Spotlight: Taro's Quest
Most hardcore gamers know the story of the console RPG boom of the late 1980s. After the runaway success of Dragon Quest in Japan in 1986, developers big and small scrambled to emulate its gameplay. Literally dozens of clones of the game hit Japanese shelves over the course of the next few years.
After Dragon Quest received a lukewarm reception in America when it was released as Dragon Warrior three years later, Western RPG fans weren't so lucky. A significant number of the console RPGs planned for American release through the mid 1990s never made it out the door. Taro's Quest, Jaleco's localization of their own zany Jajamaru Ninpou Chou, provides a look at one of those ill-fated projects.
-By Jonathan Wirth
Jajamaru Ninpou Chou is a relatively standard RPG that follows all the usual conventions. The game is another entry in Jaleco's long running Jajamaru series, and the atmosphere of the series translates well to RPG form. Fans of the series are sure to recognize plenty of elements from past games. Gameplay can sometimes get repetitive, but that is a trait of most Dragon Quest clones of that time. All in all, it is an enjoyable - if sometimes predictable - RPG.
It is interesting to note that the entire Jajamaru series was eventually going to be marketed to American consumers. The only console game in the series to make it out the door on Western shores was Oira Jajamaru: Sekai Densetsu, published by American Sammy under the title Ninja Taro. In addition to this game and Jaleco's two cancelled Jajamaru releases, American Sammy had also originally planned on publishing Ninja Kun: Ashura no Shou under the title Ninja Taro. With the exception of the also unreleased Squashed, all of the installments in the series appear to have been planned with continuity in mind. The two companies obviously must have been working together on establishing the franchise in a new market.
The gameplay and storyline are suprisingly unchanged considering the massive conversion the team was apparently in the process of completing. Although some enemy data was altered, the difficulty level is roughly the same. A few cultural changes were made. American players could better relate to friendly carrier dogs guiding them on a journey and the eggplant they detested as children than the mythical anthropomorphic monkeys of Eastern mythology and red mushrooms. The game also would have featured battery backup as opposed to the password system of the Japanese version.
Of special note is the state of completion of the particular copy of Taro's Quest that we were able to review. It is obviously from a stage in development before much thought had been put into meeting Nintendo's standards policies, as evidenced by the number of religious references remaining in the game. Dark Priests and Hell Scorpions wander the untamed wilderness of ancient Japan. Princess Sakura's "Pray" command is still fully intact. New magic spells are awarded by Buddha himself, completely redrawn along with most of the other graphics in the game.
It appears the developers were not done tinkering with what enemies would appear where. As a result, the enemies in some areas can be extremely repetitive and there are even a few that can't be fought through normal gameplay at all. And while it's anyone's guess how much of it eventually would have been rewritten, the script also contains its fair share of amusing Engrish dialogue. "You already don't have something to do here", the game casually informs the player who wanders back into a boss battle they have already won.
Those who carefully compare Taro's Quest to the original Japanese version will notice the absence of Jajamaru's portrait while using the orbs in battle and that the carrier dogs do not have a traveling animation like the monkeys in Jajamaru Ninpou Chou. These were not cut to save space or due to laziness; graphics for each are present in the game's data and just had not been implemented yet.
This in-development version of the game is also fairly difficult to finish without cheating. The talisman used to weaken the final boss of the second quest cannot be acquired through normal gameplay. The third quest was also completely omitted from Taro's Quest. Sort of. After the second quest the player is taken to the final island dungeon that takes place after the third quest in Jajamaru Ninpou Chou.
However, it is clear that the third quest was in the process of being localized as well. Quite a few unused enemy graphics that seem to correspond to the third quest can be found within the game's data. Players who take it upon themselves to hack into the third quest map will find the land quite inhospitable. Seeking information from townspeople will get you plenty of regurgitated text from the first two quests. Talk to the wrong person or enter the wrong building and the game may decide to boot you to a random event, reset itself, or just plain crash. To say development of the third quest still needed some work at this point would be an understatement. In fact, it's entirely possible that it was scrapped to meet a deadline.
Whether development of Taro's Quest ever progressed much further than this prototype is currently unknown. The only other known copy of the game is supposedly far less complete than this one, the only available information being that it appears to simply be the Japanese version with a new title screen.
Was Taro's Quest another casualty of the failed Western RPG market of the early 1990s? If the game had made it to Western shores, would the final version have been cut down to only two quests? For now these questions will have to go unanswered. Until then, enjoy experiencing the most complete version of the game known to date.
Special thanks to Brent Adams for his contributions to this article.