It’s always fun to go back to the early 90s/late 80s and try out these retro games. Isn’t it kind of cool, knowing you’re playing a game that’s older than you are? It’s the same feeling I get when I pick up some 19th century novel. It’s a glimpse into a time period which you’ll never experience firsthand.
Little Master: The Legend of Raikuban was the second SRPG ever released, coming out on April 19th, 1991, almost one year exactly after FE1 (4/20/1990). At this point in time, the SRPG genre wasn’t yet codified. Even if FE1 paved the way forward, the genre had a long way to go. As the second SRPG ever, Little Master tried some new ideas, but mostly stuck to the same formula that FE had established: turn-based, square grid-based, player phase/enemy phase, units who can level up, etc.
There were two ways in which Little Master streamlined things, and I like them both: 1) we can now see basic stats in the battle screen, i.e. attack, defense, HP, and 2) move range is now displayed. FE1 lacked these two basic things, which in fairness is acceptable because it was the first SRPG ever released, and because the game’s so easy. Little Master still didn’t give us a combat prediction screen however. That’s ok: the game is also really easy.
The biggest problem with Little Master’s design is how overpowered the main two characters – Liam and Momo – are. FE1 Marth is widely known to be among the most powerful main characters in FE. Liam in Little Master is arguably even better. As a result, you’re not encouraged to build up an army and try out different characters. Why bother, when Liam + Momo can roflstomp everything? Map design also encourages you to just use these two; narrow corridors abound in Little Master.
This is unfortunate because Little Master features an interesting monster combination system. Aside from Liam and Momo, all units can be combined with one another to create more powerful monsters. I like the idea, but found it rather pointless simply because Liam and Momo are more than sufficient for clearing the entire game. There’s also the problem that you’d need to waste a lot of time with trial and error before you can really figure out which combinations produce which results. It’s overall just not worth it.
To the game’s credit, it featured some creative map gimmicks. I’d encourage every aspiring SRPG developer to play Little Master and take notes on how you can utilize simple ideas to great effect. Almost every battle in Little Master has a twist to it. Battle #3 has tornados which whisk away a random unit to a random square at the start of the battle. In battle #5, the enemy will chop down a tree every turn; your task is to defeat all the enemies before they destroy all the trees. Battle #7 introduces you to gravestones which spawn zombies. Battle #12 is completely covered with terrain that’ll deal 5 damage to you every turn and severely hinder your mobility… until you kill the miniboss. These are all simple ideas that add a surprising amount of variation to the game. I’d liken it to adding lime to your tacos; it’s a simple idea but it makes all the difference!
Little Master definitely shows its age. At the end of the day, I’m glad it exists. There are still two more Little Master games (LM2 on the Gameboy, and LM3 for the SFC), but neither has received any English translation of any sort, so I unfortunately can’t comment on them right now. It’ll probably a long time until I ever get around to playing LM2/3, unless someone comes out of nowhere to bless us with a translation patch. In the meantime, I’ll stick to laughing my ass off at the hydra sprite in LM1.
For a game released in 1991, Little Master is a very good game. Does it hold up today? …Maybe. For what it’s worth, I enjoyed playing through it, but then again, this is my favorite genre of games, so I’m probably a bit more forgiving than most people are. Little Master is a fun casual experience and has some great lessons to teach aspiring SRPG developers about map gimmicks. But it’s not a richly strategic experience, nor is it a game that’ll hold up forever, unlike say Langrisser 2 or Sakura Wars or something.
After playing this, I wanna play a more modern SRPG. Expect to see something more modern… next week.