Thursday, August 8, 2013

Hey Lunar Knights, have you played Beyond Oasis? I think you have.

at 7:36 PM
Western or Japanese, it's hard to draw a straight line connecting today's big-budget action-RPGs to the middle-aged '90s classics of yesteryear. Western games like SkyrimDragon Age, and The Witcher 2 reach wayyyyy back to the well of DnD role-playing, really just speeding and spicing up the combat to excuse its presence in the modern era. Simultaneously, the Japanese industry has shown preference for bringing RPG mechanics to other genres like combat-action and survival horror, creating a paradigm "lite" on the RPG, exemplified by games like Monster Hunter, Dragon's Dogma, and Dark Souls. Wherever you is, the genre has become a Frankenstein's monster, drawn from a heterogeneous mix of popular trends and ancient techniques rather than evolved naturally from a common ancestor.

So whatever happened to the '90s-style action-adventure-RPG - what many would call the most beloved genre of the 16-bit era? Where are the successors to treasures like Secret of Mana, Illusion of Gaia, Crystalis, and Ys Book I & II? Well, the most immediate answer is that 3D happened. And with 3D came a re-evaluation of the entire medium, a new stepping stone so significant that it essentially classifies as reincarnation. The later, more sophisticated 2D games were put aside, because it was no longer important to try to achieve lofty goals in 2D - we had 3D for that. It was back to the drawing board, time to reconceptualize. Kinda like putting aside the crayons and moving on to acrylic. And that's why gaming's evolution as an artistic medium looks something like this:
This is one of the very few times I've made something so pointless and stupid that even I hesitate to put it here
So the straight line from 1985 to 2013 is dotted even in the best of cases, because there's a huge disconnect around 1995 when everything was just rethought altogether.

But I am WAY off topic here. The point is that once in a while, there is a pretty comprehensible direct lineage. One particular example is what are sometimes referred to today as hack-'n-slash RPGs (though that's a somewhat broad term). Specifically games like Shining Soul, Ys: Oath in Felghana, Contact, and Bastion. They're very closely related to 3D combat action-adventures (particularly the adventurier ones like Darksiders), but, while those games have developed from the influence of actioners like Devil May Cry, adventures like Twilight Princess, and roguelikelikes like Diablo 2, these are simply descended directly from '90s action RPGs like Seiken Densetsu 3 and Soul Blazer. Case in point: Konami's 2007 DS hack-'n-slash Lunar Knights is a carbon copy of Ancient's 1994 Genesis adventure Beyond Oasis.

Ironically, I played Lunar Knights four years before I touched Beyond Oasis, the latter sending chills down my spine. Before I get into a list of the two games' similarities, permit me a disclaimer. This isn't an attack on Lunar Knights. First of all, the two games are over a decade removed and radically different aesthetically. Moreover, Beyond Oasis is a commendable design to copy. It's a long defunct property, a fun game, and a style we don't see enough; I'd be a total hypocrite to complain. Some of the items on this list are going to seem comically insignificant - for instance, tons of games use food for healing items. But when all the minor elements are the same, the coincidence becomes a bit, eh, noticeable. I also realize that Knights is the fourth game in the Boktai series, but since the original Boktai came out many years after Oasis, that's really a moose's point. 

The biggest parallel between the games is the simplest to express - they're both very similarly structured hack-'n-slash action-RPGs that have very few puzzles, very little character building, a combination of swords and ranged weaponry, huge bosses, and focus almost entirely on combat. They're by design very similar games, the same way that Phantasy Star IV is similar to Final Fantasy V or Neutopia is similar to The Legend of Zelda. But, by this same token, we could throw into the pot a lot of those other hack-'n-slashes I mentioned, like Bastion or Shining Soul. Lunar Knights goes a step further, and it's really the little things that sets it apart, or should I say... sets it together?!

In both Lunar Knights and Beyond Oasis:
1.) At the end of each (primary) dungeon, you collect an elemental sprite/djinn. The magic system is composed of summoning one of these lil' dudes to float over your shoulder and fire off elemental attacks.
- The one-elemental-per-dungeon thing isn't so crazy, it's done everywhere from Secret of Mana to Tales of Symphonia. It's just that they function identically in these games, as over-the-shoulder options.

2.) Magical energy is recharged any time you're outside and not using magic.
-Really, two games that take into account when you're in- or outdoors? That's pretty rare. The whole premise of Boktai was that the sun recharges your magic (as it does in Lunar Knights... and apparently, Beyond Oasis).

3.) Enemies erupt from the ground
-This is really just an aesthetic thing, but outside of the Ghouls and Ghosts series, how common is this?

4.) Palette swaps of enemies (particularly slimes) represent different elemental affinities
Palette-swapping isn't all that rare, nor is correlating color with elemental attributes like fire and ice, but the elemental-themed similarities are starting to add up.

5.) A pretty random assortment of food is used for healing/magic restoration.
-Both games use apples, oranges, cheese, fish, and roasts for healing, which when combined with...

6.) The inventory is a a 4x4 grid of thumbnails
-...makes for very similar looking menus. Displaying tiny thumbnail images instead of item names isn't that uncommon (Secret of Mana does it too), but it's hardly the standard. And since the items are so similar, every time you go into your inventory you feel like you're looking at the same game.

7.) There are (almost) always three meters displayed on screen: health, magic, and enemy health. They're even in the same spots (though horizontal in Knights and vertical in Oasis check out the screen below).
-Probably the most minor of the commonalities, it still caught my eye when looking at screenshots.

8.) The protagonist grabs his wrist to summon magical powers
-This one is definitely a stretch, but whatever, we've got seven already. The "Golden Armlet" features heavily into the plot of Beyond Oasis and is used to shoot a ball of light which summons magic spirits. Though Lunar Knights doesn't have any magical wristbands, the characters still grab their wrist to summon light into their hands. But the wrist-grabbing gesture has been a part of Japanese culture since basically forever (maybe Ultraman does it or something? I highly doubt it comes from Mega Man or Power Rangers, but is in both), so this really doesn't count.


Whether any of these details were actually copied from Beyond Oasis, whether the designers were unconsciously inspired, or whether it is really pure coincidence, the fact is that the games play extremely similarly anyway. If Beyond Oasis wasn't the first full-blown hack-'n-slash, it was at least one of the first. So it's all just kinda... humorously eyebrow-raising. The takeaway should be that anyone who likes one of these two games and hasn't played the other owes it to themselves to remedy that. Lunar Knights is probably like $5 on Amazon and Beyond Oasis is on Wii Virtual Console, or, better yet, that fantastic bargain of an anthology: Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection.

As for traditional 2D action-RPGs, looks like they're still alive in some form. Of course, Oasis was the most straight-forward, combat-oriented '90s ARPG I've ever played, so the fact that it's left some legacy isn't exactly evidence that we're swimming amid new Terras Nigma.

As for Beyond Oasis being the missing link (to the past) of combat action between Legendary Axe and Devil May Cry, well... that's a different talk for another day.

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