One of three games on this list that first saw life in arcades, a market so anathematic to exploration goals that it's notable when any game there features them.
Developed and published by Taito.
Length: Very short.
Many supposed RPGs pay mere lip-service to the conventions, especially if they're action games. In Capcom's two Dungeons & Dragons brawlers, for example, players advance in level automatically as they finish levels, and experience points are merely for score. Taito's two 90s arcade RPGs Cadash and Dungeon Magic (a.k.a. Lightbringer), on the other hand, attempt as best they can to incorporate all the RPG aspects they can into their reflex-testing, real-time worlds. You can even take the time to talk to townsfolk, although the strict timer would seem to make that a dubious proposition at best.
Taito is one of my favorite developers. They don't get the fandom that Nintendo or Sega does, but in their heyday they were just as inventive as any of them. Recent years have seen them fall on hard times, and subject to the ignominy of being bought by Square/Enix, who has just about as little to do with classic arcade games as any game manufacturer.
Cadash is a game that fits my "open world game" definition only with effort. It is true that it is a large-world game, but it is also a fairly traditional action RPG, one made notable in large part for its appearing first in arcades instead of in console ports. (It got two of those.)
Most RPGs don't fit into the exploration game mold because, although generally nothing stops the player from going back to old areas, there is usually so little reason to that it's a waste of time to do so. The basic RPG structure is: fight monsters in an area until the player has strength to beat its boss, beat said boss, then proceed to the next. Each area has stronger opponents than the last, and each provides greater rewards for beating them, so it's always numerically advantageous for the player to bumble around the most advanced area available to him. The monsters may be tougher, but they're worth so much more experience and money than those in previous areas, and the points required to attain the next level are great enough, and the equipment that can be found or purchased in the new towns strong enough, that there's no reason at all to go back unless the story demands it. And if he does have to spend significant time back there, there'll probably be some twist that'll make the monsters worth fighting again.
But that's the thing. The player can
go back, but in practice he never does. All the exciting stuff
happens in the new area until it has been wrung dry of goodies, and
the player's skin has absorbed most of those lovely experience rays.
Like a drug addict forever chasing his next
fix, the player is constantly seeking the next tier of tasty
monsters, his evolving tastes pushing him towards greater rewards as
entire kingdoms become obsolete. In actuality, this progression is
little better than the forced scroll back in Super Mario Bros.
Pick whatever RPG series and this will nearly always be true,
from Dragon Quest to Paper Mario. Cadash, it
must be stated, is no different than this.
But it's still worth talking about here due to the fact that it plays around interestingly with the strictures forced upon it by its arcade nature. All arcade games, you see, must impose hard limits on the player's game time so the machine isn't hogged. Some games, like Defender, Golden Axe and Smash T.V., do this by sending in "baiters" that will kill his character unless he continues on his way. Others plop a clock on the screen, but usually the clock only comes into play if the player is explicitly dallying. In Metal Slug's case the clock is easy to ignore right up to the moment it's about to expire.
Cadash uses a clock, but integrates it into the play. While the clock serves its function to keep the player moving in order to obtain the large time bonus awarded for entering a new region, he can also purchase time extensions in the in-game shops, using in-game money. One of the characters available, the Cleric, also has a spell that adds time to the clock. In a RPG, it should be noted, time spent fighting monsters directly translates into additional power for the player. Some amount of building-up is expected in Cadash, but the player must carefully judge how much building he can get away with without getting too close to death by the time-over monster.
Time spent in exploration, navigation and combat in Cadash is always at the expense of the game timer. The game's balance is between the speed with which players must explore, and the time spent defeating as many monsters as they can. While running out of time doesn't absolutely end the game (it just forces the player to put in another quarter), attempts to carry out a one-credit run will inevitably run into striking a balance between fighting and progress.
The beginning of sophistication for any gamer is the realization that there are lots of good games that didn't do well in the marketplace. Blaster Master's failure is like a zen koan.
Published by Sunsoft
Platform: Famicom, NES
An infamous article in Nintendo Power once stated, correctly, that the game is awesome but didn't sell as well as Sunsoft hoped. This was probably because it had a generic name vaguely reminiscent of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. The article said that what Sunsoft should have done to move cartridges was to have slapped a license on it. Go take a look at the games on the shelves of your local department store and tell me the studios didn't take that advice to heart. Anyway, that's just what Sunsoft did with a quasi-sequel to the game, Uncle Fester's Quest, one of the more notorious examples of mismatched licensing in video game history.
For the first time in game journalism history, someone will now discuss this game without mentioning the "save the frog" storyline. You're welcome.
After Metroid, a veritable tsunami of
exploration games struck the island nation of Japan,
twelve. Blaster Master is among the best by any
measure. The game makes the freeform structure of Metroid a bit more
rigorous, dividing the world into eight theme areas following the
archetypes just then being chiseled into unyielding stone. There's a
fire world, an ice world, an ocean world, a techno-world, an organic
world, and a forest world. The two standouts are a castle world and
a surprisingly large sewer world. The worlds are numbered, akin to
Zelda's dungeons, but cannot be traversed out of order. Each world
boss leaves behind an upgrade that makes the route to the next world
While the worlds cannot be explored out of order, they are not laid out in an orderly progression. For example, the way to Area 4 is in Area 1. Sometimes the big door that leads to the next level is hidden fairly well, too; that Area 4 door is found in the starting room up at the top of the large wall the player starts in front of. And vast sections of Blaster Master's territory is superfluous. Each multi-section side-view area contains a number of doors around the place that lead to overhead sections the player must explore on foot, but only one of those doors contains the boss and major powerup. Usually it takes a player a couple of lives to explore them all the first time and find the important door, and that itself is a significant limiter.
It's significant because in Blaster Master, unlike most open world games, lives matter. There is a final limit to the number of lives and continues the player gets to progress through the game, and there is no save, or even password feature. Lives are so limited, and the game so large, that even very good players will probably have to start over a few times. Some may find this frustrating, but at least the main play mechanics are pulled off with enough panache that it's still entertaining to play through old areas.
A big part of the draw to open world games is how interesting are the areas explored, and one way to make them interesting is with graphics. Blaster Master is among the very best-looking NES games.
It is also an unusually difficult game, in terrain, in exploration, in enemies, and in lives. Yet it is unquestionably one of the NES's highlights. It proves that high difficulty and free-form exploration need not be incompatible.