"As a kid I liked Bard's Tale 2(BT2) and dreamed of getting an NES. But I never imagined someone would put the two together. So imagine my surprise twenty years after playing the game that, indeed, someone else had had the same idea I did! They'd had to shrink the dungeons down, and the riddles had to go, but what was left was a game that was pretty fun both before and after I knew what those weird hiragana and katakana spell glyphs meant. Though it was probably a bit easy after someone translate..."
As a kid I liked Bard's Tale 2(BT2) and dreamed of getting an NES. But I never imagined someone would put the two together. So imagine my surprise twenty years after playing the game that, indeed, someone else had had the same idea I did! They'd had to shrink the dungeons down, and the riddles had to go, but what was left was a game that was pretty fun both before and after I knew what those weird hiragana and katakana spell glyphs meant. Though it was probably a bit easy after someone translated them for me.
And a good deal was lost in translation both in programming languages and game platforms. BT2 on the NES saves the Apple's insidious one-way doors, hit-point traps, spinners, "magic mouth" riddles, darkness zones and such for what were the even more insidious "death snares." Which makes for a moderately challenging formula: go into a dungeon, club the bad guy, tackle a mapping puzzle behind him, find a gem, and get out. Then you move on to look for the next town with the next dungeon. Sometimes you have to talk to someone on the way, to trigger another event somewhere else.
With this slight dumbing-down, though, the NES version offers convenience, too. Your bard's protective songs in particular are just awesome. You can sing one song to halve the encounter ratio, sing another during combat to pump up damage, then sing another one to kick you to the dungeon entrance. This may seem like a free cheat, but the game is balanced well enough to suck you in and force you to need it. It's not hard to juggle the bard's songs--it's in your status, unlike on the Apple, and in fact everyone's attack and defense are listed in their status. This ruins some of the magic of "Ooh! Sword of Zar sounds spiffy, but what's it do?" but it allows you to decide what is actually useful. As RPGs developed, I guess you couldn't get away with seeming big and bad, or just a few cool names.
But then the other extreme is how the dungeons shrunk a good deal. You start out in Tangramayne, with a fearsome 12-by-12 dungeon below. It's a good place to build your party up for a bit. You find an NPC to help your party across a gap(the dungeon's so small, you can't help it,) beat the big enemy--and then you are allowed out to the Wilderness, guessing which town to visit next.
From there you buy the new stuff in the armory, test out new spells, thrash the enemy below the dungeon, and come back up. Sometimes you have to go to the wilderness and locate a new dungeon. Every town has a training hall, healing, and a bar, with tips and with drinks to refill your bard's songs. So unless you really mess up, you can bash around in a dungeon and return. The NES also doesn't have monsters with nasty things like level drains.
This makes sense for general improvement(anyone who played BT2 on the Apple seems to remember the Dream Mage trick--3 fights, 1 level, disbelieve their illusions) and presents a weird twist later when your magic users temporarily get more hit points than your fighters. They go to a new class to learn different spells, then drop to level one. The first fight gets them several levels. With hit points varying as the square of the level and experience as the cube, the game has a lot of inflection points where potentially difficult fights go from too easy to too tough.
So while it's hard to judge when you are ready to tackle monster X besides if you experiment, game isn't terribly tricky. Every dungeon seems to have a sucker-monster you can beat up, and with special items, the game takes turns empowering various classes at certain points in the game. There are only a few good spells you can dump on enemies--get rid of undeads, blast a whole party, etc. Mix them with bard songs, and otherwise impossible enemies wilt. Cranking through this list of spells gets you through the first few dungeons fairly easily, especially if you find the powerful special items like the Sword of Zar. If you don't have the spells or special items, you are at risk of doing just one point of damage. With them, you blow the enemies away.
The plug-and-chug works well, until it comes time to make one of your characters the Destiny Knight with the gems you found in each dungeon. Then you visit the temple and make an entirely bad-ass new character, and the game starts to get interesting. You have an option of stopping off in Colosse, a city which, unlike the others, is fraught with monsters and has no dungeons. If you win a fight there, that is one less enemy to face in the final confrontation. But if not, you can go to the Destiny Stone, which has a few wonderful teleportal-based mapping puzzles(why didn't they make more of these?) before you meet the final enemy, and then the whole landscape really goes to smash.
If you escape the suddenly nasty monsters in the wilderness and talk to the king, you're trapped in Tangramayne, and you can't rest, and you need to face the final enemy. This fight is dragged out, as your mages, who long since got into 4-digit spell points, have to mix up the spells they've collected. It's a bit better than casting ZZGO at Lagoth Zanta in the Apple version and watching everyone eventually crumble. It's all very dramatic, and I wish I could understand the Japanese for the end and beginning text. But the fight introduces a wrinkle of preventing an enemy from casting spell X, and once you've figured it out you'll wish more of the game had those puzzles.
It's all a jolly good time whether you played the Apple version or not, and Apple fans will appreciate some of their favorite enemies making a return(Dargoth, Fanskar--who's still a wimp--Lord Graphnar, Oscon, and others.) The enemies, while not being animated or having terribly crazy names, are beautifully done and often thematically arranged. You'll find a weird eyeball in one dungeon, and another level has several fish. The backgrounds change as you move along, and the bard songs make a welcome background noise. There's no annoying disk loading time before each fight, either.
BT2 follows in Wizardry's steps when it comes to porting to the NES, but it shuffles a lot of maps around. The monsters are made easier--better than the impossible-to-start alternative. Still, there's no great story line, party improvement is too jerky, and the mapping is on occasion too trivial. There wasn't space for it. The programmers did well enough to give interesting maps and post-boss fight puzzles, and they judged character improvement pretty well. It's smooth enough that I want to unwrap that final mystery--what WERE the random fat guys saying, the ones who yelled at me when I barged in on their town residences? That is not critical to the game. You just have to know about the items. And you can enjoy how mazes and monster bashing can be a universal language, much as I did. So I recommend Bard's Tale 2, not just for what it is but for the experience of poking through an untranslated game to capture enough of the fundamentals of what make RPGs fun.
Community review by aschultz (April 26, 2009)
Andrew Schultz used to write a lot of reviews and game guides but made the transition to writing games a while back. He still comes back, wiser and more forgiving of design errors, to write about games he loved, or appreciates more, now.
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