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Discussion (TimeExtension) ‘What were Japanese Action RPGs like before Zelda’

PixelKnight

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Great piece by veteran retro game writer John Szczepaniak here.

If you trawl Japanese archives for pre-1986 games you can build a list which, to varying degrees, fit the templates of The Legend of Zelda and its sequel The Adventure of Link (January 1987). Some are obvious and achieved success, such as Märchen Veil, while others are so obscure even aficionados in Japan won't recognise them. However, amidst this 'Precambrian Explosion' of invention, there stand two titanic software houses, each with its own celebrity auteur. Nihon Falcom with Yoshio Kiya, and T&E Soft with Tokihiro Naito, less known outside Japan but with a significant legacy.

Kiya and Naito are two coding bards with a rivalry that lasts to this day. If you want to understand the context of early Japanese games without getting sidetracked too much, these two are a good starting point.

Tangential genre examples started forming in Japan circa 1982, and in 1983 Kiya's Panorama-Toh was released - a bizarre hybrid of first-person dungeons, ASCII shopkeepers, and real-time overworld combat against lions, tanks, and... Nessie? Coded mainly in BASIC with some Assembly, it was a rough gem, which some regard as a spiritual 'Dragon Slayer Zero'. In actual fact, it started as a sequel to Falcom's first game, Galactic Wars. "Partway through making it I kind of changed my mind," says Kiya, "and it came out differently to what I intended. President Kato came up with the title; there's not much relation to Dragon Slayer. <laughs>"

From June 1984 everything exploded, starting with the arcade release of The Tower of Druaga, and Q4 seeing three prominent releases across multiple computer formats: Kiya's Dragon Slayer; Naito's Hydlide; and the obscure Courageous Perseus, by Cosmos Computer. What's interesting is the influence of Namco's Masanobu Endou during those nascent days, even if indirectly. As Kiya explains, "I saw Kazurou Morita's Alphos and realised you can actually make scrolling games on the PC-8801!" (Alphos was an officially licensed clone of Endou's Xevious, regarded as 'genius code' and doing things thought impossible on early computers.) "I decided if Morita can do it, then I should be able to. That's exactly how I came to make Dragon Slayer."

Endou also influenced Naito, who explains Hydlide's origins, "It just came to me. <laughs> At the time, I was in love with The Black Onyx and Namco's The Tower of Druaga. So Hydlide was roughly inspired by those. I liked action games, but I also liked role-playing games, so I tried to mix them together."
Unbeknownst to either developer, some of their influences eerily reflect one another. As Kiya revealed, "One thing that became a big influence was at the time I bought some Advanced Dungeons & Dragons books, read through them, and later started creating Xanadu with the ideas I got. Also at Falcom there was a book called Dictionary of Imaginary Places by Albert Manguel, and it was basically an encyclopaedia with medieval European stories. We read all through that and got ideas. When we developed a game, we decided the kind we wanted to make, the basic concept, and then we flipped through and arbitrarily decided: We'll use this story." Astonishingly, this single book influenced Falcom's creation of the Ysseries!
Releases of Zelda-esque games continued, and January 1986 gave us Kazurou Morita's Riglas, featuring full-colour graphics and horizontal scrolling. A month later Shigeru Miyamoto's classic elf-boy adventure finally came out, thus ending our game of 'catch the precedent', while subsequent years saw an expanding roster of similar titles.

Loads more at the link, a really interesting read if you like tracing the history of the genre.
 
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Krvavi Abadas

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good to see Hydlide getting some proper recognition, it's generally treated as a joke nowadays. particularly thanks to it's infamous saturn installment Virtual Hydlide.
208339-virtual-hydlide-sega-saturn-screenshot-that-large-pink-crystal.png
 
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PixelKnight

PixelKnight

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Hydlide didn’t release here on NES, the first thing I think I watched about it was the AVGN review 20+ years after the NA release. Which was, almost by definition, incredibly negative, but I think it was interesting in that even there Rolfe acknowledges that NA players only got to play Hylide after Zelda despite it being designed and releasing in Japan before it. In terms of the puzzles and ‘where do I go, what do I do’, It’s not like the original Zelda wouldn’t be equally confusing for modern players if it hadn’t been relentlessly mapped, had all its secrets discussed, and then it’s puzzle solutions often carried down through various sequels and borrowed by dozens more.

It is interesting that Hylide’s weird combat (hold down the attack button and walk into things) is kinda reminiscent of Ys with it’s ‘walk into things on their corners to attack them’. And how both were quickly abandoned once the more obvious visual feedback of ‘press attack to attack, weapons have visable range, enemies may react/recoil’ felt a lot fairer than ‘walk into them, do it right and they die, do it wrong and you get hurt’.

One mechanic from Hydlide you still see today in the modern Ys games is the ‘stand still to recover health’. Which is something I’ve always preferred to ‘I could go and farm hearts by hitting bushes and pots and weak enemies, I guess’.

 
Hydlide is a victim of being too late after more refined action rpg games come in (Western release schedule wise).

The game makes more sense if you're playing japanese computers first.

To those interested on the series, get the third game.
 
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Deleted member 341

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really interesting. gonna watch this when I am home
 
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PixelKnight

PixelKnight

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Is this a new site? I've seen some Twitter posts in the last week.
They’ve only been going a couple of months. It’s owned by Hookshot Media (Push Square, NintendoLife etc) and features a lot of the same writers (and some older articles from those sites). They are a good place for retro features by writers that know their stuff if you like that kinda thing though!
 

fiendcode

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I haven't read the article yet but Tokihiro Naito works for M2 now. I remember when he joined some years ago they were polling if they should do something with the Hydlide series.
 
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Dizzle

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The Dictionary of Imaginary Places! I owned that as a kid. I had no idea the book played a role in the development of the JRPG as a genre. So cool.
 
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Koren Lesthe

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Hydlide didn’t release here on NES, the first thing I think I watched about it was the AVGN review 20+ years after the NA release. Which was, almost by definition, incredibly negative, but I think it was interesting in that even there Rolfe acknowledges that NA players only got to play Hylide after Zelda despite it being designed and releasing in Japan before it. In terms of the puzzles and ‘where do I go, what do I do’, It’s not like the original Zelda wouldn’t be equally confusing for modern players if it hadn’t been relentlessly mapped, had all its secrets discussed, and then it’s puzzle solutions often carried down through various sequels and borrowed by dozens more.

It is interesting that Hylide’s weird combat (hold down the attack button and walk into things) is kinda reminiscent of Ys with it’s ‘walk into things on their corners to attack them’. And how both were quickly abandoned once the more obvious visual feedback of ‘press attack to attack, weapons have visable range, enemies may react/recoil’ felt a lot fairer than ‘walk into them, do it right and they die, do it wrong and you get hurt’.

One mechanic from Hydlide you still see today in the modern Ys games is the ‘stand still to recover health’. Which is something I’ve always preferred to ‘I could go and farm hearts by hitting bushes and pots and weak enemies, I guess’.

The weird thing is, Ys actually went back to the « bump on ennemies on the sides / from behind » formula with Ys IV and when they finally adopted the « Zelda » formula with Ys V… they fucked up the hit detection of Adol’s sword and his own hitbox ! Like… ahem, « What were they thinking ?! »

I used to watch ProJared before the meltdown about his private life and everything that went after, and his video of Super Hydlide was one of the most positive of any entry in the franchise I’ve watched (even motivated me to try the game). I don’t know any other person who reviewed it from start to finish (twice in his case) and found good points and some form of enjoyment even with all the flaws he noted. Every single other reviewer, french or english, destroyed the game.

Super Hydlide is loaded with problems (the worst one is easily the weight system because it is so absurdly unbalanced -off course against the player, not the other way around- that it ruins every other aspects like having to weight your food and money or you’ll die in less than 15 -fifteen- seconds when you are hungry). Take lessons on Ultima next time, guys.

Even all the gameshark / game genie codes I could find for the game or even search myself with the search engine… never worked for the weight system. So yeah, I couldn’t force myself to get to the end because of this extremely annoying point.
 
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freedomseekr

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The "action roots" of Japanese role-playing games are something I always got a feeling were overlooked in the history of the genre and to this day, you occasionally get some Western dev claiming to "fix" it when in reality, these things have been baked into its DNA from the get-go.

And Hydlide, while it may be considered a poor man's Zelda by some, really holds a lot of love in Japan. Heck, there is a super blatant reference to it in 3D Dot Game Heroes...
 

souio

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I was thinking about Zelda 1's influence and revolutionary gameplay in the bathtub (always funny how that's associating with thinking) a few weeks ago. One thing I realized about it that I hardly see mentioned is its skill-based arcade-like gameplay. In the past, there were arcade games that would either be like 4 screens long, or 7-8 linear levels long which you would use your skill and twitch reflexes to get you through. There were other games that had longer campaigns back then as well, but they were usually RPGs or at least had RPG elements, even if they had actioney gameplay. I feel like Zelda 1 was one of the first real games to combine what could be arcade gameplay with a literal massive adventure. The fundamentals are extremely arcadey - heck, you start out firing a laser from your sword whenever you're at full health! There was a slight progression system with sword upgrades and heart containers, but it was less grinding and more of what you found exploration wise, but at its heart it was an arcade action game where you could explore and find various upgrades around the world that did not rely on leveling up your character and more on your pure skill. I feel like that's kind of revolutionary in itself.
 
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