A little look at… Xak: The Art of Visual Stage

From my position of ignorance I’ve always considered Xak to be the series to turn to when you’ve finally exhausted all 236471 versions of Ys I and II, and although Adol’s shadow looms large over MicroCabin’s 1989 action-adventure game their output over the years has consistently proved they’ve always been far more than mere Falcom wannabes, and Xak is no exception to this rule.

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Lead character Latok’s first outing contains all the usual 80’s adventure trappings – only you, young man with a destiny and one or more missing parents, can save the world from the previously sealed evil that’s threatening to consume the land. Kings, elders, and various others who are probably capable of fixing things for themselves are quick to beg for your aid but as ever remarkably reticent to offer any help themselves in the form of pointy swords, armour, or even plain old cash, leaving Plucky Eighties Hero to walk around in circles smacking every last slime and skeleton he encounters to build up the gold and XP needed to continue in his dramatic quest.

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Which brings me to something I really wanted to talk about here – the amount of grinding in Xak (referring specifically to the PC-98 version, as I haven’t yet played any other release). It’s a curious thing because on the one hand there’s an awful lot of grinding for grinding’s sake (bad) with the difficulty going up in distinct steep ‘steps’ rather than anything like a curve (very bad) and… I didn’t actually mind all that much (what?!). What’s nice about these steps is that when considered in conjunction with the simple ‘This sword is better than that sword’ equipment system and also knowing that items are completely inaccessible in boss battles is that there was always a clear goal to aim for, so even if the XP-earning itself was nothing more than a case of brainless running into the side/rear of whatever happened to be nearby I could at least be certain that when I finally hit level XX I’d definitely be strong enough to mow down the boss – no ifs or buts, no concerns about trekking out to a distant cave for optional equipment or saving up gold for a powerful spell scroll. Is this an 80’s attempt to create acceptable RPG grinding, me trying to justify the time I spent slaughtering countless skeletons, or a bit of both? It’s probably the latter if I’m honest, but that still means it’s notably better than a lot of other RPGs from the same era.

While the grind may be of questionable tolerance the general level design definitely goes to great lengths to alleviate the usual tedium associated with these epic fantasy quests – the game carves Latok’s journey up into neat hub town/your latest dungeon and surrounding region chunks, with an endless supply of teleportation scrolls available to purchase at a reasonable price from every magic shop in the game. There’s very little backtracking asked of you, and when quests do require it it’s rarely anything more strenuous than speaking to someone back in the current hub-town, which as I mentioned above is never more than a teleport scroll away anyway.

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So how come Xak, with its attempts at refining the early ARPG formula and music by none other than Ryuji Sasai doesn’t hold the same place in gamer’s hearts as Ys? Surely it deserves similar praise and respect for being Ys-with-knobs-on?

The problem here isn’t Xak, it’s Ys. Ys has the benefit of nostalgic memories from numerous revisions stretching back decades that are all either more impressive or far easier to access than any of Xak’s limited ports, with recollections of fabulous arranged soundtracks, beautiful manuals, and fancy CD-based cutscenes all coming together to create an experience that MicroCabin’s game can’t hope to match, because strictly speaking the behemoth it’s up against doesn’t actually exist as any one single title.

But even with Xak losing the invisible 80’s ARPG war there’s still a lot to praise here no matter what angle you look at the game from, including dungeons that are navigable by people without a photographic memory, characters on all sides with some depth and spark to them, a sudden dragon-riding shmup section (not great, but it makes for a nice change of pace), and a fun optional ‘bad end’ where you can choose to side with a village-bothering monster instead of cutting it to ribbons. Xak was a confident and competent first adventure for Latok, a game that used Ys as a springboard for its own ideas rather than a blueprint to be copied as closely as copyright law would let MicroCabin get away with, and I’m glad I finally got to experience the game for myself.

(By the way, the bed you need to search for the ring - you’ll know what I’m talking about when you come to it - is this bed)

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Famicom horror double bill: Sweet Home and… Biohazard?!

With Sweet Home and Biohazard FC (strictly speaking titled plain old ‘Biohazard’) sitting next to each other on my bookcase I’ve been blessed with the rare opportunity to see what happens when a game spawns a series so successful it comes full circle and ends up with an unofficial ‘de-make’ on the hardware that started it all in the first place. I should stress though that this blog post isn’t meant to pit these two games against each other as that simply wouldn’t be fair – one is a professional product by an established company that was by and large only restricted by their ideas, budget, and the Famicom’s capabilities; while the other is a small fan team’s (and they were clearly fans) attempt to cram one of the PlayStation’s most iconic games into less than 200KB. I normally shy away from talking about these unlicensed Chinese Famicom games as they tend to perpetuate the mistaken belief that the country is incapable of producing a legitimate contribution to gaming - even though they’ve been doing it for decades - but I’ll always make an exception for Biohazard, so here we are.

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The first thing that hits you when you play Biohazard FC is just how accurate it is – there’s an edited version of the usual intro showing Alpha Team searching the forest for survivors, followed by Jill scrambling into the mansion hall with Barry and Wesker. The view may be very different but it all feels instantly familiar – there’s a typewriter next to the stairs, the dining room’s to the left, and you’ll find the 1F map being held by a statue in the room off to the right. Almost everything you already know about Biohazard applies to this tiny 8-bit version, from herb combinations and key item locations to relatively minor things such as inspecting the Wolf/Eagle books for the medallions contained within.

Waixing did their best to even keep the puzzles as close to the original too, with only a few puzzles simplified or omitted. As such you’ll find the gallery and the three boxes to ZOMBIE SHARK room (you can’t not ‘all caps’ that phrase, in my opinion) play out exactly as they do in the game’s CD-based counterpart but the plant/fertilizer room is almost unrecognisable, and attic-bothering snake Yawn is conspicuous by his (her?) absence. Such slip-ups are only so jarring because they’re relatively rare, and for the vast majority of the game the design’s so close to the original that a PlayStation walkthrough could be followed virtually to the letter.

Combat is a rather eh point, with the idea to wonkily lift Biohazard Gaiden’s encounter/battle system as ambitious as it is ultimately unsatisfying. Shorn of its GBC inspiration’s more detailed equipment system and lacking the ability to tackle multiple enemies at once, all that’s left is to attempt to match your button-mashing to the never-changing cursor speed and hope you kill whatever’s in front of you before it does the same to you. Even with these issues there’s still a thin silver lining - the undead roaming this Famicom mansion have much better hit detection than they did in Gaiden, making avoiding enemies a lot easier and more in tune with survival horror’s ‘Only fight when absolutely necessary’ philosophy, and dead enemies stay dead (hooray!) throughout the entire game, meaning that even if you do blow through an entire clip on one of those bloody dogs it’s not been a waste of your time or precious ammo.

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While a cut-down version of Jill’s game is the only one present what’s here is still better than anyone could have reasonably hoped for considering the game’s unofficial status and the hardware used. Judged on it’s own merits the absence of certain key cutscenes, files, and door descriptions (you won’t realise how badly you miss ‘A helmet is engraved on the lock’ until it’s gone) will make the experience feel disjointed and scrappy as the glue holding Umbrella’s house of horrors together is largely missing, but if you’re at all familiar with the original Biohazard (and considering the sales and status of that game, chances are good that you are) then it’s a fascinating attempt at squishing one of the defining games of the 32bit generation into less than 200KB of code on hardware that really wasn’t up to the task. After seeing how the cancelled Game Boy Color port almost turned out, how the all-new DS ‘enhanced’ mode did turn out, and playing through this – I’d honestly rather play this.

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With the ambitious pretender out the way, it’s time to take a look at the game that started it all – the rather unassuming movie tie-in Famicom title Sweet Home. The Famicom isn’t what springs to mind when searching for disturbing digital experiences (short of a go on Takeshi's Challenge, anyway) but Sweet Home makes for genuinely uncomfortable gaming, and not in a pity-praise ‘Well, it’s not all that bad for something this old’ way either.

Parallels with the original Biohazard are obvious the instant the front door of Mamiya’s mansion snaps shut and you’re left stumbling around a confusing array of rooms, reading ominous messages scrawled in blood and forced to choose what to carry in each person’s paltry two free item slots. Sometimes the floor will give way, or catch fire, or a chandelier will come crashing down from the ceiling without warning – the game’s quick to pull the rug from under your feet, and it’s up to you to keep calm and think your way out quickly before one (or more!) of your team dies – permanently.

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The good news here is that - again, like Biohazard  - you’re never in quite as much danger, or as lost, as you think you are. The level design is pitched just about perfectly, leaving you feeling as though you’re constantly teetering on the brink of disaster while the game’s quietly leading you towards new locations littered with restorative items and upgraded weaponry. Your invisible pre-planned route through the mansion is a combination of ‘one and done’ areas and ‘circuits’ that take you deep into unknown territory then turn out to be a single locked door away from somewhere familiar and relatively safe – Biohazard’s in-and-out guardhouse area and mansion main hall are rough 32-bit equivalents.

Perhaps the most terrifying part of Sweet Home isn’t the talking dolls and ghosts that whisk you away from the safety of the group but instead the surprising amount of freedom you have - need to cross two gaps but only have one floorboard to hand? Then pick up the one you just used and place it over the chasm ahead. Need to check out a potentially dangerous room? Why not send a single person on ahead then call for the others when you know it’s safe*?

*Safe-ish**

**Probably going to kill you all

At first this freedom feels like a double-edged sword, as between the item swapping (including progress-critical items), perma-death, and vastly different yet all essential character abilities at first the game comes across as if it’s just itching to screw you over, leading to some awful ‘dead man walking’ scenario where you have silently made the game completely unwinnable – this never happens unless you take leave of your senses and think there’s going to be no problem tackling Mamiya’s haunted home with four of your five party members stone-dead. Just as before, the game wants you to think you’re in trouble but it’s always secretly nudging you in the right direction, and if you happen to have brought the ‘wrong’ person to a particular area the item you need will be somewhere nearby, or you can take a longer alternative route, or in some cases you can even ‘tough it out’ and simply walk straight across damaging fire/ice/thorn tiles if you’re feeling brave and/or impatient.

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In spite of all this gushing (and there’s plenty more where that came from – have you heard the music?!)Sweet Home’s not perfect, and in the name of adding a sprinkling of balance to whatever the hell this blog post is I should mention two particular issues I had concerning keys and items. Doors never tell you which keys are needed to unlock them and bar one exception you’re also never told when you don’t need them any more, leading to a few stomach-churning instances when you realise you’ve left behind something you needed, or have been lugging around a completely useless object. This leads to the other problem – item management. Being free to swap (but not drop) items at will is not only brilliant but incredibly impressive for a Famicom game – until you drop something important and simply have to hope against hope that you correctly remembered where you left it. Both of these problems were fixed (or ‘fixed’ depending on how much you adore Sweet Home) in the Biohazard series, which is either a sign that they really were frustrating issues or we all went soft by the time the PlayStation came around – take your pick.

As you may expect there’s no way a bootleg de-make of Biohazard was ever going to topple Sweet home from it’s lofty proto-survival horror pedestal, but both games deserve equal praise for doing the impossible in terms of both technical limitations and design bravery, and I consider them similar-but-different essential gaming for either horror fans or anyone looking for a new Famicom game to tuck in to.

You can find the English translation patch for Sweet Home here - http://www.romhacking.net/translations/222/