Review by Pluvius
A valiant attempt at adding computer RPG fundamentals to a console RPG.
Anyone who knows anything about console RPGs knows that one of the great inspirations for the early ones was Richard Garriott's Ultima series. Dragon Quest, the most important Eastern pioneer, borrowed some of the superficial ideas that Ultima innovated, such as the tile-based overworld map and the basic layout of towns, and most other console RPGs aped this. Very rarely, however, did developers have the nerve to carry over one of the most fundamental aspects of computer RPGs--nonlinearity. Kaijuu Monogatari ("Shell Monsters Story") by Namco is one of the few early console RPGs that tried to combine the Dragon Quest style with the openness of Ultima, and as with many experiments, it didn't entirely succeed.
Before I get into what makes this game interesting, I'll say what little I can about the window dressing. The graphics are about as expected from an RPG of this era--that is to say, painful to the eyes. Story and characterization are nearly nonexistent; the four main characters, each of which represent one of the Aristotelian elements but only in the sense of their physical attributes (they have no personalities), are tasked to save the world from Fat Badger (no, I didn't make that up) through the power of love blah blah blah. The battle system is no surprise to anyone who's played one of the party-based NES Dragon Warriors; even a lot of the magic spells are similar (with the exception that magic is nearly useless in Kaijuu Monogatari). Not much else to say than that.
What distinguishes Kaijuu Monogatari from all of the DW clones you may have played is how much you can do right from the start and how little concrete direction that you're given. At the beginning of the game, your four party members are each placed at the corners of this flat world, cutely relating to their elemental nature. You can play any of these four characters at any time, and when one meets another, they can join together, after which you can decide to have them part ways if you wish. The split nature of the early game gives the gameworld four distinct regions (much like the original Ultima) surrounding a fifth "late-game" region. Each of the first four regions has a number of goals that are similar, though they can be completed after you get your party together if you wish. Also, unlike most console RPGs which make you do something before you can get better transportation, all you need to do to get a boat is buy it. (It's only a two-seater, but you can get a four-seater easily enough right afterwards if you know what you're doing.) So you can go just about anywhere in the gameworld very early if you wish, provided you do the requisite leveling.
And you're going to have to do a lot of leveling. Simply getting your party members together requires at least two of them to be at around Level 10 simply so they can make it by themselves through the difficult areas that connect the regions together. Leveling becomes no less important later on, and takes forever considering how little XP the battles give you. Of course, using an emulator allows you to manipulate luck in your favor so you can run away from the random battles and save your strength for bosses, but that's not really an advantage.
There are a number of things that you have to do that will make you go around the decent-sized gameworld many times over; buy specialized equipment for your characters, find treasure, use that treasure to solve puzzles and find more treasure, and so forth. The game becomes more and more linear as it goes along, since you naturally have less and less things you have to do, but the endgame (which is probably the best part) is a microcosm of the entire game before it; your characters are split up in a dungeon where they have to regroup, buy equipment, and find treasure so they can get to the final battle with Fat Badger.
The biggest stumbling block with this game is that it's very confusing, and this seems to be mostly the fault not of the game itself, but of its translation. Sometimes it's very hard to figure out where to go or how to get an item because the text isn't clear. Lots of people refer to places as being "to the east" or "southwest of [town name]" when it turns out that these are about the vaguest descriptions you could possibly give for the actual location of the place. A number of times things are said that make absolutely no sense at all, and glitches in the dialogue abound. I ended up having to cheat to beat the game because I couldn't find one of the items necessary to beat the final boss properly. Yes, the game actually lets you skip getting some items if you're clever or boneheaded enough to do so. Whether this is a good thing, or whether it was even intended, is a problem left up to the reader.
I don't know if this was the first traditional console RPG Namco was responsible for (though I have played an ancient action-RPG of theirs that originated in the arcades called Dragon Buster). If it was, however, it was a decent novice effort. To see that, though, you'll have to look past frustrating difficulty and a mediocre translation, and I don't think most gamers now-a-days would be willing to do either.
Rating: 2.5 - Playable
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