If you only have a minute, read this:
- Canon has the turn system of Shining Force, the graphic style of 16-bit Square RPGs and funny death screams like Langrisser 1.
- The story is a liberal adaptation of the chinese novel Investiture of the Gods, and has much of the tropes and issues of chinese literature.
- The game can be fairly long, and a lot of battles overstay their welcome and make the game a hard recommendation for anyone. It’s not a bad game but 30 hours of “Meh” is too much for the couple of memorable moments in the game.
Canon, originally called Fengshen Yingjie Chuan, was an unlicensed game for the Sega Genesis, developed in Taiwan by Chuanpu Technologies and published in 1996. The game was translated to english by Super Fighter Team for a physical release during the mid 2000’s with apparently little success, since information about that release is scarce. Now published by Piko Interactive, the game released on Steam late into the 2020 as a Rom packed with the Mednafen emulation core. This time the game finally has a chance of finding fans and personally I have to say I have been wanting to play this game in english for a really long time, was the wait worth it? Keep on reading to find out.
The games begins with a scene setting up the events of the game and then changes to a character roll, from the start we can see the game has some nice looking art style, the sprites are big and cartoony and use balloons to express emotions making the sprites feel more alive, even when the game lacks any kind of character portrait and the text boxes are as plain as they can be. On the negative side we can see one of the first glitches of the game, when the text box gets full the sprites disappear for a second, is not game breaking, but it is a bit distracting. Also sometimes the text just goes too fast in scenes that play automatically.
During the game, everything happens on the map, like a top down Tactics Ogre or FFT, the maps have a classic RPG design so the character always fit in the same scale, and the UI is minimal but one thing I like is the circular command selection, a refreshing take on something that most of the time is just a list of commands.
The battle effects displayed on the map don’t have a lot of variety outside of spells, every characters has one default attack animation, and every enemy screams and explodes when killed… That scream gets into your head after a few hours and get funnier the more I think about it. On the positive side, every playable character has a unique design with his own specific spells, and enemy variety is not too shaby, with some interesting design here and there, like Shrimp Soldiers for example.
The game plot is based on the traditional chinese novel Investiture of the Gods (aka as Fengshen Bang) and tales the tale of the end of the Shang Dynasty. The plot begins when a spirit fox takes the shape of Dan Yi (Daji) the new wife of King Zhou and encourages his iron rule of the land, so the Goddess Nu Huo (Nüwa) send his two human servants to reincarnate in the land to stop this.
Our journey begins with a 15 year old Lin Yun, that after getting confused with a bandit ends up in jail and gets in contact with the rebels that oppose King Zhou, and from there starts his uphill battle against the forces of the King, Spirits and Demons while prophecies start to take shape around him and his role in the war.
The dialogue of the story has some humorous bits, specially the banter between Lin Yun and Yan Rong, the scenes of the reckless Nou Sha or the one with the weird Lie Zhen.
The development of the plot goes easy at first but once characters start being introduced there is a lot of names and titles flying around, it never gets confusing to the point of making no sense, but more than once I was thinking to myself: who or what are they talking about now? To make things worst there is the eventual name change of character when they get a new title or position.
Overall the story was enjoyable but not that memorable, with the exception of a few scenes that come to mind and this is more for how weird or funny they are than for their importance to the plot. For example at one point a mute character starts talking and his companion explains that all along there was a prophecy that in the presence of the love of his live he would talk for the first time… It was so out of the blue and after the fact, that all I could only say was “Yeah, that is chinese folklore for you”.
Now let’s talk about the meat of the game, how it plays. The game uses an initiative-based turn system, were the order in which the units take their turn is determined based on their Agility stat, after all unitsact, the cycle starts again, this is pretty much the same as how Shining Force plays.
During a turn any unit can take the same kind of action, Move, Attack, cast a spell, use an item or wait, the basic things one come to expect of an SRPG. In a way, that would describe most of the gameplay, basic. Usable items are plentiful and equipment while limited, starts appearing in the late game. One issue that struck me with the game is that there is no way to check enemy stats, you can check the stats of your units during battle but not the enemies so I have to think this was a choice made on purpose. Personally I don’t mind, certainly it made encountering new enemies a situation to be cautious, but the same enemy always works in the same way so once you know how an enemy works you can apply the same tactics to deal with it every time.
The map design is actually pretty interesting and it shows thoughtful choices by the developers, enemies are positioned carefully and chests on the map offer secondary objectives to spice the battles. One thing to notice is the implementation of battles that take place over different maps, for example you enter a cave and have to make your way through different floors until you reach the boss at the end, in each floor the objective is not to defeat your enemies but to reach the door to the next floor, so fighting or rushing to the exit is totally your choice, in this fights you can also go back the way you came to make enemies appear again, this is useful to get some more levels and healing items before getting to the boss, but it also makes this battles more tiresome since normally you could only save before entering the first floor, this is not an issue with emulation since it offers quick saves, but I can see the issue playing on original hardware if you just lose to a boss after 1 hour of going through multiple floors full of enemies, just to have to do it all over again. But this is another interesting thing, if you lose a battle, you go back to the preparation screen and you keep all the experience and items you got before losing, so even if you lose it’s not wasted effort. Most of the bosses in the game are not that interesting, sometimes they have some gimmick like being immune to magic or physical attacks, but most of the time they juts have a huge HP pool and AoE spells making the fights a battle of attrition, on the other hand while the final boss has all of the above it also has a clever design for the whole map so the fight actually involves some strategic elements and not just a stat check to see if you can kill him before he kills you.
One particular thing to talk about is the technical side of the game, there are some bugs present, the text bugs is one, another is that you can’t use the in game saves so you have to use the emulator quick saves to keep your progress. The emulation options are also pretty limited, you have your integral scaling window size choices, full screen, and the choice between raw pixels or bi-linear filtering, 3 quick save slots and that’s it. But a good thing is that the game rom is located in the instalation files as “game” without an extension, if you copy the file and add the bin extension you can play it in any emulator of your choice or even put in on a SD card to play on a retro console, I replayed a bit of the game on the Kega emulator and that fixed the text boxes and save function. Still the bugged and limited emulation is a big negative for me, I shouldn’t need to use workarounds to make a paid game emulate properly, if you sell it make sure it works in the emulator you sell it with.
In conclusion, after a long 40 hour journey through chinese folklore I feel pretty good about finishing this game in english, but more than a few time I felt that the multi floor battles prolonged too much, to the point of having to use quick saves to get a rest for the day. The game was enjoyable for what it is, a bare bones SRPG with some interesting ideas, but it’s hard to recommend to people that don’t have a previous history with the game, the only redeemable thing is that it was developed for the Genesis which had a really small SRPG library but I’m not sure a SRPG fan can have the luxury of being a Sega purist.