Xtal Soft’s Mugen no Shinzou came out in 1984 for the NEC PC-88, and like the vast majority of other home computers at the time it was strictly speaking a business machine you could play games on, rather than floppy-taking gaming powerhouses that also did word processing like the later X68000 or the Amiga 500. This was a time when owning a colour monitor wasn’t a foregone conclusion, sound was an optional extra, and waiting for every single graphic to draw and then fill itself in wasn’t unheard of or unreasonable.
The reason I’m telling you all this is because Mugen no Shinzou is old. Very old. And you really do need to be prepared for its monumental old-ness before you go anywhere near it.
Your task in this adventure is to guide your lone hero to the titular ‘Mugen no Shinzou’ within 30,000 in-game days or die. This time limit is apparently quite generous but it won’t matter either way for most of us seeing as surviving a single in-game week is a nigh-impossible task. Like most computer RPGs of the early 80’s this game’s got more than a whiff of genre classics Ultima and Wizardry about it, and you will die often to everything and anything that crosses your meandering path across this harsh landscape. Sometimes you’ll be obliterated by a fancy-looking dragon in a few hits, whereas others will see you beaten down by a lowly and needlessly aggressive farmer that you really should have killed three turns ago. The advice, as it always is with this sort of game, is to save often and hope the RNG gods smile on you.
But even with such swift and unpredictable punishment the game still possesses a certain charm as the initial bewilderment of being dumped in the middle of an enormous map with no clue where to go starts to give way to a vague sense of empowerment as you learn roughly where the next town is and try to remember where that tower you stumbled across is for the next time around. If you can get into the right frame of mind your imagination starts to fill in the gaps where the map and event graphics let you down, and you might even find yourself jotting down a few notes on graph paper to help guide your way.
But that’s a rather big ‘if’, and the other side of the ‘charm’ of not knowing where to go or what to do is that you never know where to go or what to do, and the past three decades of game design have proven that it really is OK to create a game people can complete unaided before the sun burns itself out.
I couldn’t help but have this niggling feeling though that Mugen no Shinzou was a bit more basic, unfair, and unpolished than it should be even after trying very hard to adjust to 1984 gaming expectations, so I went and checked to see exactly what else came out around the same time.
As it turns out this was the same year Lords of Midnight, Elite, Karateka, Hydlide and Dragon Slayer came out. It’s fair to say that not all of those were on the PC-88 and therefore they didn’t have the same limitations as Mugen no Shinzou, but nobody’s ever accused the Spectrum of being at the bleeding-edge of technology either. With these games I had my answer – Xtal Soft’s RPG just isn’t all that good. It’s certainly not bad either, but it doesn’t have any real ‘spark’ to it the way the other games I mentioned do, meaning it’s really Just Another RPG. It’s a mildly interesting experience if you’d like to see just how far we’ve come since then, but it’s not something that I feel anyone today should sit down and try to play properly with a hope of seeing through to the end. Regardless of my thoughts on the matter Xtal Soft were able to create two sequels that at the very least look a lot better than this first entry, although I’ll admit I haven’t yet worked up the courage yet to play them myself.
If you do feel like a wander around a very old game and getting hopelessly lost/killed/lost then killed I found a very helpful little guide and map here - http://shamirgame.blog.fc2.com/blog-entry-53.html