With all the powerful, fancy technologies available today, gaming has risen from the status of "Slightly less than nerdy" to a very mainstream, acceptable thing to do. People play Farmville and Bejeweled on their Facebook accounts, Angry Birds on their phones, and Wii Sports with their families. Where gaming was once a bastion of geekery everywhere, it has become so ubiquitous now that it's becoming harder to remember the time when geeky kids (like myself long ago) gathered around a TV and a Nintendo or Sega console to fend off hordes of demons, take out rival gangs, stomp on walking mushrooms and turtles, and collect golden rings at high speeds through a grassy green area. Indeed, those halcyon days of childhood gaming bliss are sadly no more.
What we have today is a group of very powerful game consoles that do their best to impress you with realistic graphics, sound that can match the latest blockbuster movie, and gameplay mechanics that are not always easy to pick up when initially sitting down to play. Now, don't get me wrong: I enjoy the impressive nature of today's games. I like the faux-realism of a title like inFAMOUS (makes me a want a PS3 real bad!), and a title like L.A. Noir reminds me that we have come so far in the pursuit of realism within gaming. But, call me crazy, sometimes I long for the simpler days of yore where small sprites that barely resembled the character they were portraying jaunted across the screen in pursuit of the big bad foe and the "action sounds" of a game like Double Dragon sounded more like snapping wafers than snapping necks.
Thankfully, I am not the only one who feels this way, as the Wii Virtual Console service would attest, as well as the string of casual games available on various smartphone platforms. Not to mention the handheld gaming market is still a place where more retro-styled games can happily exist without being tampered with too much. So while there have been a number of retro-styled RPG games developed for the smartphone world, none can claim to be as purposefully retro as Guardian Saga for the iPhone. Indeed, this 8 or 16-bit wonder (developed by 9th Bit Games) is the most retro-styled game I have played so far on the iPhone, and is one of the most enjoyable games I've played on any smartphone platform (yes, even against Angry Birds!).
Guardian Saga is a nice amalgamation of classic RPG gameplay and slightly updated graphics. Visually, the game resembles 8-bit classic RPG's, with Dragon Warrior being the primary influence. Graphically, though Dragon Warrior is the main influence, elements of early Final Fantasy titles also creep in, though everything is much more bold and bright. The graphics are cleaner than an 8-bit title, so they have a more polished 16-bit look to them, though some of the effects (like the fog over the water) are far too clean even for 16 or 32-bit, so obviously some of the graphical power of the iPhone is used. Fade-in and fade-out effects are nice, and what little animation there is in the game is done nicely, with that touch of old-school feel to it. The music in the game is reminiscent of 8-bit RPGs as well, and I'm reminded very much of the GameBoy title Final Fantasy Legend (the original), which actually isn't a true Final Fantasy title, but rather the English translation of Makai Toushi Sa·Ga instead.
I've been walking o're the world map, all the live-long day...
Gameplay is very simple, with lots of map crawling, loads of random, turn-based battles, and talking to NPCs in the various towns and locations. Conversation with most NPCs is pretty dry, though there are a few funny moments (a redneck girl in one town cracked me up) and a handful of characters that will say more than one sentence to you. Indeed, these aren't the lengthy conversations that recent RPGs give you, but resemble the kinds of things programmers had to sacrifice when they had only so much memory to work with on a game cartridge. Overall, this game has a nice clean, bright, familiar but enjoyable graphic appeal to it.
All this fog has to be a harbinger of some kind!
Music is nice in that old chip-tune way, though pretty sparse. Sound effects are also wonderfully retro, though again, sparse. The world map is actually fairly decent in size for the relatively small scale/scope of the game Guardian Saga actually is. Control is fantastic, wich a nice NES-styled see-through "control pad" on the screen (lower-left corner) and then a single "action" button when you need to either talk to an NPC or activate something (like switches in the Earth Shrines). Directional control with this simplistic method is very fluid and works fantastically. Battle scenes are directed by simply tapping the option you want to choose (Attack, Magic, or Run) and it does just what you tell it to do - simple, elegant, and it just works.
This enemy is called "Bubbles" - sure doesn't look cute and cuddly!
The menu system (accessible by tapping the stats pop-up in the upper-left corner when remaining stationary) is also intuitive, giving clear indication of what you need access to. Equipment can be swapped out merely by tapping on the existing equipment you want to replace and picking the new out of the list. Spells are accessible via the Magic screen, and are available via a single tap. Items and qeuipment are just as easily reached. The "Quick Save" option is useful if you need to save somewhere outside of a town (you normally save at the local pub, of all places), though it does exit to the main menu when you choose that option.
Yeah, I got your options right here.
So with all this great gameplay and content, what's not to like? While I applaud the designers for what they've done here, there are a few improvements that could be made. Firstly, the music and sound effects are incredibly sparse. There should be more of both, and the music should change based on being in different locales more than just world map music, cave/dungeon music, and "the storyline is advancing via cutscene" music. The few sound effects are good but there just needs to be more of them. Also, while the game is easy to pick up and relatively easy to play, there just aren't enough options - a larger world map would be good with more towns and a bit more "easing" into weapon and armor upgrades. After your first 2 upgrades things start to get really expensive and you have to do a lot of grinding just to build up enough cash to get that sword or armor you want, which is a bit more tedious than it needs to be. Random battles are always a point of contention with traditional RPG games, and while the battle frequency is nicely balanced, I feel like the battles could be better somehow. I also feel like the game is a bit short - I'm only about 4 hours or so in to the game and I'm already about to down the 3rd Guardian (out of 4), so it seems like even the shortest early console RPGs had more gameplay than this. I would really love to see a sequel to this game with a larger map, more music & sounds, more varied areas/landscapes, a longer and more involved story, and more NPC interactions (with more humor).
Despite my few qualms with the game design, this is a well constructed adventure that really evokes that feeling of late night Dragon Warrior or Final Fantasy marathons, which ultimately is what this game appears designed to do. It takes me back to my childhood where RPGs were somewhat daunting and intimidating (before they really started to interest me), so they make me recall the Friday night sleepovers at my best friend's house, and me staying up late to try Dragon Warrior after he fell asleep, only to be bested by the stupid blobs. This is a fun adventure that is well worth the $1.99 9th Bit Games is charging for it, even though I snagged my copy free via the FreeAppADay service. If you have any interest in classic RPG gaming or want to relive the early stages of the genre's heyday, this is the adventure for you. Highly recommended.