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by John Szczepaniak - January 15, 2011

Fun Factory, sometimes called Fun Project on the title screens of their games, is about as obscure as Japanese games companies get. There are almost no mentions in English for them online, while searching in Japanese doesn't bring up much more. Only a few obscure Japanese blogs, briefly mentioning one or two of their games (like Drainer on the MSX). In fact, the only thing they seem to be well known for is their War of the Dead games, aka Shiryou Sensen. Even then, Fun Factory is sometimes ignored in favour of Victor Musical Industries, the publisher for WotD.

Fun Factory is sadly part of a large number of obscure little companies which did some interesting videogame things pre-millennium, but then either went bankrupt, changed names, or moved out of games and into an entirely unrelated field. The kind of company which found some small success with a niche title that maybe developed some kind of cult following, but was then forgotten. The WotD 'series' comprises only two games: the first was released on three different platforms, all of them radically different. The sequel was released only on MSX2 and PC-88, but each was nearly identical. None of them left Japan, only the sequel was fan-translated (without any publicity at all), and generally only a few hardcore English-speaking retro fans talk about them.

War of the Dead (PC Engine)


Shiryou Sensen (死霊戦線) / War of the Dead - MSX2 (1987)

MSX2 Cover

Kevin Gifford's blog provides the best information in English regarding the start of WotD. As he explains, a lot of people revere Capcom's Sweet Home on the Famicom as one of the earliest survival horror games, especially since it was the inspiration for Resident Evil. According to the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, Sweet Home was released on 15 December 1989, and as Gifford points out, the original WotD came out on the MSX in 1987, at least two years earlier. Its ports to PC-88 and PC Engine meanwhile came out in January and March 1989, again putting them before Sweet Home.

Gifford goes on to quote a 2008 issue of GameSide (a Japanese magazine dedicated to obscure classic games), which interviewed the creative mind behind WotD, explaining both the game's origin and story.

Katsuya Iwamoto, producer and designer on the game, told GameSide that the project, like so many of the time, got its start from Dragon Quest. "I got a job as a game designer and they told me to come up with something, so I wrote the basic idea in two or three sheets of notebook paper," he said. "There weren't any horror games back then, really, so I wanted to make one. Dragon Quest taught me how I could tell a story through video games, so I wanted Shiryou Sensen to move along like that, too.' The game he came up with, especially in its PC Engine incarnation, certainly betrays Iwamoto's inspiration; it plays much like a modern-day Dragon Quest but with Zelda II-like battles, because Iwamoto thought turn-based fighting with guns and grenade launchers would be weird.

Set in the small town of Chaney's Hill, the game stars Lila, a member of the US Army's team of paranormal investigators: S-SWAT (Supernatural and Special Weapon Attack Team). She's sent to the area after all communications are cut off and an entire company of Marines disappears without a trace. The plot (involving a portal to another world and the family that's secretly protected it for generations) is a little bit Escape from New York and a little bit Stephen King's The Mist, both of which Iwamoto claims as inspirations.

As stated by Gifford, the game is indeed a lot like Zelda II, with its overworld map and side-on battles. Except there are no dungeons as such, only a few interior locations such as a school and hospital to explore. The basic premise is that protagonist Lila has to wander the town, rounding up surviving townsfolk and marines, and leading them back to a church (where the priest is named Carpenter, after horror film director John Carpenter). What this equates to is a series of fetch quests, since each survivor has to be saved in a specific order which can't be deviated from, and only one can be led back to the church at a time.

All three versions of the first game start off extremely linear, until you find the raft, whereupon the rivers and lake can be explored and the entire town is available to you, giving the game an almost sandbox feel to it. This is deceptive though. The first game's biggest fault is that progress, despite the impression of non-linearity, is shackled to a very archaic, specifically ordered lock-and-key quest. Even if you stumble across a key character and talk to them, unless the immediately preceding flag has been triggered, they will be absolutely useless and you will be forced to visit them again later to trigger the next flag. Mildly annoying if you can read Japanese, since you're forced to repeatedly talk to everyone multiple times for clues, it renders the game almost impossible if you can't read Japanese. Failure to pick up on names mentioned results in random traipsing around the map, hoping you stumble across the right flag-triggering person to chat with.

In spite of this steep barrier to entry, the 'launch trilogy' of WotD games are worth struggling with, at least for a time, and to alleviate language woes we've provided a loosely translated walkthrough for the PC Engine version, which should suffice at least until someone does a fan-translation.

Most characters are named after someone connected to horror films, and generally are also connected to each other in some way, either as Vietnam war veterans from the same platoon, or as secret lovers. As you rescue more survivors snippets are revealed through conversation. All portraits were redrawn between ports: on the left is the MSX shot, the middle the PC-88, and right side the PC Engine portrait.

Characters

Lila

Or possibly Laila, Lyra or Raila depending on how you interpret the Katakana. Born June 5th 1966, she's the youngest member of S-SWAT (the game is set in the late 1980s). It turns out she was actually born in Chany's Hill, and is gifted with psychic powers (represented by the green bar in-game). These allow her to temporarily increase her weapon's power, and as her psychic gauge goes up so does her defence.

Carpenter

Named after horror film director John Carpenter. A priest from the church which survived the initial monster attack. He tends to the wounded survivors and often gives advice on where next to proceed.

Carrie

Almost definitely named after Stephen King's book Carrie, which saw a film release in 1976. First survivor along with Carpenter. Studying folklore at University, Whitman is her teacher. Becomes friends with Lila and turns up in the WotD sequel.

Harvard

Exclusive to the MSX version, found in the library which appears as a ruin in the PC-88 and PC Engine versions.

Whitman

Maybe named after Walt Whitman. Exclusive to the PC-88 and PC Engine versions, replacing Harvard. Teacher of Carrie, he's found in the underground ruins on the small island in the middle of the lake.

Mayor

The mayor of Chany's Hill is named Wells. Could be named after author HG Wells, who wrote some horror stories. Uncooperative and troublesome, he's the first survivor you rescue. Found in the town hall.

Janet

The closest we could think of, relating to horror and the name Janet, is Janet Weiss in the Rocky Horror Picture Show (there's also a character called Weiss in the game's sequel). Here she's a teacher at the local primary school, found in a classroom alongside Franklin. Slightly traumatised by witnessing the deaths of children in the recent incident.

Carol

Several obscure connections to horror - likely erroneous. Hiding in the school's top floor after being separated from her teacher Janet (in the MSX version she's inside a box). Can't be rescued until you've first saved Wells. After meeting her you need to find her teacher and then return.

Franklin

Both actress Pamela Franklin (Legend of Hell House) and actor John Franklin (Children of the Corn) were known for starring in horror films. This foul-mouthed sergeant is a survivor of the initial troop deployment, found in the school.

Mayor

The mayor of Chany's Hill is named Wells. Could be named after author HG Wells, who wrote some horror stories. Uncooperative and troublesome, he's the first survivor you rescue. Found in the town hall.

Gordon

Master sergeant of the first troop deployment, and Franklin's commanding officer. In the MSX version he teaches Lila various techniques. Loves a good smoke.

Romero

Named after horror film director George Romero. S-SWAT captain and a great team leader, he can be found in the island ruins where he was attacked by monsters and wounded.

Mayor

The mayor of Chany's Hill is named Wells. Could be named after author HG Wells, who wrote some horror stories. Uncooperative and troublesome, he's the first survivor you rescue. Found in the town hall.

Cronenburg

Named after 'body horror' film director David Cronenburg. Senior to Lila, she's the assistant commander for S-SWAT. Has extremely strong psychic powers. Is found injured under the cemetery.

Mayor

The mayor of Chany's Hill is named Wells. Could be named after author HG Wells, who wrote some horror stories. Uncooperative and troublesome, he's the first survivor you rescue. Found in the town hall.

Cameron

Probably named after film director James Cameron, a lot of whose early films were partially horror. Second-lieutenant in S-SWAT, once rescued he gives you the shotgun.

Wes

Probably named after horror director Wes Craven. Mysterious character with the surname Browning who keeps popping up in random places.

Peter

Tough talking Vietnam veteran who runs the local drugstore. Deep down is a nice guy. He doesn't leave the store until late into the game, after which he gives you the flamethrower.

Dr. Bus

Later in the game he's found in the hospital's underground morgue, performing autopsies on corpses to try to ascertain the cause of recent events. He gives you the key to the locked room on the second floor.

Sandra

Nurse working for Dr. Bus, found in the hospital's locked room looking after Patrick. In the MSX version she performs a blood transfusion from Lila to Patrick, which results in an event that explains his nightmares.

Patrick

Possibly named after 1978 horror film of the same name. Found in the same locked room as nurse Sandra. Suffers from terrible nightmares. The blood donation event in the MSX version was removed from later ports, leaving the nightmares unexplained.

Fran

Travelling with her boyfriend Stephen in the mountains, they became separated when the monsters attacked. Hides out in the log cabin on the eastern side of the map. Stubbornly refuses to be rescued, instead choosing to wait for Stephen.

Stephen

Possibly named after horror writer Stephen King. In the MSX version he's killed before he can be rescued. In later ports he's discovered in Peter's store, searching for food. When brought back to the church he gives you special light.

Omadon

A native American, she's the oldest person in Chany's Hill. Normally lives in the mountain log cabin on the eastern side of the map, she has a lot of knowledge regarding ancient legends, and sheds light on recent events.

Without the subsequent remake on PC-88 and then updated port to PC Engine, it's fair to say that War of the Dead would never have seen a sequel. Put succinctly, this initial MSX2 release fails on pretty much every level, and is so bugged you can't actually play it without cheating. Even so, it did have some interesting ideas, not all of which carried over to later releases.

As mentioned by its creator Katsuya Iwamoto, the game copies Dragon Quest albeit with a horror setting. Movement is slow and tile-based, while actions such as talk, search and take need to be selected from a menu which is in English. Battles are random like in the DQ series, except real-time instead of turn based. You're confined to a single screen with one or more enemies, whose health all contributes to a kind of collective health bar at the bottom, and have to either shoot your way out, dispatch them with a knife, or escape. You can run from most battles, but only if you reach the rightmost side of the screen, which means getting past and most likely touching an instant-death enemy.

And here is its first failing. Whereas most RPGs initiate a random battle after a set amount of steps have been made, or in some cases they roll a random number each time you make a step, here it rolls a random number every real-world second the game is running, meaning it's quite possible to have two fights in a row, within one second of each other, without ever even touching the controller.

The opening sees Lila standing outside the game's church, inside of which is the only safe place without battles. Interestingly the game introduces a constantly shifting 24-hour day and night cycle, along with a counter for the number of days you've survived. Although it doesn't appear to have any affect on the game's mechanics, this is still an extremely cool idea, and there are about half-a-dozen discernable periods of light and dark depending on the time. Dawn starts off gloomy, the early morning is pleasant, midday is especially bright and midnight is pitch black. At any point you can also choose to sleep (between 1-9 hours) from the menu, which speeds up time and recharges health. Although you can sleep anywhere and no enemies will attack, sleeping the full 9 hours only refills a tiny amount of health.

Heading out from the church you have only the ability to punch, attack with a knife or shoot a basic gun which starts with 99 bullets. Ammunition is scarce and found only in a few remote crates. Until you find a better weapon it's possible to use psychic energy to temporarily enhance the power of your current weapon, but even then the improvement is negligible. Unlike Dragon Quest, and the later PC Engine instalment, there is also no levelling system. This means the fights serve absolutely no purpose other than to slow you down and drain what little life you have.

This is the game's second big failing. You are constantly underpowered and it doesn't check what state you're in regarding health and weapons when starting a random battle. Quite often it'll throw several high-level enemies at you, which cannot even be damaged with your current weapon, and are so large you can't get past to escape. Even when you do encounter a low level fight, such as zombies, a large group can easily consume nearly your entire clip of 99 bullets before falling. The knife is more powerful, and fells a lot of enemies in one hit, but this requires getting close to an enemy which can instantly kill you.

While it is obscenely difficult, the MSX2 release has a somewhat smaller world than the later remakes. For a start you find the inflatable raft in a box in the school's attic, which is much closer to the church than in later games, while the traversable water area is considerably smaller. Some buildings such as the boat house are missing entirely, and the cemetery is much easier to reach. In fact the map bears little resemblance to later versions. Having said that, the game still goes out of its way to make this small world frustrating to explore. There are fires all over the place which block your path, turning everything into a tricky maze.

The MSX2 version also has a few exclusive things, such as the survivor named Harvard and several additional dead NPCs whose corpses you can find, along with a handful of extra enemies and a unique end boss. It also contains items not found in later games, such as the sleeping bag which increases healing when resting, and night-vision goggles which improves your attack during dark.

The screens shown here were only taken thanks to BlueMSX's handy cheat menu which allows infinite health, since otherwise the game is impossible. Quite how it came to market without anyone picking up on this is baffling - and such descriptions of the difficulty aren't exaggerations. Unless the use of emulators has somehow affected the game's internal mechanics (perhaps a copy protection mechanism), the original release of War of the Dead is, quite genuinely, unplayable. Even though you can save and load anywhere, at any time, this doesn't make it any less difficult - if anything, it's only likely to get you saved into an impossible position.

More than one source online has claimed that music was only introduced in the PC Engine port, but in fact both the MSX2 and PC-88 games had some fairly decent and atmospheric music. The MSX2 version's overworld and menu tunes are actually more sombre than the PC Engine version.

Playing it today

Although things like the day/night cycles and ability to sleep are cool, there really isn't a need to play this. It's unrelentingly terrible, and you're better off looking at the screens. If you absolutely must, the ROM is easily available (there's a DSK image floating around, but this appears to be corrupt). BlueMSX is essential, since it allows for cheats and quick saving. Certain other MSX emulators refuse to load the game due to an SRAM ERROR, which isn't easily corrected. There are no detailed guides or videos online.

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