One of the troublesome aspects of this Marathon are working out which games actually came next, considering many weren’t released in English for many, many years. Generally we go by English release dates and interweave the original Japanese release dates whenever necessary and possible, but sometimes it becomes obvious that we’re just being arbitrary. For example, take this not-Final Fantasy game, The Final Fantasy Legend. We’ll talk about its origins more in a moment, but in Japan, this game came out in 1989, before FFIII. Meanwhile in the west, it came out in 1990, after FFIII came out in Japan, but decades before FFIII came out in the west! To make matters worse, we didn’t get to this game until after much later in the Marathon! In the end, I had to pick a slot and put my foot down!
Final Fantasy Legend is a series of three Nintendo Gameboy games created by Akitoshi Kawazu, the creator of FF2. The first two games show that line of descent very strongly, though the third is… weird. The games were called SaGa in Japan and some of the later games in that series were imported as SaGa, but not the original trilogy. The first three games were called “Final Fantasy” purely for marketing reasons, and are only in the Marathon on nomenclature merits. But play them we did.
FFL1, technically “The Final Fantasy Legend” was the first game in the Marathon played in both its original medium (the original GB cart), and the original form, since it was the first game played in the Marathon that was not a remake (by the time we got around to playing FFLI, we had played FFIV, FFIV:TAY and FFIII, in that order, all remakes). FFLI does have a remake, but was a Wonderswan game, it was never released in English. FFLI was also the first game in the Marathon that I had played in the past, though I had never beaten it and Kyle and never played it at all. Generally, if one of us has played a game in this Marathon, it’s Kyle, but I grew up with the three Game Boy games, so this Journals comes from a pre-informed position peppered with his insights.
“The Tower in the centre of the world leads to paradise…” That’s apparently all the incentive our player-generated players need to pack up their gear and attempt to storm the place, and given how they seem to forget the whole “paradise” thing until the last few lines of the game, well, let’s just say that I could say a few words if I cared to. Nevertheless, the prompt is a nice incentive for the player, and very different from the typical RPG fare, with a strong mythic tone.
Your party in FFL1 is entirely user generated, as per the original Final Fantasy, but with a different selection of classes that would return in the other SaGa games. The first player character types are the Humans, male and female, then the Mutants (Espers in Japan), male and female. In addition to those two are the Monsters. Unlike most of the Final Fantasy games, the monsters you fight in the wilderness actually live among the “good guys” and are just as playable… the ones in the wild just happen to be jerks! The only difference between male and female party members are minor starting stat differences and equipment differences that will quickly become irrelevant, but the game allows one to start with any of four Monster types.
I’m afraid to say that this post is going to get very technical, and yet I feel it’s necessary – if you lose interest, take that as a mark against FFLI, which has to either be approached knowing these technical details (and being potentially overwhelmed), or not knowing these technical details and being left at the whims of fate. Virtually everything I said about the character creation segment of Kingdom Hearts 1 applies here, except in FFLI, it lasts all game long! If you lose interest, feel free to skip ahead to the next entry. If you’re going to skip ahead, here’s all you need to know: Humans hit things, Mutants are magic, and Monsters are shape-changers that change into the very monsters you fight… to your benefit and detriment.
FFLI and II not only raise statistics in a strange way, but the stats function oddly as well. Defence and Mana work how you might expect (Mana meaning magic strength, not MP: spells essentially have ammunition which regenerates when you visit an inn), but Strength and Agility don’t follow your typical RPG guidelines. Agility is used to determine your accuracy, but is simultaneously used to determine your damage with light weapons. Strength is used only to determine your damage with heavy weapons. This means that if you want to use light weapons, life is easy, but heavy weapon users have to up both. Naturally heavy weapons are better… but only towards the end of the game, and in a game where you have a fair level of control over which stats go up and which don’t, it’s like the game held that information in reserve just to spite you! And it does it again in FFLII, where you’re even more likely to ruin your day!
None of the character classes are easy to explain in FFLI. Humans are easiest to explain… though that’s relative. Like most other games, Humans wear armour to boost their defence, though you have to keep in mind that FFLI uses a limited inventory system: you have eight slots per Human, and you must use them for equipment and items. On top of your characters inventories, you only have an eight-slot out-of-combat-only common inventory. This isn’t very big at all, so you’re going to be using your party members just to heft supplies from place to place! This is going to make you make serious decisions about who is and isn’t properly equipped. Oh! And weapons and shields have a durability system, so you’ll want to carry extra weapons. You’ll want to, but the question is: will you be able to?
Once you’re done being confounded by the limited inventory, you have to increase your Humans’ stats. Humans have no way to boost their Magic stat, so you may as well consider that category dead in this game. They can boost their Strength and Agility by drinking permanent stat-boosting potions. These potions are crazy expensive in the first few worlds, but never get more expensive, meaning they’re cheap as dirt starting around the mid-way point. Better still, the game is glitched and you can go well over the intended max stats of 99, all the way up to 250 before you risk accidentally rolling back to 0. We didn’t do that, partially because we’re not allowed to exploit glitches here in the Marathon (admittedly, it’s hard to draw the line here), and also because buying and using potions is a tedious bore in this rickety, portable interface. Experience may vary.
Humans can also boost their HP with potions, but these are more persnickety. They’ll boost a large number of hit points up to the number on the bottle: HP200 will boost you up to 200 HP, for example, in leaps of ~1-10 HP a bottle. After that point, they only boost 1. So once you’ve gotten past the most expensive HP potion, HP600, it’s hard to boost your health without absurd tedium.
We took two humans, one named after Kyle from FFI, and one named Sara – not necessarily after the princess from FFI, but you can pretend.
That was relatively straightforward. Let’s ruin it by moving on to something more complicated! Mutants, called Espers in Japan, are the magic-users. Four of their inventory slots are permanently taken up by spell/ability slots, dramatically reducing their ability to carry armour, weapons and restoratives. They gain spells and abilities completely at random, which can eradicate your good spells in a blink. In fact, given the way the system works, bad spells are more likely than good ones, so unless you constantly save and restore, you could easily end up with crap. In the Marathon, we got around this by settling into the idea that our Mutant would never have good spells, and so we were never disappointed! This was definitely my worst run with mutant abilities, ever, across both FFLI and LII, over the course of nineteen years. If you’re having trouble with Abilities, like us, spell books are available. In fact they often have better copies of the spells Mutants get as Abilities! But they’re going to cost you a pretty penny, use the same irreparable durability system as weapons, and they take up an equipment slot.
As for stats, every source on the internet will tell you that Mutants level up like characters in FFII. They use light weapons and gain Agility, heavy weapons and they gain Strength. Magic is gained by using spells, HP by getting hit, and Defence might raise if planets are aligned and the nearest hardboiled egg stands up on two feet and does the macarana – not very often. That’s what we’re told in the manual and that’s how it works in FFLII.
It’s a lie.
For years people have noticed tiny inconsistencies in how this game handles its upgrades, but the only explanation I’ve seen that explains all the irregularities was posted by hacker Alex Jackson at the GameFAQs board about the game, which you can find here. It seems that in reality, the developers created a fully random system that levelled up Mutants the same way no matter how you’re playing. It worked so well that no one’s noticed for nineteen years.
I don’t normally get this technical in the Journals, but if Jackson is right (and I feel from experience with the game that he is), this misconception needs contesting. According to Jackson (plus a little rounding), at the end of every battle, Mutants have:
- 42.5% chance of not upgrading
- 13.6% chance of gaining a new ability
- 13.2% chance of gaining 10-15 HP
- 11.7% chance of gaining 1-5 Mana.
- 7.0% chance of gaining 1-5 Agility.
- 7.0% chance of gaining 1-5 Strength.
- 3.1% chance of gaining 1-3 Defence.
- 1.5% chance of the game “shuffling” the number of uses remaining for an existing ability, possibly recharging or draining it. Fans have been aware of this for years, but thought it was just a bug!
The fascinating thing about this ruse is how it works with what game designers sometimes call “the critical path.” The critical path is the way you’re expected to play through the game and probably will to some degree. This term normally refers to progression through a challenge, level or the story. In Ocarina of Time, you wake up, talk to Mido, collect the sword and shield, talk to Mido again, and move on. But consider the idea of the critical path on a different scope, a moment-to-moment scope. If you had a Mutant, and were told they gained Magic through use but weren’t very good with weapons, you’d use Magic more often than weapons. With a random gain of 12% for magic and 7% for weapons, you could easily think the game was levelling through use, because the odds are similar to the way you’re probably playing! They designed the odds to make it look like it was doing what they said it was doing!
I don’t want to drag out this any longer with further technical discussions, but if you’re interested in the mechanics behind abilities, Jackson covers them there and in another thread. Long story short: some are more common than others, and the random number routine they used is busted so it doesn’t work as intended. The most common ability on the list is ESP, which is laughable because it’s no better than using a shield!
Long story short, we took one Mutant, named Liz.
If that math didn’t defer you, let’s talk about Monsters, which are even more embroiled in math, but let’s skim as much off the top of that as possible because it’s just going to get ugly. Monsters are very strange and very risky. The biggest advantage of monsters is that their stats can be very high at any particular moment in the game, since they can become other monsters (but don’t count on it – in fact they’re usually too weak). They are also full of special Mutant-like abilities, helping them get around the Durability and Mutant randomness problems entirely. If you can manipulate the system, you can get a Monster made-to-order for your situation. The downside is that it’s not easy to manipulate the system – in fact it’s outright hostile. To make matters worse, Monsters have no inventory space whatsoever. Their open slots are straight-up blocked!
As I’ve said, all the monsters you fight in the wild are playable (or rather, almost all. There are a small handful of enemy “monsters” that seem to represent Humans that don’t follow the rules below. There are even more exceptions in FFLII representing Mutants and the new playable race in FFLII). When you kill a Monster, there’s a chance after the battle that they’ll drop Meat, which your monsters can choose to eat (indeed, the combat victory song in SaGa 1-3 isn’t titled “Victory” but “Eat the Meat”!). If you eat the Meat, the Game Boy delves into is arcane math and transforms your Monster into a new form. In a lot of cases, this is a weaker form. Save-scumming wasn’t just mandatory, it’s practically being encouraged.
I can try to explain the math behind this. Sadly, I can’t find any online tools to simplify the process like I can for FFLII. When you eat the Meat, the game picks your monster’s new family from a comparison chart. A few entries are blank, which just cause you to recover HP for eating the Meat. Supposing that doesn’t happen, the game select your new species from the family it chose from the chart. Each family in the game has six members of varying strength. Let’s call them “recolours” even though this game is black and white. They look the same but have different names and stats (not all of which actually appear as opponents: some are just for players!).
Each species has a hidden level, as low as 1 and as high as 14, and each family has a guaranteed level 13 member and a level 14 members at the top. When you eat the Meat, the game compares the PC’s species’ level to the level of the monster that gave you the meat. Higher number wins, so you generally become a stronger monster or at least stay as strong as you are… but not always. The game takes that number and plugs it into your new family, and if it finds a match, brilliant. If it doesn’t, it will check 1 level higher just to see if you get lucky. You’d better hope you do, because if it doesn’t find a stronger monster, it will begin to plunge, and this is how your monster will transform into a cotton ball at a moment’s notice. Consider the Zombie family, which has no entries between level 3 and level 9. If you end up in the Zombie family at level 7, you’ll plunge down to level 3 and good luck scraping your way back to the top. The fact that all charts have a 13 and 14 monster mean that once you reach those levels, you’re safe, but also that you can’t get to Level 14 until the game gives you a piece of Level 14 Meat.
To make matters worse, some monsters don’t give the Meat they’re supposed to, so you can end up with a downgrade just because the devs screwed up (and you can’t become some monsters at all as a consequence!). This was fixed in the Wonderswan and in some online patches, but we were playing with the base game.
Thankfully, even though the monsters system is complicated, it’s also easily manipulated. We took a Wererat named Rei (after our Thief from FFI), with a plan from the internet to screw the entire game balance our way.