Final Fantasy Mystic Quest
You and your three friends are in a bar. Out of nothingness, there is swirling mist in the air, and a jangling tune on the jukebox starts unexpectedly. A drunken pair of unruly toughs with Mohawks (they always have Mohawks) emerge from the fog, and they decide to start something with one of your pals. You watch with unnatural calm as Buddy #1 gets beaten down to his knees. Buddy #2 moves in to get in some retaliatory strikes, but you call him off and toss to him instead a First Aid Kit, and, quite perfunctorily, he sets about caring for your fallen comrade. You and your third friend appear paralyzed, but in truth, you are waiting for something. The second tough seems to be gathering inner strength… he launches an attack that leaves your Buddy #3 in a bloody heap. You knew this was coming, you saw the thug preparing for it, yet you made no preemptive strike!
Well of course not. It wasn’t your turn.
Roleplaying Games (RPGs from here on in)–especially of the 16-bit era–almost invariably use random turn-based battles to decide conflicts. With Mystic Quest, developers Squaresoft decided to forgo the random part of the equation, but kept the turn-based scenarios, making them as short and simple as possible. I was never a fan of RPG fighting. Isn’t it just combat technique delegation? I would wonder. Better to let fly at foes with frenzied abandon, said I! Like the stalwart Link of Legend of Zelda fame, I thrilled to hearing the song of sweet steel without the songbook. No rules, no turns. If I wanted a quest, I’d play an action-RPG. However, though more traditional RPGs are still not my favourite games in the world, since Mystic Quest I have sought out and played many of the best, and enjoyed them on a level I would have previously thought impossible.
The reason for Mystic Quest’s being is an interesting one (and a humourous one, depending on how serious you are about the genre and what side of the Pacific you’re on). It seems that Squaresoft wanted to present a dumbed down taste of Japan’s favourite genre to uncultured, slow-of-mind North Americans so that we could adjust to the inherent complexity of the RPG, and allow our brain cells time to grow in anticipation of the oncoming deluge of ever more mind-blasting RPG perplexity. Needless to say, the intended market found the move to be insulting and quite unnecessary. However, as I have already let on, if Mystic Quest failed to nail down a beginner RPG player niche, it accomplished something else just as meaningful.
A surprisingly large uprising of game players enjoy the hero’s quest type of fanfare that RPGs provide almost exclusively, but dislike the plodding battle systems and overly dramatic cut scenes. Many of these gamers embrace action-RPGs as a result, myself included. They know what RPGs are all about, but can’t bring themselves to hunker over the controller for hours at a time, pounding out battle ‘commands’ when they could be slashing about freely in The Illusion of Gaia, or some such action packed account. Still, they realize that the action-RPG usually fails to reach the same level of meaningfulness and scope that the ‘true’ RPG often manifests. For these players, Mystic Quest provides a concrete, if tepid segue from slightly shallow speediness, to decidedly slower epic-Dom.
Your hero’s mission to restore the light of the four crystals to Focus Tower is not so brilliant as to entice a complete RPG virgin to consummate any tiny spark of temptation. Nor is the clichÈd mission-on-rails a proper tutorial that teaches potential RPG fans how to gear up for bigger and better RPG adventures. But certainly it has enough of quality graphics and competent storytelling and outstanding music to provide solid ground for acclimatization.
It did for me what no other game save Chrono Trigger could have done, and it does it more than adequately. It got me used to RPGs. More importantly, there’s quite a bit of storybook fun to be had en route. The story itself is not outstanding in any way, as it features a faceless protagonist on a typical mission to save the world–but playing out the quest is definitely enjoyable.
The hero will visit towns, talk to a helpful and humourous elder, buy equipment (the usual swords and armour) and solve simplistic puzzles. His party consists of himself, and at times, one other. If the hero isn’t very memorable as a personality, the same can be said of the transient individuals who come and go as they please, helping out for spells where the game decides the going is too difficult for just one fighter. That being said: why play an RPG where the story is hackneyed and the characters dull? For the same reason we would watch a kid’s cartoon in spite of ourselves. To cheer on the adventuring hero through adventurous scenarios because it feels good. Mystic Quest hides behind no pretense of any greater or hidden meaning; it just presents a character’s shoes for us to step into, and crisp colour for us to watch it play out and lush sounds for us to to hear it play out.
The game’s graphics are charmingly simple and exceptionally vibrant, though admittedly, I could have done with larger sprites than the one-inch variety that depicts our hero and his companions. The real standout element in the package is the music, and you’ll surely be humming at least a few of the upbeat battle anthems and somber and peaceful odes to the towns.
As mentioned, there are no random battles, so you can dive headlong into the overworld maps, and through the dark dungeons, mountain passes and imposing towers without fear of some sudden flash of colour and music whisking you off to a battle screen. You can see all your enemies, and you can choose whether or not you want to risk life and limb to procure the contents of that treasure behind that skeleton, or to gain passage to that cave mouth behind that demon thing. Don’t get it twisted; there is still a lot of turn-based battling to be done, but there won’t be any frequent and annoying Breath of Fire-like interruptions.
Of special note is the fact that avoiding battles won’t leave you completely handicapped in the experience points department. Sure, you need to kill to earn gold for purchases and experience points for increased character attributes, as you would in any RPG, but the balance is such that if you do the bare minimum of murdering, you won’t find yourself left outclassed to the inordinate degree that other RPGs leave you. And, if you really want to beef up, there are singular outposts where ten battles are offered onsite with a whorehouse mentality. There are no surprises here–you know what you want, what you came for. You fight and reap the rewards and get out.
So simplicity is on display in many ways: the straightforward story; the oddly limited number of party members; the fact that your companions can actually be set to ”auto” so that the game controls them for you; and the fact that your companions join up with you already powered up (usually more than you are), forgoing the need for you to build and maintain anyone other than yourself.
These functions of the game will make it or break it with you. I personally don’t care if I have to ‘manage’ and ‘build’ just my one character, or myself and one other character, or an entire party. And the auto option doesn’t interest me in the least (especially since the game often mismanages your turns when you allow it control). However, if you are used to high end RPG depth of character management and building, you’ll resent Mystic Quest’s bare bones aspect. If you, like me, enjoy the more transparent and faster paced face of action-RPGs, you won’t see the game’s functions as compromise, but as welcome streamlining. Finally, you can try your hand at extensive town visiting, connected mini-quest completing, and some degree of party management without feeling overwhelmed.
Mystic Quest may insult and annoy and bore a diehard RPG fan, all at the same time. But there’s no better experience than Mystic Quest to step out over the threshold for those who aren’t there yet. You know that a world of wondrous RPGs is on the other side, just out of reach. Spending some time with this short, charming game may help you get there. Enjoy the ride, short and sweet as it is.