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Review by tankMage (May 2016)
Tecmo Secret of the Stars hit the shelves in North America back in 1995 and received a lukewarm reception from critics. Even as a kid I was skeptical of what the popular gaming publications had to say, but in the case of Secret of the Stars, I took their word and avoided the game; mostly because the screenshots of the gameplay failed to interest me. Over twenty years later I picked it up, expecting a train wreck, and found that it was actually fairly decent. In fact, Tecmo Secret of the Stars is almost a good RPG and would have gotten a higher score out of me if certain aspects of the game had been implemented more effectively.
Secret of the Stars draws a lot of heat for its rather bland graphics. One thing we should keep in mind is that Secret of the Stars was actually released in 1993 in Japan and RPG graphics had begun to evolve by the time the game was localized in North America almost two years later. Tecmo actually did a lot of things right with this title in terms of visuals, especially considering the zeitgeist of early 90’s JRPGs, which were still very much influenced by Dragon Quest and often made the fatal error of trying to copy the already venerable franchise’s success by attempting to reproduce its gameplay and art style, consequently relegating themselves to the status of “Dragon Warrior Clone”. From the standpoint of graphics, Secret of the Stars avoided this mistake by employing a battle system that is a hybrid of both the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest series. The player sees the action of each battle from a pseudo first person perspective, much like in the Dragon Quest games, but will also see the heroes attack and use spells as if he or she is a spectator, resulting in a battle system that captures the drama of both styles.
There are also a slew of bizarre monsters to fight in this game alongside the usual bats, slimes, and skeletons. Admittedly, most of these creatures are silly looking, but I found this added to the fun, especially since this title doesn’t take itself as seriously as some other RPGs. The bosses are for the most part cliches you’d expect from this type of game: the massive horned helm wearing brute, the scantily clad female warrior, and of course the generic demon lord. With that said, they were nicely drawn and had a fair amount of detail.
The environments and animations, however, left much to be desired. The towns, dungeons, forests, and just about any terrain you can think of are generic to the point of being absurd. After walking around the first town and world map for a few minutes, it is easy to see why this game failed to leave a good impression on some people. The same can be said for many of the spell animations, playable characters, and weapons: most of which are generic RPG stock that one would expect from RPG Maker assets. Secret of the Stars, does at least boast a large selection of playable character sprites for its time, which helps make the game feel less generic, even though some sprites are recycled. At any rate, a bit of atmosphere and more imagination would have worked wonders for this title’s graphics and made it seem more original.
This game has an excellent UI aside from its inventory system, which isn’t exactly streamlined. For the most part, Secret of the Stars’ UI is standard, except for its battle engine which hosts some improvements that make grinding far less painful. Secret of the Stars’ battle engine is somewhat ahead of its time, thanks to the “Auto” feature, which allows the computer to take control over the player’s party for the duration of the battle. Auto battle cuts out a good deal of the tedium related to grinding, because the player does not have to micromanage combat in fights that he or she is certain to win. Players also have the option of turning off the battle animations and speeding up in-battle messages. When all of these features are put into play, battles end very quickly with only minimal input from the player. You can even resume manual control of the fight by hitting B to deactivate the AI. As a result, grinding in Secret of the Stars is far easier and random battles are less tedious in general.
While the battle system may have been quite advanced, this game’s inventory system is what you would expect from a SNES RPG. You will spend a fair amount of time cycling through menus and shuffling items around, though most of the menus are easy enough to navigate. You’ll also notice that the party ambles about at a snail’s pace, which takes a fair bit of patience on the player’s part to endure. The fact that the world map is pretty vast only serves to exasperate this problem…. And speaking of world maps, Secret of the Stars doesn’t have one built into the game, which may be a turnoff to some players. On the bright side, there are spells and items that allow players to travel instantly to places they’ve already visited or flee dungeons, which helps cut down on time spent backtracking.
Music and Sound
A bland BGM may also be a factor in why this title tends to strike people as being generic. The soundtrack, while not bad, is comprised of the sort of neo-classical 90’s midi pieces that dominated the RPG scene of the time, except that it lacks the passion, drama, and catchiness of the very best the era had to offer. Instead, there are a few mildly interesting songs mixed into a rather dull soundtrack that you would expect from a more modern game (I guess Secret of the Stars was ahead of its time in more ways than one). The music also wears out its welcome after a while, since many songs are reused frequently.
The sound effects are also flavorless and unimpressive for the most part. Luckily, there are no irritating beeping sounds or anything that may annoy players in this game. I will also add that I did like some of the effects used for spells, because they at least got the point across that the character was about to do something cool.
I’ll talk about the grinding in this game first, because I praised the Auto Battle feature quite a bit earlier. While it’s great that you can set the party to fight on its own, this feature only marginally reduces the tedium of building levels up, mainly because of the high experience requirements needed to gain a level. In fact you have to level two parties up in this game and you cannot swap characters between the two clans, Aqutallion and Kustera, so you will spend a lot of time bashing monsters to get both parties to the point where they can survive combat in dungeons. This game would have been a bit more enjoyable with less draconian level up requirements, especially coupled with the user friendly battle engine. It does bear mentioning that Secret of the Stars can be beaten at a relatively low level and will be more interesting to some players if challenged at lower levels.
Speaking of the party system, this was one of the more innovative aspects of Secret of the Stars. There are two separate parties, or clans, known as Aqutallion and Kustera that the player can switch between at will. Puzzles that require the player to change parties are common and NPCs tend to react to both groups differently, which makes the system interesting. Sadly, the potential of the system wasn’t brought to fruition and the party swapping system feels like a half assed gimmick as a result. I quickly found that the puzzles (if they can be called that) the parties had to solve usually required little to no teamwork and tended to be incredibly simple. There are also points in the game where the Kustera group sees no action whatsoever, which was disappointing. To make matters worse, players can change the lineup of Kustera and there are quite a few characters to choose from, but many of them join late in the game when you have probably invested quite a bit of time into training the heroes you already have. Not only that, but the limited amount of content available to Kustera makes the large cast seem almost totally pointless, since you will not have much opportunity to use them.
Next, there is Unity Magic, which is a precursor to some of the cooperative magic/attack systems that appear in RPGs like Chrono Trigger and Valkyrie Profile. Unity Magic is well designed, considering that the idea was fairly new, but it does fall short in some regards. My primary complaint is that the unity system is unlocked late in the game. While having to wait to use Unity Magic made getting it feel like more of an accomplishment, we also see a recurring problem with this game surface again: by the time you get it, the game is two thirds complete (if not more) and you’ll barely get to experiment with many of the spells before it’s time to challenge the final dungeon. With that said, an interesting element of strategy was introduced with the unity system, since players can choose from a variety of attacks and will probably need some of them to succeed. Of course some of these attacks were a bit redundant from my perspective, but someone playing at a lower level or with a different philosophy may find use in them.
As for the game itself, well it’s pretty standard RPG fare once you look past the gimmicks. Some of the dungeons were mildly entertaining, but most veteran dungeoneers will have little trouble navigating the mazes. You can also challenge some bosses and dungeons in a nonlinear fashion and even choose which party to fight certain bosses with, which can make the game a bit more entertaining. There’s even a bit of SIM style gameplay in Secret of the Stars, thanks to Old Hill, a town that you can build up by recruiting NPCs. Much of the Old Hill content is tied to the story, but it serves to make the game a touch more interesting and there are even a few secret characters you can find that provide special services. Unfortunately, much of the game is very basic aside from its more unusual gameplay elements and the actual progression of the gameplay is highly linear with very few secrets to uncover. In fact the world map is filled with empty lands screaming to be filled with content and dungeons are relatively short for the most part.
Usually I talk about a game’s story first, but there’s not much I can say about Secret of the Stars without spoiling the rather wacky surprises players may encounter. This is mainly due to the fact that the player is provided with very little background info at first, aside from that there was a bad guy named Homncruse and the main hero’s father defeated him with help from four other heroes of the Aqutallion clan. As the game progresses, you’ll uncover the secrets of both the villain and the heroes. I was actually quite surprised at the plot and rather like it, but it is ultimately a conglomeration of RPG cliches. At least it was put together in an amusing way that managed to surprise me here and there.
Aside from the plot having some virtue, there is really no meaningful character development or interaction. Most of the characters in both parties barely have lines, let alone personalities. Much of the story is driven by side characters, like Dynamite and Uncle Save (no, you didn’t misread that) who really only make cameos throughout the game. The main villain is also one of those rather basic bad guys who just hates everything for no reason, but at least he doesn’t make the mistake of revealing his plans to the heroes halfway through the journey.
Lost in Translation?
Secret of the Stars is full of tongue and cheek humor, some of which was almost certainly lost when the game was translated from Japanese to English. There are towns named after famous bands, like Beegees, and villains that bear names like Ringo and Badbad, which are almost certainly references to famous musicians. A lot of this humor seems to have either been ignored or unappreciated by those who played this game in the past and in some cases it may have simply flown over their heads. One such example is the “CHAINMALE” armor, a curious misspelling that a friend of mine looked up and discovered was the name of a musician from the 1980’s. Sadly, the game must have relied on humor greatly to flesh out its narrative and many of the jokes either didn’t translate well into English or were ignored by the translator. It’s also possible that text space was an issue, since the font Tecmo used was rather large and Japanese characters tend to be compact, making space for English dialogue scarce. Either way, there’s more to this game’s story than meets the eye, but much of it was lost when it hit western shores.
Secret of the Stars is mediocre in its execution and yet, ahead of its time by a good three or four years. Interesting ideas like Unity spells, party swapping, town building, and the Auto Battle system could have made this game legendary, but Tecmo didn’t seem to know how to make them work in the game’s favor. This may be in part due to such concepts being fairly new (though not unheard of), technological limitations, or just a matter of trying to shove too many ideas into the mix, but attention wasn’t really paid to other aspects of Secret of the Stars that really could have made it a more solid title. Despite Secret of the Stars’ checkered reputation, it’s actually an ok game that has something to offer to those who are willing to give it a chance.
Those unfamiliar with 16-bit RPGs should probably look to better known game’s games in the genre, even though this title was supposedly designed for younger, less experienced RPG fans, because it isn’t exactly new player friendly. If you want to dig a little deeper into the Super Nintendo’s RPG library, without scraping the bottom of the barrel, however, then Tecmo’s Secret of the Stars might be right for you.