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Sunday, July 5, 2015

Obscusion B-Side: Hydlide (Windows 95/98): Ride that Hydra All Night-O!

I'm no stranger to going against the grain when it comes to popular opinion, and this situation is no different. If you were to go ask numerous video game fans who are familiar with it, almost all of them will state that Hydlide is one of the worst games of all time... On the NES. This is a feeling that has only been exacerbated with time, especially when popular online video game critics like James Rolfe (via the Angry Video Game Nerd) & Jared Knabenbauer (via ProJared) have given their negatively-tinged opinions on the matter. Now I'm not here to denounce their reviews or put down their videos on the whole, especially since I am a fan of both of them, but if there is one segment of fandom that is quick to play copycat & simply mime the opinions of those with followings, likely without ever having experienced it themselves, it's video game fandom (and seemingly doubly so for retro gaming). Now, to be fair, there have been some other video producers who have defended Hydlide, like "SuperDerek" or Jason Pullara (a.k.a. LordKat), and the difference in opinion on the game really comes down to one thing, which is the game's history.

The year 1984 is an important one for RPGs in Japan, as it was when the country was hit with three highly influential debuts, one after the other. First up was the Namco arcade game The Tower of Druaga, designed by Masanobu Endo, which came out on July 20. It mixed together overhead arcade action with some RPG elements, becoming a massive hit in Japan. On September 10, Nihon Falcom released Yoshiyo Kiya's Dragon Slayer for the NEC PC-88. Taking elements of Falcom's 1983 game Panorama Toh & mixing them with influence from Druaga, Dragon Slayer featured the usual RPG mechanics of leveling up via experience points to become stronger, but the battles were done in a real-time, arcade-style execution instead of the menu-based combat prior to it. Finally, on December 13, T&E Soft released Hydlide on the PC-88, which was designed by Tokihiro Naito. Hydlide was similar to Dragon Slayer in some ways, but where Kiya made a Druaga-influenced game which took place in a single dungeon & relied on a slow battle system, Naito made an Ultima-influenced game that featured an overworld, with a handful of dungeons, & relied on more fast-paced battle system. While PC magazine writer Akira Yamashita dubbed it an "Active Role Playing Game", Hydlide has gone on to be considered one of the first Action RPGs, if not the first. At the very least, it shares that honor with Dragon Slayer, which called itself "A New Type Real Time Role Playing Adventure".

Hydlide would go on to become a massive success for the fledgling T&E Soft, which had only been founded two years prior; it was only Naito's second game, as well. It was ported to the FM-7, MSX (& MSX2), Sharp X1, & PC-98, where it would total over a million in sales across all these computers, before seeing a console release on March 18, 1986 on the Nintendo Famicom under the name Hydlide Special, where it would sell an additional million units. By this time Hydlide II: Shine of Darkness had been released on computers, so T&E Soft decided to remix the original game a little by shoehorning in some bits of the sequel for the Famicom release. The magic system that's kind of unneeded, minus for two specific moments? The 15-second music loop that plays throughout 99% of the game & sounds like the Indiana Jones theme? Those both came from Hydlide II, with the annoyingly repetitive music actually being the intro theme from said game. In other words, it was not meant to be heard for hours on end while playing. Still, Hydlide wouldn't leave Japan until June of 1989, when FCI released Special on the NES, using only the original name. Not only was this nearly five years after the game originally debuted on the PC-88, not to mention three years after the initial Famicom release, but it was even 1.5 years after Hydlide 3: The Space Memories saw its initial release in Japan. In fact, by the time we finally got the first entry in the series, Namco had already released the Famicom port of the third game, re-subtitled Yamikara no Houmonsha/Visitors from the Darkness, in Japan. Not just that, but within a year of us receiving the first game on the NES, the Sega Mega Drive port of 3, re-named Super Hydlide, was not only released in Japan but also brought over to the North American Sega Genesis by Seismic Software!

Back then, this was all you needed for a gripping story. Sweet.

Long story short, the original Hydlide was highly outdated in game mechanics by the time we finally got it. Falcom had already taken inspiration from T&E Soft's game & improved upon it with the Ys series, which we first got on via the Master System port in 1988, & Shigeru Miyamoto took the concept & expanded upon it heavily with a 1986 game called The Legend of Zelda. It's only natural that a game that helped introduce an entire sub-genre in Japan would feel intensely wanting for North American gamers after already having played games that followed its lead & added to what it introduced. It also didn't help that the NES/Famicom port cheapened out by not including bankswitching, which is why the music is so limited & repetitive, or even a battery backup, which is why the save/load feature is so (oddly) misinterpreted & why passwords are relied upon. Anyway, enough history for the moment (I'll get back to it at the end)... Didn't I have a review in mind? Why yes I did. On April 23, 1999, for the game's 15th Anniversary, T&E Soft released the original Hydlide on Windows 95/98. The game not only featured a perfect port of the PC-88 original, but it also featured an "Arrange Mode" as well as a couple of new features. Since nearly every review of this game online is about the NES port, with a handful covering the PC-88 original, allow me to explain what the Windows version has to offer & why it's the best version of the game in general. In fact, it may even make some haters actually enjoy this game.

In a world parallel to ours called Fairyland (or Fairy Land, if you prefer), peace reigned throughout the land. That peace would come to an end when an evil wizard stole the three jewels (later defined specifically as the Philosopher Stones) that had sealed away the demon Varalys. Now free, Varalys casts a spell on Princess Ann, splitting her up into three fairies & allowing all sorts of monsters to roam around the land. Wanting to put an end to everything & bring peace back to Fairyland, a lone knight named Jim decides to go out, recover the three fairies & jewels, and defeat Varalys once & for all.

It's admittedly a simple plot, but it's not like RPGs of the early 80s were big on that kind of thing, especially when it came to first entries. The original Wizardry was about going down a dungeon to hunt an evil wizard. Dragon Slayer was about defeating a dragon for no real reason at all. Even the original Ultima, once you remove the time travelling & space journeying (which was the most advanced those stories got at the time), was just about defeating an evil mastermind. At the very least, Hydlide actually establishes a world, backstory, & reason for doing what you have to do; it's two sequels would then add to that world building in their own ways. It is definitely more Ultima-inspired in that regard than it's Japanese contemporaries. People seem to want to take jabs at this game for the fact that its hero is named "Jim", & other relatively generic namings, but that's nothing more than taking potshots because it's easy. Everything has to start somewhere, right? It's not like JRPGs started off immediately with all of the crazy names we've seen since.

Gameplay in Hydlide is as simple as can be, but that's due to the obvious Druaga influences. Unlike most Action RPGs, there is no button to press in order to attack your enemies. Instead, you simply move Jim into the enemy, with damage being dealt between combatants upon bumping into each other. By default Jim is in "Defend" mode, where he does less damage but takes less as well, but there's also "Attack" mode, where he's all about doing damage but is much more prone to taking it heavily. A common complaint is that there is absolutely no strategy in combat here, aside from the two modes, but that's not completely true. If you do attack a foe from behind or the side, Jim is less likely to take damage (even taking none if from behind), not to mention slightly more damage is dealt from behind. The only real caveat to this is that the simple sprites mean that not every monster, like slimes, have a visible "back", but if people don't realize that a monster not walking towards you means that it's vulnerable then there's probably no helping them in the first place.

Yes, Falcom would expand on this bumping mechanic with Ys I, II, & IV later on, and The Legend of Zelda would make attacking its own button, but once again I think insulting Hydlide's simplicity simply because it came first is nothing more than taking potshots, just like a monster attacking Jim from behind. One mechanic that people do acknowledge Hydlide for, though seemingly begrudgingly, is the fact that Jim's method of healing is by standing in one place & waiting for his health to recharge. Yes, this is the first game to feature regenerating health, which is oh so beloved by western developers now. To be fair, though, this game requires you to be on a piece of grass in order to heal. You won't heal while in a dungeon (minus the last one), for example, while being in a graveyard or swimming in water will actually drain your health. Falcom would also utilize this mechanic in the early Ys games.

The NES map is everywhere online, so here's the PC-88 map...

This doesn't mean that Hydlide is a cakewalk, though, because it isn't by any means. The claustrophobic dungeons make it tough to attack enemies from behind, and likewise it's tough to protect yourself, even in Defend mode. Even when you've leveled yourself up, an attack from behind will always do damage, regardless of what monster is doing it. The game also forces you to continue attacking stronger monsters, as weaker ones stop giving experience after you've leveled up enough, forcing you to always be on the lookout for both new meat to kill as well as what's behind you, ready to attack. For the most part, monster movement patterns are random, so one can't simply memorize where & when a monster will move, either. This is all compounded by the open nature of the game, because upon starting Jim has access to nearly every location except for the end game castle on a small island. While the overworld is only made up of 25 game screens, done in a 5x5 style that wraps on all sides, you are given absolutely no indication of where to go & what to do next, making it feel larger. Again, though, this was very common of games of the time. In fact, Hydlide is an open book compared to something like Wizardry IV, which essentially prides itself on being vague & nigh-impossible to figure out from the first room.

Nowadays, though, it's easy to figure out where to go & what to do, and once you do know it all, the game isn't exactly that long to play through. Similar to arcade games, though, the lack of simply telling people where to go & what to do was part of RPGs of the time. To complaint about Hydlide being vague in that regard would require one to complain about other games of its time for doing the same thing, but such stuff is never done for games like the early Wizardry or Ultima games; the most you get is acknowledgement that they're obtuse & old fashioned, but that's it. Admittedly, the method to kill the wizard in this version for the third fairy is really obtuse & requires one to purposefully take damage, since there's no wave magic to be found, but the only truly annoying quest is that one of the jewels relies on a chest appearing randomly in a dungeon. Just remember, though, that according to Celtic myth fairies like to live in trees, & vampires always hate crosses...

Anyway, what does the Windows version offer to make it worth reviewing on its own? The biggest thing is the Arrange Mode, which gives the game a nice graphical upgrade. While the PC-88 original still has some nice charm to it, the Arrange visuals are simply more appealing from an overall standpoint. Jim has more detail to him, and he's even given little extra touches like hiding his shield when going into Attack mode. The environments have extra detail as well, like little tufts of grass, dry spots where it's just dirt, etc, and all of the sound effects are updated. There are even a couple of extra bits of music & effects, like walking down stairs to enter a dungeon, whipping out the sword when entering Attack mode (Jim swings it around while moving!), & a short tune that plays when you die. The music that plays throughout the entire game, however, is the same exact one from the PC-88 original (which introduces with a few notes from Bizet's "L'Arlesienne Suite No. 2: Farandole" before repeating the intro to Bizet's "Toreador Song"); it's similarly repetitive like the NES music, but it's not annoying.

The reason for this is because the Arrange visuals are more like a skin that goes over the PC-88 original, and by pressing the C key the player can switch between the visuals instantly, which is really cool to play around with. The only reason for the visual option in the main menu is for the intro, which does differ between the two; you do get redone music if you have the CD in the drive, though. Another neat change is the switching between Defend & Attack mode. Originally, the player would have to hold down a button to switch to Attack mode, but in this Windows port it's merely a button press, the Space Bar in this case, and pressing it again switches back to Defend move. It's a minor change, but a welcome one. Also, comparing to the NES port everyone knows about, you look to heal faster in this port as well. It's not much of a change, but while it took about 2-3 seconds to heal a piece of your health meter on the NES, here it's about a piece per second, which is nice.

Yes, I just died when I got this screen. Just timing it was hard enough.

The Windows version even adds in a third offensive option, called Overdrive mode, activated with the O key. What this does is make Jim into an near-unstoppable force of nature, as enemies die in a single hit, Jim receives a ton more experience than usual from each kill, & health recharges insanely fast (& can happen anywhere). From what I've tried of the mode, however, it also completely breaks the game, removing nearly all of the challenge. While Jim can still be killed, it's pretty tough & requires the player to essentially play sloppily or actively aim for death. The benefit of Overdrive mode, though, is that it can completely remove to chore of grinding for experience in order to level up. Since weaker enemies stop giving experience once you level up enough, one can simply go into Overdrive, quickly earn a couple of levels before local monsters stop giving experience, and then exit Overdrive & continue playing the game normally; Overdrive can also shorten the waiting game for health regeneration. Since the grinding is easily the biggest annoyance people have with the NES port, Overdrive is what helps make the Windows port so much easier to get into & play. Another bonus, compared to the NES port, is long-term saving. Since the NES port didn't have a battery backup, saving only worked as long as the system was kept on; otherwise, one would have to jot down a long password to continue. The Windows port maintains the proper saving system that the PC-88 original had; press the S key & then a number key (0-9) to create a save slot. After dying, you're immediately told to select a save slot, making continuing intensely easy. The Windows port also has five different speed settings and a windowed & full-screen option, with everything adding up to this easily being the best, most ideal way to play the original Hydlide.

Okay, back to a little more history & trivia to finish up. Upon the original 1984 release of Hydlide, the game apparently reigned on the best-selling PC games lists in Japan for about two years. Since the Japanese gaming populace of the time were seemingly under the spell of the game, magazines called it "Hydlide Syndrome". When the Famicom port Hydlide Special was released, Toshiba EMI teamed with the developers & had singer/radio personality Mayumi Chiwaki sing an image song for the game called "Angel Blue". If you enter a cheat at the main menu, the password screen music changes into an 8-bit rendition of the song; I don't know if this is maintained in the NES version. After working on the two sequels, creator Tokihiro Naito would make the Rune Worth series for PCs, which featured a similar overhead style & look as Hydlide, before returning to the franchise with 1995's Virtual Hydlide for the Sega Saturn, which was a complete remake of the original game (likely developed to celebrate the 10th Anniversary). While the general idea behind the game was good & the concept of having a randomly generated overworld with each new play was cool (the music was well done, too), Virtual Hydlide looked pretty embarrassing, ran intensely poorly (with a frame rate that hit the single digits when indoors), and was supposedly re-engineered from one of T&E Soft's golf game engines (as the company is most well known for that genre); that last tidbit would honestly explain everything. While there are people who hate the original Hydlide, most feel that Virtual is the absolute low point for the entire franchise, & I certainly won't argue against that stance.

Sadly, that would be the last "new" entry in the franchise, as Naito would leave T&E Soft shortly after, creating his own studio named E.O. Imagination; that studio would only develop two games before folding in 1999/2000. While Naito did return to T&E Soft in 2008 to help make some golf games, he would later leave again & join M2, who has gone on to be known for developing some excellent ports of older games, like Sega's 3D Classics line on the Nintendo 3DS. The last we've heard from Naito was actually last year, when he used his Twitter account to gauge interest in a new game. While the tweet itself has since been deleted, Naito tweeted that if he could get 3,000 retweets he would ask his boss at M2 about looking into developing a new Action RPG for the 3DS. Sadly, after Naito had to explain that he was only looking for Japanese retweets, so as to not wildly skew the response, he only seemed to receive about 1,500 within a week; it's likely his effort to gauge interest was a failure. As for Hydlide itself, it hasn't seen any sort of re-release since the early 00s, where the original game saw a mobile phone port in 2001, followed by an updated phone port for all three games in 2003, both developed by Bothtec.

Oh, and I've seen people online try to figure out what exactly "Hydlide" means, with some assuming that it's the name of the fantasy world (nope, that would be Fairyland) or that it's a reference to Hydride, because the katakana for both terms are the same (nope, but good try). In reality, the answer is available online if you know where to look (& utilize a translation & encoding alteration). Included on this Windows port I've reviewed, & archived by Hardcore Gaming 101 (who also have a nice write-up on the franchise as a whole), is the "Hydlide Museum", which features all sorts of info on the first game as well as a lengthy interview between Tokihiro Naito & Akira Yamashita (the man I referenced at the beginning of this post). Obviously, one of the questions is about the name, so here's the best (rough) translation I can offer for what the answer is:

"Yamashita: So the origin of "Hydlide" is?

Naito: I was having lots of trouble thinking of a name. I decided to look at a list of constellations, & I came across Hydra/Haidora. It wasn't bad, but I kept looking for a constellation called "Something-ride/nantoka-raido". Then it just struck me, "Hydlide/Haidoraido". When the designers were creating the logo, they all kept saying 'Good, good, it's really cool.' It was just kind of glued together (*laughs*)."

So there you go, everyone. The giant mystery of what "Hydlide" means: Hydra Ride!

...and the Windows Arranged map!

As I indicated all the way at the beginning, Hydlide's reputation outside of Japan is mainly a victim of video gaming's equivalent of the cult of personality. While people like James Rolfe & Jared Knabenbauer do educate & explain history at times via their videos, their main focus is to entertain, especially when it comes to their most well known series (the AVGN & ProJared, respectively). They need games that are good targets to use, and Hydlide is an easy target. Though I do defend the game by way of its history & how games like it of the time operated, it is an admittedly flawed game simply because it was the first at doing a lot of things. It has an open world of some sort, but it's a small one. It has fast & easy combat mechanics, but it's also always easy to die at the hands of weak monsters, even at the end game. You have to figure out what to do, but it's not exactly spelled out how to even start (though, really, the original Legend of Zelda was like this, as well). It's the first game to ever use regenerating health, but it is a slow process (though, to be fair, Ys' regeneration was kind of slow, too). Hydlide was also a victim of not being made available worldwide until way after its time, with people having already played & loved those that took inspiration from it, so when they tried out this game on the NES it obviously felt outdated & infuriating compared to the likes of Ys & Zelda.

I'm not saying that people are wrong for hating Hydlide, because that would be stupid to say, but I do think that putting it down as one of the worst games in history is a (great) gross exaggeration. It's only repeated with such fervor because gamers like to parrot opinions they see online rather than investigate things for themselves, and respecting history has never been a strong point for the gaming industry or its people (both professionals & fans). Make no mistake, Hydlide is a tough as hell game to beat & is outdated in many ways, but none of that means that it's a bad game. In fact, it's easy to get into a groove & want to keep playing, especially if you keep dying at the hands of the some monster. You just keep saying to yourself, "Just one more time. I know I can do it," and I think that's the sign of a good game, even if it has its flaws.

Luckily, the Windows 95/98 port from 1999 is an excellent version that helps dilute most of the issues people may have with the original game. There's an actual, long-term saving system in place, the Arranged visuals look appealing (though I'm also partial to the original PC-88 visuals), you heal health faster enough to notice, & Overdrive mode really helps alleviate the grinding for experience that annoys people to no end. Sadly, the actual disc is pretty hard to come across now, either on its own (no one's selling at Amazon Japan right now) or as part of the 2001 complete series collection that also featured Hydlide II & both the original Hydlide 3 & an arranged version of it (at least ~$80!). If you look around, however, it's not exactly hard to "find" this Windows port in some way, shape, or form, & it works just fine with later versions of the OS; at least, it works with Windows 7, which I use. Actually making it work will need some finagling, but it's doable.

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