Soft Machine / Varie
Release Date: February 26, 1991
Translation patch available here.
Following the runaway success of Zelda and Ys came a flood of Japanese ARPGs. Most, unsurprisingly, remained in their native land. One such obscurity was known as Grand Master. Developed by Soft Machine (who?) and developed by Varie (what?) the game is a true lone wolf. No ports, sequels, or remakes. The original Famicom cartridge is rather expensive (for Famicom standards, I paid like $30). Though those who choose to emulate will discover that a rather competent English patch is available. That said, the game is perfectly playable without said patch, though non-Japanese speakers would be missing out on the story.
Yes, Grand Master is a very story-driven title, with the narrative unfolding via a series of delightfully illustrated anime cutscenes, not unlike those of Ninja Gaiden. The tale details the exploits of Rody, a bodyguard to a royal family, who is tasked with defeating the evil demonic Dante and rescuing a princess. Oh, and Rody's sister has been placed under some sinister spell and must be nurtured back to health. Their are some minor characters that float in and out as well. It's all pretty generic stuff, but the frequent cutscenes look gorgeous and never overstay their welcome.
This is a "stage-based" ARPG, vaguely similar to HAL's Alcahest, released two years after Grand Master. The gimmick here is that the initial five stages can be completed in any order. Once Rody has bested these environments, the Evil Tower of Doom™ rises from the depths and the final confrontation commences. In conjunction with the aforementioned nonlinearity, the game attempts the "multiple endings" thing but does so poorly. Any road traveled besides the one "correct" path will invariably lead to a bad ending. One that emerges not after the final boss is defeated, but instead pops up halfway through the final dungeon -- "lol you messed up, Game Over!" Though the game does hint at where to go and when, it's still a total bummer.
The five core stages are pretty fun. The environments are well-designed, grid-based (like Zelda), and worth exploring thoroughly. Each area is rife with enemies, weapon and armor upgrades, and insta-heal potions. There are some additional gimmicks too, including both one-way and two-way warps, waterfalls, conveyor belts, spiked sections, and pitfalls. Stages are locked once completed, so it's essential that "missable" upgrades get picked up. The graphical presentation is solid, with each area appearing distinct and memorable. As a semi-late Famicom release, Grand Master boasts some nice chunky sprite work; at times the visuals come close to those of A Link to the Past. As an additional bonus, Rody himself is dressed for varying weather events. For instance, in the ice cave he's donned with a winter parka! The accompanying soundtrack is competent enough, if not particularly memorable, with the most striking piece being the pseudo-Egyptian theme that plays throughout the Pyramid segment.
Generally speaking, these first five stages each take 10-20 minutes to complete. Difficulty is skewed in a strange direction, however, due to the unnecessary leveling system. Since these sections can be tackled in any order, they were crafted with the same static difficulty in mind. Which means that whatever stage is selected first is going to be the hardest. Due to the enemy respawns, power-leveling comes rather effortlessly, though it is time-consuming. I found it easy enough to max out Rody's HP and MP in the first stage, which made the remaining an absolute cakewalk. Well, except for that final boss tower, which is way too long and confusing, filled to the brim with lengthy boring ass walkways and inane glitchy "puzzles." Strangely enough, leveling up doesn't seem to effect offensive or defensive prowess in any meaningful way, instead more HP and MP is simply lobbed onto Rody's total.
Combat works well enough. Rody begins with a basic sword, but can then switch to any acquired weapon at will. There's a long-range morning star that can also be used to cross pitfalls, a throwing axe, and a magical rod. Magic isn't its "own thing" but is instead inextricably tied to weaponry. Tossing an axe deducts one magic point from Rody's total, while using the eight-way magical rod attack consumes an enormous chunk. The morning star is sufficient for about 90% of the game, due to its massive attack range, while all bosses (including the final one) are utterly helpless in the face of the rod attack.
I'm on the fence about this one. It's a weird amalgamation of elements that feel finely-tuned and cohesive, and those that are just superfluous trash. It's a short little ditty of a game, one designed to be taken down during a single rainy afternoon, but the Darm Tower wannabe final dungeon seemingly slows time to a halt. It's a tale of high highs and low lows, and it's a shame that Soft Machine never had another go at the ARPG genre.