GameSpite Journal 10 | Breath of Fire

Breath of Fire | Dev.: Capcom | Pub: Capcom | Genre: RPG | Release: August 1994

People often decry Secret of Evermore as a sorry substitute for Seiken Densetsu 3 in the U.S. Thatís not really fair to Evermore, as its release didnít come at the expense of the ďtrueĒ Secret of Mana sequel; rather, it was published instead of nothing at all. SD3 was entirely too dense and large to properly localize within the confines of an affordable cartridge, and moreover Square created Evermore as an attempt to launch a U.S.-base development arm.

Inexplicably, Breath of Fire gets a free pass. Maybe thatís because the Internet wasnít nearly as pervasive in 1993 (when Breath launched in America) as it had become three years later, and people just didnít know of the shenanigans surrounding its localization. Or maybe itís because there were fewer expectations at the time. Or maybe people genuinely love Breath in a way that they didnít take to Evermore. Weíll never really know. But the fact remains: Breath of Fire came to America in the place, and at the expense, of a vastly superior RPG. Namely, Breath was localized in place of Final Fantasy V.

In fairness, Breath isnít a waste of silicon by any means. If Square had to pick any RPG to license in and publish in the place of FFV, Breath was probably the best choice. Well, Shin Megami Tensei would have been better, though given Nintendo of Americaís standards and practices at the time you can understand why no one would even think to bother with an RPG that opens with you picking a name for a crucified Christ. Breath, on the other hand, is perfectly innocuous. Itís the very definition of safe, with a simple, turn-based battle system, by-the-numbers characters, and a menagerie of animal-based fantasy races.

The closest Breath gets to breaking any particular molds is with its dragon system, which enables the main character to transform from time to time into a massive and powerful dragon. He can even fuse with some of his demi-human comrades to create more bestial forms. Careful administration and regulation of Ryuís dragon transformations is the key to victory. Itís never a particularly difficult RPG, though like many games of its vintage resources tend to be at a premium, and the encounter rate is can be downright stultifying. Also of note is the ability to employ specific character skills on the map screen; certain heroes can clear paths or hunt game for the partyís benefit, transforming the idea of RPG overworld into an action puzzle rather than just the ugly point of view where heroes travel from one place to another and get into a ton of random fights.

Breath set a very rigid template for its next three sequels, all of which feature a hero named Ryu who can transform into a dragon; a winged girl named Nina; a motley collection of races; lovely graphics; and plots and mechanics that can either be seen as ďunderstatedĒ or ďmundane,Ē depending on your temperament. The first game canít help but seem the latter in light of the game that was passed over in its favor, as FFV was (and remains) one of the most daringly technical RPGs ever made. Square reputedly didnít think Americans bright enough to grasp its nuances, and in fairness it was a pretty damn ugly game when placed side-by-side with Breathís slick isometric battles and comical world.

In the end, Breathís usurping of FFVís release did neither game any favor: Since FFV wasnít localized back in the day, it wonít show up on the American virtual console. And since Square owns the rights to the U.S. localization, itís unlikely Capcom will pay royalties to reissue that particular work, either. Whatever your feelings on Breath, itís hard to deny that American RPG fans have been getting the shaft for 20 years now. Like Ryu and Ninaís recurring roles, itís a kind of tradition.

By Jeremy Parish? | Feb. 3, 2012 | Previous: Super Metroid | Next: Illusion of Gaia