Falcom RPGs are always a welcome sight but for Sega perhaps never more so than back in 1994 when they were pushing their ‘Mega Role Play Project’: a series of mostly unrelated games across the Mega Drive and Mega CD designed to prove there was a role-playing alternative to the almighty SNES. It’s fair to say that at best this little marketing idea could be described as too little, too late - when the opposition’s doling out genre classics like sweets you’re just not going to win with games that can be described as ‘ARPG by that Streets of Rage guy’ ‘Game Gear SRPG remakes on CD’ and ‘Zelda with animals’.
So Sega played what they hoped would be their trump card; a partnership with Falcom that would see some of their popular games brought to Sega’s 16-bit systems - not mere licensed re-imaginings like the majority of Hudson’s PC-Engine output or the weak ports found on the Super Famicom, but quality transplants that stayed true to the originals but also fit their target hardware like a glove.
And so we come to Dragon Slayer: Legend of Heroes on the Mega Drive, a game that managed to be both the sixth entry in one series and the first in another. We probably need quick history lesson here: Once upon a time Falcom made a game called Dragon Slayer and followed it up over the years with various other completely different games under the same ‘umbrella’, for example: Xanadu (Dragon Slayer II), Romancia (Dragon Slayer Jr), and Sorcerian (Dragon Slayer V) – not one of these games have anything to do with each other or Legend of Heroes. Falcom decided to then continue Legend of Heroes as a spinoff series in its own right, which again can be split into its own separate chunks – I and II form a complete story, as do III-V, then we hit Legend of Heroes VI and the ongoing tangled web that is the [Word] no Kiseki series. The first Legend of Heroes can be considered broadly analogous to Enix’s first Dragon Quest; a generally straightforward but charming story-driven RPG with several grinding ‘checkpoints’ that must be tediously gnawed through to progress.
This heavy grinding may be an absolute necessity but Falcom did at least to go some serious lengths to make it a little more bearable: health and magic are completely refilled when you gain a level, clever party battle AI that lets you decide exactly who will and won’t use spells, items, or healing magic during a fight, but best of all is definitely the game over screen that allows you the choice of either waking up at the nearest safe town with all the XP and items you’d gained up to that point intact or to restart on the world map/in the dungeon a split second before the battle that killed you started, giving you just enough time to run away from the on-screen enemy or charge in for another go. It’s fair to say that an even better feature would have been to slash the XP needed to reach every level by 75% (or more) so you didn’t have to to tape down right on your d-pad and walk away for an hour, but at least this way there’s only one pain in the arse to deal with rather than mountains of annoyances piled on top of time-sucking tedium.
Levelling may take forever but mercifully the story, when you can get to it, is pleasant and to the point - more towards the Ancient Land of Ys than Ao no Kiseki end of the Official Falcom Scale of Plot-Related Gabbing™, but still filled with the sort of interesting characters and exciting scenarios you’d expect from the legendary developer. I also want to take a moment here to praise the game’s dungeon design – I tend to curl up in fear at the thought of navigating old computer-based caves and labyrinths, but the areas found here tend to be on the smaller side and without the lengthy corridors leading to soul-crushing dead ends found in similar titles. Being able to see enemies running about definitely helps to alleviate the sting of frequent battling as you can at least see how many enemies are lining up to bash your head in, and as an added bonus they don’t tend to respawn unless you switch floors or leave the area.
Unfortunately the Mega Drive port of Legend of Heroes biggest problem is that the game is ‘just’ a good port of a decent RPG – an RPG that when it came out had already been on every other major Japanese computer system and console going. As an attempt to bolster Sega’s RPG line-up it failed completely, coming out so late that even Turbo Duo-owning US gamers were able to play it in English several years before this otherwise competent port, and Super Famicom gamers were too busy with Final Fantasy VI or looking forward to Chrono Trigger to care about the crisp graphics and beautiful soundtrack on a game Epoch had already brought to Nintendo’s RPG-loving format back in 1992.
Today the Mega Drive version of Legend of Heroes should be considered a good port of a good game, just one that lacks the raw authenticity of the computer originals (some of which are now available on Project EGG) or the extra flash of the PC Engine or later Windows and Saturn/Playstation remakes. If you like what you see and you can find it for a decent price then you won’t be disappointed, but there’s no reason to seek out this particular release over any other.