Saturday, August 15, 2020

Game 41 - Little Master 3

Little Master: The Rainbow Stones (リトルマスター〜虹色の魔石〜)
Released 6/30/1995, Developed by Zener Works, published by Intermedia

Amazon | リトルマスター虹色の魔石 | ゲームソフト
  1. Turn type: Player/enemy turn
  2. Maps: Medium, Terrain bonuses and lots of gimmicks on each level
  3. Character Customization: The monsters can be combined into a new monster.
  4. Character Development: Standard XP/level system.
  5. Party Size: Max 6
  6. Equipment: One accessory.
  7. Game Flow: A series of required stages in order. Some of them can be repeated, and there is a bonus post-game dungeon.
  8. Saving: Outside of battle.
  9. Death: Defeated characters are removed from the battle but return afterwards.
This is Zener Works' third and final game in the Little Master series. The first two were for Game Boy, and I felt that they had a lot of potential but were hampered by the limitations of the portable system. I knew that this game was coming up on the SFC and was eager to see how it improved on the formula. After playing it, I think it did make some big improvements but in other areas it still disappointed me.

The graphics are a high point. Obviously they're better than the Game Boy but even compared to other SFC games they have a nice colorful style that stands out.

The backgrounds, characters, and sprites are all well done. The game doesn't take itself too seriously (as you can see with the ghost pirate in the first screenshot who does a basketball shot with his skull). The different monsters (both enemy and character) have detailed and individual attack animations, with several variations per character.

The story is also considerably improved from the first two games -- there are a lot more story sequences, and there's more plot development. It's still a fairly pedestrian story but it's nice that they put more attention into it.

What made the first two games stand out was the map variety, and that continues here. They kept a lot of the same map ideas from the first games -- random tornados that move you around, warp tiles, and monster spawns. There are new ideas like a map where you have to search snowmen while a monster throws snowballs around the map, fake treasure chests, flooding maps, seesaws where you fling your people to other parts of the map, and other things. Although a few of them end up being more annoying than fun, I like that they tried different ideas out so that each map feels unique.

The most disappointing part of this was the battle system and the monster combination, because this is where they didn't really improve on the older system. They added two main new features. There is a day/night as well as rock/paper/scissors attributes for each character. This changes the compatibility between characters and makes certain units get stronger at certain times. The second is a just frame system where you can hit A at the exact point during the attack or defense where the move hits, and increase/decrease the damage.

But there's still far too little variety between the characters. Tamtam is back from LM2; she can heal and if she gets attacked she turns into a monster. There's a new character who can switch between an offensive or buff/debuff mage. But other than that, every character can only move and attack. They differ in the range, but that's it. Your main character can move and do a range 1 attack. That's what he can do on stage 1, and that's what he can do on the last stage of the game. He never learns any new moves, and you can't change his equipment except for an accessory. This means that the colorfully designed monsters and units are a lot less individualistic than I would like.

The other problem is the monster system. As with LM1 and 2, the only way to recruit a monster is to visit houses on the maps. This means there are a fixed number of specific monsters you get in a playthrough. You can combine them to make stronger monsters, but you can never get any more than the 18 specific units the game has pre-determined. Since you have to combine two monsters to make one of a higher "rank", there's a limit on what you can actually achieve. They did allow the monsters to level up in this game, which means you can make any monster good.

What they did add in this game is a post-game dungeon that has repeatable floors. Here you can go to the houses over and over again and rank your monsters up as much as you want. But it seems like they went a little too far with this; my monsters at the end were in the 30s or 40s of rank, but the strongest monster is rank 175. You would have to do a lot of repetition in the postgame dungeon to get that.

Overall this is not a bad game at all; it's definitely the best of the Little Master series and worth a try. I just feel like there was a lot of missed potential if they had allowed some kind of monster recruitment, or given the monsters more abilities.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Game 40 - Arc the Lad

Arc the Lad (アークザラッド)
Released 6/30/1995, developed by G Craft, published by Sony

  1. Turn type: Speed based system
  2. Maps: Medium, Terrain bonuses.
  3. Character Customization: None.
  4. Character Development: Standard XP/level system.
  5. Party Size: Max 8
  6. Equipment: 4 accessory-type items.
  7. Game Flow: A series of required stages in order, but there are free battles to fight as well.
  8. Saving: Outside of battle.
  9. Death: Defeated characters are removed from the battle but return afterwards.

This is the first SRPG for the Playstation, which had come out in 1994. It was the first in a trilogy of games; they were not released in English until 2003. It seems that this was not originally intended to be a series, but Sony felt that the Playstation needed more RPGs to compete with other consoles. So Arc the Lad was released in basically an unfinished state; the main quest is very short and ends in the middle of the story, to be continued in Arc the Lad II next year.

The graphics are quite good for the time; the sprite work looks like improved late-Super Famicom graphics, the backgrounds are lush and well done, and the small number of FMVs fit well into the whole. What I find interesting about these early Playstation RPGs is that they were clearly following the Super Famicom model rather than the PC Engine model. The PCE had to rely on a lot of voice work, orchestrated music, and visual cutscenes to make up for the inferior graphics capability of the system. But early games for the PS1 like this have no voicing in the story sequences at all. Arc the Lad has a limited amount of voicing in the battles when the characters act and use their moves, although other games like Suikoden and Final Fantasy VII have no voice at all. This is in contrast to the shortlived PC-FX, which built on the PCE's success -- games like Der Langrisser FX and Power Dolls FX are fully voiced.

I used the Mednafen emulator, which I have already been using for the PCE and Saturn games. The game ran flawlessly on my 4-year old laptop and used a modest amount of the CPU.

The battle interface is streamlined and overall easy to use. You can move directly with the D-pad, attack with the circle button, and end your turn with the X button. You only need to open menus to use items or spells. The X button ending turn is tricky for someone used to most other SRPGs -- I kept accidentally ending my turn when I intended to take back my move instead (you don't really "take back" a move in the game, you just move somewhere else).

Each character has a basic attack, but then also has a number of special abilities that they learn -- mostly by levelling but a few characters learn by finding them instead. Arc is a basic fighter, Kukuru is a healer, Gogen is a magician, Poco has mostly buffs and debuffs, etc. The abilities level up as they level. It's a nice system that keeps each character different. Chongara has summon abilities which produce units that can create platforms, heal, or do other things.

My biggest problem with the system is the balance. This shares a quality of several other SRPGs -- due to something about the damage and stat formulas, a character who falls behind by a few levels becomes nearly useless in battle. It is possible to simply ignore this and only use a few characters. This is what I did, relying almost entirely on Arc and Gogen, with Kukuru to heal. This works, but I don't like having to do this. I think that you basically have to grind to avoid this. To the developers' credit they did provide a number of things to do other than the story battles -- there's a 50 floor optional dungeon, an arena, and a training center. So if you do want to grind your characters, you don't have to just play the same maps over and over.

The game takes place in a steampunk type world, although the steampunk elements are somewhat muted. You have airships to take you around to different places, but none of the main characters use any guns or anything like that. For the most part you can't explore towns, and maybe if you could the steampunk elements would be more evident.

The story begins with the mayor of the starting town tricking Kukuru into extinguishing the Cion Flame, thus releasing the Ark Demon into the world. Later, the main character Arc tries to fight the demon but gets wasted. A mysterious spirit gives him the power of the guardian spirit, and he sets out on a quest to find out more about his father and hopefully stop the monsters who have come into the world. The story is fine and has some nice developments and twists, and the cast is limited enough that you get to know all your companions. It's hard to say too much about it because this is only the first part of the story -- although it does finish after a climax point, you could probably beat this game in 5 hours if you knew what you were doing. If you do all the extra stuff that's probably another 15-20.

Arc the Lad II was released the next year; it's game 72 on my list so I will be getting to it before too long. The game allows you to carry over some things from the first to the second game so there's a continuity -- this is a feature that was enabled by the use of memory cards to save games. Did the PC Engine or Sega CD have any games that used the internal memory to enable a carryover?