Mar 22

The RPG Lounge- Phantasy Star III: Generations of Doom

Welcome back to the RPG Lounge, an occasional retrospective/review series about the RPGs I play through, most of which will be livestreamed.

The “classic” Phantasy Star series has four games, each unique in their own way. The original is a hybrid JRPG/dungeon crawler whose main character is one of the earliest female protagonists in video game history. The second game was the closest thing to a “killer app” the Sega Genesis had until Sonic the Hedgehog. Now, it’s known as the quintessential “old-school” JRPG, with all that entails. The fourth game is the series’ masterpiece, regarded as one of the best JRPGs of its era, and one that holds up even today.

And then…there’s Phantasy Star III.

Subtitled Generations of Doom, Phantasy Star III is the series’s black sheep. Its reputation ranges from “An abomination” to “Pretty good for what it is, but not really a Phantasy Star game”. The game was developed and released a little over a year after Phantasy Star II, by a different team. And it shows.

One thousand years before the game’s events, there was a near-cataclysmic war. Before disappearing, Orakio and Laya, the two leaders in the war, gave their respective followers the same commandment: “Never harm another”. But the two factions utilize a loophole–the Orakians send cyborgs after the Layans, while the Layans command monsters to do their bidding. As the game begins, Rhys, an Orakian prince, is about to get married. Maia, his bride, is an amnesiac who washed up on the shores of Landen two months prior. But at the altar, Maia is kidnapped by a Layan, and your quest to get her back kicks the game off.

Phantasy Star III’s main “gimmick”, if you can call it that, is hinted at by its subtitle. At a certain point, you’ll be given a choice of two characters to marry. This will determine your character and quest for the next portion of the game; that character will also be given a choice of wife, for a total of four possible paths through the game.

The concept is neat, but the execution leaves something to be desired. As an example, in the path I chose, I was given the choice of two women to marry, neither of whom had exchanged so much as a romantic pleasantry with my character up to that point.

Indeed, Phantasy Star III is rife with “so close, yet so far” moments. Whether due to rushed development, or the limitations of the Genesis, you’ll be a lot of points where the developers’ ambition shows through despite the execution not living up to it. The first generation of the game goes for a political intrigue sort of storyline, as you learn that the Layans may not be the heartless monsters Orakians see them as–and that the Layans themselves have some interesting beliefs about Orakians. But the game’s translation limits the effectiveness. Similarly, poor word choice ruins what should be a poignant moment on at least one occasion.

Still, there are enough positive aspects to call the game “not as bad as its reputation”. So why is it regarded as the worst of the first four “main” Phantasy Stars, to the point that Sega effectively declared a do-over with Phantasy Star IV? Part of it is the game’s beginning, which feels more like a standard JRPG in the vein of Dragon Quest than a Phantasy Star game. The sci-fi elements that set Phantasy Star games apart from their brethren show up early enough, but I won’t lie, it took me four or five tries throughout the years to get to the “Now this is Phantasy Star!” point of the game. Even then, I only did so after forcing myself to stop thinking of the game as a Phantasy Star game, and just judge it as an independent creation. For that reason, the game might, paradoxically, work best as an entry to the Phantasy Star series, free of the expectation of what a Phantasy Star “should be”.

The game’s biggest flaw, though, is its random encounter rate. Even by old-school RPG standards, the number of random battles you’ll get into is ridiculous; I was ready for the experience to be over by the end of the second generation. The problem is aggravated by two other factors. First, like many old-school JRPGs, triggers to advance sometimes boil down to “find and talk to one random NPC hidden away in the corner of a village”, leading to more wandering about the world than is necessary. Secondly, for about 80% of the game, there’s no way to alleviate the encounter rate. Even Phantasy Star II had spells, teleportation stations, and items to remove some of the backtracking from place to place. Phantasy Star III has Escapipes, which return you to the entrance of the dungeon you’re currently in…and that’s it. This means a lot of walking, a lot of backtracking, and a lot of fighting enemies every five steps or so.

There are two silver linings to this. An individual battle is almost never a problem. Rather, the game employs a “death by thousand cuts” methodology to achieve its difficulty, bleeding out your resources via sheer number of encounters. And the dungeons are much simpler than Phantasy Star II’s infamous labyrinths, though you may wish to have maps handy regardless.

I have a soft spot in my heart for “ambitious failures”. Phantasy Star III is certainly ambitious. It’s also frustrating for how close it comes to being something great without quite getting there. Did I enjoy it? On balance, yes. Do I recommend it? That’s trickier. If you can handle random battles for days, give it a shot. Otherwise, since Sega themselves have all but disowned it, you aren’t missing much if you pass on it.

Mar 08

The RPG Lounge- Wizardry II: The Knight of Diamonds (NES)

Welcome back to the RPG Lounge, an occasional retrospective/review series about the RPGs I play through, most of which will be livestreamed.

I was born in 1983. While I try to avoid curmudgeonly “Back in MY day…” statements about gaming when I was growing up versus now, it’s safe to say that things were different in computer gaming in particular in the 1980s. For one, people weren’t as spoiled for choice then–according to Wikipedia Ultima III: Exodus, a game released in 1983, won Computer Gaming World’s reader’s poll for Adventure Game of the Year…in 1985. For another, the style of challenge catered to was a bit different. Mapping out dungeons yourself, with no automap, was a huge portion of gameplay, and one that people flocked to, relatively speaking. And without common access to what we know now as the World Wide Web, mapping out one of these games could take months, or even years.

Finally, the concept of an “Expansion Pack”, or what would probably be “DLC” nowadays, didn’t exist in the ’80s. For the original computer version of Wizardry II: Knight of Diamonds (Or Wizardry III: Legacy of Llylgamyn, for that matter), you needed to import a party from Wizardry I: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord. And not just any party–a party that had beaten, or at least was of a level such that it was capable of beating, Wizardry I (Wizardry III at least had the courtesy to not require an endgame Wizardry I party via a plot contrivance that reset your characters levels to 1, the idea being they were actually the descendants of the exported-from-Wiz-I party).

Fortunately, the version of Wizardry II I played, the NES version, was rebalanced. Due to there not being a way to transfer characters from NES game to NES game, Wizardry II NES functions as a standalone title. This is good, because it’s brutally hard if you try to play “fair”, for reasons I’ll get into later.

For now, though, the plot, such that it is. The City of Llylgamyn was protected by an artifact called the Staff of Gnilda. The Staff kept people with evil intentions out of the city, while those with pure hearts could freely enter and leave. It had only one design flaw: People born in Llylgamyn were unaffected by it, making it easy for the evil Davalpus, a Llylgamyn native, to overthrow the royalty of the city. But Princess Margda and her brother, Prince Alavik, survived the coup. Gathering the armor of the legendary Knight of Diamonds, along with the Staff of Gnilda (Idiotically, since, as mentioned above, the Staff wouldn’t work on him anyway), Alavik engaged Davalpus in combat in Llylgamyn. Alavik won the battle, but not before Davalpus uttered a curse so unspeakable that it brought the battleground down around both of them, leaving only a smoking, six-level-deep dungeon in its wake. Alavik, Davalpus, the Knight of Diamonds equipment, and the Staff of Gnilda were all gone. If someone doesn’t recover the Staff of Gnilda, Llylgamyn will fall to outside invasion.

“Someone”, of course, is you and your band of adventurers. The game allows for a roster of 20 characters total, of which six can be in your party at any one time. In the NES version’s default state (Which you can return to by deleting your entire roster, then selecting “Delete” one more time), it provides you with six characters to use, though you can, and probably will want to, create your own. Each character gets assigned a random amount of bonus points to allocate to their stats, and each class has minimum statistical and alignment requirements. You’ll want a diverse group to survive the various perils of the maze.

And survival is key, because Wizardry II does not have “save points” in the traditional sense. Should your entire party be struck down in the maze….their corpses simply stay down there. Yes, playing Wizardry II “fairly” means that, each time you die, you’ll need to send a second party down to retrieve their belongings/corpses. You can see the glaring design flaw here–if you’ve built up a second party to the point where it’s strong enough to rescue the first, it’s probably also strong enough to just continue on from where the first party left off, rendering the original group redundant. This is particularly true when you consider that to actually acquire the corpses, you need to get to them with spare party slots. In other words, the rescue mission needs to be “shorthanded”, plus you’ll need to make two trips to rescue everybody.

Less-than-total defeat offers only a small consolation. A high-level Cleric, or the Temple of Cant in town, can attempt to resurrect a dead party member. But those can fail, reducing the character to a pile of Ash. The Temple, or a Cleric leveled to effectively endgame levels, can make another attempt at bringing the character back. Yet this, too, can fail, in which case the character is lost forever. Yep. Just gone. Deleted from the game for good, with no way to get them back.

I have a philosophy about spoilers in video games. It applies primarily to storyline spoilers, though it can also be applied to gameplay spoilers. It boils down to “If your great game relies on the player not being spoiled to get the full effect, your great game may not be as great as everyone thinks it is” (See my writings on Portal, especially its endgame, for that in action). So it’s a bit odd that I love the Wizardry series as much as I do. Much of the challenge of Wizardry comes from exploring and mapping out the dungeons on your own, constantly wondering whether to push your luck to explore just a few more squares of the lowest floor you’ve reached, or whether to return to the castle. Playing it with a map in front of you is certainly an option, but it removes most of the challenge (And, frankly, throws off the balance of the game–you’re expected to wander around and kill monsters to increase your level. Remove the wandering and encounters that come with it, and you’re likely to get destroyed). Without getting too spoiler-tastic, I’ll say that unlike Wizardry I, you’ll need to do at least cursory exploration of every floor of the dungeon to succeed in your quest. Also, in part to accommodate the rebalancing of the game, the dungeon has been redesigned from the PC version.

I played through the game “straight”, meaning I didn’t reset to a prior spot when things went bad for me. I’ll admit I didn’t play through the game “blind”, choosing to rely on knowledge from a prior playthrough many years ago. This served me well, although I did party wipe once and had to create a second one regardless. This was actually my first time playing through a Wizardry almost totally straight, and it was incredibly fun. All the grinding I put myself through did little to alleviate the tension of wondering whether a battle would kill me, especially later on. Enemies have all sorts of nasty attacks–even if they don’t kill you outright, there’s the possibility of being turned to stone, or level drained–which means you lose experience, and the effect persists on leaving the dungeon. Being level drained can leave you weaker than you were even when you gain back the level.

The brutal difficulty and self-mapping of dungeons being integral to the experience means that Wizardry II is not for everyone. And indeed, I’m glad most RPGs aren’t this punishing and tense. Sometimes, though, I’m in the mood for that style of game, from dungeon-crawling and mapping out manually, to wondering if I’ve pushed too far and won’t have the resources to bail myself of a battle or dungeon. And when I am in that mood, Wizardry, and indeed this game, scratches that particular itch wonderfully.

Jan 09

The RPG Lounge- Robotrek

Welcome back to the RPG Lounge, an occasional retrospective/review series about the RPGs I play through, most of which will be livestreamed.

The lamented developer Quintet–according to Wikipedia, they’re believed to be long defunct, although no one is quite sure when it actually happened–are responsible for, among other games, a list of beloved SNES games. Quintet may be best known for the “Soul Blazer trilogy”, a loosely-connected set of three games. The company’s connection to the Ys series–Quintet’s president was the scenario designer for the first three games in the series–allowed them to get Yuzo Koshiro to compose the music for the Actraiser games, and he’s credited as the “Sound Producer” for several other games.

One of those games is 1994’s Robotrek, published by Enix. Called “Slapstick” in Japan (To give you an idea of how DARK AND GRITTY this game is), Robotrek involves a planet called Quintenix (Yes, really), and a small village called Rococo, which the game calls “A livable town”. The issue is that a rogue group called “Hackers” have invaded Rococo, and are “Robbing…destroying….disrupting” the village. In the meantime, your character is the son of a great inventor, Dr. Akihabara, who wants to follow in his father’s footsteps, and runs into the Hackers as a side effect of his quest.

The setting–a more-or-less modern-day style world–is one thing that sets it apart from most RPGs. Another thing that sets it apart from most RPGs is its combat system. There aren’t random battles, which was a rarity in 1994. You also don’t fight enemies directly. Instead, you command robots to do your bidding in a battle with up to three foes at a time. The battle system itself is styled after SNES-era Final Fantasy’s Active Time Battle system, but with some twists. For one, your robot can have up to three distinct weapon types (Melee, Weapon, Bomb), and each type takes up a different portion of your meter before you can take another action. Not only that, but you can combine these commands using what the game calls Programs. These Programs offer additional unique attacks that might have other effects, such as knocking enemies back. Each weapon type, especially Melee, has several different weapons that do different things as well.

You begin with a single robot, and can build up to two more throughout the course of the game. Each one specializes in a specific kind of combat, and they can be further customized via stat allocation. Each level up gives you ten additional points to distribute among five different stats (HP, Power, Defense, Speed–which actually governs accuracy and evasion–and Charge, a measure of how fast your battle meter refills). These points, including points already distributed, can be re-assigned upon level-up, or when you find a Research & Development center, essentially the game’s version of an inn.

In keeping with the game’s theme of invention, besides purchasing them, you can acquire items by either creating them, or by combining items to make new ones. It’s a neat way to get both items and new weapons, as you can combine items to create common curative items, or combine weapons and scraps to make new weaponry that’s more powerful than your old weaponry. It’s a neat tweak of the typical item acquisition formula.

One thing bares special mention in Robotrek: The translation is all kinds of awful, though it inadvertantly leads to some great lines like a Hacker telling your father, “[…] But evil is good. Evil is the job.” Just as often, though, it leads to the game literally losing the plot–there’s a point about two thirds of the way through the game that I’m not entirely sure in what time period it actually takes place.

There’s a lot to like in Robotrek. Unfortunately, there are also a number of frustrating elements about it. The game allows you to save almost anywhere, making it surprisingly easy to put yourself into a situation that is very difficult to get yourself out of, since enemies respawn when you exit and re-enter a room. To give Quintet credit, they seem to have anticipated this, as you get a brief spot of invincibility where you can’t get into battles upon reloading a save. In theory, you can load, then a second later while still in invincibility, save again, slowly creeping your way out of your predicament. The bigger issue is that healing resources are pretty limited, and at times it seems like two different teams balanced the regular enemies versus the bosses. You’ll be cruising along, beating enemies without a problem, and just run into a boss and get destroyed with no warning. Further, while it isn’t a huge issue due to the re-assignable stats, the most important stats change all of a sudden about midway through the game. Finally, for all of the customization possible, there’s one melee weapon type that’s so obviously superior that you’ll never go back to the others.

Other minor frustrations: The game itself never tells you that Programs can have unique effects besides being “chains of commands” (There was apparently an insert originally included with the game that mentioned this), nor does it explain that “Program” is an “element” along the lines of “fire” or “lightning” in a traditional JRPG that enemies can be resistant to.

Still, despite these frustrations, Robotrek is worth playing. First of all, while I love Final Fantasy/Dragon Quest/etc, it’s nice to play a game in a setting that isn’t “Generic Mostly Medieval Fantasy World BUT WITH AN AIRSHIP!!! #743”, and the customization with the numerous weapons and stat allocations make the actual battles and creation fun as well. It’s also refreshing that a mid-1990s game wasn’t trying to out-DARK-AND-ADULT everything else around it.

Dec 31

The RPG Lounge- Ys II Chronicles +

Welcome back to the RPG Lounge, an occasional retrospective/review series about the RPGs I play through, most of which will be livestreamed.

Falcom’s Ys series has been hugely popular and influential in Japan for a long time. Yet, despite a few releases of the early games in the series in the late 80s and early 90s (In particular, the ahead-of-its-time Turbo-Grafx CD had an even-more-ahead-of-its-time compilation of Ys I & II, featuring professional voice actors ten-plus years before most game companies realized that was a thing you could do in video games), plus a Playstation 2 release of The Ark of Napishtim in the mid-2000s, it’s only in the last 5 or so years that the series really gained momentum in the US, as XSEED Games has worked to bring English translations over to the States.

Besides the newest Ys games, one of the packages released is a compilation of the first two games. This compilation, titled Ys I & II Chronicles + (The unwieldy title is partly due to the fact that this is about the fourth or fifth re-release of these games, counting Japanese titles), adds some new wrinkles to the games if you’ve ever played the versions that made it to the States in the 1980s/1990s.

Before that, though, a basic overview of Ys II. It takes place immediately after the ending of Ys I, as Adol Christin, the hero of most of the series, has just recovered the six books of Ys, which causes him to shoot up into the sky, into the land of Ys. There, he’s found by Lilia, a girl from Lance Village. Meanwhile, Dalles the Wizard and his boss, Darm, prepare to put their evil plan to take over Ys into action.

Ys II is, as one would expect from the name, the second game in the series. And it’s a good deal longer and more balanced than the first. For one, the leveling curve is much more gradual–you won’t need (And won’t be able to, at least not in any reasonable amount of time) to max your level by the halfway point of the game, as in the first game. There are also a higher number of dungeons, versus the original game’s three, although some of those come at the cost of not having a proper “overworld”, if you will. Another element introduced in Ys II is the use of magic spells. In particular, Fire magic adds a new dimension to the crash-into-enemies-to-kill-them combat. The magic makes it possible to kill enemies from a distance, which can be quite helpful.

As Chronicles is a re-release/update of the original game, it adds some audiovisual goodies and creature comforts. First, you can choose portrait styles between the Chronicles and Complete releases of the game. You can also choose from one of three soundtracks, which you can switch between at any time–the PC-88 original, or the Chronicles and Complete releases. Finally, you have a much greater freedom of movement than the original’s four-directional system. This games the combat a more frantic feel, and makes actually engaging enemies directly a more attractive proposition than it was in earlier versions.

While Yuzo Koshiro didn’t compose all the music in Ys II–he shared credit with Mieko Ishikawa and Hideya Nagata for the PC-88 version, and other people arranged subsequent versions–his style is all over the soundtrack (And you can continue to hear his influence even in more modern Ys games). The music is, in general, upbeat, driving you forward on your quest to defeat Darm.

The greater emphasis on hand-to-hand combat in this version of the game as compared to previous versions does have an unintended side-effect–because magic isn’t as useful in this version in a general sense, it might be hard for the first-time player to figure out how to hurt bosses if they don’t pay close attention to what they hear in the early game. Also, Ys II Chronicles changes just enough things that you do have to pay attention and can’t just coast through based on previous knowledge. There was one item that evaded me for longer than it probably should have, until I realized I had to drop my preconceptions of where I was expecting that item to be from previous versions and just went with what the game was telling me. Some bosses have new attacks and phases as well, to keep players of previous versions on their toes.

Ys II Chronicles + is available as part of the Ys I & II Chronicles + compilation. While you can honestly give Ys I Chronicles a pass, the compilation itself is worth it just for Ys II Chronicles. It’s a much longer experience than Ys I, with a wider variety of combat and environments. The new elements make it worth playing even if you’re a fan of previous versions.


Dec 06

The RPG Lounge- Akalabeth: World of Doom

Welcome back to the RPG Lounge, an occasional retrospective/review series of the various RPGs I beat, most of which will be on stream.

Richard “Lord British” Garriott is a video game development legend who I’ve referred to as “The geek’s Ric Flair”. Among some of his numerous other accomplishments, he’s one of the very few private citizens who has been into space, and is the only private owner of property on a foreign celestial body (his words, not mine). Within video gaming, Garriott is best known as the creator of the Ultima series, which spanned 9 “main” games plus several spinoffs, and also coined the term “MMORPG” with Ultima Online. He’s recently been a part of a new MMO, Shroud of the Avatar, which is effectively Ultima Online 2 in all but name.

Before Ultima, though, a teenage Richard Garriott created a game titled Akalabeth: World of Doom. Based on his Dungeons and Dragons games, Akalabeth is one of the very first computer RPGs, and is commonly called “Ultima 0” by fans (And even some later official releases, like “Akalabeth 1998”, use the Ultima 0 title), as some of its concepts and story elements made it into some of the early Ultima games.

I won’t lie, one thing that attracted me to Akalabeth is the fact that it is free on GOG. And it’s at this point that the history of the game’s releases gets a bit complicated. While it’s a PC game in simple terms, the original version of Akalabeth actually came out way back when on the Apple ][. While there was at least one fan port over to the PC architecture, Akalabeth didn’t actually get an official “PC” release until Akalabeth 1998, which was included in the Ultima Collection. I bring this up because, while Akalabeth 1998 is included in GOG’s “Bonus Features”, it’s actually one of the fan ports that’s the “standard” GOG release, that gets included with GOG Galaxy, etc. This is important to know, for reasons I’ll get into in a bit (An aside: From my very limited research, it appears the fan port is actually closer to the Apple ][ original than Akalabeth 1998, for whatever it’s worth).

The plot of Akalabeth doesn’t really figure into the main gameplay, similar to early Wizardry games. But it involves you, a peasant, fulfilling quests for Lord British in the land of Akalabeth. The land has been damaged by the evil wizard Mondain, and though Mondain was defeated by Lord British, Akalabeth is still trying to recover. You help this recovery by killing various creatures in dungeons.

As for the gameplay, it’s similarly rudimentary. After picking your lucky number (Actually an RNG seed), difficulty, stats, and whether you’re a Fighter or a Mage, you begin in a town, where you’ll need to buy food (Seriously. Running out of food means you die. Leaving the town without purchasing food means you’re in the overworld with 0 food, which means you die.), as well as any other weaponry you may want, before venturing out into the world. In the world, you’ll find other towns, dungeons, and most importantly, Lord British’s Castle. Enter the castle to get a quest, which is to kill a monster in a dungeon. When you’re done, return to Lord British to get another, harder quest.

And that’s basically it. You’ll kill tougher and tougher monsters in a quest to become a Knight of Akalabeth. Or at least, that’s the idea. For you see, for whatever reason, the “standard” GOG version of the game is broken in a couple ways. For one, the Lucky Number doesn’t seem to fill its intended purpose–you’ll get a different game each time, even if you input the same lucky number. More importantly, though, the game is impossible to complete. Killing your first monster and returning to Lord British simply results in him saying “Now go and complete thy quest!” infinitely. To fix this, you can either play Akalabeth 1998, or do what I did. That was to download a later version of the .exe here (And yes, it says the site’s security certification has expired. Why someone would want to impersonate a fansite that looks like it’s out of 1996 and is devoted to a game three years older than I am, I couldn’t tell you, but I guess it’s a risk). Read a bit more about the bug here.

Fixing the game so it actually works yields a rudimentary, yet pretty fun, experience. Once you take out what the game considers to be the most difficult monster–which is not the same thing as the most dangerous foe–you’re made a Lord, and asked to either try a higher difficulty, or (If playing on the highest difficulty) call a (defunct) number to report your feat. Trying to defeat all the monsters Lord British asks you to can actually be quite challenging. Besides having to keep your wits about you in dungeons so as not to get lost, getting surrounded in the early game is a real worry, and one monster in particular can put a major damper on your questing, if not outright end it, at any time, even long after you’ve killed it for the Lord British quest.

The game is sometimes called “Ultima 0”. And many of the concepts that carried over to at least the early Ultimas are first found here. Some are fairly obvious, such as killing monsters for Kings being one of the main objectives of Ultima I. Some are obvious in the Ultima-specific sense, such as the concept of gaining HP when you leave dungeons. And some are more far-reaching. Let’s be honest, the model of “Get told to kill something, do it, repeat” is what forms the basis of many an MMORPG–see this page. It’s also impressive that the enemies have something approaching a survival instinct–once you weaken them beyond a certain point (Depending on the floor of the dungeon and the difficulty you chose), they’ll retreat to regroup and regenerate HP, only advancing back toward you when their HP is back above that threshold.

One interesting side effect of Akalabeth’s simplicity is that it’s a more coherent game than the early Ultimas, especially Ultimas 1 and 2. Akalabeth is a pretty standard Dungeons & Dragons/Sword-and-Sorcery adventure all the way through. This contrasts with the early Ultimas, which had science-fiction and fantasy elements in varying proportions (The best weapon in Ultima 1 is a Laser Blaster, and you need to become a Space Ace by shooting down Totally-Not-TIE-Fighters basically because a Princess wants you to. Both Ultima 1 and 2 also have time travel, with the latter having it as a central game mechanic). There’s certainly a fun element to Ultima’s “Everything Lord British liked in one package, regardless of how well it all fit together” approach, but I can also appreciate that Akalabeth is more focused in its design.

None of this is to say that Akalabeth is a perfect game, by any means (Even when you fix it). For one, “game balance” was, at best, an afterthought. Fighters can use a wider selection of weapons, including a Bow and Arrow, while Mages get access to Magic Amulets. Magic Amulets have the ability to instantly create a ladder leading up or down in a dungeon. Suffice to say that this is HUGELY useful, much moreso than any of the Fighters’ weapons. And as mentioned before, the final foe you’ll be tasked to kill is hardly the most dangerous thing in the game. That honor would go to the Gremlin, a foe who can steal half your food, repeatedly. Worse, as a Mage, you basically have to engage it hand-to-hand, as while Magic Amulets offer a projectile attack, it’s not enough at higher difficulties to overcome the Gremlin’s “retreat regeneration”. Killing one basically comes down to “get a ton of gold to in turn get more food than you would otherwise ever realistically need, and even then hope you get lucky rolls and that it doesn’t steal all your food”.

Akalabeth also isn’t particularly long once you learn what to do. Indeed, the original versions don’t even have a save function included, although Akalabeth 1998 does. And the graphics are, to say the least, rudimentary, although they were pretty darn good for 1980 (By virtue of the fact that the game had graphics at all, admittedly). There’s also no music in the original or the fanport, though Akalabeth 1998 includes, I’m guessing, music from some of the early Ultima games (The overworld music is the music from Exodus’s Castle in Ultima 3, for instance).

Still, though, Akalabeth is fun both as a historical document, being one of the first commercially available computer RPGs with ideas that would carry over into the Ultima series, and as a game on its own. As I mentioned on stream, “I’ve spent more time with worse games and enjoyed myself less than I did playing Akalabeth”. This sounds like faint praise, but I mean it as more than that. And of course, it’s hard to beat the price of $0.00 on GOG. Just remember to either play Akalabeth 1998 or overwrite the GOG install with the later version of the fan port if you ever want to officially advance in the game.


Nov 27

The RPG Lounge- Dragon Quest II

Welcome to the first in an occasional series of posts. Similar to the Games I Beat In 2014 series, this will be a retrospective/review of various RPGs I play, most of which will be on stream.

Dragon Quest II is generally thought of as one of the weaker entries in the Dragon Quest series. While it’s an important game in its own way, that way is mainly as the transition between the JRPG-inventing Dragon Quest and the landmark Dragon Quest III, which essentially every JRPG since has tried to live up to, and which is the Japanese analog to Super Mario 64 in terms of speedrunning prestige. Because of what came before and after it, Dragon Quest II tends to get lost in the shuffle.

Recently, I played through the Game Boy Color version of the game, as part of the collection titled “Dragon Warrior I & II” in the US (The short version for the Dragon Warrior name is “There were once trademark issues in the US with ‘Dragon Quest’; those issues no longer exist”). I had played through the NES version as a kid, then tried the GBC version about 12 years ago, getting stuck just after acquiring the Princess of Moonbrooke. More recently, the game has been released for Android and iOS, and those versions are closer to the GBC version than the NES original.

The design of old-school games, and how they try to give you a tutorial without labeling anything a tutorial, intrigues me. In the case of Dragon Quest II, this comes in the form of how your party is composed. You begin with the Prince of Lorasia, a brute who can use no magic whatsoever (In contrast to the do-it-all nature of later Dragon Quest main characters, the Prince of Lorasia is closer to the Soldier-type class of the later games). After traversing a dungeon, you’ll acquire your first ally, the Prince of Cannock, who is a balance between combat and magic (And infamously does neither of them well in the second half of the game. In the GBC version, some adjustments were made to make Cannock not complete trash–his weapon selection is a good deal better than in the NES version, and the spells he can cast both in and out of battle cost a bit less when used in combat). And a bit further on, you get your second and final ally, the Princess of Moonbrooke, who is an amazing sorceress who is almost useless in terms of attacking in battle. Almost. In that way, the game introduces magic to you little by little, and the tactics you’ll use in battle require varying levels of adjustment depending on the character and the enemy formation you’ll be fighting–Lorasia will do almost nothing but “FIGHT”, but the other two characters will need to adjust their actions depending on the situation at hand.

Yuji Horii, the main architect of Dragon Quest, has mentioned he was influenced by the Wizardry series of games. That comes through a bit more clearly in Dragon Quest II, primarily in terms of battles. Much like in the first 5 Wizardries, any battle can potentially be your last. Especially in the late game, monsters appear in large groups, and can call allies, use powerful spells, or have attacks which can hit your entire party. Encounter a formation with 3 or 4 of such an enemy, and it’s very possible you’ll die regardless of your level.

Another thing that Dragon Quest II picks up from Wizardry is how surprisingly useful “indirect” spells are. Particularly on bosses and in the endgame, Increase (Raises your party’s defense power) and Defense (Lowers the defense power of enemies) are your friends. Again, this is even more true in the GBC version, where their effectiveness is increased (Beware, though, this also applies to when enemies use them). Sleep and Stopspell are also valuable spells to allow you to get in precious attacks without being assaulted by enemies.

The Dragon Quest team took a lot of the feedback they got in response to Dragon Quest II to make Dragon Quest III. Once of the most common criticisms of DQII is that there are several points where the game tells you, more or less, “have fun!” without so much as a clue about where to go next. Indeed, my playthrough 12 years ago ended when, after getting the Princess, I unsuccessfully failed to act on a hint that just said “There’s a tower somewhere where you can get a Wind Cloak.”. The game doesn’t tell you where that tower is, and the route to it isn’t the most intuitive. Still, this time, thanks to remembering where the tower was after looking it up all those years ago, I pushed through. And while it’s true that Dragon Quest II isn’t the most linear game, especially after getting the boat, there are enough scraps available (And crucially, you can get an in-game World Map in the GBC version) from townspeople to be able to piece together what you have to do to advance in its second half.

The World Map is a bit cruel in one aspect: There’s a point where you find something by sailing north from your location. The issue is that the location is already pretty far north on the map, meaning you end up finding the item on the far SOUTH of the world.

Beyond that, while the game isn’t as bad as the first Dragon Quest in this regard, there is a difficulty spike where you’ll be forced to do some level grinding. Precisely where that difficulty spike occurs varies depending on the version of the game you play, but suffice to say that it occurs either at or near the endgame. Even in the GBC version, and even with valuable knowledge that a first-time player is unlikely to have (Notably in how some items can be used in battle), I needed to stop and get some levels in the endgame.

Still, overall, I enjoyed my recent playthrough, probably more than I thought I would, if I’m being honest. I was surprised at how short the game actually is when you get down to it, but I found the non-linear nature of the second half to be a positive, not a negative. Further, I may have gotten lucky, but I found I “stumbled into” the more-or-less intended sequence, in part thanks to the World Map. I’d say it’s worth playing, especially with the availability of the somewhat easier version for mobile devices nowadays. This is especially true if you like your RPGs not to hold your hand, or not to be quite 100% linear.


Oct 21

Dragon Warrior Randomizer Tournament Match 4 Postmortem

My fourth match in the tournament, versus johnbloodythumbs, was sadly also my last.

You can watch the race from my perspective here, or check out the race stream here.

After the beginnings of my previous two races, I was extremely happy to see both HEAL and HURTMORE in my starting spell list. No difficult beginning! No grinding required at the outset! It was a good thing, too, because the starting strength was as abyssmal as the previous seed (My Agility and MP were fine, though).

Because of the fairly easy beginning, there isn’t much to say about my decision-making process this time around. I did take a few early gambles that didn’t pay off, most notably trying for the Hauksness item earlier than I probably should. That took me about 4 tries, after repeatedly either getting back attacked or missing a HURTMORE on the Armored Knight guarding the item. When I finally did beat him, it turned out he was guarding the Fairy Flute, which was not exactly what I wanted to see.

My big problem this time was in my map-making. Fairly early on, the scale of my map got thrown off, making it close to useless. The end result of this was that I walked by the Mountain Cave at least once, and possibly multiple times, thinking it was a cave I had already visited. When I finally went inside, and when it turned out to contain the Staff of Rain, the last item I was missing, I had a feeling I was in trouble.

As a last-ditch effort, I dove into Charlock, hoping for a level that would let me defeat the Dragonlord. It didn’t happen, and I’m not sure I would have won even if it did due to my being too far behind on experience. Right as I hit the level that I knew would let me win, JBT .doned, ending my tournament experience. At that point, I at least decided to have fun with my elimination, faking out the Dragonlord by saying “Yes” to his offer the first time before saying “No” to “really?”, then by going for a #SWAGOVERLOAD HURTMORE because I knew I had the MP to spare, and finally making a not-as-risky-as-it-seemed swing at the Dragonlord with a spare HEALMORE, as I was counting damage and knew I would win.

I’m not going to lie, it kind of hurts knowing that I could have won this race if not for my own incompetence with map-making. On the other hand, JBT did some grinding on the Armored Knight in Hauksness, whereas I stayed away from it once I got the Fairy Flute. That definitely didn’t help my cause regarding the experience race. It’s also a bit ironic that my fastest time of my four tournament races resulted in a loss. But such is the beauty of Randomizer.

In all, though, I’m happy I entered the tournament. It was great fun, and I’ll try and keep doing DWR races in the future.


Oct 04

Dragon Warrior Randomizer Tournament Match 3 Postmortem

My third match in the Dragon Warrior Randomizer tournament was a victory, albeit a bittersweet one. More on that later.

For now, check out the race from my perspective here and here (My internet cut out mid-race, hence the 2 parts), or the actual race stream here.

This was another tough beginning, although not quite as tough as some others. Our starting stats were awful, to the point I briefly wondered if I’d loaded the stock Dragon Warrior ROM by accident instead of the randomized seed. That said, the enemies in the starting zone were basically starting enemies, and while a few of them had HEALMORE, none of them had anything special attack-wise. In all, it was interesting how closely the start of this seed matched “Vanilla” Dragon Warrior. I took a bit to explore, found Brecconary, then actually reset and started over to keep gold to buy a Club, Dragon Scale, and an Herb. That wasn’t much, but it was enough to at least let me consistently hit Drakees and Ghosts to gain a level or two.

Big power boosts were incoming, but even that wasn’t enough to let us do much exploring. Jealkeja and I both struggled with finding much of anything for awhile, and I agonized over how much to grind at points. As I mentioned in the previous write-up, one wrong decision at the wrong time in a head-to-head race can lose it for you, even if you play everything else right.

The flipside to that is that the right decision, at the right time, can, if not win you a race, at least put you in a comfortable position. In my case, that moment of reckoning came during a trip through the Swamp Cave. Realizing that the enemies in there were both easily killable at my stats and gave good experience, and recognizing that my exploration was not going well, I opted to stick around in that cave and grind up levels. I agonized over this for a bit, knowing that every second I spent grinding was a second I wasn’t exploring, and a second my opponent potentially was exploring and gathering items. When I hit Level 10 and acquired HURTMORE, though, I knew I’d made the right choice and it was go time. The funny thing about that was I mentioned I basically didn’t fear exploration after acquiring it, and the first enemy I ran into post-level 10 was…a Wizard, which is highly resistant to HURTMORE.

It’s here that I’ll admit to a bit of gamesmanship. I was watching the race channel, and saw that jealkeja had posted something like “horrible seed”. I simply replied “Agreed, heh” or similar. When he responded with roughly “How many times do I have to explore 15 steps and then die?!” when I was Level 11 and had both HEALMORE and HURTMORE, I just shut up, figuring that, if I wasn’t in a dominant position at that point, I was at least comfortably ahead in the experience department, or he wouldn’t have been asking the question.

Then, a few minutes later, about an hour and 40 minutes into the race, jealkeja forfeited. This meant that, if I could finish the seed at all, I would win. And I eventually did, and I’ll take it, though I wonder what would have happened if jeal hadn’t had to forfeit.

Because the weakest part of my game continues to be “Dragonlord Math”, or figuring out exactly what resources I’ll need to win the game given a certain set of stats. This was a very unusual seed, in that it had huge HP and Strength, roughly average MP…and almost no Agility whatsoever. That, combined with the lack of a Silver Shield, made for a rare circumstance: Namely, it was better to just fight the harder enemies in Charlock, rather than trying to run from them and failing repeatedly. It took me a long while to realize this, and while I knew I could win the game at Level 17 (And possibly even 16 if I could make it to the Dragonlord with full resources), I didn’t realize just how comfortable my position actually was. As a result, the endgame took probably a half hour longer than it would have had I just burned a few more HEALMOREs on the way down to the Dragonlord. While it felt good to have my suspicions confirmed that I was well ahead at the point of jeal’s forfeit (And of course, if he hadn’t forfeited when he did, it may have changed my decision making at some point), we’ll never know if he could have come back given my awful math and equally horrific endgame.

Either way, though, I did win, thus making the top 16, and my next match is against Johnbloodythumbs. Like my previous match, I’m favored seeding-wise, but I don’t put much stock in that, as I haven’t been able to practice as much as I would have liked. But we’ll see how it goes.


Oct 01

Dragon Warrior Randomizer Tournament Match 2 Postmortem

So my second round match…did not go as well as my first round match. I put up a good fight, but two big mistakes cost me a potential victory against NESCardinality.

For context, check out the race from my perspective here, or the actual race stream here.

The beginning of this seed was a challenge. First, Roaming Throne Room Guard made a play for being the True Final Boss, blocking my way out of the throne room for way longer than he should have. Next, I was having difficulty finding Red Slimes to kill, meaning I had to slowly punch Drakees to death to get my first level or two. Lastly, I was trying to hold onto some of the gold I acquired, which meant I went back to save more often than maybe I should have.

The gold did come in handy, as I got an early Copper Sword and Leather Armor, which let me at least take swings at things besides Drakees and Red Slimes. I also found Kol and Erdrick’s Armor early on, which helped me gain some experience by tapping monsters to death and eliminating the need to grind for Magic Armor.

The seed as a whole was full of “Emptyeye levels”, or levels that gave zeros to certain stats (Especially Strength and Agility), which meant that a lot of grinding was required. It’s rare that Red Dragons are the enemy of choice to grind on, but that was the case here, even though I needed between 6 and 8 attacks to kill one on average at the onset of my grind–255 experience for basically the cost of a Stopspell was too good to pass up.

I thought my exploration luck was pretty good, never needing to find the Mountain Cave at all, and my battle luck was by-and-large okay as well. My main incorrect decision battle-wise was waiting until level 21 to go after the Dragonlord, but that’s not what cost me the race (Though it did, presumably, eliminate whatever small chance I had of winning). Both NESCard and I were doing on-the-fly math once we hit level 20, and neither of us were liking how it came out at first (We both actually killed a few more Red Dragons while trying to crunch the numbers in our heads). NESCard, crucially, realized that our high HP would give us the double attacks we would need on Dragonlord 2 (Our damage wasn’t great, so by my on-the-fly math, we would need something like 5 at minimum) at level 20, and I elected to wait until level 21, underestimating that effect. When NESCard .doned, I realized that I could have gone at 20, or at worst, 21 was definitely going to be the level–I figured I was behind, but I didn’t think I was that far behind. As it was, NES said he won fairly comfortably at level 20, and my waiting until 21 allowed me to win the fight with 5(!!) Healmores left.

While my conservatism sealed my fate regarding the race, though, it’s not what actually cost me the race. I made two big mistakes that were the difference. The first was attempting to “shortcut” the coordinates of the item on the world map, and not going quite far enough west as a result. Making matters worse, my plan B of checking the item in Hauksness was also a bust, as I had to use up pretty much all of my MP on monsters in Hauksness before making it to the miniboss. This meant a Return to Tantagel and re-count of my steps before finally finding the item. Fortunately, the coordinates weren’t super far away from the castle (Something like 7 North 34 West if I remember right), and I’ve seen enough people screw up coordinates in one way or another that I’m not that upset about it.

The crucial mistake, and the one I think actually cost me the race, was attempting to dive into Charlock and see what was in the treasury (And maybe take a peek at the miniboss) way before I should have. I had no illusions that I’d be able to beat the Dragonlord at the level I was at, but I didn’t even come close to making it all the way down, and when I died in the attempt, I actually said something to the effect of “I think I just lost this race. Damn.”

Still, I think I put up a good fight, and I’m happy overall with how I played. The beauty and pain of Dragon Warrior Randomizer is that is that one wrong decision at the wrong time (Or a calculated risk that just doesn’t work out) can cost you, and after taking a bunch of gambles and having them all go right in my round 1 match, I guess I was due for one to bite me in the ass.

Either way, my next match is against jealkeja. This will be the first time I’ve been the higher seed in this tournament, but I frankly don’t put a lot of stock in that–the tournament had a lot of late entries, and a lot of those lower seeds have been practicing more than I have in the meantime. Hopefully, though, I can put on a good show and advance further in the Boners Bracket.


Sep 18

Dragon Warrior Randomizer Tournament Match 1 Postmortem

So my opening round (And actually the first match of the entire tournament to take place) match against RCTMid in the Dragon Warrior Randomizer tournament was a victory. More importantly for the tournament as a whole, it was a very close match, with me taking the win by 36 seconds according to Speedruns Live. If all the matches in the tournament are that exciting, this will be an amazing tournament.

For more context about what I’ll be talking about, you can see the race from my perspective here, or check out the actual race stream here.

For my own performance, I thought my exploration luck was generally pretty good, with the exception of how late I found Garinham. Despite how I won with my last attack on the Dragonlord, I thought my battle luck, on the other hand, was awful through the whole thing. I had two different enemies dodge my attacks twice in a row, for starters. One was a Blue Dragon, whose evasion rate is only 1/32 (Admittedly more than the typical enemy, which is 1/64). I forget the second enemy, but it wasn’t one that I was aware had an elevated evasion stat compared to normal. I felt like that was my typical luck through the rest of the seed, battle-wise, as evidenced by my aborting Garin’s Grave exploration after setting up the Gold Grind (Which made things interesting for me near the end).

Finding Garinham as late as I did wasn’t good, as it also contained “The Jerk Cave”, needed to get the Rainbow Drop. Because of that, I felt as though I was behind (I was), and needed to take a couple gambles if I wanted to win. The first was, after going to the Charlock Treasury and finding nothing of note, going back up where the normal Erdrick’s Sword location was and looking for the Fighter’s Ring there (It was there, thankfully). Having the information from both streams, I imagine the commentators thought that was a smart move on my part, since RCT had explored all of Garin’s Grave. But since I hadn’t, my thought as I was doing it was “I’m probably behind, so I have to risk this, even though there is a 2/3 chance (I left two chests behind in the Grave) that I’ve just lost the race by doing so”. Taking a look at my stats and deciding to risk getting a good enough level on the way to the Dragonlord to put me over the top to be able to beat him was a similar thought process. As it turned out, I did, barely, getting to 97 max HP (Basically the absolute minimum you want, as it lets you survive two consecutive fire breaths for 48 damage, meaning you’re guaranteed at least one attack per Healmore) and a few extra Stength. The way to the Dragonlord wasn’t great, as I had no Herbs and had to burn a couple Healmores before actually fighting the second phase. Plus DL2 got the drop on me.

In the end, though, it worked out. Thinking I was behind probably helped me in a way, because instead of agonizing over what to do and when to do it in the late game, it forced me into being aggressive even if it wasn’t necessarily “safe” to do so, knowing that the gambles not working out would lead to the same result as me not taking them at all (IE I lose).

The other thing that annoyed me was my emulator, which for some reason was extremely laggy and slowdown-y, despite my restarting my computer just before the race. It got to the point where I considered saying something in the race chat or even just forfeiting under 5 minutes in. Obviously, I’m glad I didn’t.

With that, my next match is against NESCardinality, who has been called “the final boss” of this tournament. For reference, there are eleven completed winner’s bracket predictions, including mine. All eleven have NESCardinality going to at least the top four of the winner’s bracket. Or, put another way, literally no one, including me, expects me to win this next match. The two good things about this are that I don’t feel a whole lot of pressure, and I’ll once again feel free to take longshot gambles if I think the situation at hand calls for it.

In any event, I’m glad I won’t be going two and out at any rate. Hopefully I can go even further, even if I don’t expect it.