I've been around the JRPG genre long enough to know what I like. Walking into the Peachtree City Microplay back in the mid-1990s and randomly renting a game titled Final Fantasy III forever altered the course of my gaming career. To this day, I am comfortable in saying that if I ever had to pick up gaming as a part time hobby to focus on kids, jobs, and other adult responsibilities, I would gladly throw away what the future has to offer and live the rest of my life happily playing only my sentimental JRPG favorites.
Without question, it was thanks to the Super Nintendo's epic lineup of Final Fantasy II, Final Fantasy III, Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG, and Lufia 2: Rise of the Sinistrals
There are others, too, that I love. One is the most reviled JRPG on the Super Nintendo and considered a smear mark on a beloved franchise. The other is a game so obscure that even its publisher forgets to acknowledge it whenever it brings up its JRPG history.
These two games are Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest and Tecmo Secret of the Stars. Two games the world tossed aside, two games that aren't all that fun to play, but two games I will cherish until the day I leave this Earth.
The perfect summer vacation
Now, I want to make it perfectly clear that in no way can I possibly look at these games objectively. I played them at the age of 12, the perfect age to fall in love with anything, and was relatively fresh to the genre, still picking up the rules and tendencies between what made a game "good" and "bad." I didn't know about pacing, grinding, or battle systems just yet.
All I had was a fantasy world in front of me and the free reign to explore.
I also played these games over the course of the 1997 summer vacation at my grandparents' house in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, free to do whatever I wanted without a care in the world. I brought my Super Nintendo with me, and I spent one of the best summers of my life rolling in video games and planting the seeds for my love of JRPGs
The first of these games I played was Tecmo Secret of the Stars. I only had a few Super Nintendo cartridges at the time, and after blowing through A Link to the Past in the first few days of my trip, my grandmother took me to a rental shop converted from an old farm house. I knew I wanted an RPG, and I ended up renting this game because I liked the cover.
I was a child raised on airbrushed Disney VHS boxes. Of course these goofy kids stood out to me!
I was hooked immediately. Tecmo Secret of the Stars stars a young boy named Ray who must gather a group of orphaned youths, children of the Aqutallion Warriors, and save the world from the evil Homncruse. Yes, Tom Cruise. I thought that was hilarious for an entire summer.
Right off the bat, Tecmo Secret of the Stars shows its hand at why it could be mistaken for nothing more than a generic Dragon Quest clone. Goofy translation choices and weird dungeon themes litter what could be the most cliched story in history, but even just an hour in, these oddities unfold to reveal what makes this game special.
Tecmo Secret of the Stars takes players from a fantasy overworld to mechanical dungeons run by mad scientists, haunted circuses to rescue a lion, terrorist bases, depressing slums, a city in the clouds populated by bunny girls, and yes, even to the stars of outer space! The first boss fight takes place in a volcano against a rabid feline named Cat Boo, a nuisance to Ray's locals. An exhausting overarching story is saved by the individual quirks and themes in this really weird game.
I mean, Uncle Save? That's just messed up to a cynical adult! But to an innocent 12-year-old kid, meh. It's all part of a story, and I absorbed it with unrelenting enthusiasm.
You would be mistaken for not seeing this game as a trailblazer though because it introduced plenty of concepts that would catch on in later JRPGs. Released in 1993 in Japan, Tecmo Secret of the Stars most notably beat Chrono Trigger out the door in terms of combination attacks. Yes, a whole two years before Lucca and Frog, Ray and his Aqutallion squad were performing fire/ice attacks and rendering elemental damage upon swords and spears.
Tecmo also introduced the ideas of multiple parties and optional characters. Ray and the Aqutallions could seek out the aid of the Kustera, a band of warriors who take on the roles of knights, wizards, priests, and the typical JRPG job classes.
A quick swap from the menu opened up a whole new team to challenge dungeons and find unique treasures with. Only the Aqutallions could take on the story driven boss fights, though.
Of course, two parties means twice the amount of grinding, and in that regard, Tecmo Secret of the Stars is a slog. Again, not knowing a thing about pacing and having an entire summer to blow on video games, I didn't care one bit about this, but nowadays, I don't think I would have the patience to tackle this game again.
Tecmo Secret of the Stars was released in 1995 in North America, and putting it next to Chrono Trigger, also released in 1995, makes it all too obvious why nobody played this game. It's a relic of graphical decisions and a holdover from the earlier days of the console, long before Square and the companies who actually knew how to utilize JRPG graphics perfected the art.
But still, there is an old school sense of charm to Tecmo Secret of the Stars, and that's what originally turned me on to it. Long before I was required to objectively look at titles, I could just lose myself to boring games like this, and it was fantastic. I didn't beat the game either that summer after getting stuck looking for a bomb salesman cleverly hidden behind a wall in the game's biggest city.
I can also remember later that summer, I was talking to a cousin's friend who bragged about playing every JRPG on the Super Nintendo. Afterwards, I busted out my copy, which the rental store sold to my grandmother as nobody had ever rented it before, and his story quickly changed to "every GOOD JRPG on the Super Nintendo." Owned so hard…
The worst Final Fantasy? Hardly!
The other game I picked up later that summer was Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest, a game that gets an unwarranted and psychotic amount of hate. Just to be clear, I was already a fan of Final Fantasy before playing this. Even with both of the Super Nintendo games under my belt, I still enjoyed this game immensely.
One of the more obvious facts of life is that gamers are proud of their hobby and don't like to be disrespected with kid gloves. Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest was created by Square to be a sort of introduction JRPG for newcomers, prepping them for the genre's incoming decade of dominance, and for that reason, gamers hate it. Not because it is a bad game, but because its mere existence is a slight against their pride.
Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest stars Benjamin, a wandering warrior who travels to the four corners of the Earth to… of course, save it from an ultimate evil. He travels to countries representing the four elements of air, water, fire, and trees, and in each region, he partners up with a local to crash through the dungeons and restore the population's lost elements.
For every reason this game gets poo-pooed on, I can point to a reasoning for how it is "different" rather than "bad." The game only has a small selection of armor and weapons to choose from? Well, it's more like a Metroidvania in that sense really, stumbling across treasures that only serve to make Benjamin more powerful. Defense and status protections also stack, meaning he's totally indestructible by the end of the game and able to take and dish out an absurd amount of damage and negative effects.
Sorry, but that's awesome.
Battles are not random, and they must be activated by running into enemies or accessing tiles on the world map? I thought we all hated random battles nowadays. Maybe Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest was a bit ahead of the curve in that regard.
It's too short? Sign me up! I need a break from these long games.
And how can you not love this title screen music? Even the haters agree that Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest's soundtrack is pretty rockin'.
Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest stole my heart with its simple charms and lightning-fast pace. 12-year-old Ron recognized that the world was much more condensed, the first sign that I was catching onto differences in these games, and I loved that I could blaze through a few dungeons in between my Tecmo Secret of the Stars grinding sessions.
I was also fascinated by the subcast, all of whom had a lot more personality than Benjamin. Reuban, the fire kid, was my favorite, but Tristam wielded an awesome claw that could hookshot across gaps! I mean, who needs character depth when you can do that? People have loved Link for years!
Even fifteen games later and having much more knowledge about the series than I did then, I still can't see this as a bad game. Different? Easy? Short? Shallow? Yes, but definitely not bad. Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest has a lot going for it, even if it isn't the most loyal to its franchise's traditions.
Is it okay to be so blatantly bias?
There you have it. Two games many either despise or never heard of, and two games that are inseparable from my past. The highlight of one of the happiest summers of my life, before things like high school and hormones began eating away at my soul, turning me from an angsty teen into the cynical old git I am today.
Again, I can't pretend to be objective towards these games because it is impossible for me, but nor do I feel inclined to try. They are two of my favorite games of all time because of this one personal experience that only I am able to recall and cherish. Nobody else.
And that's okay. I've noticed a lot over the last decade or so that nostalgia has come under attack as something negative and something that should be kept to yourself. Like I said, gamers tend to dismiss anything that challenges their knowledge and pride, and anything that makes them feel like they are on the outside looking in counters their delusions of grandeur and personal view that they are, indeed, a master expert at what they do.
But I digress. Like music and movies, video games are a form of entertainment, and like all forms of entertainment, they perform the exact task that they are supposed to: generate an emotional response. Anger, sadness, happiness, excitement, and yes… nostalgia.
If I pick up Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest or Tecmo Secret of the Stars this very day and play them simply for the sake of putting myself in the mindset of 12-year-old Ron in the Lehigh Valley, that is no less legitimate of a reason to play video games than a gamer blasting through Halo 5: Guardians for a third time to score 35,000 gamerscore on his Xbox Live account.
This is not a science. This is a social experience, a hobby, an endeavor to open the doors and accept that people are allowed to have their own unique visions. Being objective is important, or else we'll always be living in a fantasy world, but it is also boring. Just as boring as expecting us all to experience and enjoy games the same way. No, thank you. I would have dropped this hobby long ago if that was the case.
I am totally biased in looking at two of the Super Nintendo's worst JRPGs because I choose to be. Nostalgia, folks.