I didn’t even really mean to play this one, but once I started Nihon Create’s Makyouden I couldn’t put it down – for two days straight I poured all of my free time into this 1992 PC-98 adventure game, and I came away thoroughly impressed.
This game takes place in Kyoto in 1997, with the plot’s basic framework taken from the Japanese classic ‘Tale of Eight Dogs’, although no knowledge of that 19th century 106 volume epic is required to enjoy the story in this demon-filled dystopian near-future (now almost twenty years in the past as far as we’re concerned – there’s a scary thought!) adventure. The game’s setting uses that always-pleasant mix of the supernatural combined with the seedier aspects of humanity – magic and technology intermingle without question; slimes and vampires appear on devastated city streets and magical swords can be found in ruined car parks. It sounds faintly ridiculous when written down like that but this melting-pot of ideas is also responsible for the likes of Silent Möbius, Shadowrun, and even the Final Fantasy series.
It’s not perfectly scripted though and if there’s one fault I’d level at the plot it’s that it’s a bit heavy on old friends and new acquaintances laying down their lives at the drop of a hat to keep the game’s angst-levels up – by the end of the tale you could practically carpet a room with tragically-killed secondary characters. But while that may be true it’s also fair to say that their individual deaths are unique and often surprising – first companion Shiro suddenly turns into a bloodthirsty werewolf as he’s walking down a road with lead character Nishina, a change that would feel out of place if you hadn’t already witnessed something similar happening to an NPC in a nearby park. The game wrings every possible drop of emotion out of this unexpected turn of events by forcing the player to go back to their friendly neighbourhood weapons dealer to obtain the silver bullets needed to kill him too – throwing in the mundane preparation required for this mercy-killing certainly makes it stand out more than a straightforward battle or event scene would have done. The game does go too far in this direction at some points though, the most obvious being when party member Tadayoshi’s zombified wife and child are wheeled on at the end of one scene to do nothing more than stand on the spot and die - complete with ‘thank you’ whispered on the wind afterwards, but thankfully to go this far overboard is rare and on the whole the deaths are frequent and shocking but not overly milked.
I seem to have a weird thing for good game UIs, and the one found in Makyouden is truly exceptional, with the usual list of verbs distilled down to just four icons: a magnifying glass (look/inspect), footprints (move – double click the left mouse button when walking alone to run), a hand (pick up/interact with), and a mouth (talk). To think that an adventure game from 1992 was so elegant and yet never went on to become the foundation of similar later titles is appalling. There’s not even any pixel hunting or inventory to worry about either – the game doesn’t allow you to leave a room if there’s something important to do or pick up in there, and these individual areas are always broken up into large ‘hot spots’ of interest, highlighted in real-time on the close-up viewer on the bottom-right of the screen; giving the player access descriptive flavour text if they want to while simultaneously freeing them of the fear that something important two pixels wide is lurking in the corner of a scene. Maybe. But what if something important was hiding in that last location instead…?
Makyouden’s railroading does mean some there’s a tangible loss of freedom for the player – they are no longer free to wonder if they needed to move the bins in a back alley on disc C to reveal a tiny speck of gum they’d have to stick on a particular wall two hours later, and they’re also no longer free to come across puzzles and have to decide if they need to USE, PUT, COMBINE, or LOOK at a particular item to progress. The game never allows the player to wander very far off the path that’s been prepared for them, but in return players can trust that when they do come across an apparent roadblock they have access to all the tools needed to progress. There may only be one linear route that leads to Makyouden’s single ending but the lack of red herrings, dead ends, or even game overs meant I was able to thoroughly enjoy all eight discs worth of detailed locations and superb animations from beginning to end, and when I did get stuck I knew the fault lay with my actions, not the game.
In summary I’d say that Makyouden is a criminally overlooked and very forward-thinking gem of an adventure game, well worth its digital ¥500 price tag and a title I’d have been happy to pay in full for back in 1992 if only I hadn’t been ten years old and on the opposite side of the planet, and unable to read any Japanese. There is a lot of reading to be done so you’ll need some confidence with your abilities to get much out of the plot, but players of all levels can at least go in safe in the knowledge they can’t wind up stuck at the wrong end of the map missing a key item they should have picked up an hour ago.