Badness is worse when it’s surrounded by quality.
There are many terrible videogames. Most of them let you know they’re bad within the opening moments; they control poorly, play worse, and you immediately know, “yeah, this isn’t good.” If you soldier on, you do so with the knowledge of what you’re getting into. Hell, there’s a whole culture on YouTube and Twitch around playing bad games for the schadenfreude of it all: this person is doing this dumb thing, and we get to enjoy it, so doesn’t that make it–in a twisted way–good somehow1?
What I find much worse is slow-reveal awful. You’re enjoying a thing, be it a book or game or whatever, and slowly but surely it becomes more and more terrible. Characters make less sense, the game designers appear to have gone on vacation, and all the previous hours of pleasure are retroactively ruined by the sudden onset of suck. With literature, this often takes place across a long-running series, and so knowing when to get out while the getting’s good is important. (For example, I deny the existence of any Dune books past the second one, and sometimes even that one too. No, you can’t change my mind.) And that happens with videogame series as well… but it also tends to happen in individual games, due to a fundamental problem with how videogames are made. Namely: on a schedule, whether the game’s ready to be released or not.
Dragon Warrior II2 is notorious for having an absolutely relentless endgame, one that basically amounts to “is the pseudo-random number generator in this NES cartridge smiling upon me today?” in terms of how much control you the player have over its success. It sours an otherwise solid game, one that improves on the original along basically every axis, other than this one brutal misstep that pretty much pisses away all the goodwill the game built beforehand. And the folks who worked on the game later acknowledged the real source of the problem: they were in a rush, and the entire endgame went basically untested by any mortals before it was shipped out on carts to the world at large.
Well, Destiny of an Emperor is clearly inspired heavily by the Dragon Quest/Warrior series, from its menus down to many of its core mechanics, and apparently it took a little too much inspiration from Dragon Warrior II. I liked it at first, loved it for most of the midgame, and then right at the end the whole thing came tumbling down in a series of fights that basically amounted to, well, “is the pseudo-random number generator in this NES cartridge smiling upon me today?” Ugh.
For those of you unfamiliar with the game itself–which, I imagine, is most of you, as it’s definitely on the obscure end of the NES’ library–Destiny of an Emperor (hereafter DoaE) is a retelling of the extremely famous Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the formative pieces of Chinese literature. It’s a historical novel about the end of the Han dynasty, and it has been adapted mercilessly for film, television, and in videogames. Boy howdy has it been adapted for videogames. There is an entire series of strategy games that just steal the name outright, and the Dynasty Warriors hack-and-slash kill-’em-ups are all re-tellings of Romance. DoaE is a classic Japanese RPG rather than a strategy or action game, but otherwise fits in a very comfortable lineage of “things adapted from an old novel that is seminal to an entire culture.”
And, while DoaE is clearly, ah, let’s be polite and say heavily inspired by the Dragon Quest series, it also does some genuinely clever new things on its own. You control Liu Bei’s army, by way of leading a party of up to seven generals; each of those generals has some number of troops under his3 command which act like hit points in a more traditional JRPG. Weirdly, resting at an inn “heals” your dead soldiers, and by the end of the game you’re traversing caves with armies of a quarter million men or more, so it’s best not to think too much about that abstraction… but the game does some neat tricks with army size. Basically, each digit of troops you have active doubles your attack power, so you really want to hit 1,000 soldiers and keep over that number. By the end of the game you control generals with upwards of 30,000 troops apiece, and the scale of the battles feels genuinely significant.
The generals are handed in a very clever way as well. The army “levels up,” as in traditional RPGs, but that only affects a limited number of the generals’ troop sizes. Instead, you spend much of the game recruiting other generals–a procedure anyone who has played a Dynasty Warriors game will feel very familiar with–and popping them into and out of your party based on your needs. Some hit hard, some are good with tactics (the game’s equivalent of spells), and most have a fixed number of troops following them, so they can either immediately dramatically increase your armies’ survivability or are fodder for the recruitment office. The game only allows you to keep 64 generals back at the office–and just where are their massive armies?–and I had to clear out a bunch of dead weight at least once in the game to make room for more, higher-level generals.
The battles are also considerably more engaging than most JRPG combat of the time. You can have up to five generals in combat at a time, and they can pick their targets individually or use the aforementioned tactics to help themselves or hinder your enemies. Success is dependent on their strength for fighting or intelligence for tactics, and there’s quite a variety in what you can do to make tough fights easier. For the trivial ones, the game has an auto-battle feature where the two sides duke it out as quickly as the game engine allows, making the (too-frequent) random battles little more than a nuisance. Auto-battle? In a JRPG from the ’80s? Is this real life?
The game has a number of small-to-middling issues, unsurprising given its vintage. The tactics are untranslated from Chinese, other than being Romanized, so prepare to refer a lot to an instruction book or FAQ until you learn the names of the abilities and what they do. You should also take notes as to the locations of various towns and people, as you sometimes have to do non-trivial amounts of backtracking to similarly-named locations to find the next point to progress. And there are a couple of “dumb mechanics involving the fact that you’re playing a videogame” bits that probably felt clever at the time but now feel like unnecessary and obtuse fourth-wall breaking nonsense.
But those are all tolerable issues. No, the reason that Destiny of an Emperor soured hard on me is that the last series of plot-related battles all involve high-level enemy strategists. And those strategists use some pretty stupid abilities, which can:
- cause your generals to literally not be able to attack for the next 1 to… I don’t know how many rounds, but I know at least one enemy use of it lasted ten turns… or
- instantly heal the enemy general of all the “damage” (i.e. dead troops: are they zombies?) you’ve dealt them, potentially setting you back eight or more rounds of battle… or
- decapitate one of your generals, causing all of their soldiers to instantly die. (Are they routed? Are they all decapitated too? Don’t think too much about this…)
Of course, rather than any of those patently ridiculous options, they can just choose to attack for a small amount of damage–they’re strategists, after all, weak on strength–while you wreck them in the face.
Which result will you get? Who knows! Only the PRNG can decide.
If I were still in the business of giving review scores to things4, I’d give the first ninety percent or so of Destiny of an Emperor a solid four stars out of five. It’s a little rough, sure, but the game came out in 1989 and is still quite captivating. (It also has an amazing soundtrack, and some really impressive spritework that I didn’t have time to get into, given how overly long this article already is.) But the last ten percent is a flat-out one-star experience. And it drags the whole thing down with it.
Is it still a good game? Yeah… sure… I guess. But it’s not great, and it could have been. It was so close. And that hurts a lot more than if it were just terrible from the start. What a shame.
The sequel’s supposed to be better, and despite being a Japanese-only release on the Famicom, it has a fan translation. I look forward to playing it… but not immediately. I need some distance from this particular take on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Right now, revisiting this world doesn’t seem very romantic at all.