It’s interesting to watch the inexorable march forward of technology when it comes to gaming. Going from simplistic home systems like the Atari 2600 all the way to the modern powerhouses of the current generation, it always seems that just when developers are hitting their stride, the older systems, slowly (and sometimes quickly) are left in the dust, never to be heard from again except with retro gaming enthusiasts, and those who have fond memories of playing the systems in their childhoods.
But what if new releases weren’t finished for older systems? What if someone loved the system so much that they crafted a brand new game for it, for others to enjoy? That’s exactly the case with Pier Solar, a throwback 16-bit RPG on the Genesis, published in the year 2010.
A little history: the game was created by a company called WaterMelon. The game effectively started back in 2004 on an internet forum, and what began as a small homebrew project ended up being one of the best 16-bit RPGs for the Sega Genesis, as well as the largest, weighing in at 64 megabits. The game suffered numerous delays, but finally shipped in late 2010. Another run was produced in 2011, and while devoid of some of the extras that accompanied the first run, it was effectively the same game.
So, what everyone really wants to know, of course, is how the game plays. And while I hate trotting out comparisons to other games at times, it does give a decent starting point for reference. In the case of Pier Solar, the blueprint for the game’s design is clearly the Lunar series. Mechanically, while exploring, it feels nearly identical, right down to automatically running along a wall while you’re pushing towards it. The way battles are presented also looks a good deal like Lunar, and characters can be positioned like that game as well.
Where it diverges from Lunar, though, is in the battle system. While it may look like Lunar, there is no movement along the battlefield like that game. It is a strictly turn-based affair, and as such, positioning is not as important for so much attacking concerns, but mostly for attracting attacks to the stronger characters, while taking advantage of melee and ranged weapon sets. But there are some interesting wrinkles in the system, and this comes in the form of the Gather system.
In Pier Solar, characters can use one of their turns to “gather” energy, in order to increase the power of their attacks. Not only does this increase their power, but it also enables certain special skills and magic to be utilized, as almost every ability in the game requires some base level of charge to use the ability. In addition, characters can borrow “gather” from other team members, which means if you want to rip off a powerful skill, you can have most of your team gather, then borrow it for pulling the move off the next turn. On top of all that, the highest level of gather can only be reached by either borrowing from others, or using items (various Chilis) to boost up. Add to that enemies that can knock your level back down, and you’ve got an interesting system of give-and-take in the harder battles.
Graphically, the game has a lot in common with Lunar as well. It’s very well done overall, with a lot of color and detail put into the environments. Actually, it could be argued that they’re almost too busy, as sometimes it can be hard to pick out where paths are. And in a lot of sections, the detail is intentionally used to obscure paths to treasure chests, or hidden platforms, and the like. Getting through some dungeons can be tricky.
The soundtrack is excellent as well, and can be even better if you have a Sega CD. In an unprecendented first, the cart will actually take advantage of a Sega CD if it is there, allowing for playback of an enhanced soundtrack. It’s a cool trick, and one that was never actually used for any Genesis game while the system was alive. It also detects a 32X, but that only nets a hidden accessory late in the game, although a relatively cool one (hint: it has something to do with Sega’s most iconic character).
All of this is well and good, but in many people’s minds, the most important part of an RPG is the plot. And other than some odd, very video-gamey bits that rear their ugly head, the tale woven here is told with aplomb. The script is (mostly) typo-free, although it is somewhat disconcerting that certain younger characters seemed to have a bit more of a foul mouth that necessary. At any rate, the characters are pretty believable, and the ending is interesting, although somewhat melancholic as well. (Hopefully without spoiling it, the ending bears a striking resemblance to the ever-classic The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.)
As good as the game is, however, there are still some issues that get in the way of enjoying the game as well as one could. As previously mentioned, some of the areas can be very convoluted to navigate, owing partially to the graphical density, and partly to the at-times disjointed design. Battles in certain areas can be incredibly rough, with enemies doling out prodigious amounts of damage unless elemental guards are equipped. These elemental guards are rather cheap, but end up being the most effective accessories in the game. The drawback to this is that a lot of the cooler accessories tend to be ignored, as you can only equip one at a time.
Speaking of accessories and other items, inventory management is a pain. You have a limited number of items that can be carried, and those are often taken by story-related items. And the sheer variety of items you pick up nearly ensures that you’re going to be throwing away quite a few cool accessories that might come in handy down the road. Healing items are a hassle, because there are so many, but it makes no sense to keep most of the items that don’t stack. And on top of all that, there is nowhere to stash the items for later use, so you’re just going to constantly be getting rid of items, accessories, and weapons. It’s an unfortunate limitation that impacts playability and forces tough decisions on a player as to what to keep and what to discard.
There are also areas where points at which to rest are few and far between. There is one area, in particular, that is absolutely brutal, and it will take hours to find another inn. There are even opportunities at which the protagonists could have rested, but do not… which makes it even more frustrating.
All in all, though, the game is a remarkable piece of software and coding. It very nearly ascends to the towering heights of the Genesis classics such as Phantasy Star IV and Shining Force II, or if we’re going to use Lunar as our comparison, it hits about the level of Silver Star, while missing Eternal Blue by a smidge. Despite various issues that present themselves during the game, it is well worth playing from start to finish. And much like Star Odyssey, the game is not playable on emulators, so your only opportunity to play the game is ordering the game from WaterMelon. I would highly recommend doing so, as throwback RPGs this good don’t show up every day in any format, and missing out on it would be a shame for anyone into classic RPGs.
GameSpite Journal 12: Pier Solar