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4/28/2016

Hoshi wo Miru Hito in a Nutshell

By request, I nutshell a truly awful game!

I've called a lot of games "bad" or "godawful" or "absolutely irredeemable horseshit" in these articles, each with varying degrees of facetiousness and exaggeration involved, but Hoshi wo Miru Hito is... a bit different.  Not only is it objectively terrible from a design viewpoint, but it is a very strong candidate for the worst JRPG ever to be given a commercial release!  We'll get into exactly why as we go, but suffice to say it's a complete failure of game design to the point where even people who have played the worst the NES and Famicom have to offer continue to wonder how anyone at Nintendo ever looked at it and said "Yeah, that's good enough.  Order 50,000 copies.  And don't forget to stamp the Seal of Quality on every single one!"

On paper at least, Hoshi wo Miru Hito (which roughly translates to "Those Who Look at the Stars" or "Stargazers") has a promising concept, following the exploits of four young psychics on a planet under the dominion of a mind-controlling supercomputer.  I use the phrase "on paper" here because while that's what the manual tells us the story is, that's not the plot we get in the game itself.  Not even close, in fact!

Spoony: I've ragged on games before for relegating most of their story to a lazy-assed plot codex, but in those at least the story between the codex and the game itself remained consistent.  Having completely different stories between the manual and the actual game, on the other hand, is downright baffling.  Well, unless you were a troll who happened to get a gig doing advertising for Konami in the 1980s.

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In any case, our adventure opens completely cold with absolutely no introductory text, character establishment or world-building of any kind.  We start with our hero on an empty overworld and... good lord, these graphics.

Even for 1987, this is ugly as sin!

It's appropriate to say that the visual style of the game is not appealing in the slightest.  Tile-based graphics were the standard at the time, but most games at least attempted to obscure that limitation through clever art design.  Hoshi wo Miru Hito's developers clearly made no such effort; its visuals look rigidly grid-based and the tiles used throughout are far too busy, giving the entire game a cluttered, messy appearance that becomes physically uncomfortable to look at after only a short time.

For comparison, here's the first thing you see upon starting another game which came out in the same year on the same platform, Final Fantasy:

Not as elaborate, but much more appealing to the eye!

Anyway, we start off on some nondescript forest peninsula with absolutely no instructions, equipment or money to our name.  So where do we go?  Why, we take one step to our left and end up in the first town, of course.  It's just invisible on the map because, um... it's a town of psychics and they're using their powers to hide from the monsters outside?  ...Yeah, that's the ticket!  See, it's not bad design at all!

Spoony: This idea would be fine if it were done a bit later in the game and given some setup beforehand.  Zelda II actually features a very similar puzzle, with the town of New Kasuto being hidden from view until you find a specific item and follow a couple of clues to discover its location.  But making the first town in the game invisible?  That is exquisitely bad planning!

Once you figure that out, your first instinct as an RPG player would probably be to acquire gold so you can buy some stronger equipment and power up a little so you can venture a bit further out from town without instantly getting slaughtered by stronger mobs.  That's still true here, but it's made difficult to the point of asininity by two more bad design decisions.  First, the enemies on the overworld map have no territorial division based on their power level; in fact, this area has a roughly equal chance of setting you against weak enemies you can handle with ease, or ones that are far above your level and can slaughter you in two hits.  Further making things unfair is a specific enemy type which has a skill that paralyzes a party member with a 100% success rate.  You cannot do anything while paralyzed, it does not expire over time, there is no readily-available cure for it, and the game doesn't even have the courtesy to immediately give you a Game Over if all of your characters are incapacitated, so when it happens you have two choices: sit there and let the enemy beat you to death, or just hit the reset button.  And I remind you, we have not yet even reached the second town!

Spoony: There's a distinct difference between "hardcore" and "terribly designed".  Games like Nethack and Bard's Tale and even Wizardry IV are designed to be extremely complex and monstrously difficult, but even they know better than to throw everything terrible at you right out of the gate, giving you a short grace period at the start to adapt to the game's mechanics and gradually easing you into the overall difficulty as the adventure progresses.  Not Hoshi, though - here it's sink or swim from square one!

Also not helping matters is another dumb design decision: The first weapon you find in the shops is actually weaker than your bare hands, which already do minimal damage.  If you make the mistake of buying it, you're basically screwed since you'll be lucky to even do 1 point of damage with it equipped.  And no, leveling up does not seem to boost your attack power at all; even at maximum level, you'll still do 1-3 points of damage with your fists.

Spoony: Oh, and once you buy equipment, you're not given any option to sell your old stuff and recoup some of the cost; your old stuff just gets tossed into oblivion and never seen again.  Come on guys, even Ultima 1 let you resell equipment, and that game came out seven years before this one did!

Grinding for cash and experience is already enough of a problem with the aforementioned enemy encounters, but there are two more factors that make it just about unbearable.  For one, your character's walk speed is obnoxiously slow - it literally takes almost a full second to move two tiles on the map, which is pretty atrocious even by the standards of the time period.  Second, the game's combat screen suffers from some truly boneheaded design decisions; the first option at the top is ESP (spells, essentially), which are limited in use and which you do not have any of in reserve at the start of the game.  The cursor defaults to this option every time it comes up, and should you click it by accident and not have an ESP ability to cast, you cannot back out of the menu - you have no choice but to pick an empty slot and waste a turn.  Oh, and there's no option to simply run from fights, either, which means that if you get in over your head at any point (even by random chance), it's game over.

Spoony: There is an ESP power earned at a higher level that allows you to escape from fights, but good luck surviving long enough to learn it!

Further complicating matters is the in-battle HP counter.  How do you mess up an HP counter, of all things?  Oh, they found a way.  Specifically the fact that it truncates the last digit, which makes keeping track of your current HP level more difficult than it should be.  Not to mention that until you figure this out, it leads to confusing moments like having 5 HP, taking 15 damage, and being left with 3.  Or having 0 HP and still being alive, then taking another hit and being dead.

Enemies also have a lovely habit of fleeing from battle when their HP gets even remotely low, robbing you of any experience or gold they would have dropped and dragging the process out even longer.  It's like the developers are actively trying to aggravate you into giving up!

Spoony: Again, a pretty common tactic among game developers at the time was to make the last few stages of the game absurdly hard and unforgiving so that you'd have to spend a very long time practicing and replaying the whole thing in order to eventually persevere and make it though; technology at the time didn't allow for 30+ hour games, so that was their solution to keep players engaged for longer periods.  The difference is that they usually waited until close to the end to push the difficulty to the extreme; that way, people wouldn't rent the game or play at a friend's house for an hour or two and get scared off from wanting to buy it.  But I suppose that's a non-factor in this case, since renting games has been illegal in Japan since 1984...

Anyhow, if you manage to persist long enough to level up once - no small feat, I assure you - you will find that the leveling system, like most things in this game, is poorly thought out.  Going up one level literally triples your maximum HP from 50 to 150.  Going up a second level pushes it up to 310.  It's all a bit moot, however, as you can still easily be punked out by any given enemy who decides to use a paralysis skill.  Not to mention that late-game enemies can easily take you out in 1-3 hits even when your level is maxed out and you have full HP!

Spoony: Apparently HOT-B's idea of "game balance" is making the cartridge stand on end on a table.

Street Fighter 2 is a well balanced game

Well, there's really nothing we can do in first town as of yet, so we have no choice but to press on.  So, where do we go next?  Well, there is a (surprisingly visible) town to the north of our starting point, so we might as well try there.  Assuming our luck holds out and we can reach it without being beaten to a pulp by any passing monster, of course.  So let's investigate that town and see if we can maybe find some clues.

Nope.  we didn't find much here either.  But check this out: Exiting the town puts us outside of the starting town again.  In fact, exiting any town or dungeon anywhere on the overworld puts us back at the same starting point.  Quality!

Spoony: This is "baby's first RPG Maker project" levels of amateur, and yet it's in a game that was approved for release by a major company and published on a cartridge for a real game console.  Simply amazing.

Oh, and for a couple more bits of fun, get this: The game is heavily reliant on buying or acquiring keycards to gain access to dungeons.  Said keycards are one-use items.  Doors also return once you leave a screen, so if you don't have enough cards (and types of cards) to make it through a dungeon, you're stuck with no chance of escape.  That's bad.

The game is also heavily reliant on finding hidden items.  However, you're often given no clues as to where to locate these, and the game doesn't even bother to acknowledge them with a text box or any other kind of obvious cue; your only hint is a brief sound effect playing when you walk over a specific point on the map and automatically collect them.  Considering that the game's music is so grating and tinny that it makes you want to mute your TV immediately, that's also bad!

Now, the problems up to this point, awful as they are, haven't been total deal breakers.  Annoying, stupid and indicative of bad design even for the era, yes, but one could still theoretically adapt to them and persist through the game.  But I now present you with Hoshi wo Miru Hito's most grievous, fatal flaw that single-handedly made its awfulness the stuff of legends: its save system.

First of all, it uses a password save rather than a battery backup.  This was a standard feature in games of the time, but there was a reason RPGs tended to avoid it - there are a lot of variables that need to be saved in role-playing games, which typically resulted in very long and complex passwords (see the Japanese versions of the first two Dragon Quest games).  Still, even the most cumbersome password systems at least allowed you to pick up your game from where you left off so that you didn't have to start from zero each time.  Can you guess where I'm going with this?

That's right, Hoshi's password system, unlike every other one of its kind, does not save your progress; no matter your location at the time of your save or how much experience you gained, it puts you right back at the starting point of the game at level 0.  If you want to complete the game, you have to do it all in one sitting, all while hoping your party never gets stunlocked into oblivion, inescapably trapped in a dungeon, or meets a group of enemies that can wipe them out on the spot while they have no means of escape.  This all but guarantees that you will never see the end of the game without copious amounts of cheating.

Spoony: And that's why this game is so despised.  Most games - even really bad ones - can be completed with a degree of persistence and player strategy.  But this design flaw ensures that in order to have any hope of getting far, let alone seeing the end, everything has to fall perfectly in your favor from the first second until the closing scene. Completing Hoshi wo Miru Hito is literally 100% reliant on luck.  I'd honestly be amazed if anyone has ever finished it legitimately.

It certainly wouldn't be worth the effort, though, as your reward for this Sisyphean slog is to meet the true movers behind the game's events - a race of hyperintelligent space dolphins - and get one of three endings depending upon the choice you make in the final dialog.  Yes, the psychic supercomputer mentioned in the manual is a completely nonexistant entity in the actual game; it was space dolphins all along.

Spoony: Not that it matters too much because by this point you've most likely stopped caring about the "plot" and just want the torment to end already.

Anyway, the choice: one can either cooperate with the dolphins to restore their world to prosperity, turn them down and go back to living a meaningless life in a monster-infested hellhole, or try to fight them and be instantly destroyed along with the rest of the human race.  Interestingly, there is also unused text in the game for a fourth ending where the humans overthrow the dolphins and utilize their spaceship to search for a new world.  This suggests that the developers were too lazy to even code a final boss battle, but given the overall quality of the rest of this wreck, is anyone even surprised?

Oh, and there are no end credits either.  At least the devs were smart enough to know that none of them wanted this junker on their resume!

Spoony: That's Hoshi wo Miru Hito, and honestly, it is every bit as bad as the Internet would have you believe.  Bad design on every front, broken mechanics across the board, a threadbare plot that only shows up in the final minutes of the game, and it's not even enjoyable on any aesthetic level - the visuals are hideous, the sound effects are minimal and the music is comprised of little more than shrill five-second loops throughout.  There is simply nothing to enjoy about it, save perhaps for a bit of ironic amusement at its sheer ineptitude.

Hoshi wo Miru Hito's flaws may have been a bit more excusable had it come out years earlier during a time when the genre was still in infancy and many of its games were of rather low quality, but it didn't.  Instead, it came out a full year after the original Dragon Quest and the same year as both Phantasy Star and Final Fantasy, games which are all regarded as genre-defining classics.  Rather than making any attempt to emulate the quality of their design, though, they pasted together a sloppy imitation of DQ's aesthetics and called it a day, hoping that it would sell copies on that alone.

However, despite its well-deserved reputation as a "legendary shit game", Hoshi wo Miru Hito is also a small cult classic that has inspired numerous fan patches (which, among other things, add functional saves, improve the graphics and double the walking speed) and even a full fan remake on the PC.  I'm not sure how a game this bad inspires such labors of love, but I guess some people really can find merit in almost anything.

A before-and-after comparison of the graphical patch.  That level of effort is far more than this game deserves!

I feel that I should also mention I've gotten messages from people about how "this game is easy if you just use savestates".  Well, yes; being able to rewind your session to an earlier state until things go in your favor makes any game easier, but I feel that that's not exactly in keeping with the spirit of being a gamer.  To me, being a gamer means mastering games the way they were intended to be played - the way they're given to you by the developers.  Sure, one can breeze through Ghosts n' Goblins or Ninja Gaiden or Battletoads in an hour or two using by Game Genie codes and saving constantly, but that really doesn't give you a sense of accomplishment or allow you to build any genuine skill.  If I want to beat a game, I'll put in the investment and do it legit.  In Hoshi wo Miru Hito's case, though, it's not even so much a matter of whether one can beat the game with or without external help, but whether they should even bother.  And given the complete lack of effort employed in its creation, I say that the worst thing one can do is reward the developers by putting more care and effort into their game than they ever did.

(But hey, if you want to show me up on that, feel free to have a shot at the Hoshi wo Miru Hito Challenge!)

So what happened to HOT-B after this game's release?  They actually stayed in business for several more years, mostly developing fishing games (the Black Bass/Blue Marlin series) before declaring bankruptcy in 1993.  Not long thereafter, several of its staff formed a new company called "Starfish, Inc." and acquired the rights to HOT-B's older games, as well as creating some new franchises of their own (a dungeon crawler series called Elminage probably being their best known work).  Interestingly, the US branch of HOT-B continued to exist long after the Japanese one had gone bankrupt, publishing several of Starfish's Black Bass games throughout the 90s.  Their last known release was Graffiti Kingdom for the Playstation 2, a Taito game which has picked up a cult following for the elaborate fan creations its character editor allows.  The company was apparently active as late as 2010 (despite not releasing anything since 2005), but as of 2016 seems to have gone defunct.

And that's all there is to say about that.  If the fan remake ever gets translated I'll probably give it a shot, but until then I think I've had quite enough of Hoshi wo Miru Hito for one lifetime.