Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Green Hills of Virtual Hydlide

So, I've recently had my collection go over a thousand games. I wish I could say it was a momentous occasion, the 1000th game one of the gems in said collection, but in reality I didn't even notice until I was sorting through my huge backlog, and noticed the total was just above a thousand.

Annoyingly, my backlog also noted that I had over 50% unfinished. This bothers me. I like playing games. During my years as a part-time game reviewer, I always stood by the rule that you had to finish a game before being able o review it - be it the hugest of the RPGs or the most boring of movie tie-in third-person adventure.

I was young and stupid and these days I readily admit you can take the full measure of most games in just under three hours - with some RPGs, especially of the Japanese variety, being the exception.

But still, I immensely enjoy beating games - even bad ones! In fact, I think some truly bad games are really quite enjoyable when approached with the proper mind-set. So, I decided to check the system I had the least unfinished games, so I could put a big nice check-mark next to it - look at that, the good old Sega Saturn. Only two unfinished games there, Virtual Hydlide and Alone in the Dark: Jack is Back (aka alone in the Dark 2).

Being the PC snob that I am, I didn't bother with the trials and tribulations of hooking up my old Sega Saturn to my HDTV - instead, I downloaded an emulator and put the Virtual Hydlide CD on my PC. 

Two unexpected things happened:

a) I had fun.
b) Wow this seemed way more intimidating when I was a thirteen year-old

Widely known as a crappy game, Virtual Hydlide deserves its fame. The graphics where bad at the time, now they're a pixelatted mess. The soundtrack is utterly forgettable. The characters are bad cutouts out of an FMV movie, and most enemies prance about like headless chickens, except when they step trough you to hit you on the back. 

But, you see, I lucked out. On my very first dungeon, I got the best possible random drop I could ever expect to get - a Darksword +2!

Usually you'd get a war-hammer or long sword, but in my very own, randomly-generated world, the Saturn Gods saw fit to grant me a Darksword +2. Not only is this item a requirement to beat the dragon boss of one of the latter dungeons (I found this as I consulted a faq to see if there were any important items I could miss if I didn't open every chest), it lets you fire balls of dark energy - effectively making it the second most powerful weapon in the game.

Now, this comes at a cost - it is a "dark weapon" after all. Yes, I lose 10 points of - get this, not life - my score every time I shoot it. Oh noes! Not to mention a couple of shots is enough to own most enemies, earning my way more than 10 points!

So, I steamrolled trough the game. The areas that seemed intimidating and scary in my childhood melted away in the face of my insurmountable dark powers. A couple of obscure boss patterns made me check a FAQ, but I mostly used it for the reference tables so I knew I missed nothing in the dungeons. Only bosses have ranged attacks in this game, so I was virtually untouchable, and it was only by the penultimate dungeon that I switched weapons (to another ranged weapon).

I enjoyed it for several reasons. 

First, it was catharsis. I remember, many years ago, being stressed out by the pressure of navigating a dark, seemingly unending dungeon, dreading that any turn I might take would unleash upon me a poisoning enemy, my supply of antidote herbs rapidly dwindling. Yes, this in a game that lets you save anywhere! I was a child!

There was, deep inside of me, a young man still very afraid of this game. And now that young man was reveling in Darksword +2-powered onslaught. A combination of age, more experience playing games, and my initial lucky drop made the game a piece of cake, and my younger self had its revenge.

Secondly, while the game is bland and just plain bad, it remains quite playable. It is easily, if not smoothly, controllable, it lets you save anywhere, and since leveling-up is controlled by story checkpoints instead of XP, there is no need to grind. So, while playing it, I was free to just bask in the experience of its overwhelmingly crappy visuals, bland dungeon design, and wonky storyline. I found myself analyzing this and that design decision, and even finding some hidden merits to the game!

In fact, there is something to be said for a compact, RPG-like experience that can be finished in a couple of hours. No grinding and no two dungeons alike, these two factors are rare indeed and contribute to turn Virtual Hydlide into that weird specimen: the RPG with no padding. 

Don't get me wrong, I love the satisfaction that comes from grinding into a super-powerful walking dispenser of justice, but variety is healthy and it would be very nice to find more RPGs pursuing the ideals that Virtual Hydlide displays - minus the general crappyness.

In the end, I was happy to see the devil-winged black evil dude melt upon receiving my finishing blow, and watched with some amount of glee the hammy final FMV featuring the happy rescued princess and the back of the dude I've been watching for the past two hours.

Hey, at least the game keeps in character!

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