High Fantasy to Inspire

Generally, high fantasy is not so much to my taste. The standard was primarily set by The Lord of the Rings, and everything else since then has often paid homage to that trilogy in some shape or form, often reusing many similar tropes. But sometimes, the reuse of familiar material doesn’t matter. Sometimes its just the quality of what or how the story is told that keeps the audience in their seats.

So here are five high fantasy games, books and television series that maybe more esoteric, but are definitely worth checking out…

Record of Lodoss War, by Group SNE

Once, Manuel mentioned Record of Lodoss War as an anime that inspired him. The series is quite Tolkienesque in nature, with many races and elements akin to Dungeons and Dragons. You may find the tropes very familiar.

For many fantasy franchises, there’s a kind of chicken-vs-egg origin question. Sometimes it’s a story that inspires a game, which tries to relive or create new scenarios to expand those adventures. Other times, the game is weaved around the gaming system itself. Record of Lodoss War is the latter of these two, coming from a looser role-playing system called Forcelia. From this, Ryo Mizuno wrote several novels, which expanded into a few games and three separate anime series of varying quality.

Of these anime series, I’ve enjoyed watching the very first. And I have seen elements of the second OVA series called Record of Lodoss War: Chronicles of the Heroic Knight, whose opening can be viewed below.

The first series really did create a traditional RPG party. The main characters were a knight, a dwarven fighter, an elven shaman, a priest, a magician and a thief. No, really. The one-hundred percent traditional, balanced party you would otherwise only see in video games was in fact the main cast of a 13-episode television series.

Record of Lodoss War went back and forth from lighthearted to dark. You had tender scenes where naive knight Parn hit it off with Deedlit on the dance floor. In another scene, you see a man killed by… I don’t even know how to describe it. He turned purple and collapsed violently. Magic? Vicious poison? Who knows. But there are other high fantasy elements such as prophecies and enormous dragons. I suppose if you like traditional high fantasy and don’t mind large anime eyes, Record of Lodoss War is your thing.

The Secret of Mana, by Squaresoft

Secret of ManaBack in the days of the SNES, Squaresoft came up with a stellar idea for a Legend of Zelda-like action/adventure/RPG. Their concept? A three-player game, more about the collusion of magic and nature against technology and industrism, aging traditions clashing against expanding imperial powers. The past against the future. If you’ve ever seen Ralph Bakshi’s unusual film Wizards then probably have a some idea.

The story surrounded a boy who accidentally drew a sword from the waterfall near his home, acting on “Chosen One” trope. This otherwise innocent act unleashes a series of monsters and problems throughout the land. The boy is banished from his village and sent to solve the world’s dilemma.

Along the way he is joined by a girl trying to save a warrior she loves (a nice flip on the “Save the Princess” trope) and a sprite. By sealing eight seeds of Mana, they will be able to restore balance to the world. Unfortunately, the (Evil) Empire seeks the secrets of Mana for themselves to unlock the Mana Fortress.

The Secret of Mana shined as a fantastic game, a rewarding experience that was more about the joys of playing with a friend or two, discovery and teamwork. The environment was highly colorful and diverse. And the music was soft, haunting and unforgettable. The story of the game was nothing groundbreaking then or now, but moderately well told. Here’s the opening theme, and as Youtube user elrandohorse correctly asserted, it will result in “Manly tears.”

Tactics Ogre: The March of the Black Queen, by Enix

Ogre BattleI’ve only played one of the Tactics Ogre games, but it was good. Damn good. That particular game was Ogre Battle: The March of the Black Queen by Enix. The game oddly mixed RTS elements with traditional RPG details, but did so simply and quite well. The game’s plot focuses on a rebellion to overthrow an Empress who took control of the continent some 25 years earlier, but thickens a little bit after they succeed. An intriguing point mentioned on the Wikipedia is that the game was partially inspired by the Yugoslav Wars of the 90s.

The gameplay of the series was relatively simple. You organize multiple parties of up to five ordinary soldiers. They can be moved about the map, and when they come into contact with a foe they will engage. Battle was simply a set of rounds, with each character fighting pretty much on autopilot. Units cost money, which is raised every day based on the number of liberated towns and temples. Given the mouse-like user interface, I’m actually surprised it has not yet been ported to mobile devices.

There was considerable depth to the SNES game. As soldiers survive, they can be promoted to other classes and gain interesting new abilities. There were some 75 different classes they could become. Tarot cards were collected throughout the campaign, each possessing unusual, powerful properties that could alter the course of battle. Characters could also become evil or good on a scale from 0 to 100. This effects battle, as good characters fight better during the day while evil ones during the night.

Between this morality scale and several choices in the game, there were 13 different endings. These features were somewhat ahead of their time, making Tactics Ogre: March of the Black Queen easily one of the most interesting approaches to the RTS genre.

The Chronicles of Prydain, by Lloyd Alexander

The Book of ThreeWhen you say old school fantasy, you usually cannot get more traditional than Lloyd Alexander’s five-book series, The Chronicles of Prydain. In truth the series is a hybrid, blending elements of high and dark fantasy with Welsh mythology, yet staying at the Young Adult reading range. Folks may be somewhat familiar with the series thanks to Disney’s movie The Black Cauldron, based on the first and second books and named after the latter.

Taran is a pig boy who dreams of a bigger life, yet is charged with the care of an oracle pig named Hen Wen who escapes after a frightening vision. Taran pursues his charge and is accidentally thrust into the conflict between the House of Dôn and the Horned King, followed by his master Arawn. Over the series, Taran grows into a man, particularly during the fourth book during which he travels with only the man-beast Gurgi.

The Chronicles of Prydain is one of the earliest dark fantasy series I’ve ever read, and what turned me onto the genre long before Berserk or the Diablo series ever came to my attention. The brilliance of course is that it’s still made for a younger audience, so the quintology manages to possess many thrills and foreboding sense of dread while never becoming so terrifying as to offset its readers.

The Pirates of Dark Water, by Hanna-Barbera

The Pirates of Dark WaterAdmittedly, The Last Unicorn almost made this spot. The reason it didn’t was due to the release of a new edition, which returned the movie to the public’s eye yet again.

Created by Hanna-Barbera, The Pirates of Dark Water take place on the ocean-covered world of Mer (French for sea.) The planet is suffering from a black substance that leaves whatever it touches barren and dead. Yet scattered throughout the world are thirteen treasures which can dispel this toxic mass.

Ren, a boy raised as a lighthouse keeper, is charged with finding and reuniting these treasures. Joined by a few unusual allies, Ren is opposed by Bloth, a rival pirate captain who seek the treasures in order to control the dark water for his own gains.

Although the series lasted but 21 episodes and ended before the story’s completion, the show must be praised for its daring and bold vision. Its influences fly against the orthodox medieval European settings common in most fantasy series. Rather, The Pirates of Dark Water feels like a cultural creole of many Asian countries. The clothing, weapons and even character designs all borrow historical hints from Korea, China, Thailand, Japan and several other countries. It’s a shame that it was cancelled before its time.

Additional Music for Writing

I do this for Aiur! ... Wait, wait, wrong game.

I do this for Aiur! ... Wait, wait, wrong game.

So a day ago, Narravitium and I were chatting about the works of Aaron Dembski-Bowden. I mentioned that his book titles Soul Hunter and Blood Reaver made me wonder if they were influenced by the Legacy of Kain game series. Oh no, of course the Night Lords legion aren’t vampires, but they damn well feel like them sometimes.

Still, it’s a stretch of the imagination. But the plus side is that I remembered some damn fine music for writing. So I raided my old game collections to find some ideas. Time for a nostalgic trek.

  1. Ozar Midrashim, Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver OST.
    I certainly liked the Legacy of Kain series. They were not the best made games technically, but the story was solid and involving and the puzzles were a turn on. I hear rumors, unconfirmed, that a reboot maybe in the works but we shall see. This link is actually both Ozar Midrashim and the ending credit music, but both are quite good. It’s an incredible piece that screams “war against the light” in my mind.
  2. Artificial Sky, Armored Core 3 OST.
    Armored Core is another of my favorite game series and has a faithful cult following. Both my brother and I loved playing it. I like the customizations and the nice multiplayer aspect to it. I await the day that the developers really create an end-all game that is fully networked for co-op and competitions. I may talk about the background of Armored Core in a later blog entry. You may also want to check out Precious Park but it has lyrics.
  3. Contra Rock-Metal Remix, by Vomitron.
    Contra is one of the most beloved of games by testosterone junkies. Imagine a movie with Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger in their prime, killing alien possessed humans and no limit to the amount of ammunition. And then forget the movie and just turn it into a game, and that is Contra. Sadly, a lot of these old school NES game series have not transitions as well to newer consoles. But someday, someone will do it right. Maybe a game that mixes first and third shooting with side scrolling levels and…
  4. The Legend of Zelda Orchestrated, by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
    I loved the old school Zelda games. The newer ones took the series in a slightly different direction. That, and they kept pumping them out non-stop. The over-franchising kind of ruined it for me, but I don’t hold it against people who love it anyway.
  5. Staff Credit, Final Fantasy Tactics OST.
    Sigh. I love this song. It reminds me of the challenges I faced, the characters, the story and plot that were deeper than an ocean. It makes me nostalgic for the first game I ever owned on the Playstation and, to this day, one of the greatest games I will ever play. I know, I know, new titles for Final Fantasy Tactics came along, but they just weren’t as incredible from what I played. The direction Square Enix has taken the Final Fantasy series in general has been too goofy for me. But I still have my classics.
  6. Love Song, Dragon Warrior 2 OST remixed.
    Old school as they come, Enix software was the only real competition Squaresoft had in NES RPGs for quite a while. The first game was simple, but they got better, adding parties and abilities and developing better stories and characters. I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to listen to this song.
    But thou must!
    But thou must!
    But thou mu- okay, I’ll stop now.

    I really hope this line is used in The Dark Knight Rises.

    I really hope this line is used in 'The Dark Knight Rises'.

  7. Batman Level 1 Remix, by Farmhouse Media.
    Sunsoft made a decent platform game when it brought the Batman series to the NES. But the one thing that has stuck with the gamers throughout the years has been the very impressive soundtrack that came with it. Take a hard look at the sheer number of remixes for that game. That, and the fact that he’s the goddamn Batman.
  8. Megaman X – Storm Eagle Theme Remix, by Chikusho Sound Team.
    There are many harder and faster remixes than the one issued by Chikusho Sound Team. But I pulled myself back and reminded myself that the music I’m finding is primarily for writing. If you want something more intense however, check out the Powerglove Remix version.
  9. Double Dragon theme, by NESkimos.
    If there was anyone I’d want to see do a Double Dragon remake, it actually would be Rockstar Games. And I’d want them to reboot the series, adding some moral grey areas that let the player decide between being the good or bad, taking over gangs and the streets or helping people out. And as a result, which of the two brothers you are at the end of the game. The Warriors on PS2 was both my favorite game and one of my favorite movies. That sir, is a remake and franchised game done right.
  10. Main Theme Orchestrated, Secret of Mana OST.
    So too many of my themes have really focused on pumping up their audience. This one is much slower, much more mystical. The game itself was mystical as well, being a 3-player RPG that my buddy Ben and I played throughout our youth. It was a colorful game, a very basic fantasy story. It’s a shame that future titles just did not deliver like the first one, but I’ll never forget the first title.