Some people still yearn for the days of yore when it only took a TV, an RCA cable, and a 1st gen Nintendo to get off the ground. Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy all come to mind in those heady days of the 2D RPG. Now, for those who have that particular pique of nostalgia fluttering beneath their breastbone there’s NEStalgia, published by Silk Games. A fittingly named MMORPG that mimics the top-down, 2D aspect of games much akin to the ones I named above. Blocky 8-bit graphics, bleeping 8-bit almost-chiptune music, text-only interfaces across never-ending scrolling map environments. It’s a little piece of the 80s that we never had…
…in MMO form.
It even has as a PvP system! How cool is that? Anyone who has ever played game like Dragon Warrior may have wondered what it might be like to go up against their friends and see how they’d fare in a group vs. group battle. Now we can see that happen within the confines of NEStalgia.
Sucks. The game uses an installer and launcher platform called BYOND, which seems to be the portal for a number of different arcade and multiplayer games. It’s a little bit kludged and it’s not very slick; but we didn’t download this game because we needed breakfast in bed or someone to groom the cat, we wanted to play a 2D 8-bit MMO.
And that’s also the problem: it puts several extra layers between us and the massively multiplayer version of game that we could just blow the dust off our NES, slam in a cartage, and go with.
Warning: Launching the BYOND client will often produce a loud fanfare when there’s messages available so don’t have your sound all the way up.
Once you get over this, you’ll have to hunt it down in the list of games available through BYOND and find NEStalgia and you’re ready for the experience.
Graphics: Classically bad, but what’s the draw of the game
Towns will be green swaths of the same tile background, broken up by top-down buildings of brick, with floors within. Vendors stand ready expecting to sell their wares, with “signs” designed out of single tiles that try to tell you what would be sold by the walking-in-place merchant behind the counter. Your character also only has an animation of two frames and constantly looks like she’s walking in place. That alone should take old school gamers back.
Battles take place in a very Dragon Warrior like interface with your control set at the bottom shrouded in blue with white lettering and the enemy in a black space in front of you. The graphics are classically-bad and blink when they take hits.
Sound: Which will make you miss your NES
Magnificent! Upon starting the game and the six-voice, almost-MIDI, almost-chiptune music starts up you’ll be sold on the authenticity of their attempt to recreate the nostalgia of the 8-bit RPG era. The beautiful little 8-bit orchestra score that greets you will blow you away. Not because it’s that inspired or moving, but because it’s totally what you expect form a game like this.
Selections will “bleep” when you hit them as you move screen to screen.
Battles change music from town and overland scores and there’s the classic voop that signifies an enemy attack and a crunch sounds when a hit is landed. Spells all seem to have their own sounds and in some cases will blink the screen background—such as zap which flashes yellow and has a distinct sound.
And, of course, the death music is appropriately sad.
Gameplay: For better or for worse, this is an JRPG made MMO
The game falls down a bit here, not because it’s mimicking the bygone forgotten era of gaming, but because it combines the worst of all possible factors in its interface design. If I were running an emulator on my computer to actually play Dragon Warrior 1, 2, or 3 I wouldn’t have to worry about moving my mouse about. Everything would be accessible via menus triggered by key presses and that would be that. I’d be a little bit frustrated—I have a mouse damnit!—but I’d know what I was getting into because I’ve played DW3 on my NES before and I know the gig.
NEStalgia, on the other hand, tries somewhat to incorporate the use of the mouse and it does it somewhat poorly. The clickbox for a lot of the different elements seems a bit smaller than the actual icon; there’s little indication you managed to hit your target. The interface in fact seems a little bit haphazard in when and where it accepts mouse clicks and to what end. Perhaps I just didn’t look deep enough into the hotkeys but, come on, I don’t think it’ll break the mystique that much to bring the interface a little bit up to speck.
Fortunately, this effect doesn’t extend to battles as everything there does tend to make sense—although it’s still a bit kludged—you select your attack with your mouse, it changes your mouse icon (into a sword for attack, a cross for heals, or a zap for…zap) ad then you click on your target and the action goes off. Sometimes it may take a second for it to happen, or a second click, but it’ll fire sure enough.
That brings me to another big problem that could be a deal breaker for a lot of people: lag.
For a game that emits so little information it seems to be buried under all manner of lag. Either controller lag, or communication lag, or just simply sagging beneath being unable to process the next move, this is a truly sluggish game. Now, it’s not a game that depends in the slightest on quick reflexes or a sharp eye—combat, after all is entirely turn based—but it’s still extremely flabbergasting when my character cannot walk across the countryside without looking like she’s waiting for the hopscotch rock to be thrown.
Upon starting the game you’ll get to choose between a staple set of character classes. The classes a non-subscriber can grab are Ranger, a fighter class with an aptitude for magic; Soldier, a tank-like warrior class with a range of armor and weapons; Cleric, the all-expect healer class; and Wizard, the relatively frail in constitution but heavy on the magical firepower sorcerer class. Subscribers also get to choose Merchant, a physically able class good with treasure and goods; Conjurer, a combination of the wizard and cleric; Ninja, hits hard and has a chance to turn enemies into healing items; and Warlock, a magic user who uses her own hit points instead of mana, but comes with spells to suck the life out of enemies.
In spite of the subscriber element, the game is free-to-play and doesn’t really keep that much content dangling out of reach of players. If you want access to the perks of subscription—the four extra classes, quick travel routes, the ability to form guilds, and accessorize your character—it’s actually extremely cheap. The price schedule runs as follows: $9 for six months, $15 for a year, or $27 for a lifetime membership. The lifetime membership actually costs less than a bargain-bin FPS from three years ago.
It’s possible to group up with other players into groups with a maximum of three. The decision seems to be related to game mechanics and designed to drive deep and dark choices on the roles players take in parties. The game is also geared towards these parties and much of the PvE storyline leans heavily on the cooperative elements of having a group to handle enemies, deal with puzzles, and explore the world. However, it is possible to solo a great deal of the content.
There is a chat interface welded to the side of the playing area where a vibrant community is always chatting on any given server. They’re good if you’re stuck on anything or need help, and you can always check you the forums and the wiki.
This game has a lot more to offer than just the gimmick of looking like an old school JRPG—it has a depth of action, a nicely divided plate of classes, and a strong storyline for PvE as well as the possibility of PvP. The music is awesome, but like any JRPG it’s also repetitive and it will start to get on your nerves. The graphics are classically bad, but if you’re coming to this game that’s why you’re here.
The interface could use a lot of work, especially when it comes to general interactivity. It doesn’t necessarily have to break the classic-motif to work better, but it would just be nice if the game acted a little bit more consistently.
The game is constantly developing. The admins and developers appear to pay attention, they post in the forums, they seem to listen to their users, and there’s a constant stream of expansions coming out for NEStalgia. The communities are tight knit, small servers, but there’s always someone online.
It’s a JRPG world with a lot of stuff to do, things to equip, enemies to fry, spells to learn, and a 2D map to explore with dungeons, creatures, and quests.
Certainly this could be done a lot better with cleaner programming and a smoother interface; but the market is so niche that chances are this is among the best out there for this type of experience.