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Super Black Onyx (NES) artwork

Super Black Onyx (NES) review

"Powerful, mysterious, doing-not-saying characters are a cliche in computer RPG's, but games like that are sadly rare. Super Black Onyx (SBO) is such a game. Released in Japan but using English characters, SBO relies largely on the graphic talents of Roger Dean, who designed many of Yes's and Asia's album covers, to cut through RPG red tape people take for granted. The story, you can guess from the title: there's an Onyx to find. It's up a boggle-box of a sixty-level first-person maze. But don't ..."

Powerful, mysterious, doing-not-saying characters are a cliche in computer RPG's, but games like that are sadly rare. Super Black Onyx (SBO) is such a game. Released in Japan but using English characters, SBO relies largely on the graphic talents of Roger Dean, who designed many of Yes's and Asia's album covers, to cut through RPG red tape people take for granted. The story, you can guess from the title: there's an Onyx to find. It's up a boggle-box of a sixty-level first-person maze. But don't worry, few stairs lead to dead ends, and besides SBO gives you a beautiful seascape before you go at things.

Where the starting town level hands you the bulk of the game's text. Stat sheets of candidate companions show more text than the rest of the game: character class, items, and attributes. Robes or armor fixes your basic class: monk, mage or hero. Heroes get armor and weapons, monks ikons, and mages gems. The hero items get more ornate as the game goes on, from twiggy maces to mondo swords and axes, and from armor that barely covers the wearer's vitals to a quasi-religious get-up which gains purple stripes when you cast a protection spell on it. Shops give a picture of an item and "XX GP."

It's very basic, but customizable. Switching armor or robes changes base class, and your characters get different types of experience based on their attack, so if there's a low-level mage spell you covet, everyone can have it. Later, when you have more gold than you need, you can even buy letters to change their names or their hairstyles. Give Joan an "H" and sideburns, or Tatyana a bald spot! Splurge on X's Z's to make your character's assigned name cooler! Why not? You can't take the gold WITH you.

And on your deathbed you won't wish you'd browsed more combat popups. SBO knows that, too. You start with three icons: the peace sign to recruit companions, standing upright to intimidate weaker monsters, or a flee icon showing a poor soul running away and tripping if he fails. Then, twiddle items as you please, to prepare for the guided-snowball fight with your guys on the left edge and the enemies on the right. A character's item will fly to the right, and you can swerve it up or down to hit an enemy. Then, by pressing A at the right time, you can get multiple hits if your strength is good enough, even moving to another monster between attacks. No pop-up menus with damage, just bars that express your relative life, strength (damage) and dexterity (number of attacks) remaining. Different sounds mean you missed, killed the enemy, or did/didn't do damage. Learning them allows you to get in another attack if your dexterity's good enough. Guarding, a throwaway option in other RPG's, also adds to combat here; it restores strength and dexterity. Combat only shows numbers if you specifically ask, but you learn to judge which items work best, when. For instance, a mace may take out three enemy spellcasters, who are quite good at targeting yours, but you may need a war axe to dent a big fighter's armor. Gems and ikons' differences are more qualitative, but that creates a different sort of puzzle.

Beyond this you have other dilemmas that make SBO a straight-up mapping challenge. In town, you can kill prospective companions for easy gold, but that loses karma, which you need later. Then in the City of Gold, near the end, more possible allies appear, who give more gold, but they can kill your leader with one blow, and karma matters more up there. When to cash in on experience bonuses is also important. Finding certain landmarks gets you 50 points in each class, up to 95 of the 96 needed for the next level. So planning when to visit them is important. The endearingly bizarre sabermetrics make fights on most any floor worth a point later in the game, but this uncovers a side puzzle of early security versus a quick leap forward in the endgame. Level-grinding was never a serious option, as it seemed to undo SBO's innovative simplifications.

So about that maze. How to make it slick, yet big enough to be interesting? Behold, onyx walls! Touch one, and you're sent to the last wall you touched. In an emergency, use a topaz to go to the previous wall, though you can't flip back. Fountains between onyx walls restore strength and dexterity and give healing potions. Between these, you can stab usefully at your next leap forward without the usual backtracking, busy work or worry that you're stuck. Also, SBO's branches are generally relevant. There's a temple off to the side of the town, a dungeon and water below, and the tower has three main sidetracks, for a special sword, ikon or gem. The nightmare mapping waits ‘til the end, where it belongs. Just beyond the ingenious quasi-express elevator careful mappers may already have guessed the existence of.

In the meantime, each stair you find may mean a new area. No two look or sound too familiar. The music changes speed and key and even looping time, dropping to near quiet in the ice caverns and outdoors and switching to a fanfare in the City of Gold. Walls cover every basic color successfully and animate, too. A hooded face pops up behind a loose brick in the downstairs dungeon, and gargoylish ones pop out from the bricks in a later level. The Onyx area has a gold/black morphing motif. The monsters become progressively more creative as you push forward, as a tacit reward for doing well. You start against kobolds, dwarves, skeletons and such, before move to skorses(skeleton horses) and then wolks, takoids and grells. As enemies' names grow in originality, they become wilder hybrids of staple RPG monsters. Some seem drowning, some horrified. Some grimace throwing their weapons at you. Later, the zorks, hufters and grauls get so big, only three can be on the screen at once. But the small icons in the lower right corner may be scarier. These backbenchers can mop up when your party's tired. You may even stumble on an experience landmark I mentioned above, which gives a beautiful sight and experience. Smiling tropical fish blocks you from deep water until you gain a certain spell, and a blocked window view in the fire tower shows you're getting there.

Once SBO establishes near-perfection, though, it lets you down slightly. After the trek up the fire tower to the City of Gold, random fights deep underwater start dropping crazy items you'll never use for your other classes, and scrolling through an item list to prepare for combat becomes awkward. Then it's a bit too easy to flee the nearly impossible monsters outdoors and in the Black Onyx maze. But the real problem is when you find the onyx and the game just sits there. Unlike combat's trial and error, you don't get enough feedback, though this is probably still just a groaner you'll sleep on and solve.

SBO did brilliantly keeping instruction-manual material off the cartridge to make room for graphics and action. It's a summer-camp sort of game where you're lost at first and you just want to leave, but maybe you'll be big enough to enjoy it later. Then you try something, it works, and you wonder why more games didn't think of it earlier. Few games combine complexity and ease of play so effortlessly, and if someone just made another game with the same engine and a different map, I'd gladly pretend it was totally original.

SBO thrashes the more popular Wizardry on several fronts: it's bigger, has cooler backgrounds, monsters and items, and has slick yet complex combat. It does not waste your time rehashing conventions, so it easily makes the respectable Deep Dungeon series seem formulaic. Anything SBO doesn't tell, you can find out pretty quickly, and learning the specifics is part of the challenge. So while it stumbles near the top of the tower, SBO's consistent rejection of overworn RPG blather for imagination, challenge and intuitive controls makes it a rousing success.

aschultz's avatar
Community review by aschultz (June 12, 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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zippdementia posted August 01, 2009:

First off, this is a bad introduction. It has a lot to do with this line:

"Powerful, mysterious, doing-not-saying characters are a cliche in computer RPG's, but games like that are sadly rare. "

Wait... what? RPGs ARE a game, so these things can't be both cliche and rare. The whole intro is kind've like this, all over the place and a bit hard to follow. A review always has to start with some kind of bang, some kind of grabber that tells the reader immediately what to expect.

Actually, the review itself has a similar problem. It's rambles and jumps all over the place. It seems like a somewhat unique game, but I can't quite get a sense of how it plays. I understand that there's some kind of maze with random encounters and encounters are fought by throwing things across a sideways screen, and there's something to do with buying letters for your names... it's all a bit of a jumble, really.

I would actually suggest a full rewrite for this one. I know I seem to be an advocate of story reviewing to the point of being labeled a zealot for the art, but truly these sort of bizarre games really cry out for it.

In your rewrite, regardless of approach, there are some basic outlines you should follow.

1) Start with a bang. Use something that's totally quirky from the game to grab our attention and set the mood for the review.

2) Don't try to cover the whole game. You talk about the difference between the first town and the City of Gold... that means nothing to someone who hasn't played it, as we don't have a frame of reference to put it in. Just try to get across how this game plays. You gave it a 9 out of 10, so be sure to focus almost entirely on good aspects, maybe throwing in one problem that keeps it from being brilliant during your review.

3) End on a high note and with a less traditional "I'm concluding now" paragraph. End with something as spunky and quirky as the game itself.

That's my advice on this one.
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aschultz posted August 01, 2009:

Thanks. I tried for a story review but it just didn't seem to work for it. I'd love to give a more radical approach but couldn't find it, so it's good to have those pointers.

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