How to explain the appeal of Virtual Hydlide? How can I possibly justify encouraging you to play a game that by any measure is utterly worthless, terrible and diabolical. Maybe I can’t persuade you to play it, maybe that’s for the best. But what I can do is explain to you why I adore this miserable piece of software so bear with me while I marshal the case for the defence. I may resort to excess verbiage and discombobulating text, but when clichÈ writes the script, subtlety exits through the French windows.
So Virtual Hydlide then. What is it? Virtual Hydlide is an action RPG that was released on the Sega Saturn back in 1995. It is part of the Hydlide series that reaches all the way back to the days of the NES. The name Hydlide refers to the place where the games are set. The games have several similar threads running through them. They contain an interesting weight limit idea on what items the main character can carry. They involve a dark demon called Varalys taking over the land. They also have a princess, who when Varalys appears, will split into three fairies. To finish the games you have to find all the fairies and collect three jewels.
Virtual Hydlide contains all these elements. You begin the game dumped in the middle of Hydlide. A marker shows you where you have to walk. You are armed with a dagger and off you trot to the graveyard to collect the first quest item and collect some useful items. As you collect the quest item, you level up and your ability to carry equipment increases. Each item has a weight and if you go over you limit you will be slowed down. You can use three strengths of attack and can find a variety of swords and clubs to attack with. There are bosses to face and treasure to unearth. You must find the three fairies and three jewels and face down Varalys at the end.
You will travel to a variety of locations. A graveyard, a Vampire’s mansion, two underground dungeons, some ruins a volcanic cave and a technological castle. There are bosses to fight and a Princess to save. All the while battling against your greatest foe.. the graphics engine. Unlike the previous games that were top down rpgs viewed in the manner of the NES and SNES Zelda series, this game takes a step into the murky world of motion captured video.
Yes, the game attempts to create a realistic world by using “photo-realistic” graphics. This what makes Virtual Hydlide so great. It’s not because this idea works, on the contrary it fails miserably. The hardware simply cannot cope with the complexity it is being asked to deal with and the frame-rate drops to around 5 frames per second in place. Excess fog fills Hydlide as scenery draws itself in the moment the hero bumps into it. Even from a distance it pixellates terrible and when the main character moves at speed the result is a disconcerting “stop-frame animation” effect. Prolonged exposure to this can induce nausea, vomiting and severe painage in the frontal lobes.
Battling is mainly a matter of bashing the attack button as quickly as you can, while enemies walk through you and you flail blindly at the wall. In a confines space walls lurch out at you and scenery moves without rhyme or reason. Enemies lurking in other rooms flicker through walls and floors. Boss battles are made difficult by the sluggishness of response from you character. Often these battles last along time simply doe to the fact you are expected to wear down the long life bars with relatively weak weaponry. You can collect items that help you out. Magical rings that regenerate you, powerful swords, fireproof shields, magic lamps, herbs to heal, scrolls to show you where treasure chests are.
Enemies are plentiful and regenerate regularly. With each enemy killed you get points and thise contributes to your high score. But you can also trade these points for items at a special crystal. You collect gold during he game, but there is nowhere to spend it. You are the only human in Hydlide, surrounded by killer trees, killer bogeys and killer wasps to name but a few enemies you will face.
The reason this makes Virtual Hydlide so great is the fact it aims so high. Someone at some point had a great idea, creating a virtual world that looked and felt realistic. Not only that but one that could reshape itself with each new game (you can generate random maps with each play, but the quest never change). This was the work of fevered genius, brought low by terrible implementation. But the greatness still stands. Perhaps you can indulge me for a minute while I justify this claim with an example taken from the world of cinema. Citizen Kane by Orsen Welles is a work of genius. A superb script, electrifying filming and great acting all combine to take a brilliant idea and turn it into a modern classic. That is at the top end.
Lets travel to the other end of the scale and look at Plan Nine from Outer Space. This is a film by Ed Wood. Again we see a wild and creative idea, but it is crushed by the weight of rotten acting, poor scripting and laughable filming. It is possibly the worst film ever made. But yet, but yet.. The fact it aims so high and fails so spectacularly makes it a film of far more interest than those that inhabit the middle ground. You’ll watch Plan Nine and Citizen Kane and both will stay with you, albeit for different reasons. The same goes for Virtual Hydlide. If we take Zelda: Ocarina of Time as the Citizen Kane of the gaming world, then Virtual Hylide must be the Plan Nine from Outer Space. But better a Plan Nine than a Braveheart, or Titanic. Those super-slick, soulless endeavours that demand little of the audience and slip from the memory as quickly as morning dew.
So Virtual Hydlide is bad. It’s very bad. But what I am trying to say is that it is one of the few games that break through the Bad barrier. It flies past the Heinous barrier and laughs in the face Dire barrier. Where does it end up? It ends up travelling back round to the Good barrier and leaping over it from the other side. Basically it’s so bad, it’s good. “No”I hear you cry, “that excuse is the last refuge of the tedious ironist, surely nothing bad can be good”
Well maybe I am a tedious ironist, but tell me. Is it wrong to find yourself drawn to a game that casts your main character as a big, fat man who upon donning the bright blue and white fairy armour looks like a brawny transvestite? Would you believe me if I said I adore the way the Bosses “talk” to you before each encounter? The way they “mwagh, furgle, muh huh huh” in a strangely distorted manner? Would you smack me round the head and call me a fool for admitting that I find wandering the lonely and harsh landscape of Hydlide a pleasurable experience, that just occasionally I almost believed I was in that fog-bound wilderness for real? I expect you would, and you’d probably confiscate my medication while you were about it.
But I would resist you. Because after so many years of cutesy anthropomorphic animal heroes and perfectly pixellated personages like Lara Croft, playing a non-descript tubby male dressed in a brown sack is a refreshing change. I can never get enough of the section where you have to ride a mine cart, you don’t have to do anything, just sit back and watch as you zoom at top speed through some caves with Mr. Fat holding on for dear life. And let me tell you, the penultimate dungeon is a trip. This is the place where the true insane genius of Virtual Hydlide spills out and makes a mess of the floor.
The previous dungeon areas are decent, if a bit generic. The ruins are good; they make use of the Spectacles of Truth (like the lens of truth in Zelda this allows you to spot doors you wouldn’t other wise see). The Volcanic cavern is OK, if a bit headache inducing and hard to navigate (you will run round in circles, oh yes). But near the end of the game you acquire something called the Tears of the Earth. Place this in a stone by the lake and up rises the Lost Castle. Entering the Castle you suddenly find yourself a million miles way from the grey and bleak landscape of Hydlide. The whole room glitters and shines with pure crystal platforms stretching far into the distance. Traversing these platforms takes you down into the Castle’s power unit. This is a stark Tron-like area of bright green strip lights maze like corridors eerily lit and moving cube puzzles to cross. In short it is such a bizarre and surreal wrench from the fantasy based dungeons that preceded it that you are left wondering why this imagination couldn’t have been bestowed on the rest of the game.
And you’ll never find out why the Lost Castle is lost. Virtual Hydlide has no text, no NPCs to converse with. No towns to kick back in, nowhere to rest without the fear of being attacked by a monster. If you skip the intro movie, which depicts Varalys taking over Hydlide castle and the Princess splitting into three fairies, you would never even know what you were fighting for. In a way this is one of Hydlides strengths, you really do feel in the beginning like a weak and scared person struggling to understand and combat forces beyond your control. Even to the end Boss fights are a matter of manic self-preservation and tactical thinking. There is no levelling up until you are so god-like you can steamroller the end Boss in two hits.
The music deserves a mention as well for being extremely atmospheric and of high quality. The music in the Volcanic caves is worthy of special praise. The sound effects less so, with just some repetitive squish noises and a few ‘arghs!’. The actual design of a lot of the enemies is fairly bland, but my personal favourite is the Treant. This is a tree that comes to life and tries to bite you. Hilarious they have a big fanged mouth that drools as it tries to assault you. But it’s still just a tree shuffling around on its roots with a mouth. Utterly bizarre.
As I said before the Hydlide series has always been seen as a third rate clone of whatever Zelda was around at the time. Although Virtual Hydlide came before Zelda: Ocarina of Time, it still feels like the mutated conjoined twin you would find growing in the stomach of the bigger and prettier Zelda game. Perhaps it’s greatest strength is the fact its short. Very short, it can be completed in around two and a half hours, if that. Any joke that goes on too long will eventually run out of steam and become painful rather than amusing. Virtual Hydlides myriad failings are tolerable simply because the game does not drag on too long. If it were as long as Zelda it would be godawful. As it is it’s like an Action rpg on speed. No secrets, no subquests, it gets you from the beginning to the end with the aid of a long white line and a cross and in the process boggles your mind at its Virtual folly.
So now the tough part, what score to give it? There can only be two possible choices. It either gets a one or it gets a ten. I’ve probably not persuaded anyone of it merits, if you have agreed with me thus far then it’s likely I am preaching to the converted. But I need to put this all in context. This game cost me one English pound. That’s one and a half dollars, one and a half euro’s. That is very little money. The original price was still on the box when I got it; it was £45. Now if I paid that for the game I would be spitting blood. As it is, for the price of a Sunday newspaper I got a game that gave me many hours of pleasurable hilarity (mostly during the wee small hours of the night) and still remains the game I have played most on my Saturn (even more than such quality games as Guardian Heroes and Virtual On, I am such a pervert!).
So shall I throw the whole concept of marking a game out of ten into disrepute by giving it a wholly undeserved (in the eyes of the masses) ten out of ten? Or shall I bow to convention and award it the one out of ten it probably truly merits?
I can’t decide. I’ll toss a coin for it. Heads it gets ten, tails it gets one. I flip the coin.
It spins high in the air and then descends and lands..
…but you know which side landed face up already don’t you?