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Defenders of Oasis

Genre: RPG Developer: Sega Ent. Publisher: Sega of America Players: 1 Released: 1992

When gamers discuss great RPGs, the Game Gear doesn’t usually tend to get a mention. Whether this is because most people disregard the portable entirely as an also-ran to the Game Boy (a MAJOR mistake, honestly) or because they’re simply unaware of its library is anyone’s guess. In truth, there are several titles on the machine that are worthy entries in the genre, covering several different aspects of the genre. From strategy RPGs like Shining Force to randomly-generated dungeon crawlers like Dragon Crystal, adventure fans will not come away from Sega’s handheld disappointed. Of course, many associate RPGs with the traditional turn-based affairs we’ve known for decades. Well, the Game Gear has that covered as well. Defenders of Oasis is Sega’s big gun in this area, offering gamers a chance to explore a vast Middle-Eastern-themed world filled with exploration and danger.

Recently, I was finally able to find a complete copy of the Game Gear RPG Defenders of Oasis. There aren’t all that many games of this type on Sega’s little handheld, and I’d been trying to find a copy for some time. Way back in the day, I was drawn to its Julie Bell cover art. She was a very popular fantasy artist at the time and had an amazing set of trading cards (as did her husband, artist Boris Vallejo). The problem was that I didn’t have a Game Gear, so I spent years wondering what kind of RPG it was. Every so often, I would look at screens and the box art and wonder about it. Ironically, I never got around to checking out videos on YouTube, so I was truly unaware of all aspects of the game beyond what I saw in a few screen shots.

All that’s changed now, as I’ve gotten into Sega’s little handheld in a big way. I’ve also managed to piece together a complete copy of Defenders of Oasis (all my Game Gear games are complete. Go big, or go home!). As with most Game Gear titles, loose copies are cheap, but complete ones can go for quite a bit. It was a great score for me to finally obtain a complete copy of this one, and I was very happy to add it to my library. Finally, I would get to experience this awesome-looking little game! After so long, my curiosity would at last be sated.

Contrary to what many believe, Defenders of Oasis isn’t a part of the Oasis series of games by Yuzo Koshiro’s Ancient Software. Yes, they do share a common word in their titles, and there is a common Middle Eastern theme to the presentation, but that’s where the similarities end. Defenders is its own game, and given the cookie-cutter plot (the descendant of a legendary hero must defeat an ancient evil that has recently awakened), I would actually have preferred a game set in Ali’s kingdom of Oasis. This one is a bit too generic in many ways.

To be fair, the whole “one man’s destiny to save the world” dynamic is a standard RPG staple, so I can’t really fault Defenders for that. It also does make an attempt at standing out from similar titles. For instance, while there are only four player characters, each has his own abilities. The Prince of Shanadar, the main character, is the most powerful but the slowest. The sailor Saleem is the quickest and has a dance attack that affects all enemies in a single turn, and Agmar the thief has a special hiding ability that lets him basically backstab enemies. My favorite has to be the Genie. Though he never levels up and cannot equip anything, he can be improved by using items to upgrade his lamp. Things like hemp and silk will increase his magic points, and plating will increase his hit points. He has very powerful spells that can be found throughout the game, and given that he’s the only one who can use magic, he plays a vital role in every battle. The Genie can also transport the party to places they’ve already been.

Defenders is a menu-driven, turn-based affair that does have a bit of a learning curve with its combat system. While I have no issues at all with adventures that feature random battles, I do take umbrage (UMBRAGE, I TELL YOU!) with just how cryptic Defenders is about, well… everything. Most notable is the way that Defenders executes its battles. To the unaware, such as those who bought a loose cartridge and haven’t read up on the game, combat appears to be random, with characters and enemies attacking multiple times in a round or sometimes not at all. The reality is that attacks are based on speed, meaning that faster characters can often attack more than once in a single round, while slower party members – such as the one trying to heal –  or enemies may not get to act at all. This mechanic forces players to completely ignore the typical “one side goes first” element on which the majority of console RPGs are so dependent and change their entire battle strategy. This also makes grinding early on much harder than it should be, since I’m sure that many players aren’t aware of the role speed plays. Many will wonder why the Prince takes so long to attack, while characters like Saleem and the Genie can act multiple times before he does. Considering how challenging boss battles can be (multiple fights in a row without a chance to rest are a common occurrence), things can get frustrating quickly if players are not prepared.

Another example of how cryptic things can be is in the item menu. Item functions are not identified at all, so unless you have the manual or a FAQ handy, you won’t know what a barrel does or what the difference between Snake Act and Worm Act is. The Internet makes this an easily-remedied problem, but it’s not really fun to play  a handheld game and have to be – initially, at least – looking up what each item does. At the very least, the in-game stores should provide a description. Thankfully, there aren’t all that many items overall, and after a few hours one becomes familiar with their functions.

It may sound like I’m a bit sour on Defenders of Oasis, but I’m really not. It’s important to remember that one must be very patient with old school RPGs, as each has its own quirks and (often expletive-inducing) problems. I’ve managed to overcome most of these issues with some dedicated grinding and online orientation. In all honesty, I shouldn’t have found myself such a position, even with a turn-based title. Some might call the game’s lack of explanation for basic functions an example of old school challenge, but I find it just to be just a poor design choice. Without a manual or FAQ, most players will jump in blindly, and will be under the initial impression that battle make zero sense and without any idea what their items do. As I said, this stops being a factor with time, so I recommend that gamers looking to try out Defenders actually do a bit of reading beforehand. It will make for MUCH better first impression.

Aside from this minor quibble, Defenders of Oasis is actually a very solid entry on the Game Gear. Looking at the whole package, I do admit that the game has more virtues than it does flaws. Again the presentation is excellent, and the quest is an interesting one. The characters are diverse, and there is a wide variety in the locals to explore. If the odd combat system and need for grinding isn’t a deal-breaker, than I would definitely consider this a worthy addition to any Game Gear owner’s library.

SCORE: 7 out of 10

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