Yet another busted and tedious attempt to bite off Dragon Quest‘s success.
It is the hangover over the ’80s, and there is time for Dragon Quest clones.
By 1990, Japan’s Dragon Quest craze showed no signs of abating—and why should it have? Early in the year, Chun Soft and Enix had turned the format inside out with the madly ambitious Dragon Quest IV, which turned the humble role-playing game into a sort of fantasy anthology cycle. We’ve seen a few Dragon Quest-inspired RPGs on Game Boy Works already, from the brilliant Final Fantasy Legend to the insipid Lacroan Heroes, and one of the system’s finest works—Final Fantasy Legend II—lurks on the horizon here. Before we can get there, though, we need to survive this week’s take on the genre, the largely unremarkable Aretha.
So far as I can tell, Aretha was the very first project created by both Japan Art Media and Yanoman, a pair of companies that would stick around for a couple of decades yet never penetrate the American market. Yanoman was primarily a toy and board game company, who we recently saw attached to Hexcite for Game Boy Color. How they became involved in a Dragon Quest derivative is anyone’s guess, though “everyone in Japan wanted on that money train in the late ’80s” would be a good place to start.
Japan Art Media, on the other hand, appears to be one of those unremarkable developers of the era with no hits to its name and no significant connection to people from more successful studios. Aretha might be the closest thing JAM ever experienced to a breadwinner, having evidently done well enough to see several sequels and even some GameArts-developed remakes for Super Famicom. Japan’s Bubble Economy, it seems, was a tide that lifted all ships, no matter how unworthy.
On its surface, Aretha seems innocuous enough. It’s a mishmash of things that sold well in late ’80s Japan: Not only is it a turn-based RPG, it also features a cute eponymous heroine who appears to be about 16 years old and wears revealing bikini armor. Is the game’s title being so similar to “Athena” a mere coincidence? One wonders. In any case, this does have at least a spiritual connection to SNK’s Athena in that it’s kind of mundane and ultimately flawed.
Aretha doesn’t seem too janky at the outset. It’s a very straightforward turn-based RPG with towns and random encounters and shops. You buy equipment, grind for experience and gold by fighting monsters, scour villages for clues and guidance, and advance to the next area of the game once you’re strong enough. All fairly basic, right? But in reading further about this game, thanks to an in-depth overview on Hardcore Gaming 101, its flaws become more evident and more remarkable.
Aretha attempts to innovate in the role-playing genre by introducing an element designed to reduce the tedium of battling through low-level enemies. Once your party’s stats and levels are sufficiently advanced beyond a certain threshold, random encounters stop appearing in the current area of the world. This is reminiscent of EarthBound‘s auto-victory feature, where lower-level enemies attempt to flee from Ness and bumping into their sprite on the dungeon map results in instant victory. In this case, it doesn’t work out quite as smoothly, probably because Aretha belongs to the “invisible enemy” school of encounter design rather than letting you see your foes as you dungeon-dive as you can in EarthBound. This means that after a certain point, random encounters simply stop—at which point your experience and gold earnings do as well. There’s an effectively finite amount of cash that can be earned in Aretha, and certain key items need to be purchased in order to complete the game… meaning it’s theoretically possible to screw yourself into an impossible-to-complete scenario by spending wantonly along the way.
Even more bizarrely, the game includes an item that will max your entire party’s stats instantly, and it appears fairly early on—meaning that if you use it right away, you absolutely will not be able to complete the game. These are some strange design choices that suggest either a lack of time to play-test the actual outcomes of JAM’s clever ideas, or else a lack of care for the end user experience. Whatever the case, Aretha was released just a couple of weeks before what was arguably Game Boy’s finest pre-Pokémon RPG moment. Since the Game Boy entries in the Aretha trilogy have never been fan-translated into English, there’s not really much reason to try to grapple with this one… not when Final Fantasy Legend II is right around the corner.