Review by Pluvius
This is the kind of game that makes you wonder why Nintendo even bothered with a Seal of Quality.
Anyone who professes to be a gamer has played some bad games in his time, and probably even has a pet favorite to mention, be it Superman 64, Shaq Fu, or Custer's Revenge. Most of those bad games are worthy of criticism because of things like a sloppy interface, frustrating level design, and tedious gameplay mechanics, but rarely does a game come along that is bad because its developers clearly didn't even put in the minimal effort required to make sure the fundamentals of the game even worked. The most infamous example of this is Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing, a PC game that was so horrendously flawed that it couldn't have been out of alpha stage when it was put on retail shelves. Though Distant Legend of Jarvas (henceforth "Jarvas") isn't as bad as that game (indeed, it's unlikely that any commercial game from now until the end of time will accomplish that), it does leave one scratching the head as to who thought that it was worth releasing in its current state.
Jarvas supposedly takes place in the distant future; in a backstory ripped off of Planet of the Apes, your character is a space explorer who comes back to Earth many centuries after he left due to relativistic effects, only to find that civilization has disappeared. (Japanese gamers like to make fun of the fact that the astronaut seems to be more concerned about the lack of hamburgers than anything else.) This isn't really relevant to the game at all, though, since beyond the fact that you're wearing a space suit at the beginning and the fact that the game world looks vaguely like Earth with some bits removed and thrown around, Jarvas is indistinguishable from a generic fantasy action-RPG. Well, aside from all of the bad bits.
For some reason which Jarvas completely fails to mention, your character thinks that the best way to make light of his bad situation is to become a warlord and conquer all seven continents. You do this by the usual method of fighting monsters and gaining experience as well as by becoming famous and gathering soldiers so you can take over each continent's castle. Most of the game is played through a top-down POV while the castle and dungeon sections use a Zelda-II-like side view. You have both a melee weapon and a ranged weapon, though the latter isn't available until you get to the second continent. There are also three classes from which you can select at any time, each with different equipment and one with the ability to cast spells.
Unfortunately, that's as much as I can say about Jarvas without talking about what's wrong with it; this is because everything is wrong with it. Firstly are the simple flaws in design that have been seen in many better games. The most obvious of these are the aesthetics; the graphics are bland and new monsters are often just palette-swapped versions of old ones, while the music is the same couple of tinny ditties played over and over again. Your character also moves rather slowly and often gets hung up on his surroundings, making moving through the countryside aggravating. This is made doubly annoying by the fact that you can only make money by going on fetch quests, most of which are longer than they're worth. Getting fame also takes a long time; the only way to do it is to pay 50 gold pieces to a guild in order to duel one of its members, and winning (which can be very tricky for reasons described later) gives you only one point. (You need around 100 to beat the game.) And some important items can only be found through the "Search" command, and hints as to where to find them are often vague to the extreme.
Then there are the problems with Jarvas that go beyond the usual and well into the absurd. The first thing a careful gamer will notice is that buying new melee weapons and armor doesn't actually do anything. No, seriously; one of the most basic aspects of an RPG doesn't work at all. At least your projectile weapons actually work as intended, and leveling does cause your attack and defense to increase, but even with those mediating factors, the game becomes ridiculously hard toward the end. Those duels I was talking about? Unless you're a very high level, you'll lose as soon as the enemy touches you because of this, and the only way to stop that from happening is if you take advantage of a glitch by hitting him while he's in mid-air, which for some reason causes him to twirl around ineffectually until he's dead.
Because of this, money is only useful for ranged weapons, duels, passes that allow you to cross border gates, and healing drugs. Notice that I didn't say anything about inns; that's because there aren't any. Furthermore, drugs are only purchasable in two or three places in the entire game. Even though you can carry up to 16 at a time and they heal 50 HP each, this combined with your character's lack of useful equipment can often mean a lot of wasted time and money backtracking. This can be counteracted somewhat if you're a high level by becoming a mage, who has a healing spell. However, magic in Jarvas costs experience points, which is probably the dumbest idea I've ever heard for a magic system. At least you can't lose levels since your XP meter resets with each advancement, but it renders magic mostly pointless.
If there were only one thing I could mention that makes Jarvas pointlessly hard, it would be the way NPCs, both friendly and hostile, appear on the map. Instead of being in a predefined spot where they appear once you scroll to their location, there are instead lines on the map that cause characters to appear from the edges of the screen once you cross them. The terrible thing about this in relation to enemies is that they always appear three at a time (two at a time in the castles) and from different directions, so every time you're attacked, you're surrounded. The terrible thing about this in relation to friends is that the trigger zones extend a pretty long way, and their simple logic doesn't take scenery into account, so you'll often cause characters to spawn in unreachable locations. This is most obvious in towns, where characters will appear on the other side of the outer walls unless you have the screen scrolled in such a way that the character is forced to spawn in a good place. There are still a couple of characters I've been unable to talk to because of this lazy piece of programming. Combined with the lack of distinctive sprites, it also makes it hard to know which people I've talked to and which I haven't.
Even the hardware that Jarvas is placed on is critically flawed. In these early days of battery-powered SRAM, Taito thought that it would be a good idea to make the battery user-replaceable through a port on the front of the cartridge. Though the battery is easy and inexpensive to replace, doing so will erase the save data in the SRAM, making the exercise somewhat pointless. On top of that, if you have a cart that doesn't contain a battery--or, let's say, you're playing Jarvas on an emulator--you'll be totally unable to save the game, and dying will force you to start all over from the beginning, even if you didn't push the reset button.
If all of this wasn't enough to make you quit playing Jarvas, it still has a trump card up its sleeve that it doesn't reveal until you get to the first town on the second continent. In that town as well as in many others, there are houses--totally identical from the outside to all of the other houses, mind you--that contain cultists that cryptically tell you to "retrain yourself." When you leave the house, you are teleported back to the game's starting location. As I said, this is done with no warning at all, and you can only figure out which houses to avoid through trial and error. It can take a lot of travel to get back to some of these towns, and some of them have multiple houses like this. Who thought that this would be a fun game element? There are also "inns" that do something similar, except they send you back to a random part of the game world; that's only slightly less idiotic.
If there's one good thing about Jarvas, it would be the concept behind conquering the continents. To take over a castle, you have to have an army of soldiers. You get soldiers by increasing your fame, then going out to find friendly NPCs and gain their allegiance with the "Recruit" command. There are several different types of soldiers, some of which are indigenous to certain continents, and you need special mixtures of them to take most of the castles. There are other soldiers who hold ranks of command, and they can give you advice about how to take a particular castle. This sounds like an interesting twist to the usual formula, but even here Taito squandered its potential. What it eventually amounts to is just an added waste of time, with you going back and forth in areas with soldiers and hiring them 25 at a time (some castles require 1000 or more) before you enter the castle and go through a boring and difficult sidescrolling section that doesn't relate to what you just did at all.
I've played plenty of bad games in my time, but Jarvas definitely goes down as one of the worst. I have lots of patience with games that are badly flawed but at least seem to have involved an attempt to craft a fun experience--I've even been known to like quite a few of them. But games like Jarvas are made by people who aren't even trying, or maybe do try but are foiled by publishers who force deadlines regardless of how finished the games are. Games like Jarvas only prove that just about any company can get a console game licensed if it has money, and serve only to remind us to never assume that a game on the shelf is actually playable.
Product Release: Mirai Shinwa Jarvas (JP, 06/30/87)
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