It's new to me: Legend of the River King

It's fishing, but it's also an RPG. A fishing RPG!

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.

Fishing takes a lot of patience, whether you’re talking about fishing in real life or, I don’t know, in a video game. Whether you’re talking about a fishing minigame in The Legend of Zelda or Yakuza or Trails of Cold Steel, or a video game of which the sole purpose is the fishing, this is the truth of it. If you lack the patience to wait for just the right time to start to reel in your catch, you’re not going to succeed, and you certainly aren’t going to actually catch anything.

Natsume’s Game Boy and Game Boy Color release from 1998 and 1999, respectively, Legend of the River King, is no exception. This isn’t some fishing minigame side attraction where you fish out a piece of heart and call it a day, but is instead a deeper experience that requires you learn where certain fish swim, what kind of hook, bait, and rod you need in order to successfully attract these fish and reel them in once you do, and also that you complete a series of quests in order to move the story along and progress toward your ultimate goal: catching the Guardian Fish that has the power to cure your ailing sister.

I’m not kidding when I say patience is the thing most required of you in Legend of the River King. You need to be patient when it comes to figuring out which bait will attract what kind of fish, and you need a little more patience mixed in because, even with the right bait, the wrong size hook means you won’t be reeling it in even if it does bite. There is a whole lot of trial and error here, and waiting around for the exact right confluence of events, but what, I ask you, does actually fishing entail? Sitting on the shore or on a boat, waiting, waiting, and more waiting. There are plenty of days where you can fish and fish and not walk away with a single one, or, at least, not the one you were hoping for. Legend of the River King works similarly, just with less mess.

You need to catch fish to sell in order to acquire the money you need to buy better rods, replacement hooks, and the game’s various kinds of bait, which are priced all over the place depending on the value of the fish they’re able to attract. You need to catch specific fish sometimes to fulfill requests — there is of course the overarching quest of tracking down the Guardian Fish, but, for examples of smaller missions, there is the man who will build you a raft that lets you go downriver, but only in exchange for a specific local fish, while another villager needs a different fish that requires a different hook and bait combo so she can make lunch for her father — in order to progress the story or unlock certain rods that might, in some cases, be better than the ones you could just pay for by selling a bunch of fish that aren’t tied to quests.

You’re not going to figure out just what is needed to catch those fish or even where they are residing in the river, lake, whatever immediately. You’ll have to talk to the townsfolk you meet, and they might give you some clues about the where and what of it all. You’ll have to set up on one shore or the other, on your raft, on a rock outcropping, to see where your line can reach. You’ll have to test the waters, literally, to see if the fish you happen to need is swimming there or a little further up or downstream. And you’ll realize in a hurry that you need a different hook, if the fish is able to just swim off with the bait you attracted it with, even if you manage to do everything else right.

Catching the actual fish is where the action is: everything that leads you to that point is trial and error, research, and pure patience. Trying to reel in a fish that has taken the bait, though, is an active experience, whether you’re currently pressing buttons to make it happen or waiting, waiting for the right moment to do so. As you can see in the trailer below (beginning at the 46 second mark), the fish will bite down and then swim away from you. You aren’t supposed to fight the fish’s swimming — if you do, you’ll lose the fish. What you need to do, instead, is let the fish swim until it tires itself out, then reel it in. It’ll start to resist, and you’ll feel it and see it when it happens, so then you let the fish swim away again. It’s even more tired now, so you reel in again, and rinse and repeat as long as necessary. Eventually, the fish will surface, and you’ll have your catch, which will go into your bucket so long as there’s room in there for another catch.

Basically everything about the game is relaxing until this point. The music is pretty typical Game Boy-era RPG stuff as you go into homes and shops, but when you’ve got a bite, things get more hectic. You mustn’t panic and follow the beat of the music or anything like that, though, but instead, keep a cool head, and reel in only when the fish is exhausted and has stopped swimming away. Resist the urges to muscle through, because that will only end in failure.

I said “basically everything” about the game is relaxing outside of actually reeling in fish, because yes, there is an exception. This is an RPG, after all, even if it’s an RPG about fishing. You will fight random, turn-based battles in Legend of the River King. You’re not taking down monsters, but wild animals and spiders and such that you come across in your journey. More fishing is not what makes you better at fishing: defeating wild creatures is. You’ll gain levels, which gain you more health — that will allow you to stay out on the water on a raft longer, aside from giving you more of a chance in future battles — and you’ll be able to cast your line further, too.

You would not be wrong if you noticed there’s a bit of a classic Pokémon vibe to things, not so much in the gameplay, but in the way the game sounds and looks. It’s very similar, gameplay-wise, in regards to exploring, talking to NPCs, collecting items and doing sidequests, but here, rather than catching adorable pocket monsters and deploying them in battles, you’re fishing. And squashing spiders, too, but mostly fishing, and it’s not like you use the fish in a battle against those spiders, either. It’s a lot shorter of a game than its fellow Game Boy and Game Boy Color RPGs, too: even with all the trial and error, you’re looking at a game that should take you considerably less than 10 hours from start to finish. And even less time than that if you don’t want to be patient, and instead look at Gamefaqs or whatever for a detailed guide on what gear you need to catch whatever fish you’re looking for.

Legend of the River King is not a game I played in my youth, when the Game Boy and Game Boy Color were active handheld systems, but is one I got into recently as an adult. Which is probably good, since I’m not sure I would have had the patience for this kind of experience back when I was a pre-teen getting more into action games, who needed a bit more narrative than this from my role-playing game experiences, to boot. With the patience of an adult who knows that relaxing is a requirement in life, though — one who is also not particularly enamored with the idea of actually going fishing — Legend of the River King scratched a particular itch for me. Enough so that I’m going to want to dive in to its sequel, too.

The Nintendo 3DS eshop has the Game Boy Color editions of both Legend of the River King and its sequel available for $4.99 each, which is not a price point I’m about to complain about, especially not when I’m just happy to see a classic Natsume series besides Harvest Moon getting some Virtual Console love. That $5 MSRP is also 1/11th the price of the cheapest Game Boy copy on Ebay as of this writing, too, so, you know, there’s that to consider as well. It’s somewhat surprising that even these titles made it onto Virtual Console, just because the River King series simply does not have much representation outside of Japan. The last North American release came in 2007, for the DS, and is one of just four to come out in the region, despite the existence of 16 total games — core and spinoffs — in the series. These two are available, though, so if you have a 3DS and a desire to wait patiently for the fish to bite, well, you know where to spend your $5.

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