In 1987, a struggling game developer named Square released Final Fantasy. It was so named because the team wished for a name that could be shortened to FF. That way, it could be abbreviated in the Latin script and pronounced in four syllables in Japanese. It is also speculated that the name came about due to series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi being in dire straits at the time. Had the game failed, he would have quit the industry entirely and gone back to university. Mr. Sakaguchi himself later stated that these theories, despite having a ring of truth to them, were overblown and any two words beginning with the letter “F” would have worked. In either case, the game proceeded to ship 520,000 copies in Japan. When the company decided to localize the game for North American markets, the company managed to move an additional 700,000 copies. Suddenly, the company that had been struggling to find its voice could now stand tall with the artists from which they drew inspiration.
Two years after the release of Final Fantasy, Nintendo launched the Game Boy console. As it was considered a monochromatic, portable Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), units began flying off of the shelves. Square president Masafumi Miyamoto, seeing a prime opportunity to expand into another section of the market, requested his developers to turn their attention to the Game Boy. Employee Nobuyuki Hoshino came up with the central concepts for this hypothetical game while Akitoshi Kawazu was handed the reins. The success of Tetris and Super Mario Land demonstrated that there was an audience for the portable market, and Mr. Kawazu alongside Koichi Ishii sought to provide the platform with something a little more advanced: a role-playing game.
The project was completed in 1989, seeing its domestic release in December. The game was named Makai Toushi SaGa – or Warrior of the Spirit World Tower: SaGa. It was highly acclaimed by Japanese critics, and it became Square’s first game to sell over one-million copies. The following year would see Final Fantasy becoming a sleeper hit in North America, so to bank off its popularity, SaGa was renamed The Final Fantasy Legend. Although it wasn’t as acclaimed abroad as Final Fantasy, The Final Fantasy Legend did find an audience, and even today, it is considered one of the Game Boy’s hallmarks. As the first role-playing experience for a popular, portable console, how was The Final Fantasy Legend able to craft an identity distinct from that of Final Fantasy?
Analyzing the Experience
In the center of the world rests a tower reaching up into the heavens. At the very top is a door said to lead to Paradise. Many adventurers have tried to ascend the tower to discover Paradise for themselves. None have succeeded. One hopeful explorer has reached the base of the tower. The door is sealed shut by an arcane magic. Undeterred this adventurer, like many before them, is determined to unlock the mysteries of the tower. Little do they know that sinister forces will oppose them at every turn.
Although The Final Fantasy Legend isn’t actually related to Final Fantasy, it does begin in a similar fashion. That is, before you’re thrown into the world, you’re asked to create a character. You can choose one of eight characters with which to begin the game. While this sounds more complicated than Final Fantasy, which allowed players to pick from six different classes, it is, in reality, greatly simplified. There are, in broad strokes, three classes of characters: humans, mutants, and monsters. In general, humans are great at wielding physical weapons, mutants are your primary spellcasters, and monsters fall somewhere in between those two extremes.
When you have created your character, you are strongly advised to gather recruits, as venturing forth on one’s own is ill-advised. The Final Fantasy Legend takes cues from Dragon Quest III in how it contextualizes the creation of additional party members. That is, you can create new characters by looking for talent at the local mercenary’s guild. You start the game with no money to your name, so it is highly appreciated that the service is free. The characters you can recruit in the first town are typically weaker than whichever character you choose as your protagonist, but they are required for all but the most knowledgeable – or reckless – players. Once you have finished, you can leave the town.
As is standard for a game of its genre and time, every step you take on the world map has a chance of spawning a random encounter.
Combat in The Final Fantasy Legend is turn-based, and operates round-by-round. In other words, you input one command per character and a round of combat is played out. Next to a given enemy’s name is a number. Up to three different portraits can appear on the screen at a single time, but in truth, you can be accosted by more than three enemies. The number next to an enemy’s name indicates how many exist within a given group. Physical weapons are typically only capable of damaging a single enemy at a time whereas spells can target entire groups.
Otherwise, that The Final Fantasy Legend is also a Japanese role-playing game with turn-based combat is just about the only real similarity it has with its namesake. Those fresh off of Final Fantasy may be taken aback when, upon achieving victory against a group of enemies, that they are only rewarded money for their troubles. This isn’t a mistake, for experience points do not exist – and, by extension, neither do character levels. One might be under the impression The Final Fantasy Legend has a leveling system similar to that of Final Fantasy II, which also eschewed levels in favor of a more abstract character-building mechanic. However, such an inference would only be half-true. In fact, only mutants actually improve by fighting enough battles; humans and monsters will be stuck with their starting stats whether you fell one or one-thousand enemies. This means to have any success in the game, you must take the time to learn how these characters function.
All characters have five different stats: HP, Strength, Agility, Defense, and Mana. HP, which stands for Hit Points, measures a character’s health. If a character’s HP are depleted, they die. Although you can revive a character for a fairly low price in a House of Life, you still don’t want to let your characters fall in battle too often. This is because, as a stark contrast to most role-playing games, The Final Fantasy Legend has a life system. Each character has three lives, which are measured as hearts. Once a character has run out of hearts, they can no longer be revived. This doesn’t mean bringing them back is impossible; if you have 10,000 gold pieces to spare, you can purchase an extra heart from a shop. Naturally, you don’t want it to ever come to that if you can help it, but if you’re really desperate, you can replace a dead party member at a guild.
The remaining four stats are basic fare for role-playing games. Strength, Agility, and Mana determine how much damage a character can inflict with weapons that rely on those respective stats. Weapons that depend on Strength include axes, hammers, and swords. Meanwhile, Agility factors into how effectively characters can use rapiers, sabers, whips, and any weapon that fires a projectile such as bows or guns. Mana determines how much damage a character can inflict with magic attacks. Lastly, Defense, straightforwardly enough, decreases how much damage a character takes from an attack. Unlike the other three stats, Defense is primarily increased in the traditional manner: by equipping armor.
In a lot of ways, money in The Final Fantasy Legend acts as experience points for humans, as their stats do not increase on their own. To increase their stats, they must consume a stat-boosting concoction from a shop. There are potions to increase a human’s HP, Strength, and Agility. HP-boosting potions increase a character’s health substantially until the threshold labelled on its name is reached. For example, the “HP 200” potion will increase a human’s health by as much as twenty until they have two-hundred. Any further attempts at increasing their HP with an “HP 200” potion will result in that human gaining one instead. Humans start off with zero mana, and there is no potion capable of boosting the stat. Therefore, they are ill-suited for spellcasting. They require a bit of investment to shine, but by the end of the game, they can be capable of taking down bosses singlehandedly.
The manner in which mutants level up closely mimics how you would build up characters in Final Fantasy II. That is to say, mutants gain stats based on their repeated actions in battle. Using weapons or abilities that rely on certain stats has a chance of increasing it upon a battle’s conclusion. To wit, using a hammer enough times will likely result in that mutant gaining points in their Strength stat. Not only that, but after having won a battle, mutants have a chance of learning an ability. The ability can either be a passive bonus or one you must choose from the menu. The Final Fantasy Legend does not have an equivalent of an MP stat. Instead, these abilities have a certain number of charges before they are depleted. These abilities can be recharged by staying at an inn. Inns charge money based on how many HP they heal. If a mutant in your party has healing abilities, you can use this to your advantage by fully restoring everyone’s HP and getting a free stay out of the deal to get back the spell charges.
One might assume there would be no reason to invest in humans when mutants appear to outclass them in every way. However, there is a slight catch to their big advantages. In order to use weapons or items in battle, a character must first equip them. Humans can equip up to eight items, allowing them to amass an impressive arsenal while also having enough armor to make them survivable in combat. Mutants don’t have this luxury, only having four free item slots. The remaining four are dedicated to the abilities they pick up over time and cannot be removed or altered. They can equip the same weapons and armor pieces humans can, but this often requires them to choose between a powerful offence or a sturdy defense.
It doesn’t take long before you realize the world presented in The Final Fantasy Legend is quite a bit different from your average fantasy setting. Sure, taking a few steps outside a town has a realistic chance of pitting you against a horde of monsters, which is what one would expect from a fantasy game. On the other hand, you can find monsters living in the various communities you visit along your journey. You can strike up causal conversations with them as you would with any other non-player character. There is also nothing in the game that suggests humans – or mutants – have any animosity towards monsters living among them at all. The main character can even be monster if you so choose.
On the surface, it may seem a bit bizarre this facet goes without comment. However, this is subtly addressed by the fact that you face human and mutant enemies almost as frequently – sometimes alongside monsters. One of the first major villains you fight is a bandit gang leader, who turns out to be a venomous frog. This implies the monsters you face aren’t fantastical, aggressive wild animals as much as they lawless ruffians or henchmen of whichever villain you’re fighting at the time. Considering how enticing the idea of finding Paradise is, you could very well be taking on groups of adventurers with the same goal as your own.
If anyone ever played a role-playing game, observed the impressive, exclusive abilities possessed by the monsters they fought, and wished they could use them themselves, The Final Fantasy Legend gave them exactly what they wanted. Monsters take the difference between humans and mutants to its logical extreme in that they cannot equip weapons, armor, or items at all. The potentially eight abilities they can have are all entirely dependent on their species. There are various species of monsters you can choose from the onset, but a majority of them are only accessible once the game has begun in earnest.
After defeating a monster, it has a chance of leaving behind meat. Nothing happens if a human or mutant eats it, but if a monster does, they may undergo a transformation. The new form they take primarily depends on two factors: their current species and that of whichever monster’s meat they consume. One might initially assume this takes the old adage “you are what you eat” a bit too literally, but it’s actually more complicated than that. There are twenty-five families of monsters – each with six tiers of increasing power apiece. While monsters have distinct portraits in battle, there are far fewer map sprites to represent your own party members. For example, birds, gryphons, and dragons, despite their unique appearances, all share the same overworld sprite. As such, despite existing in separate families, a given piece of meat will have the same effect on every monster within those three families. Because monsters cannot, in any way, improve their stats – whether it’s by fighting enough battles or consuming potions, the only way they can become stronger is by taking on a superior form.
The most admirable aspect about The Final Fantasy Legend is the surprising amount of ambition that went into its creation. Nintendo’s own effort to expand to the Game Boy in the form of Super Mario Land played like a downgraded version of Super Mario Bros. – despite offering a few interesting ideas here and there. With The Final Fantasy Legend, Mr. Kawazu and his team revamped the role-playing game format entirely, creating an experience both familiar and different at the same time.
The truly impressive thing is that this game, despite being on the much humbler Game Boy, has a better take on what Final Fantasy II was going for. Improving stats in that game was a matter of eliminating all but one enemy while setting up what amounted to a prolonged sparring match between party members. This quickly became repetitive and ensured the game’s pacing was absolutely glacial until your characters were strong enough to get past whatever obstacle stood before you. You would then get to repeat the process many more times until the game was over.
Conversely, the process in The Final Fantasy Legend is much more intuitive and straightforward. Money acts as a conduit for level grinding by allowing the party to purchase the appropriate potions for humans whereas mutants improve in the traditional fashion. What allows the latter to work is that you don’t have to grind stats for each individual weapon or magic type; simply improving the stats themselves is enough. Finally, being able to recruit monsters allows for nearly endless possibilities. As interesting as it is fighting against various monsters, being able to use their unique abilities for yourself was something not many games were doing at the time – some of the only examples being Wizardry IV and Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei.
The actual structure of the game is interesting as well. As you explore the overworld, you will eventually catch on to the fact that it isn’t especially detailed. Before too long, you will encounter natural barriers that prevent any further exploration. You’re not going to open up a secret passage to explore more of the world once you’ve completed the first scenario; it really is that small. Instead, the game primarily focuses on climbing the tower said to lead to Paradise. Final Fantasy put an interesting spin on role-playing conventions by making the first and final dungeons one in the same. The Final Fantasy Legend continues this trend in that the characters explore the final dungeon in increments throughout the entire game.
During your ascent, you will discover various other worlds, including one dominated by a large ocean, a kingdom in the clouds, and a modernized city left in ruins. There are even smaller, optional worlds to add more character to the proceedings.
Somewhat ironically, you come across places that are clear parallels to Heaven and Hell fairly early in your adventure. It does call into question why, exactly, your team insists on climbing the tower after finding a clear allegory for Heaven. Then again, it’s probably the same reason why one would want to climb Mount Everest in real life – because it’s there.
While there are many parallels between The Final Fantasy Legend and Final Fantasy, I like to think of it as the Japanese equivalent of Richard Garriott’s first Ultima game. Playing that game in 1981 was dream come true for fans of fantasy and science-fiction in light of how Mr. Garriott had incorporated elements from, among other things, Star Trek, Star Wars, and Dungeons & Dragons. The same adventure that had you crawling around in medieval dungeons also involved going into space to shoot down TIE Fighters. Though not quite as obvious about it, The Final Fantasy Legend has a similar feel to. The setting is a bit more consistent, yet this is still a game that begins in the middle ages and randomly throws you modern firearms and lightsabers your way.
The narrative is also heavily inspired by Asian mythology. The tower is controlled by a powerful deity known as Ashura. Ashura is an allusion to Asuras – beings from Hinduism that seek power, constantly battling with the benevolent Devas. He even has his own batch of Four Fiends, whose designs are based off the Four Symbols of the Chinese constellations: the Black Tortoise Genbu, the Azure Dragon Seiryū, the White Tiger Byakko, and the Vermillion Bird Suzaku. The ruined world in particular comes across as a love letter to both Katsuhiro Otomo’s seminal manga Akira and the tabletop role-playing game Gamma World with its cyberpunk motif and real-world analogues to districts in Tokyo. The tower is even made to resemble Tokyo Tower in this world.
I also have to remark that anyone approaching The Final Fantasy Legend assuming it’s a harmless children’s game is in for a serious reality check if they see things through to the end. Although one could make a very defensible case that The Final Fantasy Legend doesn’t have much of a story, it does get surprisingly dark at times. One of the early worlds you can visit is essentially Hell. Your characters can’t stand being there, as they lose HP with each step, yet the people you find don’t want to leave. It’s not as though they can’t leave – the exit is right there. The implication that they want to stay is disturbing to say the least.
You can also find a shelter nearing the top of the tower. In it is the corpse of a man who just barely made it there with his children after fleeing from Ashura. You can read his last diary entry, which reveals that they had run out of food and water. He closes the entry praying to God to watch over his children. Tragically, you can see in the other room that his children did not survive. Even after Final Fantasy II provided the medium with the single grittiest narrative of its generation, games dealing in such heavy subject matter was unheard of. The idea of a Game Boy game released in the same year as Super Mario Land acknowledging that children can die is shocking.
Unfortunately, as interesting as these ideas are, actually playing through the game reveals they weren’t thought out all that well. This is the most obvious whenever you’re attempting to empower your monster party members. If you don’t know the exact mechanics behind monster evolution – and there is little chance anyone playing the game blind would – it is a long, unintuitive process with a lot of trial-and-error involved. There are fourteen ranks for monsters, and if they consume the wrong meat, they will become weaker rather than stronger.
This may put some people off using monsters entirely, as the process for improving humans and monsters is far more intuitive. However, this belies their surprising utility if you’re willing to go off the rails. One might assume that consuming the meat of stronger monsters would result in better party members, but it’s not necessarily true. This is both a good and a bad thing because while the progression doesn’t follow a definable through line, you can end up with a powerful monster before you’ve even cleared the first scenario. If you start off as or recruit a specific monster and have them consume meat of various enemies in the first few areas of the game, you will end up reaching the thirteenth rank within an hour. Once a monster has achieved the thirteenth rank, they cannot do any worse, and their power can carry you through a significant portion of the game.
It’s understandable why the developers would want to make this aspect cryptic; carrying out the process trivializes a significant portion of the experience. At the same time, it is this line of thinking that made contemporary adventure games so frustrating to play. You would be dropped in these elaborate worlds and made to wander around for hours. This was done to make the game seem larger than they were. If you did know what you were doing, those games could be completed in less than an hour. The same principle applies to how monsters work in The Final Fantasy Legend. Their relative weakness throughout the game is meant to be remedied organically the further you progress in the experience, yet once you know of this trick, there is no reason why you shouldn’t do it every single time.
While monsters are by far the least intuitive party members to use, mutants are, if anything, even more cryptic. You have very little – if any – control over which abilities they gain or lose. Whether they gain a repertoire of useless abilities or helpful ones is left to the whims of the random-number generator. It is highly annoying to make significant progress only to learn your mutant lost the “Heal” ability. In fact, you’re not even informed after a battle concludes if an ability change has occurred. This is especially bad because mutants can gain elemental weaknesses just as easily as other abilities. Is your mutant suddenly firewood when they were previously the party’s main healer? Hope you didn’t save or else you better hope the random-number generator is feeling amiable.
One may assume that it would be especially wise to save after every single battle. If your mutant loses an ability you want to keep, you can simply reset the game. Setting aside the obvious problem that this seriously messes with any sense of pacing, there is one factor preventing the solution from being viable: you only get one save slot. Saving while traveling on the overworld isn’t a terrible proposition, but if you’re in a dungeon, you run the real risk of saving in an unfavorable position. If you ever need to retreat to the nearest inn, this typically translates to wasting an hour saving with each step until you make it back. It is possible for your mutant or monster to gain the “Teleport” ability, which makes retreating much either, but it’s not something you can count on given the aforementioned problems you’re trying to combat in the first place. Eventually, you do get an opportunity to purchase doors, which are items that replicate the “Teleport” ability, but by the time shopkeepers sell them, you have reached the endgame.
Although there is nothing random about how humans improve in this game, the process speaks to an entirely different problem: inventory management. In addition to the eight items humans can carry and the four mutants can carry, your team has a shared inventory. It allows them to store an additional eight items. It wouldn’t be a role-playing game if you didn’t find conveniently placed treasure chests just waiting to be opened in a given dungeon. Depending on your team lineup, however, you may find yourself throwing away perfectly good items. With only eight slots, the shared inventory fills up very quickly. Finding three treasure chests at once in The Final Fantasy Legend is the equivalent of finding thirty at once in a contemporary game.
This isn’t so bad at first, but as the game goes on, chances are your characters will have fewer equipment slots. Humans can only increase their defense through armor, so you will have to dedicate three or more equipment slots to them if you don’t want them to die all the time. Mutants aren’t as dependent on armor because they can gain Defense naturally, but the bonus the pieces provide is still helpful. You can’t rely on a mutant to have an offensive technique to get you through the game – not only due to the random nature of the abilities themselves, but also because many monsters sport immunities to certain elements. This means you’re going to want mutants to have at least one weapon at any given time. If they’re not gaining Defense, they can’t be relied on to hold items at all. Humans are the only characters you can rely on to carry items, and because potions take up the same amount of space as a sword, you likely won’t have a reliable source of healing in later stages of the game.
These problems are made worse by the fact that weapons have limited uses before they break. The idea is that physical weapons have more uses than natural abilities. In exchange, weapons cannot be repaired or recharged, so once they break, they’re gone forever. You have to painstakingly manage inventory based on your current needs on top of occasionally getting backup weapons to compensate for their natural wear and tear.
If that wasn’t enough, key items are stored alongside your regular equipment. Unlike Final Fantasy II, you can toss key items once you’re done with them. You also can take solace that once the associated scenarios are finished, you won’t need said items any longer. It doesn’t change the fact that, until you reach those points, you have a useless item in your inventory for a lengthy period of time. Having a useless inventory item in a game where you’re only afforded eight slots is especially painful. All of this ensures that inventory management encompasses a disproportionate fraction of the experience.
Then again, the dungeons manage to be their own can of worms. When it comes to level design, The Final Fantasy Legend is doubtlessly a product of its time. Dungeons are never more advanced than mazes one could draw on graph paper. It also embodies the worst aspect of the design featured in Final Fantasy II wherein you will find completely empty rooms containing absolutely nothing. Even locked doors can potentially lead to these rooms, so the design could easily fool the savvy. After all, why go through the trouble of coding a room if you’re not going to put anything in it? All it does is waste the player’s time if they don’t happen to be playing the game with a map. All of these factors can make one wonder if getting through the game is worth the trouble.
Although the story is primitive by today’s standards, I do feel that The Final Fantasy Legend gets surprisingly good in the final act. After defeating Ashura, your party is sent all the way back to the first world. The door is resealed, though you can easily open it again. Once you do, you get to fight the Four Fiends again as you ascend the tower’s exterior. When you finally make it to the top, you are greeted by a man wearing a hat. This man had always been one step ahead of your party, giving them advice on how to proceed before each scenario. His revelation forms the basis of one of the medium’s earliest plot twists.
This unassuming man is actually God. Sure, by now, your characters have taken down countless characters who fancied themselves a god, but this is God – as in the Abrahamic being. Characters throughout the various worlds held this creator in high regard, praying to Him for good fortune. The father in the shelter notably implores God to watch over them in his final moments. Every single prayer these people offered to God was on deaf ears. Then again, that is probably for the best. If this God did hear these people, He would take the opportunity to laugh in their face even as they lay dying.
He created Ashura and the Four Fiends, unleashing them on the various worlds to inspire adventurers to climb the tower to find Paradise. Countless people suffered under the brutal dictatorship Byakko established and in the world razed to the ground by Suzaku. While a common response to the question of why God allows bad things to happen if he is so benevolent is that He works in mysterious ways, The Final Fantasy Legend cuts every single pretense by providing the most cynical answer possible. God, as He is in this game, is not a benevolent, loving deity; He is a monster worse than the basest demons in Hell, and He created life for the sole purpose of making them miserable. After learning of His extreme lack of empathy, it is little wonder the main characters decide to rebel against Him.
Naturally, the battle against God is not easy. He resists every element in the game, and normal weapons deal significantly less damage to Him. In fact, He is so sure of His power that he refuses to act in the first five turns. Given what a narcissist He is, this was an interesting way to show off His overconfidence with the game mechanics. Once He stops holding back, God will eventually resort to casting the Flare spell repeatedly. Final Fantasy veterans recognize this as one of the strongest spells in that game. Given that you don’t generally have much in the way of reliable healing in The Final Fantasy Legend, a powerful spell capable of atomizing your entire party hurts even more than usual. Once you’ve reached that phase, you better hope your damage output exceeds His – or else your characters may as well have never existed.
Alternatively, you can bisect Him with a chainsaw. Despite all the game has going for it, its biggest weakness is, much like Final Fantasy, it isn’t programmed very well. It doesn’t have the cavalcade of useless spells that game had, but a cursory glance of its mechanics reveals several holes in the code. The chainsaw is the most obvious example. It was intended to inflict instant death upon targets possessing less defense than the user’s strength. However, the code was accidentally written so that it kills enemies with higher defense than the user’s strength – and God certainly qualifies. Nothing in the game resists the chainsaw either, so if the attack connects, that target is going down – no ifs, ands, or buts. It’s fitting that a God who looks down upon His creations would be dispatched with such an unassuming item, but it does render the battle horribly anticlimactic.
Even so, the ending does provide a reasonably good sense of closure. After felling God, the characters discover another door. What is particularly interesting is that the party decides not to open it. Whether or not an idyllic world lies beyond that door is irrelevant; they saved many worlds, thus creating their own Paradise. Satisfied that all sentient life no longer lives under the oppressive thumb of a cruel God, the party decides to go home.
Drawing a Conclusion
For enthusiasts who picked up the hobby long after the Game Boy days, it would be easy to dismiss The Final Fantasy Legend as a watered-down version of Final Fantasy. In that regard, it would appear to be for role-playing games what Super Mario Land was for platformers – a greatly simplified experience sold primarily on its portability rather than its ability to provide a fully fledged experience. However, closely examining the game reveals a stunning amount of ambition. Regardless of how it turned out, people would have bought millions of copies because while the West already had a thriving role-playing scene by the time Dragon Quest was exported there, neither side of the Pacific could claim they could take such an experience with them on the road. Mr. Kawazu and his team could have easily rested their laurels, yet they crafted an identity distinct from that of Final Fantasy, giving their fans something new in the process.
Even so, one could make the argument that, in broad strokes, The Final Fantasy Legend is like Super Mario Land in how neither game has held up especially well. I strongly suspect The Final Fantasy Legend wasn’t playtested extensively because it doesn’t have anything close to a natural learning curve, progressively getting more difficult until the endgame when the challenge skyrockets to unreasonable levels. It’s not the kind of game design many new enthusiasts would have the patience for. The Final Fantasy Legend does have its place in history, as putting a game this ambitious on an unassuming portable console within a year of its launch ensured it had a lasting influence that can be appreciated even today. I don’t think it’s a piece of history you need to experience for yourself, but it is important to know that every lauded portable game owes at least part of its success to The Final Fantasy Legend having blazed the trail beforehand. For that reason, it is absolutely worthy of your respect.
Final Score: 4/10