Friday 29 August 2014

Snes Review : Elfaria (Game 057)

It’s generally been quite difficult for me to get into Japanese Role Playing Games, there’s forever been obstacles in my way. Growing up, with my Super Nintendo I subscribed to a general belief that JRPGs were dull  and I wasn’t the only one who thought this. To correct the misunderstanding of their audience ‘Super Play Magazine’ specifically wrote an article aimed at dispelling the myths that was keeping their readers from some of the best games on the Super Nintendo.
“To the average Westerner, the incredible popularity of RPGs in Japan is all rather puzzling” Jason Brookes wrote in the seventh issue of the magazine. The confusion was understandable for Brookes “after all most of us have been brought up on a strict diet of console action games, from that sort perspective, these text heavy, weedy-graphicked RPGs look very unappealing indeed. So unappealing in fact, that they almost always perform poorly when they’re translated into English, with most Japanese themselves agreeing that they lose a lot in the translation.” In his five pages article, he introduces the presumably ill-informed reader to the various nuances of the Japanese RPG, talking about common narratives (“almost always a variation of the middle ages, but packed with magic users and mythological creatures “) and the typical game play traits (“walking around a lot facing assorted monsters that have to be killed using  the take-turns-selecting-the-right-text-option combat method”). But the biggest thing that the article attempts to correct is the general consensus that the genre is actually boring and not fun at all to play. “This is the main stumbling block that most US and European games players find with them. Put simply we tend to be too impatient to bother with all the text boxes and selection screens that dominate the genre. Further analysis reveals a cultural difference that separates us form the Japanese in terms of the type games we enjoy playing. The Japanese are traditionally a very story motivated people and tend to have a more introspective nature than most Westerners. The Japanese tend to read far more than most of their western counter part, it plays a significant part in all levels of Japanese society”. “It’s a background in which RPG-playing can thrive. The reluctance of most young Westerners to read outside of school or work time is a characteristic that just doesn’t meld with most heavy going role-playing games.”

Jason Brookes was right. As an eleven year old when this article was published I wouldn’t have had the patience to play a genre that involves so much reading, or to stick with a game for 60 hours.  It’s not something that seems to have changes in children or teenagers today. Even though they are much much more popular than they once were, the latest ‘Final Fantasy’ or ‘Dragon Quest’ games will enjoy far less sales from 15-30 year old males than the latest ‘Call of Duty’ or ‘Grand Theft Auto’. One thing that has changed though is accessibility of games. In the 16bit era, it wasn’t just a case of JRGS games not being translated for any potential players in the UK, they weren’t even released over here.  Even if you had the desire to play them, you couldn’t go into a shop and buy ‘Chrono Trigger’, ‘Final Fantasy’ or 'Super Mario RPG'.  Times have changed, and with eBay being a global site, it is now easy for anyone to get their hands on games that had alluded them in their youth. Indeed, if a box is not of importance to your it’s easier still. You can download any ROM in seconds and be playing a Japanese exclusive game within minutes of having found out about it for the first time.

Now of course, the largest stumbling block is one of comprehension. If Japanese Role Playing Games were originally seen as being unapproachable because they are text heavy, the fact that all this text is in Japanese makes them even harder to get into. Though I may now have the desire to play the 16 bit games I ignored in my youth and though I may be able to get hold of them easily, is it something I want to do? After all, if you are trying to follow a story using visual clues and music alone how much enjoyment can you get? Ultimately, how much can you enjoy a narrative based game when you have no idea what’s going on?

To test this I am playing a game called ‘Elfaria’. It’s a game that was once sufficiently popular in Japan to justify creation of a sequel, but is now entirely forgotten. Created by a developer called Red, it was actually published by Hudson Soft, who are perhaps best known for their ‘BomberMan’ games. Though it’s now known by next to no one there’s a very good reason I chose it; it’s a stripped back JRPG when compared to other of the era. There are no experience points or money to be earned from combat; the player's party instead levels whenever an area's boss is defeated. You start with a full complement of party members and all items or equipment needed can be found on the field by exploring. 

If there was ever a entirely Japanese game that I was going to have any chance playing this was it, although “playing” is perhaps not the best word to use when describing a player’s involvement in the progression of ‘Elfaria’s narrative. It’s a turn based game when enemy encounters are random but when you do get attacked by one the game takes over and you’re limited to just deciding which of the four possible attack methods you want your character to use. Automated fight sequences are not of course unique to ‘Elfaria’ it is also a feature in games like ‘Dragon Quest V’ and recently was included in the iOS version of ‘Final Fantasy6’. The belief is that if all the player has to do is choose the best tactic they can focus their attentions on the unfolding narrative rather than having to worry about every minutia of battle.
The obvious problem though is the limited control you have over your character's destiny once they begin a fight. At that point all you can do is watch and then hammer down on the D Pad should the battle go sour.  With the regularity of these unavoidable, unplayable random encounters it almost seems like failure is just an inevitable outcome you’re delaying, rather than something you’re moving away from. Any success in a battle feels the result of the computer AI and nothing you’ve done, as such you are robbed of any feeling of satisfaction. The progression of the story rather than a sense of achievement is therefore the reason to play the game, but this is of course also kept from an English speaking player due to the language barrier. 

I cannot read a single word appearing on screen awhile I “play” the game, the Japanese characters are literally squiggles to me. The developers may have hired prolific manga artist Susumu Matsushita to create the lavish introduction movie, but without English translations I can only guess what’s going on. Presumably there is a dastardly villain causing fire and ruin to in a medieval equivalent world of swords and arrows.  It’s a scene familiar to anyone who has ever played a JRPG, and hardly ground breaking. 

A busty princess is seemingly in danger, and a sword wielding hero intends to save her after she is turned to stone or perhaps frozen in someway.  My interpretation of the events depicted are clearly shallow and vague. When you compare my summary with one written by someone who can read Japanese you quickly realise how little a Westerner can get from a JRPG without translation. Sara Ruehlman is the author of the ‘Random Encounters’ blog, a site devoted to obscure Japanese RPG’s that have been over looked in the west. Her summary of the same introduction sequence is far more detailed and informed.

“A long, long time in the past there was a kingdom of elves. The elves controlled the ‘power of Ra’ that built up in their holy land the ‘spring of Ra’. ‘Ra’ is the source of life and magical power. Far, far in the past there was an era called the ‘Magic War’. Elves and people were in conflict, the ‘spring of Ra’ dried up, the land fell into ruin. The elf elder meets up with a woman called Eruru. He has had a bad dream about the destruction of the world. Someone was using the power of something or someone called Eruza-do. The scene switches to a castle, where King Jyozeru states that General Shi-raru has begun a coup d’état in Mu-rania. Jyozeru says that Elfaria will save Mu-rania and sends Darugan to handle it. On the battlefield while fighting the monsters, General Darugan performs a face heel turn and attacks his former allies. He says that the era of Elfaria has come to an end and that the era of Mu-rania is beginning. The remaining soldiers run off, realizing that the general has betrayed them. A few more scenes flash by, and the game informs us that fifteen years have passed. We have reached the in game title screen: A Fantastic Theater Elfaria the Isle of the Blest.“

My appreciation of the gameplay is equally superficial mainly because I can’t read the helpful advice from the town folk on where to go, I can’t equip any items picked up and I can’t understand the intricate melding system that is apparently this game’s key mechanic. All I can do is aimlessly wander around the map and the individual towns, watching as my characters get killed by the automatic battles. I can look at the art, but even that is disappointing.  With no standing animation the character sprites themselves look nice but they are continually walking even when no button is pushed. It’s one of the many aesthetic clues that the game was either rushed, or just poorly put together. But its not the limit of the shoddy presentation within ‘Elfaria’.

A random encounter for example may be triggered inside a house, but the battle screen will depict the fight in a woods for example.  The game feels unfinished, especially when compare to the detailed worlds and the high degree of polish you see in ‘Breath of Fire’ and ‘Final Fantasy’.  Towns are predominantly grass, with identical buildings with identical interiors. Equally repeated is Shigeaki Saegusa’s music, cycling between what feels like six different tracks. They are only catchy because they repeat after a minute, and sound vaguely like better music you can hear in games like ‘Mickey Mouse Magical Quest’.

After several hours of frustrating play, I had managed to get through three villages, defeated several presumably end of level bosses and still had no idea how to play the game or what was going on. Even with her mastery of Japanese, Sara was enjoying ‘Elfaria’ little more. “If offering yourself up to possible death via foolish AI every random encounter can be considered enjoyable” she said “then this game is exactly what you are looking for”. You can read more of her witty thoughts on the game on her blog, though praise for the game is in short supply.

In the past I have tried to play several Japanese games, without English translation. Despite the bonkers madness of them, I actually became pretty hooked on ‘Pachinko Wars’  and ‘Furi Furi Girls’ for example. Similarly games like ‘Parodius’ and ‘Cotton 100%’ seem to be just as enjoyable regardless of if you can read the on screen text of not. Maybe because both of these games exist within a genre that’s already familiar to me so the game play is second nature and enjoyment of it is no hampered by a detailed understanding of the unfolding narrative. A JRPG though, as Brookes said in his Super Play article is “all about story”. If an alien language excludes a player from it, the micromanagement of inventory is never going to be worth the time, unless of course you have a penchant for stats and tables. 

‘Elfaria’ would not be considered the game to persuade Westerners that JRPGs are accessible, exciting and beautiful. Even with an English fan translation, I doubt that this game would ever be the adventure of choice for a player who had access to anything Square or Enix published in the 16 bit era.

I was not able to get hold of ‘Elfaria’ in my youth, I can’t understand it now, but maybe that is all a blessing in disguise.  Only the best selling and critically applauded JRPGs got  English translations, so consequently there is an argument that Westerners are being protected from all the dross that floods the genre in Japan. When you only see the cream of the crop, you are left with the impression that all JRPGs are fantastic and emotive. Playing ‘Elfaria’ shows that despite the astonishing popularity in Japan, the genre is actually filled with the mediocre and the rubbish, just like every other. It’s a game defined by shoddy presentation and frustrating game play, whether you can read the onscreen text or not.

Where did I get this game from?
I have a bit of a thing for attractive box art and even though I can’t understand them I do quite like having the Super Famicom releases for Japanese Role Playing games. The artwork is always beautiful and a tremendous amount of care is often taken with the instruction books, maps and inserts. Usually I buy the Japanese edition of an Adventure game when I get the western release, as more often than not it looks much much nicer.

Knowing my fondness for Japanese RPGS and boxed games, a friend sent this to me after he tried it and couldn’t get much further than the title screen. I was buying some other games form him and this was a little freebie. In reality, the language barrier in the end shielded him from what is by all accounts an average game. ‘Elfaria’ isn’t worth spending time or money on and this is reflected by the rather modest price it demands on eBay. 

To import games from Japan, eBay isn't your only option though. I always check on sites like Solaris Japan as often they have a game in stock cheaper than the final price it goes for on eBay. The also have a few gadget that removes any worry of getting charged extra at customs, so they're worth a look.

If you have enjoyed this, you really should head over to where you can find a new obscure JRPG game explored every two weeks.

1 comment:

  1. I played it when I was a child, despite the fact that wasn't able to understand anything because of the language I really loved the game and I remember of it often.
    I've found this article searching for a possible rom translated, no results anyway. :(


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