Review by Deathspork

Reviewed: 08/06/03

1001 Arabian Fights

”Culture Brain has done it again!”

That’s a quote that won’t be found in any magazine, though it ought to be. Culture Brain might never have had a Castlevania or a Ninja Gaiden under their belt, but when they would step up to the plate, they would bring something altogether new along with them. No second-hand idea made it into their products without first being filtered through their own fresh and whimsical style. They cut their own swath without regurgitating the elements of the established classics.

One can find no better proof of this than The Magic of Scheherazade. It is a rare departure from the antiquated, complicated RPGs of its time; an unpolished but charming exhibition of ideas that have only recently found their way back into the genre. Culture Brain’s trademark quirkiness peeps through the requisite epic nature of the quest, and the result is none too close to the standard role-playing fare.

It starts with a revelation. An amnesiac is clued in to his past as a magician, and his heritage in the legendary warrior Isfa. When a careless dark wizard starts summoning one unthinkable terror after another from the demonic underworld, and the king and his daughters turn up missing, it only makes sense that Isfa’s descendant be elected savior. An attendant spirit leads him through the passageways of time to all eras of pagan Arabia, to neutralize each threat within the window of opportunity and avert the apocalypse.

MoS sets up this rich saga, but doesn’t take us very far into it. It is a game of combat that reveals just enough plot to lead us on the next goose chase. Lacking the connected overworld we have come to expect, the game plays like an RPG on rails. Chapter divisions chop the game into discernable stages, and the time travel theme is little more than an excuse to change the scenery – one wouldn’t know centuries had passed if one were not told.

Isfa’s descendant wields both a saber and projectiles in overhead battles of the Zelda persuasion, and one type of attack is always much stronger than the other depending on his class. Upon visiting the temples of the resident deity Airosche (which are egregiously called mosques), he can change his forte as though he were changing his shoes. His already impressive repertoire is topped off with a lengthy catalogue of spells and other supplementary actions that can be configured to the controller at any time. A melee atmosphere emerges when killer bees, bandits, and ghosts ambush the hero, and despite an annoying lack of recoil when Isfa’s descendant is hit, dispatching an entire band of enemies in seconds is always a pleasure.

Ah, but one should tread lightly when exiting the static, graph-paper screens – in between one and the next might be a more strategic turn-based battle. This is what sets MoS apart: it is not an action/RPG, but an RPG and an action game, independently and at once.

Despite being well equipped, Isfa’s descendant takes no chances. He prepares for these organized assaults from up to 8 enemies by recruiting partners along the way. So much help is enlisted that it would be impossible for all motivations and back-stories to be revealed, so any small character development is apparent upon meeting that character, or is capsuled into brief comedy routines between chapters. These guys exist only to fight.

But that, they do well. Before each menu driven battle, one can prepare for the upcoming engagement by creating a three-man unit custom tailored to the foe at hand. The enemies here don’t mess around; they group themselves into well-tested formations and will not hesitate to combine spells for amplified impact. How does one counter such a technique? Fortunately, there are designated teams that grant one the option of a conclusive, ultimately damaging triple attack. The enemy arrangements are not susceptible to just any team’s attack, so a layer of strategy comes with memorizing which ones to use.

That’s not all. Throughout Arabia, mercenaries can be employed for a hefty sum of money and used for turn-based-battle fodder. It’s possible to amass nearly fifty of them, and they can be deployed four at a time for a substantial offensive and defensive boost. With this previously unmined concept, it’s as though a small army is under the command of the player.

Away from battle, the town folk of Arabia seem carefree and isolated, with nothing better to do than mull over one rumor or another or provide the rare anecdote. One militant citizen remarks, “I’m never leaving this town, no matter what!” True to his word, the man is still there when Isfa’s descendant revisits the place 50 years in the future… although the town has since moved underwater. The joke doesn’t work so well the second time, when a man who was getting ready to take a nap in the past blurts out, “It has become the future while I was hibernating!!” The dialogue might be better if it were translated by farm animals, but with such little focus on the story, the occasional Engrish is amusing instead of detrimental.

Though the monsters in menu screens are impressive, the overhead sequences look bland because there are no defining lines in the sprites, only a fuzzy collection of colors. If they could get away with it, the developers filled in the surroundings with one solid color throughout. If they couldn’t, they used repeating tiles. As a rule you can bet that any early enemy has a few stronger, off-color lookalikes in other parts of the world. The real-time bosses are grafted into the background layer, allowing for screen-filling creations that would otherwise be impossible on the NES. These multiform behemoths provide a stunning exception to the rule – it’s as though designing them ate up most of the production time and the rest of the visuals had to be rushed.

The soundtrack is much more immersive. Soft and drawn-out harmonies perfectly suited to the genre are tweaked with just a tinge of Arabian sound through a simple, subtle twist of notes. The hopelessness of a world in ruin is broadcast with a somber tone and a windy static that places upon us the bleak nature of the situation. Pulsing thuds and crawling keyboard bursts in an otherwise vacant track lend a surreal quality to the major boss battles. When ambushed, one is thrust into attack mode with the aid of a short and forceful combat ditty. The styles are so many and it’s all done so well that the soundtrack stakes a claim in the top tier of NES music.

There’s only one problem that might deter one from purchasing the cart, but it’s a doozie. Someone, somewhere, thought it would be just peachy keen to release an RPG with no battery backup. To continue, one must hunt-‘n-peck through the space of a phone book, and it takes even longer than it would seem because the standard roll-across password system is conspicuously missing. Never having to worry about corrupted saves serves as a small consolation, but having to spend minutes punching in a code will put a damper on anyone’s motivation to fire up the game.

This is a small sacrifice, though, considering the quest itself. Beyond the password screen is an original, offbeat RPG ripe with all kinds of action. It’s a shame that it never found an ample audience, but traces of its ingenuity live on in more popular games. Developers have been working for years to reinvent The Magic of Scheherazade.

Rating:   4.0 - Great

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