After having finished the original three Final Fantasy games, you would think that the next thing for me to do is go to 4, 5 and 6. I did play 4, but not 5 and 6 because Final Fantasy is from this point on starting to become a larger franchise that encompasses more than just a direct throughline of numbered sequels.
So for this article I have now played and completed:
- Final Fantasy Adventure (FFA)
- Final Fantasy IV (FF4)
- Final Fantasy Mystic Quest
As I was playing these games, I began to think about how something is identifiably Final Fantasy. It’s more difficult now than it used to be to answer that question. At the time where it was just the first three games, the answer would have been as simple as “a series of turn-based RPGs from Japan”. The modern answer would be something more like “A brand which largely encompasses games which are mostly RPGs or games with RPG elements”.
The biggest defining thing about Final Fantasy to me is weirdly how much it shifts and changes. Initially the most appealing thing to me was that none of the main numbered games actually continue the same story. I could jump into Final Fantasy XIII and not have to worry about what went on in the prior twelve entries (I did actually do that, and I had a great time with it). Eventually I became more aware of direct sequels and spin-offs, which meant that these universes were not so fully isolated, and it makes explanation of what Final Fantasy is slightly more difficult.
The easier way I find to think of it is that Final Fantasy is more like a group of sub-series. For example, Final Fantasy VII with all of its various spin-off games, movies, books may as well be its own individual series. There are also others that have vague connections through story, but much tighter links through gameplay aspects such as Final Fantasy Tactics.
It still doesn’t feel like the series’ name has lost all meaning to me either, while there’s all sorts of games that encompass the series that are radically different from each other, they always seem distinctly Final Fantasy to me, with some exceptions. Which brings me to these games, I played three more of them so I might as well talk about them:
Final Fantasy Adventure
This is the first of what would eventually become known as the “Mana series”. It would receive a few sequels that decided to no longer go by the name of Final Fantasy, such as Secret of Mana and Trials of Mana. All this various naming can seem a little puzzling, but I chose to play this game as it was initially released with the Final Fantasy name attached to it (except in Europe where it came out under the title Mystic Quest, which means that conversations with European players about Final Fantasy Mystic Quest can get very confusing).
It’s an odd game because it doesn’t feel like it neatly fits into Final Fantasy as it’s refocus into an item-gated action RPG pushes it away from that, and it’s more standard high-fantasy presentation feels like it doesn’t quite fit with the bright colours of the Mana series (though it can’t help being colourless, it’s a game for the original Game Boy).
What we have here is something quite similar to Zelda, where you go between dungeons with puzzles in them to get various items used for getting past environmental obstacles. It’s all tied together with a world map that opens up for more exploration once you have more of the useful items.
A lot of what’s needed for puzzle solving and progression is tied to the equippable weapons and learnable magic. Axes can be used to chop down trees blocking the way, chain whips can be used to cross gaps, ice spells can be used to freeze enemies to solve block puzzles.
Certain items have to be bought at shops before venturing into a dungeon, such as keys and mattocks (for breaking rocks), which are consumables as well. With this and the use of equipment, it definitely helps it lean more into the RPG side of things, as it’s about making sure you’re prepared for an adventure. The abundance of keys available for sale is strange though, it would have made more sense for them to be lock picks instead.
Level grinding is an odd thing to do in a Zelda-like game, it’s a little repetitive but doesn’t get tiring as the game is fairly short. Enemies run around in random directions and mostly die after one or two hits. Boss battles don’t offer much more complexity either, as though they do take a fair amount more attacks to defeat, their simplistic patterns make them rather easy. This game isn’t very hard.
When you do level up you actually get to make a choice of how your stats grow. It’s fairly simple as you only get four options to choose from. You can pick from Stamina which increases HP, Power which boosts your attack, Wisdom which strengthens your magic, and Will which lets you cast special moves at a faster rate. I chose to put more points into Stamina, as I was mostly concerned with staying alive, though I did throw more into the others so that I could do more damage. I don’t have the time for multiple playthroughs now but it would be interesting to see if builds based more on magic or high attack power are valid.
As it’s made for the Game Boy, each dungeon is short, making it easy to play for shorter sessions. On days where I put more time into it, I felt like I was making a lot of progress. It can be a little tricky to know exactly where you need to go, so looking up a map or guide may be needed (there is an in-game map but it’s largely useless as it’s mostly blank).
Most dungeon puzzles are very simplistic, they do break up the pace of the game nicely, but ice block puzzles became a hassle (thankfully there’s not a lot of them). There is a really creative dungeon where you ride a minecart that is constantly moving across a track, and you have to use a weapon to hit switches in order to steer it in the right direction. It’s a cool set-piece but it’s a one-off which is a shame, as I would have liked to see more like it, but to be honest I could just play Zelda games instead for something like that.
The writing in this game is fairly strange, as it has to be crammed into small text boxes to fit onto a tiny Game Boy screen. It honestly feels like reading someone’s shorthand notes of a story, it is a little overly succinct. One of the main villains is just named “Dark Lord”, no “the” as they need to save space.
However there is a moment that is really interesting and feels a little more emotional than anything in the prior games (and only a little, I don’t want to oversell it). At a certain point in the game the main character is defeated by the villain and his chocobo (yes you get one of those in this game) has rescued him and taken him back to a nearby village to recover. The hero then confronts his mentor-of-sorts Bogard, yelling at him in frustration that he doesn’t want to be the hero and Bogard should do it instead. What then happens is that Bogard yells at him to get out and will not talk to you anymore. When you talk to another villager, it turns out that Bogard is very badly injured, and the hero is the only one who can do the job now. Even the chocobo got hurt really badly getting you back to the village (don’t worry they turn out okay). In a game where everything is so simple and sparse in terms of dialogue, it took me by surprise.
This story beat like this is something that makes the hero a little more interesting than in any of the prior games. The main characters of FF1-3 have very little interesting aspects about them. The original game does use blank slate characters deliberately, but the other two don’t and don’t feature the most memorable characters here. The biggest difference by comparison is that in most of these games so far, stuff just happens around the major characters. This story beat is defined by the main character doing something himself.
In this game there is character development! It’s a small few minutes of the game but it’s exciting, and not because this game is now a storytelling masterpiece, it’s far from that. What’s really fascinating to me here is the gradual evolution, and that it comes from the first spin-off (though the closeness in release time between this and FF4 makes me believe that they have to have been developed simultaneously, and if we are considering storytelling, FF4 blows it out of the water in that regard).
It’s interesting that this is the first game where the story is by Yoshinori Kitase, who would eventually go on to direct Final Fantasy VI, VII, VIII and X.
If you would like to see a different take on an old Zelda-style action RPG, but with a little more RPG thrown in there, it’s worth trying Final Fantasy Adventure. It’s an easy game and also most likely one of the shortest games I’ll be playing for this blog at about roughly ten hours. It’s also been remade a few times, once as Sword of Mana for the GBA, and again as Adventures of Mana for mobile phones and PS Vita. The remakes seem to want to tie it more into the future Mana games, rather than its Final Fantasy roots. I haven’t tried either of those remakes just yet but maybe someday I will.
Final Fantasy IV
The prior Final Fantasy games didn’t really have much in the way of well-defined characters. Heroes and villains were just that, without much else to distinguish them. Final Fantasy IV makes distinct characters much more central to the game, and is a much better game because of it, but that’s not the only aspect which this one improves upon.
You start off the game with the Dark Knight, Cecil, who will be the only character which remains in the party for the rest of the game. The first moments of this game don’t actually give you control of the party just yet, it does make use of the game’s presentational elements such as the world map and battle screens. It depicts a raid on a town which Cecil is leading and it’s apparent from the start that he is working for the bad guys, as he is fighting seemingly weak and innocent people. It’s a short sequence but it offers more detail and intrigue than in the previous games, especially having just come off of Final Fantasy Adventure’s awkward shorthand.
Once you get control of the game, one of the first actions you can take is to walk over and talk to fellow party member Kain. Instead of a simple response that lasts one or two text boxes, it’s a full conversation where you learn about Kain and Cecil’s place in the ranks, how they feel about their situation in the Kingdom of Baron, and part of Kain’s heritage. Very little time is wasted in order to demonstrate that these are much more interesting characters.
The original Final Fantasy began with a king sending you on a quest to save the world, which you eventually do. Final Fantasy IV contrasts this when you meet the King of Baron for the first time, he comes across as much more greedy and demanding, and is more intent on conquering the world than saving it. The mission he sends the party is actually a punishment, as Cecil had “shown disloyalty” by questioning the king’s motives (as he wasn’t sure he was doing the right thing in the game’s opening sequence). It ends up with even more tragedy, as Cecil is tricked into destroying an entire village, as the people there would have disrupted the king’s plan for conquest.
This paints a much bleaker world than the other games have managed so far. While it is eventually revealed that another villain has been controlling everything from behind the scenes, there’s still something about the way people in the game talk about the militarism of Baron that seems relatable. Townspeople lament about how much their nation has become like this, but also continue to work in it, giving a hint of the all-too-real despair that comes from living in a country that’s too powerful (maybe I am overthinking it a little).
Characters in Final Fantasy IV have so much more character! It feels as though a lot of the game’s systems have been built with that in mind. Every party member is now a defined character class, which will not change over the course of the game (with one exception used to show character development). Cecil is a Dark Knight because he trained as one to serve his kingdom, Kain devoted his life to becoming a Dragoon because of his father, Yang comes from a nation where many learn to become Monks.
The shape of the party changes a lot over the course of the game as well. One or more members leave at certain points, and it may seem a little cruel to have you spend time to level up characters only for them to be taken away, the game never puts you at a big disadvantage. You’re always given a character that can heal and cast spells. Party members come and go on their own terms and when they come back they’re usually at a much higher level, and have learned new skills. It cements each party member as an individual character, as prior games had issues with this (FF1-3’s party characters were poorly defined, it felt as though in those games I was controlling a single character that inhabited multiple bodies).
By the end of the game you will have a party of five suited to take on all the game puts in front of you. In the original SNES version of the game you had no option of changing it, so everything was balanced to accommodate it. Later versions of the game (such as the PSP version I played) let you change it, but you do end up with a lot of equipment clearly meant for that original team, so I kept it.
Having the game define the party makes everything much simpler. I never felt a need to research a good set-up like I did in some of the other games, for fear of investing time into levelling up “useless classes”. I could see why Square chose to bring this game over to the US when it was wary of bringing over FF2 and 3.
There’s another detail that I would like to highlight which is used effectively in the story-telling and that is spells. Rydia is a summoner, who is able to cast a lot of elemental black magic, with the exception of Fire. She is afraid of it as her village was burned down. It serves to create a big moment in the game when she is finally able to cast it because of the party’s encouragement. There’s also a spell called Meteor, initially learned by the Sage Tellah. No matter how high you level up that character, he will never have enough magic points to actually cast it, and this gives more gravitas to the moment in which it is finally unleashed.
The PSP port I played looks great, with nice detailed 2D sprites filled with bright colours that look great on my PSVita’s screen. There’s a few small details added in battle sprites that I liked. When readying an attack Cecil, an experienced fighter, raises his fists ready for action, whereas Rydia, a child, covers her head with her hands and ducks. There is a full-3D remake available on other platforms, but I don’t think it looks as nice and I have been told by many people that it is a much harder game, which I did not fancy.
In Final Fantasy IV a trademark feature of the series’ battles was introduced: the Active Time Battle system (ATB). Instead of everyone’s turns being semi-randomly generated by how high everyone’s speed statistics are, an on-screen bar fills up in real time for each character and when it’s full they can take their turn. I love this system as it allows for me to be more reactive in battle, as every turn is taken as soon as the bar is filled. It’s also very satisfying to cast Haste on party members and see the ATB bar fill up visibly faster. There is an option to change the speed of the battle system as well if you would like the game to go ridiculously fast (I personally think the highest speed is way too quick for me).
Composer Nobuo Uematsu’s work gets much stronger from this game on, as his tendencies for progressive rock bombast, and use of unconventional samples begin to show. Here is a Spotify link to a playlist with my favourite tracks from the game (I would have liked to have made a playlist for all three games, but the others are absent from the streaming service).
This is the first game out of these that I can recommend without caveats, it’s just a great RPG worth getting into. Time would fly by as I played it, I was just very compelled by how well put together so much of this game is. This is absolutely the best game I’ve played so far in this blogging project. If you’re thinking about giving this one a go you absolutely should. If you’re a fan of RPGs in general and haven’t managed to try this one (aka me before this), then I think it’s one of the best things you could play.
NOTE: All of this is specifically referring to the version of the game made for the GBA and PSP, don’t take this as a recommendation for the version available on mobile phones and Steam as it seems to be a very different game. It makes me think that at some point I should seek out the NES version of FF3, as it’s likely quite different to the Steam version of it I played.
Final Fantasy Mystic Quest
To clarify, when I am just saying “Mystic Quest”, I am using it to refer to this game, and not Final Fantasy Adventure. I just want to avoid any confusion over naming.
The narrative around this game is that it was intended to be more of a beginner RPG, something to use to introduce novice players into the genre. It seems a little odd considering how games are built today. If a game wanted to accommodate newer players today, changes would often be made to future entries of the main game. The series itself would do so proudly 24 years later. Final Fantasy XV will proudly state when you open the game that it is “a Final Fantasy for Fans and First-Timers”. It’s weird to see something made with the specific direct intent of easing in newer players.
A game built with the entire purpose of teaching new players how to approach a genre they are unfamiliar with seems to exist as a marketing tool. There’s no point in making an “introductory” game if they didn’t expect people to buy another later. That said I did try to go into this game with a bit of an open mind, as I was genuinely interested in finding out what decisions were made in order to make this game approachable.
So what’s different about this game? For a start random encounters are now gone. Every area now has a limited number of combat encounters, that are on fixed points of the map. It changes the relationship with the space, as to ensure I was levelled up, I had to seek out combat across the map as opposed to walking around one spot in circles.
This paired with lower battle difficulty means that the game also has a much calmer feel to it, there’s no anxiety over suddenly fighting a particularly strong or annoying monster at random. Even if you do die, you can just restart from the same battle. Once enemies in a dungeon are defeated, they’re gone until you leave the area and come back. It feels strange to walk back to the exit of a dungeon after all encounters in the area had been cleared. It actually made me think about having to walk back through levels in Hotline Miami after defeating all enemies, which is a strange comparison as Hotline Miami is extremely ultra-violent and Final Fantasy Mystic Quest is a game for children.
There are only two party members, a player-named character that stays in the party permanently (though apparently the canon name is Benjamin) and other characters who will join your party temporarily throughout the game, similarly to the fourth slot in Final Fantasy II. The permanent party member can gain experience points to increase their levels but the other cannot. They usually join a few levels ahead of what the first party member should be so they act as a sort of benchmark for where the player should get to. It’s another thing the game does to make things a little easier.
The world map is similar to how maps in a Mario game work, which makes each area feel much more like a videogame level than they normally would. Completing an area opens up the ability to travel to another much like it would in Mario maps. There are no forced enemy encounters on the world map, only places called “battlefields” which have around ten random optional fights on them, and offer rewards such as money, experience points and armour.
In some ways it actually feels a little like what if they took Final Fantasy Adventure and made it more of a standard RPG. The puzzle weapons come back here, but the focus on turn-based combat and lack of standard world map make it feel a lot less Zelda-ish. It also does re-use a bunch of assets from that game (which itself did reuse some assets from NES Final Fantasy games).
Much like FFA, the story is much simpler, and while it doesn’t quite have the same condensed dialogue, there is even more of a sense that it just wants to get straight to the point. Outside of a mildly sarcastic protagonist, there’s not much in the way of defined character traits for many people. The main character sprite seems to also have similar proportions to the one in Final Fantasy Adventure, but it’s not exactly the same.
There’s other subtle similarities between the two games. All of the people in towns somehow move at a much lower framerate than the main character, which makes me think this may have been built out of the same engine? This does make it feel a little more like a budget game in comparison to the others, this kind of paired down kind of game would actually feel more at home on something like a Game Boy. That would have been a great platform for it, as you can easily play the game in small sessions.
Everything about this game is extremely straightforward. There’s always rigid solutions to what the game puts in front of you. A lot of enemies have specific weaknesses, most environmental “puzzle” solutions are extremely transparent. This simplification doesn’t really help to highlight what is interesting about the genre either. There’s no interesting customisation, battles are won too easily, and the systems aren’t utilised to tell a compelling story.
Strangely I did actually appreciate the reduction in difficulty in some ways. It’s not a lengthy game and playing it is a much calmer experience than any of the other games I’ve played for this blog. I do actually wish that the game was a little shorter, as it does get considerably more repetitive as it goes on, but sometimes it’s nice to have a game where you can just win.
There’s some cool music in here too. A bunch of tracks lean into more of a hard rock/metal direction and the samples used sound great together. Some of the game’s calmer tracks also sound really good too. It’s odd but I do feel that the lower quality samples are what make this music sound unique and interesting (this is honestly how I generally feel about these kinds of older game soundtracks in general). On a random YouTube browse I did take a listen to some recreations of the battle music with live instruments and many of them sounded much weaker to me. I don’t want to make this about how old styles of game music are better, because Final Fantasy as a series will continue to showcase excellent soundtracks into the present day.
That said I’m not sure that this game really feels like Final Fantasy to me. There’s a moment where you can come across a chocobo, and it stood out to me as a weird surprise, almost as if the bird didn’t belong here. I can see some of the ways it’s connected like the similarities between Final Fantasy Adventure mentioned earlier, but so much else has changed that it doesn’t really fit in. If you would have sat me down with Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, didn’t show me the title screen and told me that it was some other random RPG I might believe you. No wonder Nintendo saw fit to release this game in Europe without the Final Fantasy branding under the name Mystic Quest Legends (technically making it the first Final Fantasy game to release here).
I love seeing how this series is evolving, and I’m even more excited for how it’s going to be as I play more. Yes I have played a lot of them, but being able to see how they change over time is what I’m fascinated by. Going through these games like this is essentially watching the series’ metamorphosis in fast-forward.
Final Fantasy IV is the game that really cemented this project as being worthwhile. Not only by being a great game with so much to talk about, but playing what came before really helped to highlight what it does to improve. The absence of certain things in prior games made me think more about what this one includes, and why those things in particular make it stronger.
I’ve gotten into arguments with people over later Final Fantasy entries, it’s usually XII, XIII or XV. Their argument is often that “those games aren’t Final Fantasy”, which is strange because it’s literally in their name. I’m not going to use this space to argue for those particular games, but generally I push against the idea that they “aren’t Final Fantasy”.
Which makes my feelings on some of these games feel really bizarre. To a lot of people out there Final Fantasy Adventure and Mystic Quest have almost lost the argument about “being Final Fantasy”. FFA became the basis for a completely different series, and remakes of it place it more firmly as being part of the Mana series. The version I played was included in a compilation release for the Switch titled Collection of Mana. Conversations about Mystic Quest seem to relegate it as a dead-end spin-off which it pretty much is to some extent. There hasn’t really been a Final Fantasy game since specifically targeted beginners. They’ve made ones that are easier to get into, though I would argue that FF4 is a really good place to start.
Let’s break down these a little more. I will make no argument against Final Fantasy IV feeling like some other series, and I don’t know anyone else that would do so. It’s laying down structures that later games would build off of, and the ATB system is something I strongly associated with the games as a whole (even if my favourite game in the whole series doesn’t actually feature it). Final Fantasy Adventure does have a character growth system that seems to allow for different kinds of builds. However it being a more Zelda-like action-RPG makes it feel like something else entirely in action. Mystic Quest has no customisation. It has an extremely plain and straightforward battle system using mechanics that I’ve seen done better in other RPGs.
I want to make it clear that by saying these two games feel different I don’t necessarily mean that they are bad. It’s just that if someone was to ask me about getting into Final Fantasy as a whole, my answer wouldn’t be “Final Fantasy Adventure and Mystic Quest”. If you’re interested in those games on their own merits, then by all means give them a shot.
So how do I rank these games with all the others? Like this (from worst to best):
- Final Fantasy II
- Final Fantasy Mystic Quest
- Final Fantasy Adventure
- Final Fantasy
- Final Fantasy III
- Final Fantasy IV
I’m getting a little conscious that these articles are running a little long so in future I’ll be putting less Final Fantasy games into each part. I won’t apologise if I still have a lot to say about them. Funnily enough I had actually intended to include another game in this write-up earlier but decided against it. I’ll get to it later!
Until next time!