The Game Boy turned 25 on Monday. It released in Japan on April 21, 1989. That’s insane.
Over the course of its lifetime, four Final Fantasy games were released for the Game Boy in America, and yet, not a single one of them can be called a genuine Final Fantasy game. What kind of logic is that? Well, all were slapped with the fancy title because it was instantly more recognizable than their Japanese counterparts at the time.
Final Fantasy Legend, a series made up of three games, is actually Square’s SaGa series in disguise. Its 1989 release makes it the second oldest active franchise in Square’s library, after Final Fantasy, and one of the longest running to date with nine games to its name. Only a handful have ever made it to the states, where it enjoys the most polarizing reviews of any Square series. Some hate it with a passion, and others love its off the wall ideas. I fall into the latter and never hesitate to declare myself a fan.
Before we begin, here is a quick history lesson. Designer Akitoshi Kawazu made quite a few liberal choices with Final Fantasy II, and his decisions caused it to become far less approachable than its popular pick-up-and-play predecessor. Nowadays, most Final Fantasy fans rank it among the worst games in the series, and I will agree. However, without Final Fantasy II‘s failure, we would have never gotten the SaGa series. A silver lining if I’ve ever seen one.
Square couldn’t possibly put Kawazu in charge of another Final Fantasy game and see it suffer the same fate. Rather than sacking him, Square thought of the genius idea to keep him far from the development of Final Fantasy III and put him in charge of this new Game Boy platform Nintendo had cooked up just a year earlier. He was an experimental thinker, and if anyone could get the most out of the tech, it was him.
This is why Final Fantasy III plays so much more similarly to the original, and the Game Boy SaGa series plays more like Final Fantasy II.
The Final Fantasy Legend (1989)
So, The Final Fantasy Legend isn’t exactly the most popular game in Square’s library. It ranks among the bottom of the series with a 48 percent aggregate score at Gamerankings, and it’s so stupidly old and obscure that Metacritic doesn’t even have a page for it. Still, this game is groundbreaking for being the first portable RPG on a handheld gaming console.
For what it’s worth, The Final Fantasy Legend is not all that bad. It’s certainly easier to list all the reasons why this game fails rather than why it is good. It requires a lot of grinding. It’s too hard, and you can easily save yourself into an inescapable situation. Humans gain stats randomly. Weapons have limited use before they break. Mutants learn and forget spells randomly and without notice. Monsters are just a hair shy of being completely useless.
At first glance, Final Fantasy Legend does not have a lot going for it, but if you take a step back, you’ll realize there is an enjoyable experience underneath it all. All of the flaws can be worked around with a little digging, and once you get over the initial difficulty curb, you can create an absolutely destructive cast of characters who can equip laser swords, bazookas, nuclear missiles, and a whole host of other wonderful means of violence.
More importantly, though, as often with goes with the SaGa series, its style is something of an enigma. The game takes place over several worlds, each with an episodic plot that has nothing to do with the world before it. You’ll be fighting to rescue a kidnapped cyclops-lizard princess on one planet before battling apocalyptic biker gangs on the next. These worlds are connected through a core central tower which rises all the way to heaven, at the end of which, you’ll be forced to fight God with your overpowered squad of adventurers.
There is nothing quite like The Final Fantasy Legend. Not before it, since it was the first portable RPG, and only a single sequel to follow up on its ideas. Given another chance, Akitoshi Kawazu put a lot more thought into his vision of an RPG, and he delivered a much more satisfying game the second time around.
Final Fantasy Legend II (1990)
This is the best game in the Final Fantasy Legend series. It’s still chaotic and random by nature, but Kawazu was able to correct his wrongs by streamlining the chaos into a much more accessible game without sacrificing the soul of the original.
Human stats still improve on the game’s whim, but you have a bit more say in their growth with the character’s equipment. The game actually notifies you if a mutant learned a spell, and you can directly influence which spells he learns and forgets. Monsters have a useful role in the game this time around, but I’ve never used them thanks to this game introducing robots, which are far more versatile and useful in combat.
On the grand story scheme, the episodic scenarios between the worlds in the centralized tower connect far more coherently to tell a more fulfilling tale. Four youths from a lower world rise the ranks to challenge Odin, the God responsible for killing the protagonist’s father. Together, these youths bring their fight to Odin’s minions to collect MAGI, crystals which give them magical abilities and allow them to travel between worlds.
It’s not too far of a stretch from the previous game, but the attention to detail and actually giving some context makes all the difference in the world. Final Fantasy Legends II has been sited by the Pokemon team as being a huge inspiration for figuring out how to make a portable RPG “work,” and you really get a sense that this is the vision Akitoshi Kawazu had been seeking all along.
In fact, the game is still so popular that it received a Japan-only remake for the Nintendo DS called SaGa2 The Treasure Legend ~ Goddess of Destiny. Fan translations do exist, so check it out if you want. Be sure to take the high road and import the real thing first, though.
Final Fantasy Legends 2 finally showed to Square that Akitoshi Kawazu could make a brilliant game if given the proper tools, and he graduated from Game Boy purgatory to take his SaGa series to the much more advanced Super Famicom system. However, Square couldn’t just let this momentum come to a crashing halt.
Final Fantasy Legend 3 (1991)
The SaGa series continued on the Game Boy, but in this case, only by name. Akitoshi Kawazu took no part in its development as he was working on Romancing SaGa at the time, and his absence clearly shows because this game tosses out all the quirkiness which makes his games so unique.
There really isn’t too much to say about this one other than it is so different from its predecessor by being the same as everything else. You can tell the team behind it, the guys who would go on to make the maligned Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest, could wrap their brains around the aesthetics and scratch the surface of SaGa’s themes, but they missed out on all the behind-the-scene ideas, turning more to Dragon Quest and its infinite chasm of clones for inspiration.
Four youths travel across time and space to battle Gods, so we are off to a decent start on the plot already, but in this game, the character cast is set rather than allowing you to choose a team. What about my monsters and robots? More noticeably, the characters gain levels rather than the random stats growth of the previous games. Eww, what is this, Final Fantasy or something?
Plus, the monster art also resembles that found in Mystic Quest as well, a step down from the previous games’.
Not to say that Final Fantasy Legend III is a terrible game, because it’s not all that bad. The story is decent enough, and in fact, if you are new to the series and want to jump into the good old black and white days, I might even recommend this as the perfect entry level game because of how easy it is to get your mind around. Its legacy continues as a competent game that just doesn’t take any of the risks which made its peers so memorable.
Final Fantasy Adventure (1991)
Coming off the tail end of Square’s Final Fantasy run on the Game Boy is a game that actually is a Final Fantasy game. It is a common mistake to think that this game is not Final Fantasy but rather the first game in Square’s Mana (Seiken Densetsu) series, but in fact, both statements are true. The full Japanese title is Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden, showing that it is both the first Mana game and a side-entry in the Final Fantasy series.
And why wouldn’t it be? Final Fantasy Adventure is home to loads of classic Final Fantasy imagery and themes. Chocobos, black mages, Moogles, everything you’d have come to expect from a Final Fantasy game appears in Final Fantasy Adventure.
At the same time, this game is also home to its own ideas, which is why Square was able to easily make a new series from it. Candy replaces potions as healing items. Rabites replace goblins and slimes as the weakest enemies. Rather than elemental crystals, the story’s mythology revolves around a life giving tree. And of course, the game is a straight up action game more similar to Zelda rather than other games in the Final Fantasy series.
All of these great ideas come together for one of the most fantastic games on the Game Boy. I love everything about Final Fantasy Adventure, so much so that I named it my fourth favorite game in the overall series. I love its sense of atmosphere and story, its minimalist localization, its genuinely emotional moments of sacrifice and sadness, its huge arsenal of weapons and magic.
Throughout the entire game, there is an ever looming sense of dread and despair that your hero just can’t seem to get out from under, and its a feeling that Square Enix still struggles to replicate with all the technology of the modern world. Final Fantasy XIII can’t even touch this minimalist masterpiece’s sense of atmosphere.
In his directorial debut, Koichii Ishi got just as much out of the Game Boy hardware as Akitoshi Kawazu was able to get for Final Fantasy Legend II, only it took him just one attempt to do so. Square didn’t waste any time in putting him to work on the Super Nintendo, and he cast aside Final Fantasy to use his own ideas in creating one of the most enduring Super Nintendo classics of all time, Secret of Mana.
For Game Boy Final Fantasy games, Final Fantasy Adventure is definitely the place to start for overall enjoyment and accessibility. Don’t bother with the Game Boy Advance remake, Sword of Mana, because it’s a doozy with dialogue that drags on way too long. This black and white masterpiece is worlds better.
Severed Ties, WonderSwan, and Friends Again
After these four games, Square never again utilized Nintendo’s popular handheld. As the game developer grew in popularity, its ego began rubbing against Nintendo’s draconian hold of the industry, and neither would give an inch to the other. Relationships became strained, names were called, ties were broken, and luckily, the PlayStation was there to scoop up Square and take it to levels in the late 1990s that Nintendo could only dream of.
Of course, Sony had no handheld console at the time, and Square wasn’t about to go back on its hands and knees begging Nintendo to let them make Final Fantasy games for the Game Boy Color. Instead, it turned to Bandai and supported the WonderSwan. It went so far as to create perfect ports and remakes of its Nintendo console classics and bundle them together with the failing handheld.
The WonderSwan croaked after just a few short years, and with nowhere else to turn on the handheld market, the newly formed Square Enix sunk its head and returned to Nintendo to develop for the booming Game Boy Advance. The deal secured Nintendo Final Fantasy Tactics Advance and also got landed it an exclusive GameCube game, Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles. Both are nice little games, proving that everything is best if we all just get along.
Thanks for letting me reminisce about Square and Final Fantasy‘s outing on the Game Boy for the handheld console’s 25th birthday. My only wish is that all four, or at least Final Fantasy Legends II and Final Fantasy Adventure, will be available on the Nintendo 3DS Virtual Console sooner rather than later. They are both marvelous games that should be more accessible to future generations.
I’ll be back more tomorrow with more nostalgic ramblings from another favorite Game Boy game designer.