Final Fantasy Legend II (1): When complex and difficult are a game’s middle names

My thirst for retro games, which was awakened by my playthrough of Final Fantasy I, is not quenched yet. It’s quite the opposite, in fact: peeking into that world of past glories revealed a whole richness of games to savour—to my uttermost delight, shall I say. Those wide 8-bit pastures may be a tad dry now, but they are still enticing for a European gamer that unfortunately missed many of the best releases of that time—one of those best releases being Final Fantasy Legend II

Final Fantasy Legend II was developed and published by Square, and was released in 1990(jp) and 1991(na) on the original Game Boy; like many RPGs of that time, it never reached European shores. Despite its name, it has nothing to do with the mythical ongoing RPG series that famously rescued Square from bankruptcy a few decades ago—so much so that it is more like the polar opposite of Final Fantasy, if anything. But more one that later. FFL2 is actually the second installment of an independent series, and the fact that it is misleadingly named after the Final Fantasy series in North-America is the result of a not-so-subtle marketing ploy from Square: by tying that brand-new game series to the respectfully successful Final Fantasy series, they could expect a good reception and increased sales. (The first game of the Seiken series famously received the same treatment and was renamed Final Fantasy Adventure for its north-American release.) Anyway, Final Fantasy this is not: the original name of FFL2 is SaGa 2: Hihou Densetsu, i.e. SaGa 2: The Treasure Legend

The SaGa series is a highly interesting one that deserves a bit of development. Born in 1989 with the release of Makai Toushi SaGa on the Game Boy (rebranded The Final Fantasy Legend in North-America), it counts nine games, spans three generations of consoles and is still ongoing nowadays, albeit at a quite placid pace. What fascinates me the most about SaGa is the fact that despite boasting some respectable longevity and being the offspring of the highly respected Square, it has always been a very confidential, nearly underground series as far as the West is concerned, never reaching the peaks of fame claimed by other Square offerings like the Final Fantasy and Seiken Densetsu series. However, SaGa is quite popular in its home country, which prompted Square Enix to release DS remakes of FFL2 and its sequel, the aptly (re)named Final Fantasy Legend III, in 2009 and 2011—needless to say, these remakes never graced our shores and probably never will. Oh, well. Anyway, the idea of discovering a relatively unknown offering from Square is a strangely compelling one: how on earth can a two-decades-old series from one of the most renowned game developer under the Eastern gaming sun be so utterly confidential? Well, there could actually very good reasons for that, if the whole series follows the template and philosophy of FFL2.

It’s hard nowadays to find any relevant information about the rationale at work behind the creation of the SaGa series in the late 80’s; but I wouldn’t be overly surprised if the series had been devised from the get-go as a polar opposite of the Final Fantasy series. The first two installments of Square’s most famous and beloved franchise had been released by then, to great critical acclaim, and they had established a template of sorts for the series they belonged to—as well as for the 8-bit RPG realm as a whole, for that matter. A rather simplistic template it was, however, that didn’t allow for much complexity and non-linearity, but was so successful that it was unthinkable to alter it in any significant way in future installments. If Square wanted to indulge into developing a more elaborate and layered gameplay, the only alternative was to create new series with different rules; and this is very likely how the SaGa series was born in 1989. 

FFL2 is so radically different from Final Fantasy that it nearly comes across as a tongue-in-cheek parody of Square’s ubiquitous bankruptcy-rescuing series, a light-hearted attempt at subversion that gently takes the piss out of everything Final Fantasy stands for. The decision to rebrand the game as a Final Fantasy-related offering involuntarily adds an extra layer of irony to the situation; I smile ruefully while thinking of all the poor souls who purchased this game while expecting an experience similar to FF1 or FF2. Whether they ended up being supremely disappointed or pleasantly surprised is left in the limbos of video game history, but one thing is sure: what you’ll get by playing FFL2 is an experience like no other, even to this day. 

Before diving into analysis, I feel compelled to express my innermost feelings about that game. To put it simply, I really adored FFL2. It provided me with a game experience much deeper than I had expected—in fact, it’s fairer to say that I was amazed by this game’s unexpected depth and elated by its sheer originality. I certainly got more than I bargained for in these two departments, as well as in others, including head-scratching complexity and nerve-racking difficulty; but more on that later. 

When it comes to graphics, the game is decent enough and on par with the releases of that time, at least when outdoors are concerned. Indoors visibly got a bit more love: some temples are particularly beautiful with a high level of detail, and they manage to create a truly engrossing atmosphere; the gateway between the different sections of the game world is also quite stellar, in more ways than one. It’s also worth noting that despite being mostly unspectacular graphically, FFL2 is totally devoid of any kind of glitch in that department: there is not the slightest hint of flickering—an affliction that famously plagues other Game Boy cult classics of that time, like Ducktales or Gargoyle’s Quest— nor is there any kind of slowdown or skipped notes in the music. And talking about the music, it’s just splendid. The main theme, which is called “The Legacy” and plays when you’re roaming the overworld, is a gorgeous and intoxicating piece of ear candy that gloriously evokes a sense of freedom and adventure. The rest of the soundtrack is fantastic too, with themes offering a wide variety of moods ranging from peaceful to uneasy and stressed. There is a certain grandeur to that soundtrack, which doesn’t feature any cheesy, bouncy or mellow track: your typical village theme, for instance, is totally absent, and you instead keep hearing the heroic notes of “The Legacy” every time you set foot in a town. All in all, when it comes to the overall presentation, this game is a typical 8-bit offering, albeit with a top-class music that shines despite the technical limitations of that time. It has this very special 8-bit charm that retro gamers love so much and that can hardly be described in words: an enticing blend of forced simplicity and ravenous enthusiasm to always try new things. And try new things it did, indeed: if FFL2 hardly pushed graphical and sonic boundaries except in a few selected spots, it certainly did so when it comes to gameplay, o yes precious. 

I’d love to elaborate on this boundary-pushing, but I won’t do so right now. See, I was initially planning to write a single post about that great game, but I quickly realised that this would turn out to be a very long and stuffy post indeed. I thus decided to cut it that huge cake of a post in three slices to make it easier to digest, and I will now wrap up the first one of these slices. In the second post, I will elaborate on the complexity of FFL2, before tackling its difficulty in the third and last post. I’ll be back soon! As for now, thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Gaming Haul: Summer games ‘14

I was abroad on holiday lately, hence the lack of any new post these last three weeks. Despite my best attempts, I hardly managed to write a couple of paragraphs, let alone a full article. However, I did stay tuned into gaming, both in terms of playing and purchasing, and my trip ended up being quite a fruitful one in both departments. 

When it comes to playing, I firmly intended to maintain a healthy diet of daily gaming, and I managed to stick to it, to my great delight. (Not that I had to force myself too much, as you may expect.) These special circumstances called for special games: given that I was not on my usual premises, I wanted something fairly laid-back and relaxing that wouldn’t request too much brain-racking and would fit into the whole ‘lazy holidays’ picture. After a bit of pondering, I elected my newly imported copies of Hometown Story and Pokemon Platinum as my gaming material for this trip, and it’s fair to say that they played the part beautifully—and so did I. But more on that in future posts. 

For now, let’s concentrate on the purchasing part of my trip. I had access to a choice of games much larger than the one I’m usually offered, and I used this great opportunity to the fullest by reaping a handful of games that had caught my eye and my interest lately. Here are the lucky winners that were granted a well-deserved place in my precious, ever-growing collection:

Pokemon X&Y (3ds): Now that I’ve become a proud Poke-aficionado, I couldn’t let these two pass me by. I bought the pair, of course; what else could I have done? Choosing between these two mighty Legendaries was just impossible. I will probably shelve them for a while, though, given that I’m planning to play the other DS entries first and foremost… Unless a sudden urge to tame Xerneas and Yveltal takes over, of course. My gaming instinct is one wild, unpredictable beast!

Animal Crossing (3ds): I hesitated a fairly long time before purchasing that game; and to be honest, even to this day, I’m not quite convinced that this is the right game for me. I like my games to have some solid sense of purpose, some ultimate goal to reach, and I’m not quite sure that taking massive loans to fancy up my village and make my house Ikea-perfect and then spending hours collecting money to pay my colossal debts are objectives juicy enough for my taste. Oh, well. Time will tell!

Luigi’s Mansion 2 (3ds): This one is actually not a personal purchase, but rather a gift of sorts from my sister, who purchased it based on stellar reviews only to realize after a few playing sessions that she didn’t like it. This is not a game I would have bought on my own free will, so I’m quite curious to try it and see how it will turn out. 

Gravity Rush (Vita): This game interested me for a number of reasons. The gravity gimmick is original and worth trying, the main character is refreshingly different from the ones you usually control in this type of game, the neon-colors-meet-steampunk art direction pleasantly reminds me of the movie Dark City, and last but not least, there is a cat involved, and I just can’t resist cats. All this promises a very good experience indeed, o yes precious. I only hope that the gameplay is not similar to the Tomb Raider series, forcing you to constantly perform insanely hard jumps and acrobatics, or my fun could be seriously ruined. 

Hyperdimension Neptunia: Producing Perfection (Vita): I’ve read mixed critics about this game, ranging from stellar to derogatory. What I extracted from that uneven bunch is the notion that Hyperdimension Neptunia PP is a game that can be appreciated to the fullest only if you already know the eponymous series quite well—which I do not. However, my gaming instinct imperiously told me to buy this game anyway, and I happily complied. Blame it on the summer, but I’m in the mood for some moe and kawaisa indulgence these days. 

On top of this, I had the opportunity to visit a second-hand electronics shop. And what did they have in store, nested somewhere between so-90’s digital alarm clocks and dusty CD players? Well, you guessed it: video games, of course. Game Boy and Game Boy Advance cartridges, of all things! Now, when one is hunting for games, shopping in a non-specialized second-hand store is the trick: since the owner usually doesn’t know that much about games, one can find rare and valuables offerings at a very fair price. It was the case in that shop, where all the cartridges cost 5 euros/$6,5 each; and sure enough, I managed to extract a handful of gold nuggets from what was mostly a mine of crappy licensed turds. The happy few rescued that day with the promise of a happy and peaceful second life (or third, fourth or even tenth, who knows) were Shining Soul 2 and Advance Wars 2 for the Gameboy Advance, as well as Super Mario Land for the Game Boy; but the most glorious purchases of the day were undoubtedly Pokemon Blue and Pokemon Yellow for the Game Boy, in great condition and with the batteries still working to boot. Oh, the joy! I may thus indulge in retro Pokemon entries much earlier than I’d expected, which is quite a pleasant development. 

So, this was the loot that I proudly brought back home from my lounging on foreign grounds. All these games will be played when their time is ripe, and hopefully the next trip abroad will be as rewarding as this one when it comes to game purchases. I will come back soon with meatier reviews; as for now, thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!