Usually when I start an article I have a rough idea what it will be about. This is not one of those times. It's month 10 or so of quarantine and day 1 of a projected 10 day sub-zero cold snap in my area. So my weekends and evenings are looking very grim for a little while. Between the lack of direction and self-imposed deadline this article will certainly be disjointed and/or rambling.
About two weeks ago I finished The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV. I've been on a major Falcom bender the past 2-3 years that will end when Breath of the Wild II is released. Well, I've been a fan of Falcom games since the 1980s but lately that's about all I've been playing and writing about.
If you asked me yesterday I would have told you I bought Dragon Slayer: The Legend of Heroes in late 1993 on clearance for $5. I would have been mistaken. I actually bought it for either $9.99 or $19.99 at a Die Hard Game Club store in September 1994.
I remember going to that store a lot but not buying this game. I wish I remembered what other game I bought on that same trip. I think it was Exile 2. I probably started it shortly thereafter and finished it around Xmas. What I am 100% sure about is that once I owned a CD burner I copied the audio tracks and listened to the soundtrack in my car many times. Go ahead and mock me for having a CD wallet filled with 16-bit CD soundtracks in the 1990s. I'm still not ashamed.
I remember liking the game when I played it. In hindsight by 1994 standards it was a little dated in terms of graphics and battle system. Unbeknownst to me it was really 5 years old in 1994. It sounds like a 16-bit game, plays like an 8-bit game, and looks like something in-between. That's what this version is after all, a nice-looking PC-88 game given a larger palette and CD audio.
The series evolved considerably since it's birth in 1989. Here's a meme-type-thing about that:
Of course a game series that lasts 30 years is going to undergo many changes. I believe Mieko Ishikawa is the only person who actively worked on all The Legend of Heroes games, albeit in different roles over the years. Although that's some impressive continuity it doesn't mean the modern games resemble the original all that much. Since it's been almost 27 years I'm curious about what elements from the first game are still present today.
So I think this article will be about the original Legend of Heroes game and how it compares to the modern (as of 2021) series. It will also likely cover how to hack the save RAM since I don't have the patience for 16-bit grinding. It's going to take a lot more than 10 days for that to change. In 1994 I played through this on original hardware, an apparently mandatory disclaimer in these types of articles to establish credibility. Today I am brazenly using an emulator.
From here on out this article contains many plot spoilers for Dragon Slayer: The Legend of Heroes. It will likely spoil some things from later in the franchise although the focus is mostly on the first game.
Meeting expectations, there is a colorful introduction with art that holds-up very well today. I would legit be happy if this style was the intro for a modern day JRPG. This was likely all Hudson's doing as they often added 15 pieces of flair to their TurboGrafx-16 CD ports.
The story itself is, well. Hamlet. The opening chapter is Hamlet. Hamlet itself rips-off Amleth which likely rips-off a long lost source. Everything rips-off something else. A couple years ago when I played Final Fantasy XV I had the same thought. If the lead character in an RPG is a prince you can be assured it will begin with the crown being usurped.
The prince in this case is Logan whose look fits the stereotypical young prince.
The personality of these characters may vary but the appearance does not. The blond-haired, blue-eyed prince has survived through the entire series so far. In this chapter, the (soon to be revealed as) evil Drax assumed regency of the crown until Logan is an adult. The prince is sent off to live in town suitably called Exile.
It is a carefree little town where the prince studies to be king. He does not sing about it as far as I know.
Then suddenly on his birthday the town is invaded and he has to escape through a secret passage. This is where the game gets kind of annoying by today's standards. There is a very steady stream of random enemy encounters. You can get into battles while just standing still.
Random encounters are slightly avoidable in The Legend of Heroes. In some areas the enemy encounters are visible on the map. Later on you can purchase an item that temporarily makes them visible in the overworld. The battles are still difficult to avoid because there are tons and the enemies move quickly. It's not as bad as trying to avoid enemies in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link but it's close.
At the beginning the battles are easy since Logan is equipped with very strong princely weapons. This doesn't last long.
Logan makes the short trip to the capitol, apparently Exile isn't all that remote. There Drax confesses that he killed Logan's father and orchestrated the attack on Exile. He's already announced to the kingdom that Logan was killed in the attack. He sends Logan off to the dungeon in preparation for a formal execution. Like all villains in all media this plan backfires.
Logan is rescued by Ethan who introduces him to an underground resistance movement.
Now that we have multiple party members let's look at hacking the save RAM to max out their levels. To make a long story short, I will not be including a save RAM hacking guide after all.
The raw values for things like HP and EP aren't stored in the save RAM. I won't say they're encrypted, some bits are flipped around in a fairly simple-looking way. There is a checksum though and that's where it becomes a headache. Since this began life as a PC game I suspect this anti-save-hacking algorithm is a holdover.
Instead we have to settle for save state hacking. The address values vary based on the emulator you're using so I'm not writing a guide.
I was surprised to see the game uses a 24-bit number for experience points and gold.
It takes a while to watch the characters gain levels after the first post-hacking battle. They max out somewhere below 10,000,000 EP. Perhaps this incredibly high limit was put in place as an easy way to avoid overflow problems. The game conveniently includes an auto-battle feature, which is a little ahead of its time. This makes the swarms of enemies much more manageable. This feature is sparsely used in future games. In some ways it's unnecessary because in later games it is very easy to avoid battles. Auto-battle is only useful if you feel like grinding against weak enemies in them.
At this point 3 out of 5 playable characters have joined the party, with a 4th who's been met and a 5th soon to appear.
They are a standard assortment of JRPG characters for the time. The number of playable characters available grew with the series. Initially there were temporary characters who joined for part of the story. Later these temporary characters may be available in the end game. Phantasy Star IV and Final Fantasy VI work like this too if you need a reference point. In later games the number of available characters balloons to near Chrono Cross numbers.
As for our current team, their ranking at level 99 goes like:
Markus is not a good character. His low attack is not balanced by having higher intelligence. He does begin with a good assortment of spells. Spells have to be purchased in this game but any character can equip any spell. The general idea of spells being usable by anyone is present in the later Trails games. This is of course not the only series to allow this. Luckily you don't have Markus on your team for very long.
The world in this game is gigantic. Here's the in-game map (because making a full-size world map would take too long):
In the modern series this map would be split into at least 3 games that themselves are split into 3 parts.
Since I'm feeling nice today, here's a version with all the locations labeled:
Without grinding this is a short RPG. All 8/16-bit RPGs would be rather brief with the battles removed. I once wrote an RPG-adjacent 16-bit game that takes exactly one hour if you know the solution. I could very easily turn it into a 40 hour game by adding battles & leveling. I would then have to test a 40 hour game so this is not happening. The Legend of Heroes clocks in around 6-7 hours with level 99 characters because there are still many battles and unskippable dialog. Of course if you use the same save state hacking technique I did then ~1 hour is spent watching characters gain levels.
Prince Logan is able to quickly round-up an army to fight Drax.
Drax escapes setting-up the plot of the second chapter.
At the beginning of chapter 2 Logan can visit any previously explored area without any enemy encounters. The ruins of Exile can be visited but there is nothing to find. It took some attention to detail to make sure the city looked devastated in the off chance someone went back. This general theme of being able to revisit areas at the end of a chapter and find new content is a staple of the series. I forgot this started all the way back in the original game, I wrongfully recalled part III (Moonlight Witch) as the first. In other RPGs of the era it was more common for townspeople to be locked into the same dialog regardless of when you visited.
Chapter 2 also introduces the arbitrary board game you have to play to advance. In this case it's required to purchase more powerful spells. Later in chapter 2 we encounter everyone's favorite RPG trope - the unwinnable boss fight.
Only with level 99 characters the "unwinnable" fight becomes "easily winnable". This triggers a glitch where the boss sprite disappears but when the party re-enters his room the fight starts again. You need to keep re-fighting this boss until you lose which takes a little effort at level 99. Well, just disabling auto-battle and defending each round works. Later games in the series also have unwinnable fights but in those they never let the boss fall below 1 HP. Since most have a New Game+ feature they anticipated over-leveled PCs.
In chapter 2 there is an optional cave that is difficult (if you're not level 99). However, it has a handy reusable item to show maps. Previously you could only purchase a single-use map item.
After finishing chapter 2 it is wise to revisit previous locations. There are some powerful spells only available now. Also if you didn't have the patience for the optional dungeon it is now monster-free.
Chapter 3 is a giant diversion from the main objective of hunting down Drax. The party is initially kidnapped by pirates who also have another mini-game.
The rest of the chapter boils-down to traveling between cities and talking to people to trigger new dialog in another city. It feels a lot like an optional side-quest in the modern series. In this chapter you can obtain the upgraded warp spell which helps tremendously.
To advance you have to find the key. The key was stolen so you talk to the pirates about it. They stole the key but threw it overboard after removing the gem embedded in it. You have to talk to a fisherman in one town to learn that a fisherman in another town caught a big fish. That big fish swallowed the key but the fisherman won't give it back unless you can prove the key is yours. To do that you have to find the gem that goes in the key. The pirate has it but won't give it to you until you talk to his mother. She won't help you until you bring her a warp wing. There's a lot of teleporting and only one cave to explore in chapter 3.
After completing a long list of tasks the party reaches a monster-infested town and fights a boss.
In this boss fight we get the first clue that there is a big evil being coordinating all the big evil stuff happening. This is a good time in the story to introduce them. Many RPGs choose to introduce the big evil boss after you thought you just defeated the big evil boss. A couple otherwise good Final Fantasy games do this at the end and it's infuriating. In The Legend of Heroes the party has encountered several smaller evil leaders by the end of chapter 3. They then learn there is some greater plan behind all this and something called Naja is responsible.
Learning about Naja now becomes a second quest to finding Drax. Both of these kick into high gear in chapter 4.
Chapter 3 was a diversion, we're now racing back to the main objectives. Drax has set up shop in a new town, with the aid of dancer who enchants all the men. Meanwhile you find a woman who shares the legend of Naja. He previously decimated mankind when they became too greedy. This is leading to what I think is an environmentalist message. Mankind abuses nature and nature retaliates by sending Naja. At this point in the story that feels like a stretch but by the end it's clear that's the story. All the other evil things are part of this curse, if you will, over the land that causes mankind to fight one another.
To compare it to the modern Trails series, it would be like if Ouroboros was motivated by saving the planet. The great curse is then intended to reduce the number of people and if that doesn't work then giant dragon.
This is overall a strong chapter. To confront Drax you decide to glide onto the castle roof. The kite maker needs some dragon down to make one strong enough to carry your team of four. This means helping a dragon rancher with a missing egg.
You make it to the roof and Drax challenges Logan to a 1:1 fight at a different location.
Drax doesn't stick to his conditions and Logan has to fight a 3-on-1 battle. He wins and we move on to chapter 5.
Drax is out of the picture but there are still bad things happening everywhere. In the kingdom you just liberated from Drax the princess has been kidnapped.
Chapter 5 is a lot like chapter 3 in that it involves bouncing between some new towns and avoiding the main story.
It feels like a short chapter because at this point you should have an item that makes all enemy encounters visible. A lot of time is also spent in towns.
At the end of the chapter you fight (not that) Gaius and his decoy. If you are not massively over-leveled this is a tough fight. (not that) Gaius is introduced early in this chapter and his story is unimportant. He's a bad guy doing bad things because of Naja.
This leads to the finale which is the best and worst part of the game.
The best, or my favorite at least, part is the beginning when you are free to explore the entire world. There are no enemies anywhere in the world except for the last dungeon. There is new dialog all over the place, even though most is fairly generic congratulatory text. There are several things to find now like a treasure vault and sage island.
Now for an absurd theory... what if the remaining games in the series didn't happen and are just tales you heard at the end of the first game?
No I don't actually believe that theory. Or maybe I do...
To reach the last dungeon you need a pet dragon, the one from the egg you conveniently saved earlier. This allows you to travel anywhere on the map. Of course you could teleport everywhere already except for the sage and last islands. You also need to acquire the only weapon that can harm Naja, luckily you are given two of them. This makes the last boss fight interesting. Only two characters will be able to damage the last boss so the other two better have good supporting spells.
You're now ready to invade the last dungeon which is huge.
This place has a maze, a lava level, caves, and so on. It is very challenging. Parts of it really resemble locations from Ys II.
At this point I began to question whether I really did finish this game in 1994. The last dungeon is just so aggravating even at a high level. Luckily I remembered the last boss fight and ending when I saw it again.
Naja is a very tough boss. In a real playthrough you might be at level 40 by now if you worked at it. I was level 99 this time and had to use healing items. You really do need to plan your party's equipment, items, and spells careful before this fight.
As Naja dies he confirms that mankind is indeed the thing destroying the planet. Logan questions whether he has been on the wrong side this whole time. He gets over it and celebrations ensue.
The ending is good for the time. It is much shorter than Ys I&II on the same system though, disappointing given the length and difficulty of The Legend of Heroes.
Now that we're at the end of the game, let's look at some things in the original Legend of Heroes that are still present in the modern series. These are not necessarily things introduced in or unique to The Legend of Heroes.
I know this looks like a generic list of JRPG stuff but I don't think it is. If I did this same exercise for the original Final Fantasy (and I'm not) I think this would be a much shorter list. In that series it's something like:
For The Legend of Zelda I suspect this list would be at least equal in length. For Phantasy Star the list would have almost zero items at this point. I'm now surprised how little The Legend Heroes series has changed in some very core ways. I naively remembered the first game as being much simpler than it is. In reality it has a lot going on in terms of story and world-building. The modern series is extremely focused on world-building and it's neat to find the origins of that back in the original.