Secret of the Stars
Genre: Role-Playing Game
Video games have a variety of ways that they can gain notoriety over time, but they tend to fall into one camp or another. One way is that the game is so well-made, fantastic, or charming that the general public can’t help but fall in love with it. There are a vast number of games from the golden age of the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis days that I can think of off the top of my head when I think about the games that captured my attention and have stuck with me to this day.
Then, there is the other way; the way that may not be considered quite as positive as the first. There is a selection of games that miss the mark in such a grandiose way that they become cult classics, revered for the mess of positive and negative elements that they bring to the table. These are the games that are not so universally terrible that they can’t be played, but the ones that effort was put into to make into a game that could walk alongside its technological brethren and hold its head high as one of their equals- and managed to miss the point of why those games were so successful.
Tecmo’s Secret of the Stars is one of those games to me. Before I got the chance to play it, I had heard so much about how terrible the game was but hadn’t really heard exactly why it was awful. It wasn’t that I doubted the people saying these things about the game. Usually, when I haven’t heard of an RPG from the early 90s era by this point, I feel like there’s something off about it that has kept it in mind blind spot over the years. I felt like I would be letting myself down to not at least try to forge through Secret of the Stars and see exactly why it has been panned by so many people, though, and much like some other games I’ve reviewed here, I turned the game on with an open mind in an attempt to analyze it to the best of my abilities.
Let’s see how that went, shall we?
On a small island sectioned away from the rest of the world, a young man named Ray lives a fairly peaceful life along with his fellow villagers. Stories come in from around the world, though, that tell of an ancient and malevolent power; a being that threatens the livelihood of the world who goes by the name of Homncruse. His reign of terror has been spreading across the lands, causing mayhem and fear to take hold of the population.
Ray is told, however, that there are two groups of people who can put an end to Homncruse’s evil ways. The Aqutallion are a group of fabled warriors meant to keep the world safe, creating peace where he has sown evil. The Kustera act as their support, aiding them through facing their own trials and lending their strength so that the Aqutallion can reach their potential to face off against evil beings like Homncruse and his generals.
As luck would have it, Ray happens to be descended from one of these Aqutallion warriors from the past. He is destined to face off against Homncruse and should he succeed along with his fellow warriors, the world will be safe from the grip of evil that has been wrapped around it. Determined to find the other descendants as well as gather the Kustera scattered across the world, Ray begins his journey for the good of all of those who cannot defend themselves.
Secret of the Stars sticks to the foundational mechanics of most turn-based role-playing games. Starting your adventure as young Ray, you’ll travel around the world to find your fellow Pennon (Aqutallion apprentices, for explanation’s sake) as well as the descendants of the Kustera and work to stop Homncruse and his followers from wreaking mayhem on its people. Each character has their own specialty- Ray is a rounded character who can fight well physically and with magic spells, while the rest of the characters focus on speed and multiple attacks, magical prowess or physical strength and defense. As the party gains levels, they will be able to access more powerful abilities and purchase more powerful equipment to proceed.
Hidden in the RPG basics, though, are a few deviations to keep things interesting and set Secret of the Stars apart from the other games of the time. The main feature is that the Aqutallion and the Kustera are set up as two separate parties from the Kustera’s introduction. With a total of around fifteen Kustera to be recruited, the party can be controlled to go into optional dungeons and scour the halls for items that the Aqutallion party can use. By transferring these items to the party (some of which are vital to the plot’s progression), they act as a support team who is restricted from accessing the more plot-sensitive areas of the game but have their own design and place in the game’s mythos. The party can be accessed at will through an option in the menu, which players may be able to liken to similar party-switching features in games like Final Fantasy VI.
There are other elements that crop up in different areas of the game. Shortly after the game begins, Ray helps establish a small village that acts as his home base and a place to gather survivors of Homncruse’s actions called Old Hill. It has a light town-building feel to it, as the more people Ray finds to come to the town, the more it builds up, gaining a couple of features like shops and insights into the game as it does so. The game also dabbles in the idea of Unity Magic wherein your characters can perform particular actions to unleash a stronger attack that will take up both of their turns but will do a higher amount of damage overall. While most of these combine spells between characters, there is also a handful that combines particular weapons with spells, making sure that your physical fighters can contribute to the mechanic.
The Good, The Bad, And…
I feel like I should grab at the low hanging fruit concerning Secret of the Stars and confirm that the translation of this game is pretty awful. Part of it appears to be that the game doesn’t seem to know whether it wants to take itself seriously or not. As you progress, you’ll run into adversaries with names like “Badbad” and towns called “Beegees” and “Giant” where people will spout off nonsensical lines, offering minimal help and insight into the story or direction except that Homncruse is evil. This becomes an even harder sticking point for me- and I’ll describe the reasoning behind that in a bit- when you find that a number of items are spelled incorrectly or with names that do a poor job of describing what they actually accomplish.
Whereas plenty of RPGs in the 16-bit era are prone to difficulty spikes, the hills and valleys in Secret of the Stars appear from nowhere and can make progression frustrating. You can grind your characters’ levels and overcome these challenges with some time, but the dungeon design is no help, usually being very simple or illogical in their complexity. Even buying new equipment is a chore, as you can’t be sure which pieces of armor or weapons will improve your characters unless you buy them and try them on outside of the shopping screen. The game feels senseless in its difficulty, due to both clunky interfacing for the players and left-field massacres from unexpectedly overpowered bosses and enemies in various places throughout the game.
What kills me about this game is that it feels like it’s trying to build its own deep mythology like Final Fantasy with the quirky humor of Mother and the strong foundation of Dragon Quest in its mechanics and execution. In its desperate attempts to emulate these titles, it misses the mark by trying to spread itself too thin and apply these elements in a way that is far too heavy-handed. The potential within this game is absolutely real. In trying to combine the best factors of other titles, though, it winds up a confusing mess that tries to do too much while accomplishing too little in the overall course of the game, becoming a barely serviceable RPG as a whole.
Looking at Secret of the Stars, there isn’t much to catch the eye overall. It doesn’t stand out as anything special, though the presentation is colorful and certainly not boring. I can say there are a few bosses throughout the endgame hours that have fantastic sprite work that stands out. Much like the tone of the game, though, the aesthetic of the game feels erratic with even the main character designs ranging from very modern feeling to medieval and futuristic with very little explanation. It’s hard to nail down what the designers were going for exactly with their chosen visuals.
If I had to choose a high point of the game, the soundtrack would be it. It isn’t superb or anything that will have you rushing to track down a way to own and revisit it. Some of the tracks, much like those endgame boss sprites, stand out and maybe even have you sitting around for a moment to listen to them just a bit longer than you need to. Since this is countered by the fact that a number of songs are reused and drone on, making the overall effect of the music that much worse. At the very least, the sound effects are on point, bringing a fantasy feel to the whole package.
It’s strange to say but Secret of the Stars is a game that I would have to recommend to people who are interested in the history of RPGs or who might be able to look past the unfortunate elements of a game to see an effort to something that ultimately failed but found some interesting ideas to kick around. By very few definitions is this a good game, but it certainly isn’t broken. Is it terribly constructed, though? Well, it’s like someone tried to memorize a blueprint and then build a house with all of the right materials. Everything’s there. It’s just not in the right place or working properly.
To anyone looking for a hidden gem or wanting to cut their teeth on some of the more obscure titles in the RPGs of the era, I’d recommend a second thought before embarking into Secret of the Stars. It can be downright tedious, unforgiving, and a confusing mess to navigate. Some people may appreciate a challenge. Bear in mind that only part of the challenge of this game, though, is between your party and the enemies on the screen. Don’t necessarily avoid this at all costs; just think carefully about better ways your time could be spent if you aren’t morbidly curious or a self-proclaimed historian of games like these.
Plot Discussion, and Therefore Spoilers…
In an effort to explain a bit about my frustrations with the game, I feel like I should elaborate on the potential of a stellar game that was wasted, though I’m not entirely sure where it went wrong as I’m not finding a ton on the game’s development in my initial searches.
The mythology of this game is really interesting to me, even if it does play with the old tropes like having a fated party of descendants and having a great evil bad guy with lieutenants who harry the party throughout the game. The party is a group of kids who wind up wrapped up in danger in a way that feels almost too early for them- they’re slated to be fantastic warriors but this isn’t supposed to be the time as they are still in training. Most of them aren’t even in training when Ray finds them, either being in some kind of danger or not being completely aware of their fate yet. You vaguely learn about their parents who were great warriors that fought against the forces of evil in the generation before. The Kustera are interesting in another concept that is never fully fleshed out, acting in concert with the Aqutallion in training to help fortify them by diving into the depths of the world to find important items for them to reach their full potential. Rather than get much of an explanation on how this contract came about, we get the old “this has been going on for ages” line. Given the fact that these important items and dangerous dungeons are accessed from the same temples the main party goes to for their advancement trials, it feels like both the Aqutallion and the Kustera have their own trials to overcome to save the world.
Then, there’s the terrible translation that hurts me as a mythology buff, mostly involving the two main villains, Homncruse and Parakless. Given that Homncruse looks and seems strange as a name in general, I did a quick search to confirm that it seemed like a bastardization of sorts on when may have originally been designed to be “Homunculus”- a being created from alchemy meant to emulate a human in every way. This becomes more interesting to me when you find out that his creator’s name also appears to be a mistranslation of “Paracelsus”, a well-known diviner and alchemist from history. While the game scratches the surface on this connection, there are a number of events, both surprisingly dark and appropriately fantastic at times, that adds weight to this connection that is never fully capitalized on. Everything from children being kidnapped and kept in preservation for Homncruse to one of your party members being encased in gold by a doctor who has gone just over the border of sanity into things that shouldn’t be trifled with lightly, the game’s indecision on its tone and inability to hit most of the targets it aims for leaves a huge window of opportunity open and unattended to.