Saturday, September 29, 2012

A Post About That Game I Talk About All The Time

You know what's deceptively difficult?  Picking what to write about for your first real blog entry.  It seems so important.  This is it - this is the moment when people begin to get an impression about what this blog is going to be like.  I tend to over analyze things anyway, so it wasn't long before I was agonizing over it - "What is the perfect first post?"  Fact of that matter is, if you do that for too long nothing ever gets done.  So forget that, I'm going with something I know I want to talk about, even though I've talked about it before.  In fact, I never pass up an opportunity to talk about it.  Bringing more exposure to this game (and it does have a cult following, so it isn't completely unknown) has become a bit of a personal mission for me.  The people that know me best already know where I'm going with this.

I'm talking about Alundra.

Now I wrote about Alundra not too long ago for my IGN blog.  I was working on a series of articles that explored my personal top ten games list.  I always intended to transfer the content of my IGN blog to this blog (this real, proper blog) but of course, it would be lame to just copy and paste an article directly, especially for my first post.  So I'm going to start all over again, and it's no problem because Alundra is a game worth talking about.

What is Alundra?  In gamer parlance it is a "Zelda clone" meaning it mimics the game play mechanics of The Legend of Zelda.  In particular Alundra is clearly inspired by The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.  It features the same top down perspective and the same mixture of action, puzzle and RPG game play.  In important ways it mimics the structure of Zelda as well, with the player alternately exploring a detailed over world or diving into convoluted dungeons.  Alundra himself even looks visually similar to Link, the protagonist of the Zelda franchise.

Over the years many games have attempted to emulate Zelda, but few have succeeded in doing it well.  Alundra is a rare case of a Zelda clone that is arguably better than an actual Zelda game.  It is longer than any Zelda game, and harder than most of them (you'd have to go back to the NES Zelda's to find a similar challenge).  And when I say harder, I mean in every way.  From challenging enemies, to obscure puzzles to brutal boss fights, Alundra doesn't hold back.  The story is much darker than any of the Zelda stories too.  Depending on your point of view that could be good or bad, but either way it's an important difference.

In fact, let's talk about that story some more.  This really is an area where Alundra completely separates itself from Zelda.  The game opens with Alundra on a ship.  The player is free to explore the decks and talk with the sailors and passengers.  Eventually Alundra goes to sleep and has a dream in which a voice makes cryptic comments about "the Releaser".  Alundra awakes and finds that a terrible storm has risen up and is threatening to drive the boat against jutting rocks.  The ship is destroyed and Alundra washes up on a beach, the only survivor.  A kind stranger from Inoa village named Jess takes him in.  Alundra then learns that Inoa is suffering from a curse - the citizens are falling prey to vicious nightmares that are so real they actually endanger lives.  Some people cannot awake from these nightmares, others have their behaviour changed by their influence.  Everyone is living in fear, trying not to sleep.  A scholarly character named Septimus recognizes that Alundra has a special ability - he is a "Dream Walker," and can enter other's dreams.  Alundra agrees to enter the nightmares in order to save the afflicted villagers.  At the same time, Alundra sets out to find the source of the curse.  As premise its' all fairly interesting, if a bit conventional.  What really sets the game apart is its unflinching willingness to kill off characters.  Without giving too much away (since I hope people who haven't played this game yet will be inspired to track it down), a lot of characters die in this game, despite Alundra's best efforts.  And when that happens, the story goes in interesting places.  Some characters blame you for the deaths.  Can you be trusted?  Are you actually the source of the curse?  Another Dream Walker appears named Meia and she is a bit of a mystery.  Where did she come from and what is her motivation?  As a written narrative it is more detailed and interesting than those in the Zelda games (written narrative is not Zelda's strength, in my opinion), but it is not so dialogue heavy as to get in the way of the game play.

Now would be a good time to point out that Alundra was brought to the states by Working Designs, and in typical form their localization is pretty good.  It may no be the best localization ever, but it is better than the average game.  Perhaps the simplest thing I can say is that I have played through this game about 6 or 7 times and despite that the dialogue has never crossed the line to boring or irritating.  I find it is a pleasure to re-read it.

The graphics are outstanding for a sprite based game.  Wonderfully detailed environments and expressive sprites - I REALLY wish there were more games like this.  Look at these screen shots!

The boat where you start the game - so detailed!

Jess finds Alundra washed ashore.


There are tiles in this shot that do not occur anywhere else in the game.

The special effects in this game, like fire, look excellent.

Inoa Village - a quintessential example of a quaint JRPG town.

You'll notice that the colors are fairly muted and, for lack of a better word, brown.  At first I didn't like that too much - I wished it was as colorful as A Link to the Past - but overtime I've come around and now I really like it.  In fact, I applaud it, because relatively few games have such visual consistency.  The color palette seems somewhat limited, actually, I'd be curious to know how many colors this game used in total.  Regardless, the effect is that everything in this game looks like it occupies the same world - with the dream scenes being the exception, which is only appropriate.

Next, let me tackle the actual game play.  Earlier I alluded to the game being difficult, and that is true.  The dungeons are long, filled with enemies and traps and puzzles that can really leave you confused.  When was the last time you played a Zelda game and got stuck?  It's hard to get stuck in a Zelda game because the moment you encounter anything that might require you to think, your handy helper pops up and points out that there's a door there, Link, with bars, do you see? And a button, see? I wonder if it opens the door, hmmm...  Let me assure you that that absolutely NEVER happens in Alundra.  Instead, what happens in Alundra is you enter a room and there are 8 buttons that need to all be pressed at once by pushing sliding ice pillars onto them in a specific order, all while avoiding projectile shooting enemies and if you make even one mistake you must reset the puzzle and this revives the enemies too.  Yes that's a real example.  Some of these puzzles are made harder by Alundra's one major flaw - it's difficult, almost broken jumping mechanic.  In Alundra, unlike any top down Zelda game, you can freely jump.  The game actually requires you to do this with some considerable precision - basically there are platforming sections to this game, and that would be bad enough just because of how the controls work.  There's no analog support for this game, you use the D-pad, and jumping on slight diagonals with the D-pad is not that easy.  But what really pushes this into "Seriously?!" territory is the interaction between the jumping mechanic and the perspective.  It's kind of hard to put into words, but basically, you can't always tell if something is in front of you or "south" of you but high in the air.  It's just sort of weird - things that look like they should be possible aren't, things that look impossible are, and it's hard to distinguish between the two except with trial and error.  If you want to see what I mean, check out this video.  Be warned that this is form the final dungeon, but if you only watch the first 90 seconds or so, you won't get too much spoiled.

I know some people for whom this basically ruined the game, they got so frustrated by it.  For me though, it is overcomable and worth overcoming.  Eventually I got used to it, and now the jumping isn't nearly so hard for me as it was at first.  I would encourage anyone interested in playing this game to try and look past this flaw, because the good definitely outweighs the bad.  The last thing contributing to the difficulty of this game is the ferocious boss encounters.  You start out fighting this guy:

And even that first boss is actually more complex than he looks.  Before long you're fighting things like this:

And there are many more I assure you.  The first game I played after Alundra that had so many brutal bosses was Ninja Gaiden on the XBox.  A game with this many challenging bosses only comes out once every few years so all of us hardcore gamers should savor them.

I also want to point out that Alundra has some excellent music.  Inoa Village has a charming theme (with a guy yelling "Uh!" which I just love).  The second you step outside the village, a theme called "The Wind that Shook the Earth" starts.  This is the pure sound of adventure put into musical form.

I'm not sure what first caused me to pick up Alundra years ago.  I rented before I bought it, I remember that much.  Probably the cool box art (again, Working Designs) inspired me to give it a try.  Like many Japanese PSX games, Alundra opens with an anime intro that sets the mood and that alone got me excited when I saw it for the first time (I was really into anime back then).  I remember getting stuck in a certain dungeon and feeling super bummed about having to return the game.  Finally I got a copy of my own and instead of continuing on my adventure I started over, found some secrets that I had missed, and got significantly farther into the game.  But I got stuck again against one especially challenging boss, and I set the game aside for quite awhile.  When I came back to it I couldn't remember what was going on, so I started it all over AGAIN and that was the playthrough on which I finally beat it.  Now I've played through it many times and I feel like I could play through it many more before I would be bored.  Just give yourself some time to forget quite how to solve the puzzles or quite which dungeon comes next and you're good to go.

So, let's say you've beaten Alundra and you want to play a similar game.  What are your options?  Well, frankly, they are limited.  But Alundra is something of a spiritual successor to the Genesis game Landstalker.  Many of the same developers worked on the two titles.  Landstalker has similar action/rpg game play, including challenging jumping, and the similarities between the main characters are obvious:

There is also a Saturn game called Legend of Oasis that I have not played.  It is the sequel to Beyond Oasis, a genesis game that is somewhat similar to Zelda/Alundra, but with much simpler dungeons (at least, the part that I played).  Legend of Oasis has greatly improved graphics and is supposedly fairly similar to Alundra.

When I was kid, I used to fantasize that Nintendo might ask me to make a Zelda game.  I would get a phone call, and a translator would be telling me that Shigeru Miyamoto had heard about how many great ideas I have and would like to make me honorary Zelda designer.  Now that I'm older, I still fantasize that Nintendo might ask me to make a Zelda game, but I also fantasize that I might get to make a sequel to Alundra (What, there's already a sequel Alundra?  It's a terrible 3D polygonal game that completely misses the point of what made the first game great?  No, I don't think so.  No.  I don't know what you're talking about.  Unless I blocked it out of my memory, there is no such game).   The end of this game sets up a possible sequel nicely and there is a serious lack of 2D Zelda style games in this world.

I even took it so far as to find out who owned the rights to the franchise.  That would be Sony (not Matrix Software, the developer).  I'm not sure when Sony acquired it, but they are definitely the current owners.  Maybe if I become rich, I can buy the rights and make that game.  Or maybe some one else will make a proper sequel.  For years I thought that the franchise was totally dead and forgotten, but in 2010 Sony re-released the game for PSN and is only charging $6 for it.  People!  Play this game!  Getting an actual PSX copy can be fairly expensive, but now you have no excuse!

Phew, well, I think I've said all I have to say about Alundra (for now).  Leave a comment if you want to reminisce about Alundra, or if you know of any other similar games I didn't mention (I would definitely be interested in that information)!  Until next time Paisanos!


  1. Oh, Alundra, such an excellent game! I couldn't agree with you more on the lack of worthwhile 2D Zelda clones in our world. I think too often people go into that kind of project wanting to make just a simple copy, but Alundra's developers delved in with ideas on how to enhance and even outpace Zelda, which feels very fresh. I just wish the jumping or perspective could be honed.

    1. I wish someone could explain to me how to program that jumping/perspective thing, because forget about Zelda clones, I want to make an Alundra clone!