Above: The Story of Thor screenshot, all images courtesy of Sega.
Revisiting Zelda II: The Adventure of Link recently got me thinking about role-playing games on the platforms of Nintendo's most famous rival, Sega. Ours was a home dominated by said Sonic-supporting hardware, with Mario's keepers not entering the fray until after a Master System and Mega Drive had already passed over the threshold.
It's not like Sega systems didn't have their share of RPGs. Heck, I even played some of them. Camelot's Shining Force for the 16-bit machine ate up several hours I should have occupied with homework. I played the sequel, too—they're very much in the Fire Emblem vein. The isometric Landstalker, made by some of the same people as the Shining series games, always looked rad, but that's one I never got for myself.
Phantasy Star? I can't remember. Checking the YouTube gameplay videos, I'm still not sure. I'm pretty old, y'know, and I borrowed a lot of games back when. If we're counting The Immortal, I know I played that. Not to the end, though. It was a beast of a game.
The Story of Thor, however, was something else. After a few years of looking enviously at my SNES-owning pals and their _Link to the Past_s and _Secret of Mana_s (and, later, their imported _Final Fantasy VI_s and _Chrono Trigger_s), here was a Mega Drive game that looked like it could hold a candle to that level of action-adventuring.
In my head, this was the Greatest Mega Drive RPG. But I need to be clear about something, right away: this is not, and realistically never was, a Zelda beater.
Released in Japan in late 1994, and Europe and North America the following spring (it was renamed Beyond Oasis in the US), Thor was astonishingly bright of visuals and singularly bold of soundtrack—and still is, today. Developed by Ancient, the studio founded by Yuzo Koshiro, it features the Streets of Rage series composer's trademark approach to synthesized sounds, more energetic and contemporary feeling than your average fantasy fare.
Viewed from the top down, the game had the polished look of a Square production, only with the character proportions blown up so that, at their most impressive, they as good as fill the screen. Put a screenshot beside the sole SNES Zelda, and Nintendo's title looks primitive, childish, past it.
In my head, this was the Greatest Mega Drive RPG. And reading other accounts online, it seems that my memories aren't too wide of the mark. A write-up on Retro Gamer's website calls the game "around a billion times better than every Zelda", which is hyperbole taken to the absolute zenith of meaninglessness, but nevertheless implies, at least, it was good. Better, perhaps, than I remembered it being.
But you've got to play these things again, to know for sure. And so, I did. I have. Not to the end—just up to my first death, around 50 minutes into proceedings. (I'm just the other side of the boat, with the gargoyles, when you first meet Silver Amulet. Right there, in that dungeon. I got caught between falling rocks and a horde of enemies and that was that: I kept getting knocked down. Game over.) And, I'm enjoying myself, actually. But I need to be clear about something, right away: this is not—and realistically never was—a Zelda beater.
I won't bore you with the story—it's super basic Bad Guy, Good Guy fantasy shenanigans. And the swordplay, the core combat, is pretty ropey, with hit boxes all over the place. If that guy can hit me, standing there, but I can't hit him back, yeah, that's a problem. What's really cool, though, are the spirits that your character, Ali—not Thor, much to the disappointment of my kids who asked, "Daddy, where's his cape?" before I explained the situation—gets to command.
He discovers a Gold Amulet in a pre-title screen sequence, which, once he finds them, grants him control over four elemental beings, summoned using an, ahem, "light ball". One is a fiery genie thing who can spit flames all over the place; one a shadow that can save Ali from tight spots; one a plant that munches through iron bars; and finally there's a fairy who shoots bubbles at enemies and can heal Ali when he's taken a beating. Each has more abilities beside these, and consume "SP"—spirit power, I guess?—as they use them.
This creates a neat balance between offensive, defensive and restorative play—Ali can only hold a limited amount of items, some of which will replenish his health points, others refill the SP meter, so what do you do? Play aggressively with Efreet, the fire spirit, and make sure you've several bunches of SP-boosting grapes in your pockets? Or stick to meat and fish to keep Ali alive, and play more conservatively with your magical powers?
*Related, on VICE: 25 Mega Drive Games That Don't Completely Suck in 2014 *
Often, going in all fire-breathers blazing (just the one, then) is a good plan, as the weapons you collect, beyond a starting knife that cannot be broken, are all limited to a strict amount of uses. This is rather like Breath of the Wild's brittle blades and bows, except in Thor you can accurately track how many more swings of a broadsword you have before it becomes useless in the pause menu. And, like Link in Breath of the Wild, Ali cannot carry an infinite number of offensive options. There are only so many slots, so the player must fill them wisely.
With a couple of bosses behind me, dispatched with sword strikes to spare, I think I'm going to stick with Thor a little longer. The hardware's set up now, so, I might as well make the most of it. It doesn't play as smoothly as my memories led me to believe and, truthfully, Koshiro's score can kiiinda grate on occasion. Sorry, but it's hardly Streets of Rage II standard. And I've been irritated enough to quietly bark at the screen a couple of times, entirely because of the game's imprecise combat.
But then I'll find a rhythm, and for a few screens I just demolish everything before me. It's here that Thor makes good on its Greatest Mega Drive RPG promise. Bisected zombies. Exploding snakes. Squeaking mouse beasties. Spear-thrusting soldiers. Purple puddles of aggressive goo. Gigantic spider bastards. Sometimes they blow up and leave cheese behind, and no Bokoblin ever dropped a whole wheel of cheddar. What's not to like?