RPGs I didn’t get to play: The 8-bit years

I had the bad timing to become a console RPG fan at the dawn of the 1990s. This was originally due to a promotional gimmick run by Nintendo Power magazine in which they gave away a free copy of the game Dragon Warrior to new subscribers. My friends were bored to tears by it, but for me- a kid with extremely poor hand-eye coordination and an affinity for planning, strategy, and numbers- it was ideal.

Unluckily for me, their opinion was considerably more prevalent than my own at the time. Indeed, I’m guessing that the whole reason that Nintendo Power– which was owned by Nintendo of America at the time- ran the promotion did was that they had a lot of unsold copies of Dragon Warrior that they wanted to get rid of in a hurry. Nintendo Power of that era was at least as much a marketing organ as it was a moneymaking venture in its own right, but even so I find it hard to imagine any other plausible reason to give away a $40 game to sell $15 magazine subscriptions. RPGs for consoles were a very small genre in the United States, and so not many of them actually came out here.

The frustrating thing was that I eventually learned that things were different in Japan, where RPGs were a huge genre, and that there were huge numbers of RPGs made for the Famicom, the Japanese equivalent of the Nintendo Entertainment System, that never came to America. My knowledge of the specifics was often fairly limited. When Final Fantasy II first came out on the Super Nintendo and I devoured it like a pack of starving dogs, for instance, I had no idea that I was playing something released as Final Fantasy IV in Japan.

Still, I knew in a general way that I was missing out. Some of these games later made it across the Pacific to the United States in releases or remakes years after their original release, or via fan translations, but when I started RPGs the options for an American fan of the genre whose only gaming platform was the NES- at that point my only experience with personal computers was in my school’s computer class, where the computers didn’t have luxuries like hard drives or mice or monitors with colors other than green or parts postdating the Eisenhower demonstration- were few indeed.

Some of the notable RPGs that didn’t make it across the Pacific in the NES era include:

Final Fantasy II

The early localization clearly leaves something to be desired, though frankly it still manages to be more readable than a lot of text in games that were actually released to the public in that era.

The first of many sequels in the long-running series. The original American version of this was largely a victim of the long delay between the Japanese release of the original Final Fantasy in 1987 and its American release in June 1990, by which time Japan was up to Final Fantasy III and the American release of the Super NES was only a little more than a year away. Square actually did intend to release this game in the United States, and had actually produced an English localization of the game’s text and even a working, playable prototype NES cartridge when Square pulled the plug on the project to focus on the Super NES instead. They then localized Final Fantasy IV for the American market under the title Final Fantasy II, which is why the forward slash is such an indispensable piece of punctuation for people writing about the series today.

This was the first game in the series in which the characters in your party actually had their own names and defined personalities. In the original the player simply selected four generic characters from one of six character classes, so if you wanted any characterization or interaction you had to provide it yourself. In my case, this consisted mostly of my noble Light Warriors bickering and arguing with each other more or less constantly. It was sort of a forerunner of 8-Bit Theater, except not funny.

This was also the game that began the long-running Final Fantasy tradition of having a technologically-inclined character named Cid in every game. This game’s Cid is a retired night turned airship pilot provides the heroes with transportation during their quest. The Cids have been a mainstay of the series ever since, whether it’s the flamboyant mad scientist of Final Fantasy XII, the grizzled airship engineer of Final Fantasy IV, the grossly unethical biotechnology researcher wearing a ridiculous yellow coat that makes him look like a giant duck in VI, the embittered, foulmouthed, emotionally abusive former pilot in VII, or the mercenary warlord with an army of child-soldiers who comes across as a benevolent, avuncular figure when by all rights he ought to be dragged to The Hague and put on trial for war crimes in VIII. A proud lineage, indeed.

Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei

The original game in what would become the sprawling Megami Tensei franchise, which also includes games such as the Shin Megami Tensei series, the Persona series, and Devil Survivor. It was also notable for bucking the usual medieval high fantasy conventions of RPGs, instead using a modern-day setting in which it is possible to summon demons into our world with computer programs. Sort of like a supernatural version of “FREE VIRUS SCAN!!!” pop-ups, except that running the program in the game calls forth unholy entities from other realms that bring desolation and ruin to other people.

There was never any real chance of this game coming out on a Nintendo platform in that era, since Nintendo of America maintained a very strict censorship policy at the time that proscribed anything that smacked of religion or the demonic. If depicting crosses on tombstones was considered beyond the pale, an American release of a game where the gameplay and plot revolved around the protagonist’s ability to summon and command demons was not going to happen.

Next time: The 16-bit era!

– originally pbulished 10/19/2011

John Markley is a writer from Illinois. He writes the video game commentary/humor site Pointless Side Quest and also blogs about science fiction and fantasy at Vast and Cool and Unsympathetic. His other interests include history, science, heavy metal, anime, movies, speaking of himself in the third person, and awkward, uncomfortable conversation.