Friday 5 June 2015

Snes Review : Final Fantasy - Mystic Quest (Game 083)

Why is a JRPG that was purposefully made for a Western audience now considered the black sheep of the 'Final Fantasy' series? Is 'Mystic Quest' really as bad as people believe?
Developed by Squaresoft
Published by Squaresoft
Released in 1992

When it comes to making money it's much easier to sell people what they want than convince them to buy what you have. It was a realisation that Squaresoft came to in the nineties. Considering the ‘Final Fantasy’ series has now sold over $110 million units worldwide  it seems surprising to think that twenty years ago westerners didn't care for the "world's biggest RPG franchise". Copies of the Nes original that now sells for hundreds, used to live in bargain bins and its two sequels were unreleased outside of Japan.

The arrival of the 16 bit consoles promoted Square Enix (then Squaresoft ) to roll the metaphorical JRPG dice once more. Nintendo were after all developing an action RPG 'Zelda' game for this new Super Nintendo, so they must have had some belief that Western audiences would be interested in new role playing games. 'Final fantasy IV' was renamed 'Final Fantasy II' in the U.S and released four months before 'The Legend of Zelda : A Link to thePast' on November 23rd 1991. However despite a head start in the shops there was a massive difference between sales for the two similar games. In Japan ‘Final Fantasy IV’ was a critical success with Famitsu giving one of their highest scores in 1991. The praise was reflected by astronomical Japanese sales as over 1.3 million units of the game were sold. However, in North America the same game now called ‘Final Fantasy II’ sold about 250,000 units. This was significantly less than the estimated 700,000 copies of ‘A Link to the Past’ that sold in America during the first year on release, a game that went on to sell the million copies required to earn “Player Choice” status.

‘Final Fantasy’ series director Hironobu Sakaguchi and Squaresoft president Masafumi  Miyamoto were not happy with these numbers. They saw the huge success RPG's had had in Japan and were hoping American audiences would catch on. Annoyingly,  it simply wasn't happening. To solve the riddle, up and coming translator Ted Wolsey was invited to Japan to discussion how to improve awareness of JRPG's in the West.
Wolsey looked at the previous translations done internally by Squaresoft and determined that the poor job would certainly have contributed to the failure of their game outside of Japan. ‘Final Fantasy IV’ for example was initially translated by a Japanese Squaresoft  employee who only spoke “some English”. Although members of Squaresoft’s sales and finance department in America spent a few hours cleaning up the translation, it was still a complete mess on release. Ted Wolsey was hired to oversee all localisation and one of his first projects would be a the translation of a game developed with a western audience in mind, a game that would become known in the US as ‘Final Fantasy : Mystic Quest’.

In Japan Squaresoft’s next game ‘Final Fantasy V’ contained a deep job system, complex character arcs, intricate menu based combat, large parties and a lengthy game time. Every single one of these elements was considered too much for non-Japanese speakers, so in their western skewed ‘Mystic Quest’ everything would be stripped back to the basics that make up a JRPG.  Masafumi  Miyamoto insisted they would “make a game [specifically] for America” and believed that “at no point should a player not know where they should be going or what they should be doing”. Wolsey says that a lot of the initial decisions regarding the game’s make up were decided based on the very different ways a Western player approaches a game compared to players in Japan.  “In Japanese [media], typically, the need for a strong beginning, middle and end is not that great. The Japanese tend to savour the episodic elements of an adventure. Brief jaunts off on a side quest which bear no relation to the main game are welcomed in Japan.” According to Wolsey though, twenty years ago, Westerns wanted something very different. “In the US – and I guess Europe too – players tend to react like “Now what is all that for? What a waste of time!” So in some ways its difficult [to sell] a game that was designed for the Japanese market because the [Western] game players themselves are very different – It’s not just that they speak a different language”.  Presumably American and European audiences also want immediate action, rather than the slow build often seen in traditional Japanese Role Playing Games. In ‘Mystic Quest’, our hero Benjamin starts not in a little quiet village or lost in a forest. He starts at the top of a collapsing mountain, surrounded by fire and danger. If an aging man atop the mountain is believed, Benjamin is the hero of legend and according to a prophecy the kingdom can be saved if he brings together four crystals. It’s a story framework that will be familiar to anyone who has dabbled in an early ‘Final Fantasy’ game, however unlike those game ‘Mystic Quest’ never really  develops this plot. There is actually only one narrative twist in the whole game and that comes in the final scene. The majority of the story is actually told within three minutes of pressing start. Most of ‘Mystic Quest’ is spent with a travelling companion but you learn next to nothing about any of the four of them. As Nintendo Power said, it’s “fast moving entertaining dialogue, the people you meet tell it like it is – without beating around the bush. If you think RPGs take too long to get into, think again”. 
Motivations for someone joining your party are at best circumstantial and at worse hysterical.  Villains are often the most interesting characters in JRPGs but we don’t even get to see the “Dark King” antagonist of ‘Mystical Quest’ until we face him. Ted Wolsey once said that ‘Mystic Quest’ was “the easiest game [he has] ever translated due to the lack of story and simple interactions” adding that "it [is] basically a Game Boy game that was put out on the Super Nintendo".
This really isn’t that surprising when you realise that unlike the main numbered ‘Final Fantasy’ games, development of ‘Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest’ was given to a Squaresoft studio in Osaka that had just finished the Gameboy Title 'Final Fantasy Legend 3', a game known in Japan as ‘SaGa III’. ‘Mystic Quest’ was developed to be released within a year of 'Final Fantasy IV' catastrophic failure in America, but to make a game so quickly huge amounts of the game had to be borrowed from the developer’s previous GameBoy games. 
Like their hand held adventures, battles take place behind your character rather than from the side on perspective seen in ‘Final Fantasy IV’. The character too looks more like ones seen on an 8bit console, or perhaps more accurately they look like full colour GameBoy sprites. Towns like Foresta and Aquaria sound exotic but they are barren of life and defined by endlessly repeating background objects. The graphics are noticeably poorer than those seen in ‘Final Fantasy IV’, a fact not missed by Jonathan Davies in his review for Super Play Magazine.  “The colours are a bit drab the sprites are rather small, but the music is brilliant, however, which helps”. Indeed, the music is the only real thing that favourably compares to other games carrying ‘Final Fantasy’ branding. The melodies composed by Ryuji Sasai and Yasuhiro Kawakami are even included in the audio celebration that is ‘Final Fantasy Theatrerythm’, the only time that Square has really acknowledged the existence of ‘Mystic Quest’ since its release.

To ensure the "entry-level role-playing adventure" box label is accurate, like the story gameplay in ‘Mystic Quest’ had to be significantly simplified. ‘Final Fantasy’ series staples like side quests and random encounters are removed with battles initiated when they are approached. Like ‘Super Mario World’, travel on the World Map is restricted to direct paths between stages allowing for no exploration.
Nintendo Power pointed out that “arrow icons on the map show where to go, when they flash the road ahead is clear, but when they are not flashing there is a roadblock ahead”. It could not be more explicit where an objective is and every place you go is pre-determined. With a few exceptions, equipment cannot be purchased from shops, not that there is actually that much equipment to accumulate anyway. Four different weapons can be found, in four different classes. The game even automatically equips any item found if it’s better than your previous equipment, which really limits the need to look at inventory screens at all. While you can use some weapons in the over world, the only time you really need to switch between the four options is during battle as some enemies are weaker to specific things. Like the limited weaponry, magic is simplified and divided into three types each with a separate MP counter. Casting a spell of one type consumes one MP, so it seems practically impossible to run out of spells.

Super Play reviewer Jonathan Davies believed that “the vast majority of the population find fantasy role-playing games rather daunting.” However he admitted that “no-one could possibly be scared of ‘Mystic Quest’ It eases you gently into the swing of things and never gets even remotely complicated”. Like earlier ‘Final Fantasy’ games battles are still turn based, but by default, the computer controls an ally meaning you don’t really need to think about what your overpowered friend is doing. Even if you take control of both characters, enemy encounters still aren’t all that fun. Battles aren’t challenging and more often than not success can be ensured by simply pressing a button over and over again. There's no strategy involved apart from equipping the right weapon at the start.
The most difficult thing that faces you is status affects and these are made extremely irritating given you only have two people in your party. If both get paralyzed no matter what you do the battles is over. This would be devastating in a game such as 'Fire Emblem' but with 'Mystic Quest' being the "beginners RPG", death really isn’t a problem. If you die you can start the same battle over again as if nothing happened. While experience points and levels are earned as per usual, the player's level cannot be maxed out at level 99 or 100, but at level 41.
There is never a need to grind though, as every time you meet a new party member they start several levels above Benjamin. To lessen the game’s challenge more when they leave they typically bestow on the playable character a weapon that slaughters any foes you meet in the next section of the game.

Taking inspiration from the developer’s Gameboy ‘Saga’ Games, ‘Mystic Quest’ has a greater focus on action than other ‘Final Fantasy’games. Benjamin can jump to leap over obstacles and gaps and like Link in ‘ALink to the Past’ he can push some obstacles around to open new paths. It feels like “western game play”, included to please the target audience and adding little to the overall experience. It certainly doesn’t add much to the game’s length as this short game can be completed in about 10 hours.
According to Jonathan Davies, despite a budget price upon release, the games length “can’t really be excused. Four megabits is absolutely nothing in RPG terms, and after about an hours playing I was roughly a fifth of the way through the game. Don’t expect it to last you for very long”. However, maybe a short length was required. ‘Mystic Quest’ after all was a demonstration of the JRPG genre, a starting point that would encourage a player to explore other JRPGs. Most would see Benjamin leaving on his ship at the end of the game, watching as he heads off in search of more adventures. It’s hard to not draw parallels between the player and the hero character. Like him, they started off clueless and inexperienced. However after a short but informative adventure they have learnt all the skills needed to take on richer more involved challenges, specifically Squaresoft’s other games.

In truth, ‘Mystic Quest’ should be viewed as one long JRPG tutorial but that was always the intention. Everything that is so often complained about; its short length, simple combat, smaller party size and pre-defined routes all lack legitimacy given what the developers wanted the game to do. 

While Squaresoft had made the game they intended to, sales of ‘Final Fantasy Mystic Quest’ failed to spark Western interest in the ‘JRPG genre as intended. In America it had modest sales but critical opinion was, universally negative. When people discuss the ‘Final Fantasy’ series’, ’Mystic Quest’ is always regarded as the black sheep, the low point of the series. At the time, the few who had played one of the two Western released ‘Final Fantasy’games felt like Squaresoft had insulted their intelligence. They clamoured for a true release and wanted the glorious name to be stripped from the ‘Mystic Quest’. This actually was the case in Europe of course, where amazingly ‘Final Fantasy VII’ was the first game in the series to be released on a home console.
In Europe ‘Mystic Quest’ had a ‘Legends’ subtitle rather than a ‘Final Fantasy’ prefix. Confusingly it was actually presented as a sequel to a GameBoy game called ‘Mystic Quest’, which in reality was a translation of ‘Seiken Densetsu’; the prequel to ‘Secret of Mana’. The different Squaresoft series in Europe were clearly considered “all the same”, so swapping the titles between games wasn’t considered foul play in the way it would be now.

Regardless of its name ‘Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest’, ‘Mystic Quest Legend’ or ‘Final Fantasy USA’ (As it was known in Japan) may not have converted an American audience to JRPGs but it was still important to the big JRPG picture. It must have convinced Squaresoft to take more chances and actually give Western audiences a little more credit. After ‘Mystic Quest’ they released, 'Secret of Mana', 'Chrono Trigger', 'Final Fantasy III' and 'Super Mario RPG' all games praised by reviewers and eventually welcomed by customers. These of course paved the way for ‘Final Fantasy VII’ a game that changed Squaresoft’s fortunes outside of Japan significantly. 

Maybe rather than try to guess what a customer wants, compromise and make something specifically for them, its better just to wait for them to actually want what you specialise in. Who knows maybe one day they will even become your biggest customers.

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