Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Final Fantasy Mystic Quest as an Entry-Level RPG

This one's for you, Trippy.

Final Fantasy Mystic Quest: that infamous black mark on the Final Fantasy legacy, that really shouldn’t be so famous for being the black sheep of the franchise when Final Fantasy also encompasses equally bad titles like Final Fantasy 5 and 12, and even titles that are far worse, like Final Fantasy 8 or 10-2. Ugh, Final Fantasy 10-2. Even after all these years, just remembering it makes my brain start to dry heave. Brains aren’t even supposed to be able to do that, but mine’s trying pretty damn hard.

Anyway, FF Mystic Quest is widely viewed as pretty bad. But not everyone agrees. There are some people who argue that to judge Final Fantasy Mystic Quest poorly is to judge the game unfairly, for Final Fantasy Mystic Quest was not meant so much as a full-fledged RPG in its own right as it was meant to be an entry level game, something that newcomers to RPGs could play and use to get into the genre. It’s meant to be facile. Squaresoft made it with the idea that most of the American audience couldn’t handle the complexities of a regular RPG and needed to be eased into the genre rather than treated as equals to the primary gamer market of Japan. This line of reasoning is also why Square adjusted Final Fantasy 4 at the time (released as FF2, since the actual FF2 and 3 didn’t hit the US until many years later) to be generally simpler, with many battle commands, items, and even an entire version of the battle system removed in order to make the game far less mentally taxing for all us poor, stupid Americans who just couldn’t handle the complexity of a real JRPG.

Never mind, of course, the fact that the Japanese RPG’s origin is that it’s the hugely dumbed-down appropriation of the concept of tabletop RPGs, games which by and large are invented by and played by Americans.

Anyway, putting aside the irony of Square thinking it needed to simplify the genre for the audience that it adapted and dumbed down the genre from to begin with, this argument by FFMQ defenders is kinda bullshit. I mean, what they’re basically saying here is that we shouldn’t judge FFMQ harshly for being stupid because it was designed to be stupid out of the belief that the people playing it would be stupid. So I’m supposed to give the game a break because its entire design concept is an insult to my intelligence? Seriously?

But let’s put the insulting nature of FFMQ aside for a moment. Let’s pretend that the insult is not there, solely for the sake of argument. Should we be more accommodating to Mystic Quest’s simplicity? Should we change our expectations from an RPG if it’s specifically meant to be an entry-level RPG?

I generally try to keep a stern outlook when it comes to quality. I’m very leery of accepting inferior quality in an RPG just because of mitigating circumstances. I mean, circumstantial excuses or not, a bad game’s priced at the same general range as a good game. It may be that much of the reason that Final Fantasy 12 is a boring mess can be summed up by the phrase, “Too many cooks spoil the, it doesn’t help if you let the marketing department defecate in the pot,” but just because there’s a reason for the lack of quality, that doesn’t forgive it. I sure as hell didn’t pay any less for FF12 than I did many other Playstation 2 RPGs that WERE good games.

Still, I can understand that there are times when adjusting one’s expectations is a necessity to being fair. If an RPG comes from the early days of home consoles, I’m less demanding of its plot and cast simply because the idea of video games as a storytelling medium was still in its infancy. Given the time in which it was created, I quite respect the quality of Phantasy Star 1 as an RPG, because back in those days, a story and setting with some depth, and a halfway individualized cast, was an unexpected pushing of the envelope. If PS1 came out today, I would play it and think it was okay, but that would be all. It wouldn’t make much of an impression. Similarly, when I’m playing an RPG clearly made to be a humorous game more than anything else, I forgive a certain amount of nonsense and/or aimlessness, because the purpose is to make the audience laugh more than to convey any deeper message. As long as the game does that well enough, it doesn’t need to do too much more.*

But here’s the problem with softening your expectations for Final Fantasy Mystic Quest due to its status as an entry-level RPG: as an entry-level RPG, it’s still a shitty game.

What is an entry-level RPG supposed to do, exactly? What is this purpose it fulfills that we are meant to judge it more softly in exchange for? It’s supposed to ease a new audience into the RPG genre, get them to like the style of a Role Playing Game and entice them to buy more RPGs in the future. Well, guess what? They’re less likely to want to play more RPGs if the first one they experience bores them out of their minds!

You’re reading this blog, so I’m assuming you’re a fan of RPGs, yes? Well, what was the game that got you into the genre? Was it Chrono Trigger? Final Fantasy 4? Final Fantasy 6? Final Fantasy 7? One of the Fallouts? Dragon Age 1? One of the Kingdom Hearts series? A Phantasy Star title? Maybe it was something a little more obscure--but I’ll bet that it was enjoyable, right? You didn’t become a fan of the RPG genre based on your early experience with an RPG that you didn’t find entertaining.

I know which RPG it was for me that got me completely devoted to the genre. Chrono Trigger, all the way. I’d had some RPGs before it, like Secret of Mana and The Magic of Scheherazade, and I had enjoyed them well enough, but it was Chrono Trigger that completely drew me in with its engaging and wonderful plot, diverse and colorful characters, and terrific creativity. Also, not that it mattered to me, but Chrono Trigger is not a very difficult RPG, gameplay-wise. But that’s not because it was purposefully designed with the idea that the player was dropped as an infant, it’s just that the battle system its developers intended is easy to pick up on and work with.

That’s what makes for a good entry-level RPG: an engaging, fun game that makes you want to come back to the genre. Chrono Trigger showcased the great potential of the RPG, and seeing what good the genre was capable of through this example was what pushed me to sample more. And yes, it’s good if an entry RPG is simple enough that a newcomer can get the hang of it without struggling too much, but most RPGs just naturally are, anyway. But if you dumb down the plot just as much as you dumb down the gameplay, as FFMQ did, you’re just removing anything someone could enjoy from the damn game!

Hell, I actually did own Final Fantasy Mystic Quest before I owned Chrono Trigger, and I had no interest in it. It was easy enough to play, but by the point in the game where you meet Phoebe, I just got too bored of it to continue. I put it away and only bothered to finish the game years later, long after I was on my way to being an RPG fanatic. When I say that Final Fantasy Mystic Quest isn’t even a good entry-level RPG, that isn’t conjecture--I’m a bonafide test case to prove it! If FFMQ had been the only chance the genre had of courting my interests, “The RPGenius” would never have come into being, this rant blog would never have existed, and we’d all be doing something far more productive right now!

Simplicity is less important than just being an entertaining, enjoyable game when you’re trying to hook someone into becoming a regular customer. You have to actually impress them, show your prospective audience the highlights of your product. Think of it this way. Let’s say that you’re taking your friend out to a new restaurant that serves exotic cuisine, with the intent of getting this amigo of yours into this food style. In order to accomplish this, what do you suggest they order? Obviously, you suggest items that you know taste good and exemplify some of the signatures of this style of cuisine. You’re trying to show the unique traits of the food, in a way that’s pleasing and makes your friend want to try more later.

Well, according to Final Fantasy Mystic Quest and people who defend it as an adequate entry-level RPG, that’s doing it wrong. The right way is to order your friend the menu items that are the easiest to chew. In fact, ideally, you’d just skip the eating process altogether by sticking a needle in your friend and feeding him/her intravenously. Because the important thing in hooking a new audience isn’t that you show them that they can enjoy a sample of your product--it’s that it be as simple and mundane as possible so that it does not challenge them in any way.

So that’s why when I say Final Fantasy Mystic Quest is a lousy RPG, I mean it. Being boring, generic, facile, and entirely unengaging are not traits excused by a game being an entry-level RPG; they’re actually more damning because of it!

* It does bear mentioning, though, that a humor RPG may not HAVE to contain any deep story or meaning to be good, but there is absolutely nothing preventing it from possessing those elements. I may find Barkley: Shut Up and Jam Gaiden to be a hilarious, fun game and would heartily recommend it, but the comical Okage: Shadow King is easily a superior RPG. Why? Because while Okage: Shadow King keeps you laughing nearly as well as Barkley: Shut Up and Jam Gaiden does, it’s OSK that hides within its chuckles a sincere and inspirational story of the need for independence from parental god figures and of the worth and power of individuality. Similarly, Earthbound and Mother 3 both employ the exact same wacky, off-beat style to amuse, but it’s Mother 3 that uses that style as a way to ease you through, and yet at the same time enhance the pain of, a very emotional and difficult story of loss, deep loss of both personal and conceptual things, and so I believe Mother 3 is by far the greater RPG.

It’s like cartoons, really. You can slap together something animated for kids and have it be passable, but as Batman: The Animated Series, Gargoyles, Hey! Arnold, Avatar: The Last Airbender, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, The Legend of Korra, and several other shows prove, something that is appropriate for children does not have to be something that an adult audience can’t find value and enjoyment in. Being aimed at a young audience never stopped these cartoons I've mentioned from being quality entertainment, works of storytelling art that easily equal and surpass the huge majority of shows specifically targeted to adults.


  1. I kinda like FFMQ for some reason it wasn't my first JRPG by any means but I suppose I just have some weird tastes.

    But I do think it's funny that Square thought us Americans were so dumb that they made FFMQ/USA(in japan)...even though as you already said JRPGs were based off of things such as Wizardry Ultima D&D ect ect.

    1. And don't forget that those base RPGs like Wizardry, Ultima, and particularly Dungeons + Dragons were more complicated than the standard JRPG that Squaresoft wanted to protect us from.

    2. And don't forget that Seiken Densetsu 3 and Final Fantasy V were clearly too difficult for Western gamers. SD3 may be a bit obtuse at times, but both games are legitimate greats.

      Wizardry. Fuck highwaymen.