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US Gamer's Retrospective Reviews: Curse of the Azure Bonds, Drakkhen, The Black Onyx

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US Gamer's Retrospective Reviews: Curse of the Azure Bonds, Drakkhen, The Black Onyx

Review - posted by Crooked Bee on Sat 30 August 2014, 22:16:16

Tags: Curse of the Azure Bonds; Drakkhen; The Black Onyx's Jeremy Parish did a few oldschool RPG retrospectives last week as part of the USGamer's "Daily Classics" series. Specifically, the games reminisced about were Curse of the Azure Bonds, The Black Onyx, and Drakkhen. I'd like to hope most people on the Codex are familiar with Curse of the Azure Bonds, at least (as part of SSI's famous "Gold Box" RPG series), whereas Drakkhen and The Black Onyx could be harder to place, I imagine. So here are two snippets on both of those. First, the unique "RPG missionary" Black Onyx:

By far one of the most effective efforts to bring Western concepts to Japan came from a Dutch game enthusiast by the name of Henk Rogers. [...] Japanese game developers were aware of RPGs and even dabbled in rudimentary forms of role-playing design as early as 1982. Those early efforts were fairly dismal by modern standards, with opaque mechanics and nothing even slightly resembling game balance. The spirit was willing, but the proverbial flesh was terribly weak. At least, that was true until Rogers came along to preach the gospel of role-playing games with The Black Onyx in 1984. Though hardly the most spectacular take on the RPG concept — it was essentially Wizardry with some modest mechanical tweaks — it was the work of a designer who had obsessed over the genre in his native language and understood the ins and outs of role-playing. In fact, Rogers' language problem mirrored that of his target audience: He understood the games, but not Japanese.

With the help of some native speakers, Rogers managed to cram a proper computer RPG experience into a format friendly to Japanese gamers. Released exclusively for the PC-8801 personal computer, The Black Onyx overcame a slow start (thanks in large part to an active PR campaign by Rogers) to become a bonafide hit, racking up impressive sales and a ton of awards by the end of 1984. In short order, the game made its way to a number of other systems, including Sega's SG-1000 console, where it received a visual facelift courtesy of future Phantasy Star designer Reiko Kodama. Just as certain Japanese properties have become far more successful in the West than in their native land — Metroid, Castlevania, and Sonic the Hedgehog come to mind — the reverse has occasionally been true as well. Lode Runner and Spelunker, for example, have seen far more sequels and far better sales in Japan than here in the States. The Black Onyx doesn't quite fit that definition, having been developed in Japan for the Japanese by a European designer, but it certainly serves as a sort of conceptual bridge. The franchise has long since faded to obsolescence even in Japan; due to rampant cloning by Japanese developers, only one of the two planned sequels saw the light of day as Rogers' Bullet-Proof Software was shut out of the market it helped create. Yet its legacy lives on.​

And here's something about Drakkhen:

Unlike Shadowgate, however, Drakkhen didn't give players a finite, contained world to explore. On the contrary, it offered an early take on 3D open-world design — one of the very first, in fact, predating Bethesda's The Terminator by a year. Given its pioneering status, perhaps it's no real surprise that it took its open-world description quite seriously; after rolling their party's stats and classes, players begin in a green field with sparse trees and details dotting the landscape. A castle appears in the distance, beckoning epxlorers to investigate, but beyond that Drakkhen offers very little guidance in terms of direction or mechanics, even if you partake of the optional tutorial Kemco added for the console release. As if its abstruse design weren't daunting enough for newcomers, Drakkhen seemingly reveled in surreality. Bizarre creatures would appear as you traveled across the landscape. At night, the stars themselves might begin to shift and twist, manifesting as a monster that would descend and attack. NPCs in fortresses and hideouts scattered across the land would share oblique snippets of information, but either by design or poor localization these tended to be confusing at best. The clues you would uncover along the way hinted at quests and puzzles that seemingly were never implemented within the game.

Drakkhen definitely feels like an RPG for experienced RPG fans, specifically those versed in the rules and expectations of computer RPGs. Unlike console role-playing experiences, Drakkhen offers no real guidance. It has no rails. It lacks convenient subdivisions of land to offer a hint that you're wandering into territory well beyond your party's means of survival, or even much in the way of pointers beyond a rudimentary in-game map. You're free to travel anywhere in the world from the outset, and you can easily encounter extremely high-level enemies with a novice party, a combination that practically guarantees a quick game over.

Most importantly, Drakkhen was mildly revolutionary for its time on a technological level. While many of its RPG predecessors had featured a similar free-roaming adventure, Drakkhen changed the camera angle from a top-down fixed perspective to a freely controlled point-of-view closer to the horizon, with scaling sprites for geographic features. [...] In its original PC incarnation, though, Drakkhen paved the way for countless games to come. Bethesda would follow up The Terminator with 1994's The Elder Scrolls: Arena, and Ultima would make a foray into free-roaming 3D exploration in 1992 with Ultima Underworld.​

I've got to say that Drakkhen has fascinated me for some time already, and it's definitely one of the more unique and "experimental" RPGs out there, so I'm glad to see it get some attention.

Parish also mentions TSI's upcoming crowdfunded Gold Box reboot in the Curse of the Azure Bonds article.

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