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Gemfire (NES) artwork

Gemfire (NES) review

"In any other game, sitting around waiting for a chance to cultivate your fields might not seem all that interesting. But in Gemfire, it can quickly become an obsession. Then you realize you were a moron to plant so much corn because it really didn't do you all that much good after your neighbor stomped all over your farmers with his massive army."

A long time ago, some crown had these six magical jewels with earth-shaking power, and it was split apart or something, and the jewels went to six different ruling families, who all decided they didn't much care for one another. They all lived in the magical kingdom of Ishmeriamacallit, and so tensions naturally flared over the years, on into the present.

This is the plot behind Gemfire, one of the later 'gems' (sorry, couldn't resist) released for the Nintendo Entertainment System, and the junior version of the Super Nintendo title of the same name. It's a rousing romp through 8-bit glory and micro-management tedium, and it ends up being a really great experience and one you definitely want to have a go at. Missing out on this title would be like passing up an adolescent chance to pore through the pages of a dirty men's magazine you found situated conveniently in an old men's outhouse you know your mother will never visit. Let me tell you why.

What, you're still reading? Good on you! The first reason Gemfire is such a spectacular experience most definitely is not its graphics. While they're certainly not mother-dipped-your-head-in-burning-lava-when-you-were-a-baby bad, they also have been known to leave a select portion of America's population rather unimpressed. The best way to get an idea for what they look like is to imagine Dragon Warrior without the personality. Hills look like hills, sure, and rocks like rocks. Walls look like, well...walls. In fact, everything looks just about like everything should except for the horse at the end, which looks like a galloping puma that got a little too friendly with a porcupine. Battlefields are one screen in size, and tile-based.

Then there are the battle graphics. These consist of things nodding toward each other and at times pretending they're about to look menacing. If you've ever seen some stupid old home video of yourself in the bathtub, bumping a toy boat against another toy boat or some such nonsense, translate that to 8-bit glory and you've got Gemfire's battles. The only exceptions are the monsters and the wizards. These guys (and ladies) have some fairly cool attacks. Each of the six wizards (associated with one stone from that crown I mentioned back at the start of the review) has his or her own unique attack, such as a bolt of lightning that sweeps over the sprites that comprise your enemy's army, or a poisonous vapor. There are also monsters such as a dragon (you'll learn to hate him) and bugbears (why those guys made it into this game is beyond me; perhaps the developers got drunk).

There's more to the game than battles, though, and it's here that the graphics are much more satisfactory. See, the world of Ishmeria is made up of 30 conveniently-located territories. They are laid out in such a fashion that any one territory usually has two bordering it, or... (dramatic pause) ...even more! These are drawn in a clear manner so that you never have to squint at the screen to guess if the guy on space 11 can kick your ass if he decides to attack.

On each territory is a flag which gives you an idea of which household is large and in charge in that area. For the most part, once you've progressed a decent way into the game, there's you, your main opponent, and everybody else. Since a single family from the 'everybody else' crown can make an alliance with you if so inclined, it's good that such a simple visual system is happening here. Looking at the map, you can always tell at a glance what's happening where. More details are available in a slightly less appealing chart if you choose to view it. There are also the natural hazards that sweep across the map from time to time, things like raging wildfires (little orange and yellow blobs), the plague (looks like the Grim Reaper), and storms of one sort or another.

The last note I should make on the visual department is a comment on the characters. They are all indicated by family portraits. These are drawn quite well for the aging NES system, and yet again they keep things nice and simple. It's fun to see the same guy pop up again after you have mercy on him and release him after demolishing his province.

Now that visuals are out of the way, we can finally move onto the subject of sound. Here, the game yet again proves that the good people at Koei know what they're doing. While I can certainly admit that the sound isn't the sort that you'll want to listen to for the full 12 hours this game could well end up lasting you on a single play through, it at least has good instrumental variety. Unfortunately, one of the instruments that crops up sounds suspiciously similar to the particularly loud one from the opening theme to Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, except it's not half as easy on the ears. Yes, that bad. Otherwise, the variety and number of instruments will keep the musician in you cheering.

Okay, so the graphics do their job and the music isn't hideous. What about that one thing some people like to harp on, the gameplay? Good news. It's the best aspect of all!

The reason for this is that Koei manages to make micro-management cool. In any other game, sitting around waiting for a chance to cultivate your fields might not seem all that interesting. But in Gemfire, it can quickly become an obsession. Then you realize you were a moron to plant so much corn because it really didn't do you all that much good after your neighbor stomped all over your farmers with his massive army. The key here is balance, and it's a delicate one you'll be maintaining if you want to get far toward the dream we all share: domination of Ishmeria.

Each 'month' in the game consists of several turns you can use to plan your strategy. You get to control whatever territories are under your banner, so early on there won't be a lot of activity except a view of your main foe gradually taking over the land that once belonged to your neighbors. Then you get a chance to plow your fields, or build better walls, or to sabotage your unsuspecting 'ally,' or whatever floats your boat. Since you can only do most actions with the people of a neighboring territory, a lot of turns are used moving troops from point 'A' to point 'B' and then rubbing your hands together with glee as you wait for the next round of turns so you can show province 3 who's boss.

Eventually, someone bordering one of your territories will get cocky and decide to attack. This is usually bad news. If you're not on the offensive, it's probably because you screwed up and didn't get enough soldiers to the right place in time. And so the battle begins, with the good guys (you) on one side and the bad guys (the computer or your misguided friend you've talked into playing a round; this is a two-player game if you so desire) on the other.

When the battle begins, the first thing you'll be looking to is the number of each type of soldier you have available. There are archers, knights, horsemen, archers (I mentioned them twice, I know, but they're very important), any monster you might have picked up along the way, and various others. The map is your grid, your enemy's flag your destination. A battle is won either by occupying the enemy's base or by wiping the floor with each of his units. The former is always preferred, the latter often a necessity.

Once you've determined who has the physical advantage, if anyone, it's time to look at your supplies. If you only brought enough food for one day's campaign, well, you're a dufus. Most battles will last 3 or 4 days, which translates to about 15 rounds of battle. In those turns, you can move as many as 3 spaces (for the more agile characters, 2 for the others). Then you can perform an action. Actions are limited to building or breaking fences, or attacking your opponents. The side from which you attack is of course monumentally important, and there are bound to be boulders and fences in the way, so it's possible to use a lot more strategy than you might expect of one screen.

When a battle ends, there is always a victor, never a tie. If you were attacking, you either advance to the next province or you don't, simple as that. Advancing isn't always good, either. If you used up all your supplies to fight your way to that next territory and suddenly you're bordered by three other provinces full of soldiers armed to the teeth, prepare to turn tail and run. It's this sort of dynamic that makes Gemfire so addictive, so rewarding. Perhaps the only flaw in gameplay is that the game is so easy. Your opponents will often leave one of your weak territories unmolested for two or three turns before giving in and mopping the floor with you, which means you have plenty of time to make daring moves and then bulk up in subsequent turns.

I could go on, of course, but I'd be delving into areas that don't really matter. Part of the joy of Gemfire is discovering everything for yourself. Another part of the joy is the fact that if you play all the campaigns, you might well get some 50 hours out of the game. That's if micro management and battlefield tactics are your thing. The other side of the coin is that if such things bore you, there's absolutely no reason to play this game. The princess you see at the end is kind of attractive, but that's what the girls of Dead or Alive are for, right?

Still, this is one title I don't hesitate to recommend. It's not easy to find, certainly, but it's one worth finding.

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Staff review by Jason Venter (August 17, 2003)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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