Gather round, children, gather round, and I’ll tell you a tale. A strange tale, about a strange time (the 90s. Yes, terrifying, I know. Please, keep to your seats). A tale about a strange product, and the strange things people do to one another they’ve got a tough lie stuck in their teeth, or a good idea stuck so far up their ass they can’t hook it out without covering it in shit (you parents can keep to your seats too). I haven’t decided which this one is, but I’ll leave that decision to you. This is the story of Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest.
Mystic Quest is known by a few names, and our story starts on that silly little note. We’ve already talked about how it was called Mystic Quest Legend in Europe, but where you want to focus is its Japanese name: Final Fantasy USA: Mystic Quest. Fans of the gaming greats may already understand what this implies, because a similar title was given to a far more famous game when it was released in Japan: Super Mario Bros 2: USA. For those not familiar, the SMB released as “2” here in the west is not the original Super Mario Bros 2, which was a actually a retread of the original with stratospheric difficulty. Concerned western gamers wouldn’t be in to that kind of rough and tumble, Nintendo repurposed a game called Doki Doki Panic into a new Mario game, called it “2” in the States, and re-released it in Japan as “Super Mario USA” (Doki Doki Panic was based on some of Mario team’s experiments, I hear, so was closer related to Mario than it may have seemed). What the Japanese gaming audience thought of this “USA” game at the time, I can’t say, but I can guess what some Japanese marketers thought, given what happened at a little company called Square just a few years later.
Square was running the kind of business that just had no right to succeed internationally in the 1980s. Localization of a text-heavy RPG into another language wasn’t just prohibitively expensive (a lot like today), but was in some cases outright impossible. That’s not hyperbole: in the 1980s, some character sets, like Korean, weren’t supported on any computer on the market. When you could get away with them, like with Latin characters for the west, you’d lose a lot of the text just to make it fit, and that’s downplaying the problems. Compress this fifty page short story to ten for me, I’ll wait. Worse, in the case of console gaming, the NES lacked some of the important features of the Famicom Disk System upgrade that would have allowed larger data-sizes to be put into play. FF1 wasn’t localized for three years after its Japanese release, and by then the NES was about to take its final bow. Dragon Warrior/Quest took three years as well. By the time Final Fantasy IV came out, Square had a legitimate concern: the west was seriously behind the east in terms of the console RPG. Reasoning that you couldn’t just plunge someone into a genre that had only increased in complexity, they began to take… questionable steps.
It’s hard to tell if they were right. These days, we’ve learned how to teach someone how to play a game in its opening moments, and despite the bile tutorials will get, with old school RPGs they would have been a godsend. Imagine plopping someone in front of Ultima 2 with no keyboard guide and no more instructions than “Now play.” If you don’t know what I mean, here is Ultima 2’s Keyboard Guide. But there’s a simple reason Square’s actions are judged so critically in the historical eye: 16-bit era JRPGs are not the complicated games Square was making out. They’re certainly no Ultima. Now Square may have been right about the business side. Their rivals, Enix, outright shut down their North American division before the end of the 16-bit era, so no one was buying their games, that’s for sure (Action RPG classic Terranigma was lost in the shuffle). For all we know, this story about the games being too complex is just a cover for not wanting to go through an expensive western localization, but the story spread, and it made Square’s business decisions seem more and more insulting to the west. An entire generation of 11 year olds trained themselves to play games in Cecil Harvey’s child-cursing hands: more Final Fantasy was not going to be that frightening for them. But what did Square do instead? Well…
Final Fantasy V was not released internationally until after the success of FFVII on the PSX. Final Fantasy IV and VI were not released in Europe until the new century, and the version of FFIV the west was easier than the original (either based on or inspiring the so-called Japanese “Easy Type” release), so not to scare anyone off. (Of course, Easy Type was actually a Japanese release, which suggests to me that Square really was afraid of people being scared off by complexity, not only in the West, but Easy Type is actually harder than the original FFIV in some places, even if it is less complex, so they look even more foolish for using it like this.) Seiken Densetsu 3 was never released outside of Japan, and still hasn’t. A western dev studio was hired to created Secret of Evermore to appeal to American gamers, but a rumour cropped up that Evermore was the shitty, SMB2-like replacement for Seiken Densetsu 3 and has been looked down on ever since, even though it was neither SD3’s replacement nor particularly shitty. Should-have-been classics like Live-A-Live and Secrets of the Rudras were left on Japanese shores. They’re hardly the only company responsible. Enix has just as many faults, and I’ve already told you about Atlus and Shin Megami Tensei. And then there was the Earthbound marketing campaign. You don’t even have to be familiar with Earthbound to be put off by the marketing campaign, which was so wretched it was like they were running the whole campaign in reverse.
And then there’s Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest: the ball of dirt that passes for a crown jewel in this historical display of failure. I’m talking about how an executive or twelve at Square sat down and said “Do you know what those western gamers need? A tutorial for the entire genre.” Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest is an intro RPG, and thanks to its existence, Square of the 90s will forever be remembered as the company that thought the North American gamers needed pablum before they could swallow Final Fantasy IV Easy Type With Bonus Censoring. Keep in mind that most gamers today are taught RPGs through Pokemon, and while Pokemon is no Ultima VII, it’s no baby’s RPG. In fact, I hear rumour that if you call it a baby’s RPG a team of breeders will send a perfect IV, EV trained Metagross to descend from the sky to glare at you for the next week and a half.
All of that said, Mystic Quest also a childhood favourite of mine.
I never had many complex RPGs as a kid, we’ve been over that before. I had FFLIII (designed by the same team as MQ!), I had FFLI and II as well, but had only seen FFVI played briefly and nothing more beyond that. Kyle picked me up Mystic Quest as a birthday gift, telling me that he picked it up over Illusion of Gaia figuring that I would like party play over individual, not that MQ turned out that much of a party play system in the end. And while I would later discover and love IoG among my very favourites, I think it’s best I met and learned MQ so early on. I’m glad for how it’s shaped me as a player, and in a more selfish way, I’m glad for how it didn’t, having seen the attitudes hoisted about by people raised on the “better” games. To be blunt, Square didn’t get a reputation for “screwing” gamers out of FFV because their fans were nice people. As a kid, it was kind of easy to see them trash something you like and slowly recognize assholes as assholes, good criticism good criticism, and sensationalist criticism as the dreck that it is. And as selfish as those judgement calls may have been, I will say that learning to like a simplistic game teaches you a lot about what there is to see in simplistic games. These days, FFMQ tends to get a more noncommittal, bored response from reviewers than the bile of the 90s, which is progress and perhaps the verdict it actually deserves, but I figure I have a unique perspective worth exploring, so let’s explore: let’s talk about Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest – the little game that could, but chose not to.
Mystic Quest begins with a blink-and-you’ll miss it name drop for our starting location, the Mountain of Fate. Our lead is called Benjamin in the instructions (and Zash in Japanese). He was climbing the mountain in pursuit of an old man atop a cloud. Ben shouted after the man that his “village is gone!”, even though there is no space on the map for a village and it is never mentioned again, so it’s great to see he cares. The Old Man gave us a basic movement tutorial. Like FFLIII, which I’ll repeat was developed by the same team, Ben can jump at any time to avoid rudimentary obstacles like “people,” and there are actual gaps to clear as well. “Old Man” is capitalized because, sadly, that’s about all I can use to describe him for the near-entirety of the game. His name is “White” in the manual, but I didn’t know that when I wrote this journal.
At the top of the mountain, the stranger showed us Focus Tower, the great stone tower at the centre of this game’s world, peaking through the distant clouds. He told us that the Vile Four, the Four Fiends of this world, had stolen the keys to Focus Tower’s doors, and as the Tower is the central route between the four corners of the world, this has prevented the people from reuniting. The Four are also draining the world’s Crystals of their power (well, yeah), and someone should do something about that maybe.
There’s also a full-out prophecy in this game, the first since FFI, which says that The Knight will appear to save the day, and of course the Old Man thinks The Knight is Ben, and feels his suspicions are confirmed when a Behemoth appears and Ben fights him off. Or… that’s how things are supposed to go. Ben and the Behemoth’s stats are precariously balanced so that Ben will win the fight by the skin of his teeth. Certainly an admirable aim, but the execution is faulty. Unfortunately, if the Behemoth crits, Ben will lose, and this happened to us twice. In fact, this fight is so irregular that I’ve even seen both parties crit in the past (Ben will win if this happens). Kind of hilarious to watch the game begin with the hero’s lifeless corpse hurled head over heels off the Mountain of Fate to smack into the ground below. “At last I’ve found a true knight!” said the old man, after we finally won. As opposed to those two chumps who just died! Some introductory RPG this is turning out to be!
We followed the Old Man off of the Mountain, which collapsed in an earthquake (and where did the rocks go?). The Old Man led us to Level Forest. Level Forest was located in the southwest of this carefully quartered world, and I mean that as literally as possible: the world is actually divided into quarters by straight lines running through Focus Tower.
Echoing FFA, Mystic Quest allows you to influence the world with the help of your weapons, and so you could swing your weapons at pretty much any time you weren’t quite standing at a talking distance. In the forest, Kyle demonstrated this by trying to stab the old man, which I felt was a reasonable reaction to all that had happened. After our failed attempt to murder him, the Old Man established his pattern for most of the remaining game: he spouts one or two hints to set you on the main path, and then rushes off into the air, leaving Benjamin doing a really awkward-looking sprite shrug in response. In this instance, Cloud Rider the Obtuse told us to seek out the Earth Crystal, which was decaying and leaving the forest in this sorry state.
Once he was gone, we found ourselves mostly trapped by trees, but to the east, Kyle helped out a NPC by pushing aside a rock. Oh, good, block puzzles, this is going to be a joy. The man advised us to take a Withered Branch from a nearby chest (which is where the trees in this world keep their branches, I suppose) and show it to a young woman named Kaeli to show her that the Level Forest was slowly dying. So far so good, if a bit abrupt. Though if the map screen is correct and she’s living in that town on the right, isn’t her town inside the decaying forest? In any event, there was no way to get deeper into the woods, so we headed east into the town of Foresta.
One interesting thing to note about towns in MQ is the fact that they all have remixes of the same musical theme, rather than reusing the exact same theme in each. The Foresta theme is calm and pastoral, not unlike the traditional RPG town song, which makes it the best song to start on so you can see the ways the other towns contrast. As for the town itself, it was just a few homes made of trees, with one interesting footnote: nearly everyone we met in town was either a child or a senior citizen. We soon learned that the Fiend draining the Earth Crystal was not just rotting the ground, but also the life from the citizens, making them appear aged. Erm… the adult citizens, at least.
Of course, in the first town of any new game, there’s always a matter of working out how the game handles The Fundamentals. How do inns work? Shops? Well, good luck on both. Foresta only has a free inn run by a child, though this did let us see Ben’s bizarre post-rest stretch/disco routine (in full plate!). As to shops, there simply wasn’t one in Foresta, but that didn’t leave you without a means of gathering resources. Scattered throughout Mystic Quest are what I’m going to call “brown chests,” which regenerate infinitely when you exit and enter a zone. If we had wanted, we could have just walked in and out of Foresta until we were carrying 99 of everything! These chests only ever carried standard inventory junk like Cure Potions and Heal Potions (a status-effect clearing potion), but we weren’t going to complain at free samples – besides, the game never sells Heal Potions so you had best grab them whenever possible. Rather than grind 99 Potions just to mock the game, Kyle just made a point of visiting the chests whenever he was nearby, which was more than enough. Of course, since we had more than enough, we also used them more than we would have in another Final Fantasy game. Well… I used them more often, in any event. Kyle drinks the things like a coffee addict, it’s practically his strategy.
While we were at the “inn,” a little kid sharing a home with our childish innkeeper asked us about saving the Crystals. How do you already know about our quest? Are we sure we want to sleep in the house of a spy?
While we were in town, Kyle solved a simple jumping puzzle to get the Cure spell. I say “simple,” but this is actually a little obnoxious, as you have to go through the invisible back door of a house to get it, and so, when I was younger, I didn’t notice it was there for the first two dungeons! There’s a similar puzzle involving a bottle in Link to the Past but that’s nowhere near as critical as a game’s only Cure spell! The Life spell is tucked away even deeper – I’m starting to wonder if the level designer on this game went on to make decisions for Kingdom Hearts, what with its “no Cure for a quarter of the game” design. Spells in this game are based on the original FFI model, though this game gives separate, flat cast totals each for White Magic, Black Magic and “Wizard Magic,” instead of breaking things up by levels.
We finally (erm, I suppose I should say “initially,” as I’ve been fudging the order of events since I started to discuss Foresta) found Kaeli and her mother, two of the only people unaffected by the life-draining for pretty much no reason. Kaeli was a forest-loving young woman who could talk to trees and was dressed in a green dress and a… golden tiara? And she has heavy plate mail in her equipment? Where is it on her sprite? And not to forget her battle axe, which isn’t exactly what you’d expect in a Druid’s kit. The European artwork for this game incorporates both the dress and mail into her design, which makes for an interesting mix. We learned that Kaeli’s father, Captain Mac, had sailed away not long ago but had not returned (why they expected him back so soon, they didn’t specify), and had forgotten his special cap in his rush process. Thrilling personal drama.
Kaeli was willing to saddle up with us almost from the moment we arrived, but her mother held her back until we showed her the wither, which pushed Kaeli over the edge. Kaeli joined us at level 5, and like FFLIII’s guest characters she did not gain experience. Making her feel even less like a real character was the fact that if we pressed Y, we could immediately change her to an automatic AI and let her run around without our commands. Funny the developers considered automating and de-automating your Guest party member so fundamental a feature it was assigned to a controller button, as though you’re going to be swapping every other second! Like all partners, Kaeli was equipped with the Life spell, which could resurrect you if you died. You did not have your own copy of Life for half the game, even in terms of items (no Phoenix Downs!) which is going to get a little rough. With Kaeli in hand, we headed back to the forest level. The Level Forest, even.