Emerald Dragon (SNES) review
"Unfortunately for Atrushan, there is a bit of a curse on the land, making it very deadly for dragons to venture there (the reason they're confined to their own isolated realm). However, it doesn't take him long (a tiny tutorial dungeon) to gain a relic that transforms him into a human, allowing him to seek out Tamryn and teach the game's assorted bad guys that when a dragon's pledged to protect a girl, it doesn't pay to be attempting a hostile takeover of the land she's calling home."
Due to a handful of inexplicable alterations from the original product, the Super Famicom port of Emerald Dragon came off as a good game, but one that could have been much better. Around when I started playing, I was directed to a fan site dedicated to it. Upon clicking the link to the "ports" screen, I saw a laundry list of changes made that were SFC-specific. While a number of them barely registered on my radar screen, there were a handful that popped into my mind over and over again as, while playing, I regularly found myself thinking, "Man, this game's good.....but is it supposed to be THIS easy?"
Most of the game's goodness comes from having a more sophisticated and heartfelt plot than the average old-school RPG. Due to the technological limitations placed on games of that time, it was a difficult task to actually create characters whom players could care about. While Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals succeeded in this due to the well-crafted romance between Maxim and Selan, most retro RPGs aren't renown for possessing touching or thrilling character-driven plot points. Emerald Dragon, though, deserves accolades for crafting a story that, while a bit paint-by-numbers at points, stands out as being truly touching.
Upon the coast of a realm solely populated by dragons, a human ship wrecks, leaving only one survivor, a girl named Tamryn. The young dragon Atrushan, who is of comparable age, and her become close friends. So close that when the teenaged Tamryn must leave to go back to the human realm, Atrushan gives her one of his horns, telling her that if she EVER needs him, to just blow the horn and he'll come to her aid. So, of course, a demon king invades and is easily winning thanks to the help his top general, the human traitor Ostracon. That silver-haired villain and his subordinates have taken over most of the game's world, with only a few pockets of resistance still able to oppose him. Yep, if this isn't a reason for Tamryn to summon her dragon pal, I don't know what is.
Unfortunately for Atrushan, there is a bit of a curse on the land, making it very deadly for dragons to venture there (the reason they're confined to their own isolated realm). However, it doesn't take him long (a tiny tutorial dungeon) to gain a relic that transforms him into a human, allowing him to seek out Tamryn and teach the game's assorted bad guys that when a dragon's pledged to protect a girl, it doesn't pay to be attempting a hostile takeover of the land she's calling home.
What makes all of this work as something more than the typical generic "guy saves girl and crushes the forces of evil" template is the way the characters are written. The bond between Atrushan and Tamryn is portrayed as something special, so when the dragon-in-human-form emphatically says he'll always protect her, no matter the cost to him, it comes off as a heartfelt statement -- not empty bravado. A secondary romance between the light-hearted Prince Hathram and his devoted retainer, Farna, also has its standout moments. While their interactions are more-or-less played for comic relief early in the game -- they progress to the point where their bond has become so strong that when an event appears to sever it, it has a devastating emotional impact on one of them, causing that person to take an extended hiatus from your party.
And even less important characters have standout moments that added to my enjoyment. Look at Elm, one of Ostracon's three subordinates. This dark wizard doesn't appear until your party has cornered and wounded Ostracon. Before you can finish him off, Elm leaps into the fray, enraged that you would DARE assault his master and essentially sacrifices himself so your quarry can escape to fight another day. Maybe it's expected that a game's heroes share a strong enough bond that one would unhesitatingly take a proverbial bullet for another -- but for a minor villain do so solely out of loyalty to his superior was an unexpected, if welcome, development. Even when Elm is temporarily brought back from the dead to assist Ostracon in his climactic confrontation with you, it's obvious the cold touch of the grave hasn't changed his feelings, as he simply states that even as a zombie, he still exists to serve his commander.
Mentioning that two-part battle with Ostracon reminds me of the game's biggest problem -- its lack of difficulty. That was the only fight where I struggled to earn victory. Every other confrontation in the game was simple to win, as long as I made intelligent decisions. Battles are done from an overhead perspective. You control Atrushan and use your turn to move him around the screen and attack enemies. Everyone else is COMPLETELY controlled by the computer (you can't even set their tactics). This makes battles go by quickly (and efficiently thanks to some quality computer AI for your allies), as you control Atrushan and then watch everything unfold until his next turn. However, due to changes made for the Super Famicom version, it becomes just too easy to bully through these fights.
The amount of hit points heroes have range into the thousands -- a far cry from the scant hundreds they possessed in other versions. Unfortunately, the programmers didn't properly scale this change to many bosses. As a result, many of the game's toughest encounters seem to be little more than regular enemies that pack more of a punch. Even a number of the tougher bosses in the game aren't much (if any) more challenging than a random encounter with, say, six or seven monsters just because they don't have the hit points to endure more than a couple turns of an all-out assault from your party.
Also, Atrushan gains the ability to gain a handful of "dragon attack" powers in the SFC version. At the cost of a percentage of his hit points (remember, this world is deadly for dragons), he'll be able to unleash a powerful attack that affects all enemies. Most bosses have a number of weaker enemies assisting them. One good dragon attack can greatly wound, if not eliminate, that back-up, making it much easier for your party members to finish off the main adversary. While it is nice for the one character you control to be able to do more than simply run up to enemies and hit them, these dragon powers can really make things easy.
But if Emerald Dragon still isn't easy enough, there's a little flaw in the programming involving the use of items. Characters have a movement meter. Running around the combat screen slowly drains it, while performing an action such as attacking takes a larger chunk. However, the use of items doesn't count as an action and, therefore, doesn't drain your movement meter. And, unlike the other versions, you can hold an unlimited supply of goods here, allowing you to spam items non-stop if you feel the need. That's actually how I beat Ostracon. I'd repeatedly made it to the second part of the battle with him, but was depleted of health entering it and, as a result, quickly overpowered by his brutal magical attacks. Then, I realized I had unlimited item usage per turn, so I healed everyone and used all my Crash Stones (500 damage points per enemy). When done, all of the minor enemies were long dead and Ostracon was in critical condition. With one little loophole, the game's toughest foe had been reduced to a pushover.
Still, getting through Emerald Dragon, easy as it may have been, was a fun little romp highlighted by some of the more memorable characters I've seen on a 16-bit game. While their game might be best described as decent, if forgettable, Atrushan, Tamryn and company do more than their part to make getting through it as enjoyable as possible.
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (January 30, 2009)
Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.
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