It was 1988 in North America where Sega’s Master System was already embroiled in a battle with the Nintendo Entertainment System.
One a technical level, the SMS had a few advantages. It employed the incredibly versatile 8-bit Zilog Z80 running at 4MHz as its CPU, a tried and true arcade part that bespoke of Sega’s experience in that arena and which was arguably more powerful than the Famicom’s Ricoh 2A03 running at 1.79 MHz. For sound, it also used a YM2413 FM chip from Yamaha who were also responsible for supplying hardware to the arcades as well with their silicon showing up in hits from Capcom to SNK.
I knew people that argued that the SMS was on the “winning” side because of the hardware alone. But as history has often shown, you can have the best technical platform ever made but it’s nothing without software to help drive that success. It’s something that Nintendo’s Hiroshi Yamauchi understood too well when he worked to solidify the Famicom’s dominance in Japan, and later, in the West as the NES. As noble as it was for Sega to position their system as the exclusive port of call for Sega arcade ports, it didn’t make for a very large library compared to the NES’ third-party deluge.
But the games that emerged for the SMS could often be incredibly amazing leaps of brilliance on the part of Sega and those who they licensed to work with it. In 1988, two RPGs arrived to demonstrate that — Phantasy Star and Miracle Warriors.
Arguably, at least when it came to the West, the only really comparable platform for RPGs wasn’t the NES — it was the PC. PCs already had a massive library of CRPGs that continued to grow year by year and as consoles became more popular in the West, titans such as SSI would try and grab a piece of that market by porting a few of those over.
Final Fantasy and its sequel came out in 1987 and 1988 respectively in Japan for the Famicom but it wouldn’t be until 1990 that the first FF would come out in North America. Black Onyx, designed by Henk Rogers, had come out in Japan in 1984 for the PC-88 and is often regarded as the RPG that helped kick off the Japanese market for the genre, though established Western series like Ultima and Wizardry would also provide even more of the virtual grease that would kick off the careers for more than one designer in the Land of the Rising Sun. Japan was slightly late to the RPG party when it came to video games, but there were also plenty of examples to work with by the time they decided to show off their moves.
Phantasy Star’s bright colors, tile-based overworld, and first-person dungeons were impressive technical achievements for a home console compared to what had come before bringing home bits and pieces of what PC users had long experienced. If anything else, Phantasy Star’s design could also be said to share something in common the first Ultimas with its tile-based overworld/first-person dungeon perspectives — only with a lot more eye and ear candy to chew on thanks to its arcade-inspired hardware. It even came with a huge, finely illustrated map of the continents that you’ll be exploring overlaid with a grid pattern.
Compared to its PC cousins, on the other hand, it lacked the crunchy depth CRPG worlds there could often bring to bear. Yet it was still an amazingly solid RPG for the Master System that gave an audience unfamiliar with CRPGs in general a slice of the genre’s potential. It also helped that one didn’t have to juggle 5.25″ disks and worry whether or not the dog would chew their party to death.
Miracle Warriors followed in the same vein though it wasn’t quite as sophisticated or as deep as Phantasy Star which felt much like a flagship title for the SMS. Like Phantasy Star, it also had some things in common with Western CRPGs at the time. In this case, with those that were strictly top-down, tile-based affairs whether it was exploring the world or the dark recesses of a creepy, monster infested dungeon.
The game started life on NEC’s PC-88 in Japan as Haja no Fuin in 1986, designed and programmed by Kogado Software Products. It was then ported to a large number of Japan-centric platforms: the MSX (which briefly tried to compete in the United States), the Famicom, the FM-7, Sharp X1, and the MSX2. The Sega Master System version is the only iteration of the series (a sequel came out in 1988 that was Japan only) to be localized for Western audiences and is generally considered to be the best version. That’s the one I grew up with.
The story goes that, long ago there was a shepherd named Iason who had accidentally opened the Pandora Passage, unleashing evils into the world led by the Dark Lord Terarin. As he grew up into a man witnessing the suffering the world, he vowed to put an end to it. He managed to do so thanks to training by the White Monks and the magical arms they had also given him to aid his battle until he was at last victorious. Terarin was banished, but Iason prophesied that she would return and that “four brave warriors” would heed the call.
Ages passed and Terarin had finally returned to wreak havoc on the world in revenge. Now it falls to you as one of the prophesied heroes, a descendant of Iason himself, to find the other three and stop her, recover her Seal, and close the Passage once more to save the world.
The screen was divided into four main quadrants. The upper left area, the largest one, displayed your party (and the fairy, Ica, who is always with you) against the backdrop of the world. The upper right was reserved for both your menu screen and the map view. The bottom right showed your wealth, fangs (valuable items that can be traded in or held onto as trophies for trade in certain places), herbs carried for healing after battle, and “character” points which are regarded as fame in the game. The bottom left area shows your party, their health, and how much experience any one character needs for the next level.
From the menu, the player can check on the status of their party members broken down into only the basics. Only two stats — S for Strength (damage) and D for Defense (how much damage a character can resist) — are displayed. The other numbers represent a piece of equipment’s health which can decrease over time with battle, though you can hire a traveling blacksmith to tag along with the party to keep everything in top shape making the stat somewhat useless, though it can be a brutal hurdle to overcome in the early game.
Both hit points and experience are displayed as gauges instead of numbers and leveling up pads more hit points and a bit more strength to the characters in general. Random encounters fueled everyone’s growth.
When a monster was confronted, the upper left quadrant changed to a combat screen showing the monster and you had the choice of either fighting, running, casting a spell, or using something magical (which often meant attacking anyway). Or you could try to talk to the monster though that usually led to giving it a free hit. But some encounters, like friendly merchants, will drop a piece of pithy advice (such as telling you to grow stronger so you can take on tougher monsters) if you decide to chat.
Terrain also played an important part with the encounter system. The open “brown” plains of the world were where relatively easier encounters lurked, though the further from the starting castle you began at, the tougher the beasts. Forests the next step up. Mountains were where you could get killed quickly if you didn’t have enough levels or hadn’t found the others of your party yet. But you were free to go wherever you wanted. Quitting the game opened up the save feature which allowed you to save anywhere — eat that checkpoints and passwords — thanks to the battery save system.
The game could also be rough going because it, and the manual, were sparse on clues. The NPCs were often not very helpful with advice usually stating the obvious with key characters hidden throughout the world in far off corners. There’s not a lot of hand holding here and your poor self literally starts out with virtually nothing despite the local king saying that you’re everyone’s last hope. All you have are your fists and they’ll have to pummel enough thieves and low level animals to earn up the coin to buy something that you can use to defend yourself better with.
The prices can also be a bit on the goofy side — to buy a knife costs $3000, for example, but it’s probably something like a short sword that didn’t translate over. The local healer’s prices go up the more HP they need to heal and given that you barely have any money to start with, that can quickly end your first go with the game. That can make it a vicious Catch-22 if you don’t have enough cash to bandage those wounds you earned in trying to get more cash to start with. Resurrections for any dead party members also occur only in one place on the map that you’ll need to find on your own. But as I mentioned before, at least you can save anywhere.
As much as I enjoyed Phantasy Star, Miracle Warriors was a great alternative back in those days especially considering the context of the time. It wasn’t as vast as a game such as The Bard’s Tale III with its multi-world hopping adventure, but it was still a fun game for a console especially on a big television with as many colors and sounds as it brought to the table making up for its simplicity. It even had multiple tracks that changed with your location as you traveled from the overworld, entered a town, or dove into a dungeon. Even getting into a fight had its own theme and sound effects. Back in those days, that was amazing stuff.
Miracle Warriors’ big world beckoned to adventurers to seek out lost treasures and plumb dark halls and ruins in search of prized relics and better gear. That, along its story and lightweight mechanics, were enough of a nudge for the imagination to run wild with in taking my character into the corners of this mysterious playground, battle monsters, and hopefully save the world from a cheapskate king and the terror only your blood held any hope of stopping.