JRPG Junkie’s Review of Skies of Arcadia

It’s not completely positive, as they point out the game’s high encounter rate and the slowness of battle, but gosh there’s a lot of awesome things in Skies of Arcadia that don’t seem to have ever been revisited in other games.

The main overworld is one in which you have an airship and fly around a world that has floating islands but no real ground. Sure, that’s been done by other people, and more than once, and fairly recently too, but SoA brought some really interesting nuance to it that gave players good reason to explore, like interesting optional subquests. You could find mysterious locations out in the world and sell them to the Explorer’s Guild for extra money, but only if you’re quick enough to stay ahead of rival ships also looking for them. There was also an alternate form of combat, ship-to-ship (and sometimes ship-to-huge-monster) battles, that played out very differently from the JRPG norm. All the extra things to do gave the game this weird veneer of simulationism, which I always find interesting, even if it was largely an illusion.

Skies of Arcadia was originally a Dreamcast release, one of only two substantive JRPGs made for that system (the other was Grandia II), and fell victim to the Dreamcast’s short life and subsequent exit from console manufacturing by Sega. It did get a remake for the Gamecube, but that was the last we’ve seen of Skies of Arcadia, other than character cameos in Sonic racing games.

JRPG Junkie: Back to the Backlog – Skies of Arcadia

Kimimi the Game-Eating She Monster: Brandish

I still have to figure out some consistent way to differentiate things we’re linking to, in titles, from our own content. It’s making me uncomfortable how things we link to on other sites are generally not distinguishable from things we make ourselves. The site: title construction is the best I’ve come up with for that, although I also use it for our own subseries, like Sundry Sunday. Please, except this rambly prologue as an introduction!

Kimimi the Game-Eating She Monster writes lots of interesting stuff, and we’ve linked to her several times before. In fact I have a whole Firefox window devoted to pieces she’s made. This one is about the Super Famicom (and others) game Brandish, one of Nihon Falcom’s many interesting RPG experiments.

Brandish is played in a dungeon where each level is a map, and monsters appear on it, and you attack them in real-time, without going to a separate screen. That is to say, combat isn’t “modal.” When switches change the state of the dungeon, you see their results happen immediately. Areas blocked to you are shown as just plain wall until you reveal them.

These things all make Brandish seem almost like (here’s that word again) a roguelike. But Brandish’s dungeon isn’t random, but set; the game isn’t a generalized system like roguelikes often are, but has set scenario. That makes it seem like a lot of other early RPGs. And one weird thing about it that’ll definitely require some adjustment is, Brandish is programmed so that your character always faces up; if you rotate to face a direction, the dungeon rotates around you. But the game doesn’t use the Super Nintendo’s “Mode 7” rotation feature: the dungeon turns immediately, which is disorientating until you get used to it, and even, it’s still a little disorientating. Brandish probably works that way because it was originally a Japanese PC game, and to implement Mode 7 rotation would mean having to rework some graphics to reflect the different perspectives.

Here’s a Youtube video of a playthrough. Skip past the intro, and what I’m talking about should become clear:

And now you’re ready for Kimimi’s own piece on Brandish. She likes it! And I agree, it’s a very interesting system. Brandish was popular enough to get multiple sequels. If you want to learn more about the series generally, Kurt Kalata’s Hardcore Gaming 101 has a good introduction to them.

Kimimi the Game-Eating She Monster Covers Brandish

Sundry Sunday: Doctor Who 16-Bit RPG

Sundry Sunday is our weekly feature of fun gaming culture finds and videos, from across the years and even decades.

Among other accomplishments (most of them recently have been musical), years ago DoctorOctoroc made a number of 16-bit Square-styled videos based on a number of media properties. We linked to their humorous take on Breaking Bad a while ago. This is another, from around the time of 11th Doctor Doctor Who. You might say that DoctorOctoroc doctored 11th Doctor Doctor Who. Gimmie the news, I got a bad case of loving you!

Here is that take, which will take four minutes of your time, and is suitable to watch during your stay in some kind of medical waiting room.

SpriteCell’s JRPG Magazine Review Archive

This is quite a collection to look through! While it was originally posted in 2021, it was updated with some new reviews just this past Sunday. They’re sorted alphabetically by game. They go at least as far back as NES Dragon Warrior, but some of them are really recent, especially with the addition of games reviewed by WalMart’s free pass-out magazine GameCenter. Their definition of JRPG kind of goes far afield, with some metroidvania-style Castlevanias, two Advance Wars games and a good number of half-related things.

Here are a small selection of included magazine scans….

GamePro’s review of the TurboGrafx port of Cadash, which unlike the Genesis/MegaDrive’s version has all four characters from the arcade game. The review’s written by “The Pizza Boys,” and has slangy writing and goofy little cartoon faces over the review scores, because it’s in a magazine written for teenage boys from 1991. Notice, the whole review is seven paragraphs, with four section headings, and four “PROTIP” inserts that don’t offer useful advice:

The review of Dragon Warrior from Game Player’s. I love it when magazines from this era publish the address of Nintendo of America. This review doesn’t really tell you much about the game though:

I had forgotten about this phase in Nintendo Power’s history. Check out their dissing the inventory of Earthbound, Nintendo’s own product! (I disagree, BTW, Earthbound is designed around its inventory limits, and they’re an essential part of the game!)

VideoGames & Computer Entertainment has always had a place in my heart, and Clayton Walnum is one of my favorite reviewers. In its heyday it had a no-nonsense approach to their reviews that appealed to me. It was the exact opposite of Electronic Gaming Monthly, a magazine that, honestly, I never much liked because of their loud editorial style and tendency to bloat their magazine up with advertisements:

Who doesn’t love Grandia? This review reminds us that we almost didn’t get an English version of it!

Little King Story is, no lie, one of the most overlooked Wii games of all time:

“VideoGames: The Ultimate Video Game Magazine” had a redundant title, but some fun layouts. Here’s their two page review of SNES Ogre Battle:

Sega Visions’ review of Phantasy Star II, a very grindy game without much story really, but with some really great twists:

EGM’s review of the remake of Shining Force for GBA:

GamePro’s review of Suikoden II didn’t age real well:

Vay, here mostly to show off the anime character portraits:

Zelda II in a late review from The Nintendo Official Magazine, with Dr. Mario riding along:

The JRPG Review Archive (spritecell.com)

JRPG Junkie Describes Lost Sega Arcade RPGs

Another JRPG post! That’s two in a row, and it’s about some quite interesting games, including a lost Shining Force game. The website JRPG Junkie tells us about some Sega arcade games that fit the mold that sound like they would have been interesting to have tried.

Quest of D (image from JRPG Junkie)

Quest of D was a dungeon crawler where the player’s inventory was collected as physical trading cards, that were scanned into the game in order to use them. Shining Force Cross was similar in concept but without the cards; it lasted until 2016. And finally there was Soul Reverse, introduced in 2018.

The world of Japanese arcade games from around this time is largely a big dark area to me, and right around the time when the US arcade industry started its death spiral. It was also a time when server connectivity and online updates came into vogue, meaning when the servers went down, many of them ceased to be playable. It’s really sad that this has become essentially a lost age of gaming, at least to people outside of Japan. We probably couldn’t play them then, and we certainly can’t now.

Dungeons & Deckbuilding: Sega’s Lost Arcade RPGs (JRPG Junkie)

Time Extension: Why Do So Many Japanese RPGs Use European-Style Fantasy Worlds?

Time Extension has come up here a lot lately, hasn’t it? It’s because they so often do interesting articles! This one’s about the propensity of Japanese games to use medieval European game worlds, the kinds with a generally agrarian society, royalty, knights, and their folklore counterparts elves, dwarves, fairies, gnomes and associated concepts.

They often fudge the exact age they’re trying to depict, with genuine medieval institutions sitting beside Renaissance improvements like taverns and shops. Nearly of them also put in magic in a general D&D kind of way, sometimes institutionalizing it into a Harry Potter-style educational system.

Notably, they usually choose the positive aspects of that setting. The king is usually a benevolent ruler. It’s rare that serfdom and plagues come up. The general populace is usually okay with being bound to the land. The Church, when it exists, is sometimes allowed to be evil, in order to give the player a plot road to fighting God at the end.

Hyrule of the Zelda games is likely the most universally-known of these realms, which I once called Generic Fantasylands. The various kingdoms of the Dragon Quest games also nicely fit the bill. Final Fantasy games were among the first to question those tropes, presenting evil empire kingdoms as early at the second game.

Dragon Quest
(All images here from Mobygames)

John Szczepaniak’s article at Time Extension dives into the question by interviewing a number of relevant Japanese and US figures and developers, including former Squaresoft translator Ted Woolsey. I think the most insightful comments are from Hiromasa Iwasaki, programmer of Ys I and II, who notes that this Japanese conception of a fantasy world mostly comes from movies and the early computer RPGs Wizardry and Ultima, that the literature that inspired Gary Gygax to create Dungeons & Dragons (which in turned inspired Wizardry and Ultima), especially Lord of the Rings and Weird Tales, were generally unknown to Japanese popular culture. Developer Rica Matsumura notices, also, that there is a cool factor in Japan to European folklore that doesn’t apply, over there, to Japanese folklore.

Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord

It’s a great read, that says a number of things well that have been bubbling up in the back of my head for a long time, especially that JRPGs recreated both RPG mechanics and fantasy tropes at a remove, that they got their ideas second hand and, in a way similar to how a bunch of gaming tables recreated Dungeons & Dragons in their own image to fill in gaps left in Gary Gygax’s early rulebooks, so too did they make their versions of RPGs to elaborate upon the ideas of Wizardry and Ultima without having seen their bases.

Why Do So Many Japanese RPGs Take Place In European Fantasy Settings? (timeextension.com)

U Can Beat Video Games: Dragon Warrior III

I’ve been waiting for this one for a long time! U Can Beat Video Games has finally covered the best NES Dragon Warrior, the third game in the series. It was Dragon Quest III in Japan, due to some trademark issue with TSR I think. IV isn’t bad, and has fun characters, but there aren’t as many variant strategies in it, and in the last chapter you don’t get to control the actions of most of your party members. DWIII always gives you full control of your characters, plus it lets you create characters with names and classes of your choosing, meaning, like the first Final Fantasy, you can make completely custom parties and play the game in many different ways. It was the game that spawned the urban legend that the Japanese government requested that Enix release Dragon Quest games on weekends, because so many people ditched work to stand in line to buy it. (I don’t know if it’s true, but the story has often been passed around.)

It’s also the first Dragon Quest/Warrior game that allows for class changing, which resets a character to Level 1 (similar to an human AD&D character who dual-classed), but only halves their stats, and lets them keep all the spells they learned. Since they’re Level 1 again, they gain levels very rapidly for a while, allowing them to quickly surpass their previous heights. It’s kind of an early version of the “prestige” mode of clicker games, where you reset all your progress in exchange for faster progress afterward!

It also has a cool story that eventually connects with the first two games, and has a good variety of activity, including growing a town from scratch like 25 years before Breath of the Wild and betting on monster fights! It’s also got all the challenge of the early Dragon Quest games, with later monsters who can cast instant death spells on everyone in your party at once, as well as doing other horrible things to them.

Because Dragon Warrior III doesn’t pull its punches against the player, the various tricks that the narrator does to use the engine’s bugs against it feel like playing fair, and yet, even with full knowledge of the game and multiple player leveling and cash gaining strategies he still has problems once in a while. It’s a really tough game!

This may end up being U Can Beat Video Games’ magnum opus, at least of the NES era, it’s a really long game that takes three videos, of almost 12 hours total length, to cover in its entirety! Here they are:

EPISODE ONE: Creating Your Party Through to Getting the Ship (3 hours, 59 minutes)

EPISODE TWO: Getting the Ship through to Defeating Archfiend Baramos (4 hours, 22 minutes)

EPISODE THREE: The Dark World to the Final Boss, Plus Extras (3 hours, 35 minutes)

Please enjoy, and Rubiss help us all!

JRPG Junkie: Beginning With Super Robot Wars

I usually try to take my own screenshots, but this one is borrowed from JRPG Junkie’s article. I figure it should be okay, since I’m using it explicitly to promote said article!

JRPG Junkie looks at the Super Robot Wars series, the mostly-Japan-only giant fighting robots game series with over 70 entries and that crosses over everything (in various games) from Gundam to Full Metal Panic to Cowboy Bebop to Captain Harlock to Gunbuster to Giant Gorg to Evangelion to The Big O. The article, which is far far more knowledgeable about it than I am, is an excellent place to start with this extremely prolific series.

Some of the Switch versions of these games have English translations built-in, and because you can log onto any region’s store on the Switch, those particular versions can be enjoyed by English-speaking players the world over. But there are tons of these games, and many have fan translations, if you’re willing to jump through those particular mechanized, articulated hoops.

Where To Start With Super Robot Wars

Romhack Thursday: Dragon Warrior x10

On Romhack Thursdays, we bring you interesting finds from the world of game modifications.

The early days of JRPGs contain many games that are kind of difficult to play today. The genre was just getting formulated, and while there was a lot of ingenuity and interesting ideas being played with, there were also many games where difficulty, and grind, were the entire point. When a game as simple as Dragon Quest, known first in the US by its localized title Dragon Warrior, had to justify its sale price, it had to present players with an experience that would be as long as a challenging NES platformer, or longer, within its limited memory space, and it did so with grind, asking players to accept fighting hundreds of monsters one-on-one in a basic menu-based combat simulation as fun enough to make up for most of the game.

At the time, in Japan, it worked, but it’s telling that Dragon Quest II has much deeper combat, and many more kinds of monsters, than its predecessor had. Dragon Warrior had a tough time breaking into the US market because of its simple gameplay, enough so that eventually Nintendo, who published the game in North America, resorted to giving away copies as a subscription premium for Nintendo Power.

What was a tough sell to Western players even then is much more difficult to enjoy now. Compare it to the much deeper, not to mention longer and better animated, titles made later in the series. It’s mostly enjoyable only for nostalgia factor and historical interest.

I’m not going to claim it fixes everything the game, but this hack improves its play a lot by decreasing gold prices and experience requirements ten-fold. It decreases costs: changing the earn rate of these quantities would very quickly hit Dragon Warrior’s fairly low variable caps, since the game stores both in 16-bit values. You can take the 120 gold you get from the King’s chest, buy an 18 gold Copper Sword in Brecconary, then run to the north-west to Garinham and buy the sturdy Half Plate armor for 100! With these items, even at low levels, you should be able to vanquish all of the enemies in this section of the map, except perhaps Magicians, whose Hurt spells bypass armor. But it only takes defeating one Slime to reach Level 2, two more for Level 3, and two more than that for Level 4. Slimes won’t suffice for long, but by that point you can munch on much stronger foes. This greatly reduces the number of fights a player must win to complete the game, and makes it possible to finish in less than two hours.

You can very quickly rise to decent levels of power in the starting area! You’ll still be humbled if you try to rush late-game enemies, but you don’t have to spend long building your character at all.
This guy is the Magic Refill Wizard. Don’t pay those exorbitant Inn prices, use your Heal spell repeatedly and talk to him!

Preserving some modest amount of challenge, the gold costs of Inns are left the same, making them effectively ten times more expensive. Inns were never very expensive in the unmodified game, so this makes staying the night to restore your HP and MP more of a strategic choice. A tip: remember there’s a guy in Tantegel Castle who will restore all your MP for free!

If even a two-hour Dragon Warrior is too much effort for you, you could watch this playthrough of the hack on Youtube, which is about an hour and a half in length:

romhacking.net: Dragon Warrior – 10x Experience and 10x Gold

NES Works Presents The Portopia Serial Murder Mystery

Portopia is the biggest missing piece, to many US enthusiasts, of the history of Japanese gaming. It led to the creation of Dragon Quest, but it had a huge influence all on its own, which can be felt in a wide variety of other Famicom titles, including some that did make it to the US. Why do The Goonies II and Dr. Chaos have those weird room-based adventure sections? It’s because of Portopia, trying to mix its kind of menu-based first-person gameplay with the pre-existing side-scrolling platforming game style popularized by Super Mario Bros. It seemed random to Western players at the time, but Japanese players would have known exactly what those games were trying to do.

We’ve mentioned Jeremy Parish and his various Works projects before, and they’re always interesting and informative, a great antidote to the strident style of many popular Youtubers, and this one is especially important to anyone seeking to understand how the Japanese game industry grew and evolved in the Famicom era.

Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken retrospective: Beefing in Kobe | NES Works Gaiden (17 minutes)

Live A Live Remake Changes

Live A Live is currently the toast of the Switch, with over 500,000 in sales since it was released. Not bad at all for a remake of a Super Famicom game from Square’s classic era that had never made it out of Japan until now.

AustinSV on Youtube presents a video that goes into some detail about what was changed between the versions. If you’ve played the original (I’ve played a fair bit of it through the popular fan translation from Aeon Genesis), you’ll know a few things were definitely tweaked. I remember the Prehistory, by far the funniest chapter, being rather more risque in its humor, although the fart jokes and poop flinging were left mostly intact. Some of the changes are really interesting; they translated the whole Middle Ages chapter in iambic pentameter!

Which Version of Live A Live Should You Play? The Original + Switch Remake Reviewed & Compared (Youtube, 16 minutes)

The Final Fantasy IV Door Stack Glitch

The Final Fantasy series is loaded with bugs throughout. A full recounting would be much more than a longpost’s worth, but here is a quick description of one specific example, from Final Fantasy IV (originally II in the US, but most people now will probably think of it by the Japanese numbering anyway).

The door to the pub is push-type, potentially causing Problems.
Image from mynockx’s guide on GameFAQs.

Some RPGs, instead of coding area transitions all as a sequence of doors and destinations, instead use a form of stack to record where the player was when they entered the door. “Stack” here is a term from computer science, a data structure consisting of a region of memory and a pointed within it. Data can be “pushed” onto the stack, which means putting some number of bytes onto it and advancing the stack pointed by that number. Stacks can “grow” either up or down, meaning when the pointer advances, it’ll go in that direction. When the data is needed again, it’s read off the top of the stack, then the pointer is pulled back to its original position.

So how the door stack works is, when a player enters a location, say enters a town from the overworld, their location before entering is “pushed” onto the stack and they are then moved into the town’s entrance. When they exit the town, their old location is “pulled” from the stack, leaving it empty. (Actually, the data is still there, but because the stack pointer has been decremented, it’ll be overwritten the next time the player enters an area.)

Why use a stack? Well mostly it’s a convenience thing for the programmers. A door’s location can either be “into” an area, or “out of” it. “In” doors have to know where they’re going, but “out” doors just have to know they’re going outside. But it helps in one particular instance; if a game has a spell or item like “Exit,” “Outside,” or “Warp,” it can work simply by pulling every location off the stack until it gets to the last one. This means the programmers don’t have to have every location “know” where a given area is on the World Map. Just rewind the door stack until you get to the last location on it, that must be it.

Well there’s a subtle bug in some locations in Final Fantasy IV where some transitions that push when they should pull. One such transition is the one to the pub in the Dwarven Castle. When you enter the pub, the way in is pushed onto the stack; when you exit, instead of pulling that location off, the way out is pushed onto the stack.

There’s only so much memory reserved in a stack, which for old games is usually implemented as a single page (256 bytes) of memory. The pointer into it is thus one byte long, and so if the stack fills up, it wraps around. If you find such a door, and go through it enough times, you can cause it to overflow on purpose, with unexpected results.

This can be taken advantage of in Final Fantasy IV by overflowing the stack, then going through a pull-door, which causes the game state to be read from unexpected memory. Speedrunners (you just knew they’d be involved) use this to flip rapidly to the end of the game. Most players will never notice this very subtle bug, since when you return to the world map the game knows enough to completely clear the stack.

Something I’ve noticed about the 8- and 16-bit Final Fantasy games is, if there is a potential for an obscure bug somewhere, there is almost certainly going to be an example of that bug somewhere in that code. A lot of these bugs are only visible to a player with obsessive observation or repetition. This results in spells with unexpected effects, stats with no function, features that don’t operate, and item duplication bugs. Truly, it was an age before unit testing.

Final Fantasy Wiki: 64 Door Hierarchy Glitch