Pixel Journeys thumbnail['Pixel Journeys' is a mammoth GameSetWatch-exclusive monthly column by @Play creator John Harris, discussing games with unusual design attributes that have lessons to teach modern game designers. In this column, he looks at obscure Japan-only dice-based RPG Sugoro Quest - and why not?]

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These are the two great trends for CRPG development:

The first, focused upon by western developers, is towards greater freedom of player choice. Originating from Dungeons & Dragons, it has found fullest fruit in the Fallout games, the Elder Scrolls games, and in the roguelike games. But even the more linear RPGs usually feature some degree of player exploration and decision-making.

The second trend is towards depth of storytelling, which is the direction that most Japanese developers went. Taking more from the story tropes of D&D than its gameplay, it tends to focus more on storytelling than player decision-making.

The two branches of the tree have, in the years since 1974, grown far from each other. Eternal Sonata bears little in common with Fallout III. This month, we take a look at a game from a time when the two families weren't anywhere near so estranged.

Let's examine the unexpectedly awesome Japanese game Sugoro Quest.

Introduction

(Note: I played this Japan-only Famicom game through a translation [patch file only] made by Alan Midas and touched up by KingMike Productions. There is also a SNES sequel, Sugoro Quest++: Dicenics, which seems to be substantially different in many ways, and what might be an upcoming Wii resurrection of the series, Sugoro Chronicle. None of these games has officially made it to the United States, and knowing publishers, they probably never will. Thinking too hard about the injustice of this situation will make you want to punch things.)

Sugoro Quest is special because it's one of the few games I could name that's unabashedly a combination of both approaches. It's like a powergaming-heavy Western game, yet it has that Japanese design aesthetic. To top it all off, it's an RPG that likes to pretend it's a board game.

What do I mean, likes to pretend? Each area is laid out in squares and paths. You alternate between rolling a die and moving that number of spaces on the board. Some spaces cause events to happen if you roll on or past them, but others only activate if you land right on their space. There are good and bad events of both types. Because some spaces don't get landed on, there will be some events that do not happen during a playthrough, giving each run a pleasingly chaotic feel.

Remember now that many of the classic adventures of "traditional" RPGs contain random, or quasi-random, events. Some adventures allow the players to bypass the big fight against Foozle if they've been clever enough to find some object elsewhere in the dungeon, or make use of some cunningly-acquired information, or just out-clever the monster. The best such adventures encourage this kind of thing, but central to the idea is that the players have no guarantee of it. A few adventures contain surpassingly well-hidden things, things you'd think no sane group of players would encounter. You can bet, though, that someone out there has.


Playing the Game

For this play, I've chosen to take the oddly leotard-clad Half-Elf on a jaunt through the Beach area, to see what's been causing local fishermen to not pull in any fish. Now this may seem like a strange theory, but something makes me think the source of the problem must be some kind of monster...

We start at the head of a long path marked with spaces. Along the way are many kinds. The most common on most maps are "ordinary," orange spaces, each of which contains a fight with a monster. Although they aren't marked, each space actually has a specific monster to fight. Some areas of the board have lots of one type, while others offer a mix. Sometimes there's even one or two special monsters who only exist on a single space, and it might take many plays before you land on it.

This is because movement is handled much like a traditional follow-the-path board game, like Milton Bradley's Game of Life or Monopoly. Each turn begins when you select Move and roll a single die, which determines how many spaces you travel. A few spaces, like castles, villages and caves, activate when you pass by them (and ending your turn), but most spaces must be landed on to have any effect. Usually this isn't a big deal, but there are a few spaces that are very nice to land on if you know which ones they are.

The Beach map is the third of the six in the game. It seems that you don't have to play all of then, but ultimately the maps exist in order to boost your characters for tackling later maps. Each map has much tougher monsters than the previous one, so attempting to have a character skip one is usually suicidal. Since each trip only allows one of the four characters on the journey you might think playing through each map four times to be repetitive, but it turns out there's enough happening on each map, enough secret things and alternate routes, and the four characters are different enough from each other, that each board tends to remain interesting even through several playthroughs.

Speaking of those characters, let's have a look at how they differ.

The FIGHTER specializes, as you might expect, in physical confrontations. His weapon attacks, of course, are pretty good. He does pick up some magic too, in fact he gets Heal in the first few levels, and the Fighter must rely upon it. But he begins with no magic at all, and he doesn't even get the chance to earn MP until he earns his first spell. Eventually the Fighter earns several, some not bad, but his stats and dice generally force him to attack opponents. That's good because he can save what little MP he does get for healing, but it's bad because when a physical attack fails enemies get the chance to retaliate with a special attack, and some of those decrease attack effectiveness, which can make your character almost useless. If faced with a situation like that, most of the time the player must flee, leave his fate to one of the capricious Dicemen, or die.

The DWARF is the character you might have expected the Fighter to be. While he does eventually pick up a scant handful of spells, he won't get his first for many levels. The Dwarf must thus rely on items, or luck, for healing for most of his life. His great physical stats mean he'll start out with lots of HP, and gain even more when he lands on bonus spaces. Otherwise he's like an even more focused version of the Fighter. One more thing, the Dwarf is the only character who never learns the DiceCall spell...

The ELF is the major magic-using character. She can fight a little bit if need be if you've kept her equipment upgraded, but magic is what you usually rely upon. Elf gets the most spells, and gets lots of MP to use them. Suguro Quest is a game in which utility spells truly shine; there are spells to do direct damage, to improve your dice, to worsen your opponents dice, to heal, and even to decide what you'll roll for movement.

And then there's HALF-ELF. At first she might seem to be the all-rounder, with general proficiency in everything, but as is often the case with these characters in RPGs, it really means that she's only okay at both physical attacks or attack magic. However, since many monsters are weak to either normal attacks or magic, since she can do both it means she won't have as many situations where she's badly outmatched.

There is a hidden advantage to playing the Half-Elf, one which will come up as we follow her on a trip through the third map, the Beach.


Here we are at the start. While you can do several things, like use spells or some items, most of the time we use the Move command to roll the die and move some spaces forward. The die goes from 1 to 6, although some important spaces will cut that move short.

Once a space is passed, it becomes difficult to return to it. The only ways to return to an earlier space on a playthrough is to run from battle (which may send the player back a handful of spaces, but may also get him into another fight), or to find a loop in the path. Usually the way you want to go is forward, since the paths generally lead to the boss, but there are a few very special spaces the player would be greatly helped by landing on.

This mechanic is a large part of what makes Sugoro Quest so interesting to play. It's not like a CRPG where once the player knows the right people to talk to he can always get particular things and advance with the story. The rolls of the dice can make the game very easy or very hard. There is an aspect of unfairness here, perhaps, but the player can make up for that by buying utility items in the shop, and just plain-out giving it another go. There is no lasting penalty for failing a map, and the player can try again and again until he makes it.

In the above screenshot, the first roll is a 2, which takes Half-Elf onto a Pool space. A good start! The most common spaces are "plain" spaces, which contain monster fights, and pools, which give the player extra HP and MP. One unique thing about this game is that characters don't have maximum HP or MP stats. If the player lands on three consecutive Pools, the points continue to pile up more and more. Many times maps begin with a lot of Pool spaces, and end with a lot of monster spaces, which provides for an escalating difficulty as progress is made through the level.

The second roll is a six, which takes us into the Castle so the move ends there. The land's king says their fishermen aren't pulling in any fish. Their livelihood is threatened!

King: "Whatever the source, I want you to find it! First you should find yourself a good strong boat though!"
Half-Elf: "A boat in a land of fishermen. Easy! I'll just go run off and get one!"

Oh Half-Elf, if only it were that simple.

The next two moves are a 2, then a 3. The 2 takes us to another Pool, but the third brings us to the first fight of the map:


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It's an Anti-Dice. They're the weakest opponents in the Beach, but they have an annoying special attack.

Fights in Sugoro Quest are also fairly unique. There are three major things you can do in a turn. Fight and Magic work similarly, you and the monster's "Diceman," an animated proxy that represents the monster in the fight, roll dice simultaneously and the numbers are compared.

It is a simple test of magnitude; whoever has the higher number has his attack succeed, and the difference between the two dice is the effectiveness of the attack. This screen shows Half-Elf losing one to five, a substantial difference. In addition to raising stats, gaining levels will occasionally upgrade a die, to a maximum range of one through nine. Attack and Magic dice improve separately, so while the fighter might roll one through four on Attack, he might be capable of getting only a one or two on Magic.

Half-Elf is also in a little trouble when Anti-Dice uses SlowDice, a spell which lowers your attack die rolls for the rest of the fight. Lower rolls mean your hits succeed less often, and the enemy's succeeds more, which he might use to pop another SlowDice, making the situation even worse. It's possible for a die to get degraded to the point where it only rolls 1s, a hopeless situation unless you have some means of escape or a trick up your sleeve.

But Half-Elf is eventually victorious, and continues on her journey. The next roll is a 6, which takes us to a village.

Old Man: "Finally someone's come to help us fishermen! Garin might be able to spare a boat! My boat sank." Half-Elf: "While I have no doubt that you only have yourself to blame for that, I can't help but glean a sense of foreboding from your words."
The next moves, in accordance with the hateful laws of chance, are a 1, a 2, and another 1. The first and third spaces are monsters, a Ketbash in both cases, a kind of angry toucan-parrot.

But the middle roll lands poor Half-Elf on a Skull. Skull spaces cause the character to lose a percentage of his points, around one-fifth of the current value. Because spaces that do instant damage (instead of bringing forth a monster to do the hitting) seem to always hurt for a percentage of current HP, it's impossible die from them. If you have one HP and land on a Skull you won't lose anything, but if you have a lot of hits you'll similarly lose a lot. The implications of this will be easier to see when we reach the ocean. That last monster also gave enough experience points to being Half-Elf to a new experience level.

Next move's a three, landing our heroine on another appreciated Pond space. HP are now 117 and MP are at a respectable 210. While sources of straight damage on the board tend to take off percentages of the player's totals, the bonuses from Pool Spaces are proportional to the player's statistics. So high-level characters get more benefit from pools, but having that high HP means penalty spaces will similarly take off more.

The next roll's a 5, shown above on the step-before-last of the move. This landed on one of the game's better spaces, a Shield. Shield, Sword and Armor spaces grant a bonus to a piece of equipment in use, shown on the stat screen as a "plus." The bonus is slight but permanent; it even persists when the map is finished. It's lost when the player changes equipment though, so the CRPG upgrade cycle tends to eliminate these boosts.

Both the next moves, unfortunately, are 1s. This Half-Elf is slightly over-leveled for this map so they don't cause much problems, but even weak monsters can wear you down if the dice aren't tumbling in your favor. Actually, Half-Elf has a potent weapon against bad movement rolls that I'm not using at the moment to save magic points, but I hadn't expected this kind of bad luck. Surely it can't last, can it?

Rolled a three, bringing me to a village.
Guy: "Hello HalfElf. We're all friends of Garin here... Are you scared of what's ahead?"

Uh-oh, it's a choice! If this game were just about rolling a die and moving your character it'd be a little interesting due to the way randomness affects the player's progress, but it wouldn't really be memorable. Choices like this one mix things up, giving the player some say over his route. Depending on whether I say yes or no I'll take a different path through the level, and each path may provide an advantage, or inflict a disadvantage, that will affect my progress through the board. These decision trees are a big part of the game, and the Beach map in particular is devious in its use of them. Here, I answered "Yes."

Guy: "You're either brave or stupid..."
Half-Elf: "Thanks for your opinion, I'll be sure to file it away for future reference. Jerk."

Rolled a 5, getting me to another village. I'm having unusually bad dice luck here; low rolls on this path would have gotten me one or two more Pools, but I just whooshed on by. The other route has rougher terrain, but it also would have given Half-Elf a Fish, which has an unexpected use later on.

The village's message was a warning about the ocean, special board spaces found only on this map that can either greatly help, or harm, the player's health. Without a boat, the effort of swimming through the water takes off a whole fifth of the player's HP every time a space is landed upon. Around half of this map, by the end, is ocean spaces, and it doesn't take many of them to bring the player's health down to perilous levels. Even worse, ocean spaces also bear monsters to fight. At this point in the map there has been no chance to get a boat, so the player always must swim through this first ocean section.

Look at these rolls! Three 1s, and a 2 and a 3 among them. It took me six turns to pass these eleven spaces, bringing our poor gymnast down to 40 hits. At least as health is lost further losses are lessened. It's impossible to actually die from penalty spaces; if the player's taken down to 1 HP then all penalties will be for 0 damage, but since these spaces also contain monsters, it's a dangerous way to proceed.

A monster encountered on one of these spaces is a Sea Borz, whose Diceman used a dirty trick common to the foes of this game. Instead of rolling his die, he threw it at Half-Elf, knocking her out! When this happens, the enemy gets to throw dice unopposed until she wakes up, generally doing large amounts of damage. There's not much the player can do about this, although as the characters gain levels the trick works less often. Another trick they sometimes pull is to stomp the ground after the dice have come to rest, flipping their die over to a different number, but since they aren't discriminating when they do this, the trick is as likely to hurt the monster as the player!

The player can also use tricks, of a sort. On his turn, he can choose to use an item from his inventory. Unexpectedly, using an item does not use up a turn, although it usually consumes the item. If you use an item on a turn, the enemy does not roll unless it was a dice-affecting item. A common item found from searching random spaces is a Stone, a one-use attack that does a handful of damage to any foe without rolling. Since the opposition doesn't get a roll against this, if you have enough Stones even tough monsters can be brought down! The player's limited inventory space works against this tactic, however.

Rolling a 3, Half-Elf lands on a space and promptly gets her leotard-covered butt handed to her by a Ketbash. Even though she's a bit over-leveled for here, the monster's Diceman threw a die at her, knocking her out for consecutive turns, and with the combination of low HP from swimming and the lack of a chance to use heal spells, she lost. Fortunately she had an Elixir at hand, so she didn't get thrown out of the map. If at least one Elixir is held in inventory upon dying then the player can pick up where he left off, although he'll still have very few HP.

Elixirs are cheap, but the low health replenished by them makes them ill-suited to use to power through a level, and losing a fight to a boss sends the player on an alternate path away from the goal. Those paths always loop around for another go at the boss, but if he's already severely depleted after a failed boss fight his chances aren't going to be much better the next time around.

After healing up a little the next roll is a two, taking us to another village:
Girl: "My boss used to be the best fisherman in the country! His boat used to be the fastest thing in the water! You can use it if you want! (garbled text*)
HalfElf: "Really?"
Girl: "It's old now..."
HalfElf: "Oh well..."
Girl: "It might sink..."
HalfElf: "..."
Girl: "No! I was joking? Still want it?"

* The translation patch I'm using has a couple of bugs in it. The conversation at this point is a bit messed up. In later screenshots you'll see the garbage on the sides of the window.

This is actually a pretty important decision, but not for any reason the game would bother to tell you! Answering no sets the character on the route east, answering yes takes us north with an Old Boat.

Although it's a bit iffy, let's try our luck with the Boat.

The next rolls are a 2 and a 4, bring HalfElf to the shores of the ocean once more. Now that we have a boat, ocean spaces actually heal her!

Ah, this is the life. With all these hit points, even the boss should present no problem. Unless...

It sank! This means trouble. Although actually, the boat always sinks on this square; it's an invisible event space that can't be bypassed. But look at the map:

sqwarp.png

Six steps away is a warp space. This is a very important spot to try to land on. Important enough not to leave this to chance...

It's time to use HalfElf's secret weapon: the DiceCall spell.

In exchange for 14 MP, HalfElf gets to decide how many spaces she'll move. She gets this spell as early as level 3! It may seem like a ridiculous advantage in a game like this, and it's true, this is about the point in the game where it's most useful. Much earlier and 14 MP would be too much to dispense with, and soon after here Elf will be learning it too, and the boards will be designed to take it into more account. Even Fighter learns it late in the game. (Dwarf never learns it, the poor schmuck.) DiceCall is HalfElf's major advantage, the thing that makes her an interesting character for the first half of the game. She can use DiceCall to hit every Pool she comes across and build her HP and MP to astronomical levels. But this is balanced by her general weakness in other areas; even a character with 999 HP can lose it all against a boss she's not ready for.

Beneath the Surface

This kind of design is evident everywhere in Sugoro Quest. Another example, from earlier in the game:

At the beginning of the second level is this area, which has been set up in a fairly ingenious way. This run of spaces contains many villagers who have things to say if landed on, Some of them also have items to give the player. The most useful, by far, of them all is a Medicine, hidden on the next-to-last space in the area. Upon use, Medicine grants a very large (100+) HP and MP bonus, and upon use has a chance of remaining around to be used again. Level 2 contains two tough bosses, so this Medicine is a very helpful thing to have, but these spaces only give up their loot if landed upon.

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It may seem at first like a fairly slim chance the player will get the Medicine, but the designers have built in a clever way to allow an observant player to bend his way to the Medicine space. Three of the spaces in the section give the player single-use Amulets. In Sugoro Quest, Amulet items have numbers attached to them. Here, the items are Amulet2, Amulet3 and Amulet1. When used, an Amulet item rolls the movement die and causes the number indicated to come up.

If you look at the map above, you might notice something interesting about how the Amulets are placed, and their numbers. If used immediately, it will send the player either to another Amulet in the chain, or to the Medicine! A player who realizes this will have a much greater chance of getting to that Medicine space; instead of only receiving it if he lands on that one space, he can get it if he hits any of four.

The presence this trick, and others like it, shows that the designers put serious thought into the map layouts. It may look like a whimsical RPG board game to you, but they worked hard to make up for the randomness and keep it fair for the player, while not going to far and designing the randomness out of the game. It's quite ingenious.


Returning to Level 3, successfully landing on that warp space takes the player to this little partitioned-off area. The middle space of this route is another hidden event: a helpful fairy gives the player a Fairy Boat. This is a major boon; it turns out this is the only unsinkable boat in the level! Even Garin's Boat, found by refusing the Old Boat, swimming across a second ocean section, then navigating through a lengthy route on land, sinks shortly after use. Only with the Fairy Boat can the player make it through the sea just before the boss without suffering through many turns of constant HP depletion.

But even knowing this, it's not so simple:

  • If the player answered "yes" to the "Are you scared?" question back at the beginning, then for some reason after getting the Fairy Boat another character will claim it's stolen property and confiscate it!
  • If the player manages to keep the Fairy Boat, his route will take him into a looped area filled with monster fights, with a warp tile exit. This is not necessarily bad, since he's getting HP back with every turn, but if unlucky he might be trapped in that cul-de-sac for some time.
  • Even knowing this, there is a good reason to forego the Fairy Boat and take the main route through the latter half of the level. If the player answered "Yes" to the "Are you scared?" man, he'll have picked up the Fish. When that Fish is delivered to Garin, he'll point him to a small side-route that contains a strong suit of armor. The armor is usable by all four characters, is probably better than anything he could find to that point, and even if he's already gotten it or better, it can be sold back at base for good money.

What can we learn from Sugoro Quest?

What Sugoro Quest presents is a game in which randomness is allowed to shape the adventure without constructing it entirely.

The board game structure is ultimately a trick itself, a way to get the player to swallow the unusual form of its play. The movement die mixes up the boons and banes the player gathers on his way to the boss, which helps the game to remain interesting even after several playthroughs. The presence of die-affecting spells and Amulets, however, allows him some degree of control over which spaces he lands on. In other words, the game allows the player to choose his luck, basically random but more ordered when the player judges the stakes high enough to expend resources to affect them.

On a Sugoro Quest character's first trip through a level, the player likely doesn't have the information necessary to make good decisions on where to expend those resources, but as he comes to learn which spaces are the special ones, and what their effects are, he'll be better able to see where it's best to play his limited degree of pressure upon the dice. Sugoro Quest is thus a game of chance tempered with skill, in which the player must leave his progress up to the winds of fate, except for when he knows better than to do a fool thing like that.

Most other JRPGs tend to play like this, except with all the chance stripped out. The advancement of the genre has seen the removal of most of the randomization, even in combat. When a traditional RPG character hits, he tends to do an amount of damage between a small number and a large number: 1d4, 2d6, 3d10+2. When a JRPG character hits, he generally does damage determined by his stats and weapon, plus a very small number thrown in to hide the fact that damage is basically constant.

JRPGs are a bit stronger as a means of presenting a linear story. Sugoro Quest combines the linear path of JRPGs with a bit of variation, enough to put the storytelling focus on the success of the character instead of the machinations of the scenario writer.

As a result, I found it's a lot easier to get involved with the fate of happy-go-lucky, spandex-clad Half-Elf than any number of 14-year-old emo amnesiac swordsmen, shepherding their doe-eyed charges through goofy anime-reject scenarios.