Up until this point, I’ve tried to keep things in a chonological order corresponding to when I first encounted or acquired a given Genesis game. However, this furtive attempt at methodology falls apart once we hit the stretch of time between the February and October of 1991.
Though I have clear (and fond) enough memories of that period, they’re less about specific events and more about an overall experience — weekly Warhammer RPG sessions at the sci-fi club, crate digging for vintage punk records in Cambridge and Allston, busting my ass to dig my GPA up out of academic probation territory, and somewhere finding the time to experience the bitter cocktail of wonder and shame known as Fatal Labyrinth.
The game was another buy-me-down from my buddy Damian and the product of an era when slapping the “role-playing game” descriptor on a game’s package guaranteed that one (or both) of us would pick it up out of blind geeky dedication.
The game begins with the anonymous and ill-equipped hero setting forth to recover a magic goblet from an evil dragon. As he approaches the gates of the great wyrm’s tower, he is greeted by an assortment of villagers who cheer their would-be savior on with dire predictions of his pending demise.
Yes, the game itself cautions you against playing it (and to think this was almost two decades before Demon’s Souls was released).
Though the screenshots and ad copy might caused some trusting souls to assume Fatal Labyrinth was a action-RPG dungeon crawler…
…the game is actually a turn-based (with the player’s real-time actions and movement denoting the “beats”) roguelike, streamlined for console play and given a 16-bit facelift. Aside from the shift from ASCII characters to a more detailed depiction of creatures and environments, there’s not much in Fatal Labyrinth that hadn’t already been seen in countless VAX-delivered variations.
Whomp enemies, pick up loot, find the exit to the next level, repeat until ingloriously slain and added to the leaderboards. It may have felt like thin gruel compared to the story-driven epics of Phantasy Star II (or even Sword of Vermillion), but I warmed to its modest charms once I hit that roguelike sweet spot where you have a decent enough set of gear and sufficient knowledge of the color-codes (“Aha! Blue potions are poison!”) to feel like you’re actually making progress…
…until you trigger a hidden paralysis trap, get munched by a pack of kobolds, and throw the controller against the floor in frustration.