Sunday, May 30, 2021

Aretha Series (HG101)

I was going to make a post on the Game Boy Aretha game, but Hardcore Gaming 101 has a nice set of articles on all the games in the series, so I will just link to that.

Please also take a look at my other blog for Fire Emblem 4! And I will be back next week with something else.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Game 63 - Magna Braban

Magna Braban: Wandering Heroes (マグナブラバン〜遍歴の勇者)
Released 11/18/1994, developed by Ask Kodansha
A number of roleplaying games have auto battle systems. Sometimes (as in Shin Megami Tensei) it just makes everyone attack until the battle ends. Other games have some kind of AI (like the Dragon Warrior games), customizable or not. But every so often a designer tried to release a game where the characters are not under your control except for AI. So far I've played Elfaria, Down the World, and perhaps Ogre Battle (although this one may not exactly qualify). Magna Braban is another game in this vein.

First off, a word about the text in the game, which is a travesty. It's written in all hiragana which is normal for this age (I wonder what the last all-kana game will be?) But it uses quotation marks constantly for half the words in every speech bubble, rendering the text very hard to read. Here are three examples with translations in the captions, and this looks as odd in Japanese as it does in English.

The rumor is that they are gathering the "strongest" "warriors" to "form" the "demon lord * defeat squad"

By using this, I'll show you that we can "control" that "continent" without any "loss of life".

My "mother" suffered a great "injury".

I do not know why they did this, but imagine reading a whole game's worth of dialogue with this constant use of quotation marks.

The game opens with the son of a shepherd, Kurisu, wanting to go participate in a fighting tournament in a nearby town. His parents are both against it, but he sneaks away and participates, only to be beaten down. He drinks his sorrows away with two other people who also lost, a magician Geena and a fighter Getz. While they're drinking, the demon lord sends an attack force at the tournament area, killing everyone. Kurisu and the other two show up to see what happened, and when other soldiers arrive, they assume that because the three were able to survive, they must be great warriors. The King knights them and makes them the new "defeat the demon lord" unit. 


This kind of humor and irreverence towards the standard RPG plot is entertaining; unfortunately it only carries through the first half of the game or so. After that it turns back into a standard RPG plot and the comedy and satire elements go away. I wish they had continued it through the rest of the game.

Kurisu gets kicked out of his house by his parents, but his mom gives him a Singing Crystal to remember her. They decide to head to Geena's magic guild to find some way to get stronger, since they're really in no shape to beat the demon lord. Here's where the battle system comes in.

You can assign some pretty detailed AI to people. There are four general options, and within those options you can set what they will mostly do, and two things that they will sometimes do.

The big problem with the system is that the battle provides no feedback on how anything is working. You don't see how much damage anything is doing, which makes it hard to know what to actually set people to do other than just attacking. It also means you can't really follow what's happening in the battle, you're just watching the sprite animations go, and focusing mostly on the numbers at the top of the screen for player HP.

Also the game is real time, but you can pause at any time and use as many healing items or spells as you want from the menu; even people who are at 0 hp can use spells. This makes the boss fights trivial for the most part, since it's hard to get a game over.

On the other hand, the grunt enemies are difficult. You will need to do a large amount of grinding in this game -- the new equipment is expensive, and there's always a huge jump in difficulty when you go to a new area. The random encounter rate is high, and inventory space is limited so it's hard to use the boss "item/heal" tactic throughout the whole dungeon without running out of items if you're weak.

I'm just not sure why developers felt the need to try to make a system where you can't directly control the characters. I get that maybe they wanted to do something different from the normal system, but is this really all they could think of? It's true that if you are just picking "attack" over and over again that's not a whole lot different from an auto battle, but there's something about the system in this game that doesn't quite work.

The dungeon design is also terrible. There are no chests, no traps, no buttons, no puzzles, no anything -- just corridors and a boss or an exit. 

I often get accused of being too harsh on the games, or being jaded -- I did look around for other Japanese reviews and although the Amazon brief reviews praise the game, all the extended reviews I found on other sites were negative and criticized many of the same parts I did. (One of them pointed out that the title "Magna Braban" is never used or explained in the game) Two of the reviewers expressed surprise at how positive the scores were on Amazon.

Anyway, at the Magician Guild they meet Baktun, who offers to make a strength potion if they will just get him the last ingredient -- a Dream Mushroom piece. In a nearby town they meet the elf Lilliana, who tells them that they can reach the Demon Lord's area from Elf Land, and joins the group.

The Dream Mushroom turns out to be the mushroom king, who tells the party he'll give up a bit of himself for the potion if they get him a life-extending potion from the nearby witch. The witch wants a dragon scale to make anti-allergy medicine for herself.

So finally the party ends up in the dragon cave, where they watch another knight group take out the dragon and then leave, so we can just go in and grab a scale without fighting the dragon.

 Back at the witch's house, she gives us the potion, but Getz immediately spills it all. He replaces it with alcohol, hoping the mushroom doesn't notice.

The king doesn't seem to notice, but he never had any intention of giving us the mushroom piece -- instead, he drunkenly attacks. After we beat him up he gives up a bit of himself and we go back to Baktun.

 But it turns out Baktun is a servant of the Demon Lord and has made a control potion, not a strong potion. He kills some of the magicians and runs away. Geena's grandfather, the head mage, gives us a bell to remove the control from the potion from anyone who falls under the spell, and we go on to look for Elf Land.

We take an underground passage from the guild, but run into ghosts blocking our way. Fortunately there is a cleric nearby who can help us (although Geena gets jealous of her), and that obstacle is dealt with.

The next town has Lototo (a parody of Loto from Dragon Quest) who is supposedly the descendant of a great hero and even has the hero crest, but something seems suspicious about him (this plot element is never followed up on).

Then we get captured by the king of a nearby land; of course he's being controlled by Baktun. Lototo somehow knows how to pick locks so we escape and use the bell to free the king. At this point Geena is so jealous of Kurisu that she takes off on her own with the other girls who get captured by dwarves (controlled of course). We get on a ship to chase after them.

This is pretty much the end of the comedy and the "heroes accidentally blundering into stuff" part of the story, so it gets less interesting from here on out. We get Ann, a princess who can fight, as our next character. The dwarves are trying to revive the Dragon of Destruction and even though we ring the bell to free them in time, the Dragon revives anyway so we have to kill it.

After freeing Geena, Kurisu decides she is the most important person to him and gives her the Singing Stone. He also asks everyone what their purpose in fighting the Demon Lord is.

Now we can finally make it to the Elf Village, where we have to do a few fetch quests to open up the way to the Ice Land that has the path to the Demon Lord. Meanwhile Baktun comes and tricks the rest of the party into drinking poison, so Kurisu has to go alone to find herbs to heal them (this part is annoying).

By the time he gets back with the herbs, Baktun has already charmed the poisoned party members (including Getz, who had the bell) and captured them, although Geena left behind the singing stone. The rest of the party chases after them, and has the final showdown with Baktun in the Ice Tower. After beating him, he brings out Gina to fight us, and destroys the awaken bell. But Kurisu is able to free Geena with the Singing Stone, and she kills Baktun. Now all that's left is the Demon Lord.


We have to defeat the Demon Lord three times -- with a bunch of healing items it's not that hard, it just takes a while.

The conclusion has everyone go back to their lives, and the final scene is Kurisu and Geena married and living back in Kurisu's hometown as a shepherd. He tells his kids the story of how they met.


I suppose this game is not terrible, but it has a lot of squandered potential. I don't know how many more of these auto battle games there are (at least Elfaria II) but I hope the next one finally figures out how to make it fun.
Next I am playing Fire Emblem 4 on the other blog; that's a long game and I'm also going to be out of town for a while in June so it could be as long as a month before I have the next SFC game post (Aretha II). I'll have some short posts the next few weeks -- either forerunners of games (Aretha, Kaiju monogatari) or some other games coming out around this time. 

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Game 62 - Shin Megami Tensei If...

Shin Megami Tensei If... (真・女神転生if...)
10/28/1994, developed by Atlas 


The third SMT game for Super Famicom, it was released only 7 months after SMT 2. So unsurprisingly, the system is almost the same and there are a lot of reused assets from the game. The idea was to make a SMT game that took place more in the real world, in a small area, rather than the post-apocalyptic or fantasy settings of the other games. The high school setting, and the "guardian" system, were direct inspirations for Persona. The title of the game may have been taken from the British movie "if..." which is about bullied studies staging a violent revolution at a boarding school.


The biggest system change is the Guardian system. Both the main character and the companion have "guardians" that attach to them when they die. The companion gets more spells from this process, the main character just has stat changes. I didn't fully understand the system until halfway through the game since they don't explain it much (I assume the full explanation was in the instruction manual). By fighting monsters you gain Guardian Points, which you can see by pressing X on the status screen. If the bar is yellow, dying will result in a lower rank guardian. If it's red, the rank will be higher. The more full the bar is, the better chance you have of skipping multiple ranks.

This means you really need to control when your characters die, which can be frustrating especially with the many monsters that have instant kill spells. However, it does mean that a game over doesn't send you back to your last save.


The other changes: Guns now have limited bullets, you can't do sword attacks from the back row of the party, and you can level up your proficiency with a specific sword by using it a lot. This last thing is a hidden parameter that I didn't know about until just now when I looked at the Wikipedia article. Finally, the Law/Chaos/Neutral system does not have any effect this time except which demons you can recruit, and the alignment is determined purely by what demons you have in your computer.

The game begins with the high school getting sucked into another dimension. All of the exits lead to strange areas of space, so nobody can leave. The rumor is this has something to do with a student named Hazama. The first task is to choose your companion. There are four companions, each with some differences.

  • Yumi, basically the default person. You get the "envy" and "greed" dungeon.
  • Charlie. You get the "anger" dungeon, and there is no final boss fight. The ending is different as well.
  • Reiko, you get the same dungeons as Yumi, but also an extra dungeon at the end that goes into Hazama's backstory (this is probably a good one to do for a first playthrough)
  • Akira, who can only be played after finishing the game once, and has a completely separate route from the others with new dungeons, and a different ending.

This is a nice feature that allows for some replayability. In 2004 there was also a Hazama story released for mobile phones, but I don't know if this was ever released outside of the phone or whether it's even available now. 


I went with Yumi since she's the first one that pops up (I wasn't fully aware that I was choosing a partner at this point, but that's fine). Most of the school is free of encounters and has a save point and a healing spot (for the humans), and we can pick up weapons and armor from the sports club rooms. One area of the school on the first floor has some demons, and leads to a gym where we find a summoning circle; the Demon King (Hazama) has us fight a weak monster. I died the first time and had to go back and pick up a Pixie for healing.

Once the monster is beaten, we receive a ring that lets us access the area "Between the Seals", where the ring opens up one of the doors. At this point the rest of the game is accessed from here -- we go through the dungeons of Pride, Gluttony, Sloth, Envy, and Greed. After those five, the upper levels of the school are unlocked and the final confrontation takes place. The dungeons have towns with shops and healing places, casinos, etc. There's no real explanation of this. The story also doesn't advance much in these dungeons (to be honest, the story is very minimal, at least on Yumi's route.)

Pride is a simple, short dungeon that doesn't have any particular tricks or difficulties to it -- just get to the end and beat the boss. I think I did a little bit of grinding for money to buy armor, and get some monsters.

Gluttony is a longer dungeon that's a bit more complex. At the end we have to hide ourselves in food to get eaten by this giant monster and then fight a boss inside the monster. It turns out the monster was actually the school principal.


Sloth is an incredibly annoying dungeon. On the third floor, slave drivers are making the students dig in the walls. They will dig one area for each full cycle of the moon you spend on the floor, and the encounter rate is insane. So basically you want to make a demon with Estoma (I made Unicorn from Elf and Cassie (the dog)). Even with Estoma it takes forever to advance the time enough to pass this part. I honestly don't know what the designers were thinking -- either the game didn't get playtested enough due to the short development time, or people still didn't quite recognize that they shouldn't put things like this in a game.


This is also the point where I had a similar experience to SMT 2; I found that the summoned demons became less and less useful. Especially with the large number of monsters that have instant kill techniques; I could barely keep the monsters alive for any fights and ended up just doing most of the game with the protagonist and the companion.

Envy makes you lose your companion. You can also (if you are the male protagonist) buy a Skull Armor here that deflects all physical attacks back on the attacker -- this totally breaks the game balance; you can't win every single fight just through Auto because not every attack is physical, but it certainly makes the game significantly easier. This dungeon also has a lot of dark places, warps, and places where you can't use the computer.

Greed is another long, warp dungeon but the gimmick is that there are a series of chests near the boss that have some of the strongest equipment in the game, but the more you take, the tougher the boss will be. I went the cowardly route and opened none of them; if you do that, the boss goes down in a few hits.

After this, the upper levels of the school open up. I went back to Greed to get the series regular, the strongest sword Hinokagutsuchi (you need one of the top Guardians to get this). With that sword and the physical attack deflecting armor, most of the monsters are not very difficult. Finally the last few levels have no monsters, and then we fight Hazama at the top

With the powerful sword and the armor he really couldn't do enough to me to put up a real fight. The only difficulty is that he repeatedly uses debuffing powers. Particularly the one that lowers your hit rate is problematic, and by the end of the fight I was missing every attack. You should probably bring along a demon that can cast the hit rate+ spell. Fortunately by that point he was weak enough that he killed himself with a reflected physical attack.


The conclusion is pretty disappointing on the Yumi route. You never learn anything about Hazama's motivation or background; the school just goes back to normal and you leave to resume a normal life. Let me know in the comments if you played the other routes.

I could play some of the other routes, but I feel like this basic SMT gameplay is getting pretty crusty at this point. I'd like to see the dungeons do more interesting things. Wizardry 1 back in 1980 built their dungeons mostly on mapping tricks -- pits, spinners, warps, dark areas, etc. Although the SMT games do certainly have more variety and more going on than Wizardry 1, I still feel like they over-rely on these old tricks that just aren't all that interesting anymore.

Next week, another kusoge attempt at an AI-only battle system.

Saturday, May 8, 2021

PCE Game 39 - Startling Odyssey II

Startling Odyssey II (スタートリング オデッセイ2 魔竜戦争)
Released 10/21/1994, developed by Ray Force

This is Ray Force's third (and final) game for the PC Engine. SO1 was a basic, cookie cutter RPG. SO2 is another basic, DQ2-clone RPG. It is more polished than the first one -- the graphics are better, there are more voiced cutscenes, the interface is cleaner, and the game as a whole moves more quickly. So if you like old-school, basic RPGs this one is probably not bad. There's even a translation patch, although it probably doesn't translate the voiced cutscenes.

As usual with this kind of game, I have very little to say about the gameplay. You buy the best equipment you can afford, use auto battle for most fights and hold down a speedup key, and go through dungeons and open chests and find the boss or goal. Rinse and repeat.

The game starts with some kind of magician or researcher causing demons to come into the world, and then the main character Robin killing a Chimera with one hit. He's well known in the kingdom for being the Blue-Haired Knight

Back in the capital city, Robin talks to the king's daughter, who is his half sister. He gets a new mission to head to Neria town to the south and see what's the matter there, taking his two best knights with him.

The townspeople say they saw a dragon, and going through the cave we come across the room where the magician from the opening was summoning the monster, but now it's gone. So back to the castle...where it turns out monsters have overrun the castle and killed the king. Robin's sister has gone on ahead to try to seek safety, so we follow her through the underground passage.

Robin's two knights have to push him away and collapse the corridor when they're attacked by dragons, and Robin goes on himself. Attempting to continue his escape a bridge falls away, sending him into the ravine.

He wakes up later in the care of Julia. He's been out for three days and is only now recovering. But when monsters attack the town, he heads out even in his weakened state.

The PC Engine allowed for more violence and sexual content than the Super Famicom. Anyway, this reopens Robin's wounds and he has to rest for a while more, but after he's healed he finds out that a child in the town is sick and needs a special item (the wing of an animal) to heal him. Julia joins him and they go out in search of the wing. They have to beat a boss:

And then find the wing and cure the child. At this point Robin decides he needs to continue on his journey (to find Patricia, his sister) and Julia decides to come with him.

This is where I stopped. As I said in the intro, this is a playable DQ2 clone -- if that's the kind of game you like this is a better game than other examples of the style. At the same time, I really would like to see them doing something innovative in 1994. Even Dragon Quest itself didn't make any true DQ2 clones.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Game 61 - Glory of Heracles IV

Glory of Heracles IV: Gift from the Gods (ヘラクレスの栄光IV 神々からの贈り物)
Released 10/21/1994, published by Data East


This is the last of the five Glory of Heracles games that Data East published. The series began in 1987 as the first Dragon Quest-style RPG after DQ itself, and continued with one Famicom game, one Game Boy game, and two Super Famicom games. The third game is usually considered the high point of the series because of its strong storyline. This game is better than 3 in its interface and gameplay, but the story is not quite as good as the game is fairly short.

As with the previous games, the setting is based on Greek mythology, this time centering around the land of Atlantis


Kurisu begins as a dog in a temple, with no intro or backstory. There's another dog that is sad to see me go, and an old woman -- Atropos, one of the three "weird sisters" spinning the world's fates. She is surprised to see I'm a dog, and then restores my memories, which leads to an extended flashback sequence.

Kurisu was born in Atlantis, 9000 years ago. There he was one of the students of Almora, who was researching eternal life. Kurisu's friend Platon is also a student, and they both have a crush on Elpira. But soon the Greeks attack the island, and though Hercules himself comes to protect him, the Greeks overrun the island. Kurisu escapes into the depths of Almora's research lab, and though everyone else is killed, Almora opens an Orichalcum box at the bottom. (There are battles in this section but you earn no XP)


The box turns out to be Pandora's box, which of course releases all the monsters, but Almora puts Kurisu and Platon inside the box. He tells us to come back to Atlantis to recover our bodies. Kurisu then appears 9000 years later as a disembodied spirit, charged by Atropos to figure out why the threads of fate are disappearing from the world -- this could lead to the extinction of humanity. Since he has no body, Kurisu has the ability to take over the bodies of certain people in the world he has an affinity with (the first one being this dog, Tanto).

This is the main system feature of the game. There are 101 characters throughout the game that Platon and Kurisu have "affinity" with. When you talk to someone and there's a flash of light, that means you can switch to their body. Each character has a specific weapon type they are proficient with, and also abilities that can be unlocked by gaining "FP" (fitness points) in battle. Each character has ten fitness levels. Bodies can be freely switched in and out of battle. Occasionally the switch can also have some benefits outside of battle, changing what people say or allowing you to access areas you wouldn't otherwise, but this doesn't happen that often.

Overall this is a fun system, and there is a wide variety of characters and abilities. I found two drawbacks, though. The first is that some of the abilities are very unbalanced. The sheep you can get in the first town has an ability that puts most monsters to sleep, including the final boss. Another character can quadruple the attack power of an ally.

The second drawback is that most of the good abilities are unlocked at Fitness Level 10, but at that point you want to switch to another character and so you don't really get to use the ability. Of course you can switch back and forth in battle but the interface to do that is (to me) too cumbersome, and the encounter rate too high, to really make that an attractive option. So it meant that a lot of times the interesting abilities went unused. I wish they had done something like this: rather than being able to switch to any body in combat, you can "equip" 3 or 4 bodies that you can switch between. You can change the equipped bodies out of combat. This way you could switch back and forth without having to scroll through 101 choices to find the person you're looking for.

I was the dog for a little too long because I couldn't figure out how to actually take the people's bodies (when you see the flash you then can get them from the "body" choice in the status screen). The world map seems to be based somewhat on the Mediterranean:

And the battle system is pretty much what you would expect.

The game also has the same shrine system as the third game, where you visit shrines of the greek gods around the world to learn spells. This time there are teleporters in the basement of each shrine that can send you to all the other shrines, which makes it much easier to pick up all the spells when you get a new person (this was an issue in 3). The priestesses are also all characters you can turn into.

You can get items from wells and pots in town, but your save file tracks how many times you've "stolen" and your party members don't like it. There's no game effect other than that, though.

Soon I met up with Platon. We recognize each other because one power we got from Pandora's Box was the ability to jump from a high place with no injury.

Platon is the only other character who can freely switch bodies. Together we decide that we need to get back to Atlantis, as Almora told us to do, in order to recover our original bodies. This requires a bird feather that can be enchanted to go anywhere; once we catch the bird, get the feather, and get the proper enchantment, it's off to Atlantis.

But there, the whole thing is sunk under the sea and only the battlements are left. Platon refuses to accept this is Atlantis until he sees graffiti that they left there as kids:

Incidentally this game makes frequent use of Mode 7 on the world map and benefits a lot from the HD Mode 7 feature on recent BSNES versions. (Right is original, left is 720p HD):

Heracles also appears at Atlantis and we leave in a ship, which crash lands on a different part of the continent. Continuing on, we learn that Trantia's king is called Almora, and he's apparently researching eternal life. Obviously this is our teacher that has somehow survived this long, and so now we try to chase him down. Trantia also has two very useful roles; a massage therapist that can cure status effects for everyone, and the researcher that can quadruple damage. We also get a fourth party member, Delia, whose mother is sick. She's interested in the eternal life, and is taken by Almora to his research lab, so we later follow them.

Almora is in his secret research lab, which has a bunch of puzzles to solve to reach the end.

But Almora is already gone; he's moved on to the Pyramids in Egpyt to research mummification. We get a ship to Egypt but have to work as slaves to get the use of these desert creatures that let us travel on the desert. For some reason once we work a bit as slaves we're able to get the creature and then never work as slaves again -- the dialogue made it seem like we had been tricked and sold into slavery, but I guess not.

The Queen of Thebes is a useable character, and it's fun to walk around and talk to people as her. She also has pretty good stats, and can use any weapon.

Delia is in the pyramids, but she's been turned into some kind of zombie or mummy and doesn't remember her mother. Almora left a note apologizing that mummification isn't the right way to do eternal life, but he has moved on. At this point Heracles gets pissed off that we're putting our search for Almora and Atlantis over killing monsters, and he leaves. We move on back north, heading to Greece. The Spartan soldiers have all grown cowardly, thanks to the Fear monster in a nearby cave (presumably released from Pandora's Box).

Sparta also has an alchemy place and a "polishing" place where you can make weapons and armor. You can also melt down the ones you have to get the items necessary to craft new ones. I didn't make much use of this during the game but perhaps I should have used it more; I think you can get some good weapons and armor from using it.

Athens is up next, where there is a weak child king and a mute woman Paris that he seems to love. It turns out that Persia is preparing to attack Greece, and Platon really wants to stop the war, so we head off to Persia (with Paris following us). The random encounters I thought got much more difficult after this point in the game. In Persia we defeat the Hatred spirit that seemed to be messing with the king, but then fall into the underworld. Delia knows that she's done this before.

The reason Delia lost her memories is that she drank from the Lethe River in the underworld to be reborn. But when we beat up Charon she recovers her memory, and he sends us to Hades to figure out if we can be reborn. Heracles is also there, and he tries to convince Hades to let us go back, but instead he throws us into Tartarus.

It turns out that Paris is actually Epifa, the Atlantis girl that we both had crushes on. She's been reborn over and over again, but now gets all her memories back. It's easier than it should be to escape Tartarus, and we fall back to the earth. I'll pass over a few things and eventually we reach Troy, where we finally meet Almora. His goal is now to get revenge on all the gods for the destruction of Atlantis, so now we have to stop him too. Troy also has specialists in all the kinds of weapons, and they have some good abilities to learn. We're both now trying to get back to Atlantis, and for us, that means an underwater ship.


Unfortunately Poseidon sinks the ship and generally acts like a dick, but eventually Heracles talks him out of his anger and we finally make it to Atlantis....only to find that we can't open the way to the lab. Who else could do it but Atlas?

Unfortunately Almora is also trying to get Atlas to open the way, using his tower to support the world instead. Atlas begs us to get Medusa's Head and turn him to stone so that he can't be used for evil purposes. This requires using pegasus to go up to heaven, but we do manage it. Poor Atlas.

But now how to we get in? Wait, how did Heracles get in 9000 years ago? Well, he used the "Tear of Zeus", and by making one of those (from the King of Greece's necklace) we manage, at long last, to get into Atlantis.

This is the last dungeon.

At the bottom, we get our original bodies back!

Almora is there too, taken over by the spirit of Vengeance. First we have to fight Almora, who is immune to all the status effects and uses defense raising powers, and gets 2 actions a turn. This was the hardest fight in the game but Heracles has a defense-ignoring power which is the key to winning. Vengeance itself can be put to sleep.

And that's the end. The monsters stay in the world, though, so our heroes still have tasks to do. There's not much of an epilogue, though, so it's not clear exactly what they will be doing.

Overall I think it's a pretty good game. As I said, the interface could have been improved a bit and it's not very long. But it has a translation patch so I recommend giving it a try.