The first instalment into the Oasis series of RPGs, The Story of Thor (known in America as ‘Beyond Oasis’) was a late release for the Mega Drive that some consider to be Sega’s answer to the ‘Legend of Zelda’ series.
Developed by Ancient, the title refers not to the games protagonist (who’s called Ali), nor to the god of Norse mythology, but to the origin of the two mysterious gauntlets that the series is based around. Though record of this foreign land was scrubbed from the English translation manual, there is a small in-game nod to this left standing and the Japanese original of course takes full advantage of the original backstory.
Graphically this is one of the Mega Drive’s best looking titles, summoning an anime-inspired art style and using large sprites to provide a high level of detail. Animations are fluid and well-drawn, with a number allotted to every sprite in the game, though some enemy types are re-used throughout, and backgrounds are luscious to look at. The game features sprite based ‘animated’ cutscenes at its opening and closing that go above and beyond the usual ‘congratulations’ fare of the time and show both great art direction and a level of attention to detail uncommon for the period, leaving a very cinematic impression to the game.
Musically, the Mega Drive did somewhat lag behind the SNES at the time, but some of the tracks on show here are both catchy, in keeping with the Arabic theme of the game and very well recorded, pushing the sound quality of the system. Sound effects are less amazing, with typical noises and a few recycled samples from the ‘Streets of Rage’ series, but serve their purpose without breaking the sense of world the developers are trying to build.
The games narrative follows Prince Ali, who at the game’s opening discovers a mysterious golden gauntlet with a blue jewel. Narrowly escaping the collapse of the shrine in which he discovered it, he heads home to his father’s Arabic kingdom of Oasis where we learn that his older sister has been missing for some time and that an evil sorcerer wielding a silver counterpart to the golden gauntlet, which can in fact be used to summon spirits. The tale of these gauntlets, their past owners and fate to clash time after time then gets swept away as Ali begins his quest to awaken the spirits and take on this villain, coming back into prominence at the games mid-point and finale. The writing is sparse, with the game liking to show rather than tell, but what’s on display is well written and makes narrative sense throughout.
Gameplay has two very simple hooks. Firstly the exploration and combat system is very well designed, mixing a Streets of Rage style combo and attacking system with top-down exploration ina fluid manner that also sees limited use items such as bows and bombs enter the mix. Ali has a limited inventory and can carry both healing items as well as weapons, with the game generously providing both regularly but asking you to choose what you want to prioritise. The more powerful swords and crossbows have less usage than the lower-level equivalents and would that space be better served holding more cheese to restore health when you’re in a pinch? Is it better to do distance damage for less than being in close and risk taking a hit? These choices force an interesting approach to item management and an added layer of tactics to the game. The second hook comes in the form of the gauntlet’s ability to summon spirits to aid you. As Ali travels alone, these act as computer controlled partners and each have very different move sets. All of them serving as keys to unlock more of the world map as well as having immediate benefits such as HP regeneration or powerful screen clearing attacks. Highly elemental in nature, they are summoned by sending a bolt of light from the golden gauntlet into the corresponding element on screen. This can be as simple as hitting a puddle to summon the water spirit, or as tactical as using an enemy’s own shadow to bring out the shadow spirit mid-battle. Puzzle solving also becomes a major element of the game in their use and whilst in play they drain your MP until its empty and then vanish. With solid combat, exploration (including a jump) and puzzle solving, the game builds on this with well thought out dungeons and some massive boss encounters. Ali himself grows by finding new spirits and weapons rather than levelling conventionally, marking this more of an Adventure game in genre than RPG despite having many of the other trappings.
The Story of Thor is a wonderful title for the Mega Drive that deserves to have more of a legacy and recognition than it currently has. Widely available on both virtual console, through emulation or on several compilations, it’s harder and more expensive to track down an original cart, but worth the effort. This is a game made for playing with a controller in your hand.