Langrisser begins here. Not with the 1991 Mega Drive game of the same name (released in the US as Warsong), but in 1987, with Elthlead. This computer-born strategy game pits the familiarly named good King Sieghart against the dark forces of Böser, although the campaign here isn’t a linear series of battlefields but a persistent overworld designed to be liberated from evil’s grasp in a more freeform manner, until the enemy castle finally falls.
And it really does feel like you’re fighting against a foe out for your blood thanks to some neat bits of flavour text injected into what would otherwise be a bunch of icons moving from one black box to the next: Nobody wants to see an ominous “Hehehe…” appear on screen as enemy troops mobilise in the east or wait as their sworn enemy taunts them while summoning more monsters.
You still end up moving little knights towards little monsters on what is obviously a big bunch of squares whenever two armies try to occupy the same territory, but this shift away from straightforward success and progression makes a huge difference to every tactical decision you make. Fighting a battle and then winning isn’t enough here – you’ve got to have the strength to keep the land too (or at least have reinforcements you can afford to spare close enough to move in and replenish the troops you lost).
There are twenty one distinct areas to worry about, all of them capable of being captured and recaptured over and over again. They can all hold up to three different units from each side, in any combination of the small number of troop types available. To keep you (and the enemy) from simply sprinkling the land with soldiers for the sake of establishing a quick foothold anywhere and everywhere there are a few reasonable restrictions in place, forcing you to weigh up the risks and benefits of every decision you make and bestowing every seemingly minor action with ongoing consequences. All troops can only move once per phase, can only move to an adjacent zone, and only if there’s already an empty friendly unit slot in wherever they’re trying to move to. Any new knight and archer units created – and at the start you can only pick one per phase until you claim more territories – must begin at the castle and then work their way towards the front lines over time, making claiming and then keeping distant lands that much more difficult. Other units – powerful dinosaurs, falcon knights, and so on – are considered special types and can only be revived if the starting versions of them die, not created outright. Even with a theoretically unlimited army on your side and no time limit every death is still keenly felt, every loss tactically significant.
The flexible nature of troop movement on both sides means some of the bloodshed that follows will inevitably be hopelessly uneven right from the start, with no amount of strategy able to compensate for an army’s worth of fresh enemies going up against the two fragile ranged units left over from the previous phase. In any other strategy game this would be a real issue – nobody wants to waste their time with a battle that’s obviously lost before it’s even begun – but as the clashes here are brief slices of thoughtful conflict designed to compliment the grand-scale strategising rather than half-hour experiences in their own right even the most unfair encounter simply feels – and is – nothing more than the natural consequence of a larger chain of events.
These back and forth tussles over the same scraps of land soon reveal another quietly clever part of Elthlead’s design – these arenas accurately reflect the landscape shown on the map. Intercepting the enemy in the mountains will lead to a skirmish in dry, rocky, terrain, and pushing into the frozen north leads to tense struggles in the snow. There’s a constant logical connection between what you are shown and the game you get to play, something that’s only improved by the hex-ish style offset squares each fight takes place on. Everything from mighty dragons to flowing streams still fits politely in its clearly defined box but the first impression your tactical eye has is of the surroundings as a large battlefield, of sandy shores and dense forests rather than a dry grid of individual tiles.
This beautiful terrain has a cost factor, with challenging topography requiring more of a unit’s refreshed-every-turn movement points to pass through. It’s a simple system that not only immediately makes sense but also adds a good dollop of tactical interest to something as straightforward as advancing on the enemy; a narrow bridge becoming an important passageway to try and control, the river its running over a huge strategic advantage for any archers placed long the shoreline. It’s especially important to engage enemies on beneficial terrain as the instant two opposing units touch they become “stuck” together – unable to move forward or retreat until one of them’s dead. Again, this adds depth to what could have otherwise been a case of “hit them harder than they hit you”, enabling you to clog up otherwise clear paths and prevent the full force of Böser’s armies hitting your troops all at once.
It doesn’t take much effort to find the building blocks of Langrisser in here. The unusual unit types are already present and correct, Elthlead eschewing the typical elves and orcs in favour of dinosaurs, giant falcons, and gunner wolves – an intriguingly oddball selection that would soon evolve into Langrisser’s range of mermen and crocodile knights. Specific terrain tiles favour particular troop types, and even at this early stage – a time computer games could arrive on tapes and OutRun was an arcade hit – the AI feels lively and reactive, even going so far as to try and retreat if the situation’s not going their way, as if your enemy’s aware they’re outnumbered and now running in fear of your cunning plans.
Having said that: it really isn’t necessary to play this, its follow-up Gaia no Monshou, or the futuristic Gaiflame to have a “real” grasp of Masaya’s infinitely better-known strategy series – “Good guys and bad guys fought in fantasy land, here are their names” pretty much covers it – but that doesn’t stop Elthlead from being a remarkably innovative title in its own right, nor diminish the strength of the foundations laid here.