I can’t remember what the first video game I ever played was. In 1999, maybe, my parents bought me a berry-colored GameBoy Color and a copy of Pokémon Red Version. That was the first game that I ever owned, but was it the first game I ever played? My dad played video games before I was born. He would sit downstairs in our guest room, hunched in front of the CRTV with a PlayStation controller. His favorite game was Command & Conquer: Red Alert, a real-time strategy game, and to this day he will sometimes boot up that game and go a round against the CPU. It is a complex game. But even as his memory flags with age, he still knows the song and dance routine that opens every match — how to send out trucks to mine ore deposits, build barracks and power plants, put together a recon team to scour the fog-covered map. The music, the chunky sound of gunfire, the muffled cry of a soldier exploding into a little pool of red blood, it’s all baked into his consciousness, and mine by osmosis. Playing Red Alert is like a language he speaks. It’s part of him.
Perhaps for that reason, whenever I’m asked what my first video game was, I think of Alundra. It may or may not have been the first game I played, but it hardly matters. I recall sitting with my dad in that guest room. He would make me read the dialogue aloud and quiz me on what the more complicated words meant (“conceited” is the only one I remember). No one knows as a child when they are having a formative experience. I didn’t — not even when I was printing hundreds of pages of Alundra walkthrough in my dad’s office off of a dial-up connection, not when I was recording the music coming out of the television using a cassette player. Of course I was addicted to Pokémon, as all kids my age were. With Alundra, I was absorbed in a personal discovery.
Alundra is a 1998 action-adventure game, often compared to Zelda in a hail of bullet points: a silent elf-like hero, action gameplay with myriad weapons and upgrades, heart containers (“vessels” in Alundra), an overworld, dungeons, and puzzle-solving. Alundra is known for its tough, intricate puzzles, and an emphasis on platforming — which can be frustrating, given the precision that Alundra demands and the difficulty in judging the distance between its 2D sprites. The combat can be challenging, as enemies juke about and swarm you with sudden movements. I love Alundra, but I feel no real need to replay it any time soon. It isn’t that the gameplay is bad, but the game is lengthy and sometimes grueling. There’s a reason kid-me was printing hundreds of pages of walkthrough in my dad’s office.
It’s a game with an earthy color palette and round spritework that conveys shades of light and darkness. The game has weight to it — in the pushback as you strike your sword against a fleshy enemy in a stroke of light, the sound of running streams and water dripping off of cave walls, the slow crawl of fog and abundance of shadows in sunlight. The grass is short and weedlike, and the trees are on the fringe between green and yellow, like summer fading into fall. Baroque shrines and chapels too large for the population loom, empty and cavernous. Alundra exudes a special kind of atmosphere — lived-in, weathered, lonely.
You are Alundra, a member of the elven clan of Elna, who possess the power to enter other people’s dreams. After his vessel is shipwrecked in a storm, Alundra washes up on the shores of the village of Inoa. There Alundra learns that the church has outlawed worship of idols, leaving the villagers tormented by nightmares. A curse plagues the village: those who die in their dreams die in reality. As a “Dreamwalker,” Alundra offers his aid to step into the villagers’ dreams and rid them of their nightmares.
Despite your swashbuckling adventures across the island, into caves and mine shafts, dragon-guarded volcanoes and forest fortresses, Alundra’s story firmly revolves around the fate of Inoa. Here is a close-knit village filled with characters whose families have grown up together, who gossip in the doorways, patronize each others’ businesses, gather in the town square, hold secret hopes, affections and resentments. There is the kindhearted blacksmith Jess, who takes Alundra in and serves as a father figure; the inquisitive scholar Septimus, whose agnosticism places him at odds with the other villagers, but who wishes to help them however he can; the taciturn hunter Kline, who lives alone on the outskirts of the village; the young seer Sybil, who aids Alundra with her prophetic powers; the devout Giles, a protective older brother who aligns with the church after losing both of his parents. These characters, and many more, are all at risk of perishing in their nightmares. Alundra soon learns that he cannot save them all.
The brilliance of Alundra is in its portrayal of the psychological and spiritual toll that rampant death takes on a small community. There is a fatalistic sense of ritual — someone fails to wake up, the villagers gather at their bedside, Alundra is called to put himself on the line. He is pulled into abyssal nightmares with white-flesh caverns undulating over pitch-black darkness. Each dream reveals something hidden in the psyche of the dreamer; each nightmare is a battle for a life. Sometimes Alundra succeeds, pulling the dreamer back to consciousness, to grateful families. Sometimes he doesn’t. When a villager succumbs, the remaining villagers gather for a funeral service. As the game goes on, you count the attendees and come to a sobering realization. With each death, Jess goes home, struck by sudden inspiration, and creates a new weapon for Alundra. The villagers lose hope; some even begin to suspect Alundra’s role in their misfortune. Dark forces are at work.
Alundra was the first game developed by Matrix Software. Matrix’s development history is puzzling — aside from Alundra and the ill-received Alundra 2, Matrix has not developed very many original IPs, and their resume is filled with portable remakes and spin-offs of the Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy series. I played a great deal of Alundra 2, and I vaguely remember a lighthearted 3D action adventure with very few connections to its predecessor. Time and consumer opinion have not been kind to Alundra 2. This is baseless conjecture, but had that game succeeded critically and financially, I wonder if Matrix would have beaten a different path.
Alundra was published and localized by Working Designs, a now-defunct American publisher well-known to aficionados of PS1 JRPGs for leaving an indelible mark in their localizations. In Alundra, a medieval fantasy in the spirit of Zelda, the blonde beach bum Bonaire channels The Dude: “The faith of a few and a little weed is all we need, bro.” Later in the game, the character Meia proclaims to Alundra, “You’re lucky I give good head, lover boy. Most girls would ask you to cough up a ring first!” Little Alex sailed cluelessly on through these waters, probably much to the relief of dad.
Working Designs’ localizations were controversial for obvious reasons, but I think their work on Alundra was excellent. They did a lot more than the raunchy innuendo their detractors accuse them of; they had an ear for dialogue and used it to infuse the characters with life. Only 8-4 does modern JRPG localization of this caliber, where the characters appear to relish in their own wit and speak as if they are thinking and reacting. Working Designs’ sense of humor and penchant for anachronism actually works in Alundra, a game that must be a little strange and endear itself to you so that its dark turns hit you with all intended force.
Of the characters, I like Septimus, a bookworm who lacks the power to help the villagers on his own. He trusts Alundra and stands up for him. The game’s many conversations with Septimus have the two brainstorming on their next steps, because the antagonists cannot be defeated with sheer brawn; they must first be unmasked. I also like Meia, a fellow member of the Elna clan who arrives in Inoa later in the game. An adept Dreamwalker, Meia spurns the villagers’ superstition and mocks Alundra for his reckless and unskilled use of his powers. Her lively banter with Septimus creates a fun dynamic; a sojourn into her dreams reveals a stark and understated tragedy. She aids Alundra in the dreamscape, and understands the horrors they must face.
The story conveys itself not just through dialogue, but in the thoughtful, minimalist storytelling that some older games used to compensate for technical limitations. Characters can express deep grief simply by turning away from the camera. After a funeral, Meia approaches Alundra, stops, lowers her head, and then walks away in silence. After you come to know Meia, you understand why she does this — there is no great reason, only that she is familiar with loss and knows that words fail. I am reminded of one of my favorite moments in Ocarina of Time, in which Saria gives Link the Fairy Ocarina before he leaves the Kokiri behind; Link steps slowly away from Saria, and then sprints out of the Lost Woods.
The game’s soundtrack by Kohei Tanaka occupies a permanent space in my mind, where it sometimes plays without prompting. Tanaka composes mostly for anime such as G Gundam and One Piece, and recently for the Gravity Rush video games. His work on Alundra kickstarted my love for video game music — for years I hummed his tunes without knowing his name. He imbues the grand and heroic adventure of Alundra with mystery, and melancholy, and quietude. One of my favorite songs comes from the game’s final dungeon — not an epic culmination, but a solemn, haunted piano track that suddenly swells with emotion. Alundra’s soundtrack coaxes out the notes of its story perfectly, becoming part of its identity.
Alundra is my “first game.” It inspired a personal fascination in dreamscapes. I became drawn to psychological stories where characters grapple with pain and are changed, not always for the better. It shaped my tastes and interests in ways that, to this day, I do not know how to explain. It is the first time I stepped outside of a story and appreciated it for the artistry behind it — that someone could write this story, with these characters, and capture some part of myself in all of it. Art can change us and move us. I think it can also show us who we are, by revealing a part of ourselves that we didn’t even know was in there with us.