[GAME REVIEW] Final Fantasy Mystic Quest

Introduction

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?

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[GAME REVIEW] Pilotwings

Introduction

With their Family Computer (Famicom), Nintendo proceeded to dominate the market throughout the entirety of the third console generation. The console proved to be such a success, it managed to revitalize the North American gaming industry after it crashed in 1983. Dubbed the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) aboard, the console was responsible for injecting gaming into the mainstream. However, during the life of the Famicom, Nintendo gained two new rivals. First, NEC Corporation launched the PC Engine – internationally known as the TurboGrafx-16 – in 1987. Shortly thereafter in 1988, Sega launched the Mega Drive – rebranded the Genesis in North America. Although its launch titles had difficulties standing out from the competition, it was clearly a piece of technology superior to the Famicom with a graphical presentation that emulated arcade games in the latter half of the 1980s.

Masayuki Uemura, the Famicom’s designer, realized he needed to come up with something to surpass his lauded invention to ensure his company remained relevant, and thus made it so. In 1990, the Famicom’s successor, the Super Famicom, was launched. Nintendo realized it wouldn’t be enough to just continue their big-name franchises on this new platform. If consumers were under the impression the Super Famicom offered only a superior graphical presentation, they likely wouldn’t have been interested in purchasing it. They needed something to prove that the console was to offer experiences simply not possible on the aging Famicom software.

To this end, Nintendo formed a team consisting of various members of the Research and Development divisions. The team was named Nintendo Entertainment Analysis and Development (Nintendo EAD). Under the leadership of producer Shigeru Miyamoto, the team created three games within fifteen months of the Super Famicom’s inception. One was Super Mario World – the official sequel to the universally praised Super Mario Bros. 3. The second was F-Zero, a fast-paced racing game. The last of these games, however, would be something the medium had seen only a few times by 1990: a flight simulator. Named Pilotwings, this game was released one month after the Super Famicom’s launch. The console then proceeded to debut in North America the following year where it was renamed the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (Super NES). Pilotwings was highly regarded upon release and is still considered one of the console’s premier titles in retrospectives. How was it able to grab the attention of consumers and critics alike back in 1990?

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Super Widget

Introduction

Graphic Research’s attempt at adapting Peter Keefe’s environmentally conscious, animated show Widget for the Nintendo Entertainment system proved less-than-satisfactory. Not only did it sell very poorly, the few people who did purchase it immediately dismissed it as an inferior take on the run-and-gun gameplay pioneered by Mega Man. Even those willing to ignore the subpar controls were ultimately treated to an unstable mess of a game that threatened to crash at the slightest provocation. Nonetheless, a sequel to the game was greenlit. However, taking up the reins of the development process was the company that published the original game: Atlus.

The Setagaya-based developer had made a name for themselves in their native homeland due to their successful adaptation of Aya Nishitani’s Digital Devil Story. From this adaptation, their flagship series would soon be formed: Shin Megami Tensei. However, because none of these games saw an international release, Atlus was fairly obscure outside of Japan. As such, their adaptation of Mr. Keefe’s animated series, released under the name Super Widget in late 1993, was one of the very few games of theirs Western enthusiasts got to play during the fourth console generation. With its predecessor leaving much to be desired, does Super Widget manage to be an improvement?

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Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island

Introduction

Though somewhat overshadowed by Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog, a game starring a character more in tune with the zeitgeist of the early nineties, Super Mario World was a success upon its 1990 release. While dismissed as just another Mario game, when enthusiasts began giving it the time of day, they realized it was so much more than that. It and its predecessor, Super Mario Bros. 3, are now considered some of the best games ever made. Owing to its strong launch titles, Super Mario World included, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) found itself being able to keep pace with the Sega Mega Drive – or the Genesis as it was known in North America.

While developing Super Mario World, series creator Shigeru Miyamoto introduced a character named Yoshi. He was a dinosaur whom Mario could ride like a horse. Fellow developer Takeshi Tezuka speculated that Mr. Miyamoto’s fondness for country and Western themes played a role in Yoshi’s creation. In fact, Mr. Miyamoto had envisioned Mario with a dinosaur companion as early as when he worked on Super Mario Bros. in the mid-eighties, but the technical limitations of the Famicom made this idea impossible. Almost immediately after his introduction, Yoshi become one of the series’ most popular characters. Over the next few years, Yoshi was prominently featured in various spinoff titles. One such title was Yoshi’s Cookie, a puzzle game that even featured a special mode designed by Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov. Another was Yoshi’s Safari, a rail shooter that utilized the Super Scope, the successor to the NES Zapper.

As it turned out, Yoshi’s striking popularity extended to his creator as well, for Mr. Miyamoto thought about making him the series’ protagonist. However, he did not particularly care for other games featuring Yoshi’s name, and strove to make something more authentic. He presented his idea to Nintendo’s marketing department. To his surprise, they rejected his proposal. In 1994, Nintendo had published and released Donkey Kong Country, which was developed by the England-based developer Rare. Its pre-rendered graphics allowed it to stand out from the traditional, comparatively simplistic art style associated with the Mario series. Frustrated at the marketing executives, Mr. Miyamoto felt they were more interested in superior hardware than art. He even went as far as denouncing Donkey Kong Country, feeling it proved that “players will put up with mediocre gameplay as long as the art is good.”

As something of an act of rebellion, Mr. Miyamoto took the cartoonish art style for which the Mario franchise was known and escalated it. The result was a hand-drawn, crayon style reminiscent of children’s drawings. To achieve this effect, artists drew graphics by hand, scanned them, and approximated them down to the exact pixel. When he presented this revised art style to the marketing department, they accepted it. The game had actually been in development in various forms for four years, allowing the team to add what he described as “lots of magic tricks”.

This new game was released domestically in Japan in August of 1995 under the name Super Mario: Yoshi’s Island. It was released in the West the following October with the slight name change Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island. Though it wasn’t as financially successful as Super Mario World, Yoshi’s Island gained a dedicated following of its own. It too became one of the most beloved titles on the Super NES. In fact, some people have even gone as far as claiming it to be the superior effort to Super Mario World, citing is unique gameplay, art, and sound design. How does Yoshi’s Island fare in the face of its impressive predecessor?

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Super Mario World

Introduction

Nintendo’s Family Computer, or Famicom, proceeded to dominate the console market after its 1983 launch. Sega had entered the market, releasing their own 8-bit console, the Master System, to directly compete with Nintendo, but they failed to even slow them down. This began to change in 1987 when NEC Corporation launched the PC Engine – later dubbed the TurboGrafx-16 internationally. The following year, Sega launched the Mega Drive, the 16-bit successor to their Master System. Though Nintendo’s executives were not in a hurry to design a new console, they reconsidered when they observed their market dominance beginning to slip.

It was up to Masayuki Uemura, the designer of the Famicom, to come up with something even greater. Fortunately, his newest creation, the Super Famicom, was ready to go a mere three years after the launch of the PC Engine. It was an immediate success with Nintendo’s initial shipment of 300,000 units selling out in a matter of hours. In fact, it caused such a social disturbance around shopping centers that the Japanese government stepped in, asking developers to only launch consoles on weekends to avoid any future chaos. A few sources even state that this hot commodity managed to capture the attention of the yakuza, leading Nintendo to ship the consoles at night to avoid any potential interceptions.

Naturally, consoles are nothing without their games, and after the success of Super Mario Bros. 3, Takashi Tezuka and Shigeru Miyamoto were determined to have the console make a good first impression on launch day. Joined by graphics designer Shigefumi Hino, they began work on a new Mario installment. The team consisted of ten people, most of whom had experience working on Super Mario Bros. Though Mr. Tezuka was the director once again, the core team said that Mr. Miyamoto wielded the most authority during the development cycle.

The staff members understandably had their reservations about the new hardware, anticipating they would have difficulties working with it. Mr. Tezuka stated that the software tools had not been fully developed. In other words, much like with Super Mario Bros., they found themselves for want of a style guide. As an experiment, they ported Super Mario Bros. 3 to the Super Famicom. They decided it felt like the same game in spite of its improved colors and sprites. Mr. Miyamoto realized then that their new goal was to use this improved hardware to create something entirely new. The game saw the light of day alongside the Super Famicom itself in November of 1990 under the name Super Mario World: Super Mario Bros. 4.

The Super Famicom was slated for a North American release the following year. Keeping consistent with its predecessor’s name, it would become the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (Super NES or SNES) overseas. Super Mario World, dropping the Super Mario Bros. 4 subtitle, was to be one of the console’s launch titles abroad as well. Though both Super Mario World and the platform on which it was released proved to be a success, Nintendo found themselves facing a particularly fierce competitor. Sega brought the Mega Drive to North America where it was known as the Genesis. One of their games, Sonic the Hedgehog, ended up being their console’s biggest hit. The hip, cool title character was popular with children and teens, playing up to the era’s zeitgeist.

Not pictured: Maturity

Sega of America didn’t stop at extensively marketing Sonic the Hedgehog. They claimed theirs was the superior console due to it having what they referred to as “blast processing”, and even went as far as outright insulting Nintendo and, by extension, Super Mario World. Thus began one of the fiercest and most famous video game rivalries of its day. As a result of the popularity of Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Mario World was dismissed in many circles as just another Mario game. Meanwhile, with its fast-paced gameplay, Sonic the Hedgehog was the title to own in 1991.

However, as is the case in many stories like this, the all-seeing, all-knowing power of hindsight granted Super Mario World a new lease on life. Though Sonic the Hedgehog is still considered a classic, Super Mario World is the game people would be more likely to find on a given list detailing the greatest of all time. On top of that, Mr. Miyamoto himself considered Super Mario World his personal favorite Mario game. Having a chance to fully establish its legacy, did Super Mario World manage to ultimately triumph over its flashier competition?

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Final Fantasy VI

Introduction

With its improved job system, Final Fantasy V arguably managed to overshadow its direct predecessor in the eyes of Japanese fans. It was certainly no mean feat considering how Final Fantasy IV itself proved to be a turning point for the medium, inspiring countless artists to pen stories for their games more advanced than the kind of material typically delegated to instruction manual filler. Almost immediately after the launch of Final Fantasy V, Squaresoft began work on a sequel.

Due to his promotion to Executive Vice President of the company in 1991, series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi wasn’t quite as involved with this game’s creation. Instead, he served as the game’s producer while Yoshinori Kitase and Hiroyuki Ito were the co-directors. Mr. Kitase was responsible for the fifth installment’s relatively lighthearted tone, and Mr. Ito, having taken inspiration from Formula One racing, conceived the Active Time Battle (ATB) system. Mr. Kitase was in charge of event production and wrote the scenario alongside Mr. Sakaguchi once again, while Mr. Ito handled the combat engine. Despite the minor personnel change, the game’s development cycle went smoothly, taking about one year to be completed.

The man who composed the game’s score, Nobuo Uematsu, recalled Mr. Sakaguchi’s words at the launch party they held in the liner notes of a soundtrack he composed in 2010.

“Thanks to every one of you — we have created the best game in the world! No! The universe! Thank you!”

At that exact moment, Mr. Uematsu cried as he realized just how much of himself he had invested in the project, seeing the tears he shed as undeniable proof. The game debuted in April of 1994, receiving its official North American localization in October of the same year. Any success the series enjoyed up until this point seemed modest compared to the reception Final Fantasy VI received. Critically, it was praised for its character-focused narrative. Commercially, it became a bestseller, moving millions of units in Japan while becoming the eighth bestselling SNES cartridge in North America where it was dubbed “Final Fantasy III”. The reason for this change in numbering was because only the first and fourth installments had been localized in that region by 1994, and the localization team consequently changed the latter to “Final Fantasy II”.

To an even greater extent than the original, Final Fantasy VI was responsible for getting console enthusiasts interested in role-playing games. Indeed, the SNES is commonly considered to boast the greatest selection of JRPGs of any console library, and Final Fantasy VI is cited as one of its hallmarks – notably lauded by people who don’t normally enjoy the genre. Does it truly stand to this day as one of the medium’s greatest achievements?

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Breath of Fire II

Introduction

Though not held with the same level of admiration as Final Fantasy IV, Breath of Fire proved to be a modest hit in 1993. It found its audience among the newly formed JRPG fanbase, and is considered one of the console’s better games. Because of its success, Capcom decided to do what they did best – greenlight a sequel. Many of the same employees who worked on Breath of Fire returned for the sequel, though Tatsuya Yoshikawa, who previously contributed promotional artwork, designed the entire main cast this time around. Furthermore, while Squaresoft stepped in to publish Breath of Fire overseas, Capcom’s USA branch performed that duty for its sequel.

The game, titled Breath of Fire II: The Fated Child, was released in Japan in 1994, receiving its official North American localization the following year. Unlike its predecessor, Breath of Fire II saw a European release around six months after its North American debut. The game met with the same level of success of the original Breath of Fire. Though not exactly a bestseller on the same level as the average Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest installment, it nonetheless moved 350,000 copies in Japan, and fared well enough internationally to reinforce the following the first one established. Though the first game is liked by the fans, the second is considered to be a major improvement. Some even go as far as saying it’s on the same level as other contemporary classic JRPGs such Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI. Does this cult classic deserve to be held with the same regard as its decidedly tough competition?

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Lufia & the Fortress of Doom

Introduction

In Japan, role-playing games were a rising trend ever since the release of Dragon Quest in 1986. Though it inspired many artists throughout the decade, many of these bestselling titles, including Dragon Quest itself, failed to catch on overseas. This changed in 1990 with the international debut of Final Fantasy, notable for being one of the first JRPGs to fare better in North America than in Japan. To keep this trend going, the company behind Final Fantasy, Squaresoft, decided to localize the series’ fourth installment to coincide with the launch of Nintendo’s Super NES console in 1991. The result was a critically lauded commercial hit in both the East and the West. A boost in popularity for console RPGs ensued, inspiring more people to experience a genre that, up until then, was primarily enjoyed by a comparatively small niche of enthusiasts.

The success of Final Fantasy IV inspired many artists to provide their own take on the genre. One such group was the Japanese developer Neverland. The company was founded in 1993, and they launched their debut title, Biography of Estpolis, shortly thereafter. For the North American localization, it was renamed Lufia & the Fortress of Doom after one of its central characters. The game proved popular enough that the publishing company, Taito, entertained the idea of creating a port for the Sega Genesis (Mega Drive), but the closure of their North American branch in 1995 caused the plans to fall through. Before that moment, there were a few advertisements for the port, one of which claimed its release date was delayed until spring of 1995, claiming “[it would be] worth the wait”. Furthermore, European enthusiasts never got a chance to play the game. Would the game they missed out on indeed be worth waiting for?

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The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

Introduction

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, despite providing a radically different experience than its predecessor, nonetheless became a bestselling game, continuing Nintendo’s winning streak. In 1988, they began work on a new Famicom installment for their increasingly popular saga known as The Legend of Zelda. However, as the development cycle continued, Nintendo found themselves face-to-face with unexpected competition. One year prior in 1987, NEC Home Electronics launched the PC Engine, a console with an 8-bit CPU that boasted a 16-bit color encoder and video display controller. Moreover, in 1988, Sega introduced the Mega Drive, the successor to their Master System and a full-fledged 16-bit system. Though Nintendo executives were in no hurry to design a new console, they reconsidered once the success of these consoles caused their industry dominance to weaken. As a result of these developments, the team behind the new Legend of Zelda installment brought their project to this new platform that would be dubbed the Super Famicom in its native Japan and the Super NES overseas.

The creation of this new installment, eventually named The Legend of Zelda: Triforce of the Gods, would continue over the next two years, concluding in 1991 and seeing its release in November. Like the ones that preceded it, this third game received positive reviews from critics and fans alike. When it came time for localization, the game’s name fell victim to Nintendo of America’s draconian censorship policies regarding religious references. It was consequently renamed The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past for its international debut in 1992. Western critics then too began to praise the game. According to Nintendo Power’s list of the top selling SNES games, A Link to the Past spent five consecutive years in the number one spot. To this day, it’s considered one of the greatest games ever made. It couldn’t have been easy to create a worthy follow-up to The Legend of Zelda – itself thought of as one of the best games of the eighties. How could Nintendo even begin to accomplish such an insurmountable task?

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Lester the Unlikely

Introduction

The year 1991 marked the debut of Capcom’s Street Fighter II: The World Warrior. This arcade classic took the world by storm, codifying the fighting game as a genre and leaving a profound impact on the medium as a result. Such was the popularity of this title that the ensuing console ports sold by the millions. It didn’t take long for other companies to ride the wave generated by this rapidly rising trend. One of the most famous rivals to Street Fighter II was released the following year in the form of Midway’s Mortal Kombat. It generated no shortage of controversy due to its violent content coupled with the fact that the characters were represented by digitized spites based on real actors.

Another company that threw their hat in the ring was Visual Concepts. Founded in 1988, this company took the fighting game template and decided to provide a more humorous, cartoonish take on it. The result was ClayFighter, and though it didn’t fare as well in the critical eye, it nonetheless proved to be a modest hit, selling 200,000 copies. Shortly thereafter in January of 1994, Visual Concepts released a game known as Lester the Unlikely. During this time, certain developers began to experiment with the artistic side of medium, crafting unique experiences such as Flashback and Out of this World. I have little doubt Lester the Unlikely could be described as unique, but how does it fare against these pioneering art titles?

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