|Emulator antialiasing makes a world of difference.
1984 was a big year for Japanese proto-RPGs, with The Black Onyx one of the first releases of the year, Hydlide one of the last, and Tower of Druaga and Dragon Slayer in between. All of these are important milestones, but I didn't have much luck in terms of enjoyment - of the three so far, Black Onyx was the most playable but too simplistic and grindy, Tower of Druaga was too cruel even by arcade game standards, and Dragon Slayer an over-engineered confusion of ideas without any direction or vision.
Hydlide, an overhead, open-world action/adventure game with RPG trappings, is certainly the most famous of these games outside of Japan, owing to its NES port. Perhaps the most infamous too - attitudes toward Hydlide seem middling at best, though I have seen the occasional critic blame this on the NES port's delayed localization. By the time of its U.S. release in 1989, we'd already seen Dragon Quest and The Legend of Zelda, as well as Ys on the Sega Master System, and the likes of Final Fantasy and Crystalis were just around the corner. Hydlide, so they say, looked hopelessly outdated.
I do original versions when possible, and thankfully, Hydlide, like Dragon Slayer, is completely in English, with ingame backstory and instructions. Both are simple - in the world of Fairyland, the three magic jewels that protect the kingdom were stolen and the land overrun with monsters. Even worse, the demon Varalys woke up and transformed the princess Ann into a fairy. Or maybe multiple fairies. You play "Jim," just some guy fed up with the situation, and must restore peace and order, or die trying.
Your only controls are the cardinal direction keys (mapped to the number pad as typical of early PC-88 games) and a single action button which, when used outside of context-sensitive zones, switches between a defensive stance and an attack stance, much like in Tower of Druaga except it is instantaneous and is not reflected by your walking animation. There's also a dedicated seppuku button for some reason.
As in Dragon Slayer and the later Ys series, there is no discrete button
for attacking - you deal damage by running into enemies while in attack
stance, preferably from behind or the sides, as they'll return damage
should you face them head-on. Against the weak slime monsters that spawn
on the first screen, you'll need to reckon which end is the "head" base
on the direction of movement, but most of the other monsters have
discernible heads that indicate orientation, but their movement is so erratic and your own movement so maddeningly imprecise that this can feel more based on luck than skill. Slimes aren't terribly
threatening, doing little damage which will automatically heal as long
as you stay in easy terrain, but if you go just one screen north, far
more dangerous kobolds lurk about. Fighting them is worth more
experience, but you can't survive too many hits from them. Anything else
is suicide until you level up.
Special mention needs to be given to the quicksave/quickload function, which you can use pretty much any time, records/recalls the precise state of the game almost instantly, and supports ten slots, one per numerical digit on the keyboard. I can't think of any other game from the era that works this way, and you'd think this is emulator functionality, but no, it's built into this game from 1984.
|Default M88 settings
I initially found Hydlide to be unplayably fast and twitchy. This wasn't the first PC-88 game that presented speed problems, but this time it was so bad that I just had to do something to fix it. Thankfully, by enabling a setting referred to as "wait" the speed became much more manageable, and if I'm not mistaken, the "Sub CPU" setting above it makes the action a bit less jerky. PC-88 emulation is still more than a bit mysterious to me, so I don't really know what these setting actually do or if these are the best way to accurately simulate the timings of period hardware. I couldn't ever make it feel great, but these settings did improve the experience.
|"Sub CPU" and "wait" enabled
I began my playthrough by mapping out the immediately accessible world. You're pretty safe in the defensive stance as long as you keep moving and stay out of the danger zones.
Hydlide's overworld is pretty small, consisting of 25 screens in a 5x5 grid. They wrap around on both dimensions, but the central area is enclosed by a moat, preventing you from warping across the meridians yourself. At best, you can see the other side of the world from across the moat.
Some points of interest:
- An easily retrieved treasure chest on the west end of the map contains a holy cross. I can't yet tell what it does.
- A maze area just west of the center contains some nasty monsters guarding a chest.
- Two caves lead to darkened areas.
- A ruined castle on the east end of the map can be entered. Inside is a small maze, where I found several bats and one very powerful vampire but nothing valuable.
- The graveyard in the southwest corner is teeming with very deadly zombies, and a treasure chest.
- Up in the north area, a rock mysteriously moves on its own. Engaging it kills you.
I started off by grabbing the cross, and then returned to the starting area to farm slimes until I leveled up for the first time, which took about six minutes. Then I went into the woods to fight kobolds for another level up, which owing to their higher damage, and the more difficult terrain in which you do not regenerate, took me about seven minutes despite getting twice as much XP per kill.
Throughout the game, I found that at any given level, there was generally only one type of enemy that made sense to farm for experience, and with the sole exception of fighting kobolds at level 2, these enemies would always grant just one pixel's worth of it. 100 are needed to level up, and I found it could take up to fifteen minutes to gain a level, depending on how much time was spent waiting for my health to regenerate. At certain levels, low-level monsters stop giving experience altogether, but some of them remain hazardous even after you've reached that point.
After reaching level 3, slimes and kobolds ceased to award anything, but it became feasible, albeit dangerous, thanks to the narrow corridors, to engage "ropers" in the maze area. Zombies in the cemetery were worth twice as much XP but also even deadlier, and a passage to the treasure chest there eluded me. The one in the maze, though, contained a magic lamp, and upon its retrieval one of the maze passages became highlighted in red and a passage beyond revealed itself, but the area inside was dark like the others.
|What does the red passage mean?
Unable to proceed otherwise, I farmed ropers near the maze's entrance for another two levels, at which point the ropers stopped giving any experience, and then began to spawn in the overworld, along with goblins, who likewise awarded no XP. The zombies were possible to fight, but still too dangerous to be worth the grind, and the graveyard treasure wouldn't open.
The castle vampire, however, went down with some tricky maneuvering and a bit of luck.
His death yielded a magic lantern to allow exploration of the various dark caves.
|Inspired by the Tower of Druaga? You don't say.
This opened up a few new adventures:
- The cave north of the maze took me to the desert, where fightable but deadly scorpions roamed. A castle in the desert took me into the moat, where dangerous eels lurked, and an immobile octopus at one spot could kill me in one shot. Eventually I found a route to a previously unexplored forest island, where wizards with projectile magic wandered around, and a dragon could be seen flying around an unreachable castle, spitting flames. All of these enemies were too difficult to grind experience on, and I saw no immediate benefit to exploring these areas. Still, my overworld map was now complete.
- The cave in the east took me to a one-screen maze full of wisps that freely moved through walls, making it supremely annoying to retrieve the treasure - a better sword - and escape alive. When a wisp goes through a wall of these narrow corridors and starts moving in your direction, there's not much you can do except retreat and pray. The twitchy and sometimes unresponsive controls don't help either.
- The cave in the overworld maze leads to a dungeon maze full of chests - one containing a key and the others empty - and roaming monsters. An exit here leads to another part of the scorpion desert.
The key unlocked the graveyard chest, where Varalys had stashed one of the jewels! I stayed there for awhile to farm zombies, which was much more doable thanks to the sword upgrade. Even though you can't reliably flank them with all the gravestones in the way, a head-on attack usually landed the first hit, which killed them in one shot now, and even when it didn't, I still had enough health to tank a few hits myself before retreating to a safe spot just west of the cemetery to heal, and reached level 7 this way.
After this, I found the magic shield in the northern cave. I don't know what triggered its appearance - this is just one of those things you stumble into after being conditioned to re-search every single place whenever you accomplish anything. In the desert area beyond, I noticed a bunch of moving trees, and found that they deal massive damage when searched, but one yielded a fairy. This discovery prompted me to go back and search every tree in the main area, where I remembered seeing wasps emerge when I bumped into some of them. Sure enough, I found a second fairy inside one.
I also saw a treasure chest appear in one of the caves, but not in a place where I could reach it without leaving the screen, and vanished when I returned from the correct passage to reach it from. Going back, I managed to get it - I think the rule is that killing a knight while offscreen from the chest's location has a chance of spawning the it, but killing one after it spawns will remove it. It contained the second jewel.
I needed a hint after this. No more puzzles or challenges were evident, no enemies earned me XP any more except for the eels swimming in the moat, who could still kill me in one hit, and I just couldn't see a path forward.
What you have to do is brave the moat to return to the forest island where the wizards patrol and get hit by their projectiles exactly five times without killing anything or leaving the screen. Then you kill a wizard, which gets you the third fairy and teleports you to the final castle, guarded by a dragon.
If anyone could explain to me how one figures this sequence out naturally, that would be great. I'd stumbled onto some obscure puzzle solutions, but I can't see how you could do that one by accident.
I felled the dragon by attacking in "defend" mode (it one-shots you otherwise) to do scant amounts of damage, then backing off until my health refilled and repeated until it went down. This had a profound effect on the world, as the entire moat drained, revealing the third jewel in the immediate vicinity and the magic potion elsewhere.
The unguarded castle can be entered with the spacebar, but thanks to the lack of any visible entrance as seen with other passages, this wasn't immediately obvious. That said, the lack of obvious entrances is also why I wandered and located the magic potion instead of just going inside right away.
Black knights wander the final maze, and with a bit of patience, can be killed while turning corners for a smidgen bit of XP, up until level 9. Take them on face-to-face by accident and you die, or at least forfeit your potion, which you don't want to happen either.
Skeletons patrol the next part, and they are so over the concept of rewarding you for fighting them by now, but they'll still slice away half your health with a single hit. Health regenerates so slowly in the dungeon that you might as well just use quicksaves that the game so generously provides to ensure you get past them without taking a scratch.
Varalys lurks in his inner lair, teleporting around and launching fireballs, while black knights and skeletons wander around.
You're not going to do any damage to him until you grab the cross in the south chamber guarded by an encircling black knight and skeleton - easier said than done unscathed. Then, you engage Varalys with the same tactics used to fight his dragon - approach in defense mode, trade blows, and disengage before your health runs out so you can heal - you regenerate, he doesn't, and once healed you can whittle his health away a bit more. Only now it takes a good ten minutes of disengagement to heal up, and there's no safe spot to wait it out - you've got to run around avoiding his minions the whole time. Do not be ashamed to quicksave/quickload nonstop - it's almost over.
Once Varalys is down to just under 50% health, you can finish him off in one last charge, as long as you've still got the magic potion. Switch to attack mode and close right in - he'll kill you in one hit, causing the potion to automatically revive you, but after that you should get in that finishing blow before he can kill you again. And then the game's over.
GAB rating: Below average. This game is badly flawed even without consciously comparing it to Zelda. And yet, I feel there are positives.
The biggest problem is the combat system which governs the moment-to-moment gameplay. It just plain sucks. Putting aside the absurd imagery of Jim running circles around enemies as they lurch around the forest aimlessly while he hits them from behind, nothing about the system feels reliable or inconsistent. Enemies move in random directions, making it a matter of luck that you don't run headlong into their business end, and game speed fluctuates with how many monsters are onscreen, making your grid-based movements imprecise and prone to input drops. Grinding is boring and unavoidable - it's not great when you spend most of the game farming XP at the minimum rate possible simply because any enemy strong enough to be worth more than that will destroy you. And when you're not grinding for the next level, you're probably wondering where you need to go so that you can grind for the next level. There weren't many parts of my playthrough that I found fun.
But credit is due in one big way - Hydlide takes the concept of an open world action/RPG-lite and fully commits to it. Its world, though small, is cohesively and efficiently designed, with memorable landmarks and geography, and an increasing amount of freedom and power with every task you accomplish. The lantern found in the vampire's castle lets you explore the dark caves, the levels gained fighting kobolds let you have a chance of surviving the maze, the cave in the maze lets you explore the kingdom's outskirts by way of waterway, etc. Nearly every screen serves a purpose, which can't be said about any of the other proto-JRPGs of 1984, nor can it be said about any of the Ultimas.
So there's a sense of design and craft here that I haven't seen in its Japanese contemporaries. Is it well designed or well crafted? Hell no. But I get what it's trying to be, which is more than I can say for Tower of Druaga or Dragon Slayer. This is a borderline bad game, but I respect its vision and innovation just enough to rate it higher than that.
And its short duration - it probably took me just over 3 hours to finish - works to its benefit, because six hours of this would have been intolerable.