Retrograding 04.10.04

Before we begin, you can always check the archives for the earlier parts of the countdown and the preamble. I know it’s been a month so you might have forgotten a few things!

#15. Legend of Mana
Release Date: 06/07/00
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Systems Released On: Sony Playstation

SURPRISE! I bet no one saw this little swerve coming, eh? Well in truth, it should have been obvious. It’s well known I love the Mana games (and Threads of Fate) which is proof I don’t hate Square totally and utterly. Just their FF games and Chrono Cross. I should warn you though that from here on in, the games are obscure or ones that even a dead person knew were going to be on the list, so if you want to call it controversial. I just call it my own personal taste. But in the end, this whole countdown is an attempt to get people to try new games they wouldn’t have other wise, and so far it’s been a success. So now let’s talk about why LoM is a game I far preferred to Secret and Sword, even though for a lot of people it’s the least favorite game in the series.

Bottom line: I fell in love with the story and characters. See, Legend of Mana was/is so unique from everything else at the time. Whereas most RPG’s play like a typical high fantasy novel where the plot would be 85-95% the same every time you played the game, Legend of Mana instead played like an Anthology of short stories. Think of Sword and Secret as full fledged Dragonlance novels (or something actually GOOD if you prefer), while Legend was a collection of stories featuring the same world and familiar characters but you could do whatever you wanted in whatever order you preferred. Don’t feel like reading a story or ten, don’t play those adventures in Legend of Mana. You don’t have to! Want to scour everything from beginning to end. You CAN play every possible adventure in the game, but it’s tricky and requires some excellent skills and world design from you. Only have 15 minutes to play. There are some adventures you can do that quickly. Hell, there are some adventures that don’t require fighting. To which I said, “ABOUT F’N TIME” RPG’s should not only be hack N Slash. They should be STORIES.

I love that I could do the Jumi story and end the game if I wanted. Or just do the Draconus quests. Or even the Star Crossed Lovers storyline. If I didn’t want to take that elfish Moe from the Three Stooges lookalike named Bud to the 7 wisdom, I didn’t have to. If I didn’t want to help Niccolo regain his memory and because an evil greedy bunny again…I didn’t have to. The story unfolded however I wanted. The game was maybe 105 linear at most, and that’s what I loved. Total creativity with whatever I wanted to do. And all you had to do to end the game was plant the Mana Tree and go up it. I can’t think of another game where you have that kind of control over the story. And in an Action RPG to boot.

And as I said, I loved the characters. The Wisdoms, the Jumi, the Dragoons, Lil’ Cactus. Skippee and Hamson. The dour and gloomy Elazul. The romantic but idiotic Gilbert. They’re all so rich, both in personality as well as in appearance. It’s hard not to feel like you are reading a set of inter-connected short stories in this game, instead of actually playing. Yes, there may be lacking one overall plot, but the characters grow with each little tale you allow to unfold. Can’t beat that. Oddly enough, I generally don’t like angsty games. But LoM has a constant undercurrent of melancholy. Yet even though it’s a game with very few happy moments, I still love playing LoM. It’s sublime in its sadness. Ugh. That sounds so goth. I must not be playing enough Pokemon…

Catching and raising animal pets is a great part of the game too. I loved getting my first pet Rabite, and like with a starting Pokemon, it was hard to not take him with me. Of course, it did look an awful lot like Pikachu.

From catching eggs by using meats and fruits, to raising there levels in combat, the pet animals really added an aspect to the game. My personal favorites were the Ape Mummy or the Sky Dragon. And of course, there were also demihumans that you could meet and get to join your team. They weren’t pets per say, but once you got one, they might as well be.

Golem building, fruit planting and gathering, weapon and armour and ring crafting. The game had so many things you could do that didn’t involve killing. I loved trying to make the perfect golem in terms of attacks and grid building. I love all the creation aspects of the LoM because quite simply, it fostered creativity and thinking in a way most video games didn’t at the time and still don’t.

The world building was a fun aspect for me too. After games like Theme Park where I would make the park free until a bus came up and then jack the rate through the roof so people HAD to pay or Sim Earth where I made Lizardmen the dominant species on earth, designing a world was a lot of fun for me. If I wanted the Snowfields next to the desert, I could do that. If I wanted all the cities right next to each other, I could do that. If I wanted the graveyard next to the Mana Tree, it was so. And where you placed the artifacts that became bits of the world would end up dictating the strength of the monsters within.

See, the later you place an artifact of land in the game, the more powerful the monsters got. Just what you need for a challenge, right? Same to with the mana content. The higher a mana level, the more powerful the corresponding monsters in that area would be. And finally, the farther away from your house, the more powerful the monsters would be. So the game could be tailored to how easy or hard you wanted it to be.

And the graphics? I don’t see how anyone for a second can prefer the Final Fantasy series to the Legend of Mana series. Not only are the plots and play control better in the Mana games, but the graphics are superior as well. Look at LoM. It’s as if you are playing a painting. The art in this PSX disc is superior even to the PS2 Final Fantasy games. If ever a game should be held as the standard bearer for what a high fantasy game should look like, Legend of Mana is it. Boris Vallejo, eat your heart out. And you all know me, I don’t EVER fall in love with how pretty a game looks. But Legend of Mana makes it damn tempting. A breath taking game, from the world backgrounds to the character designs.

And of course, the fact your character can do a Tiger Driver ’97 as a major attack is always a plus. Just thought I’d throw that in for Misawa fans.

One often forgotten aspect about LoM is the fact it synched up with other Square games that you had on your memory card. Final Fantasy and SaGa games were just two of the ones you could receive special items from if you had saves from those games on the same card as your LOM save was on. Only way you could get a pet Chocobo or fight Deathbringer 3. I wish more games had the connectivity like LoM brought to the table.

I also found myself spending a lot of time on the two minigames. One was a Whack-a-Mole type game called World Bopper. The other was Shadow Zero’s game. Both are great fun.

And then there’s the final reason the game is so high up on the list for me. The fact that this is the game I managed to get two of my ex’s into playing. With my ex from MN, she used to enjoy watching games, but never playing them. Lunar? Watched. Dragon Force? Watched. Street Fighter? Watched. You name it, she just wouldn’t play video games. Then two things changed. The first was we graduated college. The second was Legend of Mana came out. She actually started playing it. First with me as a co player and finally on her own. Then she branched out into Space Channel 5 and eventually Puzzle Star Sweep and Top Shop, two of the best games ever made that no one has heard of. And the second ex. Legend of Mana was finally got her away from FFVIII! I know! I KNOW! I nearly married a Lara Croft lookalike who really enjoyed FF7 and 8. The warning signs were there but I didn’t listen!

As you may of noticed, my fondness for LoM comes from a lot of reasons, and I think that’s in essence why it got ranked so highly on here by me. It was one of the most unique games I had ever played. It allowed me more customization than I had ever seen in an RPG at the time before. It was beautiful to look at, to read, and to play, and it got people I cared about emotionally to share a hobby/passion of mine. You can’t beat that combo.

It’s sad that so many gamers turned their nose up at LoM simply because they couldn’t handle not have one singular linear plot. Like games such as Hell Night, LoM was both outside most people’s comfort levels, and also ahead of its time in what you could do. Ironically, Square conditioned it’s own audience to crappy gameplay where you really didn’t do anything at all but press a button on occasion and do battles that required little to no strategy. Their own forcing crappy Final Fantasy games down their sheepish fanbase made them look at LoM and say “What? This game requires skill and or thought. Must reject! MUST REJECT” The same thing that happened when they made another highly original style game in Crystal Chronicles. It’s a shame Square’s best games don’t reach the success they should have due to their usual attempts at achieveing the lowest common denominator.

What? You thought I wouldn’t bash Square even while praising a game by them? This is HBK you’re reading after all… ;-)

#14. Eye of the Beholder
Release Date: 1990
Developer: WestWood Studios
Publisher: SSI
Systems Released for: PC, Amiga, Sega CD, Super Nintendo, Lynx, GBA (remake)

And the second PC game makes it on the list. Now, you’re probably wondering WHY it’s made it so much higher than Bard’s Tale. And in truth, it’s because I’ve owned every version of this game save the Amiga and Lynx versions. And loved every moment of replaying the game.

As you know, I have a thing for first person RPG’s. Always have always will. I play Morrowind only in first person mode. I enjoy Shadowgate, even though it’s not realyl a first person game. And Arx Fatalis. If it’s an FPS RPG, I play it.

Eye of the Beholder though? There’s something about 2nd Edition AD&D to a kid just hitting teens mixed with state of the art graphics and the ability to “totally” design your own TEAM of characters from scratch that ruled. I didn’t have to deal with a Monty Haul campaign or power gamers that needed at least two 18’s in their stats. It was just a good game.

I can still remember my first team. A Ranger, a Paladin, a Mage, and a Cleric. Screw thieves. They were always over-rated. As I went through the game I got a thief and a second cleric. I had to wind my way through a maze that taught me the importance of graph paper. Games that require graph paper were commonplace back in the day. You whippersnappers with these fancy games and your automaps are soft and weak. You don’t know what it takes to play a game where your characters HAVE to eat or die and there is a limited amount of food in the game and you think you are one one level, but in fact are on another and the monsters keep coming and your mage only has that damn fireball spell left and if you cast it everything dies. THAT’S GAMING BABY!

I also have a special place in my heart for the SSI D&D games, most importantly the Dragonlance series of games, even though I hate the books. It’s too bad they haven’t been re-released onto CD-Rom like the Ravenloft and Forgotten Realms ones.

But Eye of the Beholder? It introduced me to what we call tabletop gaming. Before this, all the D&D playing kids were ubernerds with acne like their face was the anthropomorphic personification of grease. Or had a fashion sense that screamed “Mommy dresses me.” The kind of people I found socially awkward and thus didn’t want to get their loser germs on me in case dorkitis was contagious. I thought gaming was what people did instead of having conversations or lacked hand to eye co-ordination.

And look at me now. Everyone’s favorite RPG gourmand. And this is the game that really did it for me. I never equated the earlier games with RPG’s. Because they didn’t involve dice or saving throws or the like. Eye of the Beholder took actual tabletop rules and made them into a video game. And helped to establish the RPG video game, thereby giving it the TSR/Gygax seal of approval. It helped convert me from a casual Video RPG fan, to a full blown fanatic for both genres. And for that I’ll always love this game.

Lots of good memories not involving the game exactly per say. I got my Sega CD version of the game from this weird little kid who was like Stewart to me and my friend Rick’s Beavis and Butthead. I won’t go into the details. But it involves him willingly getting run over by a car and me saying, “I’ll give you these Spellfire cards I received from stupid relatives for your Eye of the Beholder Sega CD game.” And the kid agreed wholeheartedly because god knows why he thought another human being on earth played Spellfire. And playing the Sega CD version in 11th grade just rekindled my love for the old game I used to play on my bulky old PC and floppy disks.

But look at me. A page and a half of gushing about this game without actually TALKING about it.

You are a group of 4 heroes that are hired by the Lords of Waterdeep to uncover a secret conspiracy lurking beneath the city. As your journey down into the sewers, the entrance collapses and you are all but trapped. As you attempt to find a way out as well discover the mysterious evil, you will find the ruins of a Dwarven expedition, a horde of drow, other lost adventures and most importantly Xanathar, the beholder and leader of a group of ne’er do-wells trying to take over Waterdeep for their own nefarious purposes.

Hey! Back in 1990, this was a gripping plot. Especially as you didn’t know what was going to happen until the very end. Although if you were wise to the way of the Monster Manual, you had an idea of what the main villain would be from the title of the game. Much like Bard’s Tale 3’s Title gave you an idea of how to beat the game.

The fact this was one of the first games where you could control everything from appearance to stats to race was a great boost for the game. And really helped pave the way for what RPG’s would become. I like to compare Morrowind to the early SSI games, because you can really see how much of their style influenced that game.

I want to really touch on the fact your characters had to eat and rest in this game or they’d lose health. I remember being a glutton the first ever time I played this game. Second my guys started to get weak, EAT EAT EAT. And thus towards the end of the game…there was no food left and I still had 3 or so levels to get through. I finally made it to the Eye Tyrant and I was no match for him. I learned to conserve my food and drink, or as my friends and I called it, “D&D Eating Disorders.”

It also taught made team battles realistic. Where most games that had teams like FF1 and PS1 had you in a cramped dungeon, but everyone was able to attack, Eye of the Beholder made it quite clear only your first two characters could attack, because the other 2-4 were behind them. You try being a dwarf with a warhammer and not connected with your Human Paladin standing directly in front of you! Eye of the Beholder helps to teach strategy skills and ensure that the characters in question could attack as a team with each member actually pulling their own weight!

Here’s another tidbit: VOICE acting. This was the age of 16 bit games people. And yet Eye of the Beholder had a full rounded cast of actors for the game. Every NPC had a voice. If you had the Sega CD version, you could stick it into a stereo and listen to all the actor tracks. I actually chose my second two characters that way when I played it on a console for the first time. I loved hearing all the voices because it really added something to the game when 99% of everything was MIDI-licious at the time.

Interestingly enough, it took a long time to level up in Eye of the Beholder. The same time it took to raise one level in that game, most games today you’ve gained 4-6. EotB really made you work for those scant XP points, and the battles were always tough. Again, something I miss in an RPG. I like to work for my levels. The whole sense of accomplishment is missing when you can just walk around, random battle butcher, gain levels, rest at an Inn, and repeat. In RotB, you had to beat the game as quickly as you can before food ran out and your characters did a Donner party on each other. See, sometimes it IS about how quickly you can beat a game. ;-)

The SNES, Sega CD, and PC versions are all pretty much the same, but the GBA version that came out in late 2002. In truth the game is only truly great to D&D fans or those that loved the original. To others? It’s pretty bland. However, it is worth nothing for the addition of…automaps for you lazy gamers, and a complete change to 3rd edition AD&D rules. New races like Gnome and Half-Orc are added, but most of the classes are gone save the base 4. The biggest change of all is combat. From 3 ranks deep and 2 characters wide to full on tactics style combat with some of the worst graphics ever. It’s the same basic plot, but everything has been given a total face change. Still, I found it fun, I wrote the first truly detailed character building FAQ ever for the game, and it’s only ten bucks new so if you can’t get the original, it is well worth the ten spot to have an interesting RPG on the Game Boy. But it can’t hold a candle to the original food hoarding, accidentally setting your team on fire, lost on level 6 game that first started on the PC.

It’s overlooked now by most gamers who either can’t find the original (look up Forgotten Realms PC on EBAY!) or by those who want something a little glitzier and a LOT easier. But take it from me gang, there’s something so satisfying about a game where you can usually only use a third of your character and trying to make a map on graph paper while your Dwarven Cleric’s tummy is rumbling that needs to be experienced. You just can’t get that kind of thing in modern video games. And it’s a pity. Hopefully you can get a chance to try it.

#13. Dark Wizard
Release Date: 11/11/93
Developed by: Sega
Produced by: Sega
Systems Released on: Sega CD

And here it is. My favorite RPG on the Sega CD. And yet it is only ranked #13. Kinda sad when you think about it. But then I spent most of my time on the Sega CD playing FMV games and Eternal Champions.

Dark Wizard was also the first game I ever purchased for the Sega CD. Bought it the day I bought my system in fact. And it’s the game that really helped me become a Strategy RPG gamer over a turned based one.

Dark Wizard involves battles with over 50 characters, from a lowly skeleton to a mighty Pegasus rider. Dozens of hours of not only intense wargaming, but also missions to accomplish, elemental spirits to tame, riddles to solve, and villages to liberate. It’s still an very long game, even by today’s standards, and it is very hard to find every secret in each playable characters game. From hidden allies, to spells, to weapons, to items that unlock special class changes, this game makes other ones like Advance Wars, Brigandine, and other would be full scale tactics/strategy games look second rate. 11 years later and games STILL can’t match the depth or detail contained in even ONE of the four playable character modes in Dark Wizard. And then when you remember you have Armer, Crystal, Robin, AND Amon’s stories to play through, well there’s not a single game of this nature that can even remotely touch Dark Wizard.

Too bad the graphics for Dark Wizard are Atari 2600 level in look and feel. That’s it’s only downside. Okay, I’m being harsh. MOST of the graphics are that bad, but that’s because the game totally focuses on story and gameplay over looks. Plus the game is so long already, you are thankful they streamlined out the graphics. However, you can see battles with 8 bit level look and feel, but it literally doubles the length of the game you are playing, and after an hour, you’ll shut off the “Watch battles” option to just make the game go faster. Because you this is a game that will suck you in with the tactics and strategy and make you addicted to the story as an unexpected bonus. Think heroin with a methadone chaser.

Where the game does shine graphically is in the animated cut scenes. Remember this is 11 years ago and the Japanese cartoon animation is mind blowing compared to what else was being done with games at the time. Very long cut scenes that different for each character to start the game, and at least three to five more per story were incredible rewards after multiple battles that often lasted over an hour just to clear the map. And the plot bits revealed were always introducing major characters or an important revelation.

And the best ending is by far Amon’s. Most people say he’s the hardest to beat the game with. I however found him the easiest and was the first guy I beat it with many years ago. Lots of magic. Who needs a LOT of humans right away when you have Skeletons and all sorts of monsters. You get money on the way and buy mercs then.

And if there was ever a song that defined what a role playing game epic theme should sound like, It is Armer IX’s theme. Just incredible and I always compare any high fantasy RPG musical score to that one track in terms of how good it is.

So let’s talk plot. The theme of Dark Wizard is a complex one. Arliman, the god of darkness was defeated and sealed inside a mystical jewel. The wise and just Wizard Gilliam chose his best apprentice to guard this evil gem so that the plague of Arliman could never again threaten the land of Cheshire. However, being in such close contact with the Lord of Evil slowly caused Velonese to become insane and evil. 300 years later, the once good Velonese let loose his plan to free Arliman and destroy the world.

Evil goes apeshit on the peace loving humans and the king, Armer VIII is slain. The world needs a leader to save them from Velonese plot to free Arliman. And that is where your four choices come in.

Armer IX: Rightful heir to the throne and budding young playboy. Willing and able to avenge his father for the good of the world.

Robin: The strongest and bravest knight in all of Chesire. Who better to lead the good people of this kingdom than their best warrior?

Crystal: A Sorceress tricked by Velonese into helping him with his mad scheme and slaying Armer VIII. Although decidedly not good, she assumes leadership of Chesire to redeem herself and right her wrongs.

Amon: Lord of the Undead. The new master of Darkness and night since the god of eternal pitch was sealed away. Unwilling to allow a new master of evil to usurp his power, Amon takes the form of the dead king, destroys the real king’s body and will lead Cheshire, with no one being the wiser that they are being led by the lesser of two evils.

Interesting fact: Crystal has two endings depending on how you play her.

Not only do you have these four different characters and their specific stories, but each one has their own specific army, set of spells and attacks, and they even vary in terms of how much money they can have and loyalty that they can inspire. It really is like playing four separate games that manage to have a few things in common with each other.

The most important hidden things in the game are the elemental spirits. You don’t NEED them to beat the game, by without them the game’s difficulty rating goes through the roof. And the catch is, to get them, you need to defeat them in 1 on 1 combat with your magician of choice, which is hard unless you do the supercheese experience point gain trick. Only then can your wizards be strong enough to defeat the forces of nature. You get a wand that gives you XP when you use it. Usually a healing wand. After a battle, you go back to the map to explore towns and you spend an hour jacking up your guy with the wand until he is a class 4 humanoid. THEN you fight the elemental. Of course the downside to this, is now you have this wizard who is as powerful as your main game and it’s tempting JUST to use him and only him. I end up having four wizards, one for each spell. Instead of one super macho wizard that you know just wants to be the next Velonese when it gets the chance. Damn wizards. You can never trust one. They ALWAYS go evil on you. Gerald Tarrant, Raistlin, Saruman. Become in any way shape or form someone who uses magic in the slightest and you might as well have a big sign around your neck reading, “I stab people in the back. Don’t trust me.” And it’s true.

Again, I can’t possibly put into words how complex and detailed and DEEP Dark Wizard is. There are strategy games I prefer to this one, but only because of a combination of plot, graphics, music, and the like. But in terms of a truly immerse experience with more characters than are possible in any other game of it’s type, Dark Wizard has yet to (and probably will never) have anything close to rival all that this game allows. Master of Monsters? Second rate wanna-be of this game that still lacks so much of what you can do in Dark Wizard. Advance Wars? I never got into 1 or 2, simply because I had Dark Wizard as a kid. I snorted derisively at the Advance Wars games because they were like catfood to Dark Wizard’s fois gras. This game will own your soul. And if you want to try to complete all four stories? Just throw out all your other systems, because this one lone obscure Sega CD game with devour your brain heart and soul and make you a Dark Wizard junkie. You just won’t have time for any other game after you make the commitment to beat this one.

If you have a Sega CD, not owning this game is a sin against the only decent add on system I can think of that has ever existed. If you love deep strategy games like Shining Force or Ogre Battle or Vanguard Bandits, you need to sample this game. A decade ahead of its time, Dark Wizard needs some loving by those of you who unfortunately missed it when it first surfaced. You can get copies pretty cheap on EBay. Run run run to a pawn shop or ebay or some other discount retro game sales place and buy this puppy!

And that’s it for this week. I want to close by thanking LJ User Frankie 23 for making me a Twisp and Catsby LJ icon, because I love them so. They’re no Topato Potato, but I love those two rapscallions.