July 12, 2006 8:21 PM | trevorw
['Compilation Catalog' is a regular biweekly analysis of retro remakes and compilations old and new. This entry's subject is Falcom Classics, released in 1997 for the Japanese Sega Saturn.]
The amount of time and effort the venerable Japanese PC developer Falcom has spent remaking and re-remaking their classic franchises (most notably Ys) has become almost a running joke over the years. It's tempting to see this package, developed by JVC Victor and released in 1997 for the Japanese Sega Saturn, as more squeezing of the same bloodless stone. But included along with the requisite Ys are two of Falcom's earliest hits, Dragon Slayer and Xanadu, which influenced the entire course of Japanese action RPGs afterward. While fans who are only familiar with Ys might not see these two dusty old relics as classics, they're still quite playable today, and an interesting look at a genre in its infancy.
Each of the three games has been completely overhauled in colorful 32-bit-era 2D, far cry from the originals' EGA-ish graphics. Each has redone - or new, depending on the case - music, too, though the games have tended to retain their original sound effects, appropriately. Most importantly, though, the earlier two games in the pack have had their controls streamlined and adapted to the Saturn's joypad, making them much easier to get into than the Japanese PC originals are these days. Plus, each of the games has a new "Saturn Mode" that add additional gameplay tweaks, but these can be skipped in favor of an "Original Mode" for each.
Dragon Slayer, released in 1984, is the very first action-RPG ever made. At first it might look very much like the graphical derivatives of Rogue that have proliferated over the years, right down to the way you bump into enemies to attack them. But even apart from the fact that it runs in real-time, Dragon Slayer's rules are a bit different. The game plops the player down in the middle of a 2D overhead map that's scattered with blocks, potions, monsters, chests, gold coins, and a fair variety of items whose purpose will surely be a mystery to any new player, including a...house? There doesn't seem to be much of a goal to the game at first glance. Sure, there are monsters to kill and treasure to find, but the functions of items are a mystery, there's nothing to buy with the treasure, and enemies don't add to a player's experience levels. And where's the exit to this level?!
The point of the game becomes more clear when one notices that picking up one of the crystals scattered around a level and then "using" it on the house (the player's home, which is located right in the dungeon, for some reason) increases the player's strength by a good deal. Additional items increase health and damage potential, while others can be used to defend against the attacks of enemies. Further structure is noticeable when the player comes upon a gigantic, unmoving, three-headed dragon situated in one corner of the first level. Attacking it early on is an easy way to experience a quick death, but thankfully there have been more than enough items placed within the level to allow the player to grow strong enough to (of course) slay the dragon.
Once that's been accomplished, the game moves on to the next stage, with a new layout and another dragon to beat. It's like a series of miniature, abstract RPGs laid end to end. One could be forgiven for noticing a resemblance between this game and a fourteen-year-old's summer project, thanks to its seemingly nonsensical nature and arbitrary mechanics. And once you've figured out how to play the game, all is not roses: it can be irritating juggling the one item you can carry (a key, a cross, a ring) and those that you accumulate, and making trips between item fields and home can be a chore, even after one learns how to push the house around (!). However, it's interesting to see how such an untamed project gave birth to a relatively measured genre.
Xanadu (which has no relation to Olivia Newton John) was developed as a direct sequel to Dragon Slayer. It was one of the first big hits in the Japanese PC game market, having sold over 400,000 copies after its release in 1985. Its graphical style and assortment of items bear some resemblance to its predecessor, but Falcom practically started from scratch with the game's design, resulting in something that should be much more recognizable to modern players. The bulk of the game takes place in an underground, 2D dungeon that's viewed from the side this time, and there are ladders, doors, pitfalls, and shops to navigate. Enemies can be seen roaming around on the map, and when the player's character collides with one, a top-down encounter begins. The player can attack the enemies by simply running into them, or magic can be used to attack from afar. Once each of the enemies are killed - or once the player escapes - the game continues as usual. Each of the game's ten areas (called "floors" even though each has many of its own floors and distinct areas) has smaller, self-contained sub-dungeons. Upon entry, these are represented entirely by rooms in a top-down perspective, with individual enemies infesting each room.
Familiar elements abound here, for fans of both Eastern and Western RPGs old and new. When starting a game, the player is set free in a surface-level town, which has various shops and training facilities that can be used to improve the player's starting statistics (most of which are swiped wholesale from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons). There's experience to be gained here, and underground churches where the player can level up (each level of fighter or mage experience has its own title - a nice touch). The items that can be found are pretty close to the consumables seen in later (and even modern) action RPGs. Subterreanean shops carry weapons, armor, keys, and food, the last of which is consumed slowly over time and is essential for keeping our intrepid adventurer alive. Weapons and armor change the player's sprite visibly when equipped, which is a cute touch, and the game's indigenous monsters are nicely varied (if not always original - watch out for those Beholders).
The game does have its share of problems. Game balance shouldn't be mentioned in this case so much as a complete lack thereof, and the archaic, inertialess "jumping" takes some getting used to. Starting around Floor 3 or 4, dungeon design becomes pretty devious, and it's often easy to find oneself stuck in a room without a key to get out. Granted, there's an in-game escape button included just in case that does happen, but who wants to get sent back to the first floor every time the level layout gets the best of them? Judicious saving can help avoid this, however. Also, the "karma" stat, while an interesting predecessor to more developed morality systems, is a sticky matter. Killing certain enemies raises the player's karma by a certain amount, and if a player's karma is too high, priests in churches will refuse to grant level-ups. The only way to decrease karma is to drink a black potion, which also has the effect of knocking off half a player's health bar. It probably won't be clear to most players which enemies are "good" and which aren't, so it's easy to end up facing either a drug habit or a restart.
Even so, learning the dungeon layouts and figuring out how to best use the game's sytems for survival is satisfying, and boss encounters are rare enough that they're thrilling when they're discovered. And discovery is key here: it might have tiny graphics, but this is a big, big game, with lots to explore and find and see and do. Plus, even when the game's balance has you down, the whole thing is practically begging to be exploited for all it's worth. It can be a vicious game, but it gives the player more than enough means to be vicious right back to it. (Check over here for a video of the game being completely taken apart in 13 minutes.)
1987's Ys doesn't bear series links to either of the above games, but Xanadu's collide-to-attack mechanic was included and practically refined into an art form. This game is most often compared, unfavorably, to its contemporary The Legend of Zelda, and many players aren't sure what to think of a game that doesn't require you to swing your sword to hit enemies. But the heavily action-based play style is still as solid and addictive as it always was, and while the game's messy dungeon layouts haven't aged as well as its setting or story, it's still easy to see why Ys has remained popular all these years. Ys was originally the main draw in this package, and most of the bonus material included in the limited edition of Falcom Classics is strictly Ys-related. The game had already been remade a couple of times and ported to many, many platforms before this package came out, and it would go on to be remade again in the super-polished, high-resolution Ys Eternal.
This version of the game is certainly attractive, and its Saturn Mode adds a run button and diagonal controls. How much these actually aid the original gameplay is debatable, though, and the lack of voice and the relatively high level of Japanese required - at least, compared to next to nothing in Xanadu and Dragon Slayer - make this remake hard to recommend as a reason to track down the package. Plus, the remixes of the classic tunes - which are arguably what the series is known for - are merely pedestrian and functional. Luckily, the other games in this collection provide an interesting enough glance into the (pre-)history of Japanese computer games and RPGs that they make this package more than worthwhile, especially for its easily-manageable going price on eBay.
[Trevor Wilson is a web developer and amateur game developer who indulges his unhealthy obsession with obscure, strange, and unique video games over at his weblog, namako team. Thanks goes to the always excellent Hardcore Gaming 101 for the screenshots of Ys and Xanadu.]
Categories: Column: Compilation Catalog