This 1996 Super Famicom RPG may have been published by Squaresoft but it’s actually the work of a certain Sting Entertainment, the same developers behind many unusual titles over the past thirty years including the Dept. Heaven series (Yggdra Union, Knights in the Nightmare, etc.) and a rather atmospheric dungeon crawler called Baroque…
And that little nugget of information tells you an awful lot about Treasure Hunter G before you’ve even turned it on: The only thing you can safely expect here is the unexpected, to play a game that’s going to take a few overly-familiar RPG mechanics and then gently prod and poke them until they become something that feels new and interesting.
In Treasure Hunter G this fresh take on old design shines brightest in the game’s battle system: in many ways it’s technically very similar to a typical SRPG-style grid – move your party members towards an enemy and then hit them – but in practise plays… well, like Treasure Hunter G.
Some of this is down to your party: Unlike many other RPGs using this tiled battlefield setup Red, Blue, (the siblings) Rain (the girl), and Pongo (the monkey) all meet up very quickly and from then on are the only members of your party until the end of the game. No later allies. No promoted classes or vast armies of brave heroes under your command. That’s really it – four people in total. And those four are all you’ll ever need: They all fall into broad specialisms, each with their own armaments and special skills (Rain, with weary predictability, is going to spend much of the game healing the others). This is more than cosmetic pleasantries; each weapon has its own battlefield quirks, cleverly echoing the elevated importance range and positioning have in these tile-based skirmishes: Red’s sword techniques are of the vanilla “Hit things in front of you to hurt them” sort, Blue’s spears have not only increased range but also hit ahead and behind with every attack (both of the G siblings can use axes too, which knock enemies back one square with every powerful hit), Rain’s magical staffs can do a surprising amount of elemental damage (she also gets to optionally use chakram later), and Pongo’s boomerangs attacks everyone on their flight path.
And this in itself isn’t so far away from the range based considerations found in Fire Emblem and all the rest bar one significant detail – any spell or attack can hit or even kill another party member. Now normally this sort of friendly fire is easily shoved in a box labelled “annoying and restrictive” but here it comes across more as another layer of strategy thanks to the various ways you can use this everything-on-everything contact. At first you timidly watch your positioning, doing your best to ensure Pongo doesn’t end up unleashing Meteor spells on an ally’s tile or Blue isn’t about to smack whoever’s standing behind him with his spear. And then once that becomes second nature you start to use the “blindness” of the game’s targeting to your advantage, deliberately placing your team next to a horde of enemies so a distant spell-flinging clam’s multi-hit ice attack doesn’t just hit one party member but takes out two enemies at the same time.
On its own that’d be unusual enough but the fighting magic really happens when you realise you don’t just have the option to use items in your inventory or pick up the ones scattered around the battlefield (although those left for you by the designers are very much appreciated and help unexpected boss encounters feel like puzzles to be solved rather than impossible to predict trip-ups, or that an earlier trip to the item shop was wasted on the “wrong” items) you can throw them as well, Shiren the Wanderer style (other roguelikes are available). Yep, that’s right – you can fling offensive items at enemies for massive damage, inflict or cure status effects from afar, or even lob a potion directly at an ally, the airborne restorative taking immediate effect on impact. This one feature gives Treasure Hunter G’s battles a thrilling amount of flexibility: Magic-leaning Rain can become a long-range offensive item chucker, the sword-swinging Red can become an effective party healer so long as you’ve made sure he’s stocked up on potions, and absolutely anyone can scoop up some explosive nuts from a corner of the battlefield and hurl them at a dangerous enemy for effective damage or lay down a time bomb style jar that’ll unleash a far-reaching elemental spell when its counter reach zero, damaging everything caught in its blast. Best of all lining up these long distance shots is as easy as can be: The Super Famicom’s L and R shoulder buttons rotate characters on the spot, and the grid display makes it easy to see whether you have a clear line to your target or not – just point them in the right direction and let it fly.
This would probably be a good time to explain those coloured squares found on the floor of every battle. There are four types for square – none, blue, yellow, and red, and they shift around as your opponents do. Their purpose is to act as a visual representation of Treasure Hunter G’s “zone of control” style movement system: Everyone has their own pool of action points to spend during their turn – moving, attacking, using items, casting spells, laying traps and so on – and on the whole the closer they are to an enemy, the more of these points you must expend to do so (on top of the separate item usage/skill cost). In practise this means a surrounded party member is going to struggle to get away or be able to chug a pack’s worth of potions back to back and must therefore choose their actions very carefully, while someone safely in the distance can easily rush in and save the day or perhaps tactically hang back and cast more spells or use more items than they’d be able to if they were closer to the action. It makes battles sort of sticky – you have to be sure you want to engage with a group of enemies, because dashing away to safety if they become overwhelming isn’t an option.
The frequent problem with SRPG-ish battles like this is that you soon find your tough units are getting tougher as they safely plough ahead and the weaker support units naturally get put to the side to prevent them getting squished by unlucky critical hits or an unexpected long-range spell – and that seriously impacts the amount of XP they can earn in battle, leaving them lagging behind and only further exaggerating the already noticeable level gap. Treasure Hunter G avoids this common issue in a few inventive ways: The compact arenas your small, fixed, party do battle on mean everyone is likely to come into contact with the enemy no matter what – and without fail every time they land a hit they’ll gain a small amount of individual XP for doing so. After battle every surviving party member gains an equal share of a larger pool of post-battle XP no matter who did what, and anyone KO’d is automatically revived with a small (but useful) portion of their total HP, ready to contribute (and gain some XP) in the next fight – just being alive is enough to virtually guarantee a party member levels up, which makes it all the easier for them to do the same next time. These considerations give you the space to approach each scenario from a tactical perspective, playing to everyone’s strengths and aiming for a speedy success rather than wasting turns trying to artificially engineer XP gaining scenarios for units that were never supposed to engage in direct combat in the first place.
However absorbing the fighting would be it wouldn’t mean much if a thirty-ish hour RPG didn’t have a good story to tie it all together, would it? So it’s a good thing Treasure Hunter G more than lives up to its promise of artifact-uncovering wanderlust: Step out onto the overworld map and you’ll see the curve of the earth in the distance and the shadows of clouds passing over the vivid green scenery below. Frogs may hop out of disturbed grass and bushes – and if you’re quick you can catch them. Little chats between the main cast before they fall asleep at an inn, sometimes letting you know where they’re eager to head off to next, sometimes charming private moments between three people and a monkey on the adventure of a lifetime. Atlantis, talking whales, and casual conversation with animal people. Touching scenes under the moonlight accompanied by a monkey playing the violin, which is exactly the sort of silly-serious that… no, not silly, more… Treasure Hunter G is not afraid the big moments won’t hit their mark if somebody did something funny along the way. It’s exactly the sort of emotional shifting around you want on a grand adventure, a very healthy mix of the sheer joy of setting off to goodness knows where combined with the steely determination and sometimes serious conversations such a trip requires to see the people on it through the tougher times.
Together the endlessly inventive battle system and the enthusiastic storytelling make Treasure Hunter G a very easy game to spend a lot of time with: It is different, but not to such an extreme playing it feels like homework set by someone concocting new forms of multi-dimensional mathematics on the spot, and even though the characters never seem to stop talking – even during a fight – the plot moves along at a quick pace, always eager to show you another unexpected twist or big set piece. It’s Sting being exactly as Sting-y as they’ve always been, and I love them for it.