The mountain range that included Mt. Rocks wasn’t that far from the desert, so we set off, abandoning our car at the door. Bye, friend Chocobo! Mt. Rocks was essentially a giant dungeon. I’m sure the developers saw the place as a number of smaller caves connected by overworld, but your path is so streamlined that the entire mountain range might as well have been a single dungeon. It was so railroaded that I’m not sure where “Mt. Rocks” begins and the mountain range ends. Several guides online suggested that only the last cave was “Mt. Rocks” proper, but others went the other way, so I guess it’s up to the player.
No more than three rooms into the first cave, we were ambushed by a “Metal Crab” boss from nowhere. This one was a lot like the cat at the start of the game in that it had nothing to defend itself except contact damage and pattern movement, though it did a better job of covering most of the board. The crab was made a lot harder on top of that thanks to the armoured shell on its back, which kept attacks off of it from almost all sides but a thin face on the bottom. In fact, because of the way the game handles enemy invincibility, attacking the boss from the side ran the risk of hitting the armour “first,” nullifying the entire swing.
This “hitting armour cancels the entire swing” mechanic also impacts battles against minor enemies, in that they can intercept blows meant for other foes. I find this rather odd. Imagine you stabbed an enemy immune to lances with a lance. Obviously it wouldn’t penetrate them and hit behind them, correct? But what about the other way around? If you stabbed through an enemy that could be hit by a lance, but accidentally winged one that couldn’t with the distant lance-tip, the entire blow would still be cancelled across both enemies! It’s an okay system, and I can see what they were doing, but it doesn’t make perfect sense and it’s frankly more irritating than strategic.
The rest of the mountain involved weaving in and out of caves and overworld segments, as I said. One of the cave segments featured an odd puzzle with werewolves trying to coax us into destroying four chests for four switches. This made for a complicated fight, trying to kill werewolves while treating most of the room like glass. The game had the last laugh in the end, when we found out that the puzzle only required one surviving chest: just push it on a switch, and then push it off. Actually, it’s quite generous. You can push any one on, and any one off. It doesn’t have to be the same chest.
In the largest cave, Kyle found a Cyclops midboss, who imploded into glitches as he died. Very strange. His drop was a Morning Star, the last new weapon type in the game. The star swings over your head like a sickle (probably why they never included another sickle) and is then flung forward. It had such a high attack and wide range it was still viable at the endgame even when it was technically one of our weakest weapons by that point. The best part, however, was that this weapon worked like an infinite Mattock, meaning we could finally toss the real Mattocks. Keys made of aluminum foil were here to stay.
Kyle beat through another boss, a Golem, before we found ourselves out of Mt. Rocks and back in front of Glaive, like suckers. We broke back into the place we had already escaped from, and is it just us or does our arena and cell block not actually exist in here? The gate at the entrance is an exit to the end of the dungeon, so there’s no explanation for the arena. Whatever was going on, we worked our way up the wall and I fought a Chimera up top, fourth in the odd little boss rush we’ve had going on since entering Mt. Rocks. From there, we worked our way in and around the castle walls, fighting some Maguses from the Famicom version of FFIII that could cast Stone and rarely cast Moogle (which does exactly what it sounds like). That might sound inconvenient, but they lacked in attack power, making them much less dangerous than the Black Mages from Davias’ place, which were here as well. Also present were… well honestly: Darknuts, from LoZ. No, seriously, they were straight-up Darknuts from LoZ. The only conceivable difference was one in our favour: the Darknuts in LoZ are entirely invincible if you hit their shields, but this game uses this game’s shield mechanics, which meant these Darknuts were totally screwed.
We rescued Fuji from the castle without much honest fuss, and carried on through the castle with her invaluable help. Despite directions saying that Dark Lord was chilling at the top of the castle, the game sent us down several staircases before sending us up only one, yet there we were on the roof. Dark Lord turned from his villainous musing to see Sumo, and said “Looks like you’ve been a bit stronger.” Why yes I have been. Sumo then pulled a Cecil Harvey and told the woman to leave so the men could talk, and she… did. Wow. “Good boy” said Dark Lord, stopping a bizarre trend of villains calling us “darling,” but not really improving on it. In the Japanese version, Sumo then mentioned Willy (assuming you even remember him) and the fight began.
We fought, and it was an interesting fight in that Square was trying to hit on the vein of “realistic human opponent they’ve been building up all game instead of transforming into someone you’ve never seen before,” which would catch on a decade later after Wind Waker finally made it work. Kudos to their ambition but at the same time, it would take a decade for Wind Waker to make it work, you probably guessed that this one did not. There’s a reason opponents tended to transform into giant monsters back in the old days, and it’s because all enemies’ AIs were pathetic back then, so devs used graphics to cover for it. Even if you’re not enjoying the graphics, it only makes sense that a larger enemy would be less mobile on an old system, doesn’t it? Now, FFA had intelligent bosses and it had pattern-based bosses, and Dark Lord here wasn’t quite so pathetic as the pattern-based bosses that don’t even care you’re there, but also wasn’t much better than the Darknuts. All he had over them was more HP and a single new attack.
So we killed Dark Lord but “it was a fake.” Yeah, tell me about it. Oh, you mean the Pendant? It turns out that pathetic fight really was Dark Lord. Huh. Sumo left the roof and discovered that duh, Fuji had been kidnapped when he was gone. Remembering that other villains… exist, Sumo assumed Julius had taken the real pendant to the waterfalls. Whether or not Julius was trying to scam Dark Lord all along seems to be left up to the player.
Julius had taken over Fuji’s mind, it seemed, and announced himself as the last survivor of “Empire Vandole.” We wondered what on earth this was supposed to mean. Unlike our priror discussion, he does say “Empire” here, which implies he’s the only surviving citizen of the place, doesn’t it? Empires, contrary to SE’s impressions shown over the course of this Marathon, are big, not “castles on the top of unfathomable mountains” (FFII, FFA), or “crammed into the back of canyons” (the Ancient’s empire in FF3), or “geographically nonexistant” (FFIV). Say what you will about FFV when we get to it (this journal was originally written after our FFV playthrough) but at least Exdeath seems to possess actual land. People have to have lived there for it to be an empire. A lot of people. How many? Well, as the game goes on, we will find the ruins of the Vandole empire, even though it seems to have been wiped out to the last brick within two generations, depending on how old you assume the protagonists are. So the houses are gone, and Julius is the last survivor of the Empire… does that mean all its people were wiped out in a genocide after the war? A genocide presumably perpetrated by the Gemma Knights and their allies? Is… is this the side we’re supposed to be cheering for?
Or did the localization ruin this, and Julius means he’s the last survivor of the “Emperor,” aka a member of the royal family, in the way royalty tends to act as though they are the state? We later learn that he was the son of the Emperor later on, but when we learn it, it’s phrased as a surprise, so obviously we weren’t supposed to glean that here! Ultimately, Julius’ phrasing here might be intentionally vague, and I feel fully obliged in calling it out as poor localization because wow, you just made it sound like the good guys culled every citizen of an “evil” empire. Great job.
Also he called us “darling” again.
Julius ordered Fuji to “reverse the waterfalls,” which she did. So, hey about that. So the waterfalls actually provide all the water of the land of Mana, right? But Fuji’s mother “sealed” them in the downwards position, which means they naturally go up, meaning the land of Mana is naturally a desert. I mean, kudos to Fuji’s mom but I think you accidentally scuttled your eco-friendly narrative, Square. So, Julius took Fuji and flew up the waterfall. No, really, the spellcasting effect never ended, he didn’t just fly horizontally and then entered the waterfall, he flew up the waterfall, and never picked up speed the way Sumo will when he gets into the waterfall. If Julius could have flown up, why didn’t he do it ages ago? The same reasons he didn’t fly the airship up? Wow, this plot.
Now, of course, Sumo made the mistake of stepping out onto the ledge Julius had been using. Julius blew him off it, because Sumo’s never seen a plunge he didn’t take. Despite this being essentially the same fall as at the start of the game, we woke up somewhere else entirely, because this game is a mobius strip with no fall damage.
We woke up after being rescued by a chocobo. Our chocobo from earlier? I can’t be sure. The game is really awkward on the topic. It might being our chocobo but it could easily be some other chocobo. The ambiguity is probably intentional, just in case you never got the optional chocobo in the first place. This chocobo took us to the house of a woman named Sarah (“Sarah” being another recurring Final Fantasy name), who was also caring for Bogard. It seems he fell from the airship in his own right, and ended up here, because this is Traverse Town, where everyone that falls from high heights ends up eventually.
Sumo talked to Bogard, but to my surprise things went south in a way I hadn’t expected. Bogard wanted Sumo to accept the role as one of the new Gemma Knights, but Sumo had lost all hope after all his repeat failures. In the Japanese version he explicitly mentions Amanda again, but I suppose that was a touch too gruesome for the localizers. To my shock, Bogard blew up at him for giving up hope, perhaps one of the most realistic emotional moments I’ve seen in the entire series so far (thanks to FFLII’s censorship), and in the end, Sumo stormed out, telling Bogard to do the job himself. It’s too bad the rest of this story isn’t this well-executed.
In another rare instance of the game putting in NPC in a specific location instead of placing them at random, we found Sarah blocking the way west of her house (by the way, not far from here, Kyle figured out that the morning star could push away NPCs. Why can’t all the weapons? Why did we need to go through half the game to get a way of saying “please step aside”, even if we were saying it through massive head trauma?). Sarah spoke to Sumo and told him that Bogard had been hoping for Sumo’s arrival ever since he was injured, and also told Sumo that Bogard’s back was broken and so he could no longer serve as a Gemma Knight. I’m really surprised and glad to see this brief era of Square Game Boy games (FFLII and FFA) attempt these deeply personal stories, even if FFA’s attempt feels somewhat abbreviated. Unfortunately, Sumo put off talking to Bogard, and headed to meet a certain “Dr. Bowow,” and no, I can’t explain the name. I can only assume it’s a dog sound in the Japanese as well, or else this name is completely left field. FFWiki transliterates it to “Bonboyaji”, which sounds more like “Bon Voyage” to me.
Bowow’s house nearly exploded as we approached, which was another unique sort of trigger in this game (stepping into a trigger zone in town segment to trigger an event instead of merely stepping on screen), and even if I’m mistaken about that, it was certainly the most subtle effect in the game, with no text or dialogue (or monsters!) to follow: just a pause, a shake and a boom, and then back to your business to react how you. But compliments to the subtlety aside, why all these one- or few-time special triggers, and specially placed entities instead of random? They must have been added very late in development, considering how much they would have helped the rest of the game. It’s a bit of a duct tape job, if you follow me.
Inside the house, Bowow (I’m already confusing him with the Chain Chomp from Link’s Awakening), a hairy sort of guy with goggles, introduced us to the chocobo that had rescued us. He explained that the chocobo had somehow hurt its leg when they found it (once again implying that it was your chocobo, without saying so outright). Thankfully, Bowow was able to save it by turning it into a cyborg, as you do. He called our new friend “Chocobot,” and told us that it could now run fast enough to run on water at piers. Dr. Bowow is our new favourite person.
Ed. By the way, I later discovered that Bowow seems to be using a sprite originally created for FFII, where it would have been an entirely new species that ultimately never made it out of the prototype!
After getting lectured on Bogard by Bowow as well, Sumo pulled together and decided to apologize to Bogard. On our way back, we encountered a townsman who told us about a knight who had saved the day in the past with “some sword.” After Sumo and Bogard had made their peace, Bogard gave us more information about the mythical “Some Sword” (Excalibur, or the titular Sword of Mana in the remake and the sequels). He said that it was how they saved the day back during the war with Vandole, even though that’s exactly what he said about Fuji’s mom. Now it’s this sword? This guy’s just going to use this same bullshit story whenever he wants us to fetch something, isn’t he? Your lunch next, sir? The club sandwich that saved the world single-handedly? Well, if any sandwich could, my boy, it was this one…
Bogard told us to head back to Cibba in Wendel to find the Excalibur and whoa, whoa! Backtracking? Whoa! I had sort of got the impression here that this game was… well… essentially stage-based, you know? I mean, sure, there’s a contiguous map, it’s about the size of Koholint in Link’s Awakening, but the game habitually picks you up and (often literally) drops you in new regions, or forces you to cross long dungeons you would never want to recross, essentially turning the entire game into a stage-based experience. I’m reminded most prominently of the Quest of Camelot GB game, which really was stage-based but took heavy cues from Zelda, making it feel a lot like FFA had been up to this point. Castlevania 64 also comes to mind, a vague and ugly middle ground between the stage and Metroid-based Castlevanias. You could also make a comparison with any game that repeatedly visits old rooms to give you the impression that you’re in the same place, even though internally it’s just a copy and paste job – Half-Life 1, Operation WinBack, that sort of thing. Really, the last thing FFA has felt like up to this point was a game with a proper explorable world! But apparently this heavy-fisted stage-based approach suddenly disappears, making me wonder why it was there to begin with! Chocobot is going to take us into the world of an actual world! Why not?
Also this planet is another of this damnable video game not-toruses again (TVTropes informs me the proper shape is a physically infeasible “duocylinder”) instead of a sphere or an east-west cylinder, which really threw me. “How are we still walking in this direction?” I said to Kyle. Welcome to the real game world.