I’ve actually played Sword of Mana’s opening few hours three times: once as the Boy, once as the Girl, and once again as the Boy because I screwed up my character build and felt I should start over. And you know? Every time I got to this point in the plot I felt: “This feels wrong. It feels out-of-step with the rest of the game.” That I could sense how weird this segment was without playing the rest of the game says a lot about this episode. First impression sets you off on the wrong foot: Sumo and Fuji discover a manor in the deep woods that’s operated like a hotel, and they choose to stay there, even though it’s not on the route to Wendel, not near a road, looks completely uninviting in Sword of Mana (like a haunted house), and is clearly suspicious in either game. And it’s not just suspicious on a plot level or an aesthetic level: on a meta level as well. During this entire stretch of game you come to no towns – in fact, the shop that sold you the axe is the closest thing to civilization this side of the rock cave – so this “town substitute” stinks of meddling. The game wants you to sleep here and no RPG has ever wanted you to go to sleep with good intentions.
Furthermore, the whole plot felt like something… familiar. I couldn’t put my finger on what it was until I played through the original FFA with Kyle, but this segment feels like a filler episode of an anime waiting for the manga to catch up. Yes, even though it’s the second section of plot. We’ll talk more about this game and “episodes” down the line. For now…
The mansion hotel was named “Kett’s,” which is odd because the man in charge was named “Mr. Lee” and not “Mr. Kett”. It seems the the Game Boy was at fault here: the proper name was “Vinquette’s Hall,” (“Binketto no Kan”) squashed down by the localization team to make sure it would fit the tiny text boxes. Granted, I’m not sure what “Vinquette” means any more than “Kett,” but it has more of the air of a proper title than just plain “Kett’s” (probably because it reminds me of “viscount”) and I can accept that. The proper name would return in Sword of Mana. Whatever its name, the butler greeted us and said we could stay in the spare room to the west. There, Fuji was inspired to teach us the Cure spell, possibly realizing that she was about to be removed from the party. Good foresight! Cure turned into a B-button regular, and not just because it was the only spell we had for a while. While it was more useful in the mid game than the end, it was the most useful healing option available to you at any given moment.
So as you might have guessed, Fuji was kidnapped by our host during the night (“Who would have thought a free hotel room would be dangerous?” said Kyle. I think we can call “Free hotel rooms are evil,” Kyle’s Law. What do you think?). Also, our host apparently didn’t like kidnapping boys but was happy to let us stay in his inn whenever we wanted, even though we weren’t bringing him a victim any longer? Well, like I said, it wasn’t like there was some other inn around, the devs didn’t have much of a choice. Once we finally did get out of bed, the butler refused to acknowledge Fuji’s disappearance, and the game left the player to work out what to do on their own. What you actually have to do is leave the hotel and search outside, but that was the last thing Kyle and I wanted to do. It was obvious the butler was lying about not knowing something, and so our instinct is to find a way to attack or sneak past him. Leaving just went against instinct. What’s funny is that I vaguely remember the hints being just as opaque in Sword of Mana, which just makes this whole out-of-place hotel episode of the plot seem simultaneously more surreal and choppy.
The closest thing you have to a reason to leave Kett’s is a hint that doesn’t seem like it applies to your current situation: if you visit another room, you’ll find a White Mage who tells you about a mirror that reveals someone’s true self if they look in it. You’re supposed to realize you have to use this on the butler, but I’m not sure why you’re expected to make that logical leap. Clearly he’s in on the kidnapping, but that doesn’t necessarily make him a youkai or shapeshifter! To quote Kyle: “We have to find the mirror to know this guy is lying, and then we can stab him? We can’t we just… stab him? This ‘being a good guy’ business is nonsense.” Illusion of Gaia has a similar “reveal the hidden monster” plotline and it also fails to tell you who you’re supposed to use it on, simply assuming that you’ll know to use it on “the bad person” even though there’s no reason to suspect they’re in a disguise! I can only assume these two plotlines are grounded in some Japanese fable and we’re missing the cultural root.
(Ed. I’ve since learned the plot also occurs in Dragon Quest 3, which could make for a likely origin, but for all I know it could be even older? Don’t make me start a Dragon Quest Marathon, Square Enix, this is taking enough time as it is!)
Whatever the case, you follow the advice of the White Mage and their companion and head into the southern marsh, looking for a key to the dungeon where someone had tossed the magic mirror. A few slaughtered Lizardmen later, the key appeared before us (a mechanic the game would repeat in dungeons but never again on the overworld, which makes it stand out at as well. This opening hour sure is packed with dropped ideas!). We took it and ran off to Cave of Marsh. This was our first proper dungeon, and you’ll notice that the name is a clear reference to FF1’s first proper dungeon, Marsh Cave. Inside, we were promptly poisoned to death by a Land Leech.
Oh, sorry, did that running gag say “promptly”? I meant “promptly and constantly.” Oh, did I say “Land Leech”? I meant “everything.” Oh, the Land Leeches were awful, but that was mostly their attack power: they just straight-up killed us when they weren’t Poisoning us. Unfortunately, nearly everything in the cave had Poison, and Poison is very dangerous in the opening quarter of FFA Poison steamrolls through your HP in these early dungeons, though thankfully it can’t take your last point of HP. Some plant monsters on the surface dropped Pure potions en masse to cure the Poison, but once inside the dungeon you would only have those Pures you brought in with you
In fact, that’s the sort of game FFA is. It’s a game where you depend on your disposable inventory, like a really strict game of Original D&D. Limited mattocks for clearing blocks and walls, Pure potions to fight off Poison, breakable Keys for unlocking generic doors. It’s remarkable they didn’t force us to stock torches! (Ed. Actually, I wrote that line as a reference to OD&D’s inventory management, but later discovered that the Japanese version has a dummied-out Torch item!) The game also re-locks doors and somehow reseals walls you broke down with mattocks if you get too far away. Kyle made a running gag out of saying Sumo was walling up the doors behind him.
Thankfully, not all of these resource concerns last the entire game. Keys are a problem forever, but Mattocks are eventually replaced, and some of the game’s status effects (Poison included) can be cured with a spell. Hell, Kyle and I started to ignore Poison after a certain point in the game and simply Cured away its damage. It goes to show how bored and frustrated we were with the game’s constant-menu diving that we’d rather have paid 4 MP for the Cure spell we already had equipped than 1 MP for the Heal spell that would remove the deadly poison coursing through our veins.
Inside the cave, we ran straight into a Red Mage skulking about the entrance. We talked, and he caught on quickly to our plight, saying a lot of women had gone missing in the region, only to show up trapped in coffins deep inside Kett’s. He asked if he could help and we thought, sure man! You seem to know a lot about kidnapping, you’re sure to be an asset.
Red Mage was more helpful than he probably should have been as a combat ally, considering what I’ve already said about his monster AI. He just lobs his fireballs in semi-random directions at an inconsistent rate. The advantage was that he could damage enemies we couldn’t, like Green Slimes, a bouncing bubble-like creature that the game liked to stash throughout the game to drop Mattocks for you. We could have fought the Slimes with our Fire spell later in the game, but since our MP was tied to our health through Cure, I was never willing to do that. Kyle was more of a gambler, willing to use direct damage spells and was often proven right in his guess that the extra EXP would level us up. That level up would give us a full healing just when we needed it, so Kyle gets full points for strategy. Of course, at this point we had no attack magic and no viable weapons, so our new Red Mage buddy was indispensable. For the record, our new friend had no ASK power. He just chatted with us instead, telling us that Mattocks could clear secret doors, which was news to us at the time.
Speaking of secret doors, these would always be located in the middle of the walls, LoZ-style. It’s worth noting that by an account I once heard (but now can’t seem to source…), in Zelda’s early planning stages the game was meant to have a rudimentary level editor on the Famicom Disk System, and some of its design decisions are probably based on the limitations of that feature, rather than being ideal game design decisions. You know, like doors stuck smack in the middle of walls without exception. You could argue that if you wish, but I think it’s something to keep in mind as we go on and see FFA continue to draw inspiration from the wrong parts of the Zelda. FFA does innovate by letting you test walls for secret doors with your sword, which was one of the few ideas other studios took back from this game
There wasn’t much to say about Cave of Marsh as a dungeon. It may be the first dungeon in Final Fantasy history to weave between interiors and dungeon rooms that appear to be exteriors, does that count? This is something Zelda wouldn’t begin to do until The Wind Waker, making this a victory for FFA for sure, but it’s something that FFA will in many of its dungeons, so Cave of Marsh doesn’t stand out on its own! As an intro dungeon, Cave of Marsh also doesn’t have any unique mechanical elements. The only interesting feature was when it gave us an empty chest to push onto a switch and Kyle and I attacked and destroyed it, thinking it was a mimic. We actually thought it was a mimic even after we broke it, because we hadn’t yet realized you can break any empty chest in the game. The reason for this is that monsters drop chests containing items (soon to be a Mana tradition), and so the game lets you break the chests in case they’re blocking your path. As you can imagine, we were confused for a few minutes. Ironically, there are Mimics in this game, but we never once saw one. Odd.
Later in the dungeon, we found the game’s one-and-only Sickle weapon (the cell phone version added a second), which was a briefly useful weapon that attacked in a circle around us and cut thick vines. Naturally those vines only showed up once in the game after the we left the Kett’s region.
While I might not have much to say about the dungeon itself, there is a lot to say about dungeons in this game in general. Like how, once again drawing from LoZ, monsters are scattered about the room randomly when you enter, such that a room could contain five monsters, a mix of Mushbooms and Rabbites, but with no set proportions and placements. This 1986 design idea falls utterly flat in both games in my opinion, but FFA manages to screw up even further, even though it has Zelda as a guide. For starters, it often puts monsters straight in your face: where LoZ caused the monster to appear from a harmless smoke cloud in the middle of the room, FFA causes them to simply exist, already able to cause damage, even on the edges of the room. It can’t place them in the doorways, but it’s perfectly happy to let them walk into the doorways a split second later (and knock you back into the previous room!). LoZ didn’t allow monsters in the doorways at all, and prevented you from attacking out of doorways for balance. Since FFA followed LoZ’s strict 1980s door placement rules, you’d think they’d have noticed this simple counterbalance!
Adding to this, LoZ enemies were less sophisticated in their movement, while FFA’s are just advanced enough to look worse. Remember all the terrible hit detection complaints? Well: add erratic movement and random spawning to those hit detection problems! Even villages are no respite, as the villagers are randomly spawned as well, often clogging pathways. What’s strange is that the game seems to be perfectly capable of putting enemies (and villagers) in specific places, it just chose to take the already-antiquated LoZ route even though they’ve seen the flaws of it in Zelda. Memory problems? Who’s to say? But Square clearly saw the problems with the system they were pursuing: if you enter a room in its middle (from a building, cave or a staircase), the room will be empty so you don’t get an enemy spawned on your head, so I can’t help but suspect this may have been a very poor design decision rather than a very unfortunate technical limitation!
(And speaking of staircases, those “have” to be on the corners of dungeon rooms in FFA. Even LoZ doesn’t have that limitation. This and the Mattock thing may have been done to make secret-finding a lot easier, or possibly the game’s memory really was in dire straits. But unless it was for memory management, I think the game would have been better without, because it makes the whole game feel like it was designed through copy and paste, or an RNG.)
At the bottom of the cave, we finally stumbled on a new-shaped room, saved (oh, save-anywhere games, how we’ll miss you in days to come!), and ran into the boss, which was a Hydra in an underwater lake. Red Mage could have been very useful here with his long-range attacks, but he chose to pelt spells at the wall instead, so it was up to us. After enough cuts to the face, we got the Hydra down and took its treasure: the Fire spell, which homed in on targets but not always the one we wanted, and also the Mirror. Our buddy suggested that if we took the mirror back to Kett’s and used it on the butler, he would “scream and show his true colours.” With that parting advice, he went his own way. I’m not sure why we’d be in this cave, following this particular plot thread if we hadn’t already worked that out that we were supposed to use the mirror on the butler, but hey, our friend who knows a lot about kidnapping and making people scream said it would work, and I think he’s too much of a stand-up guy for us to pass on his advice.
Returning to Kett’s (and taking a free nap in their bed before attacking the occupants) we faced down the butler, who did indeed scream and turned into a werewolf that we had to kill. From there, it was all the way through the rest of the dungeon-house, past undead monsters, and we capped off the dungeon with a hookshot-like chain whip that somehow still seemed more out of Castlevania than Zelda. It even had a Belmont-esque damaging backswing! The chain whip was used to hookshot to pegs in certain parts of the dungeon, which is nothing remarkable today, but keep in mind that this was before the hookshot appeared in Link to the Past! (But remember Grand Master? It also has a hookshot! Are both the hookshot and the particular LttP-style sword swing actually from a common progenitor?) Along the way we also had our first encounter with the Dark status effect, which was laughable. It simply turned the Gameboy’s grey and white pixels black, and the black ones white, meaning the shot almost became clearer. Sure, some medium-grey items disappeared, but that was harmless in the end. Some enemies in Kett’s also dropped items that cast free spells or boosted stats, but we never seriously used either.
In the end, we found Fuji in a room full of caskets, and left everyone else behind like a hero. Unfortunately, the mysterious “Mr. Lee” attacked us in the lobby, revealing himself to be a vampire. Kyle had better luck with him than me, as we gradually but never truly learned the value of FFA’s shield mechanics (the shield can block certain projectiles if you’re not attacking, LoZ-style, but the shield has to be a strong enough model to counter that specific projectile, which is already confusing, and the attack has to hit you dead-on the shield, in a game with abysmal hit detection, so forget it). We got the “Slep” spell from him, and never bothered to cast it, heading back to the marsh to get back on track of the actual plot. Sorry, Mr. Lee, you were a distraction to begin with and it’s time we got back in the saddle.