Inside the forest, Kaeli stepped forward and used her axe to cut down exactly one tree, right in front of a troop of Brownies, and expected us to march right through rather than provide a more convenient route. I see we’re going to be great pals. Since this was our first rank-and-file battle, I had best talk about combat. Unlike nearly all Final Fantasy games, but similar to Earthbound, Super Mario RPG or some of the Ultimas, FFMQ features enemy troops that are visible on the map instead of in the form of random encounters. Unlike those other series, those troops don’t move around, allowing the game to use them to plug passageways. Troops only regenerate if you leave the area, so you can essentially predict how much EXP you’ll have to beat the boss without abusing the system. There’s not even much point in gaming the system, as there’s a very low level cap of 41, and we finished the game in the 30s.
Touching an enemy begins a combat, which resembles Dragon Quest’s first person combat, lacking even SaGa-style enemy stacking, and the like. The player can swap between their available weapon types with L and R, as the game has a hefty weapon-type weakness system. Kaeli’s axe, for example, works well against the living trees you find in the region, though Ben just has his sword at this point in the game. The game also has a nice feature where, after you damage an enemy past a certain HP range, their sprite changes to an “injured” sprite, which are cartoonish, never gory, even the times you hack heads off a multi-headed enemy! This damaged sprite swaps generally once for a minor enemy, twice for a midboss, and at least three times for a boss. Lastly, the game has graphical health bars for your playable characters instead of direct HP numbers, though you can toggle that back to numbers if you’d prefer. Once you gain more than a single bar of health, you gain little indicators to show how many bars you have. The health bars are fairly evocative and I personally prefer them to the flat numbers, though the length of a single bar, fifty HP, is probably too low. Square would return to this exact style of bar for enemies in Kingdom Hearts 2 and beyond.
All in all, the fight system’s not doing anything too right or too wrong on its own – it’s too bad it won’t add many combat features from this point on.
Ben and Kaeli made their way across this one-room dungeon to its opposite end, where they came to an ugly, “evil” tree that Kaeli claimed to have told us about, although I’m reasonably certain that she hadn’t. She chopped down the tree and, like something out of Grimm, a Minotaur popped out and poisoned Kaeli. It did this via the sound of an aerosol can, almost unmistakably, as though he had just attacked her with a bottle of breath spray. I’m not sure if that’s a victory or a disappointment for the MQ foley team.
So after Kaeli was spritz’d with a lethal poison (“I’m not entirely sure how…” Kyle narrated. “…and I’m trying not to think about it.”), and we fought the Minotaur. Now, as per marathon policy, we can’t use glitches, so we weren’t able to use the North American version’s glitch to kill the Minotaur with the Life spell. “The ‘Life’ spell kills a boss?” I hear you ask. No, I say! The Life spell kills nearly everybody. The trouble with this spell comes from the code that’s supposed to let it kill Undead, like in other Final Fantasy games. Unfortunately, they screwed it up, causing the spell to affect everyone. The only exceptions are a few bosses that were given immunity to Instant Death, which is even stranger than it sounds, because MQ has no other instant death attacks! But this is hardly the last time MQ will show signs of changes during its development. In any event, it’s not clear why the Minotaur of all mid-bosses lacks this immunity, but since the other bosses have no reason to have it, maybe the Minotaur isn’t that odd after all. My suspicion is that the Minotaur lacks this ability because it has a recolour that’s Undead, so they may have removed the immunity to allow Life to affect the recolour and so it impacted both by accident… but it’s impossible to say.
You may have noticed I’m not talking about the fight, but if you haven’t, don’t feel too bad. What first boss have I ever talked about? Despite being “poisoned” in the cutscene before the battle, Kaeli wasn’t actually poisoned in terms of the status effect, though the Minotaur could inflict poison once the battle had started (I guess the devs didn’t have the FFV-esque inspiration to inflict status effects during cutscenes?). Besides the poison, the party and the Minotaur both lacked any attacks more remarkable than a standard blow, though FFMQ was refined enough to make the Minotaur’s attacks sound interesting, saying things like “attacked with Axe” instead of “used AXE” or “attacked!” like any other game. It’s an improvement that takes all of a few minutes to code so it’s shocking this is the only text-driven RPG game that I can think of that ever bothered. There, I’m musing on how a game handles basic attacks, I hope this cements why first bosses don’t deserve attention. Urm… since Ben can only attack and Cure at this point, I suppose the fight is only an inch less brainless than FFIII DS’s Land Turtle, but that’s all I’m willing to yield. Traditional RPGs are really are built around for party play and strategic use of your available resources (whatever those may be – items, spells, abilities, manoeuvring, etc), so forcing you to fight a boss with few party members and few command options makes the boss battle feel like a total waste. We finally won with a critical hit, which after the Behemoth felt like suitable revenge. Just to spite us, the Minotaur was worth less EXP than some of its allied troops.
After the fight, Kaeli finally collapsed from her horrible Febreeze-ing, and her mother showed up from nowhere to collect her. And Mrs. Kaeli’s Mom wasn’t even mad at us even though she told us not to let Kaeli get hurt! What a understanding person. Before she left, Kaeli gave us her axe and said we could help by picking up an Elixir that the Forestans apparently keep in the “Sand Temple”: an isolated cave in the middle of the forest, like all good medicine cabinets. Actually, the game has multiple “temples”, and they’re all caves lacking nearly any religious elements. The term can’t possibly be a mistranslation, considering Nintendo’s anti-religious censorship policies of the day (and sure enough, the Japanese word is “Hokora,” a kind of shrine), but there also isn’t any religious imagery in the temples, censored or otherwise? There are a set of magical tiles that tend to appear in the Temples later in the game, but there are enough exceptions that, in the end, the Temples are just plain caves, and the name sticks out like a sore thumb.
We took a moment to entertain ourself with our druid friend’s axe (“Hahaha! Take that, trees!”), we went past Level Forest on the game’s node-based world map. Think Super Mario World. Since the game works with a limited number of enemies in-dungeon, overworld encounters would have ruined what passes for “balance” here in Mystic Quest, so I agree that simplifying the map with nodes makes sense… but Mystic Quest just put things too darned close together! How often do you see an evil demon skull looming from the desert only two miles from the nearest lush forest village? Even Mario 3 was more naturalistic than this, and it had a country made of pipes! To make up for the lack of overworld enemies, Mystic Quest game came up with the interesting concept of Battlefields. Well, narratively interesting. The idea is that monsters have clustered in certain overworld portions of the world, fighting for control of the land and that you might want to clear them up just as a wartime concern. It’s very Actraiser, in a way. Unfortunately the mechanics are dull. Fight exactly 10 optional fights, all random, with a prize at the end, sometimes a unique item but typically just more gold or EXP. The trouble is: you can take breaks in between fights, making the whole thing little more than rote work, lacking all challenge.
There’s actually a glitch with Battlefields, and one we couldn’t have avoided if it happened, though it never did. If you level up from the last fight in a Battlefield, and then gain a prize of EXP, you’ll immediately level up a second time. I suspect the game doesn’t reset your next level target until after the fight is cleared, so when you receive even more EXP, it notices that you’re once again “above the target” and so you get a double upgrade?
After hitting up the first Battlefield, we went to the Sand Temple, where we found the box that should have contained the Elixir only for it to be empty. You mean “abandoned in a cave” isn’t a secure way to store valuables? As it happened, the thief wasn’t far away (if I can call them a thief just for opening a box in the wilderness, just like what we do in every game, ever). His name was Tristam, and he was essentially a ninja when he was not a con man, which was all the time. He tried to sell us the Elixir for 5000GP, which is the kind of money you wouldn’t have until the latter half of the game. Benjamin agreed with me, but like the child he is, replied “My allowance is only 2GP a month!” Clearly you haven’t considered a prosperous career in murder! Monster slaying. I mean monster slaying. Hero work, kid! Having adopted Tristam’s voice for a joke in this journal, he latched on to us, joining the party and directing Ben to the nearby dungeon, saying that giving him a share of the treasure would pay for the Elixir.
Unlike Kaeli, Tristam joined the party with an ammunition-based weapon: shurikens, which could cause a few status effects and did “Shoot” damage, making them extra-strong against flying enemies. No one in towns ever sells these poison-tipped weapons (I can’t imagine why), nor will they sell ammo for the other ammo-based partner, so Tristam is essentially on a timer. That was true of Guests in FFLII as well, but since enemies in this game are limited, you might be surprised how easy it is to get in trouble if you don’t find brown chests full of ammo.
We checked back in to Foresta for the usual stealing from brown chests, and Kyle started jumping into the inn bed to rest, which was a storied tradition back in the day. We had unlocked a new Battlefield after Tristam joined, and since it had Poison-causing enemies, we ran back the inn nearly every time we were poisoned. You can see why we did in terms of Marathon Prerogative, since every trip back to Foresta meant a new set of brown chests full of restoratives. An exploit, sure, but the game allows it, and that means it’s our business to give it a whirl. At the end of the Battlefield, we won our first accessory, a Charm, which boosted our defence by, uh, 1. They gave us a 1 point improvement even though Ben started with a suit of Steel Armour (Mythril in the Japanese) worth 4. I’m pretty sure it’s not even magical, it’s just a circle of metal covering a fist-sized portion of his skin. Later Accessories in this game will give you resistances and immunities, but not this one. Now, I’m sure some readers have been waiting for me to get to this point, so yes: there are only four items in each category in this game, for a total of only 16 armours and 16 weapons in the whole game. At first that seems underwhelming, but I find that it gives the game a charming Zelda feel, where every prize is unique… but when the game gives an item worth 1 point of defence, it’s hard to pretend they’re all so special. The Charm feels like a callback to FFLIII’s “Belt” accessory, which also provides 1 DEF (and 3 MDEF) and also gives no resistances even though that’s how Accessories are for in that game, too. It makes me wonder what dev thought we’d really care to pick up a 1 DEF item in not just one game, but two!
Having obtained our previous quarter on a string, we went north to the Bone Dungeon. You know: that giant demon skull in the middle of the desert. This dungeon opens memorably with a one-way patch of treadmill sand just north of your starting point, flanked by gauntlets of monsters. You’re essentially left with a choice to strong-arm your way in, or could step forward and end up trapped behind those monsters on the other side, preventing you from leaving in an emergency. And as an added bonus for the developers, if you do get trapped, you’re likely to stick the dungeon out, and so are far less likely to learn that enemies regenerate if you leave the dungeon, which Mystic Quest would do best to discourage. A smart move, and a good way to get the player in the right mindset for the rest of the game.
Kyle and I took the sand route, and from there, we passed through some water and Tristam blew up a wall for us, offering to sell us his Bombs for our own purposes. We haggled with him until he dropped the price to 15GP, and were soon blowing up obstacles (giant sets of teeth, if you can believe it) that blocked our route through the dungeon, like the blackpowder dentists used to do. Similar to Tristam’s ninja stars, Ben’s bombs are limited ammunition, but later in the game you do get shops for them, so it’s never so much of a concern. In-battle they launch a group attack, which means the damage is divided across the targets, so you will do more damage if there are less enemies in the fight.
Not that many enemies really justified the use of bombs, at least not in this dungeon. There were worms, there Zombie Minotaur recolours I was hinting about earlier, there were Behemoth recolours, and there were also birds (wearing diapers, like you see every day). At the end of the dungeon, we grabbed the Quake spell, the only Black Magic spell that ends up completely useless by the end of the game. Hell, it’s useless by the time you get the next Black Magic spell. It was also a group attack, but its spell power was so low it would only really be useful in the next few Battlefields and the upcoming boss fight, which was just past the Quake spell’s door. Inside we hopped across a river, and fought the game’s first of the Vile Four: Flamerous Rex.
Liche, Fiend of Earth, who rules from the shadows and sucks life from the land as the killing blow to the earth! Gen-Bu, Black Tortoise of the North, who sundered the relics of the great hero and guards the Black Sphere! Scarmiglione, Archfiend of Earth, who grows more powerful from beyond the grave!
As I implied in the FFIV journals, ‘Rex here was based on a dinosaur skeleton enemy found in the Lair of Father, though I may have been jumping the gun with that conclusion since a more appropriate recolour of that monster also appeared in the Lunar Subterrane. Called a Dinozombie, this FFIV monster had been dyed red, which probably inspired the not-actually-flamerous red colouring of our pinkish Earth Fiend here in Mystic Quest. Rex looks a lot more impressive in the post-development art (Europe, NA), but here he’s just a giant salmon dork. He didn’t have much to say before the fight – few of them do – so we bounced up to him to start our attack. Using Ben’s Quake and Bomb group attacks on a single target, Ben outpaced Tristam for the first time in the game.
Kyle noticed that it was interesting how ‘Rex’s damaged sprites showed him with broken-away ribs, after he had spent the entire fight throwing ribs at us with his “Bone Missile” attack.
Ribs or not, the undead fire engine put up a surprising fight, double critting Ben at one point for a OHKO, and while Tristam has Life, things devolved from there. We had to give it another round, and this time he killed Tristam, which Ben still can’t fix at all at this point in the game What was truly odd to us here was that we had fought through the entire dungeon, except some of the opening gauntlet, without missing a foe (we wouldn’t bother being so thorough in later dungeons, it was kind of dull). The point is: we were essentially at max possible level, and because we had no real agency in the Behemoth fight, this is essentially the second boss. Why was Mystic Quest, the infamous “children’s game,” suddenly throwing us against the hardest second boss we’ve seen since the hydra in FFA? In fact, if we excuse FFA for being an action game, this is has been the hardest turn-based second boss since…
…holy shit… Ever. We have not lost to a first or second boss at any point in the Final Fantasy Marathon. In fact, I’m going to run a complete list. I’ve already said I’m not counting the Behemoth, and so I’m also not counting the Black Knights in FFII, or the early must-lose fights in FFIV:TAY (I’ll consider Ceodore’s boss in the prologue to be the only true boss in the prologue). To be generous, I’m even going to push aside Lara in FFLIII for being a midboss.
|FFI||Piscodemons||Wiped out without consequence. Alternately: Astos, who gained a temporary advantage thanks to his Death spell, only to die seconds later.|
|FFII||Adamantoise||Killed by Josef in a single hit.|
|FFII: Soul of Rebirth||Zombie Borgen||Sub-par even compared to the wandering monsters.|
|FFLI||Gen-Bu||Or King Sword if you count the Bandit as a boss. The result is the same: they would have been a challenge if we hadn’t invoked Marathon Prerogative to get that Salamand.|
|FFLII||Rhino||Taunted the healer, so she shorted out his heart in a single lightning strike, as healers do.|
|FFIV||Octomammoth||Half-inflated whoopee cushion after the outrageous tedium of the Underground Waterway.|
|FFIV: Interlude||Demon Wall||This is the moment the Interlude remembers that difficulty even exists and was no more terrifying than a bouncy castle.|
|FFIV: The After Years||Tunneler||If you take the chapters in original release order, the second boss is the Tunneler in Ceodore’s chapter, which was… I’m sorry, who?|
|FFLIII||Dogra||While I have seen him be a challenge in past playthroughs, during the Marathon run he died after a tidy fight. No tricks, no one-shots, but also no challenge.|
In fact, since I’m writing from the future, I’m going to add that FFV’s second boss isn’t remarkable either. FFVI certainly has more memorable second bosses (in fact, several, depending on what you choose to count as the “second boss”) but none wiped us out.
Now, because Kyle and I could have taken TAY’s chapters in any order, you could count the Zu in Izayoi’s mission as a second boss, and yes, it did kill us. On the other hand, the Zu came from a manually selected subchapter of a main chapter that was originally released fifth, so I think we might be stretching our definitions to include it. Besides, Kyle and I were underlevelled in Izayoi’s mission, but had killed nearly everything there was to kill (without revisiting the dungeon) on the way to FFMQ’s second boss, so the strange nature of our loss in MQ continues apace. In the end, I feel that nothing in the Marathon really resembles this “children’s game” kicking our above-levelled ass with Candyfloss Rex. What is going on?
We eventually did come up with an answer that might explain things, but at the time, we were stumped. As it turns out, this isn’t the only moment FFMQ gave us challenges that seemed out of line with design intent. Kyle brought it up independently of me, so we were thinking the same way: the game seems to crit more often than you’d expect from the other Final Fantasy games, and more than we remember it doing back in the day. The status effect Confusion was also a serious blight. Did we just forget how hard things used to be back in the 90s? It doesn’t seem so: other fans have mentioned it as well. A GameFAQs thread mentions a glitch (the resistance glitch, which I’ll discuss later) as a possible explanation, but that glitch could only apply after Tristam leaves the party, and it doesn’t explain the crit rate either way!
My guess is that we it’s a problem with the Wii version. The game may have been designed with the SNES’ RNG in mind, and I suspect that the Wii’s modern RNG screwed up criticals somehow. It’s happened to other games. I found FFLIII (which we played on the GameCube’s GB Player, technically a GBA) to be harder than it was on its original system (the GB) as well, and since they were developed by the same team, it’s entirely possible they were developed using the same RNG tricks? Whatever’s going on, this infamous, easy game had somehow lurched into a difficulty spike. In fact, this may be the first time in history that being designed as an easy game actually helped FFMQ: if it were a normal or high difficulty game in the 90s, this difficulty spike might have ruined the game!