Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest, a Thirty Year Reunion
Not everyone is into RPGs. For some, gaming is just that: a game. It’s a simple, effective means to entertain and distract for upwards of hours at a time. You don’t always need to know the backstory for things: candy needs to be crushed, clans need to clash, and crops that feed no one need to be meticulously harvested, otherwise the redhead who runs the café will never want to marry you. JRPGs in particular are hard to approach: if you don’t like fantasy, adventure or magic in any way, you’ll probably stay far the hell away.
Still, back in the 90s, Square knew that people could love the JRPG if they could just give it a chance. “It’s the complexity!” they decided, sitting high atop an ever growing pile of money they were desperate to set on fire. “If we make an RPG that’s dirt simple, people will play it, get interested and eventually want other RPGs too!” Then they probably all went and did shots with OJ Simpson an other notable 90s celebrities. And from that drunken and loveless haze came a rather unfortunate child: Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest.
Mystic Quest is a victim to mediocrity: not enough to love to keep it memorable, not enough to hate to keep it infamous. It coasted through stores and into bargain bins without even stopping to refuel. It set back the Western world from enjoying JRPGs and was (probably) a reason why we didn’t see Final Fantasy V until years later. The main character is suggested to be named Benjamin, because why not have the main character end up with the same kind of name as you’d expect as your project relations manager? Yet I hoped, with my playthrough, to confirm that there is still some redemption to this lukewarm bowl of lentils. Success was…exceedingly sparse.
Before we dissect this owl pellet, let’s remember two things. Firstly, this game was made back in 1992. This is prior to some of the biggest titles on the SNES and long before any of the big, ambitious games that we’d see on PCs and next-gen consoles (though this was after both Final Fantasy IV and Soul Blazer, so the excuse barely holds weight). Secondly, this isn’t even the worst Final Fantasy game anymore. You can thank Squeenix and All The Bravest for shamelessly claiming that title by successfully making an anti-RPG that is also anti-fun. So let’s strap in and see what, if any, redemptive qualities kick around in this triple decade dud.
Right from the getgo, Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest is setting out to fail. It’s like someone putting vegetable oil in their diesel engine: a ton of misinformation results in utter tragedy. Mystic Quest tells the tale of a young man who is tasked with saving the world. That is what most RPG titles tend to boil down to, but that is literally the entirety of what Mystic Quest is based on. You start off on a mountain (called the Hill of Destiny) that’s collapsing, an old man says “Look at that tower! We gotta get in there to save the world!” and then he disappears (along with the mountain).
There’s nothing clever or ironic about the formation of the story, it’s just dropping you in with a skeleton of a plot and expecting you to roll with it. When children play “introductory games” like Putt Putt Goes to the Zoo or Chex Quest, they get to experience the core of what makes their respective genres fun (clicking to solve puzzles and shooting things, respectively). Then, when they develop more mature tastes, you can take that foundation to build into a great gaming passion. Mystic Quest took the one damn thing RPGs must do well (have a story) and lobotomized it.
Additionally, the graphics are hackneyed. Developed by a Japanese team who was told to “make an RPG for the US,” they decided to go ahead and use a lot of recycled graphics and sprites from the Final Fantasy: Legend series (which, in recent re-releases, has thankfully taken back the original SaGa name) on the basis that those games had been made available in the US, and thus would be familiar. The problem is Mystic Quest wasn’t designed for classic fans, but rather new players. And they were using upgraded Gameboy sprites and graphics.
The result is something that a new player would most likely find off putting and rather strange. Why, with the great ability that the SNES has already showcased, are we using designs that look only slightly upgraded from the NES? I get wanting to play up on what you already have lying around, but when you make sloppy joes, you take the meatloaf label off the tray. If you’re recycling graphics, don’t have it look exactly like the Gameboy but in color.
There are spots in the game who’s sole purpose is grinding. Remember what I said earlier about “core experience?” Grinding is definitely a part of RPGs, but I’d like to think there’s a bit of subtlety that happens. For example, if you just stick around and beat up Rabbites in Secret of Mana, you’ll gain exp very slowly, but forging ahead to attack the evil flower things will net a much better gain. It’s a trial and error routine as you must ferret out where in the game is best for you to spend your time. Mystic Quest removes any of that and just has spots on it’s map called Battlefields, where you fight to gain experience and eventually get an item or something. If you end up getting killed in battle, you get a choice to either try the fight again or simply stop, which allows a no penalty flee, which seems insane to me. This leads into the biggest problem with Mystic Quest: it’s overall neutering.
It goes way beyond storyline (if you can believe that). In an effort to make an RPG that would be simple and inoffensive to new players, they took out anything that really makes it a Final Fantasy game. There aren’t any random encounters, you see all the monsters laid out on the screen in front of you. A battle will not begin without you initiating it. Equipment is not a matter of choice or selection, but merely a yes or no idea. If you get a new sword, goodbye old sword. No equipping it, no selling it for gold, just gone.
Magic is literally just a Black and White points system where every spell costs the same, and Cure just scales as you level up to heal more. Failing in battle usually just means unlucky RNG, so you can try again and hope you hit more than miss the second or third time around. The overworld map itself has no choices either: everything moves on a set path. You can go back to the village you went to before, just know there’s zero chance of anything exciting or unexpected happening on the way. See that cool looking forest in the distance? Think there might be some crazy monster over there? Who cares, there’s not a line to it, you aren’t finding out!
Not to mention you can save ANYWHERE. This is fine for most RPGs, but Final Fantasy in particular is known for having save spots prior to long dungeons or difficult bosses, and saving on the fly at any time seems to remove some of the stress and pressure to perform well. That and the fact that, should you fall in battle, you can instantly be reset to the start of the fight with your inventory intact and all characters revived (apparently there might be a penalty placed on the main character, but I didn’t notice it enough to care).
In short, Mystic Quest doesn’t make a great intro to RPGs, it makes a great intro to Mystic Quest. If this was my first game and I moved on to another Final Fantasy, I would feel totally up a creek. Ever done really, really well at basketball in your junior high school, the one with about 100 people, then transferred to the Chicago Public High with 5000? How’s your basketball skill then, champ? Kind of wish you were back in JHS, don’tcha? That’s the image that Mystic Quest gave me. Initially.
If Mystic Quest was released as such without the surname from it’s successful series, it would be a whole different ballgame. Part of the problem is that Final Fantasy holds a certain expectation due to branding, like BMW or gluten-free. It puts the bar impossibly high from the get go, especially since the Final Fantasy that came right before it is touted by many to be the best in the series. Ever. So there’s that.
I actually really enjoy the mix of action elements with the forced RPG. Having your main character run around and interact with the scenery using his sword, axe, claw or bomb adds a clever bit where you sometimes need to work out how you can make it to the next room or area. Being able to jump was not a new innovation to Final Fantasy (see SaGa), but it’s something that I look for in a game. Speaking as someone who never, ever stopped being frustrated at Link for not jumping (except when he’s holding a feather) this is a simple modification that adds to the game immediately.
The soundtrack is something that is universally praised in all circles, but it’s important to understand the why. Nobuo Uematsu wouldn’t put his music in this game (or wasn’t asked, it’s not clear) so it gave a couple other composers a chance to reinvent how Final Fantasy music was perceived. Ryuji Sasai and Yasuhiro Kawakami took this opportunity to try something new, something off beat, and the result was, simply, genius. They kept some of the ethereal, magical sounds that were staples (along with some ominous dark notes) but this is the first game where you really hear some driving action and guitar riffs.
The action and intensity that you hear throughout the PSX and PS2 eras of Final Fantasy were given groundwork here, at least in my opinion. There’s no vocals (we wouldn’t hear any choral singing till FFVII, and then make the tragic mistake of an idol track in FF X-2) but there’s so much innovation and heart that you can enjoy the great aural beauty that came from a not so great stage.
Despite being a much simpler, cheaper combat system (turn based instead of ATB), Mystic Quest did incorporate the visual damage element, which made life and the game itself better for all parties concerned. Instead of a static sprite representing the monster you were facing, many had two or three different damage sprites, which would switch out depending on the decreasing (or sometimes increasing) amount of health remaining.
For a player who isn’t familiar with an invisible lifebar (or people who just straight up hate them) it’s an interesting and relaxing notion to actually see the pain being inflicted on the monster taking some kind of toll. In fact, I really like the idea and wish it had been implemented in other games: it combines the exhilaration of knowing you’re so close to winning the battle with the controller shattering rage of knowing “he was almost done!” when you get your ass handed to you.
The best part about Mystic Quest, at least from the position of a JRPG fan, is being able to play the game with a sense of detached humor. Ever watch a movie because it was incredibly bad? Have you sat down and shouted along with the guys of MST3K (or Rifftrax, for the newer movies)? Then Mystic Quest has a campy appeal that may only cater to you, but it delivers in spades.
The threadbare story is kept afloat by dialogue and exchanges that fluctuate wildly from self-aware to condescending and even cheesy. One of the first conversations you have with a NPC (the awkwardly named Kaeli) involves her simply seeing a withered tree branch and announcing “OK you win” to signify that she now believes you’re the hero of the world and she’s gonna help you. That’s how bonds are made, folks. Flash decisions based on horticulture.
Mystic Quest is not a game to dive into with the hopes of an engaging, deep RPG. If you’re looking to experience the classics, please consider almost anything else. I wouldn’t recommend sitting through it and playing it ironically, because that’s a really tired and huge waste of life. But it is a memorable artifact of video game culture for both hubris, disconnect and the inexplicable charm that comes from something that was doomed to fail. It’s got grind to the nines and as much freedom as a single lane rat maze.
It honestly bores me to tears to have to be on the Battlefield, and the realization this is as linear as it gets is a depressing one. But the music is excellent, the narration is laughable, and you can bang it out in a fraction of the time that most modern Final Fantasy games demand. Consider how much your time is worth before investing, because it’s something you cannot get back. The pool is shallow, but it can be a fun swim. Once.