Sweeping open vistas, lush forests, beautiful landscapes, powerful beasts… But enough about the outstanding Horizon: Zero Dawn, let’s talk about a terrible video game…
Hydlide is an RPG released on home computers in 1984 and later on the NES in 1989. That means this game was originally released after Ultima and Wizardry set the definitive standard for what RPG video games could be; so it was dated before it even began. By 1989, Dragon Quests I-III, Final Fantasy and the Adventures of Link had already made JRPG waves on the NES, but here comes Hydlide, a terrible game ported to the NES more than five years after its initial release, late for the show in the worlds of both early home computer and console gaming. Did it feel dated? Yes. Did it feel like a bad port? Definitely. Did it ever really stand a chance? Well, before I rip this game to shreds it is important to remember that this is a port of an older PC title that is highly-regarded in Japan for being one of the foundational action/RPG’s that defined and shaped the genre, influencing classic titles such as The Legend of Zelda and Crystalis. However, it is Hydlide’s legacy on the NES that has made it notorious to most gamers from my generation, and it is a bad legacy indeed.
Hydlide has a story. It isn’t a good story, mind you, but it lets the game get by with checking the box there. The blue-armored Jim (yes, “Jim!”) is a blank-slate of a hero tasked with rescuing Princess Ann from the the evil Varalys who divides her into three faeries, hiding them throughout the land. You must rescue each faery and then face Varalys to save Ann and the kingdom. Does that sound like just about every fantasy story on the NES? Well, it is. It’s Final Fantasy meets the “save the princess” trope and it is all done very, very poorly. What little story there is is vaguely laid out in a brief animation at the title screen. After that little bit of information, you are dropped in. Prepare for the intense, fast-paced gameplay!
Step one is the grind. It’s always the grind. It is the slow, momentum-killing mudslide that pushes the player back two steps for every one they take forward. It is a curse among games even to this day and I say this as someone who does not necessarily hate grinding if it involves gameplay that is actually fun and a offers challenge that is rewarding. The problem here is that Hydlide offers neither of these things. Instead of just having an endless horde of enemies to hack away at with your sword, you… run into them. Yep! Hydlide is a numbers game. You move forward holding either attack or defend to deal and absorb damage while moving at enemies, you take damage and so does the enemy you’re facing. If your stats beat the monster, you win and are rewarded with a painfully-small amount of XP. It does not work very well. You have to grind a lot too, so be prepared to get really good at the combat because it is not like you have much of a choice, and this comes down to the crux of why I think Hydlide is such a terrible game. Sure, it’s easy to blame it all on the bad mechanics but I think it is a combination of that and the lack of any real feeling of control over how your character develops or plays. There are spells in the game but they are essentially-useless with a majority of enemies being immune to their damage. So, you just run into things, get experience points, sit in grass and wait for your HP to replenish, die anyway, repeat a few hundred times, die inside, then finally ask yourself, “Was it worth it?”
Making your way through the world of Hydlide is a joyless experience. The game is mercifully-short, but is so redundant that it certainly doesn’t feel that way. It is a mindless slog requiring no strategy, skill or thought of any kind to play. You just run into things until you level up, then you keep running into things. The ability to hold up your shield is mostly-pointless as you take less damage but also deal less damage, which makes fights last longer, which means you take more damage over time, so most of the time the need to defend is entirely negated. Most tougher fights involve poking at the enemy a few times, then seeking refuge nearby, standing still to recover health, then going back to the stab-fest.
If what I have described above sounds like fun, you’ll be pleased to know that an original copy of this game is more-or-less worthless. You can find a Hydlide cart online for less than what the shipping and handling would be in most cases. It’s also a common title to show up in scraps, which are the ultra-common, low-value games that are left behind after a stack of quality NES games are picked through. In this respect it earns its place alongside the Anticipations and Silent Services of this world as the recurring villains reminding you that you are late to the flea market table. If you are looking for a complete NES library you need it, but if that is not a personal goal and you just want to play and enjoy retro games for fun, skip Hydlide on the NES. Despite being a trendsetter in the genre, it is not a good game, lacks any semblance of fun, and does not hold up today like some of its contemporaries do. There are a stack of classic action/RPG’s from the era to choose from from that are just great, leaving no reason outside of morbid curiosity or pure obsession to play this game.