Friday, October 30, 2020

Game 386: Oméga: Planète Invisible (1985)

C64 web sites all show this title screen, but it never came up in the version of the game I downloaded.
Oméga: Planète Invisible
("Omega: Invisible Planet")
Infogrames (developer and publisher)
Released in 1985 for the Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, and Thomson computers
Date Started: 27 October 2020
Oméga is the second of two French adventure-RPG hybrids written by Marc Cecci and published by Infogrames between 1984 and 1986. (I settled on 1985 for both games but am no means certain about either.) Together with Tyrann (1984), they kicked off a French "golden age" of RPG development that lasted until about 1990 and included Tera: La Cité des Crânes (1986), Inquisitor: Shade of Swords (1987), Le Maître des Âmes (1987), and B.A.T. (1989). Forgotten titles from this period are still being found.
As with poetry, cinema, and most other forms of art, the French didn't do things like anyone else. Tyrann is admittedly a bit derivative of Wizardry, but most of the games on the list are bizarre. Sometimes refreshingly bizarre, other times just bizarre. Whether through ignorance or deliberate rejection, they seem unconcerned with typical RPG mechanics or challenges. Rarely do they even stick to a consistent set of rules. Instead, I would say they are more concerned with using RPG themes as vehicles for memorable images and plots. I've done my best to cover the actual experience of playing games like Drakkhen (1989), Muryaden (1989), and Saga (1990), but there have been plenty of times that words have failed me. In the middle of a desert landscape ruled by a dragon, I was attacked by something that looked like the silhouette of Sheena Easton as it said "I love you" repeatedly in different pitches. And yet it was somehow weirder than I'm making it sound.
God, I miss bars.
I used to work a job where I had to read a lot of reports written by other people. The people writing those reports would often use the acronym "NFI," which officially stood for "no further information," but which secretly stood for "no f****** idea." The report-writers would drop it in whenever they were just as confused about a third-party statement as the likely reader of the report. Imagine I was reading crash reports for an insurance agency. The usage would be something like this:
Driver reports that as she entered the freeway, she was distracted by "all the pretty lights that were out that night" (NFI) and thus did not notice that the vehicle in front of her had not already merged. She said that she would have stayed on-scene to await the police, but she was intimidated by the size of the other driver's head (NFI) and thus fled the scene.
Whenever I play a French game, I feel like I need that shorthand to annotate half of what I describe. Thus, watch for its appearance below.
Oméga takes Mandragore's interface and moves it to a science fiction setting. The year is 3010. The universe is being threatened by a tyrant named Naxorg (which sounds like a pharmaceutical company), who rules from the planet Oméga, hidden in an asteroid field and thus "invisible." Clues to its location are found on six other planets. The United Imperium of Planets dispatches a team of four adventurers to solve the problem. This directly echoes the plot of Mandragore, where you had to assemble clues from ten castles.
Character creation.
The four characters are created from four "races": human, mutant, robot, meerkat (NFI), and cométoïde, which I'm not sure how to translate, but it looks like a living comet. Meerkats, despite their name, look more like kangaroos. Classes for these characters are astronaut, ranger, telepath, pirate, mentat, and xeno-sociologist. ("Mentat" comes from the Dune series--humans trained to think and process like computers.) Finally, the characters' attributes are strength, intelligence, dexterity, knowledge, training, and rayonnemente, which I'm not sure whether it means "radiance," as in charisma, or "radiation." You probably don't want to get those two mixed up. Certain classes have minimum attributes. I created:
  • Wicker, a human pirate
  • January, a meerkat ranger
  • Elephant, a mutant mentat
  • Music, a cometoid telepath
Gameplay begins in the character's ship, in which they travel north, east, west, and south (NFI) through the cosmos, landing on planets and star bases as necessary. Star bases have seven screens, including an equipment vendor, a food and medicine vendor, a weapons vendor, a bar, and a live music part of the bar in which an all-purpose "buyer" hangs out. Frequently returning to star base is often necessary to buy medicine and food for healing and to sell the valuables you've accumulated (particularly since you only get four inventory slots). As for the weapons and the "psy-amp" that telepaths are supposed to use, I tried them and I don't think there was a significant difference over attacking and using telepath powers without the items.
When you leave the first star base, you begin navigating through the galaxy. I'm not really sure how to interpret all of the features on the galaxy map. The manual might explain, but I only read it far enough to figure out how to play the game. You start out in an area dense with white dots, which I thought was supposed to be an absurdly dense star field, but you later fly out of that into a blacker area with more sparse white dots. There are red areas through which you cannot fly, as if space had a lava border. The occasional white or yellow "+" doesn't seem to offer anything. Nor do large objects that appear to be suns. Planets appear somewhat randomly in this universe rather than orbiting stars.
You don't really expect to see mazes in outer space.
If you take too long between stops, you can get attacked in space by a couple of fighters labeled kamikuse and kamikose (NFI).
How did they get on my ship?
I don't know if my first couple of planetary experiences are indicative of the entire game, but planets seem to consist of a couple dozen screens. Each planet has a theme, and the screens reflect that theme. Altair II, for instance, seems to evoke a post-apocalyptic Mad Max feel, with thugs on motorcycles riding through a dreary, desert landscape.
The party fights a biker gang.
Any screen can offer up to four living things or objects, listed to the lower right and annotated with letters A through D. These entities can be:
  • Intelligent creatures. Some hostile, some friendly. Some humanoid, some not. You can question them, and hostile ones may attack you. In fact, waiting for them to attack first is the only way I can see to tell if they're hostile.
  • Animals. They're almost always hostile. You can attack them, but it's better to hunt them, as you get food for that.
  • Things you can pick up and eat, drink, or "absorb" to restore health.
  • Things you can pick up and sell later at a star base. Sometimes, these items are trapped and you have to disarm the trap first.
  • Quest items.
Interacting with these entities and objects is done in the same odd way as Mandragore. You issue a subject-verb-predicate command by first typing the number of the character who will act. You then type the first letter or two of the verbal command that person will execute, and finally you type the object on which they will perform the verb--either one of the objects on the screen (A-D), or one in the character's inventory (1-4). For attacks, you can specify a fourth command, indicating what weapon you want to use.
For instance, in the screen below, the two guys named "Michel" are hostile while "Lucie" is not. The roquette refers to the rocket launcher off to the left.
The party breaks into a ship and emerges in what looks like a bar.
Thus, valid commands, might be:
  • 1 AT A: Wicker attacks Michel
  • 3 TI C 2: Elephant shoots (tire) the other Michel with item #2, a laser in his inventory 
  • 4 ST C Music tries to use his telepath ability to paralyze (statuifie) Michel
  • 2 Q B: January questions Lucie. (If you do this, she demands an anise-flavored lollipop, NFI)
  • 3 PR D: Elephant takes (prend) the rocket launcher
  • 4 BO 1: Music drinks (boit) the medicine in his inventory in slot 1
Combat usually requires you to repeat the action multiple times. When a combat command executes, the character travels across the screen to the enemy and then back to his or her starting location. The enemy always gets a retaliatory action immediately, so you don't want to attack with a character low in vie. You can specify a weapon when attacking, or not, and so far I've noticed little difference. Enemies seem to remain permanently dead and never respawn.
A punk attacks me.
I assume there will be some enemies who respond only to mental attacks, as in Mandragore. In those situations, my telepath will be essential. He has three telepathic attacks: paralyze, petrify, and hypnotize. Each involves a sacrifice of 10 vie points, so I figure it's best to use physical attacks unless the enemy simply doesn't respond to them.
You navigate from screen to screen with the arrow keys, though it's sometimes hard to tell which ways are open. You basically have to try all of them.
Each character's vie score is a combination of hit points and stamina. Most actions--even failed actions, even trying to walk in an invalid direction--cause you to lose at least one point. Vie is replenished with food, drinks, and "antidotes" purchased on star bases. 
Most successful actions earn the character experience, which in turn increases the character's level. I'm not sure what leveling really does, but I assume it increases chances of success in actions and combat. If so, the effect is relatively subtle.
My pirate's character sheet, late in this session.
The overall goal of the game seems to be twofold. First, you have to amass enough funds in your planetary explorations to purchase détecteur on the starbase. I assume it detects the invisible planet. It costs 3,000 credits. You get this money by picking up anything not nailed down on every planet, then selling it back in the starbase. I made a little over 1,000 on Altair II, but some of that went to medicines.
The party pawns a couple of motorcycles in a bar.
The second goal seems to be to solve each planet's problem, which gives you a clue. As with Mandragore, solving the problem means picking up a quest object in one place and dropping it in another.
On Altair II, the post-apocalyptic biker gang turned out to be a bunch of interlopers on the planet. The natives were terrified and begging for help. In the bikers' bar, I found a "totem" that seemed to belong to the natives, and when I dropped it off on the final screen, I got the first clue.
"On the huge menu of the imperium . . ."
The second planet I found was odd. Before I could get to the planet, I had to break into a ship in orbit, or on the planet, or something. (A lot of this game involves visual interpretation of what's happening on the screen, and the graphics don't make this process easy.) On the first screen, removing a couple of grates brought me to a long tunnel, and into a computer room on the ship, where a crucifix was lying on the floor. From here, opening an airlock dumped me into what looked like a bar. I had to fight my way from room to room, usually having to open a door or grate (with many failed attempts) to progress.
I came into a jail cell where a woman labeled "pin-up" (NFI) was guarding two prisoners chained to the wall. After I killed the guardian, the prisoners told me to beware children. From there, I'm kind of stuck in the ship; I can't seem to find any valid direction to move, not even back to my own ship. I'm sure I'll figure it out eventually, but I ran out of time and thus had to submit this relatively short entry.
A pin-up girl, possibly wearing roller skates, guards two people chained to a wall.
So far, Oméga certainly doesn't disappoint as a French RPG--it's bizarre, nonconformist, and vaguely psychedelic. If it lasts less than 8 hours, it won't necessarily be a bad use of time.
Time so far: 3 hours

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Dark Queen of Krynn: Won!

I think I see Corey Cole off to the left.
The final hours of Dark Queen of Krynn began with our arrival at the Tower of Flame, the draconians' secret fortress in the middle of the Lava Sea. We flew there in a gnomish wind-ship; the gnomes were particularly interested in helping us because the Tower was kept aloft by a magic stone called the Grathanich that the gnomes wanted to get their hands on.
Dragons attacked as we arrived, and the party had to jump from the wind-ship to an upper-level deck. We were supposed to have the impression that the battle continued to rage outside, and indeed every time we opened a port-hole to look out, we received confirmation of that.
They battled for this entire session.
We had barely started exploring the level when we were forced to cross a rickety bridge. Crysia, the charmed sister of Captain Daenor, appeared on the other side of the bridge, and he ran to her. She clapped her hands, unleashing some spell that caused the bridge to collapse and dump us down to the bottom level, leaving Daenor behind.

The Tower of Flame ended up consisting of five levels. The bottom was 8 x 12, the next two 16 x 16, and the last two 12 x 12. They were very confusing. There was something to be accomplished on every level, but our progress was hampered by inconsistent ways of moving between levels; a staircase or air shaft available at one point might be closed the next time we arrived. Events conspired to keep dropping us from higher levels to lower ones. A lot of fixed encounters required other encounters to activate, so we'd find them even in areas that we thought we'd cleared. Random encounters never stopped, and resting was difficult. Beholders attacked randomly on all levels and occasioned a lot of reloads.
Draconians were everywhere, as both random and fixed encounters. Fire elementals and fire fiends came pouring out of the walls themselves. We also kept encountering troops of gnomes, some of which would join the party and help us out for a few battles until they all died.
That seems a little unfair.
On the bottom level, we ran into fire giants, salamanders, and other monsters tending "tower engines," and we fought repeated battles with them. We also destroyed a room full of chains and manacles, clearly intended for use during the invasion of Ansalon. Finally, we destroyed the engines that allowed enemies to traverse the tower's shafts at will--elevators, I take it.
I can't remember what the key battle was on Level 2, and I didn't take enough screen shots to help. On Level 3, there was a prison, and we freed a woman named Dahmia Sreen Luminar from one of the cells. We could tell at once that she was the mother of Elea, the young woman we met among the Hulderfolk. We got experience for telling her her daughter's name, which was a joke because there was nowhere left in the game to train. She showed us how to get to the next level by jumping on a bed, then disappeared.
"Arms that never held me / lips I've never kissed."
We found a central room on Level 4, which later turned out to be important, where draconians went through the ritual to change them from regular to "enhanced" versions of their species. The power behind this transformation turned out to be the very Grathanich that the gnomes were seeking. We interrupted the ritual and killed a bunch of draconians.
Gnomes helped us to Level 5 by flying a wind-ship up a shaft. We re-met Captain Daenor and Crysia there, and managed to break the draconians' bond on Crysia with "Dispel Magic." Daenor re-joined the party but seemed to have lost all of the equipment that we gave him last time he was with us. He was only with us for one battle before he carried his sister to a wind-ship and accidentally knocked away the anchor. The siblings sailed off into the distance.
"Missile" clearly wouldn't have worked. I wonder if the endgame would have changed accordingly.
Central to Level 5 was a chamber with a tripod holding the Grathanich. As we approached it, draconians closed in from all sides. This was the first of many battles that I thought might be the "final battle," particularly since Takhisis spoke to us through the mouths of the draconians as the battle began: "I have always intended that my next footsteps upon Krynn would be upon the heads of irksome unbelievers." That was a little inaccurate. Clearly, we believe in Takhisis--she's talking to us, after all--we just don't follow her.
"Red carpet" is, I suspect, a metaphor.
The ensuing battle pitted us against multiple small groups of beholders, draconians, fire fiends, dark wizards, and fire giant mages. I was able to win only after I fully buffed the party with resistances, bonuses, and "Haste." Practically every enemy was capable of high-level mage spells. Arrows, "Power Word: Kill," and "Monster Summoning" largely saved the day. 
Immediately after the first wave, though, we had to fight a second wave of creatures that included more draconians, dragons, skeletal dragons, efreet, and even a lich or two. They were a bit easier, owing to my ability to destroy dragons nearly instantly with the dragonlances, plus my clerics' abilities to turn undead. Still, it was a tough battle, and you can forgive me for thinking it might be the last.
As we contemplated the dead bodies around us, a man's voice spoke over rattling chains and invited us to "come." We were somehow sucked into another plane--the Abyss. We landed on a featureless plain, but a little exploration led us to a stone building full of monsters. They parted to let us approach the man they were torturing, a black-robed figure with dark skin and long blond hair, chained to a wall. He demanded that we kill his tormentors. Magic was useless in the room, and the ensuing battle against draconians, white dragons, and purple worms left all but three of my characters unconscious or dead. Fortunately, I was able to rest soon afterwards.
At least someone wants us to feel welcome.
After the battle, the chained man revealed himself as Raistlin Majere, "the Dark Queen's deadliest enemy." Gasp, some of you are saying, those who have read the Dragonlance books. Other than he was a playable character in Heroes of the Lance and thus one of the titular heroes, I had no idea who he was or why he was here. I tried to read about him on Wikipedia and got the idea that he was an anti-hero ("soon I will be revered on Krynn once again" kind of gave that away), but I couldn't figure out where we currently were in his long bio.
I hate this guy.
Raistlin told us that Takhisis had somehow managed to open a portal to Krynn, and all she was waiting for was the perfection of a mortal form to inhabit once she made the passage. Raistlin suggested we escape through the portal and destroy it behind us. As he led us to it, he demonstrated his power by dealing with a company of beholders with a wave of his hand.
We reached another building where we found Takhisis sprawled on a throne, meditating on the portal. Trying to attack her led to instant death (I thought we were god-level characters!) Instead, we had to creep to the portal, disturb Takhisis's meditation by throwing a rock at a bell, and watch and wait as she and Raistlin fought each other long enough for the mist in the portal to clear. At one point, she wrapped Raistlin's hands in silver chains, and the episode was clearly the inspiration for the game's cover art.
"Attack" was the wrong option with Takhisis.
The portal finally cleared, and we leapt through, leaving Raistlin to be eaten by ghouls and serpents. We landed on the other side, bruised and battered, to find a bunch of gnomes worshiping the tripod. Without any time to rest and heal, we investigated the tripod and found it to contain an egg--which promptly hatched (somehow) into a full-grown five-headed dragon. This had been intended as the vessel for Takhisis's return.
It apparently was not by just a little bit that Firebreath failed to make the grade.
Surely this will be the final battle, we thought as it began. I have to admit, it was pretty cool. The dragon had black, blue, red, white, and green heads, each capable of those dragons' respective breath damage. It also had a very high armor class. To kill it, we had to attack and kill each head independently. Fortunately, it was susceptible to the dragonlance damage, and despite taking some damage from breath attacks, we were able to kill it.
This was a pretty cool graphic.
With the beast dead, the Grathanich came floating out of the cauldron and floated away down the hall, throngs of gnomes in pursuit. We heard Takhisis's voice speaking to someone named Vlaahg, telling him that she wanted the stone found and taken off Taladas. As we neared the exit to the room, we found the source of the voice: a draconian holding a magic mirror that enabled him to communicate with Takhisis.
Surely this will be the final battle, we thought as another huge draconian fight ensued. But when it was over, there were no endgame messages. There was also no indication of where to go and what to do. Wandering through the hallways, we kept glimpsing the Grathanich (also called the "Greystone") as it floated through floors and ceilings and otherwise evaded capture.
This nonsense lasted for over an hour.
I must have spent 90 minutes wandering all around the five levels again before I finally ran into a group of draconians holding the mirror they had used to communicate with Takhisis. They set it down in front of the party and an image of the Dark Queen appeared. "Raistlin sends his fond regards," she said, and we immediately smashed the mirror. (The game gave me the option to Talk, Smash, or Leave. "Smash" seemed the most satisfying, but I have to admire the party that just sighs, turns around, and walks away.) Nonetheless, Takhisis kept talking.
You think you have defeated me, but of course you are quite wrong. You are mortals; do not dare to think more than mortal thoughts, lest you join Raistlin. One day you will grow old, and weak, or foolish. Meanwhile my malice goes on and on, growing stronger, deeper, more subtle. Which is why I propose this bargain to you. I enjoy a good opponent, and you are too talented to be sacrificed to old age.
We never heard the bargain because we chose "Smash" again, this time grinding the pieces of the mirror to dust. For the record, I never thought we "defeated" Takhisis. I just thought we escaped her.
I may try to reload and explore the other options for the final entry.
As we turned to leave, a horde of draconians attacked us from behind. Ah, the final battle!, I thought as it began. But the battle was relatively easy, and the draconians were soon dead. The mirror pieces briefly coalesced into an angry whirlwind, but "the queen's rage is impotent against your valor."
We had some more wandering around to do before we encountered the real final battle--that is, before the technical one. On Level 3, we stumbled into a room full of draconians staring at the Grathanich with awe. A machine they had constructed was slowly attempting to encircle and seize the magic stone. "Soon, the queen will possess it once again," the draconians said. "Open the shafts! And summon the dragons to bear our prize away!"
Here's the game's description of what's happening, in case mine didn't make any sense.
I was in bad shape at this point, so I just killed the emulator, restarted from my last save, and re-entered the room, fully buffed this time. Thus commenced four unskippable battles, with no opportunity to rest in between. I think this is a Gold Box record. Sensing this was the case, I took the time to cast healing spells at the end of each combat, even if it meant going into extra rounds.
A fully buffed party.
Wave 1 had a large batch of draconians. I did the usual: summoned a couple of fire giants to serve as a buffer between us and them, then picked away at the exploding draconians with arrows and other missile weapons. Unfortunately, our arrows were almost out at the end of the battle. We had long exhausted all the magic arrows I purchased in the gnome citadel, and we were even running low on the non-magic arrows I held in reserve.

The second battle involved draconians and several red, green, and blue dragons. It's been a long time since dragons were a real threat: Dutch and Midsummer, both hastened with dragonlances, can kill as many as eight per round by themselves. Dragons are all susceptible to "Delayed Blast Fireball," even (oddly) red ones, not to mention "Magic Missile" and "Lightning Bolt." Even without those spells, my other characters can easily melee one or two dragons to death. 
I love that "Leave" is still an option, as if the game's going to let us just turn around and walk out.
Making it even easier, however, was a horde of about 20 gnomes who joined the party for the final three fights. They had something that my regular characters didn't: arrows. They were only regular arrows, shot by regular short bows, but the sheer number of them was enough to take care of the exploding Baaz, Aurak, and Sivak draconians.
After the second fight, we watched as the draconians' device finished snaring the Grathanich. Dragons prepared to fly the artifact away, so we had no choice but to attack. (At least, we felt we had no choice; I'm curious what happens if we had chosen "Wait" or "Leave" at this moment.) Thus commenced the third battle, which was about the same as the second one, but with the inclusion of skeletal dragons. They die at the tips of dragonlances just as easy as regular ones, and again we had the gnomes as meat shields and to help with the exploding draconians. Piece of cake.
A gnome takes aim at an enchanted Bozak.
As the third battle wrapped up, the gnome pilot Hrumbishnog showed up in his wind-ship and tried to grapple the device holding the Grathanich. To distract the draconians from him, we had to attack again, this time facing a couple of enchanted Auraks and a large number of black, blue, green, white, and red dragons. We had "Resist Fire" and "Resist Cold" activated, so we prioritized the blues, greens, and blacks, and they went down pretty fast. A couple of "Delayed Blast Fireballs" devastates them, and the knights can mop up the rest.
This looks like a perfect place for a fireball.
Hrumbishnog couldn't steal the device--it was too heavy--but he did snag it and pull it to the edge of a shaft. As we watched and the draconians howled in horror, he toppled the device into the shaft, down several stories, out the bottom of the Tower, and into the depths of the Lava Sea. He was nearly dragged with it, but we had Squirrel fire off a "Magic Missile" that severed his cord. 
"Shoot an arrow" was one of the options, but we were out of them.
"You can hear the Queen shriek all the way from the Abyss," the game said. "She vents her fury on the minions that have failed her. It is terrible to behold." We jumped aboard a wind-ship and at last escaped the Tower of Flame. 
"Grunschka, stop singing about evisceration!"
On the way back, we learned that Daenor and Crysia had been rescued and taken to the gnome fortress, and that Dahmia had flown off on a dragon. The mood among the gnomes as we arrived back in the citadel was triumphant. A band greeted us on the flight deck, and Tasslehoff Burfoot . . . was there. As we strolled the hallways, gnomes shouted, shook our hands, threw confetti, bought us drinks in the bar, and otherwise celebrated. I assumed this was the endgame but still took time to level up, deal with excess equipment, and otherwise make a tidy party. 
This is how every game should end.
When we were done with logistics, we headed up to the king's throne room. Daenor and Crysia greeted us as we entered the palace. There were messages almost every step. Gnomes feasted at a banquet. Firebreath gave rides to children. The king gave a speech and unveiled a "royal cheese nutball," at which mice immediately started gnawing. We got a wide shot of the hallway with all of the NPCs and celebrants; it looked like it could have been inspired by Quest for Glory.
You got the bigger image up above, so here's a close-up of some mice eating the cheese.
The celebrations ended abruptly as a fireball hit the palace and dragons swarmed through the windows. These were not minions of Takhisis, but rather Tremor and his allies, deciding to fill the power vacuum our victory had left. Baldric, the silver dragon, scolded Tremor, morphed into his dragon form, and began fighting the red dragon while we turned and faced Tremor's allies.
History has not been kind to those who call us "fools."
The ensuing battle must have involved about 50 dragons--black, blue, white, red, and green--but as I've already covered, dragons are nothing to this party. I could kill eight at a time with "Delayed Blast Fireball" and at least another five or six with melee attacks. That's without even bothering to buff and "Haste." Plus, we had a bunch of gnome allies during the battle. Not only were we victorious, I'm not sure we even took any damage. The only problem we had was that a bunch of the dragons spawned on behind a section of walls that made them unreachable. I finally ended up setting the computer to auto-combat and letting it make everyone dither while I wrote sections of this entry. The battle eventually timed out and victory was declared in our favor.
One of several screens full of dragons.
After our victory, the game related that Baldric won his fight with Tremor, ripping the iron dragon scale from his chest and sending Tremor plummeting to the earth. Baldric announced that with the iron scale removed, the evil dragons would cower in their lairs once again. With a promise of a second victory celebration to come, the game ended with a "THE END," but then allowed us to keep playing and return to the overworld map. "Now you can explore places you haven't seen yet," it even offered.
"Well, guys. I guess we live here now."
I had mixed feelings about this session. I spent far too much time walking around the Tower of Flame than I would have liked, and there were far too many things that felt like the final battle. I really had no interest in the "confrontation" with Takhisis or the appearance of Raistlin Majere. (I suppose one of my major issues with all three of the Dragonlance games is that I've just never cared anything about the setting.) On the other hand, the real final battle--the sequence of four sequential combats--was fun and satisfying. I didn't find it terribly hard, but that's because I had so much experience fighting dragons and draconians by then that I knew precisely how to handle them. Although I beat them in one try, it felt less like the game was soft-serving me and more like it was allowing me to demonstrate my accumulated tactical mastery. I suppose maybe it could have been more challenging with fewer allies.
The dragon battle at the gnome citadel occurred after the major victory screens and was clearly intended as a fun coda--something that allowed the party to feel insanely powerful against an enemy that would have been insurmountable back in the early hours of Champions of Krynn.
We will? Is Baldric setting up a fourth Krynn game?
As for the rest of the victory, I would have liked a little callback to the origin of our quest (General Lauralanthalasa) or some discussion about how we were going to get back to Ansalon. But beyond that, it was fun and satisfying--one of the more elaborate of the Gold Box endings.
I'm not aware of any post-game challenge dungeons for this one, but let me know if I'm wrong. Otherwise, we'll have the "Summary and Rating" in a few days, and then we'll finally open up a couple of new RPGs for the first time in over a month.
Final time: 36 hours

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Game 385: Minelvaton Saga: Ragon no Fukkatsu (1987)

This was not a good use of time.
Minelvaton Saga: Ragon no Fukkatsu
("Minelvaton Saga: Return of Ragon")
Random House (developer); Taito Corporation (publisher)
Released in 1987 for NES
Date Started: 18 October 2020
Date Ended: 22 October 2020
Total Hours: 12 (artificially low because of a cheat)
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
At least four times this year, though it seems like closer to a thousand, the following sequence of events has occurred:
  1. I decide I need to take a "break" from the official game list.
  2. I reach for the "reject" pile--the list of games that I originally rejected for being a) on a console, b) not an RPG, c) in a language I couldn't easily translate, or d) unavailable. If the original reason was d), I research to see if it's turned up since then. If it was c), I look to see if there's an English patch.
  3. I start playing the game, intending to get a "quick entry" out of it, particularly since I don't mind cheating the rejects.
  4. I soon realize that the game isn't going to be quick, even if I cheat. But I don't want to take the game as a loss, so I keep playing until the bitter end, which turns out to be a lot more time than I wanted to invest in this little diversion.
You'd think I'd learn my lesson after a few of these, but here we are again. Minelvaton Saga came up in a literal random roll. Both a) and c) originally applied, but some Googling showed me that c) was no longer true, as a translator going by the name Aishsha made a translation available in 2011. While my rules do not obligate me to play games with fan translations (nor console games at all), these "reject pile" moments are for making exceptions, and I decided to give it a shot. Why didn't I stop after playing long enough to offer a BRIEF? I have no idea. I suspect to answer that question would involve several sessions on a couch. But here are the results.
The main character name is the only "creation" in the game.
The Saga takes place "long ago, even before the Big Bang," in the world of Minelvaton. The world was created by gods who then warred over its dominance. These included Khan, the God of Light, and Ragon, the God of Darkness. Eventually, Khan was triumphant, and the land flourished in a time of peace, the people coalescing into various lands and kingdoms. But Ragon returned (hence the subtitle), and his armies soon conquered the kingdoms of Ishkhan and Palmeccia. The young prince of Palmeccia and his guardian, a priest, were tossed into a time gate as the invading armies entered the throne room. Years later, his guardian on his death bed, the young prince (the character) now vows to restore the lost kingdom. To stand against Ragon, he will have to seek the power of the gods.
The character learns his pedigree at his guardian's death bed.
1987 is early in the history of Japanese console RPGs. That, coupled with the fact that the game was long-untranslated, led me to hope that I was in for a relatively original, exotic experience. Instead, it soon became clear that Minelvaton provides an experience highly derivative of Dragon Quest (1986) of the previous year, perhaps also influenced by Miracle Warriors: Seal of the Dark Lord, which also had a 1986 NES release. Minelvaton offers the same limited character creation, the same goofy cartoonish little man scurrying across a large landscape and encountering at random timer intervals, the same weird selection of magic objects that you can use in combat. It has some original elements in combat and in the way it treats NPCs, which I will explore. 
The world of Minelvaton is, I'm going to guess, no more than 64 x 64--small even by 1987 standards. But it's full of rivers, mountain ranges, broken bridges, patches of deep water, and other obstacles. It also forces you into a random combat every few seconds of walking. So getting from one side to the other can take closer to half an hour than half a minute. Again, recall Dragon Quest, where the final castle was literally visible from the starting castle, but took 17 hours of grinding and exploration to find the exact series of items that would get you to that point. Minelvaton perfects that mode of gameplay. You have to visit the same castles and towns multiple times as you find new resources for opening locked doors, passing through solid walls, walking across lava, and solving other navigational puzzles. There are multiple times in the game in which I found some new artifact and had no idea what to do with it. I literally had to loop back through every previously-visited area, talking to every previously-encountered NPC, until one of them finally bore fruit.
The world of Minelvaton is small but seems large.
(This mode of gameplay is also present in the Charles Dougherty series, starting with 1984's Questron. His games featured a lot of castles in which you could only progress so far until you found a key in another castle. You'd go back and forth between castles, each time exploring just a little bit further. Since the Dougherty titles also featured the same overland-and-town model as Dragon Quest, I wonder if there was any influence. Then again, I suppose we see that model all the way back in 1980, with the Atari 2600's Adventure.)
Also like Dragon Quest, this game would only take about 3 hours to win if you only had to run around assembling the artifacts and fight the boss battles. The rest of the time is spent fighting random encounters, which pop up every 2 to 8 seconds in every landscape except towns. Your enemies are defined by terrain (unlike Dragon Quest, they do not get harder as you progress from the starting area, except in dungeons), and you never meet more than three per combat. They have a variety of names, but they're really only differentiated in a) how hard they hit, b) whether they can shoot things at you, or c) whether they can poison you.
The game begins in the player's house in Roland.
Combat is where Minelvaton diverges from its sources. Instead of a turn-based system inspired by Wizardry or Phantasie, it uses a somewhat action-oriented system by which you (usually) run headlong into your enemy and bash him to death. This is a system featured in Hydlide (1984) and later in Ys (1987), though I'm not sure if Hydlide did it first. Most games that use this system have their enemies scurrying around on the main game map. This is the first game I've seen in which encounters are invisible until you trip them, but then you engage in Hydlide-style combat in a separate combat window. Also unlike other games that use the "run and bash" system, it doesn't seem to matter here whether you approach the enemy from the back, front, top, or bottom, nor whether you offset your position or attack him squarely. You do want to maneuver to avoid getting attacked by multiple enemies at once, but otherwise as long as you're touching an enemy, you're both hitting each other with equal fervor.
Fighting two monsters.
That said, the player does have some ranged options. There are special magic items called Adan's Seeds and Bird Claws that allow you to throw projectiles at enemies. There are others, Boa's Seeds and Smoke Balls, that do damage to all enemies on the screen. You can buy, find, and carry up to 99 of these items. Through 95% of the game, it makes a lot more sense just to spend your money on medicine, bash enemies in melee combat, and heal. But in the last 5%, you need all the resources you can muster, and I found myself regretting not having developed more experience with those ranged items.
Things also get different when you meet NPCs who will join the party. You can have one mage companion and one archer companion. Both sit at the sidelines and shoot spells or arrows at enemies. They can be attacked, but it's rare, and the main character is the one that suffers most of the damage. There are maybe three different NPCs throughout the game who will serve in either position, some manifestly better than the others, but a couple of them up and disappear once particular quest stages are passed. Fortunately, they pass their equipment on to the next NPC. You need the mage to get through the game, as the main character is incapable of casting any spells. According to the manual, NPCs can level up, but I never saw any sign of it.
My wizard and archer shoot at a "Death Master" while I bash it. I've just killed one; he left the treasure chest behind.
For the endgame, you have to replace any NPCs in your party with two particular ones, Luna the archer and Xena the mage, both designated "Warriors of Light" by prophecy.
Poor Terna and Gino learn that they're going to be replaced.
Finally, there's a mercenary system by which you can hire up to five "mercs" and have them fight in your stead. They apparently do level up as long as they survive. Early in the game, I wanted my character to get all the experience, so I didn't see the point of mercs. This also came back to bite me in the endgame, which you need all the resources you can muster. I'll bet five top-level mercs make a big difference against the endgame bosses.
Three mercs fight for me.
The game begins in a far western city called Roland, where the character's mentor dies. Cities in the game typically have a weapon and armor shop, an inn (where you can fully heal), an item shop, a fortune teller, and a magic guild where you can resurrect slain NPCs or save your own game. Towns are also crawling with NPCs, and talking with them really does help you figure out where you have to go, either now or in later stages of the game. You just have to take good notes, and I really didn't.
Fortune tellers often help you with the next step.
Roland's king gives you your first quest: to retrieve your family's crown from the ruins of the Sinus castle, not too far away. Only then will he believe that you're the prince. After this initial quest, the game opens up a bit. The king sends you to Malt (for unclear reasons), and you can recruit your first NPCs. It's best to stay close to cities in these early stages, grinding against monsters outside and sleeping at the inn when your hit points get too low. I was about Level 15 before I could make it to Sinus and back.
Over the next few hours, you slowly gain the tools needed to fully explore the towns and dungeons in the western half of the map. These include regular door keys, purchasable in most item stores but not in Roland, and a special "Seal Tome" to open special doors. You find a magic pearl that proves to the king of Dorf that you're worthy of a magic ship. This allows you to take off automatically from any dock and return to land at any dock, but docks aren't so plentiful that the world opens up as much as you might think.
Sailing down a river near a dock.
You buy your first weapon and armor upgrades. You also start to hear tales of a previous hero from Orlaine named Leon; his tale is told with such detail and repetitiveness that I was sure I had overlooked some previous game in the series called Leon's Saga or something, but I can find no trace of it. 
Again with Leon.
The first half of the game ends when you liberate your parents' old capital, Arkasas, from the demon who killed them, Zairas. Shops and NPCs return to the ghost town. Arkasas is in the center of the map, and I found it was a good place to save the game so that I could return to it with a Wind Flute or "Fly" spell, both of which whisk you to the last place you saved.
That's awfully unpleasant.
The second half of the game sees you assembling the items you need to challenge the gods. This includes a full set of Leon's old equipment--armor, shield, and sword--which get upgraded later. You find a "Thru" spell to get through some dungeon walls, and an Ice Doll, which for some reasons mends broken bridges. A wizard NPC named Zen joins you long enough to smash a rock blocking a key pass, then disappears. There are a lot of castles, dungeons, and NPCs that you have to visit during this phase, and I'm afraid I was using a walkthrough by this point, so I often lost track of exactly why I was doing certain things. 
This was important for some reason.
You restore a razed wizard town using a Spell Tome, raise an island from the sea, and restore power to the "Minelva Road" teleporters. This later quest allows you to teleport to the final island, where you learn that to win, you will have to assail four towers.
An NPC lays it out.
One thing that amused me--it has probably already amused you--is the use of proper names, starting with the title. "Minelvaton" means nothing in any western language. At best, it suggests a town named after someone named "Minelva." That root is present in the game; it describes a series of teleporters that the character has to activate at some point to take him to the final area. But in any event, including a letter l and lacking a final vowel, "Minelvaton" must have been a bit odd to Japanese mouths and ears. 
The "Minelva" part is explained in-game.
Some of the other names are equally risible. "Arkasas" suggests "Arkansas," for instance. It's hard not to laugh at the character's early-game invasion of the "Sinus Ruins." The town of "Ish" sounds like the people are probably wishy-washy about everything. You could see it in a Terry Pratchett novel. The towns of "Malt" and "Dorf" just sound a bit goofy. That says nothing of the personal names. Two great heroes of the past are "Leon" and "Jim" (an homage to Hydlide?). I'm not criticizing any of this, just noting with some amusement that what probably sounds exotic to eastern ears often sounds silly or banal to western ears. Of course, the reverse is also true. If I made an RPG and named its towns Shinjuku, Arakawa, and Setagaya, you'd think those were fine names, and Japanese people would be laughing that they were just suburbs of Tokyo.
I would be lying if I said I made it to the endgame honestly. I played the first half of the game straight, save for occasional use of a save state, but it was hardly necessary. The first half of the game is relatively easy, and I was gearing up for an "easy" difficulty rating. But I got sick of all the backtracking and running around trying to figure out what I needed to do next, and thus I looked at a walkthrough to get a sense of the major steps. In consulting the walkthrough, I saw that there's a cheat code that turns off random encounters. That was too good to pass up. If I hadn't enabled it, I suspect the game would have taken me over 30 hours. Of course, that meant missing out on experience, so I figured out the typical amount of experience I was earning per hour from random combats and hex-edited accordingly. Yes, it's indefensible. I just wanted to see the end at this point.
Approaching one of the endgame towers.
I came to the endgame around Level 125 out of a maximum of 138, and wow was it hard. You have to fight four gods at the ends of four towers, then fight Ragon in his temple. Each tower alone took all 99 of my healing potions, so I had to keep flying back to the closest town to replenish them, then go through each completed tower to the next uncompleted one. That's not as easy as it sounds. Although the gods disappear after you kill them, there are numerous fixed encounters that reset every time you leave a level and return. That meant I was getting to each "new" tower with fewer than my full complement of medicines.
About to encounter Edda, goddess of the dead.

Agora, the god of something or other. He made my NPCs go away for a while.
I had to fight the final battle with Ragon about ten times, trying a variety of different tactics. It doesn't help that his initial hit point total of 3,200 is a lie; once you get him down to 0, he morphs into a demonic creature with 4,000 new hit points. When you fight him in melee combat, your hit points go so fast that you have to pause every couple of seconds to swallow 4-5 medicines. Thus, you want to exhaust all of your ranged options first (although he can mass-attack at range, too), then probably your mercenaries, before resorting to melee combat. My problem is that I had forgotten about mercenaries.
I thought you were the prince of darkness.
He's down to his final few hit points, but so am I.
Ragon's death doesn't trigger the endgame. Instead, you have to make a long trek back to Arkasas, where the people proclaim you their king, you marry Luna, and everyone lives happily ever after.
I was going to do that whether you asked or not.
Wait. What?

Xena and Luna hardly did anything!
I thought Minelvaton was a bit better than Dragon Quest, having built on it with some additional features. In a GIMLET, I give it:
  • 3 points for the game world. As with most JRPGs I've played so far, the backstory and its world are a little too cute, aloof, and abstracted (some day, I'll try to explain what I mean by this in more detail) for me to really care about it, but I do like that the character's actions have measurable impacts on the world.
  • 2 points for character creation and development. Creation is only a name, and while leveling is rapid, aside from extra hit points, you don't really notice it.
There's not much to character development except level and gold.
  • 5 points for NPCs. I like that what they say changes depending on where you are in the plot, that so much of the game's lore comes from them, and that a few of them can join the party.
  • 2 points for encounters. There are some fixed and lots of random encounters, but none really offer any choices or role-playing.
  • 3 points for magic and combat. There are more options than the "run and bash" method would suggest, but not a lot more.
  • 3 points for equipment. A few upgrades throughout the game, for all characters.
Selections in the "Items" shop.
  • 4 points for the economy. With so much to buy, it remains relevant throughout the game.
  • 3 points for quests. In addition to the main quest, there are a few side dungeons.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. Nothing wrong with any, nothing particularly notable, either.
The menu/submenu system works. I didn't love it, but it works.
  • 2 points for gameplay. Minelvaton is very linear and thus not replayable. If I hadn't cheated, it would have been far too long with too many random combats. (I thought it was both even with cheating.) The difficulty averages about right, but it's too variable--too easy at the beginning, too hard at the end.
That gives us a final score of 30, one point higher than I rated Dragon Quest--less than I thought, but it basically works.
Video game music fans will want me to mention that the score was composed by Yō Ōyama, the leader of a rock band called ASTURIAS, and Haruhiko Tsuda, the guitarist for a band called Shingestu. In Japan, the game is remembered so fondly for its music that a tribute CD with new arrangements of the soundtrack was published in 2009. I agree that the songs are well-composed. They're full of complex counterpoints and polyphonic textures, and some of the rhythms are so syncopated that I'd almost call them ragtime. 
I hope that some day, I get to work on a game and am credited among "the others."
I didn't see a lot in Minelvaton Saga that demanded a sequel, but it got a couple anyway: Silva Saga (1992) and Silva Saga II: The Legend of Light and Darkness (1993). From what I can tell, the games take place on other continents in the Minelvaton world, and they feature the same type of gameplay but with improved graphics.
At the end of this four-day period, I feel the same way I feel after playing a lot of games that score around 30: full without being satisfied, as if I'd just eaten a sleeve of club crackers. I'm not sure I've accomplished anything except to get a sense of an "average" JRPG during this period, which turns out not to be much different from the ones deemed significant enough to be worthy of English translation and western release.