From the archives: Brandish

Perhaps more than any other form of mass media, games are painfully beholden to the vagaries of technology. The basic nature of printed books has changed only nominally since Gutenburg cranked out his first bibles; the content of television evolved significantly after the transition from live broadcasts to prerecorded content, but once TVs made the shift from grey to color the whims of pop culture became the boob tube’s primary impetus for change.

But within the space of only 25 years, video games have transformed from primitive bleeps and blips to full-realized interactive entertainment of the kind Ralph Baer could never have guessed. Gaming hardware exists in five-year lifecycles; with each successive generation of technology, the overall sophistication of the games themselves increases as well. BMX XXX notwithstanding.

Understandably, game developers frequently create titles designed specifically for the sake of exploiting new hardware. This happened most famously in the early days of the Super NES – at the time, Nintendo’s hardware offered advanced features previously unimagined by programmers. Scaling, rotation and other impressive visual effects were combined with a powerful Sony-designed sound chip (which in many ways has yet to be surpassed, even a decade later); unsurprisingly, most games created in the initial wave of titles took advantage of some of these features.

In fact, quite a few titles seemed to exist simply to showcase them. While technology demonstrations tend to make pretty poor games, the first batch of Super NES games held their own. F-Zero, Super Mario World, Castlevania IV, Actraiser — all are titles which, subjectively speaking, probably should have been vapid and boring, but which had a surprising amount of substance beneath the Mode 7/alpha transparency/sound chip demonstration exercises they appeared to be.

But even then, the Super NES suffered its share of tech-driven games that fared poorly. The top-down stages of Contra III, for instance, showed exactly how awful willful abuse of Mode 7 rotation tricks could be. And Pilotwings, while clever, stopped being fun after about 20 minutes. And then there was Brandish.

Technically speaking, though, Brandish wasn’t a first-generation SNES game. It didn’t make its appearance on the system until several years after the system launch, at which point the 16-bit market was old news. And in point of fact, Brandish wasn’t simply a vapid Mode 7 demo. It merelyplayed like a poorly-conceived first-gen SNES Mode 7 demo.

Brandish originally appeared in Japan as a PC game courtesy of cult Japanese PC developer Falcom; from all appearances, the director of the game was blown away by those wretched top-down spinning levels from Contra III and decided to base an entire game on them. And not a small game, either — a 50-level crawl through a dungeon full of twisty passages, all alike. Alas, as a PC developer, Falcom lacked access to the Super NES’s built-in effects, so the screen rotates instantly in disorienting 90-degree increments rather than using the slightly-less irritating smooth rotation of Contra III.

Therein lies Brandish‘s greatest shortcoming. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Falcom was convinced that a game in which the world revolves around the player was a great idea. And from the perspective of a solipsist, it sounds rather appealing, but in terms of gameplay it’s just a bad idea. Brave knight Varik appears to have set off on his quest at some point prior to Copernicus’ revelation that there is no absolute center to the universe. As a result, Varik operates under the premise that he is the center of the universe.

Mighty Varik faces only the top of the screen. THIS HE SO DECREES.

As a result, the only way he can get about the deep dungeon in which he has been trapped is by causing the passageway he wishes to traverse to rotate to the top of the screen so it may be viewed by his immobile majesty. If he wishes to strike an enemy, he must spin the dungeon so that the foe is at the top of the screen as well.

In practice, this is even more cumbersome than it sounds, not to mention disorienting; the mere act of moving about is a terrible chore and requires an impressive sense of direction. There’s an auto-map and a compass right on hand, and the insanely unintuitive default navigation setting can be switched to something slightly more player-friendly, but even so the world of Brandish is a far cry from “fun.” Considering how much ground there is to cover in this stop-and-start manner, only the very patient or very masochistic are likely to make it all the way to the top of the tilt-a-whirl tower. And fighting the game’s brutal, unfair bosses while hampered with the brain-dead control scheme is something no mortal should ever have to experience.

Alas, the terrible navigation setup is in no way the extent of Brandish‘s interface flaws. On the contrary, the whole thing is an exercise in how not to create a video game. This can probably be attributed in part to the fact that Brandish was originally designed to be played with a mouse and keyboard, but even the challenges of a PC-to-console port don’t justify some of the screwy elements on display here.

Most crippling is the item menu interface, a 4×4 grid of generic-looking icons which can be exquisitely confusing to navigate in the heat of battle. Nevertheless, you’ll have to navigate the item menu while facing off against frightful enemies anyway; during such times, Varik is completely immobile, but enemies continue moving and attacking. (And here you thought Kingdom Hearts‘ menu system was terrible.) Furthermore, traps are sprinkled liberally through Brandish‘s dungeons, forcing gamers to advance slowly while dropping trap detectors every step of the way or suffer annoying setbacks.

Adding an insulting sneer to this injurious stab in the back, Brandish also starts gamers with painfully limited resources. Dragon Quarter claims to be the first “survival horror” RPG, but one could argue that in Brandish, Falcom staked out that territory a decade ago. (It even has the cumbersome Resident Evil-ish control scheme.)

That’s not to say they staked it out well, though. When you begin Brandish, you have practically nothing in hand; along the way, you’ll acquire items necessary for your survival. Little things, like “swords” and “healing potions.” That’s all standard fare in the world of the dungeon crawl, but Brandish’s weapons have an unfortunate habit of breaking – most of your swords shatter into fragments after a mere thirty uses. Replacement blades are expensive, especially considering there’s a finite amount of money available (enemies yield only experience upon defeat, never cash or goods), and to make matters even worse Varik can only carry what actually fits into his 16-item menu. As a result, it’s entirely possible to find yourself effectively screwed throughout the game, or else forced into unsavory decisions (do I fight barehanded and probably die pathetically, or do I sell these vital items for the money necessary to get a new sword, and probably die pathetically later?).

To be fair, Brandish does get better as the player progresses. Eventually, you’ll begin acquiring (effectively) unlimited magic skills, climbing experience levels, developing physical and magical attack strength and snatching up permanent weapons. Once you locate Fire Magic you’ll be able to blast away at foes with impunity; once you discover your first unbreakable sword you’ll be free to slash the bad guys at leisure. And you can save (and heal) anywhere at your leisure, so there should never be a need to retrace lost footsteps in the event of an unexpected death.

Unfortunately, it takes several hours of frustrating edge-of-survival exploration to begin the process of powering up in earnest; few will have the patience to work with Brandish‘s disaster of an interface long enough to reach this point. And even with a character who approaches reasonable levels of playability, the game is still hampered by the repulsive control scheme, asinine menu system, and the general clumsiness of the whole affair.

The ineptitude hovering over the SNES port of Brandish is unfortunate, because somewhere at the core of this mess is a compelling, addictive bit of gameplay. But that tiny nugget of goodness is wrapped in layer upon layer of punishment. The action – the 99.8% majority of the game — is largely founded upon the principles of the Nethack genre, and at time resembles some of the classic SSI Gold Box AD&D games. As such, there’s a certain addictiveness to the progressive leveling system – not to mention the satisfaction of another floor cleared.

Unlike so many other entries in the GIA’s Gauntlet of Pain (for which this article was originally intended), Brandish does at least have a solid principle at its heart. But it’s not hard to find other adventues which offer a similar experience with far less baggage by way of shoddy design. Even a trifecta of the most obsessive-compulsive dungeon hacking, entertaining story and Falcom-worthy tunage are far too little to compensate for the nagging sensation that the game would love nothing more than to rip off your pants and kick you repeatedly in the genitals.

Luckily, just because someone was foolish enough to publish a crappy game doesn’t mean you’re obligated to be foolish enough to play it. A gamer with a burning desire to eke their money’s worth from their purchase – or perhaps an absolutely adamant Falcom nut – could learn, in time, to love Brandish. But if all you really want is a tense, challenging “endless dungeon” sort of thing, there are plenty of other games on the market that offer exactly that as a bonus feature — Lufia II,Tales of DestinyParasite EveFinal Fantasy Tactics and Arc the Lad, just for starters. All of which happen to be vastly more enjoyable than this particular RPG. And there’s always Rogue and Nethack, where it all started. Or .hack, the dungeon crawl – of the future.

In the end, Brandish is far from being the worst game on Super NES. However, it arguably features the worst interface on the system. As with Populous, SimCity and other PC-to-SNES ports, playing Brandish is sort of like steering a car with your feet — it can be done, but it’s a bad idea.

Originally published summer 2002. Interesting as an academic study of how tastes change over time…