Thursday, March 20, 2014

Diary Entry #19: Getting Down and Dirty with the HOT・B RPG

Straight out of Hoshi wo Miru Hito, aka Stagazers,
a psychic-power butt-whooping courtesy of Crystal Mielcarek.

               As I promised, this entry is dedicated to HOT・B RPGs. Unfortunately, I couldn't get the FM7 or PC88 games they churned out. This is a pretty big setback, since In the Psychic City and the two Kaleidoscope releases are some of the earliest JRPGs. I found a D88 image for the former, but I still couldn't get it working. I'm pissed! To make matters worse, all of their console RPGs are of a tragically dubious quality.

               The first, Hoshi wo Miru Hito, or Stargazers, was developed by Another the same company that brought us the NES Black Bass games. I played it a few months back, but I do have a few screenshots that I periodically took over the course of the game. It's reportedly inspired by HOT・B's own In the Psychic City, but it looks a lot more like Dragon Quest

               It's a typical Famicom JRPG, filled with Ultima inspired top-down exploration and Wizardry influenced menu-based battles. While Dragon Warrior is known for being an archaic mess, Stargazers flaunts a singular ineptitude. Bugs are abound, with a frequent one being random party members I haven't yet acquired appearing to fight by my side.

               Program errors are one thing, but the design is atrocious. There's a ton of level grinding, and most of the monsters in the second half can only be beaten using magic point-gobbling dispel attacks. The worst part of the game is an obnoxious "talk to person A to talk to person B to talk to person C..." style quest. Moving between multiple towns and buying several expensive keys, you eventually get your fourth party member who offers very little to the party.

               Perhaps the goofiest thing about the experience is the jump ability. One of your characters has the ability to jump, which allows them to walk over gaps and walls. The later dungeons are an absolute joke, as your jumper can simply walk on walls continuously, avoiding the floors and thus all random encounters.

               Thankfully, the game saves the best for last. After grinding for hours, dispelling countless enemies, and generally wasting tons of time, you go to space! Of course, Stargazer's idea of going to space is having your characters walk on stars. The two dungeons here are absolutely ridiculous, with nearly every enemy impossible to beat without dispelling them. In the end, you talk to some dolphins, who give you three options at the very, very end of the game. Each one provides a different ending text, which are pretty predictable: one's bad, one's good, and one's in between.

               Of all the HOT・B games I've played, Stargazers inhabits a very odd place between totally generic and positively original. The game's poorly conceived design gives it a singular identity that separates it from the hackneyed JRPG pack. I mean, is there any other RPG where you jump all over walls to avoid enemies? If you love stupid things and enjoy the type of solace found only from level grinding in Dragon Quest clones, then Stargazers is essential.

               Star Odyssey, another science fiction RPG, was intended for American release in 1991 by Sage's Creations. Advertisements exist, hyping the game as "a new realm of Sci-Fi RPG Adventure" that "takes place millions of light years ahead of our own world in a galaxy far away". By the time of its intended release, the Genesis already had Phantasy Star II and III on both sides of the Atlantic, the former being one of my favorite games ever made. Can HOT・B trump Sega's best?

               Ultimately, the game wasn't released in America until Super Fighter Team, publisher of a few other post-mortem Sega Genesis games, published it twenty years after it's intended release date. It's an ace translation that tells us, in the very least, HOT・B certainly tried to make a good RPG. The overworld exploration is decent, and the battles are fun enough, but most of the game is spent trying to find the next talking head to further the story line. Here, after saving a town from a random woman who inexplicably helps me later on in my quest, I finally embark on my mission into space. Of course, a voice in my head tells me a random alien race will soon be attacking the planet.

               I travel to some guys metropolis-sized estate, filled with random caverns and forests. One path eventually leads me to this downed spaceship where I find the infamous Brain Sword that everybody's raving about.

               Eventually, I get to ride on a spaceship to another planet, but the spaceship sprite is ugly and the animation isn't as impressive as it wants to be, which is how I'd probably describe the game overall. Although I battled and explored some small dungeons, most of my experience was spent trying to find the next bit of dialogue to continue my quest. I really wanted to enjoy this game, but I couldn't muster any affection for it.

               HOT・B's final game ever was Bazoo! World of Magic, another fan translated game. This job was done by the Aeon Genesis group, a team responsible for great translations of Live A Live, Treasure of the Rudra, and other RPGs.

               This SNES game instantly asks if I'm a peasant, a priest, a sailor, or a healer. I'm guessing these all represent different character classes, but I'm not entirely sure. I picked the priest, just because a knowledge of myths and folklore is a lot more interesting than any of that other crap.

               On my 16th birthday, a mysterious man comes to tell me I'm destined to be a great wizard. I leave my home village, anxious to get out and try a combat or two. Perhaps I thought for a moment that I might finish this promising title, but then...

               ...I actually battled. It's sort of like Lunar, with your characters having to move up to the enemies in order to attack them. Even though I love the Legend of Heroes PSP games that use a similar setup, I just can't get behind such a blatant rip-off. Slow and formulaic, I can't imagine doing this hundreds of times over a forty hour period. Bazoo! gets an F minus minus for being generic.

               It's a shame that I could only get the console games working. HOT・B's PC games look decidedly low-tech, yet I'd rather play something simplistic and weird than a hackneyed piece of crap. You'd think a company that put most of their energy towards fishing games would be a little more offbeat, but you'd be wrong. Aside from Stargazers unique awfulness, these games all suck and it's a miracle that all of them have been translated into English.

               I'm more than a little sad about this realization, yet I still can't wait to dig into Shingen the Ruler. It's grand strategy RPG that appears to borrow liberally from Nobunaga's Ambition and other Koei games, which will probably turn off more people than it will excite. Perhaps I'll cover some Koei classics, like Gemfire or Genghis Khan. There's something appealing about games that are needlessly complicated, which Koei develops in spades.

               As I was discussing a few posts back, I'm starting to get around to some of Obsidian Entertainments games. I actually almost finished New Vegas a year or so ago, so I'm enjoying the last few quests available. Although I haven't played through Knights of the Old Republic, I figured starting the second one wouldn't be a big deal. It's pretty fun, although the opening dungeon is longer than one would expect. I'll let you know if anything interesting comes up.

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