Remembering the Super NES's first RPG

So close, chronologically speaking, to Final Fantasy II... yet so far away.

When we look back at the Super NES, a great many of the games that defined the platform for the long term fell into the RPG category. From action-RPGs (Secret of Mana and SoulBlazer) to more traditional takes on the genre (Final Fantasy V and Lufia: The Fortress of Doom), the Super NES seemed to excel best at games with lots of text and lots of stats. The system's sluggish hardware undoubtedly helped nudge its evolution in that direction; as we've seen already in Super NES Works, intense action had a tendency to trip up the machine. But slow-paced, methodical games that allowed players to soak in the atmosphere and music? Perfect.

In that light, it's a little strange to look back at the very first RPG to arrive on Super NES and realize that it has almost nothing whatsoever in common with the role-playing adventures we normally associate with the console. Drakkhen doesn't really feel like any other console RPG I've ever played… possibly because it didn't begin life on consoles.

Drakkhen came to Super NES by way of the Amiga, and it demonstrates a lot of computer RPG trademarks: An open world, roll-your-own characters, and a story doled out through cryptic dialogue and puzzle-like plot advancement. You can even save anywhere outside of dungeons, which was fairly unheard of on consoles. Unfortunately, on Super NES it lacks a proper PC-like interface, so it's super clumsy to play. On the plus side, Kemco's programmers did give it a sweet new soundtrack, so that's something.

Perhaps the strangest thing about Drakkhen is that it features flat, free-scrolling 3D graphics in the overworld, but so far as I can tell those visuals don't use hardware Mode 7 (seen already in F-Zero and Pilotwings). Rather, the overworld appears to be rendered in polygons. Not unlike Falcom's Brandish (another PC-to-Super NES RPG conversion), Drakkhen is one of those games whose visual gimmick would theoretically make it a natural fit for the Super NES hardware's unique built-in scaling and rotation tech… but then it doesn't actually make use of that tech. In practice, I don't think Mode 7 could handle worlds as large as Drakkhen's. But it's weird, right? So counterintuitive.

Much like the rest of Drakkhen. This game doesn't really work, but I also can't quite bring myself to condemn it. It has its own strange logic, along with an air of mystery that makes it quite fascinating. It's a weird outlier in the system's history, and that makes it worth remembering. That, and the giant laser dogs that annihilate every first-time player. It's a weird game, man.