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Sunday, June 23, 2024

Highest High and Lowest Low: Nintendo Entertainment System

A new little segment where I look at the top RPG and the absolute worst RPG on every platform I happen to own.  We'll start with the NES since it was the first game console I had as a kid and was the launchpad for numerous genre-defining titles that continue even today.

BEST: The Legend of Zelda (Nintendo, 1986/1987)

It's really no surprise, is it?  The Legend of Zelda was simply phenomenal for 1987 with its sprawling open world, fantastic presentation and gameplay that was very easy to pick up and play yet provided a deceptively deep and challenging gameplay experience.  But even once you'd deciphered all its clues, found all its items and vanquished Ganon, it wasn't over yet - an entire second quest became unlocked with a whole new set of dungeons, remixed secrets and a whole new layer of difficulty to overcome.  It continues to get sequels and spinoffs and countless forays into other genres even today for good reason - Legend of Zelda is an indisputable masterpiece that holds up just as well in 2024 as it did in 1987.

WORST: Ultima: Warriors of Destiny (Origin Systems, 1993)

Alongside Wizardry, Ultima is one of the formative computer RPG franchises, inspiring countless digital RPGs to follow and becoming bigger and better with every entry while somehow never missing a beat with their inspired design, surprisingly earnest characters and brilliantly realized worlds, puzzles and lore.  Even the console ports up to this point were pretty damn good - the NES had quite a quite solid port of III, a JRPG-ized version of IV that became a cult classic in its own right and the Master System had its own version of IV that was arguably the definitive version of that game.  So what happened with the NES port of Ultima V?  Well, it's a bit of a long story, but I'll try to keep it brief. Ultima VI was out on computers by that time and was lauded for its new engine that immersed the player in a 'virtual world' where they could interact with virtually any object in a meaningful way - cows could be milked, doors and chests required specific keys to open, NPCs all had unique portraits and hundreds of lines of dialog, and just about anything could be picked up, moved about or dropped.  If you'd guess that the NES wasn't really capable of supporting an advanced engine and a dense game world like this, you'd be correct.  If you also guessed that they tried anyway, you'd sadly also be right about that.  So not only does NES Warriors of Destiny run a blistering 3-6 frames per second, but the sheer amount of writing, characters, deep combat elements, dense world design and lines of dialog they had to cut just to cram the game into a 1 MB NES cart is nothing short of heartbreaking.  It feels like a bad joke with its lack of content and the absolutely miserable slow movement and menuing that eats your inputs constantly.  They couldn't even get the story right either, as the oppressive atmosphere, interesting morality questions and poignant ending are all trimmed down or cut completely.  Forget about the beautiful spritework of the computer versions too as everything here looks muddy, flat and terrible, and all of the music and sound effects are gone in favor of one 37-second track that loops for the entire game.  A complete desecration of two classics on every level.  But the worst part is I can't even blame a third party for this travesty as it was developed in-house by Origin themselves; you'd hope they of all people would treat their flagship franchise with the reverence it deserves and avoid releasing something that's actively miserable to play, but apparently not!

RUNNER-UP: Hoshi Wo Miru Hito (Another, 1987)

Hoshi Wo Miru Hito can objectively be considered a worse game than Warriors of Destiny; while WoD is slow, boring, ugly, actively miserable to play and a desecration of a classic, it does at least function properly and can be finished if you have the patience of a saint (or just ape speedrun strats to skip large portions of the plot like I did).  Hoshi Wo Miru Hito, on the other hand, is fundamentally broken on just about every level and virtually impossible to finish without a guide and/or copious amounts of cheating.  From the gratingly slow movement to the inobvious puzzles, inability to run from battles, equipment that LOWERS your stats, HP meters that truncate the last digit, enemies that hit you with cheap, party-wrecking moves right out of the gate, making the very first town invisible, returning you to the start point on the map every time you exit a town or dungeon, it can't be described as fun or even competent.  And that's all before you get to the fact that it uses passwords to save which don't even properly track your progress - you still go back to the start of the game and reset to Level 0 even after punching one in.  In spite of all that, though, I can't completely hate it; for all its faults, it does at least have some clever ideas and hints of originality.  For one, the setting is a relatively novel one for JRPGs with its cyberpunk and science fiction elements, and there are a few creative abilities like being able to use your psychic powers to "jump" over walls or glide over water.  Even the end of the game was pretty novel, with several different endings available depending on your choices (although disappointingly you can't actually win a fight against the central antagonists, or even have one; it just cuts to a screen saying you lost).  I'm far from the only one who shares this point too, as the game has a small but dedicated following in Japan - enough for it to get several patches to improve the graphics, fix the broken save system, tune up the gameplay and even get a full fan remake and a rerelease on the Switch.  So if nothing else, it at least stands as proof that people can find something redeemable in even the suckiest of games.