A variety of beloved fantasy series debuts appeared on the NES. Final Fantasy, Square's supposed final game, brought its developer back from the brink of collapse. Dragon Quest made its first appearance on the NES as well, and enjoyed a more than favorable response from gamers. The Legend of Zelda was a critically acclaimed hit and is often referred to as one of the best games ever made. With such popularity, it's no surprise that other companies would look at these series for inspiration.
The Magic of Scheherazade, developed by Culture Brain, is one of many games that attempt to copy The Legend of Zelda. In a bizarre twist, it also splashes elements of Dragon Quest into the mix, resulting in an action game with strong RPG elements. Although this isn't unprecedented, Scheherazade is one of the few games that actually pulls the combination of these elements off well.
The setting for Scheherazade is, naturally, the magical world of the Arabian Nights. One day, a mass of demons suddenly attack Arabia at the evil magician Sabaron's command. The hero attempts to stop the assault, but fails miserably and is flung into an entirely different time period. To make matters worse - and more hackneyed - the hero doesn't remember who he is anymore, while his girlfriend Scheherazade has been kidnapped by Sabaron. It's now up to the hero to regain his lost memories, return to his proper time period, and gather as many strong allies for the final battle as possible.
The amnesiac protagonist of the game. He has the ability to change into three different classes, all with different strength's and weaknesses. He's the silent type, and doesn't speak until the very end of the game.
A cat girl sorceress that accompanies the hero from the very beginning of his journey. Although an exceedingly weak party member, she's able to find hidden staircases scattered throughout the game. She has a secret that can kill the hero instantly if he's not paying attention.
A genie that joins the hero early on in his quest. He's a dependable fighter, possessing relatively strong magic and physical attacks. Unfortunately, he also seems to lack anything resembling a personality.
A bizarre flying girl that looks like little more than a flying head. She's somewhat stuck up, according to other villagers, and only joins the hero after he proves that he's a gentleman(?!). She is a relatively weak party member, and is quickly outclassed by the others. Her main use is to call her to carry the hero away from boss fights he can't handle.
A grouchy translation robot who, despite its name, carries no weapons. It joins the party when he learns that the hero needs help understanding the Peke Peke language. Its physical and magical attacks are relatively powerful, making it a useful party member.
A strange squirrel / monkey creature whose help is needed to cross a labyrinthine desert. Actually, if you have a guide or are already familiar with the desert, you can completely ignore Supica and continue on with the quest. He's also not particularly useful in battle. Supica is easily the most depressing character in the game, considering his uselessness.
Another character whose membership in the party is necessary to progress in the storyline. His major purpose is to weaken the demon Curly (should be Kali) and enable the hero to kill her.
A poorly named plant / puppet being who was literally made to serve the hero in his quest. Other than that, it's a rather generic party member.
Unlike other party members, Mustafa won't join the party unless the hero pays him to. Throughout the journey he constantly complains that he should be paid more for fighting with the group.
The eighth member of the hero's troop. By this point, there are so many generic party members that he's stuck in the back of the roster and easily forgotten.
A coward that only travels with people who are stronger than himself. He is another party member that can be shoved in the back of the roster and ignored.
The final member that joins the hero and a genie of great strength. Despite being a palette swap of Faruk with a beard, he's the strongest party member ever recruited.
The evil magician that started it all. Despite his formidable looks, it is later revealed that he's incredibly incompetent. Possesses the ability to instantly end the game with a single vague question.
The Magic of Scheherazade is divided into five chapters, with each chapter being its own world. Exploring each world works almost exactly the same as in The Legend of Zelda. Random monsters appear on each screen as the player travels, and several secrets are hidden throughout each world. "Secret" is a term used loosely, however, as Coronya will immediately notify you if a staircase is hidden somewhere upon entering a screen.
To fully explore each world, it is necessary to travel forward or backward in time in order to find a new party member to recruit, learn a new spell, or obtain a magical item. The only way to do this, however, is to roam around the current time period until Coronya mentions a staircase is nearby. Sometimes the staircase will actually be a Time Door, whereas other times it could be a cavern or person.
The time travel effect is similar to A Link to the Past, as the overworld is both similar and yet drastically different. While the overall layout may look familiar, the environment changes completely. For example, in one world the present may be filled with nothing but desert, but in the past it will be a dense forest region. It's certainly an interesting system, but the implementation could definitely be improved.
Each world also experiences a period of time called the Alalart Solar Eclipse. When this occurs the world darkens and the player receives several benefits. During the eclipse, it becomes much easier to win at the roulette game found at the casinos in town, the player can plant a money-bearing tree, but most importantly the player can cast the Great Spells.
Great Spells are taught by wise men found in each world, and can only be used once. Some of these spells change the entire climate of the world, making it easier to travel. Other spells completely revive the player's party members and fully restore their hit points and magic points. The most notorious of them all, Monecom, practically breaks the entire game. When cast, it creates a tree that gives the player the maximum amount of cash he can carry and maxes out the quantity of all consumable items. It's also possible to return to the wise man who teaches Monecom and get the ability to cast it again. The downside of the solar eclipse is that it becomes so dark that exploring dungeons and caves becomes nearly impossible. Obstacles and holes become hidden, rendering navigation an exercise in frustration.
Towns are also scattered across each world. Like every RPG, supplies and information can be gathered there. Troopers can also be hired from town to aid the party. While expensive, they always take damage from enemies first and are strong physical attackers.
It's also possible to barter with shopkeepers and to reduce the purchase price of the items. If the shopkeeper is pressed too hard, however, he'll become enraged and take ten coins for his wasted time. For the most part, it's better to just buy supplies from a cheap store rather than barter with the more expensive ones.
Mosques in town also give the hero the chance to change his class for a fee. The fighter class strengthens and lengthens the size of the sword, but has the weakest magical rod. At later levels a fighter gains the ability to fire smaller swords when hit points are high enough, like the Master Sword in Zelda. It is the best class to use while exploring the overworld.
The magician class has the weakest and shortest sword, but has the strongest wand. It's nearly impossible to attack bosses with the sword, so the magician is the best class to handle those fights.
The saint class is the weakest of the three, possessing a weak sword and rod. A saint does gain the ability to fire smaller swords, but this is much later than the fighter class. On the other hand, the saint is able to use holy items like the mirror shield and magic boots, which reflect projectiles and protect against dangerous terrain, respectively. It's also necessary to become the saint class at certain points in the game to progress the story.
Combat in Scheherazade is fairly straightforward. Enemies randomly show up while traveling, and you can use either use your sword or magic rod to kill them. The sword is a close range weapon, and tends to be more powerful than the long-range rod. Offensive and defensive spells can also be cast, with offensive spells affecting all the enemies at once. Every time a monster is defeated, experience points are gained, like in a standard RPG. Each time the hero levels up, his stats increase, which typically means a power boost for the sword or rod.
One strange aspect of the combat are the random turn-based encounters. When the player changes screens, the overworld occasionally vanishes and switches to a close-up view of the attacking monsters. The fight progresses much like in Dragon Quest, where the player can choose from a menu of options such as attacking, casting magic, or running away. During this time two other party members can be selected to join the fight, and certain combinations of members create special "formations." Formations grant the party the ability to combine their strength and cast a single, powerful spell. Most of these spells will destroy all the monsters in the encounter, or at least seriously maim them. Formations can be discovered by experimenting with different party members, or they can be learned by attending universities that are found in certain towns. The universities charge a fee for each lesson, but often give a weapon or item upon completing the course. Swords, after all, are more useful than a diploma.
Monsters also possess the formation ability, and are sometimes organized as "squads" or "regiments." Such monster groups are extremely deadly as they can cast instant death magic or create tsunamis that destroy troopers at once and maim the entire party. Universities typically teach an opposing formation to certain monster squads so that the player can destroy them first, or at least reduce the damage suffered from their attacks.
At first glance the random encounters seem to break up the monotony of button mashing every monster to death on the overworld. On closer inspection, however, it's almost always a bad idea to fight those battles. It becomes impossible to avoid damage and the experience and cash gained don't justify the resources that are wasted during combat. They also tend to be lopsided, either being too easy or massacring the entire party. It's a good idea on paper, but its implementation would have needed more work, much like the time travel system.
The music in Scheherazade is excellent. The same overworld theme is used often, but it's rather catchy. The overworld fight theme has a middle-eastern twist to it, and is very intense. The music played while exploring caverns and dungeons is atmospheric, and adds to the exploration experience. There is one particular piece that's incredibly grating to hear, but mercifully it's rare. In some situations an extremely powerful dungeon monster will appear, and a song that's about three notes long will start to screech. Chances are most players will be too focused on not getting killed by the monster to notice, but it's unusual for such a bad song to appear when the rest of the score is excellent. It is also worth noting that the music was created by a Japanese concert pianist named Kume.
Scheherazade is a fairly long game by NES standards, but it doesn't take itself too seriously. The dialogue - which is surprisingly well-translated - tends to be humorous and pokes fun at itself occasionally. Monsters also transform into strange creatures when they're affected by negative status effects. For example, when a monster is paralyzed it turns into a strange manhole with eyes. There is also an instance where an old man in town declares that he'll never move from the spot where he's sitting. After traveling to the future, the hero discovers the same town is underwater and populated by mermaids. Sure enough, the old man is in the exact same spot, alive and well.
The Japanese version of the game is drastically different from the American release. The music is much more simplistic, and the character sprites have enormous eyes. The sprite art is more along the lines of Kung-Fu Heros, another game by Culture Brain. The overworld has also been changed dramatically. In the Japanese version it's much more complex, containing pathways and caverns not present in the American version. The monster sprites were changed between the two versions, as well. In some cases the monsters in the Japanese version look fairly frightening, and at other times they're rather goofy. The sprites in the American version have been changed to look more consistent. Finally, the interface of the game is different, with character speech appearing on the bottom right side of the screen rather than interrupting the game as in the American version. Aside from the screen text, the American version is superior in every way to the Japanese release.
Apparently Scheherazade was popular enough in Japan to spawn a short manga story. The manga features all of the party members from the game, though it's difficult to tell what the story is about without being able to read Japanese fluently.
Despite its flaws, Scheherazade's mishmash of Zelda-esque action sequences and Dragon Quest RPG elements make it worth a look. The writing is charming, and seeing how each world changes in the past, present, and future is rather fun. The game enjoyed high praise when it was released, and there were plans to release a sequel in 1990. It was cancelled for unknown reasons, unfortunately. Had some of the elements been improved upon in the upcoming game, it could have made for a truly great sequel.
The Magic of Scheherazade apparently was loved enough by Culture Brain to warrant several cameos in Super Ninja Boy for the SNES. Coronya and Gun Meca make brief appearances in the town of Celestern. Celestern, in fact, is the name of one of the worlds in Scheherazade. Scheherazade herself is the mayor of the town, and offers a few words of support. It even uses music from the NES game. It's surprising to see an entire town devoted to a cameo, but it makes sense considering how off-kilter Culture Brain is.