Despite all the innovation, all the sales, and even its surprising endurance to competition, the most fascinating thing about the Game Boy to me was its lifespan, because it makes the Game Boy one of the only multi-generational pieces of game hardware. Take a look at the Castlevania series for a moment, and you can see the influences change as the console generations change alongside it. Game Boy continued to produce 8-bit style products until the 8-bit consoles had essentially finished dying, and you can often tell which are which by seeing them in motion. But soon, 16-bit games on consoles (and the death of an alternative) would create a demand for higher quality portables: Metroid 2 and Super Mario Land 2 would soon show portable games could stand on their own, and Link’s Awakening would show they could live outside the shadows of their originals.
By 1998 at the end of the Game Boy’s life, Pokemon would humiliate earlier Game Boy RPGs like Final Fantasy Legend 1-3, in terms of graphics, functionality, and more. The FFL games (or at least the first two) hold together today in many ways thanks to their unusual gameplay and quasi-mythic story, but also because RPGs have little changed since the release of the original Final Fantasy 1. That is, after all, FFI’s strongest claim to fame: a Street Fighter II level of genre standardization, sanding down the edges of Dragon Warrior for global consumption. In that way, there’s a lot more in common between FFX and FFLI than there is between other ten year gaps. But today we’re going to look at a top-down action-adventure game from mid-1991, and action-adventure games wouldn’t standardize for half a year yet.
No, Final Fantasy Adventure would have to stand alone.
Kyle and I were barely going to play this game at all at the outset of the Marathon. Final Fantasy Adventure has had many names. It was known as Mystic Quest in Europe (not to be confused with Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, an entirely different game), but is best known today as the first game in the Mana series (Secret of Mana, Seiken Densetsu 3, etc). In 2003 it was outright remade as a Mana game, Sword of Mana. At first glance, that seemed to be a good reason to keep the game off the marathon. Kyle and I had only played the Legends/SaGa series because they were personal favourites of mine, there was no reason to dredge up Mana into the mix. That was, until I realized that FFA had always been a Final Fantasy game.
Where Makai Toushi Sa•Ga and its sequels had only ever been localized as The Final Fantasy Legend as a marketing ploy, the first Mana game had been released in Japan as Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden, and was localized as Final Fantasy Adventure only a few months later. The game is even full of overt and very particular 8-bit Final Fantasy references, honestly more than I’d have expected from a console Final Fantasy game of the era, as though Square was afraid it wouldn’t seem like a proper gaiden without those sorts of things. In the end, FFA truly feels like someone tried to turn a small-scale Final Fantasy into a portable action-adventure game.
Comparisons might be made to Kingdom Hearts. A close look at Kingdom Hearts 1 will reveal a literalist approach to turning a turn-based RPG into an action game. KH is a turn-based RPG that isn’t turn-based. The menu is still stuck in the corner, submenus complicate the interface, and Sora is so painfully deliberate in his actions that you can almost see the designer’s mental plan for turn-based animations instead. And it all started here, in Final Fantasy Adventure. FFA took a different approach to creating an action game from a turn-based game: it took the corpse of The Legend of Zelda, welded it to some basic Final Fantasy tropes, and held it together with a few new ideas that would later make a healthy Mana series. Whether or not those elements worked in this prototype… that remains to be seen.
Final Fantasy Adventure begins with a Final Fantasy Legend-style text crawl, though in a very clever touch the game begins panning away the title screen after you hit start before revealing the text crawl. Combined with some excellent background music, it’s really quite lovely. Unfortunately, I feel the story’s basic premise doesn’t have the same mythic weight to its concept as the SaGa games, though it tries its best. FFA is a traditional evil empire story, this time featuring the Glaive Empire, though thanks to poor word choice, Kyle and I thought “Glaive” meant something else entirely for nearly a quarter of the game. I don’t think we can really be blamed for that, because Glaive is another of those Palamecia-like empires that only exist as plot devices and dungeons, with no actual citizens that aren’t monsters, no towns, no territory, or anything else for that matter. The Glaive Empire is looking for the Mana Tree, and herein we find our FFL-like seed of mythic potential: a tree that provides life to the world, being so powerful itself that it can pass on that power to anyone who touches it. Unfortunately, I feel this mix of politics and myth does too much damage to the latter, and this game is towed down one level of realism from “mythic” to “fantastic.” Ah well.
Our character, named “Boy” in Mana circles but properly called “Sumo” in the manual, is a gladiator enslaved by the empire and forced to fight monsters for the entertainment of “Dark Lord.” Is that what he calls himself? …I shouldn’t be surprised if that’s what he calls himself.
The game begins with a fight against a large cat monster that can’t actually hurt you if you stay on the bottom half of the screen. Well, theoretically it can’t hurt you, but when you kill it it explodes, by which I mean, for some reason it actually explodes, the explosion can harm you, and that’s the silliest thing I’ve seen in months. Returning to the slave pens, Sumo learns that his best friend Willy is dying. For reasons that are never explained, Willy says that Mana is in danger, as though he means “Mana the concept,” even though the word “Mana” will never be used in this fashion again. To make matters worse, while we can guess, we never technically learn why Willy thinks Mana is in danger because Willy dies and is never mentioned again. In the Japanese version, he’s mentioned once more near the end of the game when you’ve long forgotten him, but that honestly isn’t much better.
Sumo heads out of the room and runs into his friend Amanda, who was standing aside to give him a moment of grief. Once that moment expires, Amanda suggests Sumo bust out, which is actually an interesting character portrait, as though she were talking to you just because she knew you’d go for an escape in your state of grief, but that she respected you enough to stay aside at first. Sumo doesn’t seem to agree at first, but he does go through with the escape in the end. Why Amanda doesn’t go with him is another mystery. Sorry for the spoilers, but you later learn that Amanda escaped on your own and she joins up with you when meet her next, so she does have AI code. Why didn’t she tag along in this sequence? As you’ll soon learn, Sumo escapes by slipping through the monster cage after his next fight, but first you have to fight an identical cat monster. It is the exact same fight as before, and boring as a consequence. If Amanda had been with you, that would have jazzed things up!
Having watched Sumo slip out the front gates, I was immediately struck by the fact that Glaive exists in an inaccessible cul-du-sac on a cliff side (remember what I said about them not having any territory?). Kyle and I had already attempted (and failed) to play Secret of Mana as an earlier part of the Marathon, so we took a moment to discuss how Secret of Mana started with an area you could never revisit. We naturally figured that was going to be the same here. Imagine my surprise that you actually return to this inaccessible plateau not just once but twice, despite its utter lack of roads!
Heading west we discovered the heads of the Empire just lounging about by a small pond, having a private conversation. Dark Lord and his wizard, Julius, were discussing the Mana Tree, which it turned out was much closer to Glaive than the peace-loving people of the world would probably have preferred. In fact, it was just up a nearby waterfall, but Dark Lord still needed a way to get up there. The strangest part about this dialogue is that, until Julius told him, Dark Lord didn’t know the Tree of Ultimate Power was right on his doorstop! Sure, it is very high up, but this only gets worse once we learn why Glaive was founded where it was (hint: it was the Mana Tree, if only indirectly). Dark Lord asked how to get up the waterfall, and Julius explained that he had found a girl who had “the key” to the waterfall, so Dark Lord sent Julius off to fetch her. Unfortunately, Dark Lord spotted Sumo after Julius had left and, after a chase that barely qualified as a chase, he shield bashed Sumo off a cliff. Kyle was not impressed. “He didn’t even have the decency to use his sword!”
Sumo survived his fall, landing at the base of the waterfall, and the game began with no further pretense. This probably makes it a fair time to explain the mechanics. Like many two-button RPGs, Final Fantasy Adventure involves a lot of menu diving. The A-button has Sumo use one of his many weapons and the B button makes him use whatever item or spell you have equipped. Unfortunately, you have to go through the menu to select your current weapon or tool in each instance. This game is begging for shoulder buttons (or four) to help you cycle through the pile, because the game forces you to swap almost as frequently as you attack.
There really were a lot of weapons, and they each worked differently. Sumo’s starting sword was probably the worst conceivable weapon for them to have given you at the start, because it’s much more complicated than the others. It was especially hard for Kyle and I to work out with no manual, because it’s just not an instinctive system. If you take a swing standing still, Sumo will swipe it across in an arc in front of himself, beating LttP to the punch by a few months (Famicom game Grand Master also included the swing that year, so I guess the idea’s time had come). If you swing and move, however, and Sumo will stab forward, more like Link in LoZ. Every other weapon in the game attacks in only one pattern, no matter how you happen to be moving. Unfortunately, even once you’ve gotten used to the system, both turn out to be horrible ways to attack. That’s not the sword’s fault: it’s the entire game.
Final Fantasy Adventure has the worst hit detection I’ve seen in a game that wasn’t complete garbage. You miss monsters when they’re clearly caught in your swing, you hit them when they’re not, monsters hit you when they’re nowhere nearby, and it never gets any better. Some of the game’s other design decisions make these rudimentary problems even worse. The sword swing’s animation doesn’t make it clear where its hitbox is supposed to be, thanks to its vague animation. True, that’s the fault of the Game Boy, but it’s the sort of thing a developer has to account for. A LttP-style sword swing had no place on the Game Boy: note how strict and clear Link’s sword swing is in Link’s Awakening, covering a slow 90 degree arc, to make its area of effect as well-defined as it possibly can. Some (though not all) of FFA’s other weapons are much more clear when it comes to their hit boxes, so the sword stands out as a problem they should have fixed.
(Kyle also raised the point that Link has trained us to expect a lefty protagonist in our top-down action-rpgs, and so Sumo kept attacking on the wrong side from our perspective. This bit isn’t the game’s fault, of course).
To aggravate the hit detection issues even further, we have the game’s immunity system. Or does it have an immunity system? It seems that certain weapon types don’t do damage to certain enemies, but later in the game they do? Is one enemy weak against Axes but not Swords? Why can I hurt it with later types of Swords, then? Is it a matter of math? Perhaps it’s a matter of individual weapon rather than category (the Silver Sword works, but not all Swords?). Kyle and I tried our best – at numerous points in the game – to answer these questions, and we never got an answer thanks to an entirely different problem: the game’s shallow feedback. Were we able to hurt a certain enemy with a certain weapon? Buddy, sometimes we didn’t know if we were hitting an enemy with weapons that were working. Enemies would sometimes fail to flash from damage, or fail to play a sound, or both, or the flash/sound were interrupted, and of course sometimes an attack would seem to “fail”… but in reality the hit detection had missed entirely.
And what about in defence? Sometimes monsters hit you when you’re nowhere nearby, that definitely happens, but are you positive they’re nowhere nearby? Because sometimes the monsters just disappear from the screen, or aren’t where they were moments before. Sometimes this happens because of that unavoidable GB flicker, and sometimes because they’ve actually tunnelled under the ground, flickering as they do it, and so appear to vanish entirely just like the other glitches. In that case, how are you supposed to know if they’re near you or not? Addressing the flicker should have been a key priority for Square’s programmers. Obviously they couldn’t change the Game Boy itself, but dropping monsters, dropping decorations, adjusting the gameplay or difficulty… anything! And nevermind how some of the faster enemies just jerk and bounce around the screen while abusing the hit detection, giving them an impossible, glitchy attack range that’s larger than it should be and so feels like their range is “everywhere, fuck you.”
Wow, that was a lot about mechanics. Let’s try going back to the story just for a little while. Back in the realm of content (not system), we pressed on through the debut of Mana’s cutesy, traditional starting monsters to discover a woman calling for help. It seems a man named Hasim was being murdered by the most adorable Mushboom you could possibly imagine. Aw, yes, look at your precious blood-covered face you squishy little angel! We murdered the squishy little angel, only to find that it was too late and Hasim was dying. He ordered us take his companion to someone named Bogard, and also mentioned the town of Wendel. And once again, like Glaive, the game forget to specify that Wendel was a place name and Bogard a person, and not something other arrangement, like the town of Bogard and some guy named Wendel. Hasim then passed on, and like most character deaths in this game, will never be mentioned again. But wow, two named character deaths so soon in the game. This is looking pretty brutal compared to the other early Final Fantasies.
The young woman who just watched out friend die is our heroine, who bears the traditional name “Girl” among the Mana fandom. Like Sumo, “Girl” was given a name by the American manual: Fuji. Being the heroine, Fuji is your most frequent companion (in fact, in Sword of Mana, you not only play with her more often than in FFA, you can play the whole game as her instead of as Sumo, Star Ocean 2-style).
But how does a party member work in a game based on Zelda? Link has only had only a small handful of active partners in the course of over twenty-five years, almost all of them player-controlled, and the rest being only available in single battles like boss fights. Most of them were post-FFA, besides. Probably the most advanced, regular gameplay partner AI in the Zelda series is Phantom Zelda in Spirit Tracks, who will occasionally swat at nearby foes but will otherwise stand around gormlessly awaiting new orders. Suffice to say, this isn’t an easy trick to pull off. The Mana series is one of the few to make a partner system in a top-down game really work, allowing you to equip your partner with any of your own weapons and having them fight with you. But when we talk about good partners in Mana, we’re talking about Secret of Mana and Seiken Densetsu 3. Partners in FFA are much less capable. They essentially have the AI of monsters, which was not very advanced to begin with, so you’re lucky if your partners so much as attack, much less attack in the direction of an opponent. To make things even stranger, Fuji can’t attack at all!
But when you got down to it, it was always exciting to have Fuji join the party, because she has another power that makes her just plain broken: by going to the menu, you can use the ASK item in the menu to get her to heal you, and she’ll do so immediately, whenever you want, however many times you want. The only downside to this technique is that it’s a regeneration rather than a flat cure: she heals you at a rate based on your max HP and stops after a few increments, but will happily start healing again if you ASK a second time. With Fuji around and a little caution, you’re functionally invincible, and who needs attacks that aren’t even aimed at the bad guys in the first place? She’s perfect. Of course, with us constantly menu-diving to us ASK, we began to learn just how slippery this game’s menu controls could be, and ended up hitting the wrong menu option almost as often as not at the start. What a finely tuned experience.
In the end of the path, after a monster upgrade, we located a blocked cave and later a man living in a shack by a waterfall. This gentleman ignored us until we had body slammed him three or four times, aka the Batman method of conversation (you talk to people by bumping into them, as in Phantasy Star. It’s kind of obnoxious when they block your path). Even then he only talked to us because he noticed that Fuji was wearing a pendant he called “the Pendant of Mana.” She said it was her mother’s, and he revealed himself as “Bogard,” prompting some Terry Bogard jokes from Kyle. Bogard explained that in the past, he and “the Gemma Knights,” fought against “Vandole” alongside a woman who wore this pendant. Once again the game did not specify that “Vandole” is the name of a location, in this case another Empire that came before Glaive. This was confusing, but the ambiguity might be intentional: “Vandole” might actually be the name of the Emperor as well as the Empire in the way sovereigns are sometimes addressed. The game seems to do one or the other at different points! The internet seems to support our guess that “Vandole” is the name of both, but to put a stick in it, one of the villains in Secret of Mana is an Emperor named Vandole, and he isn’t running an empire called Vandole!
Bogard explained that this historical Empire of Vandole had the power of the Mana Tree in its possession. Eventually they were stopped by that the woman with the Pendant, presumably Fuji’s mother. Bogard added that Fuji is bound to save the day this time as well, though he doesn’t explain why. Shockingly, he actually does have a good reason for clamming up!
He unlocked the door at the back (the game will never again unlock a door via dialogue like this, and it’s peculiar in retrospect) and told us to take the Mattock inside and to use it to reach a man named Cibba in Wendel. The Mattock is a ammunition-based, 3-use item that breaks rocks, urns and rock walls that might be in your way. And yes, you need to use something that can break down a rock wall just to do to urns what Link does every second of his life. I’m kind of curious what would have happened if we wore out this first Mattock before using it properly!
We pressed through the blocked cave and soon found another design irregularity: an item shop salesman who sold us an axe via a dialogue prompt before actually opening his generic shop window. Actually that’s doubly weird: interrupting the shop prompt with a dialogue tree is weird genre-wide, but FFA will never again sell you an item with a Yes/No prompt! The axe wasn’t necessary to proceed quite yet (not at least before you find them in normal shops), but with the game underlining the axe like this, Kyle and I sure thought it was necessary. Luckily it was an upgrade on the sword in terms of attack power, so even though it was slower on the swing, we took it all the same. Plus, we were swimming in cash. As a weapon, the axe delivered a wide swing, which made it much easier to hit opponents.
Past the bridge, well, past the bridge we entered one of the more bizarre sequences in the game.