A flawed but well-meaning attempt to do the Zelda thing, or something like it.

As a lifelong fan of Zelda-style action RPGs, I’m always on the hunt for the ones that slipped past my notice back in the day. Rolan’s Curse, alas, reminds us that sometimes they slip past because they simply aren’t that good.

The Game Boy saw a handful of notable top-down action RPGs in its lifetime. Of course, there was The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, arguably the finest game on the system. And we can’t forget about the ambitious-yet-sloppy Final Fantasy Adventure, the freewheeling Final Fantasy spin-off that launched the Mana series. The system’s other games of this type, however, tend to go unremarked upon. As we see here, maybe there’s a reason for that.

Rolan’s Curse comes to us courtesy of American Sammy, who published (and presumably localized) the game for the U.S. market. If Sammy was indeed the company responsible for the English-language text here, they deserve some love… but we’ll get to that. Development duties on Rolan’s Curse, however, were handled by a company called NMK, or Nippon Microcomputer Kaihatsu. NMK came about following the dissolution of Universal, best known for Mr. Do!; apparently the studio came together as a coalition of former Tehkan (also known as Tecmo) staff. NMK isn’t one of the better-known developers in video game history, but they did a lot of contract work for Jaleco and Sammy on a fair few arcade and NES releases you’d probably recognize. These include City Connection, Ninja Crusaders, and Whomp ’Em. So they’re not exactly nobodies, even if they aren’t household names.

Rolan’s Curse falls right into the middle of NMK’s lifetime, and it’s honestly unlike any previous project they developed. Vaguely action-ish, ostensibly an RPG, Rolan’s Curse feels like a very clumsy and oddly linear rendition of Zelda. While it bears some resemblance to those more familiar and beloved action RPGs, Rolan’s Curse is really kind of its own thing. If Nintendo had ever tried to adapt the Zelda series into an arcade format, it might not have landed too far from what we see in Rolan’s Curse. That’s honestly not a poor endorsement, as such things go, but NMK didn’t quite deliver on the elevator pitch.

There’s not really much to Rolan’s Curse as a game. You can easily breeze through this game your first time through in a couple of hours, no cheat codes or FAQs required. It’s basically a series of interconnected dungeons divided into three “chapters”, if you can call them that, each capped with a boss battle. Each chapter unfolds roughly the same way. You begin in a town, enter a cavern, find the exit to the next cavern, eventually passing through another town or two before taking on a boss and moving along to the next chapter. The middle town in each phase contains two exits, one of which leads ahead and one of which takes you to a dead-end castle. The castles are good for farming upgrades and gear, although there’s really not much call for that here.

Again, Rolan’s Curse is incredibly limited, so there aren’t a lot of improvements for you to hunt down. You can alternate between two different weapon types, about half a dozen secondary weapons, health boosts, and strength upgrades. That’s the size of it. On top of that, your maximum health and physical strength reset after every chapter, so even the upgrades you acquire feel fleeting at best. 

I can’t stress enough what an odd little game this is, one that seemingly defies the conventions of its own genre—though whether that’s a result of confidence or just clumsiness I couldn’t really say. 

Rolan’s Curse is hardly a difficult game. The only real challenge here results from just how stiff and awkwardly it plays. Despite being an action RPG from 1990, Rolan’s Curse moves more like a Famicom or PC game from about 1984 or ’85. Your protagonist, whose name is never given in-game, moves a bit like the mech suit in After Burst. Rather than gliding through the world a pixel at a time, he moves in half-tile increments. This makes for a decidedly clunky interface, especially since the protagonist can’t move and attack at the same time. It also leads to you suffering a lot of cheap damage from enemies, who tend to move quickly, soak up a ton of damage, and often respawn beneath your feet and force you to take unfair damage.

This would all be infuriating if not for the fact that the game is extremely generous with its penalties when you die. If you run out of health, you simply go back to the entrance to the current cavern, retaining your current power upgrades, equipment, and maximum health. This makes the game way too easy, but that’s better than it being infuriatingly unfair. To make things even easier, this game has to contain the easiest-to-acquire health upgrades of perhaps any video game ever made. While you’ll find some health boosts in chests scattered throughout the world, there are certain enemies who drop them as random loot pretty often. Almost every level contains at least one spot where you can farm armor boosts from respawning enemies and top out your max health in about five minutes, tops. It turns out that each enemy type drops specific loot, so once you realize those connections it becomes trivial to customize your little adventurer to be the hero you need and deserve.

Your little guy here can wield two different weapons: A sword and a rod that flings fireballs. Like everything about Rolan’s Curse, this feature is wildly unbalanced. There’s no reason to use the sword once you acquire a fire rod. The rod throws ranged projectiles that can pass through barriers; you can rapid-fire them; they have no mana cost or other limitation; and the fireballs are every bit as powerful as the blade. Meanwhile, your sword has a one-tile range and can only be swung at a sluggish rate. The game’s bosses are almost impossible to beat with the sword, and a breeze with the rod; to that point, you can easily use the rod to defeat the next-to-last boss without taking a single hit.

In addition to your main weapon, you can also collect half a dozen different items to use with the A button. These don’t work the way they do in Zelda, in that there’s no inventory management. Once you collect an accessory, that’s the only one you have access to. To switch, you have to find a different accessory, which will permanently replace whichever one you’re carrying. The accessories range in value from “extremely useful” to “completely worthless.” 

The worst offenders in this regard are the Chameleon Ring and the Shield, both of which offer passive defensive capabilities. Rolan’s Curse isn’t a game that rewards passivity. The shield, for example, can only block projectiles—it doesn’t protect against collisions. But only a handful of enemies fire projectiles, and they do so somewhat erratically and unpredictably. Their attacks travel pretty quickly, too, while you have to stop moving and actively activate the shield in order to defend yourself with it. This makes it practically useless. Similarly, the Chameleon Ring allows you to transform into a piece of scenery, which prevents you from taking damage. But there are almost no situations where it’s better to halt and hunker down to brace for an attack than it is to kill or avoid a foe.

The most useful tools here? The health potion, which refills all your hearts. This is the only limited-use item in the game: Once you restore your energy, the potion vanishes. Also, the magic axe—which is specifically a pickax—is extremely useful, and it offers unlimited uses. This tool allows you to break through certain barriers in order to activate shortcuts or reach otherwise inaccessible treasures, which is great.

Really, though, the only items worth hunting down throughout the entire game are the health and strength boosts. Most of the other items are pretty worthless and you’ll only want to swap between them at specific times. 

It’s an odd little game, this. Despite its brevity, there’s a lot of repeated content—many sections in each chapter are recycled from other chapters, with enemy and treasure placement changed. The game gets harder as you advance due to enemies growing in speed and strength with each new chapter. Stationary skulls suddenly begin zipping across the screen; floating eye monsters begin drifting in wider patterns; bats circle wildly. Even the humble slimes from the very outset of the adventure eventually stop scooting forward and begin to sort of vibrate in place, making it impossible to simply skip past them. Meanwhile, your poor protagonist has a maximum health and attack cap, so there’s no way to balance yourself to compensate for the increased ferocity of later enemies.

Also, Rolan’s Curse has no economy, so there’s no way to buy better stuff. The towns are practically devoid of interactivity; you can talk to citizens, and most towns have a treasure chest, but for the most part these spaces exist to be breathers between combat zones. You can’t enter any homes or peer into wells. They’re just spaces where the same four NPC sprites spout gibberish.

At least it’s glorious gibberish. Rolan’s Curse includes no in-game credits to indicate who localized it, but the English-language text here is wild stuff. It’s about 50% Dragon Warrior-inspired late-middle English written by someone who didn’t really understand the proper grammar for thees and thous and whences. The other 50% is wacky contemporary slang, like the guy who tells you to go “rock that turkey” before you fight the final boss, or a random NPC proclaiming that “thou art awesome.”

Super-quirky old localizations like this as fascinating. They hail from an era in which publishers began to hire people who actually spoke English to adapt their games for the U.S., but there were no real standards or objectives for localization in place. 

But… that’s probably the best thing about Rolan’s Curse. Even the soundtrack is a miss—it’s well-crafted in terms of sonic quality, but the music consists almost entirely of five-second loops that go from repetitive to grating to murder-inspiring in a matter of moments. Between its clumsy mechanics, linear design, and general lack of anything exciting, the real Rolan’s Curse was the game itself. Fortunately, the sequel would prove to be a far more interesting creation… but that’s a few hundred Game Boy releases away.