The second RPG ever released for Game Boy was even more unconventional than The Final Fantasy Legend. Square’s game at least adheres to the general structure and format of the console RPG in the post-Dragon Quest era, even if its inner workings were all over the place (trending toward “weird as hell”). But Kemco’s The Sword of Hope — you have to love all the definitive articles old-school RPGs used! — borrowed its share of RPG trappings, but crammed them into a shell that resembled nothing so much as Icom’s MacVenture graphical adventures: Shadowgate, Deja Vu, and Uninvited.
Which of course makes sense; Kemco Seika had converted those PC classics to Mac, and generally did a bang-up job of it. The ethics of swiping the form of someone else’s creations for semi-derivative works could probably spark some heated debate among intellectual property lawyers, but that sort of thing was fairly common in the ’80s. Using Shadowgate as a springboard for a hybrid RPG/adventure certainly seems a lot less shady than, say, Midway creating multiple unauthorized Pac-Man games on the strength of owning arcade distribution rights for the franchise. And Sword of Hope is certainly a much more entertaining game than, say, New Exciting Pac-Man Plus — even if it does feel undeniably dated in the year 2015.
Sword of Hope walks an unusual tightrope between genres, one part classic role-playing game and one part graphical adventure. It’s a hybrid format that’s rarely been explored; arguably its closest relative would be Sting’s Riviera: The Promised Land, or (more contemporaneously) Falcom’s Tombs & Treasures. Players get about the game world in the fashion of an adventure game, traveling from screen to screen — node to node — but the must deal with random combat encounters along the way that result in Dragon Quest-style one-on-one turn-based combat.
Neither element of The Sword of Hope is exactly top-of-class for its time. When I say the role-playing combat is reminiscent of Dragon Quest, I mean the original Dragon Quest: You command a single protagonist who faces off against a tiny handful of enemies at a time, with only the most rudimentary combat commands at your fingertips: Attack, Fight, Use (items), Run. Your spell repertoire is gated by your current level, your weapon and armor options are tightly constrained, and progress comes in dribs and drabs as you complete the various minor tasks as dictated by the story.
Logistically, everything except the combat plays like a simplified version of a graphical adventure game. The Sword of Hope takes its cues from the likes of Shadowgate, though it really does feel like Kemco’s designers looked at the Icom games they’d been porting and said, “Man, these just aren’t right.” In many ways, The Sword of Hope feels like a very Japanese take on Icom’s adventures, which is to say much fairer and less arbitrary. Where the MacVenture titles tended to inflict cheap, instant, untelegraphed death upon players for daring to explore the game world — you know, pretty much the point of an adventure game — The Sword of Hope feels much less punishing. There’s less to interact with in the game world, but what you can interact with will rarely kill you outright… and when you do stumble into a trap, it usually takes the form of a battle from which you have even odds of running from safely with the Escape command.
So where Shadowgate would murder you in an instant for daring to go up against a cave troll with the wrong weapon or kill you outright for breaking a mirror, The Sword of Hope instead will take these “traps” as an opportunity to throw you into battle. Maybe you can’t beat the Treant the first time you fight it, but you can probably flee to safety after it pounds you for a massive fraction of your total health in the first round of combat. That treasure chest may be a trap, but you can potentially defeat that Mimic with the proper spell.
In all, it’s hard to say that The Sword of Hope offers a flawless improvement over its inspirations. It simply shifts around the strengths and weaknesses. The game can be awfully grindy; the mini-map that depicts the area around your current node indicates the presence of nearby enemies, but monsters can behave erratically. As in a roguelike, they get to take an action when you either move or complete a round of combat, and if a fight goes on too long new creatures may wander in and join the fray — not unlike the FOEs of Etrian Odyssey, in fact. This can cause combat to drag severely, which isn’t helped by the fact that the random encounter rate is much higher than the mini-map would suggest. Even more annoyingly, damage values in combat are all over the place; while creatures have weaknesses to specific attacks, both player attacks and and enemy actions tend to hit for wildly unpredictable amounts — the same enemy might hit the hero for trifling damage one round and take down most of his HP in the next, and the reverse holds true for the player’s spells and sword attacks.
Despite these annoyances (along with the fact that The Sword of Hope lacks The Final Fantasy Legend’s wonderful save-anywhere feature, forcing players to return to the outset of the adventure to collect a password at the end of a session), The Sword of Hope still manages to be fairly entertaining. Falling in combat amounts to more of an inconvenience than a setback, and the lightweight adventure game structure keeps things much more focused and fast-paced than your typical 8-bit RPG.
While the ethics of the game’s design could be viewed as somewhat shady, given the way Kemco clearly pilfered so much of this adventure from games they had licensed from another developer, the end result is one of the more creative and substantial works of the Game Boy’s first year of life. It falls short of classic status, sure, but it’s a more ambitious attempt at hybrid game design than you might expect from a portable title of this vintage. Inessential, but interesting.
The Sword of Hope
Japanese title: Selection: Erabareshi Mono • セレクション 選ばれし者
Developer: Kotobuki Systems
Release date: 12.28.1989 [JP] | 6.1991 [US] | 1991 [EU]
Genre: RPG (adventure)
Super Game Boy: None
Previous in series: None
Next in series: The Sword of Hope II [9.4.1992]
Similar titles: Shadowgate Classic [Infinite Ventures/Kemco, 1.1999] | Dragon Warrior I & II [TOSE/Enix, 9.23.1999]
The Sword of Hope, packaging [U.S.]
The Sword of Hope, packaging contents [U.S.]
The Sword of Hope, box front [U.S.]
The Sword of Hope, box back [U.S.]
The Sword of Hope, cartridge [U.S.]
The Sword of Hope, manual [U.S.]