The Secret Origin of the Action RPG
Ys. Secret of Mana. The Legend of Zelda. All games that are part of (or hew closely to) the venerable action RPG genre – a genre so intertwined with the history of video games themselves that it’s no surprise that it’s one of the most exhaustively documented. Who would’ve thought, then, that the knowledge of the true progenitor of this genre would lie forgotten in a stuffy basement in Akihabara, Tokyo?
I was really only at Beep in search of some books. When people talk about the retro game stores of Akihabara, they might mention the many console game stores that line the main street, and they may name-drop Super Potato, but… those in the know go to Beep. Hidden in a basement down a secluded set of single-file stairs, Beep is the most esteemed (and sadly, nearly the only) Tokyo shop that deals in Japanese vintage PCs and their games – an oasis of heritage that’s left the public consciousness; a last bastion of a culture that once reigned. Second-hand hardware, DIY mod kits, pristine games in oversized cases, the most eclectic reading material… It’s all there, proudly on display in a Garden of Eden of technology. I was there because I’d reached the limit of what English sources can teach me about Japanese vintage PCs (e.g. the PC-88, PC-98, MSX, X68000, FM Towns… home-grown Japanese machines and games unknown in the West due to the language barrier). I asked the man putting price tags on a stack of floppies if he knew of any books that could give me an overview of old beloved, popular, or influential PC games. He replied that he wasn’t too familiar, but that in about half an hour, a “real PC-88 pro” would be back from his break, and that I should ask him. I took his advice and ogled the selection for a while. When the pro returned, it turned out that he wasn’t just a pro – but a walking encyclopedia, and the keeper of some truly arcane knowledge.
Here, some background becomes necessary. It’s generally accepted that although under-researched in the West, the Japanese PC scene had immense influence on the evolution of video games at large. As for action RPGs, the first example is typically considered to be Dragon Slayer, the influence of which was codified in Western historical canon by ground-breaking journalists like John Szczepaniak and Jeremy Parish. It’s even chronicled as such in the Guinness Book of World Records!
Released in September 1984 for the PC-8801, Dragon Slayer is fascinating: taking place in a Sokoban-style block-pushing maze, it tasks you with gathering treasure, slicing up monsters, and lugging a mobile home around. Yes, you have to bring your spoils back to your house, which… you can push around! Despite some peculiar elements, it’s undoubtedly an action RPG: you have experience points, stats to level up, and crucially it’s all in real time. Most may know it for being the first game in the series that later turned into The Legend of Heroes and the popular Trails games. Beyond being the first action RPG, it is also considered to be the genre’s progenitor (i.e. the root node of the tree of influence in a genre – a different matter from the “first” of something, as a game can be released without influencing much), a throne it shares with the The Tower of Druaga-inspired Hydlide, a more recognizably “explore and slaughter your foes” title released for the PC-6001 and PC-8801 in December the same year. Imagine my slack-jawed surprise, then, when I learned that unbeknownst to the world, Dragon Slayer has a predecessor.
Though I had asked the man at Beep – Terry, as he later introduced himself – to recommend me books, he kindly went above and beyond and had a long discussion with me about the lineage and evolution of Japanese PC games. In that hour, I learned much about the Japanese video game history canon – a canon that recognizes plenty that the West has never even heard of. One tidbit he shared was that Dragon Slayer and Hydlide are joined in a holy trinity by Courageous Perseus (PC-8801), seemingly released in November of 1984 (shortly after Dragon Slayer; just before Hydlide).
Courageous Perseus anecdotally seems to have been less popular and less influential, but was almost certainly developed without much if any influence from Dragon Slayer, given the proximity of its release date. Its notability to the action RPG genre was recognized in John Szczepaniak’s The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers (2015), but knowledge of it hasn’t yet disseminated much, so I was fascinated to learn of its existence. Terry also revealed that although no public source is available, Dragon Slayer took some inspiration from the 1982 arcade game Pengo: in a private conversation with Dragon Slayer’s creator, he was told that the “kick” spell in the game was inspired by Pengo’s block-kicking. What he shared with me thereafter, though, is what shook my knowledge of the genre’s history to its core, and the reason this article needed to be written.
“Y’know, Dragon Slayer was based on this Apple Ⅱ game, kabānsu obu fureitagu”, he nonchalantly revealed.
Car buns of what now? I’d never heard of Dragon Slayer being based on anything, and hearing an English fantasy title rendered in fast-spoken Japanese wasn’t doing me any favors. He offered to show me, and started studiously googling away on his phone. For the 15 minutes he was occupied, I followed suit and did my own consultation of Dragon Slayer sources in both English and Japanese. To my surprise, I found nothing. My heart went into overdrive. This connection… isn’t documented in any article on the English internet, and barely mentioned in passing in Japanese. It can’t be found in books. It’s a truly undiscovered piece of history. There is but a single source to this historical morsel: as it turns out, the creator of Dragon Slayer (and other legendary titles such as Xanadu, Sorcerian, Popful Mail, and The Legend of Heroes), Yoshio Kiya, is quietly on Twitter. And as Terry would later share with me, back in 2013, Kiya once tweeted this:
Dragon Slayer 1 was based on Caverns of Freitag (Apple Ⅱ) ^^; #TweetAGameYourFollowersDontKnowAndYouLoseIfRTd
The Caverns of Freitag. There it is. Tweeted to a meager fanfare of 10 retweets and 8 likes at the time of writing, seen by Terry seven years ago in a stroke of pure luck and fanaticism, this tweet becomes the lynchpin in determining the genealogy of the whole action RPG genre. Having realized that he had the title’s Japanese spelling ever so slightly wrong, Terry turned to me and excitedly proffered a YouTube video. I knew that its connection to Dragon Slayer was unknown, but this was my first clue that the game itself was an obscurity of lordly caliber: there is but a single video specifically about it on the internet, and it has fewer than a thousand views.
I couldn’t believe my eyes: clear as a crisp spring morning, it evokes Dragon Slayer in both looks and mechanics. The Caverns of Freitag was created in the US by David Shapiro, who would go on to be a key figure for the Ultima series. The game was a minor title in the publisher’s catalogue, remembered by few, and was released in 1982 – two full years before Dragon Slayer. It’s strikingly similar: it takes place in a grid-based maze, you slice up monsters and gather treasure, and there’s an inn for you to return to with your spoils. It’s also an action RPG: you have experience points, stats to level up, and it’s all in real time. While Dragon Slayer adds a lot to the systems, Freitag contains the unmistakable brass tacks. How’s that for a world record, Guinness?
There is but one asterisk to this. I say that Freitag plays in real time, but the nuanced truth is far more interesting: it’s a missing link between turn-based and real-time. The game essentially operates in turns, but advances automatically if you don’t move within a certain time. The interval can be set between 1 (fast) and 50 (slow). Having decided to experience the game for myself, I was initially disappointed. I set the speed to 50, and found that each turn allowed me plenty of time to ponder my next move. This wasn’t an action game – this was simple Rogue with a Scrabble hourglass! Dejected, I set the speed faster – to 5 or so – and was taken by surprise. Backed by simple, direct controls – not a given for the time – I found myself weaving between phoenixes and killer moths; rushing back to the inn to recover; having no time to strategize so much as surrender to instinct. It felt action-filled. I’d stumbled upon something otherworldly: an RPG that can be played both turn-based and as an action game.
Does this prototypal real-time system, conceived before action RPGs were standardized, make Freitag an action game? I’d say it does. Later “turn-based on a timer” games like Crypt of the NecroDancer are considered action games, and again, the feeling of higher speeds – the mode of play – is that of an action game. Categorization is fraught with ambiguity, though. Whichever box one chooses to place Freitag in, all that determines is what the “first action RPG” is. The more salient point – whether it is a progenitor of the genre – is crystal clear: it laid the chief foundation for Dragon Slayer, and thus inadvertently started the action RPG lineage.
With that, a chapter of history is written and closed: though Dragon Slayer both brought the gameplay to Japan and laid the popular foundation for the genre, it in fact has roots in this obscure 1982 title, largely forgotten even in the West, from where it came. Although… I’m not quite satisfied. There’s one question that lingers in the back of my mind. How did an obscurity like that make it to Japan? It seems unlikely that such a small-time game would cross the ocean in any major capacity, especially seeing as it was in English. Armed with the knowledge that Kiya was inconspicuously on Twitter, I shot for the moon and tweeted two questions at him: how did he learn of the game, and why did it inspire him? I landed among the stars: the latter went unanswered (one’s thoughts 36 years ago must be hard to remember), but the former did not. Kiya replied:
At the time, Falcom was an official retailer of Apple products, so we received all Apple Ⅱ games. Since I was an Apple Ⅱ user myself, I looked at most of them personally.
In a story that recalls the Apple Ⅱ Wizardry inspiring Dragon Quest and thus creating the JRPG, the action RPG (or one of the three prongs that created it) made it to Japan via import software. It’s a beautiful coincidence: thanks to beginning as a humble import retailer, Nihon Falcom – one of the most prolific, influential game development companies of the ’80s – were uniquely positioned to garner inspiration from the Western computer scene. Starting with Kiya’s own work, Japan built on it, remixed it, and stirred in new cultural sensibilities to create something much larger; something that endures today.
It’s astonishing, then, that this lay buried for so long. Terry only found out about Dragon Slayer’s inspiration because he happened to follow Kiya’s Twitter account in 2013. I only stumbled upon it because I was browsing a store and happen to be a talkative guy. Through that chain of serendipity, the origins of a whole genre of video games were recontextualized in 2020, four decades after its inception. That day, I went home with a self-published book on the history of Ys and a funny collection of reviews of Famicom ports – but more interestingly, I went home having learned something that could only be learned the old-fashioned way: by word of mouth. Thank you, stranger, for trading secrets with me.
My hope is that this article makes a difference, and that the overlooked The Caverns of Freitag is granted the place in video game history canon that it deserves! If you learned something, or just thought this was a fun read, feel free to follow me @obskyr on Twitter – I tweet about video game history, ROM hacking, Japanese translation, and I do a podcast about obscure video games that will certainly interest you if this article did. Now I have some acknowledgements and links that may intrigue you, the reader who made it this far!
- First and foremost, thank you to Terry (he’s on Twitter!), the Beep employee and impassioned video game lover who shed light on all this and so kindly shared his boundless knowledge with me.
- Thanks a bundle to Michellybells for taking that pretty picture of Dragon Slayer running on her PC-8801. She runs Doors and Dungeons, the only English-language podcast on classic Japanese PC games! I recommend it!
- I want to thank Sanna (AKA Aerlaaesta) & Bjarni from the computer society Update at Uppsala University for bravely embarking on a full-day adventure to take that beautiful picture of Freitag on a real-life Apple Ⅱ.
- Thank you to Jeremy Parish, who taught me about Dragon Slayer in the first place — he made a video on the game that you should absolutely watch. It’s so, so good.
- Thank you to John Szczepaniak, who was the first to bring knowledge of Dragon Slayer to the West in a big way. You gotta read his trilogy The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers – it’s all it says on the tin.
As a footnote, regarding the release date of Dragon Slayer, sources conflict greatly (link in Japanese) – even the official Falcom 30th anniversary book lists September, October, and November on different pages. Video games truly are a frontier of history.