Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Game Boy RPG Series: The Final Fantasy Legend

I play a lot of handheld games, and I love RPGs. I've made it my mission to play and review every RPG released in the USA for the Game Boy and Game Boy Color consoles. My goal is to be able to experience these games and enlighten my fellow handheld collectors on their strengths and weaknesses. These games will be played in the order I find and acquire them. If you have any suggestions for games I should be on the lookout for, let me know.

The Final Fantasy Legend

The Final Fantasy Legend, (or Makai Toushi SaGa in the Japanese release) is the first RPG ever released for the Game Boy, so I thought it would be appropriate to start my project from here.

The age of this title is quickly apparent. On startup, the first thing that I noticed was how simple everything is. You go straight to the menu screen, no extended intro, no cinematics. Your options are to start or continue. Once you get started on a new file, you can choose one of eight different characters- a male or female human, a male or female mutant (Called Espers in the Japan release, and in this review from now on) and a choice of different monsters. Once the game begins you can recruit three other characters to join your party almost immediately, for a total of four characters. 

One of the things that took me by surprise when playing was the leveling system. Namely, there wasn't one. Humans gain stats by buying and consuming items that boost strength, agility, and HP. Espers gain stats randomly by battling. Monsters transform into stronger or weaker monsters by eating the bodies of their fallen foes, a charmingly grisly mechanic I appreciated as a concept, although in practice this system was unintuitive and I ended up having to use a guide to figure out how to work it properly. Overall I'd rate the stat gain elements of FFL as a strength. It may be complicated, but I enjoyed optimizing my characters according to their strengths and weaknesses. and I liked the experience even if I wouldn't want it in every game. Some games thrive on simpler leveling mechanics, but since this is a game designed to be played in short bursts, I think a system like this added more to look forward to between play sessions. 

The story of FFL is very simple. Four heroes climb an ancient tower that leads to other worlds in a quest for immortality. Each world the tower leads to has a short scenario to play through before the heroes move on, almost like episodes of a TV show. Unfortunately, the translation is atrocious. This game was made before Squaresoft had a dedicated translation team and boy does it show. I had serious trouble figuring out where to go or what was going on at times. Towards the second half of the game things do improve a bit, but in the beginning everything is very vague and I was left to figure out what to do by trial and error.

The graphics and aesthetic in FFL are serviceable, if nothing special. Everything looks pretty flat, and the icons and graphics in the overworld make the game looks like a map rather than a real world to explore. The battles resemble the ones in Dragon Warrior/Quest for the NES, using a first person view. With a color range of four shades of gray, even palette swapping similar monsters is a no go. At least the towns and caves have more detail and look more alive. On the other hand, The music is much stronger. A small assortment of simple but catchy melodies by Nobuo Uematsu of Final Fantasy fame added to the experience and stayed in my head well after I was done playing. 

FFL was designed with portability in mind. Saving is easy, quick, and can be done at any time. Dialogue is short and there's no extended dialogue or cutscenes. Battles are over quickly. Even tough boss battles are won or lost in short order. I honestly feel I can't emphasize the portable-focused design of FFL enough. I don't think I've ever played an RPG that I could get such a consistently satisfying experience from in such short intervals. I found myself sneaking a couple minutes here and there when normally I don't bother playing RPGs if I don't have at least 20-30 minutes to spare. That being said, FFL is not an easy game. Once I hit the halfway point, the enemies attacked in much greater numbers, and I had to travel longer distances without being able to heal and while managing a very limited inventory. Instead of just forcing me to level up in order to continue, FFL instead asked me to think ahead before setting out for the next area and plan accordingly.

If you're looking for a finely polished portable RPG experience, FFL may not be for you. It's rough around the edges, and the developers were clearly in uncharted territory when they designed this game. However, I think despite the flaws, FFL is unique and charming, with challenging gameplay and a clear eye towards convenient portability. FFL has had undeniable influence on portable gaming. Satoshi Tajiri of Pokemon said FFL opened his eyes to the fact that the Game Boy could be used for more than just simple action games. It's a classic that will probably still be remembered for years to come.

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