Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy franchises from the last several decades of gaming history. Older entries can be found here.
This week we’ll be weightlessly drifting through the history of Lunar. Dates refer to the first North American release unless otherwise stated, though as you’ll see, the tangled timeline of remakes and re-releases makes this a more challenging prospect than usual. The most significant source for this article, and resource for folks interested in learning more about the Lunar series generally is LunarNET; as a fun bonus fact before we even get underway, LunarNET is a series fansite noteworthy for (1) being contracted by Ubisoft to host the official website for 2002’s Lunar Legend and (2) being the community from which major JRPG website RPGFan spun off.
Game Arts opened its doors as a game development studio in 1985. It quickly carved out a place for itself in the burgeoning Japanese game market by developing and producing numerous action titles alongside a handful of virtual card games. Thexder (1985/1987) and Silpheed (1986/1988), both released on the Nintendo Entertainment System, were their primary exports to international markets, identifying the studio to Western players as a reliable source for run-and-gun and shoot-’em-up titles.
Much of their other content remained locked to the Japanese region until the 1990s. With a history of developing games in a variety of genres, it’s not entirely surprising that Game Arts would eventually branch out into the increasingly popular role-playing game format. What is surprising is that such a theoretically niche title would make it to the West, as Japanese role-playing games still had relatively little market success in the United States.
Lunar: The Silver Star (1993)
Luckily for the owners of the much-maligned SEGA CD peripheral (Mega-CD outside of North America), Working Designs brokered a contract to localize Game Arts’ first major JRPG. This California studio had been founded in 1986 as a software transportation company, but would come to be known in the 1990s for its high-quality translation work on Japanese video games. Its most notable contribution to the world of localization is the Lunar franchise.
The first game in this series hews closely to the genre conventions established by Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. Battles are turn-based, the player perspective is a bird’s-eye view of a colorful sprite-based fantasy world, and the player’s journey takes him or her through a variety of towns and dungeons filled with charming characters and monsters. One interesting decision does set the mechanics of Lunar apart from its contemporaries, however: character placement on the battlefield plays a role in combat, determining how many characters are struck by an attack as well as which enemies are available to target. This was a small innovation, but one that would go on to be highly influential on later works like Chrono Trigger (1995) and Final Fantasy XII (2006).
Narratively, Lunar similarly threads the needle between JRPG convention and innovation. With regard to its cliched elements, the player takes on the role of Alex, a villager who dreams of becoming a heroic figure like his idol, Dragonmaster Dyne; to that end, he and his friends stumble into a cataclysmic adventure which sees Alex paired up with numerous supporting characters on a quest to become a Dragonmaster and save the world. Several key distinctions make Lunar a noteworthy addition to the JRPG canon in spite of its cliche elements. In particular, the setting is a moon, orbiting a blue planet rendered uninhabitable by years of sustained conflict. The plot by novelist Kei Shigema also takes great care to foreground the main characters’ relationship; this would go on to become a standard feature of JRPGs following the lead of Final Fantasy IV (1991), but was still rather unique in 1993.
Lunar: The Silver Star’s most significant genre innovation is its presentation. Much of the game utilizes standard sprite-based 2D visual design, but the SEGA CD hardware permitted Game Arts to include full-motion video animated cutscenes. These are few in number on the original release, but pointed towards a future in which the CD-ROM format allowed JRPG developers to convey the sense of scale and drama that they had formerly only been able to depict through abstraction. Still more important is the role that Working Designs played in localization: English voiceovers were added for characters (to varying success) and dialogue was translated with a keen eye towards cultural references and maintaining the spirit of the text through altering it when necessary. This localization would be considered one of the most successful in the 1990s, an era when most studios were content to ship games with awkward direct translations.
Lunar: The Silver Star would be re-released several times over the following decades. The first, a SEGA Saturn version called Lunar: Silver Star Story (1996), would expand the cutscenes to a full hour of anime sequences and lengthen the narrative with new areas and plot developments. In a significant gameplay alteration, enemies are now visible when navigating the game’s environments rather than being encountered through the genre’s typical random encounter mechanic. This iteration would be ported to the PlayStation two years later, following the move of Sony Computer Entertainment of America’s president – who didn’t get along with Working Designs – from SCEA to SEGA. The PlayStation version was largely the same as the Saturn version, but was packaged with extensive supplementary content, including an art book and interviews with the development team.
Two full remakes were also produced. The first, Lunar Legend, was developed by Media Rings Corporation and localized internationally by Ubisoft in 2002. This version eliminated voice acting and animated cutscenes while also receiving an entirely new translation; gameplay and sprites remain faithful to the original version, though the plot has again been altered. It is likely that Working Designs avoided this project because of its outspoken distaste for the expense of cartridge media. Critical reception was generally negative, as much of the original game’s spirit was inextricably linked to its high-end audio-visual presentation.
The second remake, Lunar: Silver Star Harmony, was developed by Game Arts for the PlayStation Portable and localized in North America by XSEED in 2010. This version features the most significant visual overhaul, as the entire game is now depicted from an isometric perspective. Characters are represented as 2D sprites against hand-drawn backgrounds. While the anime cutscenes remain intact, in-game voice acting has been fully re-recorded and the original midi soundtrack is replaced with fully orchestrated audio. Similarly, the script has been re-localized by XSEED using Working Designs’ translation as a basis; outdated pop culture references have been removed, but much of the translation remains faithful to Working Designs’ efforts. The biggest updates, aside from the improved graphics and music, pertain to the game’s scale and difficulty. Contemporary coverage by website RPGFan indicates that Lunar’s areas have been shrunken and that the legendarily challenging difficulty level is reduced; a new prologue chapter, in which the player takes on the role of Dragonmaster Dyne, has been added as well. These changes could well have marred an otherwise impressive remake, but were instead lauded as updating a classic game to modern standards.
Lunar 2: Eternal Blue (1995)
Though it was made by Game Arts shortly after the release of Lunar: The Silver Star, Lunar 2 is set in the same world one thousand years after the events of its predecessor. Its narrative is grander than Lunar: The Silver Star, with the scope widening to include the sinister god Zophar and benevolent goddess Althena. The protagonist is a young explorer named Hiro, raised on legends of the first game’s events, who meets the physical incarnation of Althena in Lunar 2‘s opening hour. This avatar is named Lucia, and actually arrives on the series’ populated moon from the abandoned Blue Planet around which it orbits. The plot was again authored by Kei Shigema and was inspired by depictions of a capricious god in the classical Chinese story Journey to the West.
Mechanics and visual design are overall quite similar to Lunar: The Silver Star. The primary difference is an expansion of scale, befitting the narrative, and a couple of updates to the battle system. Players can now assign locations on the battlefield to their characters at the start of combat, and have the option to have the AI control character actions. These would be integrated into later remakes of the original game, as they simplify a combat system that is often more punishing than contemporary JRPGs.
While the SEGA CD version of Lunar 2 would dramatically expand voice acting and cutscenes from their important yet limited presence in Lunar: The Silver Star, the 1998 Saturn port by Working Designs would make these a key part of Lunar 2’s storytelling as they had done for its predecessor. A later PlayStation port in 2000 would feature the same content within an extravagant package. Truly Working Designs’ masterpiece, the 2000 Collector’s Edition of Lunar 2: Eternal Blue contains a full “making of” documentary, a hardcover art book with over one hundred pages, and a soundtrack. Unfortunately, the rather odd audio drama which had accompanied the original Mega-CD release in Japan was not localized for Western fans.
Lunar 2’s re-release includes a greater amount of updates than had been featured in Lunar: Silver Star Story. Dungeon are re-designed, simplifying the tedious navigation that had drawn criticism in the SEGA CD version. Some dungeons have been removed or replaced entirely. As with Lunar: Silver Star Story, random encounters have been abandoned in favor of enemies which the player can opt to engage in the field. Finally, battles on the navigable world map surrounding specific explorable locations have been eliminated entirely, facilitating efficient traversal. All changes were welcomed by fans, as they enhanced an already excellent game. Unlike its predecessor, no remakes were produced after the PlayStation version.
Lunar: Dragon Song (2005)
A decade passed between the release of the second and third Lunar games. Enhanced re-releases had been published during that time, along with a portable spinoff, but it would take a full console generation for the series to receive an entirely new adventure. Rather than stagnating or adapting well to the changing JRPG landscape, the Lunar franchise would jettison much of what made it appealing when it came to the Nintendo DS in 2005.
The game is set one thousand years prior to Lunar: The Silver Star and, consequently, two thousand years before Lunar 2: Eternal Blue. The moon is less developed and while familiar elements like Althena and the four dragons persist, much of the narrative now hinges on a conflict between humans and beastmen, a race that remains the dominant cultural force at this point in the series’ timeline. One of these beastmen groups, the Vile Tribe, is attempting to harness control of the goddess Althena using magical abilities, and can only be stopped through the involvement of the player character, a delivery boy named Jian.
Toshiyuki Kubooka returned from the preceding two titles to design characters for Lunar: Dragon Song, though the game was developed by Japan Art Media Co., Ltd. rather than Game Arts. Unsurprisingly, Kubooka’s characters and the game’s broader aesthetics remain one of the few high points of the new series entry.
The gameplay, sadly, does not live up to the relatively conventional standards set by Lunar: The Silver Star and Lunar 2: Eternal Blue. The basics remain in place, with players navigating the heroes around 2D world from an isometric perspective while engaging in combat when enemy sprites are encountered. Players may no longer choose which enemies to attack, however, and are instead locked into having characters strike either the closest enemy or the enemy most vulnerable to that character’s elemental ability. Along with a quasi-real-time battle system lifted from the PlayStation-era Final Fantasy games, this has the effect of reducing the sense of control which players formerly exerted over their characters in the Lunar series.
At the same time, the presentation falls short of earlier titles. Cutscenes and voice acting, which had been a hallmark of Lunar: The Silver Star and Lunar 2: Eternal Blue, are cut entirely. Working Design’s impressive localization was largely responsible for the series’ cult status outside of Japan, but that studio’s reservations about cartridge media in general and the quality of Lunar: Dragon Song in particular led it to pass on the opportunity to bring this game to the West. French publisher Ubisoft instead took the reigns, producing a workmanlike translation which lacked the whimsy of earlier entries.
In spite of its limited number of main series entries, Lunar did manage to produce one spinoff. Lunar: Walking School was developed by Game Arts and released on the SEGA Game Gear in Japan during 1995. Perhaps due to the poor commercial performance of Eternal Blue in Western markets, where the SEGA CD/Mega-CD had a low adoption rate, Lunar: Walking School was never localized outside of Japan.
The game centers on a group of three young magicians at an academy three hundred years before the events of Lunar: The Silver Star. The Vile Tribe, which would go on to play a major role in Lunar: Dragon Song, serves as an enemy faction in this game as well. Interestingly, while much of the game’s presentation is similar to the core series, it lacks full-motion video cutscenes and replaces the standard isometric battle sequences with a first-person perspective. A remake two years later on the SEGA Saturn would bring this spinoff in line with the presentation of earlier console outings, but it would be similarly confined to the Japanese region.
Sadly, this is where the story of Lunar ends. Game Arts moved on to other work, though it has not developed a new game since 2012’s Dokuro; the studio had actually contributed to the development of Super Smash Brothers Melee in 2008, but would play no role in more recent Smash Brothers games. Meanwhile, localization studio Working Designs struggled with protracted financial difficulties until it shuttered in 2005. Even if a new Lunar game was produced by Game Arts, Western releases would likely fall short of the sumptuous packaging and loving translations produced by Working Designs in the 1990s. The point is likely moot, however – no word of a sequel has circulated since the release of Lunar: Silver Star Harmony on PSP in 2010. It seems that the world of Lunar is destined to remain a small but important footnote in the medium’s history.
What do you think about this series? Do you have a favorite game or character? Why do you believe it struggled to adapt to changing times in the 2000s? What would you like to see in a future Lunar title? Let’s discuss in the comments below!
Next week we’ll be reviewing the history of a more successful franchise – Wolfenstein. Please join us at 9:00 AM EST on September 7, 2018 as we discuss this influential series.