October 28, 2012

[Game 028] Sweet Home (NES - 1989)

Translation by Gaijin Productions

It's times like this that reaffirms the decision to include translated JRPGs.  Not only are there some gems that never made it to North America but there are also some that disregard the standard RPG conventions and do something completely different.  Such is the case with Sweet Home, a game that incorporates many aspects not usually found in RPGs.  The first difference is in the setting; an old manor in which five modern-day investigators are there to find and photograph the frescos of Mamiya Ichirou located within.  Soon upon entering, they discover that the manor is quite haunted and the ghostly apparition of Mamiya appears and traps the characters.

Sorry to try to preserve your heritage, douche.

The second big difference is the heavy use of puzzle elements, akin to those typical found in adventure games.  In fact, Sweet Home is very similar to Maniac Mansion, right down to being able to split the group up and have characters in completely different locations.  This splitting of the group is enforced as a subgroup is only allowed to have a maximum of three characters.  Each character has four item slots which are restricted thusly: one for a weapon, one for the character's signature item, and two open slots for miscellaneous items found.  The signature items are used to bypass a lot of the puzzle barriers found.  For example, cool man Shen's item is a lighter which can be used to burn down rope barriers.

I got this one, guys.  It shouldn't
take more than a few days to
melt down the jagged edges.

If the current group doesn't have the item needed, it's necessary to switch over to the other group and have them find the others.  The random battles can sometimes be difficult for a group of two if the other three characters are ahead.  Often the tougher characters in the main group will leave the weakest one behind while they go and retrieve the other two members one at a time.  Backtracking is also necessary in the game itself; there are many previous locked doors that I have not been able to open yet.  It's easy enough to get back to older areas as the battle difficulty is dependent on the area.  The battles themselves mostly consist of spamming the fight button but sometimes the signature items can be used to inflict more damage than normal.

Taro's camera beats Shen's
Zippo in this rare case.

In addition to these regular RPG battles, there are also encounters with (what I'm guessing are) poltergeists that chuck various objects at the characters, such as chandeliers and chairs.  Instead of fighting the object, a menu is displayed with various options to try to avoid it.  This seems to be completely based on chance but even if failed, the damage delivered is a paltry amount.

Oh God!  Please save me from the
three points of chandelier damage.

Being that the characters are in a haunted house, the creepy factor is in full effect.  In addition to a classic bestiary of macabre monstrosities, the music plays a huge role as well.  While wandering around the twisted passages and gloomy rooms, the music is suitably dark and spooky.  Sometimes when examining an object, the music immediately cuts out and a spine-tingling high pitched shriek is unleashed along with a closeup of the object.

Keep in mind that a high pitched
shriek coming from the NES adds
its own unique dimension of hell.

The frescos that are scattered throughout the mansion give hints after they are photographed.  Yes, even though the characters are trying to escape the manor with their very lives, they are still taking the time to do their initial job.  Gotta admire that dedication.  The hints range from the mundane to the crucial; the hidden location of the mallet needed to break through a boulder barricade was given by a fresco.  Unfortunately, the frescos themselves all look the same and are quite ugly.

Perhaps it's suppose to be frighteningly ugly?

So far there has not been a resting place for the characters to regain health and prayer points.  Tonics can be found which will fully restore the current group but they are a one time use and not all that common.  This puts all the characters on a timer and makes grinding an unwise choice.  This aspect of gameplay, more than anything else, really makes Sweet Home feel like horror survival.  Character migration from area to area needs to be planned out somewhat but there are plenty of pitfalls which force an immediate change in plans.  It will be interesting to see what else the Mamiya manor has in store for the stalwart investigators.

October 23, 2012

Shinsenden - Ranking

Story & World

The setting of ancient China is well established throughout the game.  Everything from the story to the monsters to the graphics and sound just ooze of the Orient.  The main objective of recovering mystical and unique "named" blades seems well-suited to the period as well.  As opposed to China itself, each of the four chapters of Shinsenden exist within a tiny overworld map.  Quite often it is possible to see a dungeon entrance right after leaving a village.  With the encounter rate being as high as it is, the small map size is a plus but the thrill of exploration is sorely missed.  Dungeons are likewise short and, worse still, very linear.  10/20

Character Development

There are three main stats that occasionally decide to increase when levelling and even when they do, it's by a small amount.  Hit, magic, and technique points raise a little more reliably but most important is the acquisition of new spells (of which there are many).  There are no items or anything available to alter stats, giving no control over the character's development.  Purchasing new weapons and armour is a crapshoot; often a new item will only increase attack or defense power by one or two points (not even noticeable in combat).  They also all have very asian-sounding names, which is good for story flavour but bad for knowing what the hell I'm buying.  A small number of weapons have a special ability, usually duplicating an attack spell.  4/20

Combat & Monsters

The difficulty of the regular battles ensure that every encounter will end up draining magic points, either from using attack spells or having to heal after if sticking with straight melee attacks.  In order to save on MP, the spirit-holding gourd has to be heavily used in every encounter.  The potential of the gourd could have made for some interesting battles but unfortunately that only happened in the boss battles.  The gourd basically just becomes an enemy vacuum cleaner in regular encounters, sucking them up and cleaning them out for more room.  Still, a very cool idea.  There are lots of spells to choose from and older spells eventually get overwritten with more powerful versions.

The majority of the monsters are taken from Chinese folklore, I assume.  I didn't recognize much, other than the jiangshi (hopping vampires).  Every new place brought with it a strange and surprising bestiary.  I never knew what was going to kick my ass next! >:|  There are also some goofy creatures as well, such as the shark fin soup or the several tofu-based ones.  11/20

Graphics & Sound

While the artwork design is nicely done, I found the colour choices to be either too uniform or too clashing.  Many monster sprites use only one or two colours but do make good use of shadowing.  The music is superb and consistently keeps the oriental feel flowing throughout the game.  The village tune was even good enough to get the virtual wife humming it from time to time.  15/20


If I hadn't failed so badly in properly testing items out, I think Shinsenden would still classify as a difficult game but not stupidly difficult.  The very beginning and the solo quest during the middle are the most frustrating parts but it eases up towards the end.  Once the final blade is possessed, regular attacks finally start doing decent damage.  Grinding (and there's a lot of it) was mostly done not for levels, but for gold to purchase the best equipment available and as many healing potions as could be carried; for most of the game, it's not remotely feasible to tackle a dungeon otherwise.  The momentum of the game is kept strictly on the rails; there is no freedom to explore (not that the encounter rate would let one get far anyhow).

Controls are fine; the only problem is navigating through the spell list during battle.  The list only displays three spells at a time and the words are often crammed close to each other, making selection cumbersome.  This is likely due to the nature of Japanese to English translations; Japanese is a more compact writing system than English is.  7/10

Final Ranking:  47/100

October 21, 2012

Shinsenden - End Game

Dear Shin,

I know we've had our differences and that I've sometimes had to yell at you but I now know that I was in the wrong.  You are a harsh mistress, yes, but not as bad as I had originally thought.  It was wrong of me to cut you down for thinking that you did not allow a way to warp out of a dungeon.  I could have sworn I tested all the shop items out and that they were of the temporary-stat-boost variety.  I was unaware that the Ruyi Sphere (available quite early on) functioned as a means to escape a dungeon.  Ignorance is not a good excuse, I know.  That's why I'm begging for your forgiveness.  I also have to apologize for believing that fleeing battles was impossible.  How was I to know that Raichi's Body Move spell that she learned late in the game functioned as a means to escape both dungeons and battles?  I was just so happy to just have a spell that finally got me out of dungeons that it never even occurred to me to try it in battle as well.  I hope, in time, you can forgive this foolish manchine for his brash ways and we can put all of this behind us and be friends.

                                                                            Sincerely yours,

                                                                            Shen Nung

Yes, I made things much harder on myself than needed to be.  Perusing a walkthrough after finishing Shinsenden shed light on my foolish errors.  I was all set to dish out some zeroes in the ranking but now I have to make sure I don't overcompensate due to my shame.  Let's wrap this up so that I can sit back and relax with a nice bowl of shark fin soup.

What?  I always battle my
food before I consume it.

Each chapter unfolded in very much the same manner, whisking us away to a brand new map.  These tiny, self-contained maps always had the same setup: two villages, one or two small dungeons and a chapter-ending final dungeon.  Thankfully, most dungeons were not very long, although the encounter rate certainly made it seem so.  The completion of a chapter netted one of the four blades that I was questing for.  The boss battles in these cases were much more enjoyable than regular fights; we were finally able to unleash a torrent of magic attacks and techniques.

I couldn't decide who looked
cooler so you get a twofer.

The final chapter predictably had the longest dungeon and had me going up against four bosses (called Devas) before the finale.  Of course, any boss encountered will require an exuberant amount of spell and technique points, requiring a trip back to the village for a siesta.  When I first attempted this dungeon, I was still under the assumption that I had no means of warping out and returning to the village.  I thought the game wanted me to fight all four bosses in a row.  I actually managed to kill the second boss, even though there was nary a spell point to be found (spent on the first boss).  The gourd was heavily relied upon but even it couldn't save us from the third Deva (ran out of healing methods).  With this seemingly insurmountable task ahead of me, Shinsenden was left to idle while I worked on any other task I could think of.  I defragged various components of myself and checked for memory leaks.  I removed the twenty-some toolbars in my mind that some crap malware had installed.  I even checked in with the Cyber Police only to find they had demoted me to a Class 3 threat due to my slack.  Nuts to that!  No one demotes the intransigent Nung!  I swore that I'd grind out fifty fucking levels if I had to.  It was during this grind that Taichi acquired the Body Move spell which allowed for warping out of dungeons.  Now the Devas could be taken down one at a time.

Three of the Devas are pretty nifty.  One is not.
Can you guess which one?

Though the path to the last encounter was filled with many random battles, the gourd helped tremendously in saving on magic points.  Even better, after defeating the second Deva, Raichi's Mountain Move spell allowed us to warp directly to the halfway point in the dungeon.  Finding the last boss ended up not being too difficult.

Who else would be sitting in a gigantic
throne room all by himself?

The final battle did not disappoint, serving up the classic end boss fake out, where the boss is defeated only to have to fight the REAL end boss.

The switch from a feudal Chinese warlord to a
Giger-inspired larva is a little jarring though.

Afterwards, Raichi and I return home to a hero's welcome.  Raichi really deserves most of the credit; without her massive reservoir of magic points, progress would have been impossible.

Aww.  I ♥ you too, Raichi.

October 15, 2012

Shinsenden - Follow the Gourd!

The Crimson Gourd turns out to be quite a cool item.  It absorbs yokai with a 100% success rate and holds up to nine.  During a battle, one yokai can be summoned per turn and up to three can be in operation at any given time.  If a fighting yokai is still alive by the end of battle, it disappears without a trace.  Raichi also ends up getting a spell that duplicates these effects (although it's quite expensive to cast).  In theory, this is an intriguing concept and could make for some interesting tactics in combat.  A summoned yokai is controllable and any special abilities it may have can be utilized.

These beauties come with both
a healing and attack spell.

Alas, Shinsenden shoots itself in the foot by having the overall difficulty so insanely high that it ruins even the sweetness of the gourd.  Where to begin?  The encounter rate has already been discussed and has been increasing in annoyance as the dungeons have gotten longer.  New equipment has mostly kept with the trend of barely having any discernible effect on stats.  Gaining a level only guarantees increases in the three 'points': hit, magic, and technique.  Strength, agility, and wisdom don't always increase and when they do, it's by a dinky amount.  For example, after completing a certain quest, I was "rewarded" with four free levels.  Out of those four levels, a single raise in agility was given.  Oh, and that particular quest was such a pisser too.  In fact, all this game does is find new ways to piss in my face.  You know, I was going to continue detailing the story but fuck it; remembering all this previous bullshit is getting me all ranty.

I'd like to go home, please.

Okay, so grinding out levels isn't really an option since they have so little impact on stats.  However, new spells and techniques are gained, which are useful... in theory.  New techniques come with an increased cost in points which makes it so I can only use my latest technique once before running out.  Older techniques become obsolete because they don't dish out enough damage anymore.  My total magic is so low that I can only use a few spells before becoming depleted.  What's that, you say?  Raichi has piles of MP and a huge list of spells to choose from?  Yeah, that's just great except that quest where I got the four free levels?... Yeah, I had to do that without Raichi.  I can barely handle the random encounters with the two of us and then I lose Raichi again!?!  Arrggh.  Regular attacks are still so shitty that I'm forced to use MP or TP in order to win a fight.  And there are no items that restore either of those two, just healing potions for HP.  Anytime I leave any town, the clock starts ticking on how far I'll be able to go.  Normal enemies consistently do more damage than I'm able to give back.  Running isn't an option because it rarely works.  The only option is using the gourd to absorb the enemies one at a time until full and then releasing them during an easier fight to make more room.  I'm still taking damage during all this, mind you; the enemies rarely target my yokai.  A few bad fights and it's time to warp back to the town.  Oh, but that's only if I'm still in the overworld.  If I'm in the dungeon, then it's "Fuck you, Shen, you can walk back out first".  Well, fuck you, Shin, if I'm in a situation where I need to get back to town, there's no way I'm making it all the way back to the entrance.  So death it is.  And death here doesn't mean starting back at the last town with half gold or something.  Of course not!  I start back at the last save spot with all progress lost.  Do you see?  Do you see how Shinsenden takes every gameplay aspect and just makes it the worst possible?  How about an example outside of the gameplay mechanics?  I had been grinding for about an hour (this was before I realized how pointless it is) and had completed a small village's side quest.  This resulted in new townsfolk present to chat with.  I hadn't saved yet because towns are safe, right?  WRONG!  Talking with one of the new residents resulted in a glitch where she just keeps repeating her phrase over and over with no way to abort.  BOOM!  Hour wasted!

Breaking the fourth wall and then breaking
the game? Wow, Shin... just wow.

Even after getting Raichi back, it doesn't get much better.  It doesn't matter how well prepared I am.  I can buy all the best equipment and fill our inventory with healing potions but it doesn't matter.  All that matters is how many fights go down between leaving the town and fighting the boss.  That's really what this game boils down to.  Luck.  I have to be lucky enough to not have the encounter rate bitch slap me all over the place.  I have to be lucky enough to get the majority of fights against just one or two opponents.  And I have to be fucking lucky enough not to smash the fucking hjell out gmy fucfkcing goddambncontytorller8[zeb7 mc'#;sdlCe5s4asdSDy73 *[8&^+++NO CARRIER

October 06, 2012

[Game 027] Shinsenden (NES - 1989)

Translation by Aishsha

I go into any JRPG with the expectation that it will start off fairly difficult but Shinsenden sets the bar to a new high.  As the scene opened, I found myself in the lithe body of a well-trained monk.  My sensei was giving me and another monk, Raichi, a quest to retrieve the Ichimai Charm located in a nearby cave.  Good thing sensei didn't need the charm anytime soon because it would be weeks before we'd be successful.  No sooner had we stepped outside the temple when we were attacked by a gang of four monsters.  Even after spending all our available magic and technique points, the two remaining monsters worked Raichi's face while ignoring my feeble regular attacks.  Luckily, we were able to flee and return to the temple for a nap.  The next day we made much better progress and were able to go two whole steps before being ganked by another four monsters.  This time they were much nicer and only worked Raichi's kidneys.  After a few days of this horseshit, it was becoming clear that we were going to need help.

You ain't kidding, Bub... er, I
mean, most honorable sifu.

After loading up on some locally made fireballs, we were finally able to win our first fight and immediately level up.  We actually starting seeing some battles with just one or two foes, so it must have just been bad luck with the initial set of encounters.  So, now that we could survive for a fight or two, exploring could commence.  We've been told that the village of Horai (just one screen away) has better weapons and armour available for purchase.  It looked to be like such a short jaunt but the encounter rate had something to say about that.  Big time.  It loves to slap me around with, on average, a fight every three or four steps.  It'll also line 'em up one after another, too, so I can enjoy all the fun of making dick all for progress.

I just want to explore you, game world.

Geez, you can see the bloody cave right from the temple but it still took until reaching level nine and buying all the best equipment to get there.  Yeah, you'd think that I'd be a little overpowered by that point but you'd be dead wrong.  The "better" weapons raised the attack power by such a measly amount, increasing damage by a whole single point!  The first floor of the cave was filled with familiar monsters but the second floor decided to add not only tougher monsters but ones filled with poison.

It's always the cute ones that are the
most venomous, amirite fellas?

Quickly burning through the few poison salves we had on hand meant that it was time to beat a hasty retreat back to Horai.  Overstuffing our pockets with antidotes and healing potions, we were finally able to get through the rest of the cave and get the stupid amulet or whatever.

This... this is easy?  *groan*

While trekking back through the cave, we have a run-in with some dude who's being hassled by guards.  We make short work of them and then, before we can explore the last bit of the cave, are transported automatically back to the temple to heal the dude's wounds.  It's then he tells us of a special blade called Genbu that we, of course, need to get and that it's hidden back in that goddamn cave.  After essentially redoing the fetch quest again, we are told that there are three other such charmed blades and should next head west to the kingdom of Byakko.  Upon our arrival, the castle is immediately beset by enemy forces looking for the Genbu blade.  In the confusion, Raichi disappears and is considered captured.

Raichi (upper right) is no
match for three wampas.

After things settle down, the king of Byakko assigns two of his warriors to accompany me to rescue Raichi from the king of Genbu castle (no wonder he wants the Genbu blade) whilst a man named Toron hides the Byakko blade.  Before we can confront King Genbu, though, we have to find the Crimson Gourd, which can be used to capture yokai (spirits).  Apparently King Genbu is quite the summoner (or perhaps a yokai himself).  The gourd is located somewhere in the Fengshui Pagoda; the home of a band of brigands.  Much like the earlier cave, the encounter rate gives the impression that there are hundreds of creatures living here.  All are well-trained in the fighting arts, requiring multiple visits before acquiring the gourd.

The dance choreography is top-notch as well.

With the yokai-absorbing gourd in my possession, it should now be possible to enter Genbu palace and rescue Raichi.  However, before heading there, I would like to address the difficulty that I've been complaining so much about.  A big part of why the difficulty was so intense at the beginning ended up being partially my own fault.  You see, this game is obviously of the Dragon Quest clone variety and I was treating it as such.  In DQ, the encounter rate is determined by the terrain type (e.g. grasslands are low while hills are high).  So, when I was trying to grind, I was sticking mainly to hilly regions.  This was my downfall.  In Shinsenden, the encounter rate is static while the terrain determines the types of monsters fought.  I was hanging out in the hard hills when I should have been kicking it in the easy grasslands.  Now, the game isn't completely off the hook because the initial fights did take place in grasslands or forests; however, at probably around level five, the grassland monsters would be manageable.  I'll concede this point to the game but I still feel the encounter rate itself is whine-worthy.