Defenders of Oasis

Year Released in US: 1992
System: Game Gear

Boy, this is an oldie! Back in the days when Sega's advertising slogan was "Sega does what Nintendon't" they had their own portable gaming system called the Game Gear. It only received one traditional RPG throughout its entire lifespan in the US, but thankfully, it got a good one in Defenders of Oasis.

DoO hasn't aged well in terms of graphics and gameplay, and I remember that even back in the day the tediousness of going through the final dungeon got to me, but there is still a certain charm about it that transcends its archaic 8-bit gameplay. Tedious it might have been at times, but I don't know anyone who's ever knocked it for its story or characters. And coming from an era where the much ballyhooed Engrish translations were still common, Defenders of Oasis was bright, funny, and perfectly understandable.

If memory serves, this is actually my third time through the game. I beat it twice on my old Game Gear, but then my cartridge battery died so for this latest play through I used an emulator. (And as an aside, I think it's for reasons like this that emulators should exist.) I don't think it effected my perspective of the game much though, because amusingly enough, the amount of space the game takes up on my screen is about the size of the Game Gear's LCD.

Even as an 8-bit game, Defenders of Oasis comes out a little on the poor side in comparision to a game like Phantasy Star. There are no backgrounds in combat. There are no enemy animations nor attack animations on the part of the main characters; they aren't on screen at all during combat and except for the main character, they aren't present in towns or dungeons either. Even during pre-set conversations between the different party members only the prince appears on screen. The few times the entire party is visible are generally major plot events where it's more dramatic to have everybody present to walk and look around at what's going on (to what small degree that they do).

But in a way, this game is remarkable in that it has such scenes at all. This is the only 8-bit game I know that has character development on the level of the 16-bit platform. The Prince, Saleem, and Agmar have more character in them than their contemporaries in Breath of Fire or even Phantasy Star III. Their journey is a bit offbeat at times (sincerely trying to use the phrase "Open Sesame!" to open a locked door), but it's a good mix of light-hearted humor and good vs. evil drama (even elements of tragedy) without either side overwhelming the other. As far as the humor goes, I'm particularly fond of how the thief in the party points out how gruesome it is to steal items off of dead bodies, which in the real world would be a gruesome task, but it's one that players commonly do as a matter of course in an RPG.

This game is also remarkable in that it's set in a non-traditional middle eastern setting. All of the weapons (save for the special ones you can forge) are named after equivalents in the real world that come from a region spanning ancient Persia to southeast Asia. Weapons like a tulwar, chakram, and kris are just a sample of what the characters use in the game. While the strange names flew right over my head back in the day, now as an older, wiser gamer I can find an additional level of appreciation in them. It adds another layer of depth to the game when I can fight with a falchion instead of [insert next most powerful variation here] Sword.

Of course, Defenders of Oasis was able to get away with such exotic weaponry precisely because it was such a primitive game. With only text representing each item and no attack animations there was no need to draw all these crazy weapons. The swords probably could be lumped together, but the chakram alone would have required a special animation. (And if you don't know what a chakram is, think Xena: Warrior Princess, though Saleem was throwing the chakram around quite a few years before Xena came along.)

The main characters are a ragtag group of heros, which is not unusual in an RPG, but I think what makes them interesting is that they aren't cut from the archetypical heroic cloth. That's less unusual these days, in the realm of anti-heros and bubble-headed fanservice girls, but the Defenders of Oasis human cast is more like a group of people who just happened to get wrapped in something way over their heads and they deal with it. The Prince, the main character (who has no other name and cannot be named), is a slacker who gets up late every morning, can't remember how to formally greet his father in the courtly fashion, and misses picking up the visiting princess of a neighboring kingdom because he didn't get to the port on time. He has a good heart though. He's just a bit lazy. And unlike most of his lazy hero successors, he's not lecherous on top of that.

Of course, nothing lights a fire under the Prince's butt like getting his kingdom invaded, betrayed by the general of its own army, and having to flee for his life with the family treasure, the Jewel of Jamseed, which possesses a powerful genie, and one of the three magic rings that ages ago sealed away the Dark Wizard Ahriman.

Naturally the quest becomes about defeating Ahriman, who is staging a return after being sealed away for untold centuries. The Prince's kingdom of Shanadar has a surprisingly rich history (for a game of this size) and was founded by Jamseed, who originally defend Ahriman. So naturally Ahriman has a thing for wanting Shanadar raised to the ground, and the thing is, he actually conquered it in the past. Yes! There was a story in between the original sealing of the big bad guy and the present story of the game! It's actually kind of funny because the minion that conquered old Shanadar is called Snake King Zahhark and you actually run into monsters called Zahharks left and right in the last dungeon. I don't know if that means the Snake King was just one of many or that he was a special Zahhark. But the Snake King version was of course overthrown by another hero so that Shanadar can be safe until the Prince's time when it's get taken over again.

The other two full-fledged party members are Saleem (the son of a ship's captain) and Agmar (a thief the Prince and Saleem get stuck in a jail cell with). The Genie is a party member as well, bringing the total to four, but he behaves a lot differently than the rest. In Defenders of Oasis humans don't cast magic. So the Genie is the only spellcaster in the group. Further making him unique, he's the only party member immune to status attacks. But on the other hand, the Genie can't equip anything, can't be revived if he's knocked out in combat, and does not level up and so it's impossible to ever increase certain stats of his after you first get him. His defense, HP, and MP and be increased by using certain items on his lamp that can be found or bought, but his speed and strength never increase. Also, due to the cost of upgrading his lamp he can be very expensive. Money does not come freely until very late in the game. Usually the player is forced to make decisions about which equipment to buy.

The lack of money leads to another problem, which is more likely a remnant of the era than anything else. Certain characters can only use certain pieces of equipment, which is no surprise, but because the weapon names are so odd and there's no visual representation of them, there's no way to know who can equip what until you buy the item and try it. Compounding the problem is the expense of buying the item only to find that's not necessary or there's one in the next dungeon. (I wasted all my savings on a Mask for Agmar only get find one in a treasure chest 15 minutes later.) In most cases Defenders of Oasis's instant save feature is a blessing, particularly when getting into a boss fight on accident (the game reloads right before the fight trigger) or simply because it's time to go (it's great to be able to just turn off a portable game without going to a save point or even to a save menu!), but in cases like buying the wrong item it's a pain.

Since the Genie is the only spellcasting character, the designers tried to give the other characters interesting things to do in combat to differentiate between them. Agmar has a Hide ability, which alone makes him cooler than most RPG thieves who can do thief stuff in combat. Stealing money and items is rote stuff, but Agmar's hide ability is a very cheap way to protect him since while hidden Agmar can't be targeted by most attacks. It's always good to see someone waste their attack on him that way. And best of all, when Agmar emerges from hiding he does x1.5 damage. The only bad thing is, really, it takes one turn for him to hide and one to emerge, so he does less damage overall. On the defensive side though, his advantage can't be beat. He can use items to heal himself and other party members while in hiding and if he's low on hp before a healer can get to him, hiding him is almost a surefire way to protect him until the Genie can cast a spell.

Saleem didn't make out nearly as well, though his Dance ability (dance of death according the extended description when he uses it in combat) is useful, Saleem himself doesn't have the best stats to take advantage of what he has. Dance lets Saleem do 50% of his single attack damage to each enemy on the field. Generally enemies appear in groups of two, with three being on the rare side, so it's difficult to do more collective damage by Dancing than Saleem would ordinarily do. Dancing is best used when you know one monster is almost dead and there is still a second on the field because then he'll split the damage so the extra isn't wasted. The problem is that Saleem is the weakest of the three human characters, so while the Prince and Agmar are doing in the ballpark of 100 damage a round to the average final dungeon enemy, Saleem is often middling around 50, so splitting his attacks rarely becomes practical. In fact, of the three characters, Saleem has the worst overall stats. Agmar will likely max out both his Speed and Power by the end of the game, the Prince should max his Power, but Saleem will only max his Stamina, which essentialy gives him an obscene amount of hp but nothing else. So he becomes the party's damage sink and a secondary healer (using items) to the Genie if the Genie can't handle the current situation.

As far as special abilities go the Prince made out the worst, being given the Run command. Yes, only the Prince of Shanadar has the capacity to run from a fight. But he makes up for it by being the best fighter in the game. ;)

By the way, while talking about combat abilities, I have to mention that this game uses one of the oddest items for a healing item. The Barrel is a barrel of water and when used to combat the text pops up saying "You all jump in the barrel and feel cool!" and the entire party gains some hp. It's just the mental image of three guys and a genie cramming into a barrel in the middle of a fight is too funny. ^_^

Defenders of Oasis's humor shines all the way through to the end. Though the first part of the ending is the serious stuff of heroes, even coming with an epilogue of how our heros will be remembered in the days to come, the scenes that come afterwards are the real gem. Each of the three human heros have a short segment showing what happened to them after defeating Ahriman, but it's all twisted as if to remind the player that, well, these guys are human and crap happens. For instance, the Prince might get the girl, but that doesn't mean he'll live happily ever after, though at least he still sleeps in to noon.