9. Koudelka
Developer: Sacnoth
Publisher: SNK/Atari (then under the infogrames name)
Release Date: 11/30/1999
Systems Released on: Sony Playstation

I know, I know. This game is a guilty pleasure of mine and I am probably the only person that would list this game in the top ten RPG’s of all time. But hear me out. Because Koudelka is one of those games that for me, can’t help but kick ass. And hell, it got my ex, who is the biggest Final Fantasy VIII/Tomb Raider fan (and Lara Croft lookalike) to stop playing those shitty games and say “Hey. This is a really cool game. Except I hate tactics combat.” And that in and of itself deserves praise. But in seriousness, Koudelka has all these little things in the game that appeal specifically to all the things I look for in a game. And because of them all, I can’t help but love this game. And hopefully, the love will rub off on you and get you to try this game. I’ve noticed the only people that seem to dislike Koudelka can’t get their heads around the plot. And let’s try and change that today, eh?

Reason 1 why I love this game: Sacnoth is made up of ex Squaresoft employees who wanted more of a focus on plot and gameplay. Just like me, they got ticked With Square focusing on Style over substance. And with both Koudelka and Shadow Hearts, they achieve this. Not only is the game probably the best looking out of all the PS1 games out there, but the plot is terrific.

Within Koudelka we have several threads that automatically appeal to the folklorist in me: The being trapped in a haunted monastery. Three characters, two of which are average Joes that have no particular monster fighting abilities. One is a young man seeking fortune and treasure in the abandoned monastery. He does not expects to be assaulted by a werewolf or to encounter any of the other strange horrors lurking within. The other is a priest, drawn here by forbidden love and a need to write a personal wrong, not one of the nature he will encounter here the night the game takes place. Interestingly enough they turn out to be one and the same. And the final character in this triad, is Koudelka, or as one Edmund the Blackadder put it under the book he wrote as Gertrude Perkins, Koudelka is a “Sizzling Gypsy.” The only character with any true supernatural powers, knowing magic and being an empath to the dead and living alike. Together the three form an excellent triad that allows them to put aside their personal differences to prevent a great evil from being unleashed upon the world.

And with that, this is another reason I love Koudelka. It’s not a word destroying evil. It’s not an evil that shall consume all or seek to rule the world. It’s just a thing that should not be. A mid level evil if you will. It’s a grounded story, like all true classic horror stories. Evil needed to be vanquished by normal people, or with the slightest of quirks in order for the story to truly have meaning. Super OTT characters are harder to identify with and makes the average person (who has next to little self esteem) feel like only a rare few can be inspired to greatness. Not true says I. So yay for Koudelka in that respect.

Next up? The fact that the characters are realistic for the time period. Racism and prejudice are openly discussed and accepted by the characters. Things that actually happened around that time period are mentioned and commented on. The game tries very, VERY hard to stay in theme with the time period of Victorian England. And it does an excellent job. Except for Koudelka who is dressed like a slutty goth chick, but since when is that ever something you can hold against someone?

The music is incredible. You a fan of Secret of Mana? Well guess what? One of those disgruntled ex square employees is Hiroki Kikuta, the man who did Secret and Legend of Mana’s scores.

I just realized I forgot to mention something about the graphics and as I’m very much a stream of consciousness writer, I’ll mention it here. The game may have incredible square graphics but the colouring is akin to an olden style photograph. The colours are dimmed and faded, and very fitting of the Victorian era. If you’re looking for something bright and cheerful, go someplace else. The game looks as dark as it plays.

And yes, there are Mythos characters up the wazoo in this game. You like Dark Young? Right here baby! Wanna see an incredible rendition of a Gug? Again, only in Koudelka. What can I say, I’m a sucker for Mythos characters in a video game, and aside from Persona 2, no other game comes even close to capturing the mood or themes of Mythos writing like Koudelka. And yes, a properly done horror tale gets massive points from me every time. Not like those boring Silent Hill games. Yeck. Give me the first 2 Clock Towers (Japanese first two) or the original Alone in the Dark any day over SH, RE or Dino Crisis. But that’s a tangent best left for another time, yes?

Gameplay is rather interesting as well, and although I enjoy it, I can see why it is hard for a lot. Think of Koudelka as combination of checkers, Chess, and tactical style gameplay. Your characters can move forward but not past the farthest out enemy character. Which means, send your big burly Edward out and Koudelka and James sling magic from safety. Of course, this too works with the opponent and so one has to take that into consideration.

As well, everything you do in the game gets you specific XP. You use a gun, you get gun XP. You use a sword, sword XP. You use a heal spell, you get heal XP. And on and on and on. Thus your character can be great at one thing, bad at another. Maybe decent at everything. It’s all your call. Same to with general level XP. You get points to spend on specifically raising your characters however you want. You can make everyone a fighter! Everyone a mage! It doesn’t matter. The characters are totally mutable in your hands, clay begging to be molded. What other game gives you that option? For me, this was a dream come true. The personalities and incredible cinematic tale were left to the writers and voice actors, but every aspect of gameplay was mine (and hopefully yours) to command. You can’t ask for anything more in an RPG. You really can’t.

Oh. And items break. You use it too much, it shatters. That bloody simple. Again, this is ingeneous and serves to piss off a lot of whiny power gamer muchkins, but it makes me happy. A shrewd gamer conserves his best items for boss fights. After all, you have only yourself to blame if you stupidly use Lifedrinker on a living chair and it just happens to break then. Even the best weapons can break in reality. Nice for Koudelka to remind us of that little factoid.

And yes, there really is living furniture in this game.

I should issue a warning though, Koudelka is 4 discs long, at least half of which is cimenatic dialogue and cut scenes. Think the Xeno games but with half the pomposity and with a plot that actually allows for full characterization. Part of the reason I love this game, is because it’s like watching Dark Shadows for my generation (but without Frid or Cross) but you can play it too. One of the reasons I am so mixed on CoC: Dark Corners of the Earth, is that it is a first person playable Shadow over Innsmouth. With a shoggoth. I have no idea whether I am going to love or hate that it is a playable novella. Koudelka did it right. Let’s hope for lightning to strike twice in regards to Mythos games.

Amazingly, the promo web site for the game is still up. Take a look at it and see for yourself the graphics and just see if Atari freaks out from a ton of people click on the link as they wonder what drove that traffic back up. ;-)

I’ll end this by saying Koudelka is a decidedly niche game. Most gamers lack the patience for the story, or to watch James and Edward have poetry debates. Most gamers want boobs and shallow characters, not arguments on immigration or a long dissertation on what makes a monster a monster. Most gamers don’t want a game where things break and thus you can’t have your ultimate weapon for the final battle because you messed up. It’s a hard sell of a horror game, an RPG, a historical drama, a tribute to Lovecraft and Byron and other writers than Goths generally have on their bookcase. But thankfully for Sacnoth, this game happened to touch on everything I love in video games, or that I have passion for in general. For most people, this game wouldn’t be on their top 30 list at all. For me? It’s a top ten game of all time easily because it gives me everything I want in a game with only a few minor niggling details.

If you have a PSX, you can get this game for cheap. I beseech you to go out and buy this. Play the first disc and if you don’t like it, you’ve lost maybe 10 bucks at the most. See how cheap it is on ebay! I know I am an in an insanely tiny minority with how much I love this game, but if you like things spooky and to have total and utter control over your characters in a game, you can’t beat Koudelka.

#8. Dragon Force
Developer: SEGA
Publisher: Working Designs (USA) Sega (Japan)
Release Date: 3/29/96 (Japan) 11/30/96 (USA)
Systems Released on: Sega Saturn

See, this is about the time Sega got f*cking stupid. They didn’t release Dragon Force. They didn’t bring over the other two parts of Shining Force 3. They didn’t bring over Sakura Taisen 1 or 2. They pissed off Working Designs with Magic Knight Rayearth. And that doesn’t even go into what they did with the Dreamcast. Sigh.

But thank god for Working Designs and them bringing us one of the most fantastic games ever made. It’s interesting that you either seem to be totally clueless about this game, or are raving batshit fanatical about it. The lowest I have ever seen this game rated was an 8.0. It’s been called the system seller for the Saturn by Gamespot. Worshiped by fans world wide as one of the best strategic RPG’s in terms of game play and story. It is easily a hundred hours long, and with so many stories and playable kingdoms, you could play just this game for a YEAR, and neither be bored or have done all 100% of the game. It is that amazing. And complex. And deep. And I’m going to shut up now so I can actually talk about the game before I start drooling.

In Dragon Force the game is a combination of RISK and Ogre Tactics. The goal is to unify the world under the banner of your Kingdom’s Ruler. But even once that is accomplished, the game is only half done. You have 8 kingdom/rulers to chose from, although only six are available when you first play the game. You have Wein, the pretty blonde boy guy that is the ‘ideal’ choice, of Highland. You have Teiris of the Elvish Kingdom Palemoon and is by far the worst in the game in terms of difficulty and troops. You have my favorite Junon of Tristan, who looks the coolest and is pretty grim. There is the Master Monk Mikhal of Izumo, the Samurai Leon of Topaz, and the Beastman Gongos of Bozack, who is my second favorite character to play as, because of his unintentional comic relief. The two other leaders/kingdoms you can play as once you have beaten the game are Reinhart of Tradnor, who is basically a demigod and I find him annoying and as he has mage troops and is in the center of the game world, he has a hard task set ahead for him. Then there is the vile Goldark of Fandaria who is mean, powerful and it’s an interesting scenario to play as the character YOU THINK is the main baddie in the game for the longest period of time.

The plot of the game is that your ruler must unite the land by creating the Dragon Force (which just happens that each member of this elite group will turn out to be the leader of each of the other 7 countries.) The Dragon Force must be formed to prevent the rebirth of the God of Destruction Marduk. Funny that Marduk was the good guy in Sumerian Religion and was the one that killed Tiamat. But now in this game he’s the evil Dragon God. Silly Working Designs and their wacky translation. Besides that main thread there are tons of subplots specific to each ruler. Some have people directly out to assassinate them. Some have bitter old enemies out for revenge. Some even have romance in their storyline. The game is incredibly diverse and easily could be considered 8 games with the same gameplay. You know, like Final Fantasy games. Except with gameplay that is actually GOOD. Hee. I never ever get sick of cheap jabs like that.

What else makes the game amazing is that you have your Ruler, along with potentially dozens of generals and THOUSANDS of troops. Yes. Put your tongue back in your mouth. Thousands. And I mean that literally. Each general can command up to a maximum of 100 troops. And You start off with roughly half a dozen generals and it just grows from there. I can’t even begin to describe to you how amazing it is the first time you place this game to see 100 zombies battling 100 Magicians, or a horde of Harpies doing battle with a Legion of Samurai. Just watching the battles is so engrossing, you may forget to use your general at first.

The strategy is much like Rock, Paper, Scissors with some troops being strong against one type but weak against another. However, other things come into play, such as your general’s abilities and magic, and also the terrain you are on. Harpies, are in my opinion the best type of troop save for the hidden magical ones you can get later, but NEVER EVER USE THEM IN A FOREST terrain. Trust me on this.

And it gets even better because there are roughly a DOZEN types of troops. Soldiers, Calvary, Mages, Samurai, Archer, Monks, Harpies, Beasts, Dragons, Zombies, Sirens, and a Ninja even has an army of ghost ninjas! That’s REAL ULTIMATE POWER right there. It’s a high fantasy gamer’s wet dream right here. The only thing missing are Ogres, Kender, and Werewolves. And just when you think they couldn’t do anymore, I have to remind you of the generals. Remember those? The leaders of your armies. Well they aren’t always the same as your troop type. And there are even MORE types of generals then there are troops. Fighters, Knights, Samurai, Monks, Beasts, Ninjas, Thieves, Magicians, Druids, Priests, Dragon Men, Vampires, Zombies, and Succubi. So we have 14 types of generals, and 12 troops. Each with their own individual strengths and talents! Imagine the combinations thank you very much. And the strategy involved to create the best army you can. I dream of a MMORPG in the Dragon Force world using the same type of setup. It would be amazing.

There are also tons of stats that matter in this game, from a general’s ability to command a specific type of troop, to how loyal the general is to the PC. This latter is a great example, because the more loyal they are to your General, the less likely they are to die. See, when a general is defeated in combat, one of two things will happen. They will either die, and in Dragon Force death is permanent. No revive or resurrection spells here. The other option is that become merely injured and must rest at your main castle for a specific amount of time.

Main, I still have so many more game mechanics to go into. The options of recruiting a ton of generals, or just have a few sky high powerful ones from lots of leveling up. The only problem with that option is obviously that your generals may be bad ass but if they die and don’t have a high enough loyalty rating, you’re f*cked in the end stages of the game. You can fortify castles to make them even more powerful against invaders, and this also find you rare items or raise your maximum troop levels. And speaking of troops, you have to recruit them. By sitting in your castle, you can draw more of the kind of troop you want to draw to your general(s). And before you ask, no, you can’t mix and match troops. Although that would be one hell of a battle on screen while you watch.

And the strategy. Oh wow. There are hidden tricks like the “pause your game when the ravaged and beaten computer opponent tries to leave, then send out your troops and BAM! Instant rebattle killing those cowards that tried to retreat.” There’s the Trojan horse attempt, where you have a massive general that doesn’t NEED troops and the computer AI tries to take him on because it registers it has superior numbers. There is the hit and run approach to various castles by sending in 3 generals and their armies, then retreat, send in a fresh army and repeat. The retreating armies get to heal and get more troops and the computer is slaughtered. It’s incredible and I can’t think of a better full blown war scenario out there for any system at any time. It even beats Koei games like Romance or Ambition.

The music is incredible and worthy of purchasing the soundtrack of, if such a thing is available. The graphics are impressive, but also cartoony. But it’s not the appearance so much as the fact that you can have 202 characters running around the screen each with their only AI doing massive combat. Before Dragon Force, such a thing wasn’t even remotely thought of, and even now games like Destiny Warriors are a second rate version of the magnificence of all you can do with your army, from formational tactics to spells by your general. The animated cut scenes are amazing, especially for the Saturn. Dragon Force is truly a game that can do no wrong. Hell, even while writing this I wonder if I ranked it too low. ;-)

No amount of space afforded to me here can really impress upon you how incredible Dragon Force is. It’s a game that is so intricate, you need to play it to truly understand the scope of what you are dealing with. The plot(s) are gripping, the gameplay is easy to learn but takes a while to master, and there are some tough puzzles, especially after you have unified the world into your own personal empire.

Oh, and there are four different version of the game that you can buy. Buy that I mean the picture on each CD. I have the Red Dragon copy, which is supposedly the rarest. I remember the day I bought it at the Mall of America with my GF at the time and the people at the store crowded around to see which copy I got. None there had ever seen the Red Dragon version. The other three were some pretty unspectacular artwork in my opinion. So if you can get a copy and you have choice, go for the Dragon artwork, not the character art.

By far one of Sega’s best games (although to be honest there are three more Sega games past this one on the list.) and is easily the best work Victor Ireland’s crew over at Working Designs has done in terms of localizing and publishing a game that many thought would be Japan only forever. Kudos to them for bringing it over.

Probably the only game on the list I truly have trouble putting the brilliance of into words. It’s so detailed and well though out, I don’t think it’s possibly for anyone NOT to be wowed by this game. If you ever wondered why the Saturn was vastly under-rated by the average gamer, Dragon Force is all you need to shut the nay-sayers up. And sadly with Sega being Sega, I doubt we’ll ever see a Dragon Force 3. Arrrgh.

#7. Shining Force: The Legacy of Great Intention
Developer: Sonic Co (Camelot) and Climax
Publisher: Sega
Release Date: March 20th, 1992
Systems Released on: Sega Genesis, Sega Dreamcast, PC, Nintendo Game Boy Advance (remake)

Call me a bit of a slacker, but like Sakura Wars 3 and Segagaga, 2/3rds of this bit of the countdown is a reprint from my “History of Shining Force” article that was originally printed in Retrograding and then became out first ever feature here at 411mania. It got some really nice comments from and It was one and still is one of the best things I’ve ever written and so I decided to take that text and add a little more meat to it. And hey, considering only 6 pages out of 100 when this entire countdown is said are done are rehashed, that’s pretty impressive to me. ;-)

And here’s where the magic happens. Now I know we all have a running joke of me being “hardcore” when I’m really just a retro-gamer, but Shining Force 1 is one of the handful of games I probably fall into “crazed lunatic fanatic” over. The game came out the summer of 1993 (March 1992 in Japan). And I played it for 72 hours straight, beating the game twice in a row without sleeping. I was obsessed. Crazy drooling obsessed. I broke up with my girlfriend at the time because I decided the game was more fun than her obsessed. (And even in retrospect I still find that decision to be the right one). Shining Force is a game so incredible I still whip it out, and have the PC, Genesis and Dreamcast versions sitting at home waiting to be loved again. But to be honest, I’m chomping at the bit for the GBA remake. Portable Shining Force. Now if only it was Shining Force 2. I just went out this week and bought a nomad for that and Shadowrun to play on the go. Oops. I think I just hinted at two of the top 6 on the countdown… ;-)

What is incredible is you have a team of 25+ characters to use. Most of those characters evolve to a new class after level 10, dramatically changing their stats, appearance and attacks. It’s a forty-hour plus game with unlimited replay due to the many different types of characters you have at your disposal. There are two hidden characters, a Ninja and a Samurai, along with over a dozen optional characters that you have to recruit. I loved it. The graphics were the best on the Genesis for its day. Having up to forty characters (yours and the computers) on the screen at once all running around in tactics style combat was just amazing. It saddens me no game has tried to match what a tiny 16-bit game could do. There hasn’t been a game since that even tries to do half of what the Shining series could, and until someone tries, my Sega Genesis (With optional CD-Rom attachment and crappy 32X gathering dust) will be hooked up and ready to play.

The plot is both standard and unique for an RPG. You start as Max, a young knight who is the “chosen” by the head of the guard, a wise and noble centaur. The evil army of Runefaust tries to both take over the world and revive a Demon God, known as Dark Dragon. The game progresses with some interesting plot developments. The king and Head of the guard are killed, but instead of whining, both their daughters join the team and come along to kick some major booty. Princess Anri will usually become one of the most powerful members of your party with some very powerful magic.

The game allows you classes from Pegasus Knights to paladins to Archers to Swordsmasters to werewolves and birdmen. Again, no other series has had as many playable races, classes or characters in a Role Playing Game. You actually have a nice sized army at the end. The only downside is you can’t really change your classes as you can in other tactics games. You stay the same class throughout the game until you hit level ten, then you get promoted/evolve to a new super class. What I love is that when you get promoted, your stats fall a tiny bit. Why? Because you’re starting over in a class you’re unskilled in. I love that and that it makes the game more difficult. Max for me always is able to class change right when you get Amon and BALBAROY, my favorite character in the game. Which means a lot of Skeletons and Zombies when your main guy is at his weakest. Thank goodness Lowe and Gong are 3 times the level of everyone else in the game at that point and can use Heal Level 3 or 4 on him. But we’ll talk more about that near little trick towards the end.

As you progress in the game, which is broken into 8 chapters, you learn the head of Runefaust is not the king of Runefaust, but a demonic wizard named Darksol is in charge. Again this is the father of the Darksol in Shining in the Darkness.

The game goes on, you kill baddie after baddie, and then in the final battle, you end up killing Darksol, only to learn his death is the sacrifice needed to revive the Dark Dragon. This is one of if not the, first two part boss battle in Video Game RPG history. No time to change troops, prepare or anything. You’re just forced into the battle against a three-headed monster. Sadly, this battle is one of the easiest in last battle histories, but that may be just because I’ve played this game far more than anyone should. Although I don’t remember this battle ever giving me trouble. The battle I had the hardest time with when I first got the game was either against general Elliott, because it’s a wide open field with no cover and you are heavily outnumbered and outpowered, or the battle in chapter 8 with those damn Chimera and Blue Dragons. SF fans know what I mean. This is also the first RPG to have an unhappy ending, or at least a “not as happy as it could be” ending. Unless of course you allow the ending to happened, credits to play through and wait for a few minutes to catch the ending epilogue. This is the first game I ever played where I found a special “hidden” end scene that supplements the original ending..

Chronologically, this is the FIRST game in the series, and everything relates back to it. Sadly, without Shining Force Final Conflict, which is in Japanese only, you lose a lot of how SitD and SF interconnect. What’s nice about the shining games, is that although they were not made in chronological order, the designers (Climax and Camelot) made sure to fill in plot holes and loose ends as the new games came out and that their order fit in some sort of logical and cohesive pattern.

Here’s a little cheese/trick to get through the game easily. In most RPG’s cleric/healers absolutely suck and you only have them on the team for healing reasons, right? Well in the Shining Series it’s different. You see, for every 100XP a character gets, they gain a level. And the game prevents cheese/running around redoing battles until you are a super level until you can plow through the game by a very sneaky means. It checks your level compared to that of the opponent and gives you relative experience. Killing an enemy at level 1 might give you 50 XP, but the same enemy at level 5 will net you only a pathetic 1 XP. But clerics have a way around this. Any spell they cast, whether it benefits anyone or not gives them 10XP. If you have them cast a spell every time it is their turn no matter what, they’ll be shooting up in levels in no time. And the same holds for Monks, which are warrior/cleric hybrids. Usually by the end of the game your cleric will be oh say, TWENTY levels higher than your normal guys. And it’s not really cheating. But it is cheese. So only do it after you’ve beaten the game a few times, okay?

This is my gift to you. Would you like to buy the remake of Shining Force 2 months early. April 30th instead of June 8th (not including probably delays)? Click on the link. It takes you to GAME, a UK based game store and by far the biggest chain on the Island. For 30 quid they will mail you their Euro release copy when it comes out by air mail. It’s 15$ more than the US version, but you get it earlier! And it’s SHINING FORCE! It’s worth the 45$ to import in English many many times over. And it’s THQ, not Infogrames doing the UK release. This is important because infogrames UK release of Shining Soul 1 was by far one of the worst translations into English EVER. You know that stupid “All your base” crap so many gamers thought was cool for a week a few years ago? Sheer f*cking Shakespeare compared to the UK translation of Shining Soul. The remake has a new card system, three totally hidden characters and updated graphics and sound, but it is still the 16 bit classic we saw released over a decade ago. Get the game. 15$ to have it earlier than 95% of North America? It’s damn worth it.

If you want to read the entire history of Shining Force games, the link is right here for Part One, here for Part Two and finally, here for Part 3. There is no such thing as enough SHINING FORCE.

What’s funny is I’m looking at the screen shots for the new GBA release and can just feel the nostalgia from 12 years of playing this game hitting me at once. I have to say that I agree with Nintendo Power’s latest issue: Shining Force invented the Strategy-RPG genre. And this is front the company and magazine that pimps Fire Emblem and Final Fantasy Tactics like no tomorrow. It’s weird to see Atlus doing Shining Force and not Sega bringing over one of their three big Cash Cows to the US. And to think Atlus will no longer be doing the Ogre series, and it is now Square-Enix’s property. Man what a difference a decade makes.

With the game coming out in remake style in June, and me having just given you a link to a way to get the game in APRIL, you have no excuse not to play this game. It doesn’t matter if you hate tactics or strategy RPG games, you will love this game. I have friends that ONLY play sports game. But you say shining force and they break out of armchair quarterback mode and are like “I FUCKING LOVED THAT GAME MOTHERFUCKER!” Not loving Shining Force is like actually thinking Food Network didn’t pay off the judges to vote for Bobby Flay over Saki, because NO ONE BEATS SAKAI! If God and Sakai had an Iron Chef battle and the food chosen was ambrosia, nectar of the Gods, Sakai would still beat God down like the Big Show would beat the tar out of a pack of Girl Scouts with 50% off cookies.

And since I’ve obviously gone off topic, it’s a good time to close this week’s column. Next week, it’s a little cyberpunk, and two games I have a feeling people assumed would be #1 on the list, but are in fact not.