Sumo meets Marcie
Inside Dime Tower, we met up with Marcie (Marshall in the US version of Sword of Mana, but not other regions). Marcie was Bowow’s former assistant robot from 50 years ago that he had used to research Dime Tower, and then forgot. She joined us as our first partner in ages: she could fire lasers at our enemies and recover our MP, immediately and to full, just by ASKing her. That’s stupendous!
But… wait, hold on. Fifty years ago? I thought this was a tower built by the Vandolean Empire – why would they want it studied when they constructed it within living memory? Or… was the war more than 50 years ago and Bowow was studying them after the war, and it collapsed into the sand soon after? Did Fuji’s mother have her kid that late in life? Alternately, the war may have been in the deep past, and Fuji’s mom was more of her ancestor than her mother, but that wouldn’t explain Julius. To make matters worse, the game can’t back up its own cruft. There are tablets inside the tower that Marcie could translate (I assume – it used her all-caps text). They had been placed there by the Vandole and clearly ran up to the end of their empire. There’s simply no way to back up Marcie’s story… or the shitty timeline of this game in general. Sword of Mana tosses this mess by making Marcie a Vandolean warbot.
Having somehow fallen to a different location from the exact same point along the exact same route and been since kidnapped by a cyborg Jesus ostrich, it was time to work out our current location on this lush-desert duocylindrical hell-world we were trying to save. We started by leaving town and finding ourselves in a crystal-dotted desert that had once been home to the Vandole empire. We learned that the Vandole had known the secret of constructing on the shifting sands, but that most of their buildings had been consumed by the desert since they had fallen, including their greatest achievement: Dime Tower. I can only assume the town we had woken up in was previously Vandolean, because it’s in the same desert as the rest of the ruins, but the game isn’t saying. Before heading too far out, we bought a Flame Shield (the first shield in the game to lose certain protections, making future buys a caution) and a Flame Whip, which is a definite and clear Castlevania reference for once, making the previous ones look far more intentional than they had up until that point.
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.
Learning we were in the town of “Menos” (the Freshmaker), we bought ourselves a Wind Spear, because we could just not pass up the chance to be a Dragoon. Spears are nice precision tools in this game, having a thinner hit box than usual, which isn’t best for combat but is probably worth buying just for the sake of upcoming puzzles. They also make up for their thin hit box by having a good long range, long enough to attack past the Scorpions in the nearby area. Too bad the game never hands you one for free. The rest of Menos was a faucet of leads, chief of which was news that there’s a special harp in the town of Jadd to the north, and Amanda’s brother – newly introduced – might be associated with it.
After a quick foray into the nearby desert, we turned back and tracked down a Chocobo egg we had heard about in Menos, and after a quick walk we found it at the end of an optional path. Naturally, it hatched right in front of us and Chocobo imprinted on us, because that is the only thing baby birds ever do in stories like this, and it joined us as a partner. The Chocobo couldn’t attack, though if you used its ASK, it would let you ride it so that you would become invulnerable like any other Chocobo in the series. Not bad for a newborn. Oddly enough, recruiting the Chocobo is optional, despite some events that will follow…
I should probably talk about level ups before we get much further. Sumo gains XP for each kill as normal for an RPG, and with each level up, you’re able to upgrade one of our four stats, with would give smaller upgrades to two related stats. This looked like it was going to get complicated, but early on we discovered that if we alternated between Power and Wisdom, we would have balanced stats, and since we needed that early on, we stuck to it, and saw no reason to stop as we got towards the end of the game! In short, Power does the hitting, Wisdom upgrades your MP and magic attack strength, Stamina influenced your defence and HP, and Will works the Will bar. The Will Bar is a bar at the bottom of the screen that filled at a rate based on your Will stat, but would empty if you attacked. It’s useless until it’s filled, but once filled, it would upgrade your next attack to a special one: axes can be thrown, swords spin like a blender if you used the wide swing, or would cause Sumo to dash back and forth like a prototype for Kingdom Heart’s Sonic Blade if you use a stab.
This “wait and attack” mechanic became a central in later Mana games, but unfortunately in this game the will bar never upgrades except in terms of speed. This means the only way the devs could upgrade the will bar was to start it off so slow that it takes nearly a full minute to fill. It doesn’t really become viable until the late game. The levelling system in Sword of Mana was much more complicated, getting into some real tangles with a one-way class upgrade system, I’m sort of glad we didn’t have to put up with it.
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 the plot has barely begun. We’ll talk more about this game and “episodes” down the line. For now…
Despite all the innovation, all the sales, and even its surprising endurance to competition, the most fascinating thing about the Game Boy to me is its lifespan, because it makes the Game Boy one of the only multi-generational pieces of game hardware. Take a look at the Castlevania Game Boy games for a moment, and you can see their influences change as the console generations change alongside them. 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.