Emerald Dragon (Turbografx-CD) review
"Every time I play, I find something new to marvel at. When Atolshan stops calling the elder "Pops" and refers to him as White Dragon Elder, you know Atol still blames the elder for Tamryn's departure three years prior. Little comments like that add a level of characterization matching (if not topping) the likes of Lunar."
"Are you all right?"
How on earth could Tamryn be all right? She's trapped in a prison cell with a red-headed goofball she doesn't even recognize — a red-headed goofball who just tumbled head over heels down a blatantly obvious trap door, no less.
"I promised to protect you. I was afraid I'd broken that promise."
"Protect me...? Who are you?"
It wasn't the smoothest of reunions. Then again, Atolshan never was the smoothest of talkers. After all, he frightened Tamryn to tears when they first met!
Fifteen years ago...
A particularly violent storm off the coast of Dragulia forced a solitary ship ashore. Not in all of 2000 accursed years had a human boat been so much as sighted, let alone washed up on the beach. The only survivor was a three-year-old green-haired girl, helplessly clinging to a splintered piece of rigging with all the energy her little arms could muster. Big Red (so named because he's big and red) plucked the frightened child from the salty waters and planted her smack dab in the middle of a gawking crowd of dragons, traumatizing the poor girl for life.
Atolshan, being the super-inquisitive three-year-old dragon type that he is, pushed through the crowd, walked right up to the scared little girl, and shoved his pudgy devil-horned head right in her face.
Three-year-old girl starts to bawl.
"Don't be afraid. We're gentle dragons!"
Three-year-old girl bawls even harder.
Ten years ago...
Things got better. The girl, who didn't remember anything — not even her own name — grew up under the dragonkinds' care, playing and giggling and splashing in the sparkling morning waters with her best friend Atol. The white dragon elder (or "Pops" as Atolshan always called him) christened the girl "Tamryn", a name meaning "purity" in the ancient dragon tongue. Tamryn and Atol lived together, laughed together, ate together, and slept together.
Their bond was stronger than blood... or so Atolshan believed.
Three years ago...
The white dragon elder, feeling that Tamryn had matured enough to know the truth, took the young woman aside and explained the history behind their world.
Once upon a time, dragons and humans peacefully coexisted on the holy continent Ishban. They had lived together for as long as any could remember, but the tranquil times were soon to end. From somewhere in the world, a curse was cast upon all of dragonkind. None knew the source of The Curse or its reason for being; they only knew the consequences. To even step clawed foot in Ishban meant death, and not a quiet death at that. The Curse brought about a flesh-dripping, eyeball-popping disintegration. The strongest dragons barely escaped with their lives, abandoning their ancestral homes and fleeing to the furthest reaches of the globe. Exiled forever from Ishban, the survivors forged new lives in a new land.
This land was called Dragulia, home of the dragons.
To Tamryn, the story's moral was obvious. She was the outsider in another's home. Her birthplace, and any of her family that might remain, were in Ishban; only among humans could a human like herself truly know happiness. In one of the most moving parting speeches ever conceived, Tamryn expressed her deepest feelings: feelings of isolation and homesickness.
"If I could do such a thing, I'd stay here with you forever! With you, Atolshan... but I'm a human being. Every moment that I lived here, I knew this day was inevitable."
After a brief moment of disbelief, after vehemently blaming both Tamryn and the white dragon elder, Atol paused for a moment, reflecting on Tamryn's words in the orange glow of the setting sun. With sudden resolve, Atol snapped off his own horn, painfully wincing as Tamryn gasped and reached out — too late — to stop him.
"If there's ever a time when you need my help, hold this horn to your lips. Blow in it with all your might, and I'll hear it. No matter where you are, without fail, I'll rush to your aid! It's a promise, Tamryn."
Night has fallen upon the world. The wails of oppressed villagers and the screams of the dying surrounded Tamryn as soon as she set foot in the holy land of Ishban. A demonic army led by the traitorous human Ostracon — a silver-haired villain with the most intimidating glare this side of hell — wreaked havoc across the entire continent, opposed only by small pockets of resistance.
The land itself cried out in pain. Standing atop the Hill of Prayer, looking out upon the western mountain in the nostalgic orange glow of the setting sun, Tamryn lifted Atolshan's horn to her lips and blew with all her might.
As an epic anthem plays, two words sparkle across the screen: Emerald Dragon.
When it came out for the PC Engine CD, no one doubted that Emerald Dragon would be good. The MSX version was good. The X68000 version was good. The FM Towns version was extra good. Despite this well-documented goodness, no one — not even the game's ardent fanbase — was prepared for the impact NEC's port would have. From the PC Engine version stemmed art books, music CDs, a Super Famicom port, and even a twenty-episode radio drama.
No one expected this because the original game was merely good, but NEC bastardized the original and made it friggin' awesome. Two hours into the game (hours that pass like minutes), Atolshan's reunion with Tamryn hammers in one of the points that makes Emerald Dragon so much better than its peers and even its own original source material: strong storytelling.
In the PC Engine version, Atolshan doesn't wake up in his bed, he doesn't blindly follow the first girl he meets, and he doesn't go on a wild adventure just for the hell of it. Atolshan's journey stems from the urgent need to fulfill a solemn promise to protect the most important person in his life. If he doesn't go to Ishban NOW, the girl he loves will die. Using the power of the silver scale, a one-of-a-kind artifact that temporarily grants human form and negates the power of The Curse, Atolshan travels to Ishban only to discover that Tamryn has vanished while investigating the holy temple at the Hill of Prayer. To make matters worse, all of her companions lie at the bottom of the temple in a bloody heap.
You can no doubt imagine why, after seeing the broken bodies of Urwan's strongest men, Atolshan would be a little concerned for Tamryn's safety. Still, running down the temple hallway and falling through a gimmicked floor while the rugged boozin' knight Balsam yells "IT'S A TRAP, YOU IDIOT!" wasn't the brightest thing Atol could have done... but it's certainly dramatic.
Emerald Dragon wasn't always like that. In Glodia's original computer version, Atolshan heads to the town of Urwan, finds out where Tamryn's house is, walks in, and cheerfully announces his presence. The happy couple then shares a happy candelight dinner and sets off on a happy journey to recruit extra party members and fulfill Atolshan's quest to locate the source of The Curse.
Seriously. PC Engine: Atolshan discovers Tamryn has vanished and recruits help to rescue her from evil cultists, revealing his identity in a poignant and believably awkward moment of reunion. Computer: Atolshan walks into Tamryn's house, says "Hi! I'm Atolshan. I'm a human now", and eats dinner with her OVER FRIGGIN' CANDLELIGHT.
Not only does NEC's bastardized version feature plot twists that smash the original over its mighty knee, but it's got the best voice actors and actresses that money earned from sales of fifty versions of Bomberman could buy. The actor behind Atolshan played the uber-charismatic Duo Maxwell in Gundam Wing, Tamryn's actress voiced fan favorite Azalyn in Irresponsible Captain Tylor, and the man behind Hasram — womanizing (but engaged) prince of Elbad Kingdom — handled the part of knightly Daryuun in The Heroic Legend of Arislan.
The most notable voice actor plays one of the most notable characters. While Tamryn's initial plight makes for a great introduction, it's Atolshan's rivalry with the handsome but sadistic Ostracon — voiced by the legendary Shiozawa Kaneto (Fist of the North Star, Megazone 23) — that pulled me into the game. Atolshan and company chase Ostracon, a villain to rival the likes of Sephiroth, clear across the continent through forests, over mountains, and into stone-walled fortresses as he taunts them and leaves behind a trail of slaughter. With each stop, the heroes topple one of Ostracon's generals... but always fall one step short of the demon army's commander himself.
That alone would make for a cool game, but Emerald Dragon gives us more. Like the bus scene in Speed, the hunt for Ostracon is only one part of the epic. Tamryn's peril effectively kickstarts the game; Ostracon's presence draws us in; discovering the truth behind The Curse keeps us guessing; unraveling Tamryn's past and conquering the believable dark powers at the root of the world make the game legendary. Imagine smashing Ys 1, 2, and 4 together on a single disc — that's the scope of Emerald Dragon.
The world map itself adds an additional, subtle sense of scope. In most RPGs, the map consists of an overworld dotted with town icons; step into a town and the screen fades out, pulling the player into a safe haven from the harsh badlands. Even though towns in most RPGs are technically supposed to be in peril, the dichotomy between world map and town map weaves a subconscious safety net. Emerald Dragon is different, and not just because of its stylish Byzantine architecture. The towns are themselves part of the overworld; there is no fade-in or fade-out and monsters lurk just a few steps outside the city walls. Although most villages are safe from bandits, giant scorpions, or DANCING SUPER EXPLOSIVE BOMB MEN, the unified world map removes the subconscious safety net and reminds players that danger lurks just inches away.
Not that I mind danger when battles are this entertaining. Emerald Dragon's battle system demonstrates a unique blend between Shining Force, Ys, and Tales of Phantasia. Like Shining Force, each character moves on a grid per their allotted movement points and can then attack or use an item. Like Ys, attacks are performed by bumping into enemies. And like Tales of Phantasia, the player can only directly control the main hero Atolshan. The upside is that this speeds up battles and guarantees that you always view Atol as the most important character. The downside is that some people want to control everyone; fortunately, the game provides a "command" system by which you can give limited orders to everyone else in your party.
The other downside is that the battle music, although excellent, plays off the PC Engine's soundchip instead of being spooled directly off the CD. This was probably done to speed up loading times, which are admittedly very short. The complex dungeons (featuring auto-mapping), which range from dark dripping caverns lined with jagged rocks and dotted with chasms to regal palaces forged from iron and stone, are not so short, and neither are the intricate redbook audio tracks that play throughout. My favorite dungeon music starts with ominous beats, building towards an inevitably and predictably resounding climax, before breaking apart into an optimistic surge of beautiful ringing bells. It's marvelous, as is all of the music, most of which was composed by Tenpei Sato, who also composed music for Valis 2 and Phantom Brave.
Every time I play, I find something new to marvel at. When Atolshan stops calling the elder "Pops" and refers to him as White Dragon Elder, you know Atol still blames the elder for Tamryn's departure three years prior. Little comments like that add a level of characterization matching (if not topping) the likes of Lunar. When operating under computer control, the prince Hasram fights somewhat intelligently, attacking the weakest opponent, but the drunkard Balsam charges blindly into battle. When tears well up in Tamryn's eyes during gorgeously animated cinematic sequences, the mixture of vocal performance and heart-wrenching music forces me to care. Getting me to care about an old RPG when I've already played a hundred of them isn't an easy thing to do, but Emerald Dragon accomplishes this difficult task by telling one of the greatest stories ever told.
Someday, when I'm older, I'll offer my children a bedtime story. Earnest will ask for a gory adventure, Annet will ask for a romantic fairy tale. I'll smile obligingly and take a single book in hand. Any book would do — Dick and Jane, Great Expectations, or some trashy romance novel. Any book. Then, completely ignoring the actual words written on the pages, I'll tell the story of drunken wizard Bagin, a lewd womanizer despised by the villagers he protects, whose bravery betrayed his noble heart. I'll recount the tale of Ostracon's turncoat nature and the heroes' perilous fight against a demonic army. And I'll tell the story of Atolshan and Tamryn, the dragon who knows what he wants and the girl searching for her own identity, two people who were destined by birth to be apart but loved each other through all the death and misery surrounding them.
When Atolshan finally remembers to reveal his identity in that dark prison cell and Tamryn's mature voice turns girlishly giddy with unrestrained excitement, when she leaps forward and embraces the blushing warrior... that's when you know it's no mistake. The bond between Atolshan and Tamryn really is stronger than blood. That's what makes Emerald Dragon so special.
Staff review by Zigfried (December 16, 2004)
Zigfried likes writing about whales and angry seamen, and often does so at the local pub.
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