CRPG History Abridged IV: A few niche RPGs that brought something new to the table
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
As I keep exploring the history of Computer Role-Playing Games for the CRPG Book Project, more interesting titles appear that aren't well-know but are definitely worth a closer look. So here's another chapter of CRPG History Abridged, this time on some very niche titles.
Without further ado, here we go:
Cobra Mission: Panic in Cobra City (1991)
Erotic Japanese RPGs aren't something new. They date to the early 80’s, before even Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy existed. Titles such as 団地妻の誘惑 (roughly “Housewife Temptation”) had players cast as a salesman, visiting apartment blocks, fighting gangsters and trying to “score” with the ladies, way back in 1983:
However, Cobra Mission is particularity infamous as the first erotic Japanese game to be fully translated into English and released in the US, courtesy of Megatech Software (who later released a few more erotic Japanese games, like Knights of Xentar, before closing doors).
This was before the sex & violence controversies surrounding Mortal Kombat and Night Trap which led to the ESRB being formed, when game publishing was still a wild, new frontier.
Besides the titillation, it's an interesting title, as the localization team not only translated the game and changed some girls to be less-anime & more-AMERICA!!!, but also changed its gameplay!
While the original game sported a traditional JRPG-like turn-based combat, the US version uses a sort of ATB system, where the enemy's attack bar slowly charge but you can act freely, and must use the mouse to repeatedly drag your weapon to the enemy as fast as you can - there's even weak points in each enemy you can target for massive damage.
Another oddity is that the supposedly selling point - the sex scenes - are extremely hard to get, as they require players to please the ladies in a specific way under a very short time limit - or be dumped.
Overall, Cobra Mission is a rather mediocre game, but it's a fun historical curiosity that felt like an exotic, sexy and slightly off-limit treat to teenagers in the 90's. And its "so-bad-that's-good" appeal just might be enough for a quick look.
Chinese Paladin (1995)
No matter how globalized and connected the world might be, there’s still some local products that never seem to reach other lands, no matter how popular they are in their native region. Chinese Paladin is one of such hidden gems.
Developed in Taiwan, it’s a game know by several names – 仙劍奇俠傳, XianJian QiXia Zhuan,
The Legend of Sword and Fairy, Chinese Paladin or simply “PAL” (the name of its .exe file).
You play as Li Xiaoyao, a young man that visits an island of fairies in search of a cure for his sick aunt. There he falls in love with a girl named Zhao Ling’er, who gives him the medicine. He leaves, promising to come back to marry her once his aunt is well On his way, he loses his memory, and from there unfolds a fantastic journey, full of romance, tragedy, poems, mystical creatures, powerful martial artists, gods and demons.
It’s a gripping tale, one of the best stories in any RPG I've played. If The Witcher is a folklore-based RPG, Chinese Paladin feels like an epic poem in video-game form.
While some parts of the game are too dungeon-heavy and grindy, it compensates with unique set pieces such as a power you can only use 9 times during the entire game, or a battle where you simply must endure the full sword sequence of a wushu master.
A neat detail that adds a lot of weight to battles (and more games should copy!) is how powerful attacks scar the area, making some battles not only feel challenging, but also look the part.
A massive hit, Chinese Paladin is widely considered the most important RPG ever made in China. Its immense popularity led to several sequels,spin-offs, remakes and even a 2005 live-action Tv series.
After decades as a Chinese-only treasure, the English fan-translation finally broke the language barrier, allowing anyone to experience this hidden classic.
PS: If you wish to give it a try (and you should), the original release is now Freeware, and you can grab an updated translation here.
Mordor / Demise (1995/1999)
In 1995 David Allen released Mordor: The Depths of Dejenol, a shareware RPG about creating a party and delving into a massive, 15-floor deep dungeon.
While that sounds very standard, the twist here is that the focus is less on micro-managing individual battles and more on foresight and macro-management. It starts with a large variety of races, stats, alignments to create your character, then several guilds you'll join to level up.
A lot of thought is required here, as an unoptimized character can become unable to progress dozens of hours later. Reaching the bottom of the dungeon is a slow and iterative process, build upon many failures. A tailor-made challenge for min-maxers.
Battles play automatically as you enter each room (though you can pause to give direct orders), but while an unlucky roll or encounter can crush you, managing your resources and enduring the wear of the long descent will prove a much bigger obstacle than individual battles.
While death isn't permanent, you're required to pay for rescue & resurrection services, which can get exorbitant later on. As such, a high-level character may be lost until your other characters make more money or rescue his/her's body from the depths. Punishing, yet quite fair.
Overall, Mordor feels like a weird mix of Wizardry and Football Manager - an extremely interesting (if definitely niche) blend that more games should play with.
In 1999 a sequel called Demise: Rise of the Ku'Tan arrived, now sporting full 3D graphics, multiplayer capabilities plus larger dungeon floors (45x45 squares each!).
While the press utterly hated the game (PC Zone rated it 1/10 and called it "a deep hole full of shit"), its extremely niche appeal found its mark and the game gained a cult following. The community remains somewhat active to this day and there's even two parallel (and legally conflicting) development branches: Ascension and The Revelation.
Definitely not a game for everyone, but an addicting and nearly endless time-sink for some.
Yumina: The Ethereal (2009)
Yumina is an officially translated PC-only JRPG - an extremely rare sight in the West, and a very different beast from the more mainstream-oriented console counterparts like Final Fantasy.
Made for a very specific audience, these game usually feature a Visual Novel-like presentation, hardcore battle systema with a billion stats, abilities, items and high difficulty, old-school dungeon-crawling and several routes & endings. Also, sex scenes - reason why you likely never heard of most of them.
Here you play as Yumina, a school girl that wants to be the next School President, and for that she must win literal battles against other candidates in the "Election War", presented as "debates" where each party shouts out arguments together with their attacks:
But what I would like to highlight here is a single mechanic - the mana bar:
Every ability require mana, and each character has an affinity with one of four mana colors. The twist is that both you and your enemies use the same mana pool, which is (usually) locked at 100.
So if you use an ability that costs 15 blue mana, the blue portion of the bar will decrease by 15, while each of the other 3 colors will get +5 mana.
This effectively turns battles into a tug-o'-war, where you must carefully use your characters to always have the mana you need & build up for more powerful attacks, while also observing which color of mana your enemies favour and trying to dry them out.
A neat little concept, that completely changes how this turn-based JRPG plays.
Personally, I find it mind-blowing how hentai JRPGs like Yumina, Sengoku Rance, Kamidory Alchemy Meister, Tears to Tiara and the likes present much more original and solid gameplay than more mainstream titles... the erotic scenes (and overwritten dialogs) are a huge barrier but, it's always amusing to read people saying "came for the sex, stayed for the gameplay".
Thanks for reading and, once again, if you enjoyed this list there's a 350-page release of the upcoming CRPG Book right here for download, with over 200 RPG reviews. All for free! :)