Retroarch: Game Preservation and Trying New Things

The Magical Land of Wozz is a bizarre game. Despite its name, it has almost nothing to do with Oz and makes pretty much no references to it, even in the fan translation that most English speakers are likely to play. As I was describing the game’s plot to a friend, they pointed out that it felt like a ten year old had started describing things they wanted to see in the game.

It starts with you choosing up to three protagonists: Leona, a Japanese teen genius inventor; Shot, an American boy who is a nationally recognized archer; and Chun, a shy Chinese boy with psychic powers that he hasn’t awakened yet. These three are summoned to save Wozz from an evil force that threatens to destroy it. Along the way they’ll get the usual JRPG allies, you know: the healing alchemist, the daughter of the fairy queen, an apparently gorgeous (and useless) fortuneteller, a scaly lizard pirate… a goldfish hero and the daughter of satan. You’ll use tanks, flying ladybug mechs, and ships as transport as you rid the world of the encroaching evil.

Too wild for you? What about G.O.D.: Growth or Devolution. This JRPG, also released on the Super Nintendo, tells the story of Gen, a young boy who sets out from his home to visit his grandmother in Hokkaido. Along the way he encounters a rowdy band of boys and then is charged with taking on a talking bat who was sleeping in the cave. Then, wouldn’t you know it, aliens attack and wipe out most of civilization. Gen wakes up to discover it’s ten years later and he’s got psychic powers after touching a rock near the talking bat. He sets out, meeting up with angry American Heath, ex cult leader Mina, and rowdy girl Ai. They fight against aliens across the entire world.

The game even uses real life locations: you start in Tokyo post time jump, bum around Japan for the first couple of hours, before taking an ice burg over to Russia. There you explore the cold before hopping a train to Moscow. Almost all the locations are real life places, and it gives the game a sort of free wheeling traveling place. Honestly the game feels like a modern retro title.

I played both of these JRPGs, and a few more games, on the platform known as Retroarch, hence the whole title thing and their introduction here. Both were SNES titles that didn’t get translated to English until very recently, which meant that I had to use an emulator and ROMs in order to play them. I do own a SNES, though it’s not in my current place of living, along with several other older gaming systems (I’ve been playing games for a while now).

Just before playing these two games, I had been replaying Super Mario RPG, another classic game that’s stuck on an older system (prior to that, I was playing games on the Switch’s SNES console, I may produce some reviews on those; ironically thanks to retro games, I now have more games beaten than I have reviews for), and wishing that there was some kind of system that would just combine various old game players and/or make it easier for someone to play a variety of old games.

It doesn’t take long to find Retroarch: it’s available readily on Steam and comes predownloaded with most of what you’d need to play just about any older game you’d want. There’s also an easy to use interface that will let you download the right emulators to play systems it doesn’t have: I had to get one to play Sega Saturn games (Albert Odyssey, a below average JRPG I wanted to play because it was translated by Working Designs).

But the system is incredibly easy to use. You pull it up on Steam, and it gives you far, far too many options. Someone with a lot of knowledge can probably tweak it to play just about any game you’d want. Someone with a base line of knowledge can probably figure out how to get a game running pretty quick: drop the Rom in the Downloads File or somewhere else you can find it, tell the game to play content and select that ROM, then match it to the appropriate emulator.

There’s ways of tweaking controller setup too: I have mine set to easily record save states (moments in the game you can reload at any time), and to do some fast-forwarding on command. I cannot say enough how much I love fast-forward systems in older JRPGs. If it’s one area those games consistently fall behind, it’s the speed of combat. Given how repetitive combat gets, it gets tedious to continually see the same motions played out in slow time, hence why I love retro gaming with the ability to skim past that stuff (and even most remakes or remasters have the ability).

Retroarch basically allows you to play games from the past that you wouldn’t be able to play any more. It’s an easy to understand system that’s freely available on Steam, and I am absolutely in love with it. I’ve pointed out before that there’s a real lack of attention to games preservation in this industry. It’s gotten a lot better in the last few years or so, between the weird re-releases by Bleem! and the decision by some bigger companies to start regularly remaking and remastering older games.

However, Bleem! can really only get games where the license is more or less expired and available, or at least cheap, and most of the remakes and remasters are games that had some large impact or are from mega sized studies. Final Fantasy might get a pixel remaster, Earthbound may get a new remake, but we’re not going to see that for games like The Magical World of Wozz and G.O.D.

Which is part of where systems like Retroarch come into play. they allow someone to play these games that they might not have had access to for whatever reason (releases, console issues, etc.), and they allow you to do so pretty easily. I’ve also been using them for games I do own where I want the ease and benefits of the emulator over having to dig out my old console (I’m currently playing the Lunar series, which I’m probably going to write up again).

The way consoles and systems work, this is just how things are going to have to be done. Ironically you can get Retroarch to work on a Nintendo Switch; I just haven’t yet because it requires you to put the system onto a SD card, and I don’t have easy access to one of those readers (I’m also slightly worried about warranties, but my Switch is starting to get up there in age for a modern console). Until the system finds an easier way of preserving games and such, we need systems like this.

I heartily recommend Retroarch for those that are interested in retro-gaming or emulation. It’s probably not as flexible as some other systems, and it does require some tweaking in order to get working perfectly (getting the Saturn game to work was a pain), but it’s worth it in the grand scheme of things.

What about the two games I opened this with? They’re both obscure JRPGs that languished in the East until someone decided to port them over.

Magical Land of Wozz is… bad. It’s got some interesting ideas and a lot of actual character. The characters behave in ways that make sense for real life people ported to unusual circumstances, and I absolutely love the craziness of the roster and the weird lengths the story goes to be fun and engaging. However, for some reason they lock you into having the three travelers from Earth in your party at all times, with a fourth slot filled by a guest character, who you can rotate at times.

This would be alright, if two of the three Earthlings weren’t legitimately the worst characters in the game. Leona may actually be one of the worst characters in any JRPG, period. Her big thing is that she learns various inventions as she levels up, which allows you to make equipment. this includes all the fun modes of transport: the tanks and flying bug mechs and stuff. It also includes robots, which, for some reason only Chun can summon into battle. These robots take the front line, pushing everyone back, and they each have their own gimmick, making them incredibly useful in battle.

But for some reason, the game has decided only Chun can summon them. Chun literally gets all the abilities in the game, or near enough to them. Various fairies and magicians will teach him spells, and those spells level up throughout the game (in a truly ingenious way, actually). This system is actually really good: you gain certain abilities through searching them out, but level up others by growing naturally through battle. But they also gave him the ability to summon the robots, use telekinesis whenever he wants, and basically do whatever.

Leona can attack or scan enemies.

Shot can attack or use one of two skills: attack harder or attack twice.

That’s it.

This is horrible game balance, and someone should have noticed it. Nearly every guest character outshines Leona in combat, and most of them start outpacing Shot too. Why do this? Why torture your players? And after a point, the game becomes stupidly easy: you can hold up to 999 (that’s not a typo; that’s nine hundred and ninety nine) healing items. The item that recovers MP is fairly low cost, and the game flings money at you. This is the worst battle system and setup I’ve ever seen in a JRPG, and it made the game a slog.

Don’t play the Magical Land/World of Wozz unless you’re just desperate to play obscure JRPGs.

Do play G.O.D: Growth or Devolution.

It’s easy to see why that game never made it over here. It gets adult in some very serious ways: characters die, permanently, and there’s all kinds of horrors strewn throughout. Aliens experiment on people, fusing them to walls and forcing them to birth other aliens. There’s a heavy implication here that the various gods and beings we’ve worshiped are all actually aliens. They do some cool stuff with that, but it can also get downright blasphemous at times, which can be uncomfortable if you’re a believer in those religions.

However, the game is just incredibly well done. Unlike the other game I just mentioned, the battle system in G.O.D is very well polished. It’s standard, in that your characters line up at the bottom of the screen to face the enemy above, but it’s got some fun twists. Every character, even Heath the American, gains various psycho abilities that function like magic. They’re tied to the type of character they are, and those usually fill in stereotypical JRPG roles: hero, bruiser, healer, thief, blackmage. It’s got some slight unique twists, but nothing to major.

What gets major is a system that starts unlocking a few hours in. You unlock chakras, and are free to choose which ones develop through combat. These unlock various abilities that anyone can learn, and most of them kinda suck. But this lets you tweak the preexisting character template to learn some new stuff and branch out. Plus later on, they let you combine the chakras for two slates of abilities, and the combinations produce unique power ups. This lets you really amplify abilities and create truly impressive characters.

Between that and the mature story, G.O.D. feels less like a forgotten SNES relic, and more like a game made with today’s sensibilities that’s been sneaking around the edges. It is very much worth playing if you’re interested in JRPGs, particularly the retro ones.

And I wouldn’t have had access to either without a system like Retroarch, which proves the overarching point of this whole entry. It’s worth looking into ,and it’s a great way of playing retro games, particularly if you’re into those more hidden gems or want to preserve your old collection.

8 for the system: it could be a little smoother and there are some unintuitive things to it (I got stuck canceling out my hotkeys for a good ten minutes before I randomly clicked the right button to restore them).

4 for the Magical Land of Wozz; a game that’s got some fun twists and very interesting characters, neither of which can hide an incredibly unbalanced and almost unplayable combat system

9 for G.O.D: Growth or Devolution, a true hidden gem with some truly amazing things that just suffers a little for some of what it does with its characters

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