2021-02-06

Zeliard

Game Review

Game: Zeliard
Rating: A

Welcome to 2021 everyone! Here's hoping this year turns out better than the last. It's also been a while since I've posted any updates, especially a game review, so a new review seems like a great way to kick off the new year. For previous reviews I picked out a few awful to average games, so this time around I thought I would switch gears to the opposite end of the spectrum. As the 1980's were coming to a close, Sierra On-Line licensed several games from Japanese developer Game Arts for release in North America. Thexder is likely the best known, and at the time was one of Sierra's best selling games (and deservedly so, it's a fun game I also recommend checking out). This time around, however, I'm going to point your attention to what seems to be one of Game Arts more obscure titles, Zeliard.

Zeliard was originally developed for the Japanese NEC PC-8801 with Sierra's PC release coming out a few years later in 1990. The game resembles a hybrid of a platform/action game and an RPG, a style that didn't seem very common for PC games at the time. The background story is somewhat generic; a long slumbering demon, Jashiin, has (for reasons unapparent) awakened and is causing chaos across the kingdom of Zeliard! For days it's been raining down sand which turned the formerly fertile fields and lush forrests into a desert. Additionally, the king's daughter, Felicia, has been turned to stone. Naturally, it's up to the player to undo these catastrophes! To accomplish the task there are nine magic stones (called the Tears of Esmesanti) which were stolen by Jashiin that need to be recovered; each one is located in a different cavern and is well guarded. The final task will, of course, be to defeat Jashiin in battle. When the game starts, the opening portrays the story with quite a bit of detail and some nice graphics. The whole sequence can take a good 15-20 minutes to watch in its entirety, and luckily this is optional; Whether or not you sit through the whole opening you'll quickly get the gist of what's going on as you talk with characters throughout the game.

One of the above ground towns in Zeliard
After the opening (whether you watch it or not), the game begins in a town where the king bestows upon Duke Garland, the player's character, some Almas (the games currency). Now we're off! The game is divided into two types of areas; towns similar to the one the game begins in, and the caverns were exploration and battles take place. The towns can be above ground or hidden deep in a cavern; either way, they provide a safe area for players to rest. Different buildings allow health to be restored, money saved or withdrawn, weapons and armor purchased, experience points can be used to level up, and more. Each building has it's own type of character such as the greedy banker and the mysterious sages; unfortunately you'll always find the same banker, sage, etc no matter which town you're in, although not too surprising given hardware and development limitations of the era. There are a lot of characters wandering around or inside some buildings; players can talk to them all and while many have nothing to say, others provide clues about the caverns and enemies or advance the story. A nice twist is that some characters are under the control of Jashiin! They may provide misleading information, send the player somewhere unexpected, or other do something else odd. These occurrences increase in frequency as the game progresses and may make you suspicious of everyone!

From each town you'll find one or more entrances into the caverns; now the action begins! Although not exactly the same, the game has somewhat of a Metroidvania style here. The caverns are large, maze-like, and interconnected; you'll find a series of doors that lead to new locations, or you may need to travel through a town to reach a new area. In some cases, new equipment is needed to make progress such as grip shoes allowing Duke Garland to climb up slippery slopes. The first several caverns in the game aren't too confusing; you can generally memorize your way through, or at least it isn't difficult to accidentally stumble through and reach the end. With each new cavern reached, the difficulty increases. Not only do the caverns become slightly larger, but more importantly they are more ellaborate and trickier in their layout. A map of each cavern is included with the game, and just looking at it doesn't fully reveal how much more complex the later caverns are; various types of hidden obstacles are added that aren't necessarily shown on the map (or indeed even on the screen). This includes hot air currents which lift Duke Garland up to an unexpected location, invisible walls, one-way passages, an increasingly convoluted set of doors, and trickier jumps to make. After a few caverns I found I needed that included map and had to mark it up with the hidden obstacles I encountered; trying to find my way through without it would have been difficult at best! The game isn't copy protected, but you'll likely want the map otherwise you won't get far and will probably need to resort to drawing your own as you explore. There is a pretty good amount of variety to the caverns; each one has a different appearance and theme that the obstacles and enemies match. You'll start out in a rocky cavern where giant frogs and bats jump and fly towards Duke Garland. Later caverns have a forrest theme, a fire theme, an ice theme, and much more. Enemies don't just take more hits to destroy in the more difficult caverns, they also get faster, smarter, and have more elaborate attack patterns. Each cavern ends with an epic boss battle; the bosses take on different forms that match the cavern theme and have different weaknesses requiring different weapons or strategies to defeat them. If players are defeated (which will happen!), it doesn't end the game and instead Duke Garland is revived at a nearby church (minus some money) with the opportunity to try again. Although you may be sent backwards, additional equipment, new weapons, and unlocked doors providing shortcuts will eventually allow getting back on track to be easier and quicker. There's plenty of challenge that ramps up at a nice pace; The later caverns are quite difficult, but the challenge is fun and I never found it at a level where I felt like giving up. Zeliard always had me returning and trying again until I was able to complete the entire game.

Guarding from an attack in Absor Cavern
The original Japanese version features attractive graphics utilizing a display resolution of 640x200. Sierra's PC version reproduces the original graphics nicely and offers several hardware options, the best being either the EGA or MCGA graphics modes. The EGA version also uses 640x200 with 16 colors and is almost exactly the same as the original. The MCGA version is only 320x200, but it uses 64 colors so there are more solid colors and less dithering than with the EGA version; I personally prefer this appearance, although both look fantastic and your preference may vary depending on if want to see the game looking closer to the Japanese version or not. Tandy, CGA, and Hercules graphics are available and as one would expect not as colorful, however you won't have any issues playing the game as sometimes happened with the lesser graphics modes. The main accomodation the game makes for the limited colors is with the doors scattered throughout the caverns; these each have have different colored symbols above and the color is important for matching where the door may lead; with such limited colors in the CGA and Hercules modes this could have presented a problem, however the game addresses the issue by using letters (such as "B" for blue) instead of color so the game remains clear and playable. Animation remains fairly quick and smooth even on slower computers. Scrolling on the PC was always a bit of a challenge due to the lack of hardware support, so Zeliard uses some tricks similar to Thexder to accomplish the feat quite well. The caverns are essentially created out of a grid of textures and patterns; when the screen is scrolling, only the grid blocks that are changed are redrawn so the entire playfield doesn't need to be updated with each frame. I had originally played through the game on an 8 MHz 8086, and on that system gameplay worked beautifully. Although faster 80286, 80386, and even 80486 systems were available at the time, they were very expensive! As one of many owners of an older, slower system I appreciated the game still running smoothly without needing the latest and greatest.

Music and sounds in Zeliard are quite good; indeed, the music is an area that the game particularly excels in. There's a large variety of songs with each cavern having its own theme along with additional themes for towns, outdoor areas, and other parts of the game. The music, composed by Mecano Associates, is appropriately moody, catchy, and varied to match each area; I particularly like the ambient secluded town theme, the upbeat ice cavern theme, and minor key gold cavern theme. Really, though, all of songs are great! The game supports several sound boards along with the PC internal speaker. As was usual for Sierra at the time, music was optimized for the Roland MT-32 which provides (by far) the best sound quality, and is even better than the original PC-8801 version which was limited to FM synthesis. The AdLib board is also supported and provides excellent sound quality; like the PC-8801, the AdLib also has an FM synthesizer chip however it's a different one giving the card somewhat different capaiblities. This version thus sounds a little closer to the original, although I think it still ends up being of higher quality than the PC-8801 version. The AdLib version results are better than a lot of other Sierra games, too, and show just how good FM synthesis could be if a little care was taken when programming for the board! The Tandy 3-voice sound support is well done and is also slightly unusual for Sierra in that it utilizes the noise channel they so often ignored. While it may not be MT-32 or AdLib quality the result sounds reasonably impressive and is probably about the best you could ask for with the Tandy sound chip. Unfortunately, the MT-32 was not supported for sound effects, however you could mix and match sound hardware. This allowed you to use an MT-32 for music and an AdLib board for sound effects with impressive results, although I suspect upon the game's release most players who did have the luxury of an MT-32 (or one of its bretheren such as the LAPC-I) would have been stuck with PC speaker sound effects. This ability to select different sound hardware for music and sound effects would become common in the 1990's, but was rare when Zeliard was released making it one of the first games I'm aware of to support such an arrangement.

The cavern of Corroer
As a side note I'm going to add that unlike most other Game Arts games that Sierra ported which saw versions for multiple platforms (including the Amiga and Apple IIgs), Zeliard was released only for the PC and compatibles. There's no technical reason (I can think of) that those other systems couldn't run a version of Zeliard, so I'm guessing the game simply didn't sell well enough (or at least wasn't projected to sell well enough) to warrant a port. I think the Apple IIgs sound hardware especially could have done a wonderful rendition of the game's soundtrack, so it's too bad we didn't have the opportunity to hear that.

Zeliard seems like it is somewhat forgotten; it wasn't exactly a huge hit to the best of my knowledge, and it's not one I hear people mention when talking about the classic games we remember playing. Too bad, I always liked it, and I think it holds up rather well and is still fun to play through today. There may be some minor nitpicks such as the quasi-generic storyline and some occasional control wonkiness, but overall the fantastic gameplay, wonderful atmosphere, challenging caverns, creative and varied enemies, and much more make this one I strongly recommend trying. Rating wise I'm going to give this an A; as the tagline states, get into Zeliard — because you can.

Zeliard creatures