Retrograding 02.07.04 (Director’s Cut)

Here we go people. My 30 favorite RPG’s. And instead of explaining the format, I’m just going to go into it. Watch the format because it’s going to be the Standard from here on out. If you havent read the Intro, then DO SO NOW!

#30: SLAYERS ROYAL
Release Date: 7/25/97
Designer: Kadakowa Shoten
Publisher: ESP Software
Systems released on: Sega Saturn, Sony Playstation

And of course I start off with a game most of you have never played. That’s not saying “Ohmigod I M so HARDDDDKORE because I luv game U have not played!” I’m saying I can’t believe how obscure this title is. Even Gamefaqs has next to nothing on it. But this is one my favorite anime series of all time (Yes, more than Pokemon, or Tenchi or Love Hina) and when a game combines that anime along with better animated cartoon scenes than are on any PS2/Xbox/GCN game and gives you an RPG engine that creates a complete paradigm shift on the genre, you can’t go wrong.

There are actually FIVE Slayers games, and oddly enough, none have ever made it to the US, even though the anime has a decent sized following. Those games in order are: Slayers SFC, Slayers Royal, Slayers Royal 2, Slayers Wonderful, Slayers Fight. All are at the very worst, decent games worth importing. But Slayers Royal is the most wonderful of them all.

If you are unfamiliar with the anime or manga series, it revolves around one Lina Inverse, a greedy young sorceress with power as bottomless as her stomach. Her partner is a blond warrior named Gourry who is a dumb as he is skilled with his mystical blade, the Sword of Light. The two of them bound through adventures that are comic, tragic, and exciting. There are three different DVD series you can pick up in the US: Slayers, Slayers Next, and Slayers Try. I believe there is Slayers 4 the Future as well in Japan, but I’m not a hardcore anime follower, so I’ll leave that for Lee Baxley to answer.

(Alex’s note: it’s a shame they are re-releasing the Slayers DVD’s with all new all horrible voice acting for the US dubs. If you can, track down the older versions.)

The game ties in the main cartoon series, as every major character from Zelgadis to Amelia appears in the game. But best of all? Naga the Serpent is in the game, marking the first time that Gourry and Naga ever meet. For non Slayers fans, Lina and Naga were partners (not THAT kind of partners you perverts!) before Lina met Gourry. In the early Manga and OVA series, There was only Lina and Naga. I’m not sure why they dumped Naga, or how they explained it, but the popularity of Slayers took off with the Lina/Gourry team. But I was always partial to Naga, if only for her laugh. And now she’s gets to interact with the more familiar Slayers cast, making me a happy Alex.

The plot of Slayers Royal revolves around a young green haired elf boy named Lark who tells Lina a story of his village being decimated by monsters and who kidnapped his sister. Lina of course, agrees to help poor Lark. But not out of goodness. No, Ms. Inverse is persuaded to do the right thing thanks to a promise of a massive reward. And so begins an adventure that sets Lina and the gang down a path Slayers fans have seen many times before: One of hilarity, excitement, betrayal, and lots and lots of magic.

One of the most amazing things about this game is how true it is to the cartoon. There is a massive amount of animation in Slayers Royal. Think the Xeno games or Koudelka in terms of the amount of cut scenes in those games. Now have them actually animated instead of CGI. The most amazing part is that you really can’t tell a difference between the quality of animation from the actual cartoons and the Saturn version. The PSX version is worse in terms of picture quality, but not to a degree that it really matters. All of the animation is original and made just for this game. Every line of dialog spoken by the original Japanese voice actors of the anime series is original. The two songs by Megumi Hayashibara in this game are original and created JUST for Slayers Royal.

If you’re not really an import fan of RPG’s because of the language barrier, then Slayers Royal is for you. Because of the emotion and expression and the incredible animation and voice acting in this game, it is easy enough to follow the plot without knowing a word of Japanese. I imported this game for my GF at the time who is the biggest Slayers I have ever seen, and she was able to play the game. Th only Japanese she knew came from a menu. I’d watch her play expecting to have to translate some, and she didn’t need it. She obviously didn’t know every single syllable, but she understood what was happening. Any RPG that can express itself in a language you can’t understand and yet you still know what is going on…that’s just impressive. And to make it even easier, take a look at what language menu screens are written in.

The most interesting bit about the game is how you play. Tactical real time turn based combat. That is the best way I can describe it. Battles are in 3D. Yes. A 3D game on the Saturn that looks good. It shocked the hell out of me too. You also have to be very, VERY good at war tactics to beat this game. Remember how I said earlier that this game is a paradigm shift? You don’t gain levels. In fact. You start exceptionally powerful. This game holds true to the cartoon after all, and you can cast Dragon Slave from the very first battle on. All the characters have every spell and ability they use in the cartoon, and even do the chants for the spells. You are playing a cartoon people. And this is still the best attempt to recapture every aspect of a popular anime series into game format. Hamtaro games come close though.

As I said, you start with an insane amount of power compared to the bad guys. But by the end, you are facing legions against you that have two to ten times the hit points your characters have. Because you can’t level up, you can’t munchkin and powergame your way through battles like you can in almost every other RPG. Like the Slayers series, you have to fight against overwhelming odds that you should have no chance to win. And that makes beating the game all the more fun. This is a thinking person’s RPG. Like a chess game, in Slayers Royal you have to think of moves and counter moves well before you actually do them if you hope to preserve against your enemy. Of course, if you know your tactics games, then the game will still be a bit on the easy side for you.

Little things make the game shine as well. Having to feed your characters for example. If you want the best spells and characters to be at their best, you are going to have to stuff their faces. And if you are a fan of the Anime series, you know how much certain characters eat. There are a few mini games to play like slots, which breaks up the tactical combat when you want to. The game will feel linear to someone who doesn’t read Japanese, but if you can, you will find a few alternate paths and an extra ending! Oncce the game is beaten, you can use Gourry to access a bonus menu featuring bios, all the animation clips, the songs and more!

The only cons to Slayers Royal, besides the lack of an English version, are that the game is short for a Tactics game (only 2 dozen battles total), and that a lot of gamers used to the usual’ RPG fare whine bitch and moan because they can’t become super crazy power the more they play. They have to be able to level up. And this is NOT their game. This game is designed to feel like an exact story arc for Slayers. Where the enemies keep getting bigger and badder the longer you play. It’s a great twist on the concept of RPGS IMO, especially as nearly everything about them has become cliché.

Combining a new way of playing them along with keeping every bit of the original Slayers creative team, from the animators to the voice actors ensured Slayers Royal a place on this countdown. If you’re even remotely a fan of the series, this game is your fantasy come true. Just having Naga join the TV series cast should be having you go to Ebay where you can pick this game up for a ten spot. If you are looking for a very original RPG, this will be right up your alley as well.

It’s a shame Slayers Royal has been so overlooked by most VG importers. However due to the fact most games based of anime series are so horrendously bad, I can understand the avoidance of this game. I mean if you pick up a jellyfish 99 times and get stung, what makes you think time #100 won’t do the same. But Slayers Royal IS that rarity that combines incredible music and graphics with a highly original way to do battles and is dirt cheap to import. This is a game that pushed both the PSX and Saturn in terms of what it could do with video quality animation and what all could be stored on one disc.

Due to my love of unusual gameplay and Slayers, this game manage to woo me within an hour of playing. Hell, the opening Animation was something I watched 2-3 times in a row before hitting start, I was that blown away. I recommend the Saturn version over the PS1 for graphical and sound quality, but also because the Saturn version is cheaper and easier to find. Still, I can’t think of a better game to be labeled, “Baby’s First Japanese RPG to Import” because of how easy it is to follow the story and controls.

Give it a try and fall in love with it. Fear not the Kanji or Katakana. Trust the pretty cartoons and the ability to have Zelgadis in a video game that does not suck.

(Would I still put this game in the Top 30 in 2007? It’s possible. From the order you would think it would be the first game to go, but really, it’s aged better than a lot of others. I still really enjoy the uniqueness of the game, and its the only good licensed RPG that I can think of, which makes it even better.

#29. Sword Of Vermilion
Release Date: 12/15/1989
Designer: AM2
Publisher: Sega
Systems Released On: Sega Genesis, Nintendo Wii Virtual Console, Sonly Playsatation (As part of the Sega Genesis Collection)

(Holy crap. When I wrote this I never thought this game would get a re-release. Now it’s on the Wii and the PS2 and it’s allowed a lot of people to see how awesome this game really is. I received a lot of emails from people who were never got to play SoV when it first came out or even when I originally wrote this countdown. Some people snagged the Genesis Collection or bought it on the Wii remembering this three and a half year old column. Crazy.)

Released a year after Phantasy Star 2, Sword of Vermillion broke the mold for RPG’s up to this time period. Yes, it’s been delegated to the land of the obscure, but any game that forces you to play in three different format (real time action battles, turn based first person maze crawling and 2-D aside scrolling boss fighting action battles) is aces in my book. It was also the first RPG I can remember to contain Easter Eggs and other funky tricks. It also contained a certain plot point that left every gamer who ever played it swearing like a sailor. That is, if they didn’t read the massive cheat guide that came with it.

Sword of Vermilion debuted on American shores for $79.99. Can you imagine a game costing that much now? People would drag Sega employees out of their cars and beat them to death. It would be called the stupidest move since the 32X or Sega’s crazy Dreamcast marketing. Think of what all a game would have to entail for someone to pay 80 dollars. But as the game came with a complete (and very thick) walkthrough guide for the game, it’s not AS bad. But wow, games were sure expensive in the 1980’s, huh?

The plot of Sword of Vermilion is now what we call clichéd in video gaming, but back then it was original and amazing. After all, in order for something to become cliché, it has to start somewhere right?

You play as the son of Erik V, once king of all Excalabria, but brutally slain by Tsarkon, the Necromancer king of a far off country. Before Erik V died, he gave his newborn infant to Blade, the strongest knight he had and made sure Blade would raise him as his own.

When your character in his 18th year if life, a dying Blade reveals your true parentage and tells you of your destiny: to find the 8 rings of good so that you can defeat Tsarkon and restore peace to the lands. Through your travels you will find the rings of good, but also some great plot twists: evil disguised as good, good disguised as evil, a princess to marry and the back story behind what really happened to your father. By the end of the game you learn Erik V was not so good, and Tsarkon was not so bad. The fact a game in 1989 was willing to blur the lines between good and evil was something that hadn’t been seen in the before then black and white world of computerized RPG’s.

My favorite part in the entire game is something most people that play this game swear loudly at. And it’s the first real truly evil thing I have ever seen put into a video game. Sure unbeatable’ RPG battles happen a lot now to advance the plot, but this is far worse because you didn’t expect it to happen.

In the town of Malaga, you enter a store that only sells strange items. Once in this store you can’t leave and are forced to buy one of three useless items. The item will cost all of your money. But that’s not all. It seems you STILL don’t have enough cash. And so the merchant takes all your weapons, feels bad that you are now left with nothing, hands you a very weak weapon and kicks you out.

I loved this! I refused to use the guide that came with the book and found myself swearing at the game for being this evil. And yet, laughing. Because now the game was REALLY interesting. How would I fare with such a cheap weapon? The game just got a lot more difficult! Later on, you do encounter the merchant again who rewards you with the sword the game is named after. A nice little prize if ever there was one. At 12 years old, this video gaming memory as stayed with me as clear as something that occurred yesterday. And I love the game for it.

Plus the game was hard. DAMN hard. Tsarkon is by far one of the hardest end bosses in any video game. EVER. Most people only ever beat him with the help of the super damage or super armour tricks. He is THAT mean. And you know me, the harder the game is the more I feel I have accomplished when I have beaten it.

There was also an unlimited Herb garden. If you could find it.

I also want to touch on the FOUR different ways you play this game. In villages the game occurs like most RPG’s where you see your character from above and move him around town, gain plot points and information from NPC’s and the usual walk around fare.

The you have outside the villages where the game shifts to first person viewing. You traverse the country side in order to continue on your quest. You would encounter a monster on this field and it would take you into combat mode.

Combat mode was real time fast paced hack and slash. Similar to town mode, but you could well…kill things, as well as be killed. Battles were from a top down perspective and took place on a small battle field instead of the larger world map.

And boss battles? The game shifted into an entirely new mode! You had gigantic bosses; five times the size of your character. Spells had no effect on them and so it was just your trusty blade against a mammoth monster. The battles were again turn based, but instead of being above view action combat, it was side scrolling 2D combat. And it was so great to have to jump from one mode of play to another. It really made the boss battles stand out as you had to change your ENTIRE way of playing the game.

And there are little touches I love that I know the usual pessimistic whiny gamer will hate. To navigate in dungeons, you have candles. And candles go out after a certain amount of time. It’s realistic! I loved having that degree of realism in a 16 Bit game. The same holds true with the fact your maximum level was 31 and you would reach it before the game’s final battle. I hate it when people have to be super ultra powerful and wandered around for weeks worth of playing time doing random battles just to be so powerful that there is no challenge in the game. For munchkins like that, Sword of Vermilion will leave a bad taste in their mouth because you can only get so powerful. And the enemies just keep getting meaner. Of course that is probably why they have the hidden cursed’ items that raise your states. For whiny gamers who need to have Gygaxian level stats instead of actually learning to play with skill and finesse in an action RPG.

The music is also still able to stand the test of time. The opening theme alone is worthy of downloading if you can find a copy online somewhere in mp3 format. It’s amazing how great this game still manages to seem, even though it is merely 16 bit.

It’s hard to think of anything this game does wrong. It’s a bit slow in terms of how fast your character moves in towns, but that’s quibbling. The four different modes of play may be confusing at first to a gamer, but the learning curve is not even close to steep.

Nowadays most of what was offered in Sword of Vermilion is taken for granted. But back then, side quests were new and almost unheard of. Random super powerful items that rarely appeared? Not something that had been seen before. A game where you are king of a city when the game is only hallway over? Nice touch. Everything is Vermilion was fresh and original in its day and even now I still find the graphics in the Archdemon (boss) fights to be incredible. Sword of Vermillion really showcased to my pre-teen self how incredible 16 graphics and gameplay were compared to the old 8 bit Nintendo.

You can actually pick up this game for less than 5 dollars at places like Ebay or Funcoland (In 2007, Funcoland no longer exists). Not a bad drop in price, eh? However, it is finding the original Strategy guide that came with SoV that is a major bitch to get. Still, I find guides to ruin games as you know what is going to happen before it happens. Beat a game, then get a guide to see what you missed. The guide to SoV will ruin a lot of the plot twists, from the First King you encounter to the village of the old to saving the Princess on down. So maybe it is a good thing the strategy guide is a toughie to find.

If you still have your Genesis, try and track down SoV. It was one of the first RPG’s on Sega’s 16-bit system. And one of its best.

(Would this still make the list in 2007. Oh hell yes. Amazing diverse and highly original game).

#28. DRAGON WARRIOR
Release Date: 05/27/86
Designer: Enix
Publisher: Enix (Japan) Nintendo of America (USA)
Systems Released on: NES, SNES, GBC

“Do you love me?”

“For the hundredth time, NO!”

“But Thou Must.”

Wow. I hated that chick. I went to all that trouble to save her from the evil Dragon Lord, and what kind of thanks do I get? I get forced into a loveless marriage with a woman who is already barking out orders before I’ve had a taste of sweet honeymoon poon. That is right up there with the ending of Super Mario Bros 3 for sheer cruelty to gamers. Yet thos is only one of the reasons I love Dragon Warrior so.

In 1986, Dragon Quest was born, heralding itself as the first console RPG. Due to the fact most PC RPG’s at the time were overcomplicated games like Ultima (although Wizardy did and still does rule!) that made your eyes bleed if you looked at the screen too long, three men came together to create a simpler RPG that was easier to control, but still had a rich plot and some secrets as well.

Those men were Yuji Horii, Koichi Sugiyama, and Akira Toriyama. Those of you that are slathering Dragon Ball fans will certainly recognize the name of the last man.

Dragon Quest was released to incredible success and is by far the most popular video games series ever in Japan. Not Final Fantasy, not Megaten, not even my beloved Pokemon come close to unseating Dragon Quest. People are mugged for their copies of this game. Kids would skip school if the game was released on a school day so Japanese lawmakers decried that the game could only be released on a weekend or Holiday since the release of DQ3.

Of course with a game this insanely popular, it would take until 1989 to cross over to American shores. Howard Phillips (from the old Howard and NESter comic strip in early Nintendo Power Magazines, NOT Mr. HP Lovecraft) was heavily responsible for getting Nintendo of America to bring over Dragon Quest to the US. But there was a hitch. Nintendo changed a lot of the game around. And DQ fanatics are loathe to admit it, but EVERY change Nintendo made was for the better.

First up were the graphics. In DQ, the characters were basically stick figures and blobs. Thanks to a complete graphical overhaul, the characters actually looked somewhat humanoid. Nintendo also replaced the horrific password feature in DQ and gave us a battery to save our games on. Thank bloody Christ for that. They rewrote the dialogue for a younger audience and also gave it a cheesy psudeo-medieval style, which made it a lot of fun to read. Probably the only thing DQ fans can complain about was getting rid of Akira’s artwork for the classic NoA artwork that we all remember. And in the scheme of things, box art doesn’t matter at all. Look at the original Mega Man for example.

What I remember most about Dragon Warrior is not the game, even though I’ve beaten it at least half a dozen times in my life is how I got the game. To be honest I would NEVER have picked it up or asked for it as a kid. I hadn’t discovered RPG’s yet and was busy with games like Alex Kidd, Contra, and Gradius. However I saw a big commercial proclaiming that if got a subscription to Nintendo Power, I would get Dragon Warrior free. Pssssh. What young wide eyed preteen wouldn’t pass up a free game with a big DRAGON on the cover. I threatened to hold my breath until I passed out and 6-8 weeks later I owned Dragon Warrior and a magazine that said stuff like “There’s this new game called Ninja Gaiden coming out”, “How can they make a THIRD Castlevania?” and “Wow! Bill and Ted’s Excellent Video Game is going to be a GOTY nominee for sure!”

But Dragon Warrior did something to me. Sure it was still hard on the eyes, but the turn based menu system, the prose the game was written in, and the wide range of interesting monsters that could even RUN FROM YOU if you were to stuff mystified me. I especially loved the turn based combat as I could play at my leisure instead of having to think on my wit constantly with 2D shooters.

The puzzles too were great fun. How did I get that stone of sunlight? There was a back door? Wow! I remember not wanting to go into the poison bog to get Erdicks armour because it took forever to get to that area in the game and I didn’t want to have to walk all the way back. And of course the Golem killed me when I first went in there. STUPID FLUTE!

I even remember the main character carrying the damned vile wench of a princess all the way from the evil Green Dragon’s lair back to the castle to her father and watching her crazy obsessed stalker ass refuse to leave you alone. Although in retrospect, being kept prisoner by a dragon probably does mess your sanity quotient up pretty good. (Even in video games, it appears I am rationalizing banging crazy chicks)

The plot was simple: The Dragon Lord came down, stole the ball of light, kidnapped the Princess and basically tore everything to bits. All you really do is save the day, find your ancestor’s armour and sword and make the kingdom happy fuzzy all better again.

Yes, Dragon Warrior is light on plot and it’s short and it’s ugly, even for an 8 bit game, but it was the first of it’s kind, addicting as hell and so much from this one little game remains untouched almost 20 years later.

Go look at DW VII. The menus system is almost exactly the same. The play is almost exactly the same. The GRAPHICS are almost exactly the same. Dragon Warrior is the antithesis of Final Fantasy. One has great plots but ugly as sin graphics. The other has gorgeous graphics but plots so rehashed it’s pathetic. (YES! Got in my weekly Final Fantasy jab.) It’s amazing that game could stay so close to its roots from 6 sequels and still maintain a level of popularity no game has ever come close to seeing here in the USA.

There’s something in Dragon Warrior that defies description. How it can be so simple in premise yet complex in story. How the game play is easy and shallow, yet manages to be complex at the same time. When the game was re-released and packaged with Dragon Warrior 2 on the GBC in September 2000 (1999 in Japan), it became one of the best selling portable games EVER. Hard to believe that a then 14 year old game could still manager to capture the hearts of gamers that grew up with only knowing the Playstation and N64 and had never played an 8 bit system or could remember things like a TurboGrafx. But in fact it was so. Dragon Warrior proved that being first doesn’t always something better is going to come along.

The first game in the series is still my favorite. DWVII was great at first, but I found myself eventually going How much longer is this game? I want to play something else. SOMETHING FUN!’ It just went on far too long. No game should push triple digits for play time. That’s just ludicrous. As for games like 2-4, they were fun, but they lacked something to me. Or maybe it was I that lacked something. DW1 was my first taste on console RPG goodness. I had to learn why saving often was a good thing. Why playing defensive was smarter than ignoring where you health points were at. At the things a person learns when they first pick up an RPG game for the first time. All the mistake you make. All the discoveries that occur. They all happened with this game, and so my fondest DW memories are with the original. Plus the others didn’t force you to marry a scary princess that can’t take no for an answer.

It may be hard now to find a good NES cart that you don’t have to blow into and/or that has a battery that holds your game saves. I’d suggest getting the GBC version. You get a graphical update (AGAIN), along with DW 2 built in. A free game is a nice touch, and it brings you back full circle to that wonderful Nintendo Power deal that gave so many of us this great game in the first place.

And yes, I still do have a subscription to Nintendo Power. (No I don’t. My subscription was actually up by the time this countdown ended the first time.)

(As much fun as this is to right, I think this would slide down the list a bit. Much with my Horror countdown, Dragon Warrior and Night Trap are on here because they are legends. Because they are so influential. Because they caused the genre to exist rather than be an odd game here or there. I honestly think this would drop a bit, if not off. Pity too, as it is such a good little mini article)