Friday, February 17, 2012

East vs. West: Dungeon Explorer (1989)

Dungeon Explorer was an action RPG created by Atlus and published by Hudson Soft in Japan and NEC in America, both in 1989.  It was Hudson's 15th PC Engine HuCard title released in Japan, and was one of the launch titles for the American TurboGrafx-16 later that same year.


It infamously sported some of the ugliest box art known to gamerkind.  These heroes seem to be plagued with ill-fitting costumes that were inadvertently exposed to nuclear radiation -- and the mutations are already showing:

What's happened to the magician's head?  Is it shrinking away to nothing while his or her lower half is overtaken by unsightly swelling?  Why is the barbarian in the foreground poking his blunt-tipped sword backward between his shins, and why does his shadow suggest that something else entirely is dangling down?  And what's he doing with his left hand?  Why is the entire affair so carefully shaded and airbrushed while ignoring basic principles of human anatomy?

The Japanese version isn't strikingly better, actually -- it's just the logo, spiffily airbrushed with the shadows of our intrepid adventurers looking on -- but at least it looks like somebody was justifiably paid to paint it:

It remains a mystery why NEC's North American marketers opted to replace this perfectly serviceable image -- already in English, mind you! -- with the poor-man's-Gary-Panter image on the American box.  But NEC made a lot of strange decisions when it came to marketing the Japanese PC Engine to Western audiences, and that's why I put these East vs. West posts together once in a while.

There are very few differences between the American and Japanese versions, and some alterations are hard to fathom -- the title screen, for some reason, opts to shift the "STEREO" logo from the right to the left, and replaces the Atlus Ltd. credit with a slightly bolder version.  Here's the original Japanese title screen:

Compared to the U.S. version:

As you can see from these two screenshots, all of the game's graphics are seriously on the dark side, but the in-game sprites are detailed and well-animated.  Dungeon Explorer was heavily influenced by Atari's Gauntlet, with some RPG storytelling added in for good measure.  The big attraction back in the day was that with the TurboTap accessory (sold separately) up to 5 players could cooperate to take down the big boss, NATAS.  (Clever!)

The influence of Atari's coin-op is obvious -- there are monster generators to take out, multiplayer support is a major feature, we attack by shooting our weapons, and when a character reaches the stairs to a lower level of the dungeon, he or she spins merrily down the drain.  Of course, since all 5 players have to operate on one screen, they'd better agree about which way they're going, or everyone will just be stuck in place.

The title screen is followed by a lovely landscape view, with a few neat technical tricks allowing deep layers of parallax scrolling that the PC Engine was generally not capable of handling in-game:

Once we select a character class, the action is underway.  The monsters respawn, and unlike most RPGs, friendly characters with whom we can converse are often found living or standing around near monster generators.

We're free to wander around the multi-leveled dungeons -- most are linear, but it takes a little puzzle-solving to discover the right paths, especially in the later dungeons.  We know we've done most of the exploration when we encounter a boss.  I don't know what the boss monsters were called in Japan, but the names used in North America were fairly generic -- according to the terrified villagers, this Minotaur-like character is called Bullbeast:

After the battle, we find our way back out of the dungeon, passing through the same floors we came through on the way in, but generally passing through different, treasure-rich areas.  When we get back up to ground level, we can explore the world some more, meeting new people and learning of new monsters awaiting death at our hands.

Most of the standard game text is in English in both versions, but character conversations are in Japanese or English, as would be expected.  The game's difficulty seems to be dialed down quite a bit for the U.S. audience -- enemies and monster generators that take a number of hits in the Japanese version can be taken down with a shot or two in the American release.  This probably explains why I remember finishing this game fairly quickly back in the day, but ran into this screen fairly quickly playing the Eastern edition:

(Of course, I'm a few decades older than I was when I played this game the first time, so that may also have something to do with it...)

Dungeon Explorer must have done well in the U.S., as the CD-based sequel Dungeon Explorer II made it to the American TurboDuo console during the final phases of the system's life.  And the basic action/RPG gameplay still holds up pretty well -- it may be a Gauntlet ripoff, but it's one of the best versions of the game (however unofficial) to appear on home consoles.  (Atari's Tengen division dipped a toe into TG-16 support with an excellent official port of the coin-op Klax, but that was the one and only title the company released on the system.)

I have to say that this one was a good choice for the U.S. launch.  The action is straightforward, the graphics and stereo audio are clearly a step up from the 8-bit consoles, and multiplayer was a novel and solid feature.  If only they had done something about the box art...

The Japanese edition is not expensive, but it's not easy to find online at the moment.  You might be able to find it here:

Dungeon Explorer PC-Engine Hu

It's easier to find the American version:


  1. Dungeon Explorer! I remember renting this one back in the day, although I never actually owned it. Now that I own a PC Engine, though, I think I may have to pick up the Japanese version -- which features a much better piece of cover art than the NA version, in my opinion. I'm with you, by the way, in wondering why in the hell the folks at NEC USA decided to use such terrible box art for both this game and for practically every other TG-16 game in existence. Although I have a feeling the TG-16 would have been a third-place finisher in the 16-bit console wars regardless, better box art certainly would have helped things a bit, if you ask me.

  2. I think NEC had a handicap out of the gate, in that while Hudson Soft certainly put out a lot of quality titles, Sega and Nintendo had a recognizable arcade heritage in the West and deeper marketing pockets. But NEC still made a lot of odd choices -- I think they felt like they had to make the PC Engine appeal to a Western audience, but weren't quite sure how to go about it.