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|E3 Day -1: Ys||E3 Day 0: The Legend of Heroes||E3 Day 1: Zwei||E3 Day 2: Xanadu||E3 Day 3: Everything Else|
For 2019's Alternative to E3 series, we're looking at a bunch of Falcom games! I've loved this RPG developer for a while and have been searching for an excuse to talk more about them, so that's what we're doing this year instead of poring over E3 trailers and news. Be sure to check Day -1 for more information via the table of links above.
Day 3: Everything Else
OK, fine, it's the last day of E3 and I'm completely exhausted. I thought about launching into a brief LP of one of the SNES/SFC Brandish games, similar to what I've done for Xanadu Next and Zwei: The Arges Adventure on previous days (see the table above), but I'm going to dance around the questionable legality of showing off a Super Famicom ROM and instead talk through all the other significant Nihon Falcom games of note, and my experiences with same where applicable, if only to show off the developer's versatility.
Falcom's had a long and standoffish relationship with the international market, due to the fact that while it continues to produce games that find a warm and receptive audience both at home and abroad, they generally don't have the budget that Square Enix or Sega or Bandai Namco does to localize and release all those text-heavy RPGs globally (and even those three major companies don't always choose to localize their newest games). It's only been in the past few years in fact, with the combination of Ys VI's universally accessible acclaim and the advent of easily distributable digital PC games, that we've started to see more localizations emerge from Falcom and its partners, taken from both their current and back catalogues.
First, let's talk some ancient history. I've discussed previously how the Xanadu and The Legend of Heroes franchises both emerged from a "father" franchise called Dragon Slayer. Built as an anthology series that would see significant mechanical changes from each game in addition to a new story, world, and characters, the first seven Dragon Slayer games all have distinctive personalities.
The first game, Dragon Slayer itself, is a 1984 top-down action-RPG that helped established the entire Japanese action-RPG genre. Released just a few months before T&E Soft's structurally similar Hydlide, and a few months after Namco's trendsetting The Tower of Druaga, Dragon Slayer had you traversing a large map, fighting monsters that moved around in real-time, and using items to get past obstacles. The player was limited to using one item at a time, often requiring that they dump the ones they weren't using somewhere accessible for later. Between Hydlide, The Tower of Druaga, and Dragon Slayer, the top-down action-RPG flourished in the mid-'80s, eventually leading to a less stats-intensive take with Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda. However, it's because of Dragon Slayer's emphasis on puzzles and inventory management that I feel it probably had the most influence over Shigeru Miyamoto's legendary swords n' triangles series.
The second Dragon Slayer game was 1985's Xanadu, which we've previously covered. The third was 1986's Romancia, which has an even closer connection to Zelda in that it eschewed most of the RPG elements for a more accessible take on the formula set by the prior two games. It is for this reason that it became known as "Dragon Slayer Jr.". Significantly for the history of Falcom, it also saw them take on a more lighthearted and colorful presentation for the younger audience they hoped to attract, which led to future cutesy games in their catalogue like Zwei and a couple of others we'll get to a little later here.
The fourth Dragon Slayer was called The Drasle Family in Japan, but became known internationally via its localized NES port Legacy of the Wizard. It would also be the first Dragon Slayer game to see an official localization. Legacy of the Wizard adopts a side-scrolling perspective first seen in Xanadu as well as the focus on item-based puzzles returning from the first Dragon Slayer, also reducing the amount of RPG elements found in either. The net result is something akin to an early spacewhipper with an inventive multiple protagonist gimmick: each member of the titular Drasle family (renamed the Worzen family for Legacy of the Wizard, which is just objectively a worze name) has their own particular skill, and can only find and equip progress-enabling items specific to them. The patriarch Xemn, for instance, is the only one strong enough to push heavy rocks out of the way, meaning only they can explore passageways blocked by debris. Of note is the family pet, Pochi: actually a monster that came from the dungeon, and can traverse it with immunity as fellow monsters refuse to attack it.
The fifth Dragon Slayer is Sorcerian, which bucked the trend of the previous games by allowing for parties of characters instead of solo heroes. The player would create up to ten party members before choosing four to send out on specific missions, with all four attacking foes simultaneously in dungeons as they followed the leader around in a side-scrolling format reminiscent of Xanadu, Romancia, and Legacy of the Wizard. Notably, Sorcerian also has an open scenario-based approach to its game progression, with players able to select which scenario to play in whichever order they want (though there were usually some minimum level recommendations). Sorcerian's fifteen scenarios would later be augmented by expansion packs that would add several more each time, some of which were developed by other studios.
The sixth and eighth Dragon Slayer games were The Legend of Heroes I and II, already discussed in a previous blog. The seventh Dragon Slayer is Lord Monarch, which not only changed formats again but even the genre: the Lord Monarch games are instead real-time war strategy games similar to Ogre Battle. I don't know too much about Lord Monarch - strategy games aren't my forte - but I recall that the Super Famicom port allowed you to switch themes if traditional fantasy trappings weren't to your liking. Without changing the core mechanics, you could make the game about warring mechs, the Three Kingdoms conflict, fairy tale characters having a heated moment, or sentient French fries and burgers partaking in a very literal interpretation of those "fast food wars" you heard about in Demolition Man.
1990s & 2000s
During the 1990s, Falcom were fond of revisiting their earlier games and either remastering them for newer versions of Windows or remaking them from scratch with the original game's spirit still intact. This is a trend that would continue to the present day, with recent games like Ys: Memories of Celceta actually being remakes of far older games. The 1990s also still saw its share of original games too, however, especially now that Falcom was done with the Dragon Slayer franchise.
Since I flaked on it, we'll start with Brandish. The first Brandish was released in 1991 and was another departure for Falcom, as a top-down dungeon-crawler which had far more in common with RPGs like Dungeon Master and Wizardry (or Etrian Odyssey, if you want a modern Japanese example) than The Legend of Zelda or the original Dragon Slayer. Players negotiated a maze by carefully examining walls for switches, the floors for traps, and every direction for monsters sneaking up on them. What made the Brandish games difficult to adjust to was the way it would swing the entire dungeon around 90 degrees every time your character turned, so you would always be facing forward: this was the only way to see what was on walls in front of you, but the constant world-shifting was always confusing and sometimes nauseating. The half-naked sorceress Dela would become the mascot for the series, despite being the antagonist of the first game: later games would make her more of a Black Cat/Catwoman morally grey frenemy foil to traditional hero Ares, giving the developers the excuse to eventually make her playable later in the series. Brandish would be followed by Brandish 2: The Planet Buster (PC98 and SFC), Brandish 3: Spirit of Balcan (PC98 only), and Brandish VT (PC98 and PC - VT was a massive retooling of the franchise, and opted for a fixed isometric view that was a little easier to navigate). Unlike the first game, none of Brandish's sequels were ever localized officially. The first was also remade as Brandish: The Dark Revenant much later for PSP, which included a new Dela campaign.
One of the better regarded of the new 90s IPs was Popful Mail, which saw a number of console ports but only one with a localization: the Sega CD version. Deploying a lighter tone first seen in Romancia and later in games like Zwei, Popful Mail is - like many Falcom games - a side-scrolling action-RPG with some additional platforming and puzzle elements. The unusual title refers to the eponymous warrior heroine, Mail, who has a "popful" (or bubbly) personality, if not much in the way of good luck or sense. Fortunately for us it sounds like the Sega CD probably had the best overall port, between its amusing anime cutscenes and polished graphics.
After Lord Monarch, Falcom decided to keep exploring games of a more tactical bent with 1997's Vantage Master: a fully turn-based SRPG that had players summoning elemental spirits to fight for them, similar to SystemSoft's Master of Monsters franchise or later interpretations of the idea like GrimGrimoire or Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings. Vantage Master Online, a remastered version of the game that was localized into English, was given away for free on Falcom's site. You can still grab it if you visit the download page via the Internet Archive.
The 2000s and onwards for Falcom have predominantly featured continuations of their Ys and The Legend of Heroes series, remakes like Ys I & II Complete, Ys: The Oath in Felghana, and Ys: Memories of Celceta, or reimaginings like Xanadu Next and Tokyo Xanadu, but there is one more original IP from this period of note to international audiences: Gurumin: A Monstrous Tale. I've seen this go on sale so many times - I'd hoped I could pick it up as the game to cover for this final E3 2019 blog, but it's presently full price and I already splurged on Xanadu Next - but never put it together that it was a Falcom game. Like Zwei it's a brightly colorful action-RPG with a more comedic tone, though with a striking cel-shaded look as well as a full English dub. It seems kinda adorable, so I'll have to pencil it in for a future Indie Game of the Week showcase (despite not technically counting as one).
There's plenty more Falcom games trapped behind the language barrier - the bizarre isometric sci-fi RPG Rinne, the first-person dungeon-crawlers Dinosaur and Dinosaur Resurrection, the shoot 'em up/RPG hybrid Star Trader, their many pre-Dragon Slayer PC games - but they're not easy games to track down information about, beyond a few Falcom diehards elsewhere on the internet. They're definitely the sort of games - based on their obscurity, challenge of figuring out how to play, and purported quality levels - that you'd probably only pursue if you'd played absolutely everything else Falcom had to offer and were still jonesing for more.
Instead, I'll leave you with a few concrete ideas of where to start your own Falcom journeys:
- Ys: The Oath in Felghana - Ys: TOiF is the platonic ideal of a mid-era Ys game, in much the same way A Link to the Past is for the Zelda franchise. It's not the first, it's not the most elaborate and feature-rich, and it's debatably not even the best, but it is absolutely the most Ys. You'll get a sense of the franchise's fast-paced combat, excellent music, Ys-typical story beats about Adol's luck with ships or the rival swordsman antagonist with a tragic past, and how much of the overall experience is anchored on the incredible and challenging boss fights.
- The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky FC - Both because I haven't played Cold Steel yet and because it's still a couple of localizations away from completing its whole story arc, I'll instead recommend the fully localized and widely available Trails in the Sky trilogy as your gateway to the TLoH games. You'll obviously want to start with the First Chapter, given that the three parts make a contiguous story, and while the pace is far slower than Ys due to the turn-based combat and large amount of side-questing it's an equally rewarding experience due to its warm characters, brilliant localized script, and deeper storytelling.
- Xanadu Next: Even if it's a bit rudimentary in comparison, I presently can't get enough of Xanadu Next's humble dungeon-crawling, well-considered difficulty curve, slightly darker story, and atmospheric music. It sits somewhere between Ys and TLoH in terms of pace, and is great if you like open-world environments with new areas that become accessible once you come back with the right equipment. I'm looking forward to seeing if Tokyo Xanadu eX+ is as good.
- Gurumin: A Monstrous Adventure: While I've yet to play it, this seems like a great starting point for a younger audience or one looking for maximum accessibility out of their action-RPGs. It's definitely a lot cuter than any of the above recommendations, and its more timeless presentation and voiceover cast makes it a little more palatable than the dated look of other Falcom games.
Thanks for hanging out listening to me yammer on about JRPGs while E3 rages on around us, like a cosy fireside chat with Grampy Video Games while a fierce blizzard storm of marketing hype hammers on the windows. I'm sure to talk about many more Falcom games in the months and years to come - it's due time I get back on that Trails horse soon - and I hope September's Japanese debut of Ys IX: Pax Nostrum proves to be a rousing success, quickly followed by an announced localization. Moreover, I hope I've motivated someone to jump into Falcom's modest but enthusiastic little corner of the JRPG market and discover for themselves how rad these games can be, despite primitive appearances. See ya next E3, Falcomrades.