Monday, July 25, 2011

The Magic of Scheherazade

Today we're going to speak of a game very dear to my heart: The Magic of Scheherazade. This fun little NES RPG is pretty darned obscure; I've found very few other people who've ever heard of it. Hell, I've barely mentioned it in this rant blog thingy of mine at all after, what, 4 years of blabbing? And you know that ain't the norm--usually if I like a game, you'll hear about how awesome it is every other rant I do.* But it's a real damn shame how unknown this game is, and how long it's taken for me to decide to talk about it. Cuz you know what? This game had a lot of creative qualities, and it was pretty ahead of its time in several ways. And because now time is Arpy Time, you're gonna have to hear about them.

Alright, first of all: Time Travel. This game has it. Now, I know time travel was not a new concept by 1987, but as far as RPGs go, I'm willing to bet that this is one of the earliest RPGs to ever incorporate time travel into its plot and setting in a major way. I'd be surprised if it were not THE first to do so, really. And in its humble way, it does it well. It ain't exactly Chrono Trigger, but The Magic of Scheherazade does use its time travel plot elements with purpose and some good sense. I mean, yeah, there are times when it doesn't seem terribly essential--there's a time in Chapter 2, for example, when the reason you have to travel to the past is to pick up a party member who lived way back when, and this instance really doesn't have any narrative aspect that necessitated the time travel besides the game telling us that we had to. I mean, the character could just as easily have existed in the present. But most of the time, the time travel aspect is used well, such as when the protagonist encounters a demon so unstoppably powerful that the only possible way to vanquish it is to travel many, many years into Earth's past to kill the demon just as it's born, since that's the one time it will be vulnerable enough that any physical and magical means will be capable of beating it. TMoS is an RPG that uses time travel long before any other that I know of, and frankly, it manages to use the concept better than several later RPGs ever did.**

Next, how about the cast? TMoS probably has the most diverse RPG cast of its time. Seriously. Your party will eventually consist of a living pumpkin-headed wooden doll, a cat fairy, a flying monkey, a robot archeologist, not one 1 but 2 genies, and...a bottle with arms, legs, and an eye. Among others. That's a pretty different cast. Hell, the TMoS ensemble is STILL one of the weirdest I've seen in RPGs so far. I suppose it's a little excessive at times, as quite often the bizarre form these allies take isn't at all relevant--the bottle, for instance, is relevant to the plot for his magical abilities and knowledge of how to defeat his chapter's demon. No one remarks even once about the fact that it's a fucking talking BOTTLE. So there are some characters who didn't NEED to be so weird. Still, for its time, it was pretty different to have such a creative ensemble of individuals, and I think it's still a part of the game that makes it worth noting.

There's a few different smaller aspects that were also pretty groundbreaking ideas in TMoS, too. For starters, the music, simple though it is, really is very nice, and it sets the mood well, which, honestly, can't be said of all that many NES RPGs. There's also the fact that this game allows your character to switch Job Classes--a concept that Final Fantasy 3 is often praised for supposedly inventing 3 years after TMoS. And how about the battle system? TMoS is the first RPG I've ever heard of to have a mixed battle system--most of the time, it's an Action RPG, with real-time battles with free reign over your character's movement, like The Legend of Zelda or Terranigma. But any time you go to another screen, there's a good chance you'll be attacked by enemies in a random encounter, and THEN you have to fight using a Regular RPG battle interface, using turn-based menus, as with most Final Fantasy games or Chrono Trigger. Having an RPG with 2 separate battle systems constantly at play is uncommon even to this day. I think TMoS might have been the first to try it, and it did it pretty well. And speaking of the battle system, this RPG has combo abilities. Like, if you get into the turn-based combat, and you choose certain allies to fight with you, you can use special abilities that combine the powers of all the party members to do massive damage to the enemy team. Yeah, 8 years before everyone was paying attention to Chrono Trigger's Combo skills and saying what a neat idea they were, The Magic of Scheherazade was pioneering that idea.

And one last little thing about the battle system in this game: you can hire NPC soldiers to help you in combat. The troopers aren't as powerful or hardy as your regular party members, but they're damn helpful as attack support. Why the hell is it that over 20 years later there's practically no RPG since that's been bright enough to do this? I mean, come on, if I'm out to save the world with just a dozen assorted oddballs, no matter how powerful my companions may be, it only makes SENSE that I'd want to have some soldiers around to back us up. It's not like mercenary groups are terribly hard to find in your average RPG. Why the hell don't OTHER protagonists hire on some extra muscle? If you're out to save the world or whatever, isn't it actually really dumb to encounter groups of warriors who assist you for money and not at least CONSIDER buying their services?

There's also the matter of the setting. Now, I'll grant that the NES's ability to visually portray its settings is a bit limited, but I really like the fact that The Magic of Scheherazade is an RPG with an Arabian background. Frankly, the backdrop of Arabian mythology is a really neat one, and it's criminally under-utilized in video games in general, to say nothing of RPGs--this is seriously the only RPG I've ever seen or heard of that uses Arabian themes for a setting. What a damn shame.*** All the more reason this game is so notable, I suppose.

Lastly, I'd just like to say that while the plot is not exactly heavy, there are some parts of the game's story that are really cool. Just the start of it's pretty darned neat--you basically start the game when a cat fairy named Coronya finds you and hauls your amnesiac ass out of a magical other-dimensional limbo place, where you were banished after you failed to defeat the game's evil wizard antagonist Sabaron. It's basically a more magical, somewhat less grim version of the opening to the SNES Shadowrun RPG, or Planescape: Torment--you wake up, no memories, after a disastrous failure. I won't exactly say that TMoS had the idea before Planescape: Torment, because PT's opening has a lot of differences and is much more symbolic, plot-essential, and well-executed, but still, the foundation for the idea is much the same, and it's pretty damned cool. There's also a plot twist near the end of the game that is just really awesome, completely unexpected, and in some ways, pretty touching.

Anyways, that's about it, but as you can see, there's really quite a lot about The Magic of Scheherazade that makes it a really noteworthy RPG, one of those hidden gems of the past. It impressed me as a youngster, it still impresses me now, and I thought it deserved some recognition for its many interesting and fine qualities, several of which were way ahead of its time. You really should give it a try--I don't think it's on the Wii network for download, but emulation's always an option (not that I would EVER suggest such a DASTARDLY avenue! No, never), and there's actually a site where you can play it right in your web browser: http://game-oldies.com/play-online/magic-of-scheherazade-the-nintendo-nes# . Since the game relies on passwords instead of save files, there's no reason you can't use this convenient option for playing it. So try it out some time!












* Hey, guys, just in case you missed it, I like Planescape: Torment and Wild Arms 3.

** See: Star Ocean 1 (if you spend 98% of the game in the past, what was the point of having time travel at all?), Final Fantasy 8 (like everything else in the game, time travel was handled with all the skill and care that one would expect of a vapid 13-year-old fanfiction writer), Robotrek (makes no goddamn sense)

*** I am just waiting for the day the Shin Megami Tensei series makes a game/set of games with its usual excellent religious examination focused on Islamic beliefs. There is just SO MUCH fascinating content they can sink their storytelling teeth into there.

6 comments:

  1. The setting, the style, the two battle systems, even the fucking talking BOTTLE all sound genuinely interesting. I believe this may be a game to play and force down the throats of friends. Oh yeah.

    But...really now. Two battle systems. Only Bahamut Lagoon comes to my mind in that regard.


    "See: Star Ocean 1"

    2 and 3 were pretty damn bad about that sort of thing, too. Must be a series staple.

    "I am just waiting for the day the Shin Megami Tensei series makes a game/set of games with its usual excellent religious examination focused on Islamic beliefs."

    You, me, and my entire group of local fellow SMT fans, and we cannot be alone.

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  2. Regarding SO2 and SO3: Technically speaking, SO1 was the only 1 that involved time travel as such, so that's all I mention. But yeah, I'm aware that you spend 60% of SO2 in rural hick fantasy land, then 40% (if Rena) or 39.9% (if Claude; he DID bum around his dad's space ship for a minute) in Technologically-Advanced-But-Only-In-A-Magical-Sense-So-It's-Still-Not-Actually-Science-Fiction-At-All Land.

    I know sufficiently advanced technology is said to be indistinguishable from magic, but that doesn't mean that it's supposed to actually BE MAGIC, Enix, you miserable hacks.

    And I know that SO3 has you spend 65% of it in another rural hick fantasy land (albeit a slightly more interesting one). But those are still technically happening in the present. Still a completely disappointing and dishonest thing from a series that claims to be science fiction, and really just as bad as SO1, but not time travel.

    But yeah, check out TMoS. It's neat, and like I said, the password system means that you can basically play this RPG in multiple sittings just through a browser, without even having to go through the hassle of downloading. And as always, thanks for commenting.

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  3. The number of Arabian RPGs could probably be counted on one hand. Exile 1 and 2 are the only ones that come to mind. Doing a quick Google search suggests there is a Japanese only title called Arabian Nights on the SNES.

    I don't have as much praise for the game. I think the turn based battles weren't implemented well, and are pointless. The twist at the end felt anti-climactic when I had this goal the whole time, and I've been taunted by it during all my travels. Having the choice of the different classes through the game was a nice touch, but I didn't like that I was forced into each of them for what seemed like arbitrary reasons.

    Still, it does have a lot of innovation, just not the same polish that other 'classic' games of the time.

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  4. If it's worth anything then the first Ultima (1981) included time travel but the majority was spent actually looking for a time machine and it was nonsensical (as was Final Fantasy 1's implementation) so MoS might be the first GOOD instance of time travel in an RPG.I didn't find the whole amnesiac protagonist thing that interesting, but that might be just because it's a bit overdone at this point.

    The dual battle system thing was creative. Only other instance that comes to mind is Suikoden and its war battles differing from random encounters.The whole troop recruitment thingy could have influenced other RPGs as well (Destiny of an Emperor which came out a couple of years later had 150 generals to recruit, and that might have influenced SMT & Pokemon's demon/monster recruitment system).

    What would SMT be able to explore from Islam that ihasn't already done so with other religions? The signs Islam has for the world's end could make a unique post-apocalyptic setting, but I don't see many ways it can be explored differently than Christianity in SMT 1&2.

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    Replies
    1. I haven't played any of the Ultima games yet, and I never did play FF1, so I'll take your word for it. Someone did once describe the gist of the FF1 time travel story to me...it sounded really, really close to being artistic and intelligent, but just far away enough to wind up just being, as you put it, nonsensical.

      Yeah, a well-created dual battle system really does tend to be interesting (as battle systems go, that is, which admittedly isn't much overall). TMoS keeps it simple but effective, as does Suikoden. Other games that have done the idea well include Bahamut Lagoon (tactical + standard), and Fallout 3 and New Vegas (partial standard + first person shooter), if you're interested.

      Islam and Christianity are not far off, true, just as Judaism and Christianity are not, all being cousins of the same religious family. Still, there's a lot of subtle but important differences in the Islamic lore and history, holy figures and texts of its own that could, I should think, provide more than enough basis for some great SMT content. Atlus has managed to examine Christianity more than once and in different lights in the SMT series, so I reckon it could do something grand with Islam regardless of its similarities.

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    2. Thats a bit of a very hot item to touch,look at the frech people who died for making use of the prophet of islam, no one wants to touch it out of fear of losing their lives

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