Category Archives: Retro Games

Retro Review: Destiny of an Emperor

I’m continuing my retro reviews with Destiny of an Emperor.  Destiny of an Emperor is an RPG for the NES released in North America in 1990.  Like Bandit Kings of Ancient China, it takes place in Ancient China.  Unlike Bandit Kings of Ancient China it was made by Capcom.  Yes Capcom, famous for their action games during the 8-bit era, decided to make a Role Playing Game.

Story

Destiny of an Emperor is loosely based on the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which in turn is loosely based on Chinese history from the late 2nd to 3rd centuries.  The game opens in the middle of a ceremony in a peach grove where Liu Bei, Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei swear eternal brotherhood.  A group of rebels called the Yellow Scarves are causing havoc and doing other unspecified things and armies from across Ancient China are gathering to deal with the situation and restore order.

Gameplay

What I am going to describe will sound like every other 8-bit RPG, and for the most part it is, but it plays somewhat differently than its contemporaries.  The main game is a vaguely overhead view of your characters as they walk through towns, castles, caves, and the roads and wildernesses of Ancient China.  Your party consists of up to 7 generals, who have soldiers, which are glorified Hit Points, restorable by a quick stay at the inn.  There are also weapons and armor that a general can equip that will bestow their bonuses upon the general’s soldiers.  Magic spells are available but called “Tactics” and require a tactician to cast.  While walking from location to location the party will face random encounters that require a battle to resolve.  There are more difficult boss fights to direct the progress through the story.

There are many small differences between this and most other 8-bit RPGs, starting with the pacing of the game.  Your characters don’t shamble around like in Final Fantasy or Dragon Warrior, they sprint from sparsely decorated area to sparsely decorated area.  Random battles are usually very rapid, there’s a special battle command called “All Out” that just lets the AI take over and commit to random attacks until one side is all corpses.  This is used for most random encounters.  Speaking of random encounters, there are roughly four basic enemies in the game: Rebel Force, Bandit Force, Brigand Force, and if you are near water, Pirate Force.  These enemies are all basically identical.  They attack you.  That’s it.  As you move on through the game they become more difficult.  It seems like the developers got lazy for the later parts of the game, with only Rebel Force available to battle.  Every battle: Rebel Force.

Now that’s not entirely accurate – There are also enemy generals that can join the Rebel Forces and provide a much more difficult challenge.  Enemy generals, if their part in the story is completed, can also be recruited to join your party, which can provide for interesting gameplay.  It’s exciting to be able to upgrade your core team, and the cycle of different generals into your party is one of the core gameplay elements that makes Destiny of an Emperor stand out.

Boss fights are predetermined collections of generals and Rebel Forces, almost always defending castles, gates, or citadels.  Boss battles represent capturing or liberating these territories.  It gives you the feeling that you’re fighting winning battles in an epic war, rather than just going from location to location in the plot (which is what you’re actually doing).

The Mechanics are very simple.  You do damage based on your general’s strength, weapon equipped, and number of soldiers.  Success of tactics is probably mostly determined by the intelligence of the casting general and the target general.  While the complexity of some games is what makes them fun and interesting, the simplicity of this one is what gives it its charm.  The downside to the simplicity is that later in the game some battles can be very luck based and frustrating.  “Oh no!  The assassination spell murdered my best generals!  Game over!”

So?

Here is another game that stands the test of time.  Why does it do so?  Because it moves very quickly and is super fun.  The first 2/3 of the game are significantly more fun than the last third, due to the last third feeling like a unrefined version of the mechanics of the first two thirds with way more brutal and cheap enemies.

One part of the game that stands out is where you have a choice of two paths to take.  You can do one path completely or do parts of each path whenever you feel like.  If you try to tackle one path completely, it will be a big challenge, and super fun.  Then you will shred through the second path with ease.

If you can look beyond the primitive graphics and give Destiny of an Emperor a try, I think you will find it very enjoyable.

Retro Review: Bandit Kings of Ancient China

Bandit Kings of Ancient China is a game from Koei, originally released in 1989.  The game itself is based on the Chinese novel Water Margin, or Outlaws of the Marsh, or All Men Are Brothers, or any number of other names.  This is the same source material that the Konami series Suikoden is based on, however Suikoden treats the material much more loosely than Bandit Kings of Ancient China, the latter about the actual characters from the book, the former using the 108 stars of destiny and the “Group of Underdogs” vs. “Evil Empire” meme.

Bandit Kings of Ancient China attempts to be both a strategy and a tactics game, however it does a much better job as a strategy game.  The graphics are primitive, the AI is abysmal, and the interface is difficult to use.  It is a fantastic game, and loads of fun.

The plot of the game revolves around a corrupt government official named “Evil Gao Qiu” and how he usurped power from the Emperor and oppressed the people.  The player takes on the role of a Bandit King, who must stand against Evil Gao Qiu and eventually bring him to justice through military might.  The game is very light on details about what Evil Gao Qiu did to offend these bandits so horrifically.  Other bandits played by the AI also supposedly have the same goal, but they will not work together with you, instead they are trying to kill you alsSwift Vanguardo.  I found this confusing during my first play through of the game… Approximately 23 years ago.

As a bandit king, the player must establish a kingdom.  China is subdivided into many prefectures that can be conquered, or simply moved into if unoccupied.  In most scenarios, the player starts with few or no bandit hero underlings.  The fun and challenge of the game is using limited turns to expand influence and gain support.  The player directly controls the bandit king, and in doing so gets one turn per month in the prefecture the bandit king controls.  Any additional prefectures owned by the bandit king are controlled by the inept AI, which becomes a challenge to manage.  A bandit king should try to convince his best underlings to swear brotherhood with him.  This makes their loyalty unwavering and allows the player to directly issue orders to territories governed by brothers or sisters.

Bkoac-Map

Turns are spent doing activities such as doing work to improve the prefecture, buy soldiers for or training the army, recruiting people to become bandits, throwing parties or givings gifts to improve loyalty, going to war, responding to events, spying on enemy controlled provinces, etc.  The game is reminiscent of a Euro-board game in forcing the player to balance choices such as, “Should I recruit these generals I captured, spend time and effort ensuring their loyalties, recruiting soldiers, buying weapons for those soldiers, sending in money from other territories to offset the cost…  Or should I press forward with those that are well established and ready?”

The characters are identified by colorful nicknames rather than their actual ancient chinese names.  This makes it much easier to remember them than say, the characters of Romance of the Three Kingdoms.  It is also usually possible to determine the quality of a potential bandit by their name.  Someone named Vicious Head Remover is probably more valuable on the battlefield than someone named Worthless Coward.

So you might be wondering how Bandit Kings of Ancient China compares to other NES Koei games?  Nobunaga’s Ambition, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and to a lesser extent Genghis Khan are the better known Koei strategy games of that era.  Bandit Kings of Ancient China is clearly superior from a modern perspective than the others.  The other games did not age well.  Their pacing is slow, the challenge is inconsistent, they were great for their time, but that is no longer true.  Bandit Kings reduces the number of territories you need to micromanage and makes the overall game winnable (or losable) in a reasonable timeframe.  I believe that this game can stand on its own as a fun game today.

So, how do you get started if you want to give it a try?

LianShanBo is maintained by a random fan and contains downloads for ROMs and documentation, including the invaluable map.

GameFaqs has some great info including a message board with some recent activity.