Monday, January 10, 2011

Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest

I've mentioned before that I actually owned very few games for the NES and SNES systems when I was young. My dad had owned an Intellivision and he knew enough about the lifespan of most video games that he wasn't going to spend so much money on games we would probably stop playing after a week or two. Of course, as technology leaped ahead, suddenly you could play games for longer and longer. When renting such games, it became an issue. Could we possibly finish it all in one weekend? If you didn't, it went back to the store, and most likely the next kid was going to erase your game file before you got a chance to rent it again. I think sometimes we successfully begged for an extension in order to finish.

I can't remember exactly where my love of RPGs began. I figure it has to be when we got Dragon Warrior for free with our Nintendo Power subscription. It was hard and I knew virtually nothing about where to go or what to do, but I still played it over and over again all the same. I plan on restarting it soon, this time turning to friends and online walkthroughs in order to actually make some progress in it. Don't hold your breath for my full review of that one because I imagine it will take quite awhile.

Obviously, my (and my brother's) enjoyment of that game lead to us renting other RPGs. I think anytime I saw a guy with a sword and armor on the cover, I wanted it. For whatever reason, I don't think I ever saw a copy of the original Final Fantasy on the NES in my youth. As far as I was concerned Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest was in fact the first, Final Fantasy II came next, and then Final Fantasy III all for the Super Nintendo. I'm sure someone explained it to me eventually, but it was a fairly logical conclusion given what I could see in front of my face.

We rented both Mystic Quest and Final Fantasy II (which is actually IV in Japan, and has been released under that number now in America) quite frequently. At the time, I didn't think one was better or greater than the other - just different. As such I've been very surprised to discover that popular opinion is that Mystic Quest is a terrible game, and even most Final Fantasy fans hate it. I found it for a reasonable price at the used game store, and I set out to play it - both for my own personal nostalgic enjoyment and also to see if I could realize just what everyone was so unhappy with.

The game is a very basic RPG. You only control two characters at a time, and you have the choice to put the second character (who rotates depending on what's happening in the story) on auto control if you want, meaning the game will play them for you. You can play with many different weapons (sword, axe, claw, bomb, etc.)that you can scroll through each round of play by pushing the L and R buttons. You can also use magic. Rather than have traditional MP (magic points) like many RPGs where different spells cost a different number of points, you simply have a number that counts for three different types of spells. You use one point each time you use a spell from that category.

Since there are only two of you, the enemies only come in groups of four or less, though some of them have the ability to multiply or regenerate. There is no such thing as random battles in this game (in other RPGs, you walk on the screen and are randomly stopped by the game to fight enemies) as all enemies are given tiny visible sprites and the overworld map has battlefields where you select to go in and fight the enemies there. As you level up, your hit points and magic points increase. You find spells as books or stones scattered throughout the world. You also very rarely buy your armor, often being given it in chests scattered in dungeons. Most of your money goes toward buying items, if you really need to, or staying in INNs to recover your life. Random boxes scattered about towns and dungeons also hold items, and these will regenerate the moment you leave the room. So if you wanted unlimited cure potions, for example, you could go into a house, open a box to get the three inside, walk out the house, walk back in, open the box, etc. until you reach 99. The potions seem to cure a certain percentage of your hit points, whereas the Cure spell in this game always brings you back up to full energy. In most other RPGs, there are multiple levels of cure spells that gradually heal more and more hit points as you earn them.

So yes, as you can imagine, this game is for the most part incredibly easy to play. On top of all that, if you die in a battle, either small time enemy or boss, a menu will come up saying "Give up?" and if you select "No" you will simply start the battle all over again. The second party member you pick up will always be a couple levels ahead of you, so that they will usually have little trouble killing things, often in one hit, and they all come equipped with the Life spell to bring you back to life if you die. The A.I. used if you put them on Auto can sometimes cheat. For instance, if you were controlling the character, you might choose to have them attack the enemies because your character was doing just fine. In the middle of the round, an enemy will hit you with a Doom spell that kills you. So now you'll have to wait an additional round to cast Life and revive yourself. If you have them on Auto however, the PC will cast Life in that same round, even though they couldn't have possibly known to do so ahead of time. Of course, sometimes they choose really stupid attacks rather than the powerful ones, so it's sort of a give and take.

I think it's this level of (non)difficulty that makes so many people unhappy with the game. There's no challenge, I guess they would say. I don't really see this as a bad thing though. As a kid especially, there was nothing more infuriating than having to play "Can I survive killing this enemy?" in Dragon Warrior over and over again. I made zero progress in that game. Meanwhile, I was able to beat Mystic Quest, something I hardly ever did back then. I got to see a full game and its ending. If you want to introduce a child to Final Fantasy, this is the perfect game with which to do so. Even though there's not as much a chance of failure and no real repercussions for death, that doesn't mean the game isn't entirely without challenges. The dungeons are set up as detailed mazes with switches to open doors and in one case, you have to take leaps of faith through holes to floors below. It does take a bit of thought and can be a little frustrating depending on your patience. Also, it took me a very large number of tries to beat the final boss because apparently I had avoided too many enemies along the way and hadn't quite leveled up enough. It took a bit of luck to help me get through it.

Its battle system makes for some really fun mechanics, in my opinion. I enjoy the lack of random battles. I've been watching Jak play through Dragon Warrior III lately, and sometimes he'll literally take one step before he's forced to fight again, and other times he'll walk in three circles while waiting for another encounter to show up. While playing Mystic Quest all the enemies are there, and you can often make a decision between a path of fewer enemies versus one with more, therefore letting you decide between speed or leveling up. Sometimes you have to get through a bunch of enemies just to open a chest. There are technically a couple of dungeons where the enemies are invisible until you get a certain item that allows you to see them, but overall I like being able to prepare. It also means you get to see some really cute looking sprites march in place on screen.

Speaking of cuteness, two of my favorite things appear in the battles. One is the sound effects made by your weapons. There's something ridiculously satisfying about the "thunk" of the axe hit, and I repeatedly found myself trying to mimic the "ruk-uk-uk-uk" of the ninja stars. The second is the fact that all enemies change appearance when they get closer to death. The default is two for most common enemies, but the bosses can have as many as four different versions before they dissolve with another satisfying sound effect. Some of these are extremely humorous as they either get bandages on themselves or this look of absolute horror. Check them out here at this fantastic site.

I suppose the other thing you could complain about is the story. I had to check a walkthrough once because there was a large gap between when I had last played, but beyond that exactly where you need to go is laid out before you. Since you can't walk freely on the overworld map, you generally just have to go to the end of a line in order to reach the latest town and then dungeon. There's a bit of back and forth, but the characters are telling you what to do. Essentially, the story boils down to "there are four crystals that have been stolen (based on the four elements), go get them back. Oh, there's actually one more crystal besides those, the crystal of light, and the dark king is trying to use it to take over the world. Go save us!" Honestly, this story isn't much different from the stories for Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy III (Japanese original), and Final Fantasy V, with only the last one adding a little more complexity to the storyline. It's also basically the same idea as a lot of other RPGs and the Zelda franchise - go collect a bunch of talismans before using their power to beat the final boss intent on destroying the world. Sure, it's simple, but is that really a bad thing?

Now, I'll be honest. There were times where this simple gameplay did get a little tedious for me. The length of some of the dungeons, even with their puzzles, was getting to be a chore. But I still refuse to say that this is a bad game. It's not a great one, but I still think it's a great diversion when you just want to spend a little bit of time on a classic RPG. If you don't have a means of playing the original cartridge, it's available on Virtual Console on the Wii.

I noticed something else during my last round of play. There's a lot of parallels between Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest. In both, you hit the shoulder buttons to switch between different types of attacks between rounds. You only control one character in XIII, and you have the option to do the same in MQ. Magic doesn't cost anywhere near as much. If one of your party dies in battle or you have a debilitating effect put on you, it will be magically gone when the battle is over. Weapons and armor are generally given to you in chests rather than bought. In some cases in FFXIII, when you "break" an enemy, their appearance changes. Both require you to walk a straight line for much of the story. I'm willing to bet there are more similarities that I'm just not thinking of. Please feel free to add them in the comments!

The ending of Mystic Quest has the hero decide that he's going to go sail off to find new adventure. After you talk to all the main characters again, they see you off and the ship sails away into the distance.. forever. If you don't turn the game off, you'll literally just watch the ship sail and hear crashing waves and crying seagulls into infinity. When I searched Youtube for this, all I got were "Let's Play" links.. so I decided to film it myself. I apologize that it's a bit shaky. Feel free to keep hitting play on the 30 second clip if you'd like to prolong the experience.
I'll replace this with the embed link when I get home today, but for now go straight to Youtube.

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