Sunday, August 16, 2020

Game 373: The Final Fantasy Legend (1989)

        
The Final Fantasy Legend
Japan
Square (developer and Japanese publisher); Sunsoft (North American publisher)
Released in Japan as Makai Toushi SaGa
Released 1989 for Game Boy in Japan; North American release in 1990; WonderSwan Color in 2002
Date Started: 9 August 2020
Date Ended: 12 August 2020
Total Hours: 9
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 38
Ranking at time of posting: 307/379 (81%)
      
There has never been a time in my life in which I was remotely interested in playing an RPG on a handheld device--not on Game Boys when they first came out in 1989, not on my iPhone today. I'm an RPG addict, but I don't need to have one going all the time. Having a handheld gaming console seems to me the equivalent of day-drinking. When you can't visit your dentist without taking an RPG with you, you have a problem.
    
I think my distaste for the idea of handheld gaming also has to do with the inherent reduction in complexity and immersion. I grew up playing fantastic PC games like Ultima V, Pool of Radiance, and Might and Magic. By the end of the 1980s, graphics and sound were getting authentically good. Now you want me to play a game on a tiny monochrome screen with only six buttons? That's against the very core of my personality. I want everything or nothing. Even my "laptop" is a Dell Precision workstation with a 17-inch monitor. Its AC adapter weighs as much as a Chromebook. I'll probably have back and shoulder problems later in life, but I don't care. I can install the full version of ArcGIS Desktop with 3-D Analyst, and it opens in 15 seconds. Your Surface Pro probably can't even run Morrowind.
     
But I'm giving it a shot for the sake of perspective, starting with the first game released for the first handheld platform. For once, there's no ambiguity: the first RPG designed specifically for a handheld, the first RPG offered for the handheld (if originally designed for a different platform), the first handheld RPG in Japan, and the first handheld RPG in North America are all the same thing: The Final Fantasy Legend. The game was released in Japan as Makai Toushi SaGa ("Demon Tower Saga"), kicking off the SaGa series, which is still alive today. The first three games were rebranded The Final Fantasy Legend in the west. While this undoubtedly to take advantage of the popularity of Final Fantasy (1987), it arguably has as much right to the franchise name as any game, as it was developed by Square, uses similar mechanics and themes, and features many of the same authors as the Final Fantasy series, including designer Akitoshi Kawazu, developer Keitarou Adachi, programmer Naoki Okabe, scenario designers Hiroyuki Itou and Koichi Ishii, and graphic designer Takashi Tokita.
 
I had expected a relatively short, simple single-character game, probably action-oriented, perhaps something along the lines of a single-character Gauntlet. Instead, I was surprised to find something with much of the complexity (if not the graphics) of Final Fantasy. It has four characters, towns, NPCs, full inventories, and admirably tactical combat. In my emulator window, it's really only the lack of color and more complex graphics that betrays Legend as a handheld game at all; you might otherwise think it was designed for the NES.
           
The little you get on the game's backstory.
         
Legend doesn't give you much backstory when you begin the game, just a brief bit of text about a tower in the center of the world "connected to paradise." Many people have entered the tower but none have ever returned. Your party is apparently going to try again. Character creation has you choosing and naming the main character (who cannot be replaced) from humans (male or female), mutants (male or female), and four types of non-gendered monsters: clippers, redbulls, wererats, and zombies. The choice is somewhat important, as humans, mutants, and monsters all have different ways of leveling up and have different weapon, armor, and item restrictions. The manual suggests that you have at least two humans and no more than one monster; I decided to go with two humans, a mutant, and a monster to get the full experience of the game. I know without even asking that it's probably considered some kind of ultimate challenge to beat the game with four monsters. The "monster" classes that you can choose during character creation are just their starting classes; as we'll see, the benefit of this class is that the type of monster continually changes.
         
Creating the initial character.
           
The first character starts in a town right next to a guild, and in the guild you can choose three more party members of any class and give them names, so I'm not sure why they didn't just have the player create four characters at the outset. The town also has an inn (where you fully recover health and abilities), a weapon shop, a potion shop, and a healer (solely to raise the dead).

The starting town turns out to be the "base town" for the tower that is the center point of the game. Much like Stephen King's Dark Tower, the "Demon Tower" of this game is a kind of nexus in space and time, connecting to various worlds on the way to its apex on the twenty-third floor. The basic setup is that the party wants to reach the top, but the base door is locked by magic and requires a magic sphere to open. Every few levels, you reach another locked door that requires another magic sphere, and you have to venture out into the connected worlds to find it. Inevitably, some trouble is brewing in those worlds, and you need to solve it before you can get the necessary sphere. There is naturally a boss-level enemy to fight at each of these interludes, plus plenty of random encounters as you explore the tower and the connected lands.
          
Exploring the opening land, near the tower.
        
While I was surprised at how complex Legend is, it's not as complex as the typical full console or PC RPG of its year. However, this feels less to do with technical limitations and more to do with the inherently unstable nature of handheld gaming. A player can take the handheld device anywhere but might not otherwise have a lot of external resources. Thus, the maps are relatively small and easy to navigate; the game is relatively linear; and the plot is designed to minimize note-taking. NPCs provide some lore, but the player doesn't really need to write it down. I managed to complete one segment (the fourth world) without the slightest idea what was happening most of the time. You can save the game anywhere outside of combat, and the manual suggests that there's some auto-saving going on, so if you have to suddenly shut off the device (or it runs out of battery power), you'll still be able to resume the game.

But if the game is somewhat simplified in plot and setting, it is arguably more complex than even Final Fantasy when it comes to character development and combat, introducing some elements I've never experienced in any other RPG, most of it having to do with the "mutant" and "monster" character classes. Humans are pretty straightforward: if you want to increase your strength, agility, or maximum hit points, you buy associated potions in the potion shop. Otherwise, the only thing that ever changes for them is their equipment, which is admittedly quite varied and interesting, if somewhat nonsensical at times.
          
Purchasing weapons and armor.
        
Mutants are much more interesting, and while the manual explicitly says that it does not recommend a party of four mutants, I hope veteran players will chime in with their opinions, because I don't understand why that wouldn't work. My one mutant maxed her statistics long before the two humans and ended the game with far more maximum hit points. She seemed to be able to use all the same equipment as the humans and was able to use a few things (dependent on magic) that the humans could never use. The only drawback was fewer inventory spaces and thus fewer inventory-related choices in combat, but made up for with mutant abilities.

Mutants gain their experience from combat, and slowly grow in strength, agility, and maximum health. But more important, each mutation brings an ever-shifting set of mutant abilities, some of them defensive (e.g., fire resistance, cold resistance, defensive barriers, healing) and some offensive, like mass-damage spells, poisoning, and paralysis. You have no idea when the mutant's abilities are going to shift, and towards the end of the game, the mutant is equally likely to lose an ability you'd grown to depend on as to gain a new valuable one.
        
My mutant's skills and items around mid-game.
         
Monsters are similar. On paper, they're the weakest class, I suppose, and if you were min-maxing your party, you'd probably leave one out. But they're fun in how they acquire new abilities and you have to figure out how best to incorporate them into battle. The "monster" class is not a fixed monster but more of a shape-shifter who changes forms after eating another creature's flesh. (Creatures leave "meat" almost half the time at the end of battles.) Confusingly, the monster doesn't become the creature he just ate, but rather a random creature of roughly the same level. Depending on whether you get a zombie, gargoyle, slime, dragon, or one of a couple dozen other possibilities, you'll suddenly have a new set of abilities to use in combat. Unfortunately, by the endgame none of these abilities is as powerful as a wielded item or a mutant's powers, and throughout the game, the monster lags behind the other characters in hit points. Still, I wouldn't have experienced the game without him just for the variety.
             
Late in the game, Grar eats the flesh of a sub-boss and becomes a dragon.
           
Even if you don't have mutant abilities or monster powers, you can purchase a lot of spellbooks and items that mimic them, as well as the standard progression of weapons and armor. Humans can wield up to eight items at once, and mutants four (monsters none), which means you have a host of options in combat--perhaps more than even Final Fantasy, although the earlier game did have far more spells. This is good because every monster has resistances. You have to learn most of them through experience, but they're mostly logical; for instance, demons and dragons are immune to fire. Enemies will also attack in up to three groups of one to five monsters per group, so you have to consider whether to levy group damage, concentrate on individual foes, or look to defensive options. Combat is otherwise turn-based in the usual Wizardry fashion, albeit with Final Fantasy's odd addition of having the monsters concentrate primarily on the lead character. A fun graphic accompanies your characters' chosen attacks on their enemies, with slashes appearing for swords, gouts of flames for fire-based attacks, and so on.
          
Choosing from a couple of weapons in a battle against three enemies.
And from three monster abilities.
         
I had originally written that the game was a bit grindy, but I think that's mostly the way I approached it. I grinded more than I needed to in the first world because I didn't want to leave the base town without buying everything that seemed valuable (at the time, I didn't know there would be other towns; I thought it might be like a reverse Wizardry with a single base area and then just the tower levels). About halfway through the game, I got concerned with how much time I was spending on it, and I allowed myself to look at maps to help hustle me through it. But that had the effect of not bringing me to as many random encounters, and thus probably necessitated grinding more for me than for other players.
          
Actions execute all at once after you line them up, just like in Wizardry.
           
The tower levels themselves are relatively small, but with numerous dead-ends and optional areas. Still, they take a relatively trivial part of the game's overall time. Most of it is spent in the four worlds connected to the tower, where you have to solve some quest steps to move forward. Each of the worlds has one or more towns where you can rest and re-supply. Briefly, these are:

1. The base world. A statue in the base town holds the sphere you need, but you have to return to the statue its equipment: the King's Sword, the King's Armor, and the King's Shield. Each one is in the possession of a different king, and you have to run around to the associated castles solving their various quests to get the items, return them to the statue, and get the sphere. Some creature called Gen-Bu attacks as soon as you accomplish this, and you have to defeat him to move on.
          
Opening the door to the tower is the first step in the quest.
        
2. The ocean world. This consists of a series of islands on two sides of a flat plane connected by a whirlpool. You sail about on floating islands to each of the inhabited places, ultimately assembling the sphere out of two orbs. The boss is named Sei-Ryu.

3. The cloud world. This world is dominated by a floating castle--yet another homage to Castle in the Sky--ruled by a tyrant named Byak-Ko. He hires you to find his two daughters, Milleille and Jeanne. The plot has something to do with a resistance against Byak-Ko, and Milleille betrays you in the middle of the plot only to later sacrifice herself to save Jeanne. Somehow Jeanne's tears turn into the orb you need to continue, after you defeat Byak-Ko in combat.
           
Family drama.
          
4. The ruined world. This seems to have been a technologically-advanced place, destroyed in some kind of Armageddon. Much of the gameplay takes place on a subway train and amidst the bombed-out ruins of buildings as you ride around on a motorbike. I had to take a couple breaks during this world and I completely lost track of what was happening with the plot, bumbling around from place to place until I finally defeated someone named Su-Zaku, attended a funeral for someone named So-Cho, got the orb, and got out of there.
        
I forgot who I'm demanding he let go or why we're outside a subway.
          
There are also about half a dozen small, optional worlds where you can take a rest break or find an odd item or two. I found a nuclear bomb (which I never used) in one and the sword Excalibur in another. Incidentally, the sword Masmune also makes a late appearance.

Continuing from the fourth world puts you on the fifteenth or sixteenth floor, and you still have seven more to go, with the combats getting tougher on the way up. There are occasional healing pools to help out, but you really need to carry a stock of elixirs with you, which not only fully heal but also restore mutant and monster abilities (which otherwise have a limited number of uses between resting). The final boss of the main tower sequence is someone named Ashura, and when I reached him the first time, I was completely unprepared, not having brought enough elixirs. I had to use a magic door that took me back to the base town all the way at the bottom of the tower, rest, restock, and climb the twenty-three levels again. Ashura gives you an opportunity to join him and rule a "piece of the world," but the party tells him to sod off without your input. This isn't the first place that it seems like the game is about to offer a choice but the party just has its own dialogue without you.
           
Meeting the final sub-boss at the top of some stairs.
         
Beating Ashura seems to return you to the base town, but a little exploration suggests that only the layout is the same. The NPCs are different, and in fact include many people who died during the game, suggesting you've reached some kind of afterlife. The stores are stocked with the best equipment, too. By this time, I finally had a lot more money than I had anything to spend it on. My humans were maxed at 99 in their attributes. I guess I could have kept spending money on more maximum hit points, but buying and using those potions one at a time is a pain.

From the second basecamp city, you have to re-enter the tower and climb the twenty-three levels again, although this time they're smaller. Each of the game's bosses--Gen-Bu, Sei-Ryu, Byak-Ko, and Su-Zaku--meets you at a regular interval, which offers a good opportunity to try different high-level monster morphs from eating their meat. (I think I ended with my monster as a "Tiamat.")
           
Something's a bit odd in this town.
           
The top of the second iteration of the tower opens into a new area, where an NPC in a black hat--present to offer hints throughout the rest of the game--greets you by saying, "You are the first to finish the game." The confused party demands answers, and the man says that he created the world (confusingly called Ashura) to test its inhabitants' "courage and determination." He continues to congratulate the party and offers the granting of a wish, but the party is having none of it. They're outraged that their creator toyed with them this way, apparently forgetting that no one forced them to enter the tower in the first place. I couldn't help but laugh at the associated dialogue. I don't know if it's supposed to be funny in the original, but I love how tone-deaf the "creator" is:

  • IRIS: "So it was a game?"
  • CREATOR: "That's right. I wanted to see a hero defeat this evil."
  • AQRA: "We were all pieces of your design!"
  • CREATOR: "You understand well. Many have failed the test, but it was refreshing to see courage in the face of danger. I want to reward you for your accomplishment. I will grant you a wish."
  • CHET: "We didn't do it for a reward! Besides, you used us!"
  • CREATOR: "What's wrong with that? I created everything."
  • GRAR: "We are not things!"
                   
Grar insults his god.
            
Eventually, the Creator gets annoyed at the party and attacks. He has a ton of hit points and is capable of healing himself in the middle of combat, but his attacks were oddly ineffective. He would occasionally wallop one character, but most of the time he either passed the round or spent it casting some spell that was ineffective against characters of my level and equipment. It took about 15 rounds, but I killed him on my first try, with no characters lost.
           
Definite points for originality. Few games let you literally take on god.
         
The final scenes show the characters standing in front of a door behind the Creator. They hypothesize that it must lead to other worlds, but they ultimately decide to turn around and return to their own world. The game then shows a montage of scenes from throughout the game before ending on the screen below.
        
Not likely, but I appreciate the sentiment.
           
I thought that Legend was at least mechanically a decent game, but I found it wanting in terms of . . . I'm struggling with the right word. A lot of these early Japanese RPGs seem to lack a certain gravitas for lack of a better term. I find it difficult to truly inhabit their worlds--worlds where humans and animals seem to freely mix in towns with no explanation (I'm not sure this game had any two NPCs of the same race), where little attention is given to world-building, particularly in terms of technology level. The games seem a lot like Disney cartoons, in which no one ever stops to ask what the princess is a princess of, nor why there seem to be so many castles but no tenant farmers, nor why the king is never seen receiving diplomatic envoys or issuing decrees, or doing anything that a ruler would do. I grant you that a lot of western RPGs, particularly early ones, suffer from a similar level of abstraction, but it seems to me the early JRPGs go even further, as if we're witnessing a bunch of children acting out a more serious story they saw on television. Through some combination of graphics, fonts, use of language, and other factors, these games signal to me that their stories and worlds are just decorations around what is primarily a set of mechanical exercises. I get the impression that at some point, not only does this change, but shifts entirely in the opposite direction, with realistic narratives and characters prized more than game mechanics. I have yet to experience that type of JRPG.
       
These moments are always awkward.
        
The game still earns a 38 on my GIMLET, enough to push it into "recommended" range, doing best in the areas of character creation and development and combat (5s), worse in quests (no choices) and graphics, sound, and interface, although only for reasons inherent in the platform. If my blog were more about handheld RPGs, this category would have different considerations and would be rescaled accordingly.
     
The Game Boy offered only two RPGs in its debut year: this and Kemco's The Sword of Hope. There were nine offerings in 1990, as Sega entered the handheld market with the Game Gear and kicked off a decade-long competition. Still, the number of handheld RPGs per year hovered in the teens throughout the 1990s, until the first releases of Pokémon, plus the advent of more powerful systems, kicked the sub-genre to the next level. It's worth noting that Japan absolutely dominates the handheld RPG market; my list shows that of 620 games released for handheld devices through 2011, 556 (90%) are from Japanese developers, and a decent percentage of the remaining are Japanese conversions of games originally released for western PCs.

My understanding is that Final Fantasy Legend II (1990) is even more highly-regarded than the original. The third game came out in 1991, after which the SaGa games kept their own names when released in the west. The series has produced about a dozen games, plus a couple remakes, through 2016's SaGa: Scarlet Grace. More recently, a remake of Romancing SaGa 3 (1995) was released for western PCs and consoles in 2019. The western titles arguably make more sense, as the three Final Fantasy Legend games were the only ones released primarily to handheld devices.

From this experience, I've learned that handheld RPGs managed to skip the awkward developmental years seen in both PCs and consoles, arriving on the screen fully-featured and even capable of their own innovations. I still have absolutely no desire to ever play an RPG on a handheld device, but it wasn't such a bad experience on my computer screen.

Summer's coming to an end, and as I transition back to school, it will probably mean a hiatus for these diversions. To the extent I'll have time for gaming at all, I'll have to spend it on my core list. But I did this series primarily as an excuse to play Wizardry: The First Episode - Suffering of the Queen (1991) for the Game Boy so that a guest entry on the Wizardry series' continued life in Japan would have some context. Thus, I'll try to get at least a "BRIEF" on that game done in the near future.

118 comments:

  1. The Game Boy is actually a little more powerful than the NES (4 mhz processor instead of 1.7, 8K system (expandable by cartridge) and 8K video RAM vs 2K total (expandable by cartridge), with the one great disadvantage being the screen.

    This is because Nintendo has had a very smart policy of basing their handhelds on obsolete hardware - the Game Boy came out as the Super Famicom was nearing release and was closer in spec to the outdated NES. The sheer advantage of portability (or simply not tying up the family TV!) gave it a good boost, kept costs down, and avoided cannibalizing their own market by leaving the more impressive titles to the home console.

    Being limited to 4 "colors" (shades of green in the original, gray in the Pocket version and most emulators) is the biggest technical limitation of the system. If your emulator allows it, it is worth setting the display to the original model's shades of green. Once.

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    1. The original gameboy also felt quite restrictive when it came to viewing angle and distance. I remember seeing a range of hilarious looking peripherals in the catalog, designed to address the deficiencIes.

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    2. Having no backlight meant it could be brutal trying to play on that thing when the lighting wasn't just so. I had a hideous clip on light for mine.

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    3. Another important consideration: it also helped with battery power, which was a big deal to its target audience. The Game Boy would run for 12 hours or so on 4 AA batteries, but the Game Gear would chew through six AA batteries in less than half that time. The costs in batteries would really add up. My birthday present after I got my Game Boy for Christmas was the rechargeable battery pack that Nintendo made, that weighed more than the Game Boy did and doubled as an AC adapter. I would otherwise have spent a good chunk of my youthful allowance on batteries.

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    4. (4 mhz processor instead of 1.7)

      Weeeeell...not neccessarily.
      We have the old (almost) 6502 vs (not quite) Z80 battle here. :)

      I still find it interesting that Nintendo went with a different cpu core here (while keeping the rest rather similar - AND coming back to 65xx family on the SNES), but I assume the Sharp core was easier to integrate in a SoC and more lenient regarding RAM timing requirements (which the 65xx design was notorious for).

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    5. That's why I said it was "slightly" more powerful - the chip was running twice as fast, but ran more poorly on a per-cycle basis.

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    6. "I still find it interesting that Nintendo went with a different cpu core here (while keeping the rest rather similar - AND coming back to 65xx family on the SNES), but I assume the Sharp core was easier to integrate in a SoC and more lenient regarding RAM timing requirements (which the 65xx design was notorious for)."

      As I remember, apparently Nintendo bought up an old calculator factory that went bankrupt at one point and eventually managed to re-purpose it to produce the Game Boy.

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    7. 12+ hours is probably lowballing it even, I remember routinely getting 30 or more hours when I used good batteries like Duracells or Energizers.

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    8. I know I got a good 30ish hours with garbage rechargables made for solar lights, although this was relatively recent so probably not as impressive

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  2. For me this was the first, but definitely not last, time I killed God in a videogame.

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  3. I absolutely adore this game and it's sequel when I was a kid. I lived in the boonies and it was an hour ride to school each day and the Legends games got a lot of play in my old brick game boy during those trips. It's been ages since I've played either but I definitely remember II being the superior game.

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  4. "Definite points for originality. Few games let you literally take on god."

    Oh you did not play many console RPGs I see.

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    1. As Yahtzee Croshaw famously observed, "a JRPG just isn’t a JRPG unless it ends with teenagers using the power of friendship to kill God."

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    2. I suppose it's usually more themed as "a god" or "gods", but there's definitely a few Western games including CRPGs that do something similar - the Elder Scrolls series is probably the most famous, but there's quite a few others - https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/KillTheGod

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  5. From what I understand, the ruined world is based on Tokyo. The places on the map come close to where certain areas are in real life. Like Akiba, where you get the ROM, is where Akihabara is in Tokyo, which happens to be a major electronics district. And the Tower is where Tokyo Tower would be.

    And just in case you decide to play Legend II, it has no RNG. It has an algorithm, but it ALWAYS starts in the same spot. And isn't reset by the soft reset. Plus when you get into a "random" fight follows a set pattern that loops. I believe it always started at four steps.

    And Final Fantasy Adventure, if you play it, was actually the first game in the Mana series.

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  6. I have a real soft-spot for this game, it was one of the first RPGs I think I played, and was very different from the other Gameboy games I'd tried.

    Although for some reason I never finished it, fighting "The Creator" at the end always meant I died but I guess as a kid I never did enough grinding?

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    1. Creator shouldn't be that tough, but if you use the Chainsaw you can instantly kill him

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    2. I don't think I ever saw a chainsaw.

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    3. It was a long time ago since I played it, but I remember the Creator had one attack that would just kill a single person, but I dunno really why I had such a hard time. But I was just a kid. Never saw a Chainsaw either.

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    4. You get the chainsaw in a shop in the apocalypse world. It might be named Saw due to character limits. It's meant to inflict instant death if your character's attack is stronger than the enemy's defense. Due to a bug it works backwards, and thus humorously allows you to instantly murder God himself with a chainsaw. Groovy.

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    5. "You got the chainsaw"

      And Heaven and Hell both tremble...

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    6. I do remember a "SAW" weapon, and that it never worked, so that makes sense, thanks!

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  7. Nice to see you branching out for that sense of broader perspective. I have a soft spot for Final Fantasy in both story and graphics.

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  8. It surprises me a bit that you played this game, it being on a handheld.

    Interesting note: this game was the first Square game to sell over 1 million copies in the company's entire history. It came out some time before Final Fantasy III, which was the first game in the FF series proper to break 1 million units.

    Where most companies treated the Game Boy as an afterthought and released "lite" versions of their games, including Nintendo itself to a degree, Square really packed a lot into their GB RPGs. This not only went for the Legend/Saga games, but for Final Fantasy Adventure as well. FFA, which did start out directly connected to Final Fantasy before the Seiken Densetsu/Mana seres became its own thing, played more like a Zelda game and preceded Link's Awakening to the market by three years. However, it also boasts a fairly huge world with multiple towns and dungeons, and it does have experience points and stats that determine your character's combat and magical abilities.

    The point at which Square started to pay more attention to storyline and characters was Final Fantasy IV on SNES, which was followed by the narratively simple but more mechanically oriented FFV. FFVI was where Square full-on embraced story-driven games, while FF7 and its cut-scenes took Square to levels of commercial success they would never have dreamed of ten years earlier, especially in the US. They did, however, continue to experiment with new battle systems as the years went on.

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    1. Final Fantasy 1 sold 600.000 in Japan (NES+MSX) and an additional 700.000 in North America according to an interview in 1994.

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    2. FFI was also released in the US three years after it did in Japan, several months after FF Legend launched in Japan, and only a couple of months before FFL released in the US, so FF Legend did reach 1 million units first. FFL sold 1.37 million units in total. By that time Square had done a pretty good job building up a fanbase.

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    3. FFIII Famicom also beat the US release of FF1 to market by a couple of months, ultimately selling 1.4 million units on the Famicom, entirely in Japan since the game wasn't localized until 2006 on the DS. Japanese releases tend to be incredibly front-loaded on sales, which is true everywhere else to a lesser degree, but in those days Japanese gamers waited in long lines for the newest releases of popular franchises. Not sure if Final Fantasy had quite reached that stage of fandom by the time III came out, but it grew pretty steadily from the original up until VII and VIII.

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  9. I agree with you that handhelds are somewhat better suited for playing action games (though there have been tons of RPGs on these too) and the like, but you need to remember that the gaming culture/approach to gaming in Asia is different, with millions of people commuting via the trains etc. all the time. It's only natural that they'd want to do something with this time, aside from reading or checking out the news. I personally rarely use handhelds to play RPGs, but there are some really good ones here and there.

    By the way, the "rejecting gods" trope is quite popular in Japan. Some of the big series like Megami Tensei, Persona, Tengai Makyou, Xenogears, Final Fantasy (of course) and many, many others make use of it. Guess you can't really put the stakes any higher than murdering the creator of the world/universe.

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    1. Oh, one more thing - you mentioned the number of games produced by Japanese companies. I'm pretty sure the West got only a small fraction of Japanese RPGs from that period, maybe 20-30 or so out of about 200 in Japan (for the Famicom/Super Famicom), whereas in the case of Sega we got the vast majority of them. Maybe that's good still, seeing the quality of translations varied wildly at that time. This trend continued for a while, now most games are released worldwide, but back then this wasn't the case. Makes me wonder how many RPGs there were for Japanese PCs, like PC88/PC98 (they were often more akin to WRPGs from what I could gather).

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    2. One interesting thing from a sociological perspective is that the "rejected god" usually has some Judeo-Christian trappings. My understanding is that this solely due to the perceived exoticness of Western religions.

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    3. In part that's true, but I wouldn't say it's the sole reason. They had a Christian rebellion there (Shimabara Rebellion) in response to the partial prohibition of Christianity at one point (it had been prohibited for hundreds of years fully afterwards). It was perceived as an intolerant/politicized religion - perhaps that's why the Christian God is usually presented in games as a lawful evil tyrant nowadays. Also, the first foreigners who wanted to have a piece of Japan were the Portuguese (I believe they were the first Europeans in Japan too), Nagasaki was even under their control for a while. That probably had something to do with their outlook as well.

      Interestingly, China had a Christian rebellion too - Taiping Rebellion, possibly the bloodiest civil war in human history (tens of millions of deaths supposedly).

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    4. Nihon Falcom, which codified a lot of Japanese RPG conventions, has traditionally been a PC developer even though a lot of their games have been on console, often a decade or so after they first showed up on PC. It’s only recently that Ys and Legend of Heroes have been getting timely releases on console.

      In many cases, the “rejected god” in Japanese RPGs turns out to have been a fake of some kind. In a lot of games, “God” was originally an ordinary human who was wronged by the world and became a conqueror of his former tormentors, setting up a cult of personality to make himself God, and using technology or magic to set up a system of miracles or divine punishment. The hero of the game stumbles on this often because the heroine is intended to be a ritual sacrifice to this god.

      Japan probably heard or saw how Christianity was facilitating the conquest of other nations in Asia and worked aggressively to keep out missionaries. It worked. Japan avoided the European colonialism that ravaged China and India until Commodore Perry and his “black ships” showed up. Even then they were able to modernize rapidly enough to remain independent and even become a colonial power themselves. I can see why Christianity never developed a huge following in Japan as it did in South Korea. They use it in the same way American developers use the trappings of Buddhism and Shintoism to create lore for martial arts movies and games.

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    5. Japan limited foreigners of all kinds, with no special dislike for Christianity. They did so because foreign technology and ideas were all too likely to give one side an edge in their endless internal strife, as happened when the first Portugese matchlock (literally the first - one of the guards making the first landing decided to shoot an animal for food shortly after arriving, and the local samurai were so impressed they bought his gun on the spot) came ashore. It was all about balance of power rather than avoiding colonialism - everybody was busy with exploiting the more lucrative China and India regions anyway.

      Perry's fleet primarily proved that the Japanese could no longer just sit around happily slaughtering one another and had to join together to slaughter other people, because they were too far behind.

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    6. I wonder whether the aftermath of World War II plays into this at all, with the formerly divine Emperor being reduced to an old man in a funny hat. They had an entire culture built around the idea of imperial divinity that was forcibly transformed into one that rejected it. That had to leave a mark.

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  10. I would find it very difficult to resist sending in a party made up of zombies and nothing else. Not from any gamer challenge perspective, just because of the absurdity. I have an all-zombie Blood Bowl team for the same reason.

    I haven't played this game but it looks like it has has some influence on later rpgs. I see a fair bit of Chrono Trigger in there, for example.

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    1. Sounds like a fun indie RPG or tabletop campaign. A bunch of dead adventurers brought back for another shot at saving the world. On one hand they're nearly indestructible now, with detachable limbs and heads that can be stitched back on. On the other hand they're slowly rotting away, with clumsy lurching movements, and being hunted the entire time by clerics from the local undead-hating church.

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  11. The interconnecting worlds and having to find "keys" in them also remind me of the Ultima Underworld 2 setting.

    "it is arguably more complex than even Final Fantasy when it comes to character development and combat, introducing some elements I've never experienced in any other RPG"

    This is IMHO one of the more appealing aspects of JRPGs; character development and progression tend to be complex, original and satisfying, and less tied to the D&D template than CRPGs.

    "I get the impression that at some point, not only does this change, but shifts entirely in the opposite direction, with realistic narratives and characters prized more than game mechanics. I have yet to experience that type of JRPG."

    There will be definitely a much more increased focus on plot, setting and characters as the genre evolves (if nothing else, you'll see it in Final Fantasy 7), although the mechanics are always relevant.

    But I'm not sure at any point I would define the narratives becoming "realistic".

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    1. I meant "realistic" in the sense of deeper human motivation and emotion, I guess, not that they every approach real-world plausibility in setting.

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    2. Well, this game actually implies an explanation - the game world was designed on a whim by the Creator who just wanted to see his creations fight!

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    3. It's pretty hard to tell how seriously the writers were taking the motivations of their characters in these early Japanese games just because the translations are so spotty. Part of why they sound like they were written by five-year-olds is specifically because the people translating them may have only had about a five-year-old's level of English.

      That said, it's also true that Japanese entertainment has a reputation for just being wacky and not taking itself too seriously.

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    4. Spotty translations were the main culprit for the lack of proper motivation/emotion, they were really mostly just bad/middling at best until 16-bit consoles, both because of poor English, but also screen/ROM limitations (English takes up way more space than Japanese or Chinese in writing).

      Sometimes it's the script as well though NLeseul, for example Revelations: The Demon Slayer on the GBC had a pretty bad script in Japanese too, whereas the Game Gear version was much better in every regard. There are probably more games like that, this is just one example I remember off the top of my head. Breath of Fire 2 also has an infamously poorly written English translation.

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    5. You've also got plenty of cases where the translation's bad less because of the translation quality itself and more because of "It's a kid's game so we don't have to put in any real effort" mindsets, with Nintendo's policies not really helping matters

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    6. Character limits were a big issue back in the days of cartridge-based storage. You can pack a lot more semantic meaning into a given number of Japanese characters than an equivalent number in English, but translators only had so much cartridge space devoted to text. So a lot of translations in these early games come off as childishly simplistic just because the writers had to pare every message down to just a small handful of words in order to fit the text boxes, enough to get the general point across... most of the time.

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    7. That's another big part. I forget which game it was, but Squaresoft's main translator for a bunch of SNES games mentioned that he had translated it, and had to cut out half the script to get it to fit on the cart, along with having rather strict deadlines to work with.

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    8. There is a kernel of truth regarding the text in older Japanese games looking like as if it was written for five-year-olds, despite whatever unfortunate transformations it had to suffer during translation. Due to space limitations, most of the games of the era were written in phonetic alphabets — hiragana and katakana. It does make the text appear childish, because, believe it or not, a text with kanji actually reads way better. Kanji are concise, hiragana is vague, and you sort of have to spell it out as you read it. It is not an efficient way of writing and reading Japanese, but at the time there was no better alternative.

      There is an interesting anecdote concerning this particular quirk of the Japanese game industry. Koichi Nakamura, one of the fathers of Dragon Quest, tried to get his friends and family to play one of his games. But pretty much all of them reacted with a "what's this? Hiragana? I'm not reading that". That, purportedly, was the genesis of the Sound Novel genre of games, which, predictably, focus on text with Kanji and sound effects.

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    9. Woolsey said he was given 30 days to translate one game. I think it was Secret of
      Mana. So he had to pull a lot of long hours to get the job done on time.

      Then there was Working Designs, a company which translated RPGs for the PC Engine CD, Sega CD, and Saturn before a conflict with Sega caused them to switch to PlayStation. They were either famous or infamous for sprinkling their localized games with American pop culture references and jokes about the popular news of the day. So you had characters in a quasi-medieval fantasy setting asking why M&M’w melted in your mouth and not in your hand, with one of your party members, a mage no less, asking why illiterate peasants didn’t understand how the thick candy shell worked. Or infamously, a joke about Bill Clinton. The original Japanese dialogue for both of these scenes was far more mundane.

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  12. I do know about the SaGa games because they're bizarre and that makes them interesting. As you noted, they usually have deliberately complex methods of character development and, as time goes on, they add an emphasis on non-linearity and open world design. My understanding is that the main SaGa designer remained interested in trying to replicate what we might think of as Western RPG and tabletop design even as a lot of the other Japanese RPG developers moved in a completely different direction. The series is kind of a cult thing even in Japan, but it's remembered fondly enough to see a revival in the last few years, with some remakes and a brand new game all being released and even localized for Western audiences.

    The other defining trait of the series is being extremely over-ambitious to the point that pretty much every game is unfinished and incomprehensible on some level. It's not clear from the handheld games, which were well-made for their era and sold well, but eventually...

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    1. I received Unlimited Saga as a gift from a well-meaning relative, probably in 2003 or so. I sometimes get the urge to boot up the old PS2 and give it a whirl, but I can't remain engaged for more than fifteen minutes.

      It's such an odd game, but not in a good way. Legend of Mana kind of comes off as being the same sort of odd, but that game actually pulls it off.

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    2. I've always wanted to try more of the SaGa games (I loved Final Fantasy Legend, even coming to it long after release), but the reputation for brokeness has scared me away. I don't have enough time to play the non-broken games I own let alone ambitious failures.

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    3. I'd say the only one that's really hard to recommend is Unlimited Saga, because it's not only almost incomprehensible, but also a lot of people simply dislike it even once they do understand it.

      The Romancing SaGa ports Square has put recently are solid choices, and they're cool games (albeit sadly lacking the weird sci-fi stuff from the Gameboy era).

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  13. Ironically, I actually finished many more RPGs when I got my collection of handhelds (Nintendo DS/3DS/PSP and Vita).

    With kids, it is hard to find time to sit down and play a game for hours. And once the kids go to bed, I like to spend time with the wife so really I only get to do anything after everyone is sleeping.

    Having a handheld really helped me play a lot more than I ever did before - on the train before covid, sitting next to my wife while she watches SVU. I finished multiple JRPGs this way while my xbox and playstation are now exclusively played by my kids on the weekend or used to watch Blurays...

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    1. It makes sense that different lifestyles would find some platforms easier or harder. Living on the road for a decade has made me predisposed never to buy a desktop computer even though my laptop might as well be one for all the moving it does these days.

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    2. Using a laptop at my desk was murder on my back. The screen was relatively low compared to where a full monitor would be, so I would end up hunching over it. Often I would set it on my computer chair and just lay in bed to use it.

      Having a desktop is much nicer, but then my current rig cost more than my last two or three computers combined.

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    3. I've been using the uh... "same" desktop since 2005. Mind you, the only original part still left in it is a surprisingly long-lived hard drive. Other than that, I have replaced every single part (including the case) over the years. Whenever I can't play a new game I wanna play, I upgrade the part that bottlenecks me. The last part I upgraded was the GPU about two years ago. And last year I added an SSD while keeping my three hard drives in place.

      I prefer working and gaming on a desktop due to the separate screen and keyboard, but the greatest advantage is the flexibility. A part breaks? Okay, I'll replace it. It's harder to do with a laptop and you usually buy a new one when the old one goes poof, but I've been running this rig for 15 years now, only replacing individual parts when necessary.

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    4. I'd never use a laptop at a desk, but plug it into an external monitor and keyboard/mouse and the ergonomics are just fine, obviously. That's how I've done things for 15 years now.

      I had a friend who insisted that a desktop was the only correct choice for serious work, and maybe he was right at the time, but I rarely notice any difference except in a handful of edge cases. It's far more convenient having everything in one place vs. trying to manage files and applications across two computers.

      That said, I loathe the lack of reliability I've encountered with laptops, though obviously they're subjected to more physical stress. But I'm averaging 4 years per laptop before they succumb to some irreparable problem, while my desktop machines that are 15-20 years old still boot.

      I love gaming on my laptop while traveling. Occasionally I've brought a handheld with me, but it's another thing to keep track of.

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    5. I do have one netbook from 2008 which still runs, to my utter surprise. I use it sometimes to do some writing or DOS gaming in bed (yes, I know, terrible habit) and don't dare to take it along anymore. It has fallen on the floor several times, the on/off button has gone off and I have to reach into the hole with my finger and hitting the switch properly so it comes on is quite fiddly. It also runs Win XP because it couldn't possibly run anything more modern. But it still works and is good enough for the things I use it for!

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    6. The first part on any laptop of mine to go is the hinge. It'll warp and break, usually taking chunks of the case along with it. I don't know why they seem to make those things so cheap.

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  14. I think console RPGs really develop their focus to storytelling in the SNES era and forward (they start developing the focus in the late NES games, but the transition is fully there in the SNES most iconic games).
    And there are notorious details in how NPC dialogue changes towards a more narrative approach.

    Big part of Chrono Trigger focus (when it comes to NPCs) is them explaining or discussing the lore of the world, the situations and the characters (rather than for example, introducing details about quests and game mechanics to the player). It makes sense for a game based in time travel where you travel to different times in the same world (you are introduced to many locations and characters in every new time you travel to, and the player needs an exposition about them).

    This Youtube video explain part of the applications of NPC dialogue (when it comes to both, introducing or discussing worldbuilding, characters and setting, and introducing the player to mechanics and quests) and what these differences in NPC dialogue demonstrate about a game (i think there are some minor spoilers):
    https://youtu.be/r9_FJDK51K8

    But in my perspective, even today, console RPGs don't quite leave mechanics behind. Almost every important console RPG series (Pokemon, Persona, Megami Tensei, Atelier, Suikoden, Earthbound/Mother, Dragon Quest, Ys, Mystery Dungeon, Fire Emblem, Dark Souls, etc) is notably mechanically distinct from each other (and sometimes, different entries in the same series are very different, as it happens with Final Fantasy), and there is some complexity to their mechanics (most include mixes or their particular interpretation of mechanics like monster collection and training, tactical and complex combat, item crafting, social encounter mechanics, some degree of character customization, etc).

    In my opinion (while there are exceptions) the purpose and evolution of computer and console RPG is distinct in that sense, computer RPGs have evolved to make a video game experience that is similar to a mix between action (or action-adventure) game mechanics or tactical combat, combined with an ideal of tabletop RPGs in video game form (looking to replicate the ideas of narrative worldbuilding, quest-fulfilling, social interactions, decisions-matter consequences, monster slashing, character development and customization, and item collection, crafting and improvement that is the basis of the most famous tabletop RPGs). Console RPGs in contrast, developed from such mechanics (mixing and matching some of them, drastically changing or improving some of them, and ignoring or reducing others) to build a consistent but distinct narrative and mechanical experience, becoming very divergent in the process; that way, they sometimes even got to refine multiple concepts that came from tabletop RPGs to be a full concept on their own (this is how Pokemon and other monster collecting games made monster training and combat the entirety of their premise, and the Persona series from 3 and forward made social encounters and interactions with characters their most important mechanic).

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  15. By the time I was old enough to appreciate RPGs the SNES was long gone from the market, so I first played the SNES Final Fantasy titles via their Gameboy Advance re-releases. If I knew emulation existed at that point, I was too dumb to figure it out. Besides, I was tired of being blamed for computer viruses when it was obviously Mom downloading "TOBY KEITH HOT 100 POP SINGLES.dvr.exe" every other week.

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  16. Personally, I started with playing handheld RPGs. The first RPG I ever played was Pokemon Sapphire around when that came out, back in 2003. I didn't branch out into console RPGs until the late 2000s, and even then that was older games I had seen in videos around the time, like Paper Mario. I didn't even touch a CRPG until I got Morrowind around the time Skyrim came out, and even then I bounced off of it and didn't go and finish it until I got the Elder Scrolls Anthology a few years later. Hell, to some extent I still prefer handhelds to other things, considering it took me modifying my 3DS to run emulators for me to start chopping away at my older console game backlog.

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  17. Props for naming your monster "Grar." I never played this one, but in SaGa 2, my monster was always named "Grr."

    The four bosses—Suzaku the phoenix, Seiryuu the dragon, Byakko the tiger, and Genbu the turtle—are a reference to the guardians of the four cardinal directions in Chinese astrology; they show up a fair amount in Japanese entertainment. I can't think of any other games with a Western release that use them offhand, but I'm aware of them from the anime Fushigi Yuugi.

    A similar pattern that's probably more common in JRPGs is the "Four Heavenly Kings," who sound similar but have an unrelated origin in Buddhist mythology. Clyde Mandelin explains that trope far better than I could. I don't think you'll directly encounter any "Four Heavenly Kings" any time soon unless you play Final Fantasy IV or Pokemon, but I think it could be argued the four fiends/Chaoses of Final Fantasy I are at least an indirect use of the general pattern of four powerful, complementary leaders. (And the term "fiends" is reused for IV's "Four Heavenly Kings" in that game's original English release, I believe.)

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    1. I also associated each of the four major worlds with one of the classical Greek elements. From the bottom of the tower to the top: earth, water, air, fire.

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    2. And Ashura is a Japanese-to-English rendition of Asura, the devil-like creatures opposed to the Deva. (Modern translations tend to re-fix this back to Asura when it turns up in Japanese games.)

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  18. The main thing preventing me from playing handheld RPGs is that with Japanese games' habit of having text slowly appear letter-by-letter, the limited screen real estate always makes this much more excruciating. In this game, for example, the text speed is unbearably slow, you can hold the button to make the text advance faster, but then sometimes it goes *too* fast and part of it scrolls of the screen before I'm ready. It becomes an annoying balancing act of feathering the button so I can read text at a comfortable speed without missing anything.

    Clearly this is something most people can get used to, so it's definitely a me problem. But it'd be enough for me to give it a "1" in G/S/I. Maybe a 2. I do love that music.

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    1. I really, really hate the typeout method of showing text. Why not make it appear instantly like in western RPGs? It's horribly annoying and makes dialog cutscenes even more annoying than they already are. Such a terrible waste of time.

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    2. In some games it's annoying, but if it's fast enough it's just a little bit of visual flair that's more interesting to look at than just a still shot. I agree that in a lot of games it's too slow; ideally, the text should finish appearing before you have a chance to finish reading it.

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    3. I tend to feel like it's only a problem when the speed's fixed. Personally, I tend to feel like being slowed down a bit helps me absorb whatever's being said a bit better

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    4. In addition, a lot of games that do this (or at least quite a few JRPGs) let you change the speed at which the text appears, or sometimes even turn it off entirely.

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    5. Part of the reason for not dumping it all at once is that many people find it less aggressive that way - reading a little at a time is more comfortable than reading a big wall-o-text. Others prefer to get the text all at once.

      I know that in some famous cases, the disagreement (and especially dissent about how fast it should be) is an artifact of the differences between the Japanese and English languages. Each character conveys more meaning in Japanese, so you get "more" text in that window of time.

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    6. I just don't have the patience for that. It slows down what could be a pretty quick read. Much prefer the western RPG way of giving you the entire sentence at once. I'm a pretty fast reader and sometimes I merely skim instead of reading every word with close attention, especially when the text isn't all that interesting.

      And in a lot of the JRPGs I tried, the text is exactly that
      ... not very interesting.

      I love the gameplay of Tactics Ogre and the Fire Emblem games, for example, but the dialogues have so much useless banter that annoys me rather than making me connect to the characters. It feels like soap opera dialog.

      I've encountered plenty of dialogue cutscenes that went kinda like this:

      General: My princess!!
      Princess: What is it, general?
      General: We spotted the enemy soldiers! They are raiding a village!
      Princess: A village? But we are close to the dragon bridge... that means...
      General: Princess?
      Princess: Tell me, what is the name of that village?
      General: Vallerdale, princess. Do you know it?
      Princess: ...
      General: Princess?
      Princess: Tell the men to make ready! We must engage the enemy!
      General: As you command, my princess!
      *two knights appear who were childhood friends of the princess*
      Hank: Hey Julia! We were hoping we could speak with you.
      John: Oh yeah. So many days of marching. My horse is growing tired. How are you holding up?
      Hank: It's your first time leading an army. Heavy responsibility, huh?
      Princess: Hank... John... the enemy was spotted in Vallerdale. We must ride fast and stop them.
      Hank: What?!
      John: No way! Not the village where your half brother lives...
      Princess: It's just a raid. They don't know he lives there. Besides, he's just a bastard. They have no use for him.
      Hank: Are you sure? There are much richer villages nearby. If I wanted to raid someplace, I wouldn't choose Vallerdale.
      Princess: ...
      John: Does it matter? The enemy is in the village and Julius is in danger! We must hurry and stop them!!

      Me: YES! HURRY!! GET THIS STUPID DIALOG THE HELL OVER WITH I WANT TO GO BACK TO PLAYING THE GAME AAAAAAAH
      *frantically hits the button to skip through the dialogue line by line, getting more and more frustrated as the characters keep talking and talking and talking...*

      I guess some people enjoy this style, but I just wish there'd be a button to skip dialogue entirely. It's usually structured in a back-and-forth way that stretches everything out, where a western RPG would give you the important information in one or two instantly appearing paragraphs. It's made worse by the fact that you don't get any dialog choices, so it's like a cutscene where you have to click next after each sentence. Terrible. Utterly terrible.

      This form of presenting dialogue is the main reason I can't get into the JRPG genre. It just drains all my motivation.

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    7. Games also use various effects with scrolling text that are supposed to make it feel more like a real-time conversation. As early as the NES Dragon Quests, they varied the pitch of the beep when characters appear so that different NPCs would have different "voices" (children and women having higher-pitched beeps than male soldiers). Newer games do things like pause the text to suggest pauses in conversation, or making individual words scale up and vibrate to indicate emphasis.

      Newer games do tend to have a "Skip" option in cutscenes as well, fwiw.

      I do think modern text-based games do tend to get more wordy than necessary, since text is essentially free in storage now and writers don't feel the same editing pressure they used to in the cartridge days.

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    8. I suppose one possible disadvantage to instant text on a console or handheld would be an accidental double-press caused by user error or bad contacts (especially as the hardware ages), causing the game to skip over important text. On the other hand, it's easily avoided with a bit of clever input handling, and I don't see how the same thing wouldn't apply to keyboard input anyway. I've definitely skipped things I didn't mean to skip, but it's usually been an error in judgment (absent-minded button mashing), and very seldom an accidental double-tap.

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  19. My Surface Pro runs games pretty well. Currently replaying Fallout:New Vegas, and playing through South Park:TFBW, Gloomhaven's early access, and some of my back catalogue of older GoG games (Dark Queen of Krynn definitely feels unfair compared to the rest of the Gold Box series). But, yes, it is able to run Morrowind on max settings

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    1. Indeed, Morrowind was released in the early 2000s. Even the crummiest modern laptop or phone has more computational power than PCs of that era.

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    2. I can run Skyrim on mine. The big difference from my desktop PC is that there's not enough memory to multitask - you can't really play Hearthstone and use Google docs without things breaking.

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    3. Did anyone honestly think I meant that literally instead of simply exaggerating for comic effect?

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    4. Adding to that comical discussion, my 2011 Notebook (generic brand) has an i3 of the second gen (Intel Graphics HD 3000 with 1gb) and with only 4GB of Ram, it did run Skyrim once with a nice framerate. However it can't run Morrowind nowadays without struggle, guess I just have abused the machine too much xD

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  20. Hey dude, I'm sure you're aware, but I just noticed that you've become too successful! You've had so many comments recently, I no longer read them all!

    Congratulations. It's great to see all of your hard work and inspiration paying off.

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  21. I'm keen to hear what you would have to say about the "Wizardry Gaiden" games: full-fledged Wizardry games made exclusively for Gameboy.

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  22. I get Legend I, II, and III mixed up, but all those game bring back memories of the epic long car trips we would take as a kid. I never liked them as much as the console Final Fantasies, but one of them you could be robots and I thought that was pretty cool.

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  23. I imagine that the manual recommending against a party of four mutants is due to the randomness associated with their changing abilities. This was kind of a thing in several of the game Akitoshi Kawazu worked on—some of the stat increase mechanics in Final Fantasy II, for instance, were tied to random chance based on the kinds of actions you took in battle (although people figured out exploits to shift the odds in their favor). This really turns some people off of Kawazu's work, although some like it; I find it an interesting change of pace from more typical jRPG systems, but I wouldn't want this sort of thing all the time.

    And yeah, jRPG plots do get more fleshed out a few years down the line; from the perspective of Western audiences, this is probably further helped by the higher quality of translation for titles like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger. Part of the problem in the early days is the fact that Japanese text is generally much more compact than English, since each character of the basic hiragana writing script is a syllable rather than a letter, so game scripts had to be trimmed way the heck down to fit within the memory limitations of cartridges.

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  24. "... worlds where humans and animals seem to freely mix in towns with no explanation, where little attention is given to world-building, particularly in terms of technology level."

    Most of these complaints apply to Ultima I through III (at least as far as tech level), the entire Might and Magic franchise, and various of the early western CRPGs derived from them.

    (It bugs me in those games too, though.)

    This enthusiastic "throw every genre at the wall" approach appears to be more of a feature of the era than a western/eastern divide, although Japan would stick with it long after the West settled into an easier fantasy-or-SF-but-not-both model.

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  25. Two other thoughts:

    (1) The art design for these monsters strongly reminds me of Pokemon. I know they're both Gameboy games and that influences it, but is it possibly the same artist?

    (2) Is this the first game Chet's played that features the trope of "the final boss is God"? (Which will go on to define JRPGs as a whole.)

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  26. If you thought FFL1's tech level was... inconsistent, I look forward to you playing FFL2. "Robot" is a playable character race for the main character or the 3 local friends who join their quest. By the end of the game a decent robot character will literally be a tank. Like, "tank" is one of the weapons they'll wind up having. And yes, it means they get in a tank and shoot a damn tank shell at stuff.

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  27. The hardest party is four monsters. The only ways you can win are either with sheer luck or by abusing a game bug regarding the SAW weapon/ability.

    The easiest "party" is a single human female. You start the game with an upgraded weapon (SABRE⚔) which makes killing enemies in the first world relatively easy. Grind a little bit of gold, and you have 200 HP and 60+ STR and AGI in no time. By the end of the second world, you should have 400 HP and 235 or so STR and AGI. You don't want to go over that in case your gear pushes it above 255, which wraps it around to 0.

    The SAW bug is a simple sign swap. It was meant to work if your STR is *higher* than the target's, but they accidentally made it be *lower* than the target's. So you can only really use it on boss monsters. It's a one-hit kill in those cases. The problem with the monster party is that the last monster to have that ability is **very** underpowered by the time you reach the end.

    Also, GLASS⚔ was supposed to have a single use, but they messed it up in the English release and gave it 50 uses.

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    1. I might be missing something, but the maximum attributes for humans in the game I played seems to be 99, same for mutants.

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    2. Nah, the attributes go higher. The game just stops displaying numbers above 99. Just don't go TOO far, or the attributes will wrap around to 0, which is both hilarious and very bad.

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    3. How would a player a back in the day have ever figured this out?

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    4. Nintendo Power magazine, perhaps?

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    5. Presumably, you find out by grinding too much and watching your stats suddenly drop back to zero. And by noticing that two characters with e. g. 99 strength do for some reason vastly different damage.

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  28. Going to the dentist is adventure enough I think...

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  29. If you want a in-depth look at both the game's plot and the mechanics, I did a Let's Play years ago: https://talking-time.net/showthread.php?t=14598

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  30. About killing God in JRPGs, recently I've read an interesting discussion of this that went on a few pages on my forum. Amazingly, for every instance of players having to kill God, someone could make a good case of it just being a "demiurge", essentially a pretender which is still at least one step below the "real" "G"od.

    Philosophically, you can point at any God-like being and if you manage to kill it, it's proof that it wasn't the "true" God. It's kind of amazing, really.

    Of course I'm not completely convinced the devs of these old games were all fans of Gnostic philosophy.

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    1. God is that which has no stats.

      I'm a big fan of "apothatic theology," personally, which is basically the idea that God is so different from anything humans are capable of categorizing or quantifying that any affirmative statement you can make about God is inevitably going to be completely wrong in some way, and that therefore you can only begin to understand God by contemplating negative statements about it.

      There's a long history of people lazily assuming that God is just the "biggest thing possible" or whatever, which leads to nonsense debates about unstoppable forces and rocks too big to lift. The idea of making an RPG enemy with the maximum possible stats and then figuring out how to use the game mechanics to defeat it definitely fits nicely into that tradition. But God is not just the biggest possible monster; God is that which has no big-ness.

      That said, a lot of these Japanese developers are probably coming from the topic from a Shinto or Buddhist background, and I'm not even sure if those philosophies have a concept of divine omnipotence. They may just use the "God of the maximum stats" to illustrate the ridiculousness of the concept of omnipotence, for all I know.

      I will also note that the idea of writing up stats and rules for how gods function and figuring out ways to kill them definitely has its precedent in Western D&D rules, and probably Western fantasy writing as well.

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    2. God is dead, so he can't have been THAT ineffable and omnipotent. We killed him, after all.

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    3. For instance, the Lady Of Pain (from D&D Planescape) traditionally has no stats, and Caine (from Vampire: the Masquerade) traditionally has only two words for stats ("YOU LOSE"). And that's precisely because otherwise, some players will figure out a way to kill them.

      The Lady appears in Planescape: Torment, of course. Naq fur'f bar bs gur srj orvatf gung pna hggreyl qrfgebl lbh, rira gubhtu lbhe punenpgre vf vzzbegny.

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    4. I know Dragon magazine published stats for Satan and other infernal beings in "The Politics of Hell" (Dragon #28), infamously giving Satan 333 HP instead of the obvious number. But I could swear there was also one for God where they gave him 400 HP. Can't seem to find anything on it, though, so maybe it's a false memory.

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    5. I was able to find that on google... I find it rather ridiculous, and I'm sure that the number 333 is hardly the only reason why it's so infamous!

      According to the article, Satan was overthrown by Beelzebub, in turn overthrown by Asmodeus. As it gives no stats for the latter two, it fits the pattern of NOT statting the strongest (god-like) characters.

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    6. Asmodeus and Beelzebub (aka Baalzebul) were in Monster Manual, I think, so stats were already available for them in official sources.

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    7. 1st Ed Deities and Demigods (among others) gives killable AD&D stats for a variety of "real-world" deities. (I'd say as opposed to "fictional", but they're all fictional.)

      The (real-world) Ancient Greek Gods and, to a lesser extent, the Norse ones were definitely dudes who you could, under the right circumstances, punch right in the face, and "gods with stats" follows in that tradition.

      But the JRPG tradition of "the final boss is God" also goes hand in hand with the trope of (later) JRPGs taking a deeply philosophical direction in their third acts in ways that Western RPGs don't tend to. Granted, that philosophy is often juvenile or incoherent, but still...

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    8. I take offense to the notion that real world gods are all fictional ;)

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    9. I remember reading that they used Christian imagery in Dragon Quest basically just because it's something that shows up in Western Fantasy and that kind of media was popular at the time. Accuracy to the religion was never on their mind.

      I guess it's essentially the same as when Americans shove really Japanese stuff like Ninja and Samurai in their games without caring much about whether it makes sense. People just think foreign stuff is cool, I guess.

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    10. As Bird said, a lot of Christian imagery used in Japan is just that, imagery. It shows up in anime a lot as well. Most of the time it has no actual meaning.

      I've heard that the maker of Evangelion said they'd never had used all the Christian imagery in it if they'd known how popular it would be in the West.

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  31. This was a great RPG that perfectly fit the portable nature of the Gameboy. Unfortunately, from what I recall playing as a kid, was I believe among the first Final Fantasy games that hinted of the dreaded "of threes" system the later games adopted. What is this? The rock paper scissors nature of 3 characters max versus 3 enemies max, which completely detracts from the fun of combat. Three party members is not enough. Four or more, please. With that said, I believe this game only has three enemies max, but you at least have four party members, giving it a hybrid, yet fun for what it is system of combat.

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    1. I don't think the 3 party member thing started until FFVII? And even then it was mostly for resource reasons from the jump to 3D as I understand it.

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    2. I think the only subsequent game that didn't use a three-member party was 9, and that one only went back to four for nostalgia reasons? And 15, I guess. Pretty sure they stuck with three-member parties as a deliberate design choice long after there were technical reasons for it.

      I'm not sure about SaGa 1, but in the next couple of the games in the series, you only see three monster sprites in combat, but each of them represents a group of multiple monsters. So it's not exactly limited to three opponents.

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    3. All the FF games after IX either had only enough party members to fill out the battle, or had some way to swap out mid-battle.

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  32. Sad fact, us Europeans never got the FFLegend games released officially. You could at least buy them for like double the US price at some import sellers and the Gameboy didn't have a region lock, but as a child/early teen I wouldn't even think about spending so much pocket money for a single game.

    So Mystic Quest aka Final Fantasy Adventure in the US mentioned in earlier comments was the first GB RPG for me and I guess a lot of other Europeans. And it really was a treat, I'm a big fan of this and its successor Secret of Mana.

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    1. Chet mentioned Sword of hope as one of the debut titles, which we got here in Europe too.

      I remember it as very interesting but also as hard

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    2. I did a Let's Play of Sword of Hope, too: https://www.talking-time.net/showthread.php?t=15058

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  33. Morrowind may not have been the best example ;) - with the OpenMW platform, you can pretty much run it on anything these days. See here for someone running it on a e-Ink tablet:
    https://www.reddit.com/r/Morrowind/comments/i8hd0x/morrowind_on_an_eink_tablet/

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  34. If you ever play a certain highly-mechanical, choice-heavy, cell-by-cell first person dungeon exploring RPG you'll get all the god-killing you can handle. :)

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  35. I'm really glad that you covered this. I know that console RPGs will never be your cup of tea, but your perspective on these games is fresh and very welcome. I grew up on these console RPGs and I have a very fond memory of defeating the "Creator" for the very first time. Reading your playthrough has taken me back.

    I know that you have an infinite number of computer RPGs to play, but I hope you decide to come back to the world of Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, Fire Emblem and Chrono Trigger, and other games that have been off your radar. Knowing that these games are likely at least going to be fast-paced and score in the 30s or 40s might make them a pleasant reprieve from some of the drudgery that you occasionally get stuck wading through in your quest. Picking from the best or most notable console RPGs (rather than taking a completist path) could help to ensure that the occasional detour would feel more like a break than a job.

    The next two Dragon Quest games are, for example, fairly bite sized nuggets of fun. Dragon Quest II predated Final Fantasy by 11 months and takes more inspiration from Wizardry than the first. It's neat to see how FF and DW series bounced off each other for a while as they charted different courses to what they thought a jRPG could be.

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  36. I can't wait to see you look into the later SaGa games. II in particular has an even crazier storyline, and- as others have mentioned here- it's got even more character options, and a very different progression system.

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    1. This is not something you should anticipate. These diversions are exceptions, and I did a series of them for a specific purpose. I probably will not continue with a lot more console games, particularly handheld ones.

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  37. I love reading your views on games I played a lot of growing up, and I played too many RPGs over the years. I know you don't do many console games, but I certainly am enjoying your posts about them.

    FF Legends I remember playing a lot of at home, while listening to Weird Al Yankovic. Any time I hear a song from his "In 3D" album I remember this game.

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  38. For anyone reading this who was interested in checking it out but doesn't want to deal with emulators or trying to find an original Game Boy to play on, it looks like the whole series is now being re-released for modern systems:
    https://www.polygon.com/2020/8/26/21402506/square-enix-final-fantasy-legend-game-boy-nintendo-switch

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