Title: Destiny of an Emperor
Over the years, I’ve played through a lot of NES RPGs. From ones in the sort of obscure category, like Sweet Home (1989), Ghost Lion (1992), and Radia Senki (1991), to the more obscure, never-been-translated ones like Niji no Silkroad (1991) and even the truly bizarre Otaku no Seiza: An Adventure in the Otaku Galaxy (1991), I thought I had covered most of the big ones.
Surprisingly, I had completely missed Destiny of an Emperor, which actually did have a North American release and seems to be at least semi-popular with the NES RPG crowd. The first time it was called to my attention was on cly5m’s website, who describes the game as a “high-speed Dragon Warrior with history instead of fantasy.” And that’s exactly what it is.
The player starts out in an innocuous enough JRPG town, complete with excellent pink trees and great NPC dialogue, controlling three party members, Lui Bei, Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei. Notable is that they each starts with equipment in their separate inventories, but the equipment is unequipped, a small detail I’ve never seen in any other JRPG.
Players speak to, I guess, Lui Bei’s mother, who sort of explains that they need to defeat some rebels going by the name of Yellow Turban, who were actually real. Most of the game borrows heavily from Luo Guanzhong’s dramatic novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, written in the fourteenth century, which is based on battles fought during the Three Kingdoms period in ancient China. You know, all the stuff you learned about from Dynasty Warriors.
Early on, the governor, Tao Qian, falls ill, and Lui Bei takes over, leaving the player’s party, which is a major blow to the party’s damage output. His son eventually joins the party, though, which gives the whole situation a Dragon Quest V (1992) vibe. The whole game is drenched in Dragon Quest qualities, and any screenshot from the overworld or town segment could easily be from Dragon Quest III (1988). For those that have an affinity with world map sprites, NPC homes surrounded by black voids, and a wide array of RPG abstractions (like carrying a horse in one’s inventory), this game is pretty great.
The game has a much quicker pace than something like Dragon Quest III, though, which is evident simply from the fast walking pace of the party. Battle consists of up to five party members against up to five enemies, and there is a great “all out” attack option that is essentially an auto-battle option, but moves even quicker, making random encounters not too bad. The encounter rate is abysmally high (I once had five encounters in five steps), even for a game of its ilk, and some party members are very frail. Even though the stretches in between towns is very small compared to other JRPGs, a party can be easily routed and destroyed during a single “all out.”
But the battle system has a real depth to it, and this is what makes the game unique. A full party consists of seven members, five battlers, one “tactician,” and one extra fighter. The game is akin to the Suikoden games in that there is a very large cast of characters to recruit, and an even larger number of party combinations to be made.
Strangely, the game has a similar flow to that of Dragon’s Dogma (2012), where players constantly switch in new, stronger party members as the game goes on. Recruitable characters can be found in towns, after story-related events, and even in random encounters, where players can get lucky or bribe unique enemies to join up a la Shin Megami Tensei (and just as random, too, as most recruits just want a “good horse,” of which I never, apparently, had).
Each new recruit must be checked out for decent stats in a town with a recruit center (few and far between, annoyingly), and can be placed into the party. Near the end of the game, I had amassed quite the little Pokédex of ancient Chinese generals, each one with semi-unique strengths and weaknesses. While this flexibility and level of customization feels very modern, it is very difficult to tell which generals are overpowered and which ones just are not viable for combat, and the menus are maddeningly slow to operate. Even more complicated (or, I guess, obscure) is figuring out which general should be the party’s tactician, which alters the party’s growth during level ups (the party levels up as a whole, which is pretty unique, too). Some generals are OP tacticians, while most are a complete waste of time (use the FAQs).
Still, there is a nice rhythm in recruiting new units, checking their stats, and configuring them with a nice inventory of equipment and recovery items. It can get a bit monotonous, but it’s ultimately satisfying. The game’s a tad grind-heavy, like most NES JRPGs, and some of the later boss battles are incredibly difficult without proper strategy. Also interesting is the fact that instead of HP, the health points assigned to each general are the number of soldiers each general commands, meaning that with every random encounter, hundreds of soldiers are slain. It doesn’t really add up, obviously, but it’s a kind of funny RPG abstraction that I like.
Unlike many early JRPGs, nothing bad happens at all if the player gets a game over, which is refreshing, considering a party can get wiped out in one go by the right enemy. Each general can learn spells (also given Chinese names, making it tough to distinguish spells from other spells and other character names for English-only speakers), and the spells draw from a party-shared magic points pool. It’s a neat system that forces players to strategize during big boss fights because of its limitations.
Overall, the game features a high quality of NES JRPG greatness. Many NPCs refer to players by the leader of the party’s name, making the adventure feel unique and possibly even adding some emergent depth to the plot if players are familiar with the characters. The first large boss fight, the climax of the first act, has an alternate route leading up to it, which affects the battle and its outcome if players are smart – by recruiting a local rebel through random encounters, players can trick a bandit to build an underground bridge, thus creating a shortcut to an easier fight, which is pretty elaborate for an NES game.
Obviously, there is a large amount of information kept away from players due to the game’s age (or just bad design). It’s impossible to tell how strong weapons and armor are, other than by checking how much money they cost. And it’s a nightmare to try to exchange items through the limited inventory.
There’s a provision system, where players can buy “provisions” for their party, which get consumed, but I was never sure what they did and because boss battles award players with so many extra provisions, I just never even worried about it. Something else I noticed was that the health bars during battle change from pink to orange to whitish blue for no reason (I guess the same can be said about Gargoyle’s Quest II), which I sort of liked because it felt weird and archetypal and it emphasized that I was progressing in the game.
But what really caught me off guard with the game was the uncanny music. The opening menu music (instead of starting a game, players “register a history book”), which is also the first town’s theme, is this desperate, longing 8-bit guitar track, and my love for it is indefinite. But the battle music,a track with a lot of jazzy, hype, felt oddly familiar. After a trip to Wikipedia, I realized that Hiroshige Tonomura, composer for DuckTales (1989) (NOT Yoshihiro Sakaguchi, despite popular belief), also composed the music for Destiny of an Emperor, and that the track sounds a good deal like the “African Mines” theme. Tonomoura, composer of the notorious “The Moon” theme, one of the most beloved tracks in all of video gaming, is great here, giving each track a slight ancient Chinese motif.
Destiny of an Emperor was a great discovery and, like Radia Senki, an NES RPG oddity that is actually a pretty well-designed game.
All the Chinese names and spells begin to blur together, adding to the ancient graphics and text, giving the game an almost other-worldly quality. Some of the names, Lu Bu, for instance, who lives up to the fear for him ingrained in me by Dynasty Warriors, seem familiar, but most of the characters float in and out of the plot, like a sporadic hallucination of a JRPG. There are so many towns and locations in the game to the point where the plot never seems to focus on one point for more than ten minutes, making the whole experience even more dizzying, but by the end of the game, one will feel as if they have actually made a difference in this strange alternate, abstracted version of ancient China.
-Nilson Thomas Carroll, 2014