Moldorian: Context is everything

[I need to add a quick note here: For some weird reason I have had a proper nightmare getting this game to behave on more emulators than I care to list, and even using a real cart on a Japanese Game Gear resulted in one corrupted save and a couple of crashes along the way (just bad luck, I’m sure). So this time around all of the screenshots are from the opening segments of the game. Sorry.]

However successful or otherwise Sega’s Game Gear may have been, there’s no denying the time and effort a number of developers, and especially Sega themselves, poured into the pleasantly rounded handheld. This stubborn support gave us not only brand new Shinobis and Ristars to enjoy on the go but also an unexpectedly rich seam of exclusive portable adventures encompassing everything from big established names—Phantasy Star, Shining Force, Megami Tensei, Magic Knight Rayearth, and Lunar—to entirely new creations like Royal StoneSylvan Tale, and this little cart: Moldorian. Such was the strength of this backing Moldorian actually ended up at something of a disadvantage: being a battery-powered RPG wasn’t going to be enough to make it stand out from all the others, it needed some sort of unique twist if it was going to catch a potential customer’s eye.

One way it does that is through its artwork. Every illustration found on the box and in its manual is a beautifully intricate image imbued with a muted and melancholy air, wordlessly promising a different experience to the bright colours, heroic bandannas, and strong, unsubtle, shapes seen elsewhere. It’s a positive first impression… and something of a misleading one as the pixel art itself is right from the start the usual oversaturated fantasy RPG style: deep blues contrasting with vivid greens, every village small and homely, every castle made of stone. It’s a world of fluffy trees arranged in very neat lines, a place where there are no curves, only right-angled corners. You know exactly what this game looks like even if you’ve never seen it before in your life.

It’s a jarring shift away from what was promised by the packaging, but a practical one. On a stock Game Gear screen the graphics are easy to parse, and like many older handheld games with varying visual issues to overcome (see also: the Game Boy Advance’s Castlevanias), the end result isn’t quite as blocky or garish as technically accurate screenshots viewed on a modern display may make them appear.

So long as we’re not talking about the game’s poison status effect, anyway. That manifests as a screen-covering pink flash, one displayed every step until you either clear it up or the afflicted character dies, and it has got to be one of the most overtly unpleasant ocular experiences I’ve ever endured— you’ll want to sort that out for your own sake more than anyone else’s.

The story pulls the same kind of bait-and-switch the art does, the written prologue in the manual all talk of ancient kingdoms and amicable splits between magic users and ordinary people centuries ago, but in practice it all feels very light and inconsequential, and the final boss is exactly who you assumed it would be the first moment you set eyes on them. What saves Moldorian from being another bland swords and sorcery “epic” is that it understands perfectly what it needs to be: a good Game Gear RPG, which isn’t exactly the same as a good RPG designed for home use. Art doesn’t need to be accurate, it needs to be legible. The story doesn’t need to be dense and complex, it needs to be something that can be easily digested in small, uneven chunks. Saving should be the digital equivalent of a bookmark, not a restrictive meta-challenge—and that’s why you can save absolutely any time you’re not in battle, in one of three slots.

This context-conscious approach gives the game an irrepressible urge to push forwards, grabbing you by the hand and whisking you off to the next neatly compartmentalised event. The dungeons you have to negotiate along the way tend to be small and straightforward, with any dead-ends you may stumble into along the way either being so short they make little difference or long enough (that’s “long” by Moldorian’s standards) to lead to significant rewards. Getting out of them any time you like is easy, as affordable and readily available escape ropes will warp you back to the entrance of any dungeon-like environment. The story even has the good grace to warp you back to wherever you need to be for free from time to time, well aware that a manual trudge back to the appropriate place—no doubt somewhere you were fifteen minutes ago—is nothing more than a drain on your free time and precious batteries.

Not that getting to or from anywhere is all that much of a chore even at the worst of times, as the game came with a fold-out world map as standard. Thanks to this helpful tool you immediately have some idea of which direction to head off in whenever a roaming NPC mentions someone important’s gone somewhere you’ve never been or even heard of before (so long as you have the map to hand, I suppose).

The random battles triggered during these wanderings are unfortunately something of a mixed bag. Level grinding and the more expensive equipment you can buy after a hard numbers-go-up session will always count more towards your success than any clever spellcasting, intelligent item usage, or shrewd tactic ever could, and the UI for this part of the game is as needlessly reinvented for the sake of it as Vagrant Story‘s infamously obtuse avalanche of numbers and bespoke terminology. The standard out-of-battle menu lays every major category out in a cross formation, making it possible to highlight everything with a single tap of the d-pad. It’s a beautifully neat concept that works perfectly, which is why it’s so frustrating to see battles do away with menus entirely, expecting you to set magic and items to one of three (or four, in magic’s case) slots before battle, and then in the middle of a fight hold down 2 (if you want to use an item) or 1 (to use magic), press a d-pad direction corresponding to the correct pre-set slot, and then selecting the enemy/character you want the effect to apply to.

So using a heal spell might mean pressing 1+Up+Down+Down+2 (to confirm the action).

Did that sound as exhausting to read as this system is to use? I sure hope so.

It’s a ridiculous system that makes pressing 2 and right, versus right and 2, result in very different actions; with the first using whatever item’s in the active character’s second item slot and the other attacking an enemy. It’s the strangest thing, neither saving time, better suiting the screen, or really making much sense. Over time it does become manageable, but never, ever, intuitive or easier than using a plain old menu.

It’s the only serious mark against an enjoyable adventure that is otherwise quite easy to like. However much or little time you’ve got to play there’s always something new going on, some new event to investigate and hopefully resolve. It’s an easy game to smile at in the lulls between those big scenes too: “Devil Rope” is a fantastic name for a snake enemy, and the mascot-like foes that are all spikes and cute eyeballs are a nice touch. It may “fail” by several standard RPG metrics—Moldorian never feels particularly fresh or imaginative—but experienced on the format it was always and only supposed to be played on, every simple part fits together beautifully.

The first time my Game Gear’s batteries died while playing this I got straight up, grabbed a fresh set, started charging the spent ones, and then carried on playing. What more can any RPG hope for than that sort of reaction to a power cut?

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