Given the staggering popularity of the RPG genre, it’s amazing that so few titles have broken free of the seemingly obligatory European fantasy setting. Most notable entries tend to feature swords, knights, dragons and all the usual medieval trappings, and as a result some old-school role-playing titles are genuinely difficult to tell apart.
That’s what makes Sega’s Defenders of Oasis such a refreshing change. Although it boasts a fantasy setting, it instead chooses an Arabian theme over a European one. In place of castles you have ornate desert palaces, and in the place of pipe-smoking wizards you have bald-headed genies. This is a purely stylistic change of course; for the most part, Defenders of Oasis subscribes to the same well-worn JRPG blueprint as its contemporaries, but it’s surprising how much a difference a change of scenery makes.
Placed in the billowing pantaloons of the somewhat obnoxious Prince of Shanadar, you face a fairly typical plot involving evil forces invading your kingdom. Although the Prince begins his quest on his own, he is soon joined by three companions - Saleem the sailor, Agmar the thief and a Genie. The Genie isn’t your traditional RPG character, and doesn’t level-up through combat like the others do. Instead, you have to spend gold upgrading his lamp to boost his abilities. He’s possibly the most vital member of your team though, as he’s the only one that can harness the power of magic.
Your other warriors aren’t totally useless, despite their lack of magical ability. Each has a special skill which can be used in combat. The Prince can escape the battle and drop the party back to the map screen, while Saleem is able to perform a deadly dance which harms several foes at once. Agmar has a "hide" command which allows him to avoid damage for a single turn - a fitting skill for a thief.
Battles in Defenders of Oasis don’t really hold any surprises. They’re strictly turn-based and take place on a black screen, with just your enemies in view. Such limited presentation is forgivable when you consider both the age of the game and the humble nature of the host platform, but the lack of dynamic action does mean that fights struggle to hold your attention as well as they possibly could do.
Outside of combat, you view proceedings from a traditional top-down 2D perspective. These segments look slightly better, although there’s an odd disparity between the Prince and the rest of the game’s characters — his head is easily twice the size of everyone else’s. If you can get over this rather odd sizing issue then there’s lots to like here — it goes without saying that Defenders of Oasis looks poor compared to the 16-bit RPGs of the same era, but for a Game Gear title it is perfectly acceptable. Animated cut-scenes do their bit to raise the level of presentation even further.
Fighting valiantly against the limitations of the Game Gear’s sound hardware is Defenders of Oasis’ soundtrack. It’s actually not bad at all, with some catchy tunes to accompany the dungeon-crawling and monster-slaying. The sound effects are slightly less impressive, with the typical selection of low-grade noises standing in for sword blows and magical attacks.
Back in 1992, Defenders of Oasis was a revelation for Game Gear fans, largely due to the fact that the console had suffered a drought (no pun intended) of notable exclusive software up to that point. It was the system’s first decent RPG adventure and rightly found plenty of fans. Played today, its lustre has diminished somewhat, but it’s still well worth a look — especially if you’re seeking an RPG with a slightly different theme and are a fan of Sega’s own Phantasy Star series.