Micro Cabin is an interesting company. In many ways it’s analogous to Falcom, in that it developed or was connected to a lot of good JRPGs, many of them niche and obscure, and was generally unknown in the West. The big difference is that Falcom slowly gained a cult following in the West and eventually saw many of its titles released here, albeit having been ported/remade by other developers. It also survived a transition from mainly a computer developer to consoles, and is now fairly well established, whereas Micro Cabin sort of faded away. Apparently it was bought by AQ Interactive, but who can honestly recall when they last heard of a Micro Cabin game?
Only a few of its games were localized into English over the years: the strategy RPG Power Kingdoms (aka: Guardian War), and the traditional JRPG Lucienne’s Quest were both on 3DO. Later came Blazing Heroes on the Sega Saturn, aka Riglord Saga. But the company was involved in so much more than this, including one of Japan’s earliest adventure games, a rip-off of Online System’s famous Mystery House, plus the phenomenal Xak series of action-RPGs, which alone warrant an lengthy feature. Micro Cabin also developed Illusion City for MSX2, PC98 and Sega CD, an epic cyberpunk JRPG set in a post-apocalyptic Hong Kong. Many of its better titles were fan-translated, though actually finding these will require some work.
Looking through the company’s back catalogue it’s clear the people behind it had ability, with their games featuring some great visuals, awesome music and on occasion really neat gameplay ideas which capture the same charm as early Falcom titles. Arguably the Xak series is more deserving of serious investigation, but for anyone new to Micro Cabin, Lucienne’s Quest is an easy introduction to the company’s titles and, given that it can reach $400 on eBay, could do with some fresh perspective.
The often maligned 3DO was not a bad system. It was powerful for the time, had comfortable controllers which could be daisy-chained for group multiplayer, and was region-free. What it suffered from was a high launch price and lack of developer support, which resulted in a shortage of certain genres. If you were an English-speaking fan of JRPGs, there were really only two choices, both by Micro Cabin: Guardian War and Lucienne’s Quest. There were a few others released in Japan, but they were never localized. By default then Lucienne’s Quest was the best JRPG on the system, released in a year that saw many great JRPGs come out in English, such as Phantasy Star IV, Chrono Trigger, and Earthbound.
Harking back to an era before the genre became obsessed with over-complication and gimmicks, Lucienne’s Quest tells a simple story against a rather standard framework. Lucienne is a ditsy 15-year-old apprentice wizard left in charge of Pinokoteik Tower while her master, Kokindo, is away. A traveller named Ago arrives, wanting a cure for his lycanthropy. Feeling bored and up to mischief, Lucienne pretends to read a crystal ball and explains that to cure his affliction the two of them must set off on an adventure to the town of Mirado. Along the way they join forces with Miminaga, a cowardly Mole-bear, and the scene is set. What follows is a journey across several overworlds visiting a series of towns, each with a dilemma that needs solving and an accompanying dungeon-like area. Every few towns you gain a new party member and, slowly, the plot thickens until you’re saving the world from the Death Shadow.
A 15-year-old apprentice wizard living in Kokindo tower. She’s mischievous, scatterbrained and not averse to flirting with other species to get what she wants. The only magic user in the eventual party of six, she is also the most frail. Often speaking without thinking, she inevitably embroils the group in increasingly difficult situations.
A young man whose village was attacked by Junin (beast-men), he is afflicted with their curse and turns into a wolfman when the sun sets. When in his wolf-state his defence and attack stats are increased. Seeks a cure and an end to Junin attacks on other villages.
Heir to the leader of the great Mole-bear clan, Miminaga starts the game as a cowardly figure. Lucienne helps him discover his courage, after which his bravado lands him in hot water as an enslaved hostage. He is extremely good at digging (his clan live underground), which comes in handy later.
Not really a character, this clay figure can later be summoned by Lucienne as a stand-in for party members, and is useful if another is suddenly incapacitated. He levels up, but can’t equip anything and isn’t healed by standard magic/items. The only way to heal him is to recast the expensive Golem spell (60MP).
Strongest of the Lizardmen who live in Oakenshield village. His name means “Great Warrior” and he’s sent to defeat the Giant Grub, the only natural enemy of the Lizardmen, which has bored into the great Lehanmel tree. Doesn’t carry a shield and instead dual-wields a pair of swords. Speaksss with a rasssping lisssp.
Creepy blonde guy from the tribe of Tramak in Las Aldus, who seem to be a cross between anthropomorphised crustaceans and The Guyver. Their protective shells grow at such a fast rate they need something called a rock-shaver to wear it down. He can’t equip armour but has the highest defence in the game.
Lucienne’s master and supposedly a great sorcerer. He disappears right at the start, telling Lucienne to follow her heart. Doesn’t show up again until the final end boss when all is revealed. Bizarrely, the Saturn version gives him a freaky portrait which makes him look like an old lizard (pictured).
Head of Mirado, the town of Junin wolfmen where everyone has lycanthropy. As she explains they’ve been attacking other villages because a Dark Knight kidnapped their children. Her reason for turning Ago into a Junin is because his village was suffering from plague – and Junin are immune to the disease. Many years previous she was caught in a hunter’s trap while in wolf form and Ago saved and cared for her. Has a crush on him.
You meet her in the “alternate dimension” where you need to acquire two magical items needed to pass Death Shadow’s magic barrier. She sets a difficult dungeon-crawl test before handing it over.
He has the other magical item needed and also sets a tough challenge. Lives apart from the Fairy Queen since the two of them need to guard their respective magical items. By taking these off their hands, you enable the King and Queen to resume their carnal gymnastics.
Chubby pig-like creature with a man’s face. Needed to cross the desert. Apparently they’ve been hunted nearly to extinction.
The Death Shadow has several followers you need to defeat over the course of the game, but the Shadow Queen is the main antagonist. She introduces the Giant Grub to the Lizardmen village, kidnaps Miminaga, and takes over the main ship of a port town. (Saturn portrait)
The main bad guy, ultimately behind every bad thing that’s happened. He fits the stereotypical bad guy cliché like a glove, seeking world domination and hating concepts like friendship and team-work.
This cheeky racoon is actually a summon spirit found in a jar. Calling him up allows you to borrow gold from him, which you have to pay back with interest. It’s a rather clever idea for an RPG, but just like real life can be dangerous. While the 10% interest rate sounds reasonable, you’re forced to pay 80% of all gold earned through battles, and can’t pay off the loan early – meaning until you do, piecemeal, you’re basically stuck without a means of income.
The story is short but sweet, with simple character archetypes. Lucienne is hapless but optimistic, Ago determined, Miminaga comedic, with Kaneyung and Be-o-Melda acting as tough-guy badasses bantering about how they love a good fight. The bad guys are so clichéd that some of them have fourth-wall breaking dialogue along the lines of: “So this is your typical good-guy/bad-guy kind of game, huh?” and “I’ve been cast as the villain again, haven’t I?”
There’s also just enough silly humor to keep things interesting; at one point Lucienne raises her skirt to coerce Miminaga, while later on he accidentally breaks wind while struggling to bend iron bars. There’s no overwritten, angsty sub-plots or character deaths, and it’s all pretty straightforward and enjoyable. Its brevity is actually one of its strong points. You’re looking at around 15 hours for a first-time playthrough, which is perfect if you’re coming off a 40-100 hour epic on another game.
On the surface it appears to follow your standard JRPG design. There’s armour, helmets, gloves, boots, swords and shields to equip, with new gear appearing in each successive town. Fights are turn based using a menu system. Enemies give gold and EXP, and increased levels means stat boosts. There’s also towns with NPCs and a few bosses, though no actual side-quests. In fact it’s rather linear, though this works in its favour. While all this sounds fairly generic, there are a variety of clever ideas which keep things fresh. The first you’ll notice is the day/night cycle, which affects Ago’s appearance and strength during battles. Since the cycle freezes inside a dungeon, clever players will wait until nightfall before entering, in order to have an easier time of things.
The battle system actually resembles Suikoden a little bit, taking place on an isometric polygonal field with overlaid sprite-based characters. There’s a much greater emphasis on physical positioning though, with characters standing on a grid measuring 9×2. Characters in the front row protect those in the back, while anyone can move freely left-to-right prior to attacking. Lining up your character is important, since while you can attack anyone from anywhere, if there’s an object in your way, such as tree or rock, the character will attack that instead. Objects can be eliminated if your “destroy” stat is high enough. This is an ingenious idea, since every weapon has both an Attack and Destroy stat, and sometimes you need to decide whether to give someone a higher attack at the cost of removing obstacles.
The whole destruction mechanic carries over onto the map roaming too, since in towns and dungeons there are stalagmites, rocks, crates, trees and all manner else, which need to be hit using the C-button to destroy them. If your Destroy stat is too low you can’t remove them, so it’s essential that at least one person has it as high as possible. Breaking stuff also yields crucial stat boosting potions. This obviously amounts to breaking crates to get special items, but in practice it’s not nearly as bad as it sounds. Give all of them to Lucienne since she’s both the weakest and most important character in the party.
There’s lots of other interesting ideas. The ability to summon the Golem as an extra emergency character is brilliant, and he does come in handy. The entire magic system is ingeniously well balanced, since while you acquire new spells throughout, they all come with 5 levels of power/MP usage. So as the game progresses and enemies become tougher, your earlier spells are still useful since you can just up their voltage – this also means early bosses are easy since you can hit them hard from the start. By far the best thing about your spells though, is that right from the start you have teleport magic, and every town and dungeon creates a warping point. Meaning you never, ever have to backtrack, anywhere at any time. It may seem basic, but most JRPGs force you to play through most of the game before granting teleport magic, or airships, or whatever else. Having it from the start is a godsend and something all JRPGs should replicate.
Special mention should also go to the summon spirits you acquire. Most are elemental based and act as secondary attacks for the rest of the team to use, since they don’t have magic spells. But there’s also the Item Spirit who acts as a portable shop, and the Gold Spirit who is a money lender. Both of these are super cool, even if the money lending can actually cripple you. Probably the wackiest idea is later on, where you need to cross a desert and need to catch the Sand Runner. What results is a racing-style minigame complete with special controller instructions, vaguely akin to riding Chocobos in Mode-7. Except the whole thing lasts no more than 15 seconds, making it all seem strangely redundant.
Overall it’s just a nice JRPG, traditional but with some mild innovation; one that doesn’t outstay its welcome and isn’t ruined by over ambition. In the case of the English release, it’s also a hardware exclusive. Some genre veterans might accuse it of being generic or shallow, especially compared to its contemporaries, but this is unfair. It’s not like it’s something you dread having to force yourself through – quite the contrary! Consider it more of a JRPG lemon-sorbet; something to cleanse the palette after one too many confusing grind-a-thons. It’s definitely not worth $400, though, absolutely no game ever could be.
Before we look at the Sega Saturn port, it’s also worth glancing at the screens around this page and appreciating the art direction used in the game, which takes into account the limitations of the 3DO hardware. With a restricted polygon count it’s impossible to create highly detailed and smoothly rounded environments, so all structures have a deliberate cubed look. Combined with the 2D sprites the overall aesthetic is unique – dips, troughs and hills all have noticeably flat sides, and everything is awash with bright colors. Some later areas, such as the ooze cave, have especially wacky color schemes. There’s also some really cool polygon distortion going on in several areas, which is unfortunately lost in screenshots. All the three-dimensional water animates, even little pools in the caves, and in the case of ooze cave, the walls themselves undulate. Special attacks also destroy the landscape, warping and punching holes in it when a powerful spell is unleashed. After years of obsession with improving graphics, there is a slow but growing appreciation for polygon minimalism among gamers. For those who are able to appreciate the artistic skill needed to sculpt shapes from the barest of resources, the cuboid world of Lucienne’s Quest can be quite beautiful.
Sword & Sorcery (ソードアンドソーサリー) – Sega Saturn (1996)
The following year saw release of an updated Sega Saturn port. Most of the changes were cosmetic. For starters there’s a new anime cinema introducing the main characters, which replaces the one using the in-game engine on 3DO. It’s pretty good. The other big change is all the character portraits are now more in line with the original cover art – so Ago’s hair is blue not silvery white, and Miminaga looks more mouse-like. This is a matter of personal taste, but there was nothing wrong with the originals. And in the case of Ago, his new portrait makes him look like an idiot. Along with new protagonist portraits, all major NPCs such as Kokindo now also have one, and all major sections of dialogue are voice acted. The acting is alright, though Lucienne’s voice leans very much towards the moe/kawaii side of things, which may annoy some.
The best thing about the voice acting is its use during battles, so every time you perform a special move its name is shouted out, or your character grunts as they swing a sword. This extra layer of audio makes the battles much livelier. All battle sprites have also been redone in a higher resolution and now look fantastic. Instead of showing their backs to the player, the main characters have a more side-on view.
These are all the good points (well, except the new portraits), unfortunately the other changes aren’t so good. All the textures have been redone, giving them a grittier, washed out look. Instead of the vibrant greens from before, the grassy areas now look drab and miserable. This removes a lot of the light-hearted atmosphere from in the original and, frankly, makes the entire game look hideous. Even worse is that the polygonal models have all been redone, boosting the polygons and giving everything a smooth rounded edge. A good example is the comparison screens of Lucienne standing on top of the Mole-bear houses. The original was bright and distinctive looking. By trying to improve the visuals with more realistic colors and smoother polygons, they’ve only ended up making it look like every other generic 3D video game from the era. Everything becomes muddy and indistinct, which is especially annoying in some later dungeons.
They also removed little details. For example the hardware store inside the Mole-bear cave had bright-green hanging shelves in the 3DO version, with goods dangling off them. In the Saturn update these were replaced with some generic, indistinct scenery from elsewhere in the area. This same generic scenery replaces the bright blue face masks adorning the entrance to the chief’s hut. What you end up with is areas that now lack any sense of personality. Be under absolutely no illusions with this: the Sega Saturn version looks remarkably awful compared to the 3DO version, despite having more polygons. Quite how Micro Cabin managed to screw this up is anyone’s guess.
There are also bizarre problems present in the screen scrolling. On the 3DO there were four camera modes: Normal, Fast, VR1 and VR2. Normal was fine to use, and Fast simply moved the focus slightly in the direction you were travelling. Generally it moved smoothly enough to be comfortable. Running the original Sega Saturn disc on a 60Hz system it appears the coders took the names literally when porting it. The Fast camera moves at a speed equivalent to the 3DO original, but Normal camera mode reduces the in-game movement speed to a point where it’s barely playable. They added a new camera exclusive to the Sega Saturn, dubbed SS Mode, which pans the camera down behind Lucienne, but this is the worst of all of them. The game switches to tank controls, except you can only turn at 90 degrees. It also runs painfully slowly and, given that the visuals are now awful, there’s not much benefit to having a behind-the-shoulders viewpoint.
The fact the Saturn version was never localised is no great loss. It’s an interesting curio and cheaper than the localized 3DO original, but otherwise it’s a sub-standard port and not very good. It’s slower and extremely ugly, and given the added burden of a language barrier, there’s really not any reason to play it.