Wow… long time since I updated this. Guess I just haven’t had much to write about until now…
Anyway, I’ve been on a bit of a Lunar binge recently. Maybe it’s because I’m going to see Lunar’s composer, Noriyuki Iwadare, in concert next month. Maybe it’s because there is going to be yet another re-release of Lunar: Silver Star Story coming out soon, this time on iOS. Whatever it is, I’ve had this old, classic, and beloved (especially to me) game series on my mind recently.
The first game in the series, Lunar: The Silver Star, was released for the ill-fated Sega CD in 1992. It was one of the developer’s, Game Arts, first entries into the RPG genre as well as one of the earliest RPGs to take advantage of CD-ROM as a medium, and its “rookie nature” shows. However, despite this relatively primitive state, it still remains a classic.
Three years later, the sequel, Lunar: Eternal Blue, was also released for Sega CD and was among the last titles released for that platform. Whereas The Silver Star was relatively primitive, Eternal Blue was in many ways a state-of-the-art RPG and became the model for all the Lunar games that came later (except for the one that doesn’t exist on that Nintendo handheld with the touch screens…). While I’ll go into more detail about what makes the Sega CD Eternal Blue so great, I’d first like to rank all the Lunar games in order of “best” to “least good” as, except for the one that shall not be named, they all were great games and it’s not fair to call any of them the “worst.” However, I do like to note that I won’t rate Lunar Legend for the GBA as I’ve never played it. I also won’t rate the iOS release as, at the time of this writing, it hasn’t been released yet. Anyway, with that, here is my ranking:
- Lunar: Eternal Blue (EB) – Sega CD
- Lunar: Silver Star Story (SSS) – Sega Saturn/Sony PSX
- Lunar: Silver Star Harmony (SSH) – Sony PSP
- Lunar: Eternal Blue Complete (EBC) -Sega Saturn/Sony PSX
- Lunar: The Silver Star (TSS) – Sega CD
It wasn’t easy to come up with this list, especially in the case of choosing between #2 and #3. Even #5 is still a classic and only scores so low relative to the others because of its “primative” nature. Also, I grouped the Sega Saturn and PSX versions together despite there being some noticeable differences between them (Saturn had better sound, PSX had better FMV), but these differences more or less amounted to a wash. Anyway, while I’ll break down why Eternal Blue (Sega CD) is #1 at the end, I’ll give a brief explanation of why the others ended up where they did.
The most difficult choice on this list was in comparing Silver Star Story to Silver Star Harmony. Granted, once upon a time, I would’ve placed both lower due to They Changed It, Now It Sucks, but hindsight has led me to believe that the changes between SSS and The Silver Star were overall an improvement and not a negative. Anyway, the pros for SSS are that it’s possibly the ultimate refinement of Lunar’s game mechanics as set up in Eternal Blue as well some preference for Working Designs’ voice acting and song translations over those of Xseed in SSH. Yes, I know, Xseed did use WD’s scripts as part of their translation, but some of their song translations were a bit off sounding and I do prefer WD’s actors for nostalgia, if no other reasons. Xseed does get props for bringing back Jennifer Stigile to sing the songs in the game, however. The negatives against SSS are that, except for the gorgeous FMV scenes, it really wasn’t much of a technical leap forward over what came before or even on par to its own generation. It basically was just a polishing of the 16-bit era, complete with super-deformed sprites. They were well done and nicely animated, but it still looked a bit dated. SSH, on the contrary, revamped the entire graphics engine and ditched the super-deformed sprites for more proportional sprites. Needless to say, SSH is the most gorgeous looking of all the Lunar games. The reorchestrated (and apparently digitized) soundtrack also was gorgeous — a significant improvement over the much more synthesized/MIDI sounding music in SSS on the PSX and even on the Saturn. However, as a drawback, the FMV quality still looked like something from the late 1990s. The game mechanics also seemed to be downgraded. One of the unique things about the prior Lunars is the limited inventory mechanic. All of them had limits on how much stuff you could carry, and all except for EBC had per-character inventories that was fairly realistic, in my honest opinion, and gave some enjoyable additional challenge in the form of resource management. SSH used the old RPG standard of a shared inventory with up to 99 of each item — something that got particularly ridiculous towards the end of the game when Ramus offers you anything from his shop for free. Still, despite these faults, I would still recommend SSH as the best game to introduce someone to Lunar because its gorgeous in-game graphics and soundtrack makes it the most approachable to modern audiences.
Next at #4 is Eternal Blue Complete. Unlike SSS, it was pretty much completely faithful to the original storyline in Eternal Blue. Granted, it still wasn’t an exact port: a couple of my favorite cutscenes were removed (although some newly added ones were quite nice and helped make up for it), the bosses’ difficulties and attacks were rejiggered (Borgan was a total pansy this time around, whereas in the original he was possibly the hardest boss in the whole game), and a couple of my favorite enemies (like the Phantom/Star Sentry) were also removed. They also readjusted some of the spells and spell costs as well. For example, Hiro’s Poe Sword spell went from 4 MP in EB to 6 MP in EBC. Overall, though, it was definitely a very solid remake, so why did it rate lower than the original? Well, one reason is that while the original truly did push the boundaries of what its hardware could do, this one, again like SSS, really didn’t push anything with respect to hardware capabilities. Additionally, the music, while crystal clear due to being synthesized, was synthesized and lost some of the “oomph” of the digital music of the original. Also, the sound effects and even some of the spell effects actually were worse in the remake. than the original. For all the limitations of the Sega CD’s sound chips compared to that of newer hardware, you at least got the impression that when you landed a blow on your enemy, that blow hurt. In EBC, sometimes you never got that impression at all. My favorite example of the “Nerfing” of sound and spell effects would be Hiro’s Poe Sword attack. In EB, when you used it, the entire screen darkened, Hiro jumped into the air, and his sword made contact with a yellow crescent ala Strider and a very satisfying 16-bit “buzz” (for lack of a better term) to indicate that yes, this hurt, big time. In EBC, you just got a pixellated zoom in on Hiro slashing the enemy when he comes down accompanied by a “woosh” sound and then the standard “hit” sound for the damage. It just didn’t feel as powerful as the original, despite being the same spell (and costing more MP!). Leo’s Blade spells, such as Flash Blade, also suffered a similar fate of not looking/sounding as cool in the remake as the original, although most of the other characters, admittedly, did have better spells, sounds, and effects. A further knock against it is eliminating the per-character inventory system for a global shared inventory where you are limited to 20 of any particular item. Finally, I missed seeing the names of the enemy spells like EB, SSS, and even SSH did, although this is a very minor nit. On the positive side, however, the FMV cutscenes were gorgeous (Gonzo should probably stick to making cut scenes for video games and not even bother trying to make their own anime series) and its extreme faithfulness to the original game was definitely very welcome to those who were disappointed in the changes between SSS and TSS.
Next, we get to The Silver Star. It pains me to rate this as low on the list as I do due to how beloved this game is to me, but I’m trying to be somewhat objective. Interestingly enough, the problem with this game isn’t so much the story (which still holds up very, very well, even with the later changes in SSS), but more with the technical and mechanics aspects. As one of Game Arts’s first (if not their first) RPGs and one of the first games on the Sega CD platform, you can tell that they still had a fair bit to learn. The animated cut scenes, while impressive for the time, were limited both in total time (somewhere on the order of 10 minutes or so) and actual animation (instead of using digitized video, they essentially used some sort of sprite-based animation engine. This made it clearer than FMV would’ve been on the Sega CD, but also limited how much was actually animated). The magic system was also pretty much generic for any RPG — you had your standard number of “big boomer” spells along with various healing and typical status effect spells, but nothing particularly unique. You also had the issue of spells learned early on being essentially useless later on in the game. However, the game did have a wonderful story and the soundtrack, oh my goddess the soundtrack… Taking full advantage of the CD-ROM platform, the soundtrack was pure Redbook audio on the CD (along with the audio to the cut scenes — beware of spoilers if you pop the CD into your CD player to listen to the music). Not only was the music the clearest sounding out of all the Lunar games up until SSH (which I suspect also used a high-quality digitized soundtrack), but the composition was absolutely stellar. It was a shame that they couldn’t use the same music for SSS for some (licensing?) reason, but TSS’s soundtrack is arguably second only to EB’s, and not by much. TSS also introduced us to the per-character in-battle inventory accompanied by the shared global outside of battle inventory that would be used in EB and SSS, albeit a more restrictive version of one due to in-battle inventory having to share the same equipment slots as combat equipment. Still, this was a good idea and one that needed just a bit more refinement, as done later on in EB.
Finally, we get to my argument as to why the original Eternal Blue is the best game in the entire Lunar series. First, let’s start with its technical merits. This game was definitely state-of-the-art for 16-bit RPGs of its era. Admittedly, some of it was aided by the use of CD-ROM as the storage medium, but a lot of it was just pure programming wizardry on the part of Game Arts. Yes, I know I’ll probably get some flack for calling this game technically superior to Final Fantasy, but in my opinion the only one of Square’s 16-bit games that matches up to EB technically is Chrono Trigger. First, let’s start with the biggest thing: in-game (as opposed to cutscene) animation. The amount of animation you see in EB is astounding. Rivers flow, waves crest on lakes and seas, windmills turn, candles flicker, and so on — and this is just on the various map screens (overworld, town, or dungeon). Once you get into combat, then the animation really catches your eye. Nothing stands still in combat. Your party has animated wait poses (nothing too spectacular here — most 16-bit RPGs had animated wait poses for the player’s party), but the rest of the character battle animation has very nice additional touches such as holding their weapons differently if they’re going to use a weapon skill, magic users chanting and even kneeling as they prepare to cast, different weapon animations based on the type of weapon the character is holding, and so on. The main difference between EB and many of the other 16-bit RPGs are the enemy animations. All enemies also have animated wait poses (unlike the static, unmoving enemies you see in various other 16-bit RPGs) for starters, with even the mooks getting at least two different wait animations and some bosses having a half dozen or even more. These animations aren’t just eye candy either — they play an important strategic element. Based on an enemy’s wait animation, you can often deduce what their next action is going to be. This allows you the opportunity to target a specific enemy or boost your defenses in order to protect against an upcoming dangerous attack. Finally, sometimes even the backgrounds during the battles were animated. This is particularly noticeable in the Red Dragon Cave, where you actually see lava flowing in the background while you do battle. These animations alone made EB technically superior to many of its 16-bit contemporaries and was a feature that did not rely on the game’s storage medium to implement.
Next comes something that does rely on the storage medium to implement: the animated cutscenes. Unlike TSS, we have over an hour of fully animated cutscenes in EB. While they pretty much used the same animated sprite trick as TSS, they really pushed it to its limits. Instead of just mouths moving, you’ll see multiple levels of animation: hair moving in the breeze, birds flying overhead, waves crashing on the shore, and so on, all of it smooth as silk. In fact, if it wasn’t for the relatively small color palette, a lot of this animation looked like it could’ve been taken straight out of an actual anime show.
The music in EB is the next part that makes it such an amazing game. While I admit that some of the music in towns isn’t quite as good as in the other games (and the “desert town” theme played in Larpa and a few other towns grated on me at first until I started to appreciate it more), they are still very high quality tunes overall. However, the other songs, such as the overworld themes (yes, I like “Adventure Road,” thank you very much!), certain event themes, the vocalized songs, and the battle songs (especially the regular battle, “Hiro’s Fight,” and the incredible song during the final battle with Zophar) rank up there as among the best songs in any game ever. Much like TSS, the music here is all digital. Unfortunately, due to space constraints, instead of redbook it had to be encoded as 11kHz mono PCM files. This does degrade the quality of the music, obviously, but being digital and not MIDI seems to give it an extra punch that the synthesized tunes of the PSX version lacked. For what it’s worth, the Saturn had 22kHz stereo renditions of these songs and I feel that the Saturn version overall has the best music out of all the various versions of EB.
EB is the game that perfected the individual battle inventory/shared common out-of-battle inventory system that was unique to the earlier Lunar games. In fact, SSS pretty much uses the same system unmodified. The fundamental change here over TSS was that each character’s battle inventory is separate from their equipment slots. This means you can have the full complement of equipment (weapon, headgear, armor, shield, and two accessories) on your character and still be able to carry up to 12 items in your personal inventory for in-battle use.
EB’s magic system was the basis of the magic systems used in every subsequent game. Unlike TSS, where basically the only spells were big boomers and healers, there is much more variety to those in EB. The first is the introduction of weapon skills — essentially magically-enhanced weapon attacks, whether they be Hiro’s Poe Sword, Leo’s Flash Blade, Jeans Karate skills, etc. To this day, EB’s Poe Sword remains my all time favorite RPG spell because it was cheap enough to use frequently, very powerful, and looked pretty cool. The rest of the spells run the gamut from healers, to status inflictors/removers, buffs/debuffs, and so on. One main change is in the Dragon spells — so much that they remained (with one exception) the Dragon spells used throughout the rest of the series. Unlike TSS’s Dragon spells, which were all big boomers, EB’s had a variety of uses for them, all that the very affordable (yeah, right) price of 99 MP (they would rejigger the MP costs in subsequent games to more accurately reflect how useful/powerful the spells were). The most important of them was White Dragon Protect, which protected you from the next spell to hit you and was absolutely vital in some boss battles. Next was Blue Dragon Anger, which was kind of weird until you figured it out. It appeared to do nothing, but then the next turn it gave you three times the normal number of physical attacks. In the hands of a character with 3 moves per turn and a high critical hit rate, like Jean, it could be utterly devastating in boss battles. However, perhaps due to the non-obviousness of how it worked, it was replaced by Blue Dragon Healing in later games. Next was Black Dragon Shield (renamed Black Dragon Grief and various other names later on) which was a “kill ‘em all but get no experience” spell for when you really want to eliminate every mook on the battlefield. Red Dragon Anger was the sole big boomer among all the spells, although it wasn’t worth the 99 MP cost. Finally, there was one more “Dragon” spell, Althena’s Light, which was a cure all status and heal to max spell. This one was removed in name in later games, but it remained in effect as the new Blue Dragon Healing spell.
One drawback with the original EB’s magic system that was removed in subsequent games was the Magic Experience (MXP) system. Basically, while some spells would be learned and/or powered up as your character levels up, others would require spending Magic Experience Points you acquired just like money and regular experience points in battle. On the face of it, this is good as it means you can customize your characters and only focus on spells you actually care about using. However, this did result in a lot of useless spells not really being powered up until well near the end of the game, when you’re just doing it to spend MXP because you’ve got no better use for it. One other drawback, and one that was admitted as a mistake by Working Designs, was the requirement to spend MXP to save games that was added to the US release. The idea was to prevent people from abusing the fact that the game lets you save anywhere in the world as opposed to specific save points, but in effect it just annoyed people as it sometimes meant they cannot save when they absolutely have to and where a game would normally provide some sort of save point. Honestly, though, towards the end of the game you typically got so much MXP from battles that it wasn’t an issue.
Another unique twist not found in all the Silver Star-derivatives was the Epilogue (which was also in EBC). Unlike NewGame+ (not to denigrate games with a NewGame+ feature), it was basically a bunch of bonus dungeons and plot and was provided to let the player cope with the regular game’s extremely bittersweet ending. Granted, the existence of the epilogue doesn’t really constitute something that makes this game better than the others (especially since EBC has the same epilogue), but I figured it was worth mentioning.
Finally, that brings us to the plot. Given how the plot was hardly changed between the original and remake, you gotta figure they did something right with it. One drawback, though, is the fact that the ultimate enemy is your standard evil god type, albeit one with a significant backstory related to the world and one that’s much more clever than your average “I am a destroyer who must destroy things” type. The reveal of this evil god before you even complete the game’s first dungeon could also be a drawback as it leaves little to guess as to what your final goal will be. However, the various other plot twists (like Ghaleon’s return), tie-ins to the original game (again, like Ghaleon’s return), and so on as well as the developing romance between Hiro and Lucia more than make up for the cliche ultimate evil. That said, I do find it difficult to decide whether EB actually does have a better story and characters than SSS/TSS as they both have their strengths. At the very least, I can claim that the plot in EB is at least as good as in the other Lunars and that, combined with how everything else is just as good if not better makes Lunar: Eternal Blue for the Sega CD the best of the series.
Next time, on this Lunar kick, I will discuss the character of Ghaleon as well as the plot changes between TSS and SSS, since they mostly revolve around our favorite Magic Emperor, and why, when I honestly think about it, SSS’s plot is better than TSS’s.