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A Brief History of Gaming
The Most Evil Strategy Guide To Ever Be
By Cyril Lachel     |   Posted on August 17, 2009   |   Episode 15 (Show Archive)  

EGM Issue 1
Who knew that this little strategy guide would cause so many headaches?
What is the worst thing that a role-playing game developer can possibly do? Is it when they drastically change the much-beloved combat system (Final Fantasy XII)? Perhaps it's when they add bright colors to your otherwise dark adventure series (Diablo III)? Oh, I know, it's when they over-promise and under deliver (every recent game from Peter Molyneux). Surprisingly, the answer is none of the above. Instead the worst thing a role-playing developer can do is to ... add a strategy guide for no additional cost?

As funny as it sounds, there was a time almost twenty years ago when both Electronic Gaming Monthly and Mega Play were doing everything in their power to end the tyranny of Sega's pack-in hint books. They didn't care that traditional 16-bit RPGs were often 25% more expensive than a 2D platformer, nor did they worry about the cliche stories or the relative lack of innovation in the genre. Instead they spent months berating Sega for offering

That's right, the magazine responsible for putting Hudson Hawk on its cover is questioning Sega's business plan!
gamers a free walk-through guide. It seemed at the time as if giving away a free strategy guide was the single worst thing Sega could do.

If you were to believe Electronic Gaming Monthly, then Sega literally "ruined" Phantasy Star II by offering a free strategy guide with every purchase. Quartermann (who is always known for his accuracy) was so upset that he literally begged Sega not to punish Genesis owners any more: "Don't, don't, I'm begging you DON'T, put Phantasy Star 3 players through the same thing!"

Month after month the editors of Electronic Gaming Monthly would rail against Sega for offering such an evil extra with their product. "Why can't [Sega] release the book a couple of months after the cart hits the
EGM Issue 1
Dislike Sword of Vermilion because it's a bad game, not because it came with a strategy guide!
stores?" the Q-Mann questioned. "You don't have huge toll-free numbers to fund anymore and besides, you could even collect some spare change from those gamers who feel the urge to cheat." Still feeling like he wasn't being dramatic enough, Quartermann concluded that "ruining Phantasy Star 2 was bad enough, but now much [Sword of] Vermilion endure the same punishment?"

Endure the same punishment? All because Sega decided to offer a strategy guide as a free incentive to buy their expensive adventure game? Oh the horror! How could a company ever get away with doing something so downright dastardly? That's the kind of offense that should have been punishable by a public hanging. No trial or jury, straight to execution!

What would make a game company do something as downright evil as package in a free strategy guide? Who

This Nintendo Power strategy guide helped turn Final Fantasy into a hit!
does Sega think they are? The truth is that Sega was just trying to sell a few more copies of early 16-bit Genesis games. In the early 1990s role-playing games were far from a sure thing. While Nintendo had managed to turn Square's 8-bit Final Fantasy into a hit (thanks in large part to a Nintendo Power strategy guide, I might add), the adventure game market was still largely unsuccessful.

Companies like Sega and Square were asking twitch-happy American gamers to slow down the pace and try something turn-based instead. This was not an easy sell. Throw in a high price tag (due in large part to localization and the
EGM Issue 1
Now that you've seen this cover I don't want to hear any crap about my crummy Photoshop work!
cost of battery back-up) and you have a product that is as far from an impulse buy as you can get. Sega needed something (anything) to help relieve some of the stress associated with buying an expensive and untested RPG. Their solution was a strategy guide that they packaged in with two games, Phantasy Star II and Sword of Vermilion.

But that reasoning wasn't good enough for the game journalists of the early 1990s. Instead of simply pointing out that veteran gamers should ignore Sega's strategy guide, they actually used the books as a reason to give lower scores. "Sorry Sega," starts Mike at Mega Play (EGM's Sega-specific sister publication). "This great RPG could have been rated higher if you wouldn't have again included that #@$% walk-through book." Another critic asked, "What's Sega going to do next, include a private tutor with [Phantasy] Star 3?" The same critic later says that Sword of Vermilion is a "nice role player that unfortunately is spoiled by the free cheat

Altered Beast didn't come with a strategy guide, so I guess it must be better than Phantasy Star II!
book." All four of the Mega Play critics made mention of the hint book and lowered their scores because of it.

While I pick on Mega Play, this practice of lowering the scores ran rampant across all of the Sendai Publishing magazines. Editorials were written about it, Quartermann was brought in and gamers were bombarded with reasons not to invest their money in Phantasy Star II, one of the very best 16-bit role-playing games. All because Sega tried to give gamers an incentive to buy their expensive adventure game.

I can certainly see their point. The fun of most role-playing games is the adventuring, where you're off
EGM Issue 1
With thousands of enemies and secret items, there are plenty of reasons to pick up this strategy guide!
finding new things and discovering what all is out there. But their argument falls apart when you realize that gamers could just as easily ignored the walk-through and had a great time. Just because there's a pack-in strategy guide, that doesn't mean everybody automatically has to use it. Heck, most people don't even read instruction manuals these days. Does EGM and Mega Play feel that we are so lazy and stupid that we feel forced to "cheat"?

Ironically, these days there are a lot of honest adventure gamers who buy strategy guides and have a splendid time with the newest RPG. It's not because they want to cheat and have an easy time with things, instead these people want to get to know their enemies, know what they have to do to find the most

Oh no, I spoiled Valis III (not that you can read it at this size)!
valuable loot and dig deeper into the game than they would without the guide. If anything, role-playing game strategy guides seem like the best type of game-related book, since there's way more detail than any one person can find on their own.

The reason people play role-playing games isn't because of the battles or the dungeons, it's because these games offer deep storylines that will keep you glued to your television for dozens of hours. EGM makes it sound like the Phantasy Star II guide was jam packed with story spoilers, giving you little
EGM Issue 1
... And that's how Phantasy Star III became the greatest Phantasy Star game ever!
to no incentive to actually play through the game. But that couldn't be further from the truth. The Phantasy Star II hint book was spoiler free, offering no real insight into the game's amazing story. See, it's not the end of the world at all. And if you don't want any help, then throw the hint book out and never give it a second thought.

For a magazine so worried about spoiling the fun, it does seem odd that they would print cheat codes and offer a special Game Over section that literally ruined the ending of dozens of classic games. Mega Play has no problem ruining the ending of Valis III, but Sega offering an optional hint book is over the line? No wonder the average consumer doesn't trust critics.

You'll be happy to know that this story has a happy ending. After the release of Sword of Vermilion, Sega decided to stop publishing these pack-in strategy guides. Gamers stuck in Phantasy Star III had to call the special 1-900 number, fork over $14.95 for a hint book, or track down a friend who was also playing the RPG classic. And boy was Mega Play happy. Each one of the editor's made mention and gave the game high marks, effectively making Phantasy Star III Sendai's best reviewed game in the series.



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