Nintendo Entertainment System
T&E Soft Incorporated/FCI
Genre: Action RPG
Tracing any genre back to its roots is difficult, though you can usually find a batch of games that are clear frontrunners in innovation. Mechanically speaking, there are a lot of games that owe their predecessors for concepts that were not quite perfect when they appeared but have since been worked to impressive precision. For better or worse, Hydlide was one of those frontrunners.
Originally released in 1984 for computers in Japan, the game worked to present a fantasy role-playing game like no other, though it was joined by Falcom’s Dragon Slayer series at about the same time. Both are action RPGs and while Dragon Slayer still comes up pretty frequently in my studies on video games and history, I’d only heard of Hydlide in passing once or twice before I found a complete-in-box version at my local gaming store.
There had to be some reason that I had heard so much about one series and not the other, I figured. Looking into FCI, the publisher, I noticed that they had some hand in helping the Ultima and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons games make it over this way, and I’ve enjoyed what I played of those.
Let me recount my journey for you, then, of how I felt about Hydlide on its own merits, historically and playing through it in the year 2018.
The land of Fairyland is in desperate need of a hero. Ever since someone stole one of the three jewels of the kingdom, the others have refused to shine, thinning the barrier that held back one of the most dangerous beings to ever exist, the demon Varalys.
It isn’t long before Varalys has disposed of the current ruler, unleashing his hordes of monsters into Fairyland. To make matter worse, the other two jewels have gone missing and the princess of Fairyland, Ann, has been transformed into three fairies which have been hidden throughout the kingdom. All seems lost for the denizens of the land.
Enter Jim, a young man who has decided to don his armor and seek out a way to defeat Varalys and bring order back to Fairyland. It won’t be easy. He’ll have to retrieve the jewels, revert Princess Ann to her true form, and find a way to defeat Varalys and his minions by tracking down the deceased king’s sword and shield. If he can’t do it, though, Fairyland and the world he has come to know will be dominated by evil forever.
It’s difficult not to sound corny when describing this game, whether it’s through the tropes it relies so heavily on or the uninspired names (sorry to all of you Jims and Anns out there). Aside from the odd state of the princess in question, the game does nothing that hasn’t been seen before, though it may have been more unique at the time. Taking on the role of brave Jim, you travel through different portions of Fairyland to achieve your goals and save the kingdom. That’s about all to the plot of the game and going through the game itself doesn’t net you much else in the way of fleshing out the story. Essentially, what you see in the manual is what you get.
As with most action RPGs, Hydlide has you guiding Jim around with the directional buttons, traversing across the land screen by screen a la The Legend of Zelda (which technically came out years after the original but before this NES port). While you are on each screen, there will be a certain number of enemies of different types. If you kill one or one exits the screen, another will replace it. While this means you rarely find a screen bereft of danger, it also means that gaining experience is not as much of a chore as it could be.
Other familiar features of the genre appear in various forms. There are a number of gauges to the right of your play area depicting your statistics such as your current hit points and experience points. Negating the need for a status screen, you can also see your Strength stat and Magic points, as well, both of which raise whenever you fill your experience and raise your level. The display also lines your spells- all five of them- just below the active screen. While you still have to pause to see your items, there is no necessity to equip them as the benefits to each are automatic once they are retrieved. In the end, the display really gives you everything you need to adventure forth.
Mechanically speaking, though, the rest of the game is a mess. Logically, a game like this would have an ‘attack’ button and a ‘magic’ button with some way to select which magic you wanted to utilize. Instead of an attack button, one button sets Jim’s mode either as Defense or Attack. If you run into an enemy in Defense mode, you’ll take less damage and do less to the enemy. As it would follow, running into an enemy with Attack active results in Jim doing more damage but taking more if the enemy runs into him. As your default is to be in Defense, you have to hold down the button so long as you want to be in Attack mode. Since you can die in a few hits and there is no knockback to the enemy, being in Attack mode is needlessly dangerous unless you’re positive you’re striking the enemy from behind or the side.
Using magic is no simpler to maneuver. By pressing the B button, you can cycle through the five spells you have available. Once you’ve selected the appropriate spell, you can cast it by holding the attack button and pressing B again when you want to fire the spell off. Of course, since it’s directionally based and enemies are moving around toward you, this also means juggling movement. By the time you’re done, the potential to misfire or not even cast the spell is high. Needless to say, while the controls are manageable, they’re a mess.
The game has some neat features, though, once you get past the controls. Aside from the usual passwords to continue your quest when you’ve had enough, you can also quick save so that if you die, you can go right back to the spot you saved. On top of this, when Jim is standing in a regular field in the world, his life begins to regenerate. All of these features make the game nearly palatable if you have the right mindset.
The Good, The Bad, and…
It’s rare that I start this section with such an overwhelming urge to ask “where do I begin?”
Let’s start with the good and get it out of the way. This game is amazing if you’re interested in experiencing the roots of the action RPG genre, Hydlide is an interesting study. While it came out before The Legend of Zelda by about two years in its origin, the port appeared three years later on the NES, doing it no favors when reviewed against Link’s pilot adventure. This makes it even easier to observe, though, given the advancements that had clearly been made since the original Hydlide. There are a number of elements that appear in various popular series including the prolific Ys series and even open world games like Skyrim. Health regenerating outside of combat is the most interesting mechanic, given that it appears in a number of games that aren’t action RPGs. Experiencing this game is not a must but it definitely should be an interesting prospect to people who enjoy analyzing influential games.
Outside of working as a history lesson, Hydlide shows a lot of promise and interesting choices that mostly turn out for the negative. Two sore spots really stand out, so let’s focus on those. The first, as already discussed, involves how the game controls. More specifically, combat is more like a gamble and while it involves some skill, the dungeon designs make most attempts to stab monsters in the back impossible. You’re either going to have to run into monsters and take the chance that you’ll hit them for more than they hit poor Jim for or wait for a minute or two until they start away from you to shank them safely in the spine. The final battle with Varalys for me consisted of running into him in Defense more, taking off what damage I could as mine drained much faster, and slipping into the next room to recover. Rinse and repeat for nearly half an hour or so. Hence, the expectations of the player given the crummy control set up are a problem.
My real kicker is that Hydlide is notoriously one of the first open-world games. You are plopped down in the middle of a field with only the information you can glean from the instruction manual. From there, you can go anywhere and do anything- or so it’s supposed to feel. You know your objectives. You know your goals. You have no direction to work with to find them, though. For example, there is a copse of trees that hides one of the three fairies needed to help Princess Ann. If you approach them from the bottom, you will ‘search’ them. Some of them, however, have Wasps, enemies that appear in a swarm and randomly fly about, decimating you in seconds if you don’t escape the screen and come back later once they’ve disappeared. What this boils down to is you’re either lucky enough to find the tree hiding the fairy, the location of which is seemingly randomized whenever you leave the screen, or you most likely die. Finding another vital item requires searching the dried up waterways that span across almost the entire map. With no instructions in the game about this, it could become another arduous and infuriating task. The manual does give some very vague hints; statements like ‘make sure you check the forest thoroughly’ and ‘this enemy may hold something valuable to you’ hint at some item locations, but it’s all just so obtuse that you can’t help but feel there could have been a little more guidance.
Once again starting with the more positive aspect, the graphics are about average. They never become great, and when they are offensive, there are clashing colors and strange effects like a red box that surrounds you whenever you get hit. The positive part of this is that overall, the game’s look matches the aesthetics of Zelda and Dragon Warrior. The downside is that placing this port three years after both of those games makes it feel dated even by those standards. Jim always does the same stance, attacking or not. Every monster also only has the same stance and movement. Everything just feels static and like consideration to any design schema was ignored.
The sound is something you should avoid at nearly all cost after fifteen minutes with the game. That’s being generous. There are very few musical tracks in the game and a solid handful of sound effects, none of which make any impression or make the game feel epic. The real kicker of all of this is the main theme of Hydlide, which plays from the moment you start the game to the moment you reach the final boss and is only interrupted by the jingle that plays when Jim runs out of health. Not only is the music the same eight measures over and over, but it almost blatantly rips off the theme to Indiana Jones. Here, give a listen:
And that’s just the Overworld theme. The ending theme also echoes the bridge in the same song. It’s rare that I feel the need to say this: just turn the volume off. I care about each and every one of my fellow gamers and this soundtrack in this format is uninteresting, uninspired, and repetitive.
On a research note, this version of Hydlide is notorious for being terrible. The reason I compared it so much to The Legend of Zelda was that the NES had already had a game that improved on Hydlide’s mechanics and offerings, and most of the critics at the time also found that comparison accurate. The game also feels like it pads itself with a lack of clear direction, giving what could be a couple of hours worth of a game an extra two to three hours of difficulty, fruitless wandering, and countless inevitable deaths. If I hadn’t had a walkthrough to reference, I probably would have given up after dying four times in my first five minutes with the game and traveling two screens from my start position.
If you decide to check this out anyway- I assume some of you may consider yourselves video game history buffs, as I do myself- do yourself a few favors: grab a walkthrough, unplug your speakers, and marvel at all of the influence that Hydlide gave to your favorite current games. I don’t know any of your tastes completely, but I know you’re not about to find a new favorite in this game.