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RPGs I never got to play: The 16-bit era

Last time, we had a look at a few of the 8-bit Japanese role-playing games that, due to the cruel realities of the 1980s video game market, never made it to America. Sadly, the dawning of the 16-bit age did not change this state of affairs.

Nowadays the era is often remembered for being the time of great games like Final Fantasy II and III, Chrono Trigger, Phantasy Star II, and the criminally under-appreciated Lufia games. This makes it easy to forget that between the releases of those classics there were some considerable spans where not much in the genre came out, and what did was often pretty poor. Today the glow of something like Final Fantasy III seems so bright that it can obscure those long, dark stretches inhabited by games like Paladin’s Quest and 7th Saga, but the relative dearth of good RPG’s was certainly something I felt keenly at the time.

As in the days of the 8-bit systems, there was a lot that never came to America due to the limited market. I was aware of particular games only dimly, if at all, but I knew I was being denied something. Somethings like:

Shin Megami Tensei and Shin Megami Tensei II (Super Famicom)

The follow-up to Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei and Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei II on the Famicom. Like their predecessors, these games spurned the traditional I fantasy trappings typical of RPGs and instead used a post-apocalyptic setting set in the relatively near future of our world, where the barrier between Earth and the world of demons and spirits has fallen and rival supernatural forces battle for supremacy with humanity caught in the middle. As in the previous games, the main character can create a combat party containing a wide variety of summoned demons and other supernatural entities that fight by his side. The games also have an alignment system, and the course of the plot, and ultimately the ending, depend on the player’s decisions during the story.

The chances of these coming out in the United States for the Super Nintendo were always nil, for the same reason its predecessors never came out here for the NES: in an era where Nintendo of America was so fearful of religious controversy that it wouldn’t allow crosses to appear on tombstones and made Square change the name of the spell “Holy” in the American translations of the Final Fantasy games, an American game where the plot and gameplay revolved around the protagonist’s ability to summon demons to do battle for him wasn’t going to happen. The presence of numerous explicit references to Judeo-Christian religious figures, who can be the antagonists in some of the story paths- it’s possible for the archangel Michael to be the final boss of Shin Megami Tensei, and some of the paths in the second game culminate in a battle with God, albeit a god who turns out to be a less-than-omnipotent Gnostic sort of deity- surely didn’t help, either.

Seiken Densetsu 3 (Super Famicom)

The Seiken Densetsu games are a series of action RPGs, originally from Square and now owned by Square Enix. America actually did get the first two Seiken Densetsu games, albeit not under that name.

The first game released, Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden for the Nintendo Gameboy, was released in the United States under the equally misleading title Final Fantasy Adventure. How does the game fit into the Final Fantasy franchise? Good question, the answer to which that it doesn’t. It’s a completely unrelated action RPG with no plot connection and totally different gameplay that Square decided to slap a popular existing brand name on, sort of like if Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Christmas epic Jingle All the Way had been released under the title The Terminator Holiday Special. Fortunately, however, it was actually quite a good game, and after Seiken Densetsu 2 came out in Japan on the Super Famicom it was brought to America as The Secret of Mana, an excellent game that was one of the highlights of the Super NES.

The series had grown in detail and complexity with the release of its second game, going from a lone hero and an occasional AI-controlled companion in Final Fantasy Adventure to a permanent party of three predefined characters in The Secret of Mana. Seiken Densetsu 3 took it even further, letting the player choose the main hero of the story and two companions from six different characters, each with their own abilities and storyline, with the path of the plot and the game’s ending changing based on who you chose. Square actually intended to localize the game for North America under the title The Secret of Mana 2,and even made official announcements to that effect, but it never materialized.

Unfortunately, the game was apparently very buggy, and Nintendo of America had fairly stringent quality control standards that third-party game publishers had to fulfill to be licensed to make games on the NES. (“Quality control” regarding bugs and technical problems, that is, not the game as a whole, which the fact that games like Athena, D-Force, the jaw-droppingly inept train wreck that is The Uncanny X-Men, and the SNES Batman Forever game that somehow managed to have have periodic loading screens on a cartridge all proudly sported the gold Official Nintendo Seal of Quality can attest to.) Seiken Densetsu 3 couldn’t pass muster in its existing state, and Square presumably concluded that the expected sales of an American version weren’t enough to justify the cost of getting it up to snuff for localization.

Conclusion

To date, none of these games have been officially released for the North American market. Given Secret of Mana’s status as a beloved classic and the fact that Square Enix’s entire existence now seems to revolve around re-releasing and remaking games from their glory days you’d think that finally bringing The Secret of Mana II over here would be an obvious choice, but no such luck. The Megami Tensei franchise has enjoyed greatly increased popularity in North America thanks to Atlus USA’s localizations of games like the Persona sub-series, to the point of finally bringing Persona 2: Innocent Sin to North America on the Sony PSP more than a decade after its original Japanese release of the Sony PlayStation. So there may be some chance of seeing other classic Megami Tensei games over here, though I’m not getting my hopes too high on the chances of someone wanting to remake a 16-bit Japanese game for the modern American market

But you never know.

By John Markley

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.