1991 was something of a watershed year for me, check full of events and decisions which would have a lasting impact on my life. I began the year on a strong note, illness with a slush fund of scholarship money and a motley assortment of geeky punk rock made during my first semester at UMass Boston. Their knowledge of the scattered outposts of the Boston punk scene, apoplectic combined with my ready reserve of entitlement cash, kicked off my rapid transformation from a suburban catch-as-catch-can hardcore kid into a something a little more in line with 1980′s Britpunk aesthetics. The army coat and bleached/orange crewcut look I rocked during high school gave way to a DIY spiked ‘n’painted leather jacket and devilock with magenta bangs even as I dropped the last vestiges of thrash metal fandom in favor of so-called “art fag shit” like Joy Division, Wire, and Gang of Four.
Though I started to spend more and more time in the city, I did maintain a couple of my old high school friendships, most notably the videogames-and-geekery based one I shared with my pal Damian. The opposing forces which eventually derailed our friendship — Maura on my end and LARPing on his — were still a ways down the road, and the only significant change in our relationship was that my state-supplied windfall gave me an edge in the early adopter stakes as it pertained to videogames.
Damian had always been the first kid at the lunchtable to secure a copy of the current hot title of the moment, while I was stuck counting pennies and hoping that Damian’s short attention span would result in a cheap post-boredom sell-off. The influx of scholarship money changed all that, which is how I was able to ask a Software Etc. clerk to “hook me up” (yes, I actually used those words, to my eternal shame) with the store’s last copy of Sword of Vermillion while Damian had to don the envy jacket.
It turned out to be a pyrrhic victory. While the digest-sized hintbook (the second and final of such pack-ins from Sega) promised unparalleled heights of JRPG adventure…
…the reality was rather schizophrenic in nature. In many ways, Sword of Vermillion is traditional to a fault. The plot — centering around a war between good and evil kingdoms, a sequestered prince with a heroic destiny, and a kidnapped princess — appears to have been pulled straight from a fantasy genre version of Mad Libs…
…and the use of a solo hero instead of an adventuring party hearkened back to the dawn of the Dragon Warrior days. To the game’s credit, the triteness of the underpinnings was well masked by refinements made possible by the advent of the 16-bit gaming era. Vermillion’s towns and cities were quite impressive-looking for their time, having an organic sense of scale and individuality which set them apart from the cramped and visually repetitive communities portrayed in 8-bit RPGs.
The game’s music was also fairly innovative for its time, eschewing the simple j-pop bliptones in favor of symphonic cornucopia of prog rock bombast redolent of a ELP chiptune cover band. (Well, apart from that one oompah band piece towards the end, but that too is a very Keith Emersonian touch.)
If the game’s traditionalist tendencies were polished enough to be manageable, its attempts at innovation were decidedly not.
In place of the standard top-down views of overworld and dungeon maps, Vermillion opted for a painfully confusing first-person perspective. Perhaps intended to be a breathtaking tech demo of the console’s scaling and rotation abilities…
…it ran about as smoothly as a busted zoetrope in practice, and felt crude in comparison the cleanly rendered (if simpler) first-person dungeons used in Phantasy Star on Sega’s 8-bit Master System.
Vermillion’s combat mechanics also suffered from a misguided attempt to break with strategic turn-based combat. Random encounters with the game’s small roster of pallette-swapped creatures occur in a quasi-isometric arena and take the form of a glacially slow mash-up of Final Fight and Robotron where the goal is to frantically mash the attack and magic buttons before getting fatally mobbed. Boss fights, on the other hand, use a flat sidescrolling perspective akin to a gimped version of Altered Beast.
Both rely heavy on the tedium associated with subpar action games and — combined with the first person world navigation mechanic — make Sword of Vermillion a test of one’s patience rather than one’s skill. (I did warm a little to its slight charms after discovering a bug where you can manipulate the permanent attack penalties for equipping cursed items in a way that rolls the counter over to the maximum possible value.)
So, yes, Sword of Vermillion is a pretty lousy excuse for a game, but I did have the honor of experiencing that lousiness two weeks before my buddy Damian did…and that’s what really mattered.