By 1987, a game developer named Square was on the verge of bankruptcy. Knowing that their next project could potentially sink the company, they decided to take inspiration from Yuji Horii’s landmark Dragon Quest and create a turn-based role-playing game. In a bit of gallows humor, they named this game Final Fantasy. The name turned out to be highly ironic when it proved to be a resounding domestic success. This encouraged the company to try to have the game localized. To their surprise, the game sold even more copies in the West than it did in its native homeland. Because contemporary role-playing experiences were primarily found on personal computer platforms, Final Fantasy ended up being a gateway into the genre for those limited to home consoles. With at least two major RPG series proving to be successful, many other developers joined in, causing the genre to enter a golden age.
However, even with the success of Final Fantasy, console-based RPGs were still a niche market in North America by the early-1990s. It was ambiguous as to exactly why many of these games failed to find a large audience. North America already had a thriving role-playing scene by the time Dragon Quest was released there, making Mr. Horii’s effort, which greatly simplified the genre, seem redundant. It could also be chalked up to a difference in expectations regarding the medium. At the time, Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog were some of the most popular video game characters. Both originated from series that placed a greater emphasis on gameplay over story. Because of this, slow-paced, story-focused experiences didn’t fit what Western consumers expected out of console games. Square’s executives, on the other hand, came down to a different conclusion. They cited their games’ high difficulty as a reason why Westerners shied away from them. Among other things, this caused the difficulty of Final Fantasy IV to be lowered.
Nonetheless, the success of the original Final Fantasy proved that there did exist a fanbase for these kinds of games in the West. In an attempt to broaden their international market, Square greenlit a project specifically designed for Western gamers. The game was released under the name Final Fantasy Mystic Quest in Western regions – first in North America in 1992 and Europe in a year later. It would see a domestic release in September of 1993 with the slightly altered title Final Fantasy USA: Mystic Quest. Square would later reveal that the game sold 800,000 units, though roughly half of them were domestic sales. With neither side of the Pacific being especially enthusiastic about the game, it would appear to have been a resounding failure. Would it have been capable of selling newcomers on the genre?
Analyzing the Experience
An adventurous young man named Benjamin has decided to climb the Hill of Destiny. During his travels, his village is destroyed in an earthquake. Undeterred, he presses on, and eventually meets a mysterious old man. In turn, the old man charges Benjamin with fulfilling a prophecy. Naturally, Benjamin is skeptical over the proposition, but relents when he realizes just how insistent the old man is. This world is divided into four regions: Foresta, Aquaria, Fireburg, and Windia. Each of these regions has a crystal representing the elements of earth, water, fire, and wind respectively. Realizing he must get started right away, Benjamin heads for the Level Forest at the old man’s behest.
Open reaching the apex of the Hill of Destiny, Benjamin comes face-to-face with the Behemoth. It is here that you’re formally introduced to the bread and butter of the gameplay: turn-based combat. After initializing combat, you get to input a command for each of your characters. From the outset, Benjamin’s repertoire is fairly limited. He can only attack the Behemoth with the Steel Sword he has equipped. Because of this, the first battle, though straightforward, does boil down to luck. You must hope that Benjamin doesn’t miss too often or else the Behemoth will easily defeat him.
Later on, he will gain the ability to use magic. Unlike most JRPGs, which adopted a mana system for magic, Final Fantasy Mystic Quest opts for one that seems inspired by Dungeons & Dragons. Magic is divided into three categories: White, Black, and Wizard. There are four spells per category available in the game. White Magic refers to healing and defensive spells. Black and Wizard spells are offensive in nature. The main difference between them is that Wizard spells are usually stronger, though all eight spells are capable of exploiting the weaknesses of the monsters you encounter. Successfully doing so will cause the spells to inflict bonus damage.
Upon arriving in the Level Forest, it is apparent that Benjamin cannot proceed any further. There are numerous trees in the way that prevent him from exploring it in depth. Fortunately, after helping an old man push a large boulder out of the way, he can travel to Foresta and enlist the help of a woman named Kaeli. Using a powerful axe, she easily removes the small trees blocking their way. Just beyond the first such tree is the first normal encounter in the game. Final Fantasy Mystic Quest also deviates from standard design practices in that most encounters are not random. Instead, you see monster hordes on the map as you would a normal non-player character. To engage them, you can either have Benjamin walk into one or press the contextual action button.
Level Forest is a rather on-the-nose name for the first major section of a role-playing game, but it does get the point across. Defeating monsters grants Benjamin experience points and gold. If Benjamin gains enough experience points, he will advance to the next level. Doing so greatly enhances his prowess in battle, making him stronger and more durable. He also gains a greater number of charges for each spell type in the process. Gold’s purpose is self-explanatory. No RPG would be complete without some kind of bartering system, and Final Fantasy Mystic Quest is no different.
It’s important to know that only Benjamin benefits from gaining experience points. His partner will stay at the same level at which they joined. Anyone familiar with Square’s catalogue will realize this aspect is reminiscent of Final Fantasy Legend III. In that game, the player controlled a party consisting of four members, but they would be occasionally joined by a fifth. This character had fixed stats, and you could not alter their equipment in any way. Typically, they would stick around for a dungeon or two before leaving. If you crossed paths with them again, they would receive a significant boost so they could contribute to the new challenges. Final Fantasy Mystic Quest operates on a similar principle, though the player only has control of two characters at a time: Benjamin and a guest party member.
The similarities between Final Fantasy Legend III and Final Fantasy Mystic Quest are not coincidental, for many of the same staff members who worked on the former created the latter as well. Both games even had the same director: Kouzi Ide. Indeed, one of the most significant mechanics shared between the two games is that the protagonist has the ability to jump. This allows him to circumvent crevasses – assuming they are one tile wide – and addresses the occasional annoyance of having non-player characters block passageways through random chance. He cannot use this ability to skip monster encounters, however. If you try, you will end up fighting them instead. The two games even share art assets, which is the most apparent whenever you fight a random encounter. Many enemies even have the exact same sprites and designs they had in Final Fantasy Legend III – albeit with a second, often humorous alternate pose they display when they’re low on health.
Even the treasure chests look almost exactly as they did in Final Fantasy Legend III – one variety, at least. Such chests are brown in color and provide players with items such as healing potions and explosives. A majority of them refill themselves, allowing players harvest them should they need to do so. The other treasure chests are a traditional red color. They can only be opened once, but in exchange, the items contained within them are far more valuable. The contents can include weapons, armor, or even a new magic spell for Benjamin to learn.
However, despite many design choices being inspired by their previous work, Mr. Ide and his team also took cues from Final Fantasy Adventure. Specifically, the various weapons Benjamin can equip can be used on the field as well. There are four different types of weapons to be found in the game: swords, axes, claws, and explosives. Swords are used to flip switches, axes clear trees, claws allow Benjamin to climb certain walls, and explosives can be used to blast open weak walls. He can switch between these weapons both in and out of combat at any time with a push of a button. These elements were added in another attempt to appeal to the tastes of Western gamers, who preferred action-oriented fare such as The Legend of Zelda.
The primary goal of Final Fantasy Mystic Quest was to give Western gamers a simple experience with which they could ease themselves into the genre. As such, it would seem as though anyone criticizing this game for being overly simplistic ultimately misses the point. In spite of its simplicity, there are a few touches about this game I like. For example, I enjoy how Final Fantasy Mystic Quest handles overworld exploration. Rather than having players explore every tile of the map, the overworld in this game is designed similarly to how they functioned in contemporary platformers such as Super Mario World. That is to say, the world map is an elaborately designed “stage select” screen.
One could argue that it takes the fun out of exploring the world, but I feel the traditional approach never really worked. Early JRPGs had a propensity to turn players loose in an elaborate overworld that usually opened up significantly once they obtained a ship. Combined with a lack of clear directions, this resulted in a lot of aimless wandering, which was exacerbated by the frequent random encounters. Finding your way around is all the more tedious when you’re facing off against monsters that ceased being a challenge several hours ago. Later JRPGs such as Final Fantasy IV began giving players more elaborate scenarios whereupon the overworld became largely pointless. There isn’t much of a purpose to exploring a world when there is only one place to go at any given time. Indeed, many of these games had the world open up significantly upon gaining a flying vehicle – usually an airship. Using an airship invariably prevented random encounters from occurring at all. This means if players used them to gain levels on the way to a destination, getting an airship deprived it of that purpose as well. Therefore, I would say that Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, despite providing a simple experience, merely took the mechanic to its logical conclusion.
Unfortunately, even if Final Fantasy Mystic Quest could be considered forward-looking by some metrics, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that the gameplay lacks substance. Whenever a work of any kind fails, it’s usually because the creators failed to execute their ideas properly. Few people go out of their way to make bad art. Those who try end up accidently creating something fascinatingly bad – a positive aspect in of itself that prevents it from truly being considered the worst of the worst. Even so, there are great ideas in the worst works imaginable; they just mean nothing if the execution is appalling.
Final Fantasy Mystic Quest differs from most works like it in that the creators managed to capture exactly what they were going for and succeeded a little too well. The result is a game that doesn’t present even the slightest bit of challenge. In the event that your characters are felled in combat, you are given the option to restart it with no penalty. Although I can appreciate wanting to give players an easy game with which to ease themselves into the genre, by removing any lasting consequences for failure, they can’t possibly learn from their mistakes. They could very well brute-force every challenge in the game and win by complete accident every time.
Indeed, what I feel to be the Achilles’ heel of Final Fantasy Mystic Quest is that it does not give players an accurate idea of how to play any kind of role-playing game. Setting aside the game’s more unorthodox mechanics, this problem is the particularly evident when you look over the magic system. In a typical JRPG, spells that can rally unconscious party members tend to require a lot of mana to cast – often more than the strongest healing spell. It stands to reason – being negligent enough to let one of your party member’s HP drop to zero should be punished in some way.
Meanwhile, in Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, the appropriate spell, “Life”, happens to be on the same tier as “Cure” – the basic healing spell. Unlike most games that feature it, “Life” can be used on conscious party members, completely restoring their health in the process. Because both spells cost a single charge of White Magic to use, there is initially no reason to use “Cure” over it. Moreover, if you use it in battle, it restores status conditions, making the spell created for that purpose, “Heal”, redundant as well. Only in the later portions of the game when your character’s magic stats are improved does “Cure” become useful because unlike “Life”, it can heal both party members at once.
Regardless, the problem is that JRPGs often place an emphasis on effective resource management. With the numerous ways in which you can shatter the game’s shallow difficulty, these important lessons don’t get a chance to take root. There is a degree of foresight in that seeds, which restore a character’s magic power, are rare up until Benjamin reaches Fireburg. Before that point, he is given three and no opportunity to procure more unless the player is persistent enough to traverse the same dungeon multiple times. This ties into the standard design choice of making mana restoration items rarer than the ones intended to heal characters. If you can simply heal characters using a magic spell, then you would have no reason to use restoratives. It is through the steady loss of mana that you must be careful with how you react to adverse situations. Once Benjamin does reach Fireburg, however, this proposition shatters into millions of pieces when the player can have him purchase as many seeds from a merchant as they want at a low price. In fact, once you have every purchasable piece of equipment in the game, there is no need to spend money on anything else – save the occasional trip to the inn. Ever wanted to spam your characters’ strongest spells, but couldn’t due to the inexplicably persistent irritation known as game balance? Final Fantasy Mystic Quest allows you to do so.
Not helping matters is the plot. If you took the absolute basic story beats of a third-generation JRPG and threw them into your work with no thought put in, you would have the plot of Final Fantasy Mystic Quest. There’s a prophecy that needs to be fulfilled and crystals whose power needs to be restored. It’s all up to Benjamin, the chosen one.
There is something of a curveball thrown towards the player at the end when it’s revealed that the main antagonist, the Dark King, started the rumor to begin with, but even this development is fairly weak. Nearing the end of a basic plot, it’s fitting that an equally basic twist awaits players. Benjamin ends up defeating the Dark King anyway, making the latter’s revelation even more pointless.
Even if the game was made this way in purpose, there is one factor against it that removes what little goodwill resulted from such a gesture. During this era, Square’s games were notorious for being poorly programmed. Notably, the original Final Fantasy had several spells that did nothing. Even their later titles featured mechanics that didn’t work or game-breaking glitches capable of rendering one’s save file unwinnable.
Despite their track record, one would assume that a game as simple as Final Fantasy Mystic Quest was free from these programming issues. Though a reasonable expectation, it does not reflect reality. To be completely fair, the glitches in this game tend to be beneficial more often than not, but it does indicate to me that it wasn’t tested extensively. The most prominent glitch involves the explosives. While they’re deducted from Benjamin’s inventory regardless of when he uses it, he only actually needs to have any in combat. This means you can easily use them despite not having any on the field. It’s just as well because after a certain point, explosives become nigh-useless in battle, being outclassed by every other weapon. The only advantage they have is that they target every enemy on the field, which is redundant when you remember how easy it is to procure seeds and therefore spam the strongest spells in the game.
The makers of Final Fantasy Mystic Quest also saw fit to simplify the act of gaining equipment. While in most role-playing games, you can update your equipment as you gain superior pieces, Final Fantasy Mystic Quest allows Benjamin to hold onto every single one. Each piece of equipment adds to his defense or resistances. This means that if you’re diligent enough to find them all, Benjamin will be able to shrug off nearly every kind of magic attack while being immune to most status conditions. The former is a nice bonus, but the latter is especially appreciated. While status conditions are generally a nuisance in most JRPGs, in Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, they’re some of the only legitimate threats around. Having one of your characters paralyzed – or worse, turned to stone – is much more detrimental when you can only have two at a given time. You can’t change the equipment of your party members, so they’re ostensibly stuck with the resistances they have out of the box. I say “ostensibly” because party members retain the resistances of the one they’re replacing as long as you refrain from saving or restoring a save file. Admittedly, this isn’t terribly useful in practice, but if you intend to play the entire game without saving, your characters will have resistances they normally wouldn’t, making certain sections easier. Considering the relatively short length of the game and the lack of consequences for losing, such a feat isn’t as difficult as it sounds.
The lack of thought that went into the game is especially apparent when you’re traversing the final dungeon. As a final exam of sorts, the final dungeon is an amalgamation of the ones housing the major boss of each region. Along the way, you fight palette swaps of said bosses. Through either intentionally obtuse design choices or a lack of playesting, three of the bosses can be trivialized. The first is an undead enemy, meaning players can use a healing spell to easily dispatch them. Considering how many games allow you to damage the undead by healing them, it’s curious that one intended to be a tutorial for its entire genre would fail to disclose this valuable information. This would be like a computer manual failing to explain what right-clicking the mouse does. “Exit” is typically used to exfiltrate a dungeon instantly, but it can also remove enemies from the battlefield. This includes the second boss of the final dungeon, which is interesting because most bosses are sensibly immune to a technique that would dispatch them instantly.
The next two bosses are not susceptible to such tactics, suggesting the testers managed to weed out these workarounds by then. The same, however, cannot be said of the fifth boss. As one would expect given the fifth boss’s importance to the plot, it is intended to be a long, drawn-out fight. Alternatively, they can declare they’ve had enough of this game and have Benjamin cast “Cure” on him, which proves to be far more damaging than the strongest Wizard spells. Doing this ends the fight in record time. I don’t think this particular boss was intended to be dispatched in such a fashion because the “Life” spell has no effect on him. Indeed, if you have Benjamin’s partner, Phoebe, use the “Cure” spell against the boss, it heals him instead. As it turns out, “Cure” damages this boss because it overflows the target’s hit point restoration, turning a positive integer into a negative one. Phoebe’s attempts fail to reproduce this result because her Magic stat is so high, it overflows twice, causing healing to turn into damage and then back into healing.
What other empirical evidence do I have that can prove this was likely an accident?
Just the minor detail that the fifth boss of the final dungeon happens to be the Dark King – the main antagonist of the game. In what was intended to be an encounter that forces players to apply all of the knowledge they accumulated throughout the game, an experimental, unorthodox, or lucky player can render it moot. While I can’t deny that the mechanics undermining the game’s own goal is a fitting metaphor for the experience as a whole, it is still highly disappointing.
Drawing a Conclusion
I can commend Square for wanting to diversify their clientele, as it demonstrates a willingness to take risks that is integral for anyone seeking to create art in any medium. Although certain concepts don’t always translate well between cultures, there was certainly an audience to be found in the West. The problem is by exclusively gearing towards an audience that, for all intents and purposes, didn’t exist at the time, Square had absolutely no fallback plan if they failed. It’s very telling that nearly half of this game’s sales were courtesy of Japanese fans because it would mean the remaining fraction was split between North America and Europe. This would make sense because anyone who had been sold on the franchise was treated to an experience inferior to practically every other title in Square’s catalogue. Anyone already in the know would have deservedly dismissed Final Fantasy Mystic Quest as an entirely pointless purchase.
I can see people familiar with the game mounting a defense for it. On some level, this does make sense. After all, the people who criticize Final Fantasy Mystic Quest the most also aren’t technically a part of the target demographic. This was an experience clearly intended for younger gamers so anyone who calls it out for being as such is missing the point. However, the fatal flaw of this game is that it ultimately failed at what it set out to do. With its numerous unique mechanics and easy difficulty, Final Fantasy Mystic Quest doesn’t provide an experience that captures the essence of the genre. In fact, I would go as far as saying that anyone who tries to use Final Fantasy Mystic Quest as a tutorial for JRPGs is worse off than if they metaphorically jumped into the deep end of the pool by tackling The 7th Saga. Flawed though that game may have been, it does give players a better understanding of how to approach turn-based combat in RPGs. It’s absolutely not a game you would hand to a beginner, but then again, neither is Final Fantasy Mystic Quest.
At the end of the day, Final Fantasy Mystic Quest fails for the same reason any other cynical product aimed towards kids fails – it alienates everyone outside of its target demographic. What the developers attempted to do is obvious, yet I can’t think of a single person to whom I could actually recommend this game. Veteran players will rightly dismiss it as childish and insipid. Meanwhile, newcomers are better off handling tougher fare that has a natural, gradual learning curve. They may have to work to achieve the ending, but it is the main point of the medium, and the sooner they learn that, the better. Anyone who plays Final Fantasy Mystic Quest as their first JRPG runs the risk of developing bad habits once they realize that they can’t replicate the tactics in other experiences. Final Fantasy Mystic Quest may be a far cry from the worst game ever made, but it was a work incapable of cultivating an audience, which killed off any long-term appeal it could have had.
Final Score: 2/10