Hi. This is just a little experiment we are trying, where I am allowed to rant about my favorite games from years past, and you are more than welcome to share in my nostalgic waxings or deride me for my differing opinions on your most beloved or reviled games.
Retro games are an important face in the ever expanding commercialized market. Something must be said about a game that can be picked up and played five, 10 or even 25 years later and still be enjoyable, especially in a day and age when most games are built to last only until the next coolest thing comes around, be it the blood-sucking trend of annual releases (Call of Duty, Assassin's Creed) or competitive publishing giants constantly one-upping each other to the point of over-saturation (Guitar Hero v. Rock Band)
Why is it that something as widely praised and successful as Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare can be thrown aside as scrap two years later when Modern Warfare 2 comes around, and yet a little no-name action game like ActRaiser still excites those who played it in the early 90s despite having a sequel and four generations of evolution between its release and now?
Much like finding the perfect woman, the countless sexy, fun and sleek games out there can only entertain you for so long before it becomes boring and time to move on. Only that little indescribable extra something can make the ones that truly matter hang around for a lifetime, and I'm all about finding that emotional connection to a video game that keeps us coming back for decades.
With that little introduction aside, let's just jump into our first game.
I mentioned earlier in the week that over 100 PlayStation One Classics would finally be available for Sony's PlayStation Vita handheld, and that rather than sticking to the usual suspects, you should treat yourself to a game you might have never played before, like Alundra. It's not my favorite amongst the available games, but it comes close, and it's also the game I want to talk about today with its European publisher SCE Liverpool recently being closed after 30 years of business.
For lack of a better reference, Alundra is what gamers call a Zelda-clone, a term placed on action/adventure games that borrow a elements from the most recent iteration of Nintendo's popular series. High-horse Zelda fans reverently believe their series is beyond comparison with other series though, so the moniker is attached to declare a sense of separation between David and Goliath
But remember, David beats Goliath in the end, and a handful of these byproducts sometimes wind up surpassing their inspiration, Okami, Beyond Good and Evil, and yes…Alundra, just to name a few.
Filling a Void
Alundra was released during a very awkward time between Super Mario 64 and Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. 3D was all the rage, and just about every series wanted in on the action; but, only Nintendo really seemed to "get it." Few ballsy games had the guts to stand up for 2D gaming as a still viable solution for all the trashy 3D games at the time, most famously among these being Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.
Alundra was another of these games. First time developer Matrix Software is a company that had been recently founded by ex-Climax Entertainment staff, a developer with deep 2D roots thanks to a few successful RPGs for the Sega Genesis. Rather than trying something new and destined to fail like the rest of the gaming world, the team stuck to their tried and true strengths to push their debut project forward, maxing out the potential of 2D graphics using the superior PlayStation hardware.
The result was a gorgeous, fully realized world, packed with its own folklore and culture and rife with beautiful 2D effects not possible on the Super Nintendo. Alundra finds itself as one of the few games to land on the narrow bridge separating old from new, nailing that fine balance between being something clearly adventurous and beautiful but also strikingly familiar. While Zelda was busy carving out the future of gaming with blocky 3D polygons, Alundra was perfecting classic motifs in a way just not possible in 3D.
Matrix Software still exists today and are often outsourced by Square Enix to create the 3D Final Fantasy remakes for the DS. It really shows the aging power of Alundra if Matrix Software's debut work is a better looking game than the creations it makes ten to fifteen years later.
Zelda was Never this Hard
There is no getting around it. Yes, Alundra takes a lot from the Legend of Zelda, specifically A Link to the Past, but in a sense of a super-clone in that it takes all the best from its host, beats you over the skull with its rock hard biceps, and carves its own identity in your sternum with a few solid raw ideas.
At its core, Alundra uses the same dual item combat and puzzle solving found in A Link to the Past, sword in one hand supportive item in the other. Our hero Alundra swings a sword at enemies on a 2D world map. He eventually unlocks a charge attack for his sword, gets a set of bombs that opens walls and a chain that pulls him across gaps, and finds magic spells and 1/4 life vessels spewed across his world map. He dives deep into unforgiving dungeons, unlocking treasure chests and pushing blocks onto switches to unlock doors. His entire adventure revolves around a single village. All the barebone basics of a Zelda game can be found here, and there's no getting around that.
Alundra manages to separate itself from Zelda by taking these conventions to the extreme. The journey is no cakewalk and actually one of the more challenging games you will ever play. Frustrating jumps created by the illusion of an isometric viewpoint cause Alundra to fall more so than a fair platformer, and aggressive throw-away villains and boss fights alike drain huge fractions of Alundra's limited heath. Good luck pointing to one specific culprit making even the most seasoned veterans frustrated.
Most fans though will admit its the notorious puzzles that make them eventually quit. Some might be obvious such as stacking symbols on their corresponding floor panels, but others involve whacking vaguely explained switches in an unspecified order or conquering open-ended environmental puzzles from scratch.
And then there's block pushing. A time honored tradition of the Zelda franchise, Link must sometimes push a block or two to create a simple maze for him to travel through. It's cute. Alundra must tackle the most complicated matrices of gridlocked block pushing, some which require no less than 25 different moves. Adding to the extreme difficulty, elemental blocks depending on the dungeon's theme add another layer to the chaos. Ice will travel until it hits a wall, glass will break if it crashes into an improper surface, and fire will burn necessary blocks, leaving you with no other option but to start over. UGH!
Not to mention, the game features an unfair collectible side quest in which Alundra must uncover 50 Gilded Falcons. Ohhh….those Gilded Falcons. About 40 of them can be found within reason, but those last few require an extreme amount of luck through the game's gambling mini-games, and others are permanently missable, only available during small windows of the game, one window as short as two seconds. A huge portion of the dungeons in Alundra are the dreams of villagers, but once Alundra awakens them from their slumber, the dungeon is gone forever, making any forgotten or overlooked falcon unobtainable.
This is the strict world of Alundra folks. It's not going to hold your hand the whole way though but, it grants a great feeling of accomplishment once its all over, and you'd never guess it from my fire and brimstone description, but its still really fun.
Zelda was Never this Depressing
The similarities between Zelda and Alundra come to a dead stop with their narratives. Alundra is a tale of a young elf-boy of the Elna clan with the unusual power of jumping into people's dreams. His world is ruled by a king who demands all idols and deities be destroyed, and that is he their only source of authority. However, Alundra's night terrors of the evil god Melzas leads him to believe they are real and calling for him.
In the meantime, citizens of the remote Inoa village are being wiped out by a strange plague brought on by horrendous nightmares. Alundra ventures to the cursed land to investigate both the cause of these deaths and the source of his own nightmares.
His ship crashes into a reef during a terrible storm at sea, but he is rescued by Inoa's blacksmith, Jess, and is brought into town anyway. Jess takes in Alundra as a kind of father figure to replace his lost wife and son, and Alundra also meets with the smarmy Septimus, another village outsider who also looks to cure the curse. Together, they work to free the village of Inoa from certain doom.
On the surface, Alundra seems like simple tripe. A young elf-boy helping people and discovering his hidden powers is not going to win any awards in the originality department. But as Alundra's journey progresses, the game takes a long and drawn out plunge into darkness to the point where scenes are downright gut wrenching.
Wonderfully characterized NPCs who take Alundra in as one of their own being dieing off one at a time. Gravestones pile up in the nearby cemetery while the happy peaceful streets of Inoa become less active. Trust me when I say nobody is given special treatment in this regard.
As the deaths become more frequent and violent, the townspeople fall further into despair, praying to their forbidden idols and blaming Alundra for not being effective enough of a savior their Gods promised. The local priest begins to turn the people against Alundra, labeling him as the demon causing their problems, causing strife amongst those who trust Alundra and those who have lost sight of his deeds.
Jess makes more and more tools with the passing of each friend, losing himself to insanity by believing he is forging their souls into his latest weapons, leaving a feeling of dread with each newly acquired skill.
To make matters worse, a neighboring village of murderous monkeys have their sights set upon overtaking Inoa village, and they frequently raid and kill villagers just for fun.
Yes, before you know it, you quickly realize that Alundra is not a happy video game.
Nor is it a video game without a message. Alundra is cautionary tale of the dangers of religion and placing too much hope in false Gods or idols. Terrifying deities populate the spectral realm of Alundra's universe, and the more and more citizens pray to their Gods, the stronger and stronger enemies and their curse becomes. The hint is to big for the simple dwellers of Inoa to swallow though.
Alundra's fantastic localization was a product of Victor Ireland's company Working Designs, which speaks to its high quality. Working Designs is video game localization. Before Americans figured out the trick to making JRPGs understandable, Victor Ireland and his crew were revolutionizing the CD realm, bringing over lost classics like Lunar: The Silver Star on neglected systems like the SEGA CD and Turbografx CD, and packaging their games with large amount of goodies and colorful manuals.
Square and other giants eventually caught on to Victor Ireland's methods, but even this deep into Working Designs' lifetime, Alundra's localization is miles ahead of even the greatest RPGs of its time, and probably the best the PlayStation has to offer.
A Clone with a Heart of Gold
And therein lies the heart of Alundra. It's easy to just slap it with the title of Zelda-clone because it plays a little similar to Link to the Past, but that would be dismissing the true driving force of this wonderful game.
Alundra is all about the connection to Inoa village and its villagers. They are almost living, breathing human beings, each with their own story, set patterns, personalities and reasons to keep fighting and survive. So much time is spent with the village of Inoa that it almost becomes a home to the gamer for a while, a home that he becomes desperate to save himself.
Grand tales that sprawl countless towns and locations like Skyrim or Tales of Symphonia miss the mark because their stories and characters are spread so thin. Oh look, another town filled with shmucks I don't known and will never really care about. Will I even come back here, I'm not sure.
It can be said that the attraction of RPGs is the adventure, not the emotional anchor at the center of it all, and while that may be true for many RPGs out there, the best of the best pull your heartstrings in some unfair fashion. What's a better way than burning down your home, killing your close friends, and having their bodies defiled by rabid monkeys?
At its core, it is an obvious labor of love. In the face of classic motifs dieing out for new and modern ideas, Alundra was the last gasp of ageless conventions perfected and pushed to the brink into one final and brilliant action/adventure, a fully realized world and tale of great tragedy that ranks with the best of them.
Alundra is now available for every system that carries the PlayStation name thanks to the backwards compatibility of the PlayStation 2 and its easy access via the PlayStation Network for a mere $6. I more than urge you to give it a try because you'll be getting one of the most polished, fun, and emotionally gripping video games ever created for the price of a Big Mac.
Alundra did spawn a sequel named a Alundra 2, but its often dismissed by fans for having absolutely nothing to do with Alundra and tossing aside the beautiful sprites for horribly ugly 3D polygons. However, it still has a following for those willing to look past the deceptive title. I've never played it, so I can't say.