, various plants, gems, and even some mundane items like shoes. When you buy "spells" from shops, you aren't really buying the spells themselves but the components. Some of the components are amusing. To cast "Open Lock," you need mineral oil and a skeleton key, which sounds a lot like you're just opening the lock conventionally. "Create Food" requires yeast and seeds; if it took several months to work, you'd think maybe it wasn't really a "spell," either. "Explode" uses sulfur, flint, a ruby, and a firefly. I'd been picking up components across the various maps, and some of the NPCs came with them.
                 
Some of the spell components I carry.
           
There are 33 spells in the game, organized in three difficultly levels. Whether a character can learn a spell (or just waste the components trying) is governed by the "Learn Spell" ability. Helfura came with a skill of 100 and Cynna with about 70, so slowly I had these two learn each of the spells that were available to them. I still haven't had a reason to cast most of them, except for "Cure" and a couple of offensive spells in combat. Effectiveness of cast spells is governed by the "Spell Casting" skill. You can also apparently bind spells to rings and other jewelry with the "Spell Binding" skill.

In return for bringing Marinda back, Deostrus told me that the mages' guild was hidden in the Mines of Signor. He suggested I first go to Greenberry, where Clesodor left the decree banishing magic, so the wizards can see me rip it up with my own hands.
               
Deostrus gives me some advice.
         
Miscellaneous notes:
              
  • Occasionally, NPCs have something to say about the events going on around us. I like their interjections. There haven't been many games so far in my chronology that give true personalities to the NPCs.
         
Cynna prizes strength and self-reliance.
                    
  • Although I haven't found a lot of inventory items like helms, belts, and boots, the inventory screen promises them to come. I did find a few rings in this session, including a Ring of Protection and two Rings of Curing. The multiple inventory screens--including individual pouches and backpacks but a shared chest--remain needlessly confusing.
         
Slowly acquiring inventory items.
            
  • I really like the title cards as we enter each new city. They do a good job setting the stage for the encounters there.
           
Arriving at Pendar.
          
  • The game has very good graphics in general. As I mentioned in my review of Prophecy of the Shadow, I like that graphics have become good enough to establish a sense of atmosphere.
            
A kayak, an igloo, and footsteps in the snow help establish the harsh and frozen land.
            
If it's not clear by now, this is a very text-heavy and plot-heavy game, punctuated with occasional combats and inventory puzzles. I haven't put up anywhere near the total number of dialogue-based screenshots. The good news is that the text is well-written and I like the complexity of the plot: I not only have to assemble the crowns but also deal with a would-be usurper, fix the problems created by my father, and apparently address some lingering issues related to my mother.

On the other hand, the game has a certain "treasure hunt" nature as you go from one plot point to the next. This linear approach undermines some of the traditional RPG mechanics, like combat and inventory, which I otherwise like. My perception at this point is that the developers should have done away with the "encroaching darkness," and let the player explore in a nonlinear manner to assemble the items and knowledge he needs to defeat Grimnoth. Then again, it's possible that the game is less linear than I believe it is, and that the "obvious" path is only a suggested one. I'll know more as I experience more.

Time so far: 8 hours


Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Game 346: Deadly Towers (1986)


           
Deadly Towers
Also known as Mashou or Mashō (Japanese)
Japan
Lenar and Tamtex (developers); Irem (Japanese publisher); Brøderbund (North American publisher)
Released 1986 for NES
Date Started: 4 November 2019
Date Ended: 10 November 2019
Total Hours: 17
Difficulty: Hard (4/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)

The past week's odyssey, leading to my lack of postings in a week, begins last weekend. I had just finished the introductory entry on Challenge of the Five Realms and was trying to figure out whether to spend some more time with Camelot, take a look at Mirai, or get started on something else. I decided to go with Mirai but (as of this entry) was unable to figure out enough about the control system to significantly progress in the game. After a couple hours of frustration, I thought, "It's been a while since I checked out a console game." After promising to occasionally give one a shot, I played Bokosuka Wars back in July and then never looked at anything again.

Bokosuka Wars (1983, 1985 NES port) seems to be the first Japanese console RPG (if you accept that definition), but it was followed by a slew of RPGs or quasi-RPGs in 1986, including Miracle Warriors: Seal of the Dark Lord, Dragon Warrior, Deep Dungeon, Nobunaga's Ambition, and Deadly Towers. The latter game particularly sparked my interest because it is often given as the first Japanese RPG released in the west. I went to HowLongToBeat.com, plugged in each of the games, and was happy to see that Deadly Towers also had the shortest completion time, at three hours. I settled in for a quick one.
               
In a typical Deadly Towers screen, I shoot swords at a variety of creatures with different movement paths.
              
Having just finished the game, I'm prepared to say that you can beat Deadly Towers in three hours the same way that you can beat Rogue in one hour: after numerous failed attempts that add up to a lot more than three hours. I would like to extend a special middle finger to the five users who provided such misleading statistics to the site. You can thank them for not having had any entries in a week.

Deadly Towers is a relatively simple action quasi-RPG. The "quasi" comes from a lack of any meaningful character development except occasional increases in maximum hit points. There are no intrinsic attributes or levels to affect your success in combat; instead, you win through a combination of improved inventory and controller dexterity. Under my definitions, it is thus an "action game" rather than an "action RPG," but on the other hand I'm wary about rejecting too many games right and left, particularly when most of the rest of the Internet places historical importance on a particular title, as it does here.
            
And the "hyper" age, as we'll soon see.
        
The protagonist is Prince Myer, on the threshold of succeeding to the throne of his "stone and copper age" kingdom. One day, as he wanders by a lake, he receives a vision from the god Khan. Khan informs him of the coming of a devil named Rubas. Rubas has built his own castle on the northern mountain. The castle has seven bell towers, which he will use to ring magic bells and lure monsters to attack Myer's land. To forestall this villainy, Myer must travel to the evil castle, climb each of the towers, retrieve the bells, and destroy them in a sacred flame.
           
Destroying one of the bells.
           
(This is the kind of game that you must see in action to truly understand it. I recommend this review by YouTuber Cornshaq. He manages to cover it, including the ending, in 15 minutes. Notice the annoying music, which I turned off immediately, which starts over every time you enter a new area, so you're always hearing the beginning of the same tune.)

The game is enormous and the map is essentially indecipherable. In basic structure, it consists of a castle of 10 outdoor levels, each level having access to one or more interior areas. At the top of the castle are seven separate entrances to the seven towers. Each tower has about seven outdoor levels followed by another seven indoor levels. Any given doorway might turn out to offer a one-way trip to a completely different area, plus there are invisible teleporters to a "parallel world" or to various "secret areas." Some of the secret areas have their own secret areas.
            
Climbing to the top of one of the towers. Any random set of pixels on one of these levels could be a teleporter to a secret area.
            
Every one of the screens is full of blobs, worms, bats, spiders, ghosts, imps, demons, fuzzes, whobs, and whazzits trying to kill you. Some bounce up and down. Some fly back and forth. Some circle around. Some seem to attack you directly; others just move around randomly and hit you by chance. Some tear through the screen like a rocket. A few enemies fire projectiles. You must avoid or kill these creatures--which respawn every time you leave an area and return.

Your weapons are a succession of swords, which somehow act as inexhaustible missile weapons rather than melee weapons, in that curious Japanese way that we also see in Ghosts 'n Goblins (1985) and the Dragon Slayer series. Your starting sword, the short sword, requires about a dozen hits to kill even the most pathetic creature. The manual sympathizes, saying of the sword, "It is so weak, you feel lonely (you have no confidence in this sword)."
             
 My confidence fails.
           
If you miss a creature with the sword, you have to wait until it goes sailing off the screen to fire another one. But if you hit, the creature is paralyzed for a couple seconds, which is usually enough to keep pelting it with swords until it dies. At the very beginning of the game, you're extremely weak defensively as well, and just a couple of hits from the basest foes can kill you.

You improve in a couple of ways. First, scattered about the screens are occasional magic "circled" hearts which increase your maximum hit points by 10. Second, enemies drop hearts that restore your current health and money ("ludder"). They never drop the health hearts fast enough when you're low on health and deliberately grinding for them.

The money, you can spend in a variety of shops in the lower parts of the castle. The shops appear as pentagrams on the floors of certain rooms; stepping on them brings you down a ladder to an area where a shopkeeper offers up to three items. These include helmets, shields, gauntlets, better swords, and armor--although the best of each of these items are found in secret rooms in the towers.
              
My equipment about halfway through the game. I've destroyed one bell and have one to destroy.
               
The castle shops also sell a variety of crystals, scrolls, potions, and other magic items that do things like heal you, teleport you to fixed parts of the game, weaken enemies, or improve your defenses for a short period. Items are relatively expensive while cash is slow to accumulate and (annoyingly) caps at 250.
               
Spending ludder in a store.
          
When you reach the base of the seven towers, you find the holy flame. Each of the seven towers has at the top a boss creature who fires copious missiles. You can defeat almost all of them by retreating to a corner, shooting diagonally at the creature, and gulping a potion if you get too low on health. After the boss creature is dead, you collect the bell it was guarding, climb all the way back down the 14 or so levels, and toss the bell in the holy flame. Orange scrolls take you directly to the flame, and I learned to prize these items above all others.
             
The "Death Bear," one of the seven tower bosses, kills me.
I'm doing better against this other boss, "Wheeler."
               
All of this makes Towers sound like a perfectly acceptable action game, but there are a number of factors that unbalance it. First, it has no real save capability. When you die, you get an alphanumeric code that you can enter at the beginning of the next game. The code retains your hit points, most of your equipped items, and the bells you've destroyed, but none of the miscellaneous items in your inventory like potions and scrolls. The only way to save and continue later is to deliberately die and suffer this pseudo-reload.

A long password--which you have a limited time to write down.
 
Second, many of the monster areas are insanely difficult. A lot of the teleporters drop you in the middle of, say, a swarm of bats. Even a quick player would have difficulty killing all of them before dying himself, though of course potions can make things easier.
            
I arrive in this secret area in the middle of a bat swarm.
           
Third, the game is enormous, and if you're playing blind, you don't realize that about half of it is completely unnecessary. You really only want to explore the underside of the castle long enough to find the shops--a handful of rooms out of hundreds.

Fourth, the positioning of teleporters is spectacularly annoying. When you're trying to reach some objective, they're always there, invisible, waiting to derail you for an hour. When you're trying to assemble a full set of equipment, they're nowhere to be found. I finished the game without ever finding the "Dragonslayer" sword or a permanent weapon power-up that lets you shoot two parallel swords.

Emulating the game on a modern keyboard, at least with NESTopia, introduces an additional difficulty in aiming and moving diagonally, which is often necessary. NESTopia maps the directional pad to the numberpad, but it doesn't allow the 7, 9, 1, and 3 keys to move you diagonally. Instead, you have to hold down, say, 4 and 8 at the same time to move northwest. I find this difficult at the best times and nearly impossible in the heat of a pitched battle.

If you can deal with all of this and destroy the seven bells, then you have to return to the beginning of the game to gain access to the final area, where you find the best sword in the game, "Splendor." You then engage in battle with two sub-bosses before meeting Rubas himself. I had saved a magic blue necklace, which renders you temporarily invincible, for this final battle, but it seemed rather quick and easy anyway.
             
Killing Rubas in the final combat.
            
When the battle is over, the game spends a few minutes raining bells on you and then launches into a long bit of endgame text:
                
The hard and bitter battle has finally reached its end. Staring tiredly at Rubas's destroyed castle, Prince Myer felt that his victory had fulfilled the promise of peace over the kingdom. His heart suddenly filled with a wondrous feeling. Looking up toward heaven, he heard a voice from far above, the same one that he had heard earlier by the lake. "My name is Khan. Prince Myer, you have done a great deed in defeating the Devil of Darkness. This brings an end to the Age of Stone and Copper. Peace will prosper in the kingdom."
            
Khaaaaaaaaaaan!
                          
At once, the prince returned to give the message of the victory to the king. The following day, he succeeded to the throne, being praised as the King of Light by the people. The peace and prosperity of the kingdom continued for about 1,000 years until the coming of the Iron Age, and the revival of the Devil of Darkness.
                   
This is accompanied by a cute animation of the prince standing next to his father. Cue end credits.
          
Why is peace not prospering right now?
        
Three hours would be a generous amount of time for a player using an invincibility cheat. It takes quite a bit longer if you don't realize that you don't have to explore every room in the castle. It takes even longer if you play with the intended difficulty and suck up every death. Naturally, save states ameliorate some of this difficulty. I tried to play "honestly" for a while, but some of the rooms were just blatantly unfair.

I haven't been able to find contemporary western reviews of Deadly Towers, but the years have not been kind. There is no shortage of sites that call it the worst Nintendo game of all time. A 2008 review by "RPG fan" Andrew DeMario calls it "one of the highlights in the history of bad game design." His penultimate paragraph echoes many of my own frustrations:
           
There are too many areas where, for no fault of your own, you simply die by entering a new area, and because many areas are invisible, you don't have too much say in the matter. Walking past bottomless pits is stressful due to enemies materializing beneath you without warning, and with the password system not saving most of your items, you are set back farther than seems appropriate with every one of these very-regular deaths.
                  
MobyGames's summary of critic reviews offers ratings of 0, 10, 30, 40, and 50. A representative quote comes from the middle one:
          
Deadly Towers fails on every conceivable level. Even with a full walkthrough and maps it will be one of the most frustrating gaming experiences of your life. There really is no reason anyone should ever bother with this unless they have a hole in their head. This truly is one of the worst games ever made.
               
I can hardly argue. My GIMLET, with mostly 2s across the board, gives it a score of 15--the same rating that I gave Bokosuka Wars, although for very different reasons. I had a lot more fun with Bokosuka Wars even though I didn't think it was much of an RPG.
          
Note that the figure on the cover looks nothing like the GCLM in the game itself.
            
The Japanese title of the game was Mashou, which according to the Internet means "evil bell," although every translator I feed it to gives "let's go" instead. Lenar wanted to release the game as Hell's Bells in the United States, but someone from Brøderbund suggested the final title. The game apparently sold quite well despite negative reviews. Lenar later developed two other RPGs--Knight Quest (1992) for the Game Boy and Magna Braban: Henreki no Yusha (1994) for the SNES. Developer Junichi Mizutari (AKA "J. Winc") appears on the latter.
           
I don't believe Mr. R. Nagasu was ever seen again.
         
I know some people think there's real RPG gold among these 1980s console titles, and I'm willing to keep holding out hope, but so far they've been toys. Toys can be fun, but there comes a time to put them away and do adult things. Like Challenge of the Five Realms.