Okay, okay, I’m going to come out and admit that it’s not fair to call Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest a bad game, not in a strict sense anyway. It set out to provide a basic, watered-down introduction to console RPGs and, honestly, it achieved that goal quite well. But at the same time it represented what was probably the most condescending message a company ever made to its own fanbase. Square was basically proclaiming to Americans, you all can’t handle our real product (which in this case would be Final Fantasy V) so we’re going to give you a version that’s more up to your speed – and that speed would be somewhere along the lines of a golf cart with a defective engine. Hell, when they released the game in Japan they even titled it Final Fantasy USA. Square might as well have subtitled it “This is what Americans think a RPG should be! Ha ha! They embarrass us by buying our games!”
Now I’m sure there were other elements to Square’s decision. Like the ad emphasizes, Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest was also cheaper, selling for $40 at a time when most RPGs for the Super Nintendo ran in the $50 – $60 range. But, trust me, you could see where you saved that money. The game didn’t even have its own graphical signature; most of the graphics were souped-up and colorized from Final Fantasy Legend III. You could also pretty much beat the entire game in a day or two of even casual playing, which was great if – like me – you made a habit out of renting video games and even RPGs for the weekend (P.S. I still curse the assholes who always erased my saved games when they rented the games before I could!), but not so good if you bought it expecting something like the 40 hour minimum players could expect to put into Final Fantasy IV.
Now I did say that technically it wasn’t a bad game. The plot was really simple – in some ways it was a rehash of the original Final Fantasy, including a premise about the world slowly dying because someone is messing around with the Four Crystals of the Elements, but without the time travel elements coming out of left field and with a villain seriously called the “Dark King” – but the designers did try to have a range of characters, even though you never have more than two people in your “party.” Also there’s actually a clever twist near the end where your hero finds out his status as the prerequisite “legendary chosen one” was based on a lie spread by the Dark King himself. Nothing really comes of it, but still it was an unexpected way to play with one of fantasy fiction’s oldest cliches. The gameplay was fun for what it was, and in a weird way, by having enemies visible on the screen rather than random encounters and having certain obstacles in dungeons that required the player to interact with the environment, Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest actually predicted certain features that are common in RPGs today, including Final Fantasy XIII.
For all that, though, I’m not exaggerating when I say that the way the game is structured is downright insulting. You’re not even trusted to explore the world map on your own. Instead the game essentially guides you to place to place. Also instead of seeing your Health Points in number form, in battle they show up as big bars, as if the mere act of understanding numbers is too much of a burden on the player. And remember how I mentioned that the game replaces random encounters with monsters that show up on the field? Well, those monsters are completely stationary. Sure, once in a while they block where you need to go, but making the enemies as non-threatening as possible makes about as much sense as the Easytype version of Final Fantasy IV removing certain character abilities. The game doesn’t even trust you to manage your own weapons and armor; it does all that for you. Playing the game is like talking with Frank Miller’s Batman. It’s to the point that it actually does interfere with your enjoyment of the game. And remember this was in the Before Time, before even our homes were flooded by free American OnLine discs. You had to get your info from magazines, and even then you couldn’t trust everything you read in them; not even GamePro, and sure as hell not Nintendo Power. We thought we might be getting a true follow-up to the greatest RPG we ever played, not that RPG’s five-year old cousin!
Now of course there’s nothing wrong with trying to come up with something that gives a potential audience a painless introduction to a genre. It makes great business sense and it doesn’t automatically mean quality has to be sacrificed. Like this game, Lufia & The Fortress of Doom was designed to be a pretty elementary, no-thrills RPG for less experienced players, but unlike Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest that game still has something of a following and is actually sometimes remembered as one of the better if also one of the more obscure RPGs on the Super Nintendo. You can’t even really call Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest a black sheep of the franchise, since that implies that the game was memorable in any way. Why is Lufia remembered but not Mystic Quest? It’s not just a matter of gameplay or insulting players’ intelligence by not even letting them figure out which weapons are better; Mystic Quest just has no real identity of its own. What identity it has comes handed down from the main series, to the point that the game is basically a lobotomized clone. It might be easier than the games in the main series, but there’s really no point in playing it when you’re just getting half the experience that made the main series famous in the first place.
So, bottom line…Square really should have just given us Final Fantasy V.