The early Japanese RPG Hydlide is a huge victim of circumstance. Developed by T&E Soft and initially released in 1984, Hydlide was one of the first Japanese developed action RPGs, along with Falcom's Dragon Slayer and Xanadu. Loosely inspired by the original Ultima games, it's a simple action RPG where a lone player character runs around a game world, ramming into enemies to attack, finding items, and gaining levels. While it's well regarded in Japanese circles as a true classic, it's largely been deemed a joke by the English speaking audience.
While Hydlide was a great innovator in 1984, it didn't reach American audiences until 1987, when the NES port was published by FCI. This was several months after Nintendo released The Legend of Zelda, a much more refined, far more advanced take on the action RPG formula. In comparison, Hydlide was irritating difficult and frustratingly vague, with terrible graphics, repetitive music, and an awkward combat system. Two other Hydlide games released later also faced ridicule - Super Hydlide (a port of Hydlide 3) for the Genesis for featuring similarly substandard graphics and wonky action, and Virtual Hydlide for the Saturn, with silly looking digitized graphics and an abysmal frame rate.
So yes, the Hydlide games are definitely a victim of their age. Taken in context, though, they're actually rather fun little games, providing you have the patience to stick with the simplistic gameplay. If nothing else, they can at least be admired for inspiring Falcom's far superior Ys series.
A PC compilation disc released in 2001 includes the PC-88 versions of all three Hydlide games, as well as the remakes of the first and third game. It also includes a museum with various data and interviews. Thanks to Fletcher Arnett for assisting with these!
Hydlide (ハイドライド) / Hydlide Special (ハイドライド スペシャル) - PC-88, PC-66, X-1, FM-7, MZ-2000, MSX, MSX2, PC-98, NES, Windows, Mobile (1984)
The original Hydlide features a hero named Jim, who inhabits the magical world of Fairyland, the setting of all future Hydlide games. It's his job to rescue the fair princess Anne, who was split into 3 fairies by the demon Varalys/Boralis, who shows as a major villain in all of the other games. You must rescue the fairies, then defeat the evil demon. There's not much text or story, other than what's listed in the manual.
The gameplay is just like the first Ys or Legend of Zelda, except without any of the depth, music, or story. You run around, basically bumping into enemies to damage them, much akin to Ys. You switch between Attack mode and Defend mode with the press of a button, trying to inflict damage and stay alive yourself. Being in attack mode raises your attack, but drops your defense, leading to swift death if you're not careful. In fact, you'll be faced with your character's death pretty often, although thankfully there is a soft continue.
Unlike Ys, which required you to hit enemies in a certain manner, there is no tactic to this system, and it's all dependent on your statistics. You level up, gain magic spells, and try to assemble various items scattered about the realm. There are no inns or characters you can interact with on a friendly basis, so your health and magic basically regenerate as you stand still, also akin to Ys.
The land has marked areas and wraps around all sides. The world is only five times five screens small, but you have to do a bit of (loose) puzzle solving and a lot of trial and error exploration to find the items and fairies needed to win. In the NES version, magic does play a vital role - enabling you to attack certain enemies that can only be beaten with magic, or burning down certain bits of the landscape.
Hydlide is quite difficult, though technically not too much harder than The Legend of Zelda for the NES without clues. Some of the quests are simple - in order to get the lamp to see underground, you need to defeat the vampire, but before you can even touch him, you need to find the cross. Other puzzles are much more obscure - you need to burn a tree to get into Varalys Castle, for instance, or destroy a stone to drain a lake and kill a dragon. Since Fairyland is a pretty small world, if you take your time and try poking into every nook and cranny, it's not too hard to figure some of the puzzles out. Some enemies like the twin wizards and the aforementioned water dragon require a bit more thought and effort to defeat. The translation work is confusing on one item in particular - the "Fake Medicine" which acts as a one-shot auto revive, and is needed to beat the last boss.
Hydlide was first released for the PC-88 computer in December 1984, with terrible, ear piercing sound and the screen just flipping over to the next area as you reach the border. The X-1 version adds scrolling, and the PC-66 version, while having lower resolution graphics, has joystick control and an actual soundtrack, however primitive. The F-7 version is much simpler due to the crappy controls, but it adds a few extra enemies. The MSX port adds slightly better sound and uses a password system to restore progress. There was yet another release for the MSX2 standard, which is much the same but with improved colors. The PC-98 version is the same as the PC-88 but with various speed settings. In 1999, T&E Soft put out a remake for Windows. It essentially just puts a high res graphics layer over the PC-88 version - you can switch between the new graphics and the original on the fly - but includes an actual soundtrack.
The only version that used to be familiar to non-Japanese gamers is the NES version, known as Hydlide Special in Japan and simply Hydlide everywhere else. It's very similar to the PC versions, but it's upgraded to include magic spells, and uses the theme music from Hydlide 2 - the one more widely known as the Indiana Jones theme rip-off. The game has about four total tracks - the main theme which comprises about 99% of the music you hear, the password entry theme, the final showdown music which appears on the screen where you fight the final boss, and finally a shorter version of the main theme to celebrate your victory.
Hydlide also appeared on Japanese cell phones, twice: Bothtec first released a rather downsized version of just the first game in 2001, followed by retouched versions of the whole 8-bit trilogy a few years later. Like the Windows version, this one allowed to switch between an "Arrange" mode with new graphics and "Original," which looks just like the cropped PC-88 game.
Released in 1985 for the usual range of Japanese home computers, this sequel is the only Hydlide game to never make it Stateside in any form, though it did see an European release with official MSX emulation using WOOMB.
The game's plot involves an evil crystal, which lies hidden deep underground creating monsters. In a plot device ripped from the Ultima games, the player is summoned to Fairyland from Earth, and sets out to destroy the crystal and put an end to its evil. Varalys, the big bad of the first game (well, the big bad of the first game after the gameplay itself) shows up as a guardian near the end, too. Not too dynamic of a plot, but at least you're treated to a few screens in Engrish detailing it to a remixed version of the Hydlide theme.
From a gameplay perspectice, Hydlide II isn't that far of a jump from the original. Once again you can switch between attack and defense and ram into enemies to damage them. In the original Hydlide, you could do marginal damage while in defense mode. Here, there is changed to complete defense. You also have the option of pressing 0 to engage certain friendly "monsters" in conversation. You'll likely go into attack mode, trade blows with an enemy, then have to recoup out of the way a bit to regain health, and repeat. If you're in a dungeon with narrow passages, it turns into a slogfest unless you can find ways to evade the enemies.
There are a few more traditional RPG elements, including a couple of towns, complete with places to buy equipment and train the character. This in effect produces a much more grindy game than the original since you're now fighting to buy equipment as well as merely level up to take on the big bad.
The game first introduces the mortality system found later in Hydlide III. Your character can be aligned with Justice, Normal, or Evil. Like in the next sequel, you lose morality by hurting good monsters and gain it by fighting only evil ones. The distinction between good and evil monsters is a lot tougher in this game, so you can find your morality (labeled FORTH, probably for Forthrightness) dropping quickly if you are not selective in what you attack. For the most part, if it's human, you're best off not attacking it. Unlike in Hydlide III, where morality only plays a role in taking out one of the bosses, being evil causes good monsters and townsfolk to ignore you. This in turn denies you clues, equipment, and training.
Training is a new element designed to add depth to the game. While leveling increases your HP, improving your strength and magic statistics requires training. Strength training in particular involves a neat little fighting mini game that has the finesse of mashing "Y" until you win or are knocked clean, placing it somewhere beneath Karate Champ. Your performance in this proto-fighting game and how many rounds you're willing to go affects your strength gain. Since it takes a while to earn the 3,000 gold needed to increase this stat, you're likely to repeat this to clear several rounds in a row. Training in magic is more straightforward - a simple exchange of GP for MP.
The game has a few status effects related to items and terrain. As in the first game, standing on open fields will cause your health to slowly fill back up. Standing in deserts, forests, or graveyards will cause your health to go down instead, forcing a lot of hit and run tactics to move around, heal up, and move on to explore. Thankfully, your health slowly regenerates in the dungeons as well.
Another unique feature is the Darkside effect. When certain enemies are attacked, they drop a black crystal. While this item is necessary later in the game, holding onto it stops your health from regenerating. It can be dropped, thankfully (by selecting it and hitting "D"), but it's also a fairly common drop with some of the evil enemies on the overworld. Memories of picking up the Ruby in The Uninvited come to mind, though there's at least some indication of what is causing your trouble here.
The game also has a time option, allowing you to speed up and slow down gameplay. This would be refined later in Hydlide III with the use of an in-game clock setting day/night cycles and a need to sleep and eat. Here, it merely affects the speed of gameplay and can make leveling and exploring go faster. Unfortunately, the game demands lots of grinding and it's still a chore even on faster settings.
The game still involves the wonderful "puzzles" of the first, including running into random rocks and gravestones to find locations. In dungeons, treasure chests and stairways are invisible, requiring the player to run into the walls/corners to locate them. This adds to both the challenge and the overall annoyance factor of the game. The lack of any clear guides makes progression rather difficult, so if you wish to advance further into the game than around the overworld and the first few dungeons, sawing off a rabbit's foot or three wouldn't be a bad idea.
What to make of this game? Its gameplay is pretty unchanged from the first, but it's a much grander journey. While the first gets a pass as a short, somewhat charming adventure, Hydlide II's ambitious scope drags out the game's flaws - unlike the first one which was a muddy little gem of modest proportions, the size of this game means that the coprolite has not fossilized all the way through, to the woe of the dedicated player. A few important features, time and morality, are carried over to the third game, but this one is much closer in spirit to the first Hydlide, as a opposed to the more Zelda oriented style of play in Hydlide III.
Most of the PC versions are very similar. This is the only Hydlide game that has not been updated or remade for any other platform, except for the 2003 mobile version by Bothtec, which is all but inaccessible to Western players.
Hydlide 3: The Space Memories / Hydlide 3: Yami kara no Houmonsha (ハイドライド3～闇からの訪問者～) / Super Hydlide - PC-88, X1, MSX, MSX2, Famicom, Genesis, PC-98, X68000, Windows, Mobile (1987)
Debuting in 1987 for Japanese PCs, the Genesis version of this game actually made it to America, titled Super Hydlide. It's a marked improvement over the original in terms of game play, sound, and pretty much everything. The only exceptions are the graphics, which are a bit better, but still seem very low tech, especially in the 16-bit versions. The basic story involves a mysterious fissure into deep space appearing, followed by a swarm of monsters threatening to engulf the land. Once again, the lone hero must get to the root of the troubles and save the universe.
A lot of improvements have been made - Super Hydlide features opening cut scenes, as well as a ending that is playable using a secret trick. There are actually townspeople to converse with as well. There is only a loose connection to the previous games, as Varalys appears as the game's penultimate boss, sealed in a cavern and carrying the item needed to enter the final area. Fairies make a return as well, with one being a necessary companion in the final battle. The gameplay is a bit closer to Zelda this time - there's now an active attack triggered by a button press, so you don't need to run into enemies anymore. It still feels a bit awkward, as you can only run up to an enemy and jam the attack button, hoping that you'll kill it before it kills you. It also carries over the morality meter from the previous game: Some monsters you encounter are good and will not attack you. If you are careless (or just greedy for experience) and slay them your morality meter will decrease. This generally has no bearing on gameplay, but a full morality meter will enable the player to defeat Varalys a lot easier when the time comes to confront him.
At the beginning of the game, you're given the choice between four distinct character classes - Fighter, Thief, Monk, and Cleric. The Fighter and Thief are melee types, while the Monk and Cleric are spell casters. Like traditional RPGs, there is a variety of weapons, shields, helmets, and armor you can equip - ranging from simple items, up to the almighty fairy armor equipment, the flame sword and light saber weapons. In addition to ranged and melee attacks, there are a total of twelve spells in the game, ranging from basic healing and teleportation, to attacks and special buffs. The fighter and thief only have access to six of these, while the Cleric and Monk may cast all twelve. The game implements a rather annoying weight system, limiting both what you can carry in, as well as what your character can use as a weapon. If you're overloaded, you will find yourself unable to move. This makes managing items, and even money, even more important. You need to be careful with what you discard to free up weight, since there are certain items you will need by the end of the quest and if you're careless, you can screw yourself royally.
Hylide III also features a time system. Each day is broken in 24 hours. You will need to munch on rations twice a day and sleep to avoid eventual fatigue, which decreases your hitpoints. Sleeping is primarily done at inns, which in turn allow you to save your game, but is really expensive. You have an option to slow down or speed up time by adjusting it in a menu, making traveling, leveling up, and some fighting a bit easier. While the time system is innovative, it limits the amount of exploration you can do at one time, forcing you to set up camp around a city to eat up and rest, lest you collapse in the middle of the vast overworld.
Generally the game presents a fair amount of challenge - partly from the weight and time mechanics, enemy difficulty, and the fact it does also allow you to die instantly if you fall off certain platforms (which can be a real pain near the end of the game). There are four boss battles, the last of which requires a rather innovative solution (you need to leap into the boss' mouth to deal the death blow). These encounters are fairly hard, and do require some skill to emerge victorious. Like in Ys, the menu becomes inaccessible while fighting a boss, making it imperative you have the right items equipped, etc.
As mentioned, Hydlide 3 is an overall improvement from the first two. The music tracks for the Genesis version are quite good, fitting in with the game's theme and being catchy in their own right. While the weight and time system can be a pain in the rear at times, especially when attempting to level up, it does score points for innovation. Starting out can be rather hard, given you're required to hunt enemies to gain the money needed to rest and eat just to stay alive (there are a few Easter eggs for quick experience and cash found in FAQs and walkthroughs that are recommended for new players). It is a sharp learning curve, but the game is fairly rewarding, having an ending that was for the time innovative as well. There is nothing like finding out your ultimate enemy was a five eyed frog named Kaizack who created the universe and decided to terminate everything once it grew beyond his control, making its ending almost up there with the likes of Phantasy Star II. For a villain he is both spiteful and memorable in his dying monologue.
After the original home computer versions, Hydlide 3 appeared for the Famicom in 1989, bearing the subtitle Yami kara no Houmonsha ("Visitor from the Dark"), but only the Mega Drive version Super Hydlide ever made it out of Japan. The "Special Version" editions for the PC-98 and X68000 were released a few months before the Genesis version. They include improved graphics, new maps and new characters. These are the only versions that have character portraits during dialogues, but use a weird transparent on-screen display that shifts from left to right as you move across the screen. The Windows remake is based on the PC-88 version, and just includes upgraded graphics (the best of any of the versions) and a fully rearranged score.
All in all, Hydlide 3 is a good, but not great game, and while it's definitely not a "must play" game, it is usually maligned as being the sequel to "that awful NES game." In that regard Super Hydlide has not received the credit it deserves, as it is quite able to stand on its own.
Hydlide attempted to enter the third dimension with Virtual Hydlide, released in the early days of the Sega Saturn, and published in the USA by Atlus. And oh, what a sad, sad game it is. It's not entirely 3D, because while the environments are made of polygons, all of the objects - including your character, the enemies, trees and items - are all digitized 2D sprites.
Virtual Hydlide tries to emulate the simplicity of the original game by ditching the character creation, class systems, morality meters and real time flow of the second and third games - the only real element retained are the shops and the weight system. In other words, it's a pretty basic fetch quest. What makes it unique is that the landscape is randomly generated each time, theoretically allowing for completely different adventures. In reality, the quest is still structured the same no matter what, and the maps look practically identical anyway. At least you're given guidance, in the form of both a compass and a full map, which both indicate the next destination. You spend a lot of time running around the huge, empty field, but eventually find your way into a castle, an underground cave, some old ruins, a volcano, and other typical dungeon areas. In a retelling of the original game, the ultimate goal is to collect three fairies, which hold the soul of the kidnapped princess, as shown in a cheesy live action video opening sequence.
The term "virtual" is used very loosely here, because everything about Virtual Hydlide looks incredibly ridiculous. The frame rate is extremely choppy when running around the field, but drops into the single digit range any time you enter an indoor area - 3D was never the Saturn's strong point, but there have been Jaguar games with smoother action than this. The camera often loses track of the protagonist in tight confines, making it nearly impossible to attack enemies. The main character sprite is very poorly animated, although in the game's defense, each piece of equipment will result in a visible change. Still, there's no way he won't look like a total dork, especially with the light blue Fairy Plate armor.
The combat is a total mess. Since all of the sprites are 2D, there's absolutely no sense of depth, so all you can do is trudge up to an enemy and slowly slice at them, hoping your awkward attacks hit. Like the old games, you can heal if you stand still, but only on the overworld. Otherwise, you'll need to stock up on herbs and antidotes. You only level up by completing story elements, but fallen enemies will also slightly increase your score, which can be exchanged for weapons, armor, and other items at crystals found around the land.
The actual quest is fairly short and can be beaten in a few hours. That's okay though, because it's hard to endure the game more than half an hour without getting a headache. Still, there's a certain Z-quality charm in the whole ordeal, if only because watching your stiffly animated hero zoom across the empty, foggy plains at 10 frames per second is a remarkably trippy and strangely engrossing experience.