Tengai Makyō II: Manjimaru
Continuing a now cherished tradition of finding excuses to never start Octopath Traveler, the role-playing game I picked for this short summer break was one I had more or less played three times already, in a span of about three decades, but never had the chance to enjoy as much as today. My relationship with Tengai Makyō II is like When Harry Met Sally but with more cybernetic vengeful monkeys and less fake orgasms.
I’ll have what Mantō’s having!
I am not sure how well known Tengai Makyō II (a.k.a. “Far East of Eden II”) is in the English-speaking gaming culture. The game has frequently been voted “Best RPG of all time”, “Best PC Engine game” and other such roaring accolades in Japanese media.
It was also a legendary game among a certain generation of players in France (mainly due to one guy) and claimed by the few but rabid local PC Engine fans as the greatest, longest, most epic RPG ever you’d never get on your Nintendo yada yada. It had this aura of a never-ending odyssey, possibly due to the size of the game and most certainly because it was pretty much impossible to guess how to proceed without speaking Japanese in a pre-Internet Parisian schoolyard. Many Minitel minutes were billed trying to find and share clues on prehistoric BBS groups.
More recently, the game has acquired a different sort of notoriety online, with the intriguing proposal that it might have been the very first AAA video game: 150+ developers, several years and millions of dollars of development, and a game world spread across “20.000 screens wide”, as it liked to advertise itself.
So, what’s all the fuss about, and should one play Tengai Makyō II today, and would they still be blown away? Well! 63h26m later (the ending gives a clear time), I am inclined to say it has aged very well and there has never been a better time to play it than on the PC Engine Mini!※ Let’s explain why – after this short ad break.
(※caution: the game is not included in the TurboGrafX16 Mini and Core GrafX Mini models.)
Let’s put things in context in two paragraphs. NEC releases the CD-ROM² peripheral for the PC Engine in December 1988 and needs a RPG, coming right after the Dragon Quest III craze, to showcase what the format brings and how it overcomes the limitations of a puny Famicom cartridge. NEC’s partner Hudson tags with Red and a shitload of subcontractors to create and release Tengai Makyō: Ziria (1989), set in a Japanese-themed fantasy world called Zipang and based on the folkloric tale of the frog-loving ninja Jiraiya (that’s how you pronounce “Ziria”). The game design (and key development staff) is very close to Momotarō Densetsu, Hudson’s prior RPG success on the Famicom. But Ziria also gets help from outside the video game world, with cutscenes drawn by professionals from the animation world, dubbings from prominent voice actors for the key cutscenes, and a prestigious musical collaboration (Sakamoto Ryūichi). It’s a hit.
Same spiel two years later: NEC and Hudson launch the Super CD-ROM² format, which allows using more RAM and helps PC Engine games stock and display graphics and sprites’ animations on par with the recently released Super Famicom. They also combine all these upgrades in a new all-in-one version called the PC Engine Duo and therefore need another flagship game for the 1991 holiday – that game will be Tengai Makyō II: Manjimaru… a few months late, ahem!, as it will end up missing the deadline and release in March 1992.
The two games are only three years apart and (theoretically) run on the same hardware, but it’s hard to overstate how far apart they seem. The added RAM, the team’s accumulated experience, the bigger budget and the insane ambition of the project make it seem like a generation gap – as if Super Mario Bros. was immediately followed by Super Mario World.
1989 = one year after Dragon Quest III’s release and Ziria is still in broad strokes a Famicom-era game with more colors, and its battles and important discussions illustrated with scenes akin to the best adventure games of its era thanks to the wide space available on the CD-ROM. But it’s mainly the voice acting and the music which set the game truly apart from the typical Famicom experience.
1992 = already a year after Final Fantasy IV and amidst a tense battle between SFC and PCE role-playing games to showcase the more impressive graphics. Tengai Makyō II looks much closer to a Super Famicom game, with genuine animated cutscenes totaling 90+ minutes and based on over 5000 drawings, three hours of dubbed (and better encoded) dialogues, around a hundred music tracks, a collaboration with Hisaishi Jō (just after his work on Totoro) on a few key CD tracks, about twenty-ish regions offering 250+ locations to visit, 3000+ NPCs, 400+ types of monsters, 48 Bosses and a first playthrough guaranteed to last over 70+ hours. It’s all about excessiveness and the promoting of this excessiveness: I did not have to look hard for these numbers, they were listed in the TVCM above.
Beyond the technological improvements and colossal contents, its the smoothness of the experience and the great pacing of the adventure (especially in the first dozen hours) that elevate Tengai Makyō II as one of the most impressive games of its era. This is not only due to a cleverly written script but also thanks – once again – to technical reasons linked to the Super CD-ROM².
As lead programmer Iwasaki Hiromasa explains below (with some visual examples to illustrate), Tengai Makyō II is able to introduce scripted events directly from the main map, in the same way as Final Fantasy IV for instance, then directly follow them up with full screen cutscenes that have no equivalent on the market.
Fair enough, but how does it play?
Tengai Makyō II is structured pretty much like Dragon Quest. It’s a classic “JRPG” with a linear storyline and turn-based battles, a group of four heroes with a distinct personality that will band together as the story progresses, visiting successive regions, each with a different “vignette”, i.e. its self-contained narrative arc and local Boss that is ruining the locals’ lives in some fashion and will get their butt properly kicked before jumping to the next region.
However, rather than the folksy heroic fantasy of Dragon Quest, Tengai Makyō introduces Zipang, a fantasy version of feudal Japan spiced up with traditional folklore and legends, sarcastic references to contemporary (early Heisei) Japan, similar in a way to how The Flintstones commented on modern Americana, and a few anachronistic pseudo-scientific marvels (a giant Buddha robot statue! A flying fortress! etc.) to boot.
Worth noting too that many of the Tengai Makyō games openly share the same universe, a la Gensōsuikoden, and therefore Ziria players will cross the path of familiar NPCs, although the storylines of Ziria and Manjimaru are effectively completely separate.
Precisely a thousand years ago, the clan of the Root People (picture the Brussel sprout-looking bad guys in Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors) got its ass kicked in a battle with the brave Human clan of Fire. Like very patient clockwork, the new millennia marks the sudden reappearance of seven gigantic and monstrous flowers all across Zipang, each bringing their own demons, curses and afflictions. One region gets turned into a desert landscape, one region sees its inhabitants progressively transformed into pigs, one plant poisons the holy sources nearby, etc.
Playing as the young and turbulent Sengoku Manjimaru, a kid who quickly finds out he is the descendant of one of seven heroes from the clan of Fire, the player is tasked with gathering other descendants of the clan, finding the seven holy swords of the seven holy heroes and cutting down the seven huge meany flowers to restore peace and harmony in Zipang. Obviously, the seven swords are guarded by seven “generals” from the evil Root clan, each one a colorful character involved in the locals’ misery. There’s the pitch for you.
That’s not the most original RPG synopsis for sure, but the quality of the script, the excellent pacing and the story’s wonderful characters turn it into a frenetic and fun adventure that remains (and might be even more?) impressive about thirty years later. The first dozen hours and the first team member you meet in Tengai Makyō II play a huge part in that positive impression.
Kabuki Danjurō, who is undeniably the breakout character of the game with his three separate spin-offs and his own TV special, is a young, brash, popular actor and teen idol of the times. He is beloved by all, himself included, and both a renaissance man and a schmoozy playboy, fortunately written just tactfully enough that it doesn’t cross over into creepy City Hunter-like predator behavior (or at least I think so, but a Frenchman is possibly not the best judge of character on this from a contemporary US perspective…)
Kabuki’s entire story arc against rival actor Kikugorō is a riot and had me create separate save files just to get to play some of their most memorable scenes again. Take a look at their bombastic first meeting, the excellent voice acting and how dynamic those transitions are. This is a 1992 game!
The other three protagonists (Manjimaru included) aren’t as memorable but they each get their own moment in the spotlight, such as when the giant Gokuraku Tarō gets to show his strength by using two magic ropes to pull an entire island back to the mainland’s shore or when Kinu, the young and quiet healer of the group, gets a key dramatic scene that might reward the game with a CERO Z rating if it were released today.
There are only four playable characters in the game, but the script is also attentive to spicing up the group dynamics, and (without revealing too much) you actually spend very little time in the game with all four members together in the party. This also has an unfortunate impact on the game’s balance: while it does a good job not getting too much level discrepancy between the characters even if some leave the group for a while, you do get a pretty frustrating solo sequence that is probably meant to showcase how tough the adventure would be by yourself, but slows down the pace dramatically as you are forced to level up in grinding sessions to be able to face the danger ahead. Conversely, when you finally have four party members (or even three), regular enemies suddenly pose almost no threat.
Overall, the challenge is pretty tough, with some cunning enemies and devious traps on the way. For instance, in addition to typical debuffs and poisoning status changes, some monsters have the ability to strip you out of your equipment, and players will have to carefully remember to re-equip their gear before the next battle. Treasures are also a frequent jeopardy. They might hide enemies, cursed equipment, nothing at all and thanks for the detour, or even less conspicuous traps such as a tantalizing golden egg that, if not quickly ridden off or sold to a merchant (for a nice sum of money), will quietly hatch while inside your inventory and reveal a (worthless) “golden bug” that will progressively turn all your remaining inventory into other golden bugs. Yes, including some potential key quest items that will need to be gathered back. Retrospectively, this is fucking hilarious. In the moment, though, grmblgrmbl.
To the game’s credit, many traps and riddles get telegraphed or hinted by one of those few 3000+ NPCs found in the game, but ① you’ll need to read Japanese (and sometimes understand their weird local dialect variation of Japanese) and ② you’ll need to have spoken to the right grandma in the right nondescript hut in the right random mountain pass at the other side of the previous region.
It must be said, however, that some devious fights (including Boss Battles) can either be overcome with brute force leveling or a bit of smarts if you figure out one specific weakness you could exploit. If you are in love with the “Phoenix Dawn instantly kills zombie bosses” trope, Tengai Makyō II has plenty of that for you. In the same vein, a couple important subquests can be accomplished in two different ways depending on how observant and patient you are.
Another really peculiar thing about Tengai Makyō II is how it handles its inventory. The characters have very small pockets and no caravan following them. Notwithstanding their equipment (which is handled in a separate but equally stringent menu), Manjimaru and Kabuki can only carry six items, the petite Kinu only three and the gigantic Gokuraku nine of them. Item management is therefore closer to Resident Evil than Final Fantasy, and the game’s equivalent to Spencer manor’s magic storage coffers cannot be found in most villages (usually only once or twice per region) and do not offer that much free space either.
The player will therefore have to be cautious in their preparations unless they don’t mind getting their pockets full halfway through the dungeon and unable to bring a key item back to safety. It gets frustrating at times, but the unarguably positive consequence of this constraint is that it forces even hoarding-afflicted players to use their items. There’s no Tent x99 “just in case I need them after the last boss” situation in this game; Manjimaru cannot really afford bringing a cure inside a dungeon and not use it on the way.
The magic system of Tengai Makyō II has a similar “resource management” flavor. You find new magic as scrolls taught or hidden by tengu across Zipang, typically rewarding you for exploring the world map thoroughly. These scrolls can be equipped and transferred among the team, several spells allowing different characters to cast them. This can lead to changing the role of characters depending on who is available and what kind of enemy they are facing (e.g. whether a Boss favors the use of magical or physical attacks). All my characters, even the massive Gokuraku, have at some point effectively played the role of the group’s healer, but in a more organic fashion than a straightforward “job system” that often strips RPG characters of their personality in battle.
The last but massive hurdle of the game is its unforgiving RNG (very very very polite description here, other words come to mind that’d make your grandmother blush). That’s why I advise playing Tengai Makyō II on the PC Engine Mini rather than its original hardware, Nintendo DS port, PSP collection or PSN archive. I am not sure if the GC/PS2 remake has been rebalanced but the new 3D graphics don’t jive with me anyway. The PC Engine Mini’s selectable save states are a true blessing against this game’s Bosses and their
cheating discouraging luck.
I remember a very difficult challenge on the PC Engine. But hey, I didn’t understand squat so it was probably my fault. I have a faint memory of long grinding sessions on the Nintendo DS fifteen years ago, near the end of the adventure. But I did not really have better things to do than mindlessly grind my way to overpowered stats on a handheld RPG back then. This time, I aimed for a reasonably effective playtime and, boy! This game is completely broken in how it handles whiffs (even for the CPU, admittedly, but much more so against the player’s initiative).
You spend a huge chunk of your time missing shit. Attacks. Buffed attacks. Spells. Very important debuffs that cost way too much MP (or rather “technique points” here). It’s insane. I must say levels do seem to play a part in the %chance of missing actions, but that does not explain nor justify everything. And so I ended up having to “TAS” many of the Bosses, especially in the second half, by juggling between two save states and figuring out quasi-turn by turn how to survive and possibly slay the Boss.
(Only two save states because I saved access to two really cool scenes, far from any convenient save point, on the remaining two. Another testament to the number of cool moments in this game.)
Don’t think the save states method made these Boss fights a breeze. Rather, it turned them into long and daunting puzzles, looking for a way to force my will on fate. A few “welp that’s a one-shot party swipe” cheap attacks still forced me to give up and go grind a few levels. Especially the two last Bosses. For reference, I finished the game at level 73 after 63 hours. I think an average “clean” playthrough probably requires high 80s, low 90s and clock at around 70 hours.
Despite some headache-inducing Boss encounters (even with the help of save states!), I had a blast with Tengai Makyō II this Summer, even more so than the previous times. I heartily recommend the game to any Japanese RPG fan or historian, non-withstanding the obvious language barrier that might get solved one day with a very brave fan translation (we’re talking Trails in the Sky-level dedication here) or an improbable new and translated remake.
And yet, I understood the game enough this time to know I probably missed twice as many references and jokes as the ones I did get. Like how pretty much each strongest purchasable sword in each region is a reference to the local (modern 1991 day) baseball team. Or how the three ninja sisters owe their existence to a punny misreading of the name of a famous folkloric ninja from the Iga region (that discussion was my impetus for replaying the game by the way). These many cute cultural details, the constant humor and the breadth of Zipang, the land of 20.000 game screens, make it a most memorable journey worthy of its reputation.
And let’s not forget the soundtrack. As I said there, you get why it was pretty difficult for Japanese RPG fans and developers alike to picture a future of gaming without the CD-ROM.
Which brings me to these final thoughts. People who have experienced Tengai Makyō II back in 1992 will be fewer and fewer as time goes by. The game will ineluctably disappear, progressively, from each “greatest RPG ever made” discussion, let alone with the louder opinions of non-Japanese players gaining more and more influence.
Tengai Makyō doesn’t have the same lineage and commercial shelf life as Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy. It probably won’t be remembered, or rediscovered by a new generation of fans like a movie could, and this is a shame because this game’ critical acclaim and commercial success – more so than any other’s – probably scared the shit out of Squaresoft. They were already pleading Nintendo to release a CD-ROM, but I am pretty sure Tengai Makyō II is the game that convinced them they had to jump to CD-ROM, and led to the famous “betrayal” with Sony, securing the success of PlayStation against the N64 and Saturn, and forever changing the face of the industry. That’d be a pretty significant role to its credit in the whole history of video games, I’d say!
Anyway, I am now itching to play Tengai Makyō Zero (the Super Famicom joint) or Dai4 (the Saturn sequel) again some time this year. In which case, the series might pop up once more in this thread.