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Making Time: Final Fantasy Adventure

This is Making Time, a column about the games we've always wanted to play, and the games we've always wanted to play again.

We all have to start somewhere. Yoshinori Kitase has been, more or less, the man in charge of the Final Fantasy series since 1994. Kitase directed the operatic Final Fantasy VI, the gluttonous sc-fi epic Final Fantasy VII, the romantic head-trips Final Fantasy VIII and X, and he's been the producer of the entire hallucinatory Fabula Nova Crystalis pantheon, including Final Fantasy XIII. At this point Final Fantasy is as much Kitase's baby as it was that of Hironobu Sakaguchi, Nobuo Uematsu, and Yoshitaka Amano back on the NES.

Back in 1991, though, Kitase started his career with Square on a very different project. He was the designer and writer of Final Fantasy Adventure for Nintendo's old black and white Game Boy. The project's original name was Seiken Densetsu, the predecessor to what we in the U.S. know as Secret of Mana. What's fascinating about Kitase's debut is how it bears all his idiosyncrasies all in one primitive package.

Nearly a quarter century later, it's still worth playing, and I say that having only just gotten around to it. The original Final Fantasy Adventure is tricky to play, as it's one of the classic Squaresoft games that have never been properly re-released. (At least the proper Game Boy version. It's been remade twice, on GBA in 2003 and for Japanese cell phones in 2006.) Pop that cartridge into any model of Game Boy, though, and the game immediately evokes the sort of melancholic fantasy that became the Mana series' trademark. This is thanks to composer Kenji Ito's theme song playing over the title screen, a lilting melody that's sweetly sad and a far cry for the sort of booming heroic tunes that typified this sort of game back in '91. It also puts you in just the right mindset for what is often a forlorn experience.

Kitase pulls no punches at the beginning. Final Fantasy IV, the tent pole 1991 RPG from Square released just a month after Final Fantasy Adventure, won itself many a teary-eyed fan when characters like Porom and Polom nobly sacrificed themselves in the story. Death, real death, wasn't a common occurrence in console games at the time. Final Fantasy Adventure is downright brutal, though. The main character – you name him whatever you please a la most RPGs of the era – starts the game as an enslaved gladiator, fighting for the pleasure of the evil ruler Dark Lord. After a quick fight against a giant bear-looking monster, the hero's best friend in the world dies, imploring you to seek out the Gemma Knights to save the world-sustaining Mana Tree. That's some stone cold business, game, enslaving your lead and killing his pals in the first few seconds!

That vibe of desperate fantasy, akin to the work of Conan the Barbarian creator Robert E. Howard, is prevalent throughout the game as a whole, far more so than the brighter, sillier Secret of Mana that followed. After the hero escapes and meets up with the game's other lead, a mysterious woman you also have to name and who is the key to saving the Mana Tree, there's never a moment where these two aren't getting kicked down, when they can regroup and go on a heroic offensive. Escaping from the castle leads into Adventure's over-world, then directly to a castle ruled by a vampire who immediately kidnaps your female companion. Then it's out into the world to hunt down a mirror that reveals the true form of monsters. That's how things go in Adventure, from one nasty scenario to the next.

Overcoming each challenge feels just right, though. Unlike other Final Fantasy games, Adventure struck a balance between strict role-playing conventions and more active adventures, particularly The Legend of Zelda. Borrowing the same maze-like screen-by-screen layout of Zelda, Adventure typically locks you into one area until you complete a story-centric dungeon and find a new weapon to help you proceed. You need to find an axe to chop down trees, the chain to pull yourself between mountain gaps, etc. It's simpler than Secret of Mana or Seiken Densetsu 3, but the exploration also feels nicely naturalistic. The barriers to progress are basic, but they never feel contrived. The action also feels nice and chunky, with a light selection of weapons and spells keeping things uncluttered. You're regularly partnered with an AI companion as well, another feature that became a series signature.

For a first game, Kitase's design and writing feel remarkably confident and forward thinking. He was building on the emotional framework Sakaguchi had established in the main Final Fantasy series, but he was also flexing his signature style at the same time. That the hero flat out refuses to be the hero later on, desperate for somebody else to constantly get beaten down by monsters for the sake of humanity, echoes the themes he'd return to again and again in his numbered Final Fantasy games. Adventure's heart shines through even its antiquated, sometimes goofily broken dialogue as well ("The entrance for the monsters leads to outside. Take your chance!"). When you lose even more companions later in the game, it actually hits home, never feeling overly melodramatic (Final Fantasy X) or inscrutable (Final Fantasy XIII).

Cartridges of Final Fantasy Adventure aren't especially rare or expensive these days, thankfully, so anyone with a Game Boy (Pocket, Color, Advance, or even Player plugged into a GameCube) can get their hands on it with little trouble. As a Nintendo 3DS Virtual Console release, it's a good candidate, but it's probably not wise to hold your breath waiting for it. If you're in the mood for a sweet downer action RPG with solid action and great music, it's wonderful. As a document of one of Final Fantasy's most significant creators, it's essential.

Images: Final Fantasy Wiki and The Game Boy Colorization Project

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