Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Game #44: The Bard's Tale (NES) - The Title Changers Tale (Finished)

Game 44

Title: The Bard's Tale: Tales of the Unknown
Released: November 1991 (December 1990 JPN)
Platform: NES
Developer: Interplay Productions, Inc. (Port to console by Atelier Double Co. Ltd.)
Publisher: FCI; Pony Canyon, Inc.
Genre: RPG
Exploration - First-person
Combat - Turn based
Series - The Bard's Tale

Bard's Tale or The Bard's Tale... you decide
Welcome to another edition of, "How did this make it onto the NES from PC?" Well, the answer as always is because of FCI and Pony Canyon. It's just a bit odd in this case because Interplay already had experience creating a game on the NES with Swords and Serpents; however, as far as I can tell, this port first started as a Japanese title, and was translated for the North American market. Maybe it was a package deal since EA controlled the license for this game and others FCI published. I'm fairly impressed at the conversion done for console, granted many things were removed. This version is much simpler, and thus easier, than the PC.

(Before I get too far into this, I apologize for the screen shots, which are muted in color. I'm not sure why, but the capture card I use seems to lose some color from RCA sources. I have the same trouble from my Genesis (and I'm guessing will have the same from SegaCD and TG-16), but it's very pronounced in this game (especially the borders). If anyone has any ideas that might help I'm open to try them.)
No intro sequence with the bard singing... actually, where did the bard go?
Unlike Wizardry, I couldn't find a way to wipe the information from past adventures. I deleted all characters and past adventuring parties without even bothering to check their gear. They were all dead anyway. Character creation is limited to a choice of six classes: Warrior, Rogue, Hunter, Bard, Sorcerer, and Wizard. Stats are rolled randomly for each of five attributes, and the available starting range depends on the class. This means trying to roll a vitality for wizard as high as one for warrior is impossible.
One of the first viable warriors I rolled; maybe I'm too picky
Party composition is usually one of the hardest for me to settle on. I always feel like I don't know enough about the game to pick the optimal party. I read the manual, and I knew from past experience that I wanted at least two healers (I played the Apple II version as some point). I figured I could get away without having a rogue as wizards gain a spell to disable traps at second level. I thought a warrior, hunter, bard (it feels wrong to play this without a bard), sorcerer, and two wizards would work out well. However, I could never seem to roll up a good hunter, so I ended up with a second warrior. Once again I named most of the characters from the viewers on Twitch.
Along the same street of the guild was a weapon shop, tavern, temple, and review board all in a line. In addition to character creation, the guild allowed me to name my party for easy continuation. The guild acts as a home base for saving the current state of each character. There are also options to add or remove single members, break up the whole party, examine members in reserve, and share gold among the party (strange this option is only available here). I set the text speed to fast and set off into the cruel world. Outside, the party has the option to use an item, cast a spell, sing a song, change party order, initiate party combat, and check the status of a member. It's also possible to change the combat line (inside the new order option), which allows 3, 4, 5, or 6 members to participate in melee combat. This is the first time I've ever seen an option like this, and I'm sad to say I didn't get to use it.
I realized after I finished that everything beyond the flute was sold to the shop by past adventurers
The weapon shop allows each character to buy, sell, or identify items. Gold can be pooled from the party to afford a particularly expensive piece. I outfitted everyone with robes, and my front line with short swords and leather gloves. The warriors also got a round shield. I listened to rumors at the tavern. I had my bard purchase a root beer (thank you Nintendo censorship), and when I tried to purchase grape juice I was told it was sold out. The temple provided healing services, of which I had no need. Options to restore individuals or the entire party were available. At the review board I once again had little to accomplish. They offered advancement to the next level, and spell levels for purchase once I advanced enough. I then struck out from this starting street, where I strangely never encountered a single enemy, and started to explore the rest of the city.
There are a lot of these
Care to point out my mistake in the above screenshot? That's right, I forgot to equip my gear. What a rookie mistake... luckily running from enemies has a high success rate. For my first (real) battle, which is crucial, I faced off against 3 groups of goblins (1, 3, 3). There can be up to three groups of monsters in any given battle, and each group can have up to 9 enemies (huh, that's just like the last game). About halfway through the first dungeon I realized that each group only gets 1 attack each turn. This means it's more important to take out a single group to reduce the number of attacks. I knew this game had a reputation for being unfair, so this surprised me a bit. That and how easily I overcame all the battles inside the city.
Especially with the help of the bard's songs
The bard, even though not necessarily a required member, is one of the key members to any successful party. His battle songs are most useful in the early game:
  • Freeze Voice - Has a chance of freezing enemies, preventing their attack. In this first battle, I used this early, and the enemy never even got a swing off.
  • Lucklaran - Said to weaken the magical powers of the enemy (actually says to lose), but there was never a noticeable effect. I hardly used it, in favor of the next song.
  • Falkentyne's Fury - This increases the battle skill of all melee members. Most noticeably it increases the damage of every blow. I'm not sure it stacks with Battle Skill (sorcerer spell).
  • Badh'r Kilnfest (Voice of Kylearan in the manual) - Is a one time song that causes some of the enemies to become confused, and fight for the party's victory. I hardly ever found use for this.
Outside battle the bard has a second set of songs:
  •  The Traveller's Tune - Instantly returns the party to the guild. There is nothing like this in the original game, and I believe it's the number one reason this port is much easier than any other.
  •  Wayland's Watch - The only description I have is that it "soothes savage foes." I'd guess it either reduces the encounter rate, reduces the number of enemies in an encounter, or as in the original game, reduces damage done by the enemy.
  • The Seeker's Ballad - The manual says it lowers the AC of the enemy, but it's the party's AC that drops by 2.
I didn't really try these until I gained some levels, and thus had an additional number of songs to sing before my bard's throat went dry. When his throat is dry, the only way to recover is to drink root beer, or consume a drop from the weapon shop (restores only a single song). My go to song was Seeker's Ballad, and to save my last for Traveller's Tune. Strangely, it's possible to retain the effects of a song from outside battle, and one going on inside the battle (i.e. the bonuses stack). Checking the status of the bard will show how many songs he has left.
Easily reaching level 2
Upon leveling, HP and MP seem to increase at a linear rate based on a simple formula, and current values get set to max. This makes leveling equal to a free healing. Also, a random stat increases, and I do mean random. More often than not Regasin would gain intelligence, and Celdia seemed to favor strength. At second level I was able to purchase spell level 2 for all my spellcasters. At 100 gold a pop I was lucky I hadn't splurged on equipment first. Sorcerers and wizards each have their own unique list of spells. Wizards start with Mage Flame (to light dungeons), Arc Fire (a basic damaging spell), and Gleam (said to frighten away a single monster with a flash of light). Sorcerers have Image of Terror (I don't remember using this), Scry Sight (gives coordinates and current map), and Battle Skill (which increases the melee damage of a single member). Level two unlocked a wolf familiar and a weak group damage spell for the sorcerer, and single target healing for the wizard as well as a defense de-buff (corrosion), and a melee spell.
The city gate confirms we're stuck here
Before I knew it I'd mapped out the city, and reached level 4 as well as spell level 3. Of all level 3 spells, Starflare (group damaging wizard spell) is quite useful. I'd found a castle, a locked gate, a temple full of heretics, multiple taverns, and two statues: one of a Mangar Guard, and one of a wizard. I went for the more innocuous sounding statues, and tackled the wizard. Most of the rumors pointed me to the Scarlet Bard, which lay on the other side. There I asked for some grape juice, and was told to explore the cellar if I really wanted it. The cellar, and the sewer below it, are the game's first dungeon. The enemies are slightly tougher, with skeletons and spiders providing the first challenge (didn't die in a single hit). I was surprised by the complete emptiness of the cellar. A few signs mentioned grape juice storerooms, but there was no juice. A set of stairs led to the sewers.
I had no idea how dangerous a prospect this was, even with Trap Zap (gained at level 3)
I ran across a few chests early on, and didn't think anything of opening them with Trap Zap. I figured this was a 100% chance of disarming the trap, or at least a safe prospect. Even with this though there is a chance the trap will go off, which always explodes for 50 - 70 damage. Twice I ran foul of this, once losing my bard--so I had to walk all the way back to the guild. At least the early spoils allowed me to outfit my front line with chain mail, and I was lucky to avoid a full party wipe many times. Opening chests at low HP was not an option, and I avoided it as much as possible.
Level 3 sorcerer spells are wind warrior, disbelieve (destroys enemy summons), invincible (which never worked), and sorcerer sight (sensed nearby key encounters)
More evidence that the NES port was made easier is that there are no traps in the dungeons, any dungeons. The only traps are on chests. There are also no areas of anti-magic, darkness, or spinners that the classic PC RPGs are so well known to stock. This makes mapping trivial in most cases. There are still one-way doors, and teleport squares, but they're few and far between. This game is also a fair bit shorter, as the sewer only has a single floor with an exit near Mangar's Tower, a statue of a spider, and a magic mouth that spoke of an old king's tomb under the heretic's temple. A second magic mouth spoke of Tarjan, the heretics' god who was once a wizard, but was locked in stone until made whole again.
I don't really see it... maybe if I tilt my head... or squint
By this point I had amassed enough to afford plate armor and mithril axes for both my warriors. I also bought the Bard Sword, which I suppose now I wouldn't normally have had. It didn't seem to increase my damage much if any from the broadsword I was using. I took my time to fully explore the sewers, and by the time the spider statue was the only thing left to pass, I was level 8, gained level 4 spells, and purchased more ill-gotten gains in the form of a dayblade, and two diamond helms. I'm not sure how much they helped in the end, and I wish I had realized something was amiss earlier. It's this reason console games should all have had a way to reset to default. Beyond the spider statue (which was a tough battle with a widow), I found the body of a heretic. I confirmed it was a heretic by removing the "hereticproof." This item allowed me access to the catacombs underneath the heretic's temple.
That sweet, sweet proof
Level 4 spells for sorcerer allowed me to summon a wind ogre, strike down groups of undead with magic water, and for the first time heal a party member with rejuvination [sic] (which also cures old age). Wizards got their own summon, which was much worse, a more powerful single target damaging spell, another armor reduction spell, and one to turn an enemy to stone (which hardly succeeded). I was still mainly using their magic points to heal, which became more powerful at level 3 with flesh restore, and also doubled as an antidote. There were three floors to the catacombs, and each one was progressively tougher. Many magic mouths gave hints, although few had necessary information. There was a cleric chamber with a tome detailing how Tarjan was missing an eye, and a mouth mentioned that Aildrek, the dead king, had the crystal eye in his crypt. Aildrek had been awakened as a death knight by Mangar's evil magic, another mouth spoke.
One of the most deceptively devious monsters in the game
Now, while I can say the monsters got progressively more difficult, it's a bit hard to imagine just how bad it got. Wizards became commonplace, and could summon wind ogres. A key strategy to keep in mind is the three group rule. An ogre can't be summon when all three are already full. Wind ogres can deal massive damage, and are difficult to hit. Seekers, a floating eyeball, can summon as well as cast starflare for massive damage, and the have a confusion spell that makes a party member "NUTS." Strangely, phantoms, as well as wights (they share the same sprite), are not considered undead, so magic water was useless against them. They were very difficult to hit, and could cause a condition known as OLD, which greatly reduced a character's damage to a tenth or less of their previous ability.
I finally found a use for party combat!
I have all sorts of ways to recover from the above, but the worst was the Doppler. It's a rather weak creature on its own, but it has a strange ability to silently disappear from combat. Actually, when it does that, one of the party members becomes replaced. This party member will then attack the party during combat without warning. It's possible to circumvent this by telling them to guard, but any other action has them wailing on someone I'd rather keep alive. Their condition doesn't reflect this state, the temple cannot heal it, and the only indication that something is wrong is a Doppler disappeared. The only solution is to kill off the offending member. That is, until level 7 spells are unlocked where the sorcerer gets the Inspect spell that obliterates any replaced party members, and restores the original.
Aildrek rises from his coffin and assaults the party with a bad translation
By the time I reached Aildrek I had level 5 spells, which are unlocked at level 14. The wind giant is the sorcerer's only constantly useful spells. He gained an anti-possession spell, which is nice, and a mass confusion one, which hardly ever worked. The wizard on the other hand gained spells that carried the party with flesh anew (a party heal for hundreds of hit points), arc blizzard (large amounts of damage to a single group), and Arcyne's Magestar, which hardly ever saw any use. I managed to land it on Aildrek right before he died. It blinds an opponent so they can't act. I recovered the crystal eye from Aildrek, and moved my adventuring location of choice to the castle in the northwest corner of the city.
The castle where Tarjan rests was guarded by a dragon that only let me pass if I held the crystal eye
I haven't mentioned it yet, but the game has a mini-map. Most of the map has visible walls, but there are some portions that are obscured. In many locations this isn't a problem, but as the game progressed, more of the map was unseen. This was especially true in Mangar's Tower. In any case, I'd been mapping everything on paper since I enjoy it. The first floor hid a white mantle, that I guessed would allow me to sit on the throne (I didn't try beforehand). Sitting on the throne teleported the party to an area with stairs up. The second floor had many teleport traps that deposited the party into a 'prison' area where they forgot to lock the door. A magic mouth proclaimed that the same magic that sealed Tarjan also sealed Kylearan's tower.
Also, this is the first place dragons started to appear
Dragons became a normal enemy in the castle. They only ever appear one at a time, and take all three group slots, judging by their size. I'd started to attempt to run from most battles by this time to conserve MP. As far as I can tell there's no drawback to running. If an attempt fails, then the party can still take their normal actions. The third floor contained squares where a mouth shouted, "leave," and forced the party back to near the beginning of the floor. A magic mouth told me of a crystal golem in Kylearan's Tower whose magic could be sealed by using the crystal fighter I'd found on floor two. Tarjan himself was a bit of a disappointment. He attacked me once for only 100 HP, and then I was able to land Arcyne's Magestar, which dazed him for the remainder of the fight.
Not for long
After his defeat, I picked up a crystal key off him that unlocked the gate to Kylearan's Tower. I also received a telepathic message from Kylearan himself explaining that he was still too weak to venture out. Shortly before facing Tarjan I gained level 6 spells. This was by far the most disappointing level for wizards: a better light spell that lasted the entire dungeon, a quake spell that I wrote off when it back fired my first try and reduced everyone's HP to ~30, and a stone to flesh that was useless as I never found a monster that stoned my party. Sorcerers on the other hand received a spell to revive the dead, as well as the Mind Storm spell with the potential to wipe out an entire group of enemies. The cost of spells had shot up astronomically though, and nearly wiped out my funds. So, when I reached level 24, able to learn level 7 spells, I was vexed to find only one person could learn them.
Trying to raise three magic-users is going to bankrupt me
I decided to purchase the spells for my sorcerer for the sole reason that I was once again facing doppelganger monsters, and the spell to rid myself of them was waiting there. The dragon summon was a nice addition as well with it's ability to breath on one group, or attack for as much as a warrior. Kylearan waited behind many winding passageways with one-way doors. I used the crystal fighter on the crystal golem, which trivialized the fight. On the second floor, Kylearan bestowed the Jade Key upon the party, and wished them luck.
I almost expected a fight when I saw this
At this point I still could not afford level 7 spells for either wizard. So, I entered Kylearan's Tower a second time, and raised enough to purchase them for one wizard. Mangar's Tower is terribly difficult without at least one high level wizard able to cast Dragon's Breath (a high level damage spell that hits all enemies), and Restoration (full heal to all party members--only works outside of combat). At one point, I attempted to sell off key items like the crystal fighter, crystal eye, and crystal key, thinking all I needed was the jade key. Turned out I was wrong, but luckily only the crystal key was also required.
When fighting battles like this, you really need to hit hard and fast
The battles in Mangar's Tower confused me. In fights with vampires like above, I couldn't tell if they were regenerating HP, or reordering themselves so the highest HP enemy was taking the brunt of the damage. It felt like I had to deal a lot of damage all at once in order to kill them. Eventually I had enough gold for my second wizard to get 7th level spells. Double Dragon's Breath kills everything. The tower climb took quite a while to map everything due to teleporters on the first and second floors, a puzzle with ordered switches where hints were spread throughout the floor, and a strange door maze where all the walls and doors were swapped. The final floor of Mangar's Tower was a straight shot to him, although through a long and windy road. I also reached max level (36) around the third floor, even with all the running away.
The final floor went smoothly when I returned from refreshing myself
I don't remember all my equipment, but I do remember finding three Kael's Axes, multiple diamond helms I sold off, high level armor, and better shields. My bard had an elven cloak as well. Waiting for me on the other side of this door was a Demon Lord that I confused for a regular monster. Strangely he didn't do anything for the first three rounds. After that I realized this was no ordinary enemy, and I started to buff/debuff. He was able to dish out a Dragon Breath before he fell. That could have been a lot worse had he acted since the beginning. This penultimate battle was followed up by one against Mangar himself in the next room. Instead of a single screenshot though, enjoy this video of the final battle.
I'm not sure if it was the use of Lucklaran that reduced his chance of casting Restoration, but he only ever used it once (and I didn't even notice it that time). In the end, it came down to just dealing out the damage. Having two wizards was definitely a factor in both the amount of time it took to complete the game, and the final battle. With Mangar's defeat a peace settled over the party, and Kylearan appeared, free of Mangar's suppressive magic. He gave thought to Mangar's motives, but brushed them aside. The party celebrated by having a moment of silence for Mangar (seriously, there's no music over the credits).

Thus ends The Bard's Tale. A rough adventure to play through today, but much easier on the NES. There's no level draining to contend with, and no stone status effects (even if there were, there's a spell to cure it) to bog down the final dungeon. Of course, like most games that let you create characters, if you choose the wrong party, then you're going to have a bad time.

Elapsed Time: 24h21m (Final Time: 24h21m)
The only English name in the credits
Combatant - Combat is a fair challenge throughout the game. There are some interesting strategies, but most come from spells and songs. Useable items are onetime use, even the instruments, which I thought had charges. With such limited inventory it's hard to devote any to those kind of items. The rewards for battle tapered off too quickly, but unidentified items were plentiful. Having two wizards made most of the later half of the game an easy ride.
Rating: 6
Design guy, yay!
Admirer - What guys? Where? Gone is the ability to change classes for magic-users, so nothing is customized beyond original character classes, and names. There aren't any options to advance. The controls are as good as expected, nothing fancy. One nice thing I didn't mention elsewhere, is that the instrument the bard has equipped will change his songs slightly. I only noticed when changing from Lak's Lyre to a Frost Horn, but the pitch dropped when I did. I'm curious what a flute would sound like.
Rating: 2
I read this as Graphic Stuff the first time
Puzzler - The main quest, is probably the longest roundabout way to get to Mangar possible. Early actions of the party are ill-defined as the right ones, but there's little else to do. There are no side quests; however, the puzzle elements introduced in Mangar's Tower were a nice touch. The magic mouths are interesting as well, but who placed them? Gone are the scribbles on the walls.
Rating: 3
Yay for coordination!
Instigator - There's not much narrative to follow. How Tarjan's revival is linked to Kylearan's awakening isn't fully explained. How the heretics took over the temple housing the ancient king's tomb isn't explored. I'm not even sure we can call this The Bard's Tale without a bard at the guild singing a song. The disembodied magic mouths are the only source for plot progression until we get to Kylearan. There's no input from the player to decide how the story should proceed.
Rating: 2
Especially since we just killed him
Collector - There's a good amount of stuff, and while not free, it's possible to store it all at the shop. Selling unidentified items destroys them, but if identified first, the shop owner will keep them around in his sale list. The economy never became irrelevant for me, but if a party of magic-less freaks showed up, they'd probably be overflowing with gold after the sewers. Good luck with that though, having no healing. Deciding between one piece of equipment came down to price.
Rating: 5
Programming deserves some praise
Explorer - The music is good (although some songs are questionable), and the graphics well done--even if a bit repetitive. Exploration isn't really interesting. All the taverns look the same, and there's nothing to find on its own unrelated to the main quest.
Rating: 3

Final Rating: 21 [35%]
Sound and music, definitely an integral part of the game
I enjoyed this game far more than Wizardry, and not just for the reduced difficulty. Okay, maybe a little for the reduced difficulty. Not having to wipe out multiple times in hopes of getting a lucky few to level 2 was nice. I really don't think beating the NES port is anything to brag about though, and I don't know who I'd recommend this to beyond the die-hard dungeon crawler enthusiasts. It's not really one you can sit down and enjoy casually. For that we move on to our next game.
Thank you for managing to release this game
Final Fantasy II (IV) is next, and so far has proved even easier than I recall. Let's not waste any more words on the anticipation. Without further ado, let's cut close to the bone as I take a hard look at a beloved console RPG.


  1. No wonder you knew about the Bard's Tale in the CRPG Addict thread, haha.

    1. :D Only because I had just recently re-read his posts on the game. There are no monks in this version.

  2. "Unlike Wizardry, I couldn't find a way to wipe the information from past adventures."

    Bard's Tale I & II on the PC were like that. There weren't any individual save slots. You couldn't wipe information from past adventures because there was none; all the dungeons reset completely every time you set foot in them. The only things the game "saved" were the stats and inventory of your characters, and possibly the inventory of the shop (since the shop would hold on to items you sold it, and even sell them back to you).

    Bard's Tale III on the PC had one significant event that changed something in the home world of Skara Brae. IIRC if you did not have a Chronomancer after this specific event (because you foolishly deleted him or something) then you could potentially have an unwinnable game. Everything other dungeon always reset upon entering it.

    The Commedore Bard's Tale II used an armor system like early Dungeons & Dragons: starts at 10 for "unarmored"; goes to negative numbers; and the lower the better. The game would just display "L+" instead of any number below -20, though.

    In the Bard's Tale games, summoned or mind-controlled monster allies would sometimes turn on you (if, say, a party member was afflicted with insanity and hit it). There were ways to calm an enraged monster without killing it, such as the spell Cameraderie, and I believe the song Wayland's Watch has that purpose.

    1. Well I'm glad to be done with the standard Bard's Tale releases. It's just strange there isn't a way to force a wipe back to default for a game that auto-saves like this.

  3. Regarding the problems with RCA capture, are you perhaps splitting the signal with a y-adapter so you can simultaneously route the signal to your capture device and separately to your TV? If so, that may be the problem, I've encountered similar issues with RCA y-adapters. It can also cause audio problems, but of course that wouldn't affect your article here. I really don't have a suggestion on how to fix it other than perhaps removing the y-adapter and connecting to the capture device directly, then using the console's RF output for the TV. Not ideal, I'm sure.

    If you aren't splitting the signal, then it may be faulty cords, or even your device may be faulty.

    1. S-video goes into the computer while RCA is going to my TV. I'll mess around with the setup though and see if I can't get a better picture out of it. The DVD player may be doing some strange conversion to output S-video since these consoles don't do it natively.