It's new to me: For the Frog the Bell Tolls
A Nintendo-developed and published Game Boy title that remains exclusive to Japan for reasons I cannot fathom.
This column is “It’s new to me,” in which I’ll play a game I’ve never played before — of which there are still many despite my habits — and then write up my thoughts on the title, hopefully while doing existing fans justice. Previous entries in this series can be found through this link.
Many of you are likely familiar with Link’s Awakening, the Game Boy (and Game Boy Color, and now Switch) entry in The Legend of Zelda series. Do you recall the prince who Link meets while trapped on Koholint Island, who is missing his Golden Leaves? Were you aware that this prince, Prince Richard, is actually from a different Nintendo game that has nothing to do with Zelda? For decades, and despite my adoration of Link’s Awakening, I had no idea, and that’s because the game in question was and is a Japan-exclusive title. We live in the future, though, and so, fan translations exist, so now I not only know of this title’s existence, but have played it, too.
Kaeru no Tame ni Kane wa Naru is the game in question: the Nintendo-published title is known outside of Japan as For the Frog the Bell Tolls, or sometimes as The Frog for Whom the Bell Tolls. It was released in 1992 for the Game Boy, and developed in a joint effort by Nintendo R&D1 and Intelligent Systems. It would take until 2011 for it to be translated into English by a group of fans, and another 10 years before I noticed that. Hey, there are a lot of games out there, alright?
Prince Richard is actually not the protagonist of For the Frog the Bell Tolls, but is instead the best friend of him. The protagonist is the Prince of Sable, named and controlled by you. The adventure begins with the two princes (oh no) finding out that a princess is in trouble and must be saved, leading to the two trying to race the other to the finish line. Pretty typical setup for a game from 1992, really, but the game quickly veers out of “pretty typical” territory and attempts to find ways to make familiar elements charming and different. It’s a Game Boy title that uses both a top down and a side-scrolling perspective, with action and exploration more of an emphasis in the former and environmental puzzle solving the feature in the latter, and it uses humor and fourth-wall-breaking in a way that calls to mind the Paper Mario franchise, most of a decade before that series existed. Which shouldn’t be a surprise, given Intelligent Systems develops those games, too.
Let’s talk about how the gameplay works. You control the Prince of Sable, and initiate battles by bumping into foes. There is no sword swinging here, even if you are equipped with one, and it’s not quite how something like older Ys games work, either, where there is a rhythm and action to the proceedings even if you aren’t physically swinging around your sword. You have the prince bump into a foe, and then a dust cloud appears, like you’re watching a cartoon where animating a dust cloud to represent a scuffle made more sense than actually animating the scuffle. From there, everything is up to the math: if your stats are high enough, you’ll defeat the foe, and if not, you won’t. It’s as simple as that.
You find health, power, and speed upgrades throughout the game, as well as upgrades to your equipment (swords, shields, and so on), and these allow you to take on more and more difficult foes. Early on, you might lose a couple of hearts taking on low-level enemies, as you don’t fight back particularly quickly nor do you hit particularly hard, but as you find power and life and speed upgrades, you will quite literally just bump these guys off of the screen, and be able to stand toe-to-toe with the game’s tougher foes. Dying isn’t a very big deal — you just pass out briefly and are carried to the nearest hospital, then you pay to have your health recovered as much or as little as you care to afford at the time. Then you try again. If you died, it’s either because you fought too many battles in a row without healing, or because you don’t have the upgrades to take on a particular enemy yet, and that specific foe is probably guarding the path that lets the story progress. So, you have to explore to find the upgrades you lack, whether they’re in a hidden cavern guarded by an old man who makes fun of the people like him who hang around to hand out items to you in games like Zelda, or they’re in a shop, waiting for you to buy once you’ve got the cash.
You don’t gain experience points for defeating enemies, so you mostly fight them to open up paths and collect heart refills and coins. This lets you kind of just skip over a bunch of fights if you aren’t feeling like fighting or aren’t in particular need of money at that moment, which helps with the pacing when you’re doing a bit of backtracking or just trying to get to a specific point. That you can basically just punt low-level guys off screen by bumping into them when you’re powered enough helps with this feeling, too.
Battles work the same whether you’re in a top down viewpoint or in a side-scrolling area, but the focus is more on puzzle solving in the the side-scrolling areas. Not all, but a significant part, of the side-scrolling in the game comes in one castle, which you open up more and more of as the story progresses, until you finally get to face off against Delarin, the villain of the game who is also a literal snake. A talking snake with cursed powers who can make himself much larger than your typical snake, but a snake nonetheless.
Which brings us to one of the elements that makes For the Frog the Bell Tolls work: Prince Sable can transform into a frog or a snake, and eventually, can do so basically at will. A witch turns Prince Richard and his men — who arrived to save Princess Tiramisu from Delarin first — into frogs, and then later on, turns the Prince of Sable into a frog as well. While a frog, you cannot fight, but you can converse with other frogs (this is how you find out Richard and his men have also been turned), jump much higher, and you can swim, too. This opens up all kinds of new areas to explore: ones where you need to be sure you do not get stuck in a battle. Eventually, you can change back from frog form, and will only become one whenever you make contact with water. Which in turn informs some of the environmental puzzle design of the game.
As for the snake, you turn into a snake by eating a snake egg, which you can find as an item drop from defeated enemies, or buy in bulk in stores. The snake can turn weaker enemies that the prince would normally not even enter into combat against into blocks, which you can then use to reach areas you otherwise would not be able to climb or jump to, or he can just whip them offscreen like the prince would have in his human form. The snake can also enter narrow passages and slither under tight obstructions that the frog and human forms of the prince cannot, and he can converse with fellow snakes, who, like their master, are pretty powerful. And tend to be traveling in numbers that even a powered up version of the prince in human form can have some trouble with.
Switching between human, frog, and snake form is a must for multiple environments in the game, and while you can become a snake pretty easily so long as you have the eggs in your inventory, turning into a frog often requires finding some hidden pool of water in one place or another, and then avoiding getting roped into a battle you literally cannot win while you find whatever tall ledge you need to jump to in frog form to progress. The game has much more than standard platforming thanks to the transformation elements, but there’s more to it than that as well: the Prince of Sable can grab onto ledges to pull himself up, and if you hold up on the D-pad before pressing the jump button, he’ll also jump much higher than usual, whether he’s in frog or human form. There are ziplines, enemies you need to turn into blocks by biting them as a snake while in midair, and sometimes constant switching of forms in order to progress through an area. It’s really well done.
The actual game world isn’t particularly large, which means you do quite a bit of backtracking, but the game seems to be respectful of your time and patience in this regard. Often you backtrack in a way that is simple for you at this point — enemies are no longer a problem or a time sink in any way, or you’re traveling in a different form, which has its own unique challenges and pathways to consider. Or the game will recognize that you probably didn’t feel like backpedaling through a cave or whatever, and will just transport you to your next destination in order to progress the story. Considering you don’t gain experience through battles, this is actually a great little feature, and deployed when you hope it will be throughout.
The way the backtracking works is also appreciated because the game is basically one long fetch quest. Go to point A, find out you can’t solve the problem point A was supposed to solve until you solve this other problem point A itself is having, which can be solved by going to point B, which has its own problem, and so on. For the Frog the Bell Tolls has a sense of humor about the proceedings, with the Prince of Sable often exasperated by how video games work whenever things can’t be solved as simply as by him shelling over some of the abundant cash reserves his backstory as a prince grants him, and it helps keep things light and enjoyable throughout, even when you’re in the same village you’ve already been to a few times already. It’s all a good way of dealing with the fact that you could only fit so many locations and such onto a Game Boy cartridge, and it helps make the game feel larger than the world it’s in.
My only real frustration with For the Frog the Bell Tolls is that it doesn’t have an official release outside of Japan. Why? How? There is nothing in this game that stands out as making it a problem for Nintendo of America, unlike, say, Famicom Detective Club’s story-based need for cigarette/smoking references and its series of grisly murders to be solved. Sure, there is a wine bar, but switching wine over to coffee or milk has never been a problem before even if it came off as awkward, and it would have “fit” in For the Frog the Bell Tolls as well as it did in Earthbound. It isn’t the kind of game you might hear someone say is “too Japanese” or what have you for a North American audience, and it’s not particularly challenging, either, which is another thing that kept publishers from releasing some Japanese exclusives outside of the country. Nintendo of America just didn’t bother localizing this game, and now, if you want to play it, you need to download an English-patched ROM and load it up on an emulator.
You can import a Game Boy cartridge and play it on one of the many Game Boy family systems that would play it, since those handhelds are not region-locked, and the game is certainly one you can figure out through trial and error without being able to read any Japanese, but the humor and the writing do help to elevate the game a bit, the fourth-wall stuff does add to the experience, so you would be playing an inferior version of the game. For the Frog the Bell Tolls uses a pretty similar engine to Link’s Awakening, so it would be something if Nintendo decided to finally localize that for a remaster, using the engine they did for the Switch release of the Zelda classic. Not something I expect, of course, but it would make for a lovely digital-only release at a reduced price point from your standard releases.
Regardless of any hypothetical release or format, though, For the Frog the Bell Tolls is a fun little Game Boy title that should be counted among the platform’s best offerings. It’s not your fault if you have to emulate it to discover that for yourself.
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