Final Fantasy USA: Well fuck you too, Square
by Pitchfork



The year was 1992. The 16-bit erea of console gaming was entering full swing and RPGs were becoming a major force in the Japanese video game scene. Sega's Phantasy Star and Atlus's Megami Tensei games had crossed over from the 8-bit Master System and Famicom to the Megadrive and Super Famicon. Capcom, Namco, and Taito were preparing to hop onto the gravy train with with Breath of Fire, Tales of Phantasia, and Lufia. Falcolm's Ys series was (inexplicably) going strong. Enix was releasing its Dragon Quest games on weekends only so students wouldn't skip classes. And Square was sailing on the success of the 16-bit incarnations of its Final Fantasy and SaGa franchises while working on a Super Famicom sequel to Seiken Densetsu.

But across the the Pacific, console RPGs weren't doing so great. Though by no means particularly maligned by North American players, JRPGs only had a small (but loyal) niche audience in the States. The vast majority of the American console crowd still preferred their action/adventure titles -- Mario Bros., Legend of Zelda, Sonic the Hedgehog, Castlevania, etc. This undoubtedly had some the higher-ups at Square, Enix, and Nintendo scratching their heads. Why were copies of Dragon Quest practically leaping off the shelves in Japan, while Nintendo of America was forced to give away free copies of Dragon Warrior with Nintendo Power subscriptions? Were players' tastes really so different in the States? Was the concept of a game focusing on strategy, statistics, and storyline instead of fast-paced action and twitch button-mashing just too foreign to Americans?

Yes. That was exactly it.

Well -- that is if you disregard Dungeons & Dragons, the original role-playing game and precursor to everything from Dragon Quest to World of Warcraft, which had been devised in the United States in the early 1970s. And if you ignore all the American PC RPGs that came out in the 1980s, like Ultima, Might & Magic, and Wizardry. And that small handful of console RPGs that had been released in America, like the four Dragon Warrior and two Final Fantasy titles. And Magic of Scherezade. And Swords & Serpents. And Romance of the Three Kingdoms. And Tombs & Treasure. And Phantasy Star. And Pool of Raidance. And Shining in the Darkness. And Drakkhen. Oh, and then there were all PC RPGs that got ported to the NES...

Nevertheless, somebody in SquareSoft's think tank probably deduced that their RPGs weren't flying so well with the majority of Super Mario and Zelda-worshipping SNES owners because they hadn't received a proper introduction to the genre. Maybe it was asking too much to expect a hyperactive American kid raised on Contra and Ninja Gaiden to immediately make the transition from jumping around and blowing stuff up to waiting through turn based battles and managing the inventories and statistics of multiple characters. This was perhaps why they opted to tone down the difficulty of Final Fantasy IV when they localized it in North America as Final Fantasy "2." The belief that it's common practice for Japanese video game companies to decrease their games' difficulty before shipping them overseas is in fact apocryphical, but Square's practices in North America during the early 16-bit era undoubtedly helped foment this notion. SquareSoft observed the sales and reviews coming back from America following the release of Final Fantasy "2," and considered the facts. The first 8-bit Final Fantasy was shipped overseas without any changes, and it had been a sleeper hit. Final Fantasy IV was sent over to the states with reduced difficulty, and it did even better. Square saw a correlation -- but not the correct one. Final Fantasy "2" sold more copies because of its improvements in storytelling, pacing, battle mechanics, and variety -- and because it looked, sounded, and played better than any NES RPG ever had. (And having only about 32 other games in the SNES library to compete with at the time of its release couldn't have hurt either). Instead, the conclusion Square came to was this: "in order to continue this trend and reach more overseas players, what we need to do is dumb down our next North American release even more."

It took a few years for us to realize it, but Final Fantasy "2" was kind of a massive insult to the intelligence of the American gamer. Maybe after spending the 1980s kicking our economic asses across the planet, the Japanese felt they were entitled to be a little condescending. "Those slow-witted foreigners can't be expected to make decent cars or compete in a global market, so we can't assume they'll have the mental wherewithal to handle enemies that can do anything other than not die in three rounds. Oh, and let's get rid of half the game's items and character abilities, so they'll have less to keep track of. Wouldn't want to risk blowing their impatient, mathematically-disinclined little minds, would we?" It's impossible to know if the sales of Final Fantasy "2" would have been different if Square hadn't clandestinely lowered the difficulty for the sake of us English-speaking, cowboy boots-wearing mongoloids -- but in all likelihood, it wouldn't have made a difference. Players who had just upgraded from the NES were already used to unforgivingly hard games, and I personally don't recall any of my Genesis-owning buddies complaining about the difficulty of the Phantasy Star titles, which were far more brutal than any of Final Fantasy's 16-bit iterations. (Later on, the neutering of the SNES version of IV actually gave Square a built-in marketing ploy for the game's North American re-release on the Playstation -- but that was really just serendipity rather than their business savvy finally paying off.)

At any rate, Square settled on a plan to develop a "gateway" RPG for Americans players. It was specifically designed to entice young fans of mainstream adventure games and indoctrinate them in the ways of menu-based combat, experience points, and elemental weaknesses, which would eventually lead to experimenting with and getting addicted to the harder stuff. In North America, it was titled Final Fantasy Mystic Quest. In Japan, it is known as Final Fantasy USA, with the subtitle For Gaijin Dimwit Natto Having for Brains.


CHARACTERS

The Good Guys

BENJAMIN

The hero of Mystic Quest, Benjamin is the prophecized knight destined to restore the Crystals and save the world. At the beginning of the game, Benjamin's village is stricken from existence by an earthquake, leaving him the sole survivor. Contrary to the temperament you've come to expect from Final Fantasy heroes, Benjamin gets over the destruction of his home in about thirty seconds and never speaks of it again. His allowance is 2 GP a month.







KAELI

A young lady from the village of Foresta and daughter of the famed Captain Mac, Kaeli becomes Benjamin's first ally in his quest. She lasts about ten minutes before getting poisoned by a minotaur disguised as an evergreen. Kaeli has two noteworthy abilities: (1) talking to trees and (2) chopping them down with her huge battle axe.









TRISTAM

A treasure-hunting ninja who approaches Benjamin in the Sand Temple, hawking Cure potions like a shady miscreant pushing piff in Washington Square Park. When his offer is declined, Tristam insists that Benjamin accompany him to the Bone Dungeon, a DL gay bar in a bad part of town a treasure-filled cavern in the desert. In his spare time, Tristam enjoys meandering from village to village and boasting about his renowned door-opening expertise.







PHOEBE

Aquaria's lovely resident warrior-mage spends her days moping about how hopeless it all is until Benjamin appears to bequeath some sunshine on her life. Given this and her eventually being Benjamin's ally in his climactic showdown with the Dark King, you'd think Phoebe the obvious candiate for the hero's love interest...but Benjamin opts to sail off into the sunset with Tristam instead.








REUBEN

A morning star-packing warrior from Fireburg. Reuben plays in a rock band and lives with his parents.













THE OLD MAN

This floating, abnormally tall old man meets Benjamin atop the Hill of Destiny and dispatches him on his quest to save the Crystals. He periodically appears to give Benjamin advice and beg for spare change, and always whirls up out of sight before Benjamin can get a word in.












The Bad Guys

FLAMERUS REX


The first of the Vile Four and proprietor of the Bone Dungeon. Flamerus Rex wishes he were cool as Lich, and wonders why Scarmiglion never returns his calls.


ICE GOLEM


The second of the Vile Four is a giant man made of ice. He lives in a giant pyramid made of ice.


DUALHEAD HYDRA


Blah blah blah volcano blah blah Fire Crystal blah.


PAZUZU


The fourth and most powerful of the Vile Four is a giant bird creature man monster guy who uses a psychic shield in battle. His favorite NES game is Elevator Action.


THE DARK KING


At last -- the one behind all the bad stuff. Hey, do you like anticlimaxes? Cast Cure on the Dark King three times and he cacks.


DRAIN YOUR BRAINPAN

Mystic Quest has most of the building blocks of a Final Fantasy game. The story goes like this: the powers of the four Crystals have been stolen by four demons, resulting in widespread natural disasters. A young man named Benjamin is chosen by the Crystal of Light to venture forth and save the world from the powers of darkness. Over the course of his quest, Benjamin meets all the prerequisite allies (the nature chick, the slick ninja, the armored bad ass, the magical blonde), and traipses through all the places you'd expect from this sort of game (the forest village, the water village, the mountain village, the fire dungeon, the ice dungeon, the sand dungeon, the haunted mine, the haunted forest, the haunted ship, the high-tech tower, the final boss's inner sanctum with the glass tiles and outer space motif, and so on). The bestiary is typical for an early JRPG: you've got your medusas, slimes, mummies, dullahans, chimeras, behemoths, land turtles, lamias, etc. The mainstay spells from the Final Fantasy grimoire all all here: Meteor, Holy (White), Flare, Exit, etc. You've got your turn-based battles, experience points, inventory, elemental affinities, and negative status effects. You've got a kicking soundtrack that stands up there with Uematsu's best (though Nobuo had nothing to do with Mystic Quest), with obvious rock n' roll overtones meant to appeal to younger American gamers. There aren't any airships and nobody named Cid appears, but there is a Chocobo or two to be found.

And...well, that's about where Mystic Quest's parallels to the series proper end.

Basically, Mystic Quest is Final Fantasy Lite. No, not even that -- it's the O'Doul's to Final Fantasy's Guinness. It is the JRPG experience distilled beyond recognition: 15% Final Fantasy and 40% water. The rest is just ice. Stale, volume-occupying ice. ("OH MY GOD YOU CAN JUMP NOW! AND YOU CAN POKE STUFF WITH YOUR SWORD ON THE FIELD MAP, EVEN THOUGH IT DOESN'T DO ANYTHING 98% OF THE TIME! FINALLY, AN RPG THAT CAN STIMULATE ME AS AN ACTION GAMER!")

Let's think of some of the qualities that helped the early Final Fantasy titles (I through IV rise to prominence, and then see if Mystic Quest shares them. The first games are built on challenge and center around engaging combat and nail-chewing dungeon crawls. They boast four-to-five member parties, with characters that are customizable to varying degrees (I, II, III) and/or fulfill some specialized, predetermined role with unique abilities and strengths to exploited, and weaknesses that the player must work to minimize (I, III, IV). They have huge world maps that can be explored at the player's leisure on foot or on of several land, water, and air vehicles; and epic-length main quests. They have a particular aesthetic, thanks in large part to Yoshitaka Amano. Finally, they have fascinating storylines and memorable (even if not entirely original) characters.

So -- this gives us five gauges to rate how Mystic Quest stacks up to its predecessors in the main series. Let's see how it does:


1.) CHALLENGE/GAMEPLAY

Challenge. Right. Mystic Quest doesn't have it. The action game equivalent to Mystic Quest would probably be a redux of the original Super Mario Bros. that has no pits, no time limit, unlimited continues, and a Mario that can shoot fireballs without picking up a Fire Flower and takes five hits to kill. Again, Square was attempting to reach a larger audience by offering them an easily-managed introduction to turn-based RPG battles, but boring kids to death probably isn't the shrewdest way to get your games on their Christmas lists. ("Oh, great. I win again. Whoo.")

Mystic Quest defenders and apologists (of which there are very few) like to point out that it was ahead of its time as a JRPG that does away entirely with random enemy encounters. This is true -- but the mechanic it uses instead is probably even worse. In Mystic Quest, enemies appear on the field screen as stationary objects that can't be moved or jumped over. Touching one initiates a battle. It's possible to flee from a fight, as per the JRPG norm -- but if you run away, the enemy isn't removed from the field map. You'll eventually have to beat it or find a way around it -- and the latter option rarely presents itself. Dungeons are usually mapped out so that any path you have to take requires fighting. Essentially, Mystic Quest replaces random, escapable battles with mandatory battles. Want to see if there's a treasure chest down that corridor? That line of seven mummies walking in place would like to have a word with you.

This wouldn't be quite so bad if Mystic Quest's combat system weren't such a drudge. Battles consist of Benjamin and his ally taking on one to three enemies. Benjamin's ally is usually strong enough to kill at least one monster when he/she takes her turn. Most enemies are barely capable of lasting even two rounds as they nip away at your HP. Strategy rarely enters into combat: just keep hitting the "A" button and heal between battles, and you can't lose. (But try doing this in Final Fantasy IV and V and see how far you get.) If Square was trying to win over Legend of Zelda fans enamored with the games' mix of fast action and strategy, handing over a game that only requires the smallest modicum more thought than Duck Hunt and 0% of the reflexes probably wasn't the smartest way to win them over.

Wait -- it gets worse. See this?



This is a Seed. You can buy them in most towns for 50 GP a pop. Using one completely restores a character's MP. This means that once you can scrape together a thousand bucks or so, every dungeon becomes:

- Walk
- Enemy encounter!
- Benjamin casts White/Flare
- Benjamin's ally casts White/Aero
- Victory!
- Restore HP with Cure and Life magic, use Seeds if necessary
- Walk

Repeat this fifty times or so, and congratulations! You've beaten whichever dungeon you were in. On to the next one! The early Final Fantasy games' dungeon crawls are challenging because they force the player to choose his battles and manage his resources carefully. In Mystic Quest, there's no point in choosing whether to fight or flee from enemies, since you're going to have to beat them to proceed anyway, and having an item like the Seed makes it pointless to bother economizing your spells. The formerly nail-biting experience of exploring and fighting your way to the bottom of a dungeon is made simple and rote in Mystic Quest.


2.) PARTY MEMBERS

Benjamin is like Legend of Zelda's Link: if he can find it in a treasure chest, he can use it. There are no spells he cannot learn and no weapon or piece of armor he can't equip. By the end of the game he can use every spell, every weapon type (with the exception of Phoebe and Tristam's projectile attacks, which a handful of enemies are weak against), and has immunity from every status ailment. A main character who can do everything makes having other party members redundant -- and IDKFA godmoding gets old before long.

Benjamin only gets to have one (1) ally at a time. Like Final Fantasy II and IV, the game rotates characters after the player has progressed to a certain point. They remain at set levels and cannot gain experience points. They cannot change their equipment or learn any spells beyond what they already have when they join up with Benjamin. They have no unique abilities; by the end of the game, Benjamin can do everything they can (and much more). And if this is still too much for the player to handle, all of Benjamin's allies are set to auto-pilot by default. (But this can be changed, of course.)

But I can see the reasoning and market research behind this. After all -- there is nothing that turns off American gamers quite like having characters they can build and fine-tune to their personal preferences.


3.) LENGTH/DEPTH

Mystic Quest is about eight hours long. It's split up into five parts: Earth Crystal, Water Crystal, Fire Crystal, Wind Crystal, Dark King. There are no sidequests. There are no optional dungeons. There are no vehicles -- except for the ship, which shouldn't count because it can only take you to the final dungeon. You aren't even allowed to explore the world map on your own -- press one of the four directional buttons, and Benjamin automatically walks from one location marker to the next. Once again, I completely understand Square's logic here. If there's one thing that gets American players' collective goat more than the burdensome bore of character customization, it's the freewheeling bedlam of free exploration and non-linearity.


4.) AESTHETIC

Mr. Amano cannot be given enough credit for his work with Squaresoft. By signing on Akira Toriyama (of Dragon Ball fame) to do character/monster design for Dragon Quest, Enix infused the series with a cartoony aesthetic that would automatically result in sales from name recognition alone. Squaresoft, on the other had, selected Yoshitaka Amano, who had previously worked on Vampire Hunter D and a slew of old Tatsunoko cartoons. Amano lends the early Final Fantasy titles a surreal, sometimes otherworldly feel that few other RPGs from the time can boast. Dated as they are, the 8-bit Final Fantasy games' graphics stand the test of time rather well, since the monster sprites are all pixel-by-pixel reconstructions of Amano's original artwork. Amano's artistic sensibilities might not be everyone's cup of tea, but you certainly can't accuse him of being unimaginative.

But Amano had no hand in Mystic Quest. For all I can tell, Square deliberately made the game's enemies look as generic as possible. It really looks like they had some of their developers sit down and watch American Saturday morning cartoons and take notes on what they saw. "American kids love uninspired, generic-looking crap! We must mimic this aesthetic!" So Square told Amano to take five and hired Masanori Morita to assemble a rogue's gallery that looks like it would be more suited for a coloring book for small boys. Let's compare, shall we?

SAHAGIN


MINOTAUR ZOMBIE


GHOST


VAMPIRE


EYE/BEHOLDER


LAMIA


BEHEMOTH


WATER FIEND


Bear in mind that the sprites on the left column are from games of the previous console generation and are anywhere from two to five years older than Mystic Quest. Not only are the Amano sprites more imaginative, but they don't even look outdated next to the 16-bit Mystic Quest sprites. Now I'm starting to wonder if Mystic Quest was originally designed as an NES game and got bumped up to the next-gen hardware mid-development. Hmm.

But at any rate, Mystic Quest's roster of villains certainly could have been better-designed. And when you combine generic monsters with generic characters and generic dungeons, what you end up with is a game that's incredibly boring to look at.


5.) CHARACTERS/STORY

On the characters: scroll back up and look at the profiles. They are not paraphrased or abridged in any way. That is all there is to know about them. "American players have no use for dialogue or character development!" On the story: the original Final Fantasy on the NES has mute party members and characters who can't say anything longer than what can fit in a single dialogue box. In spite of this, the original Final Fantasy still has a more tangible storyline than Mystic Quest.

"Go save the Crystals!" the Old Man tells Benjamin. "Okay!" says Benjamin, and does it. "Now go fight the Dark King!" Benjamin is told. "Okay!" says Benjamin, and does it. Cut to the ending sequence and roll the credits.

It is baffling how Square consistently went with the wrong alternative during Mystic Quest's development. "American gamers don't want to waste their time with contextual backstory, character-driven drama, and apocalyptic plot twists! That'll never sell. What they like is searching for generic game-progression tokens through dungeon crawl after relentless dungeon crawl!"


CONCLUSION

Come on. The whole concept of an entry-level genre game is ludicrous. Nintendo never released a Super Mario Bros. Jr. for Atari veterans suspicious of gimmicky, side-scrolling witchery. It never even occurred to id Software to put out a Wolfenstein 2 1/2-D game to give players a docile, low-strees introduction to the bite-your-lip-till-it-bleeds experience of a good first-person shooter. Let Mystic Quest's failure be a lesson to game designers: it doesn't matter if the mainstream crowd isn't accustomed to what you're putting out. Don't cater to them, and don't worry that the majority of gamers might not "get it." The game will stand on its own merits, and the players who understand it will automatically gravitate towards it. (See: Disgaea, Rez, Ico, etc.) Hosing your concept down leads to a final product that makes nobody happy. The qualities that would have attracted a more appreciative audience are lost, and the people who wouldn't have been interested anyway will still say "no thanks."

Such was the case with Mystic Quest. In order to make a Final Fantasy game that would pull in the Mario and Zelda crowd, Square removed everything that made Final Fantasy appealing to begin with. Fans of Final Fantasy and Final Fantasy "2" weren't impressed, and neither was the action/adventure-attuned majority of SNES owners. Mystic Quest was a failed experiment -- but one that Square seemed to have learned from. Five years later, Square finally hit the North American mainstream with Final Fantasy VII, a game that achieved mass appeal by doing pretty much the exact opposite of everything Mystic Quest did in its attempt to whore itself to the overseas youth.

If current trends are any indication, Square Enix will probably have remade and re-released its entire back catalogue of Final Fantasy games before the end of this console generation. You can bet that Final Fantasy USA will be the one exception. Good riddance.


ADDENDUM

Here's something interesting I discovered at the very last minute. I was working with Polly to get this thing up and ready to roll, when it occurred to me that the monster sprites from Mystic Quest looked similar to the ones I'd seen in screenshots from some of the Gameboy Final Fantasy games. I did a little digging, and...well, compare these enemy sprites from Final Fantasy Legend III with their counterparts from Mystic Quest:








Weird, right? It always struck me as odd that Mystic Quest opted for the Dragon Quest battle perspective rather than Final Fantasy's side view, but I always figured that it was just a small creative liberty on the part of Mystic Quest's developers. But who are Mystic Quest's developers, anyway? Well, here's an abridged list, taken from GameFAQs:

Director: Kouzi Ide
Story: Chihiro Fujioka
Map Graphics: "Picasso" Kabe
Monster Graphics: Yuki Yasuda
Monster Design: Masanori Morita
Map Design: Hideshi Kyohnen
Main and Battle program: Katsuhiro Kondoh
Field Program: Kiyotaka Goto

And now, let's take a look at some of the folks who worked on Final Fantasy Legend III -- which is known as SaGa 3: Jikuu no Hasha in Japan:

Director: Kouzi Ide
Producer: Chihiro Fujioka
Graphics: Masashiro Kabe
Graphics: Yuki Yasuda
Game Design: Masanori Morita
Game Design: Hideshi Kyonen
Battle Programmer: Katsuhiro Kondoh
Battle Programmer: Kiyotaka Goto

Damn it to hell. Mystic Quest isn't a Final Fantasy game at all. It actually belongs to the SaGa series.

...This explains so much. WHY DIDN'T I KNOW THIS?! (It's on Mystic Quest's Wikipedia page for god's sake.)

VERDICT:












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