Alternatively Titled...Final Fantasy Legend II
Last week, Jon spoke fondly of days spent playing Final Fantasy II, a stunning game that really consolidated everything that was good about its predecessor, built upon it, and got rid of pretty much everything that was guff.
I'm sad to say that I never owned a NES or a SNES, and that I missed out on the first six Final Fantasy titles the first time around (something that has been rectified since). But I did have an original Game Boy, and so my first encounter with the franchise came in the form of Final Fantasy Legend I-III.
Only they weren't really Final Fantasy games at all.
Released under the Sa-Ga name in Japan, one could be forgiven for thinking that this trilogy of portable RPGs were completely authentic. Developed by Square, featuring deep RPG mechanics, music by Nobuo Uematsu, tons of customisation, numerous character classes, and a now-classic turn-based battle format, there were many similarities. So many, in fact, that when marketing the games to a Western audience, Square and Sunsoft decided to slap the Final Fantasy label to boost sales. Sadly, the truth of this industry (and its not alone) is that names shift units in far better fashion than quality ever will.
Thankfully, though, the Final Fantasy Legend games were pretty damn good. The best of the lot, as with the early instalments in the console-based series from whom these games had borrowed, was the second title - Final Fantasy Legend II.
Players first had to choose a background for their hero. Male or female? Human or mutant? Monster or robot? You heard me. Humans, channelling the inherent proclivity for violence with objects, were your standard warriors. Mutants balanced standard attacks with magical spells. Robots could be upgraded with fresh parts, impervious to various magicks, and hardy stalwarts of battle. But it was the monsters who were perhaps the most interesting.
The random battles in the game made playing through something of a grind, and there was plenty of dungeon crawling to be done. But aside from the standard XP boost, occasionally the foes you felled would leave behind a tasty morsel, and the monster in your party (if you had one) would be invited to dine upon its ripe flesh, triggering a transformation into another creature. If you'd defeated a monster of a higher standing than the one in your party, it was upgrade time! If it was the other way around, you might have had to peek through your fingers to spy your absurdly powerful horned stallion turn back into slime.
The story was a fairly intricate affair, but far less convoluted than that found in Final Fantasy Legend III. The player's character is woken up by their father one night, who tells them that he has to leave, and presses a piece of MAGI upon the player for safe keeping, instructing that the mAGI should never be lost. Years later, it transpires that the father was a member of a secret society called the Guardians, who served as Protectors of the MAGI - 77 shards of the statue of the goddess Isis that have the power to make gods of those who hold them. Now all grown up, the player's character takes off in search of their father, accompanied of course by a couple of friends.
It's a story that weaves in and out of multiple dimensions, crossing over into other worlds via the Pillar of Sky. You'll face off against six-limbed leviathans, you'll fight Odin in the halls of Valhalla just for shits and giggles (he doesn't really have any kind of beef with you, but one supposes that swilling mead and resurrecting people gets trying after a few centuries, and he fights you
out of boredom to test your mettle), you'll reunite families, topple religions, and you'll journey to the centre of the universe to prevent pan-dimensional earthquakes from destroying all civilisations everywhere.
Weaned on bedtime stories of Narnia and Middle-Earth, this was something else. This was me, no-one else. The nameless hero allowed for instant immersion. The portable nature meant I could carry my adventure wherever I chose, and leap back into the quest at every opportunity. And it was hard, nail-bitingly hard. The MAGI-stealing bosses, those evildoers who'd hoarded the good stuff and built empires with their newfound power all needed toppling, and all of them demanded multiple attempts. I was young, inexperienced, and this was my first proper foray into the world of RPGs. It was a baptism of fire, but I persevered, and pressed onwards. The mission was the most important thing, and in this game, unlike its predecessor, Odin would rally you when you fell. There was no instant game over (not until after you'd busted Odin's chops in Valhalla anyway); the bearded Norse god gave you an opportunity to leap back into the battle you'd abandoned in death and try once more, and once more again, until Uematsu's chiptune score heralded decisive victory.
I fired it up again the other day and was pleased to find that it's still as engrossing as ever, a masterclass in form and function, and I found myself thinking once again on the technological debate. That an RPG made up of blocky sprites can provide more thrills, enjoyment, and fundamental satisfactory in little victories along the way more than anything to bear the name Final Fantasy in the last five years is staggering. It's a game that thrives on delivering the fundamentals in emphatic fashion: an interesting story, accessible mechanics combined with serious challenges, creative customisation and large amounts of player choice. It's not just one of the best games to bear the Final Fantasy name...it's one of the best Game Boy games ever made.