Rumor says that the legendary Black Onyx, an artifact that grants eternal youth and happiness to those who can find it, lies within the Black Tower near the town of Utsuro. You assemble a party of brave adventurers and venture into the tower, defeating monsters on your way to the great treasure.
The Black Onyx is one of the first traditional role-playing games made by a Japanese company. It is similar in gameplay to early Wizardry and Ultima games with killing monsters and exploring dungeons, with dark, realistic visuals. The player creates a party (up to five members) and explores a maze-like 3D dungeon, fighting random enemies on the way. The heroes also meet adventurers who can be convinced to join the party. The combat engine is turn-based.
The Black Onyx was among the first traditional role-playing games developed in Japan and by a Japanese company. It was released at a time when the Japanese market was much more shut off from the American one. Henk Rogers, an American who founded Bullet-Proof Software, Inc. in Japan, noticed the genre's omission on the market and knew how successful it was in the US. He made The Black Onyx a straight-forward dungeon-exploring and monster-killing RPG, drawing heavily on the template of the Ultima and Wizardry series, and launched it by Christmas 1983. The distributor broke its promise and ordered only 600 copies, making the game a complete commercial failure. In January 1984 he had burned through his $50,000 start-up fund and with a final effort hired a Japanese interpreter to visit different game magazines and explain the game's mechanics, convinced that it was completely misunderstood. Reviews came out in March/April and the game was eventually met with a lot of praise. It sold 10,000 copies that month and would continue to do so for the other months that year.
Much like text adventures were copied and adapted to Japanese culture, the role-playing genre was treated in the same way. Instead of building on the Western concept, The Black Onyx inspired the creation of different series of Japanese role-playing games that would take the country by storm. Yuji Horii launched Dragon Warrior in 1986 and replaced the dark, realistic visuals with the bright and colourful kawaii artwork Japanese were more familiar with. It also started the trend of Japanese RPGs focusing on a strict story and party management, while Western RPGs largely explored a free narrative. That game, and not The Black Onyx, became the blueprint for Japanese RPGs, and it was quickly followed with games that would turn in major franchises, such as the first Final Fantasy (1987) for Square and Phantasy Star (1987) for SEGA.