Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 41st
Genre: Less Bad RPG
The original pen and paper role playing games offered a lot more options than the early video game RPGs they inspired. You were really only limited by your imagination and what your dungeonmaster would allow (and this was a time when the term “dungeonmaster” meant something entirely different from what it does now – thanks, internet). So if you were, for example, ambushed by a group of skeletons, you might fight them, or distract them, or hide from them, or maybe even try to bribe them with some nice bone whitener or something. Depending on the circumstances, you might be able to use the environment to your advantage, or some kind of battlefield maneuver, like attempting to outflank them. Hell, you could even try to reason with the skeletons, although I think their lack of brains may make that harder. Most of the time your DM would tell you to stop dicking around and roll your damn hit dice already, but some situations offered alternatives to straight-up combat, especially if you were creative enough.
In a typical video game, this limitless array of options was represented by giving you the following choice:
And that was it. You’d pick your choice off of that menu (and 90% of the time, you’d just pick “fight” because it was the default option and the enemies you were up against were too weak to really spent much time thinking about), and sit back and watch your guys execute your “brilliant” strategy. It sort of felt like an unfinished game, as though the battle part was just a placeholder to make sure the programming worked, which they would eventually replace with a game where your actually controlled the characters, made them run up the enemies, and pressed different buttons to fight or cast spells. The problem was that it took 15 years and 100s of games before developers really started getting away from turn-based, menu-driven combat.
Not that some games didn’t try to shake things up well before then. In fact, there’s a ton of them on the Genesis. Games like Shining Force, which blended the RPG with elements of turn based strategy games, or like Landstalker, that incorporated RPG qualities into an action game. Both are great games in their own right, but in making these changes, they changed the dynamics so much that it didn’t really feel like an RPG anymore. Which was fine, but the one thing many of us really wanted was a completely normal RPG, except with the “pick fight off a menu” combat replaced with a little beat ‘em up mini-game. Something along the lines of Final Fantasy that occasionally turns into Golden Axe. Or, you know, one of the Star Ocean games.
Sword of Vermilion is that game, and in that regard, it’s almost unique. For reasons I don’t fully understand, very few RPGs decided to follow in its example, and it was a long time before any of the ones that did were any good. Sword of Vermilion’s combat isn’t going to be mistaken for Street Fighter, or even Streets of Rage, anytime soon, but it is brisk and enjoyable in it’s own weird way. Most importantly, it doesn’t make you want to throw your controller at the TV every time a battle pops up (*cough* Final Fantasy *cough*). You can wander around getting into battles to level up and it’s actually fun. That’s a pretty sad commentary on the genre that being fun is something we consider noteworthy, but there it is.
In a more perfect world, Sword of Vermilion would have been a blip on the radar. RPGs would have taken its action-oriented combat and improved on it, perhaps eventually culminating in a Final Fantasy VII that was as praised for its battles as it was its storytelling and cutscenes. SoV would have never made our Top 50, getting eliminated early on for being primitive (which it is), linear (ditto), and for having a story that seems to have been written by a fourth grader (and not a particularly gifted one). Its rudimentary combat would having seemed laughably simplistic compared to the RPGs that followed it instead of the other way around.
But we don’t live in that perfect world. RPGs continued in the proud tradition of not having gameplay for several more years, and Sword of Vermilion remained an oddity instead of the norm. But at least it’s a fun little oddity.