Foreword Tales Through Emulation is a series of articles about playing through games on various emulators and sometimes alongside console. Not only will I judge the game, but the experience the emulator provides for the game. Thank you and enjoy.
As I detailed in a previous post, I have been waiting to play the Etrian Odyssey series for quite some time only because I really liked the soundtrack. I have a hard time diving into games without justification, so, I'll be testing both melonDS and Medusa throughout this playthrough.
I know there are other DS emulators on the up-and-coming list, but, these are the two I feel the most comfortable with after testing on them and reporting issues in the past. If I get recommended another one that's coming together, I may add them to the list.
Why not DeSmuME/DraStic?
After trying out Etrian Odyssey, I can confidently say I would have had a easier time on DeSmuME. There were some quirks and problems I ran into that a more mature emulator wouldn't have had.
I didn't choose DeSmuME for my playthrough simply because I know it's been tested and the project is mostly stagnant at this point. It is what it is for the most part. Meanwhile, Medusa and melonDS are both active and I can easily report bugs to the developers.
Despite being a much more mature emulator, DeSmuME does have quite a few bugs with Etrian Odyssey, particularly in the software renderer.
DraStic would also a viable choice, but, since I don't have an Android device (with a touchscreen) worth a damn, I'll have to pass on it. I know I don't have to justify why I chose the emulators that I wanted to use anyway, but, I figure a look into the thought process may give you an idea of my expectations.
Onto the game!
A Foreword Before Diving into the Labyrinth
If you're hoping for a detailed review of Etrian Odyssey, you won't get it from me yet. This is my first time playing the game and I didn't exactly make much progress. While I do plan on giving a verdict at the end of the game, you'll have to wait. Some basic details about the game is that it's a first person, turn based dungeon crawler. Where Etrian Odyssey differs is that the main draw of the game is that you must draw and maintain your own maps using the Nintendo DS touchscreen!
One of the nice things about melonDS and Medusa is that they both use raw save files. Switching emulators is as simple as booting the other emulator. A quick note though, if I do run into a serious problem in both emulators, DeSmuME can also import raw savefiles to get me past any potential crashes or impassable areas in the new emulators.
Hopeful First Steps Turn to Tragedy
I chose to start off with melonDS first. The titlescreen greeted me with poor performance on my i5-3570K, running at around 85% speed. For the most part in game is full-speed or close to that. A few spots in the labyrinth's dip a bit when there's a lot on screen, but I wouldn't consider it a serious problem. More annoyingly, the game chugs pretty bad within loading screens on melonDS.
Considering that melonDS uses an interpreter, this isn't especially surprising. In the few games that run mostly full speed in Dolphin's interpreter, loading screens tend to be very slow compared to the actual gameplay. Perhaps the interpreter can be optimized more in the future, as both DeSmuME and Medusa's interpreters don't seem to slowdown during loading screens.
Going through the opening on melonDS was fairly pleasant. I created my guild with a bunch of characters along with sometimes goofy character portraits to give them a hint of personality.
While I'm not familiar with Etrian Odyssey, I am familiar with RPGs in general and immediately invested some of my starting money into basic equipment. I decked out my front-line of units with better weapons and tougher armor. I also made sure to save. While I didn't know much about Etrian Odyssey, I had been warned that it's very hard and my friends did recommend savestates. Unfortunately for me, both melonDS and Medusa lack savestate support in their current versions.
Tragedy Strikes Fast
Before I did much in the Labyrinth, one of my characters died. At that point I (mistakenly) thought the game had permadeath - usually when a game says "Character has died," and full-healing your party doesn't fix it, they're gone for good.
I recruited some new members and kept pushing further in the labyrinth and ran into another set of enemies that ended up killing my whole team and giving me my first game over.
melonDS attempts to detect what kind of savefile a game uses through heuristics. The savefile on melonDS was 8KB while after checking out a proper savefile, I found out it should be 64KB
I reported issue 89 to melonDS issue tracker. Unfortunately for me, my safety save was left completely useless and I now had to start anew.
Moving to Medusa
Medusa also uses save-type detection heuristics, but thankfully it got the right answer and made a 64KB file. The first thing I did was close Medusa and reload the save to make sure it worked. Once I confirmed the savefile worked, I continued on my quest to get back my lost progress.
Unfortunately, things seemed a little off, so I loaded up melonDS with this new savefile to get a comparison shot.
Medusa had some text rendering issues not present in melonDS. If you can't see it, check out the "O" in organize. Text issues with this game aren't surprising: DeSmuME has a hack for Etrian Odyssey to address text rendering issues.
The issue in Medusa is different; both Medusa and melonDS use integers for texture coordinates much like the DS, whereas DeSmuME's renderers uses floats. The hack simply rounds certain texture coordinate floats to integers.
A small text rendering issue wasn't game breaking so I proceeded into the labyrinth. While nothing looked completely wrong, I couldn't help but think that it looked different from melonDS. It bothered me enough that I took screenshots from both emulators to get a better look at things.
And thus issue 784 was born. If you look closely, you'll see a light-bluish-green fog in melonDS that's missing in Medusa. It's actually difficult to see in screenshots, but more obvious in motion. Why? The fog helps integrate the colors of the 2D backdrops with the 3D that pops in as you explore the labyrinth. Without the fog, the pop-in was extremely jarring and I just didn't remember it being so bad on melonDS, which is why I investigated.
If I had been playing this in an single emulator, odds are I wouldn't have noticed.
Performance wise, Medusa is better and worse than melonDS. Loading screens don't hit it nearly as hard, but, the labyrinth is much slower, only hitting full speed in a few select areas rather than most of the time like melonDS. It wasn't so bad that I couldn't play the game, but it was definitely noticeable.
That wasn't the end of my problems with Medusa, though. When I got into a battle, I had finally seen enough. Or had I?
Enemies do not render on Medusa, making the battles look particularly silly. While it's still playable, it's not exactly enjoyable. I reported the issue, but failed to see that it was left overs from a more severe issue reported some time ago.
Thankfully, Medusa did give me a proper savefile, and now I could proceed in melonDS. Even with a working emulator, the game did not show mercy and continued to beat me down for a good hour. With the morning sun shining through the window, I finally raised the white flag and closed the game.
I'd have to return to the labyrinth another time...
End Thoughts for the Night
To say anything conclusive about Etrian Odyssey 1 would be jumping the gun when I'm still stuck on the first floor flailing about. Plus, I enjoy a challenge so I'm not really disheartened by failure. I'm having fun trying to figure out how I'm supposed to play the game, and I'll know if I like the game or not if I find the game fun once I know what I'm doing.
The one aspect I will point out is that you do get some opportunities to make choices within the labyrinths that can have negative consequences. It establishes that you need to take calculated risks to survive, and I appreciate that.
Outside of creating the wrong type of savefile, melonDS did a fantastic job. There were no visible graphics issues and while it didn't run full speed at all times, it was reasonable enough to play. There were no emulator crashes to halt progress either.
Reported Issues - issue 89
Medusa was a mixed bag for this test. It was both essential for me to stick to only using the new emulators for this run, but at the same times very difficult to use outside of very basic comparisons.
Medusa's save heuristics managed to create a proper savefile, which was great! The myriad of graphical issues were not so great, and performance was sometimes better and worse than melonDS. While the enemies not rendering was the worst, little details like the missing fog and slightly worse text do add up to hurt the experience. On the plus side, I never ran into any crashes or stability issues within emulation itself during the time I spent in Etrian Odyssey on Medusa.
Hopefully the issues within Medusa clear up so that I can use both emulators for a majority of this run.
Part 2 will continue once I've managed to get through the first major boss of the game.