Final Fantasy Legend
Based on: Keeping your filthy non-conventional thinking out of our nice, clean Final Fantasy.
By Jeremy Parish | June 1, 2009
Let me tell you about the time I shivved God to death.
OK, so it wasn't the God, per se. It was a god, though, one who called himself Creator and hung around at the top of the impossible tower that somehow enclosed the many worlds that simultaneously contained it. That's a pretty neat trick of reality engineering, and you have to admire any deity who can pull off a feat like that. Though admittedly, any god that goes down with a few stabs of a sword -- a glass sword, at that -- seems a bit suspicious.
But then, Final Fantasy Legend plays fast and loose with all matters of divinity. Sure, there's a god at the top of the tower, but big deal; you're fighting gods all along the way to his lair. They're all beasts of the Chinese zodiac, so there's no telling what pantheon Creator is actually supposed to belong to. Judeo-Christian? Islam? Hindu? Maybe it was Xenu, who can say. All I know is that I stabbed him repeatedly.
Now, this was all just a couple of years ago; had I faced off against Creator when I was a fresh-faced, church-going teen, I probably would have been scarred for life. Fortunately, I'm old and cynical now, and I've had a few decades' worth of Japanese RPGs treating rebellion against God as some big shocking twist rather than recognizing it for the obligatory, clichéd journey of self-discovery that every Nine-Inch Nails fan undertakes as an act of self-expression that it is. RPGs seem to be stuck in this state of perpetual adolescence, convinced of their own genius for devising original and piercing questions like, "If God is all-powerful, can He create a rock so powerful He can't lift it? Boo-urn!"
FF Legend, aka Makaitoushi SaGa, was perhaps the first JRPG to hit those angsty teen years. While its contemporaries were saving princesses and slaying demon lords, Legend was daring to say "Take that!" to the world's divine benefactor. Beginning with a first-generation Game Boy release that debuted in Japan before the end of the '80s (and not too long after that in the U.S.), the SaGa series was born cynical. It's also notable for the fact that it was the first RPG franchise to grow out of that prickly adolescent phase; it no longer tasks players with killing the Lord of Hosts. If Unlimited Saga is anything to go by, it clearly wants players to kill themselves instead.
The Game Boy might seem an unlikely venue for such nihilism, but then Legend didn't precisely spring full-grown from its creator's head, if you'll pardon the further muddling of mytho-religious references. The SaGa games, of course, are very much the invention of old-school Square mainstay Akitoshi Kawazu; outside of Ultima or possibly Dragon Quest, it's hard to think of an RPG series more clearly defined by the very specific vision of one man. He first began to explore his very unconventional ideas of what an RPG could be with the sequel to Final Fantasy, creating a game that was almost but not quite completely unlike the first. "Thanks but no thanks," said the higher-ups, and quarantined his madness where it seemed likely to do the least harm: in a launch-period Game Boy RPG. It was an untested system with low development costs, and it's not as though the platform had any other role-playing games to compete with it at that point. So Kawazu was given free rein to develop his quirky, obtuse systems on a tiny Game Boy cartridge while Hiromichi Tanaka and Hironobu Sakaguchi worked to repair the damage he had done to the Final Fantasy series.
So in that way, the claim that FF Legend isn't a Final Fantasy game, not really -- it's not entirely an accurate statement. It was, in effect, Final Fantasy II-2, before the series had succumbed to the vile throes of franchising and the prospect of a spin-off to a sequel was ever imagined. This becomes especially clear when you consider Square's abortive efforts to co-brand FF Legend alongside a U.S. release of FFII; the marketing material for the two games used similar art and identical typography to tie them together. They really are peas in a pod. Dense, opaque, bafflingly user-unfriendly peas.
For all the flack that FFII takes from fans of the series, it wasn't a bad game in theory. Certainly it was a notable effort to splice some creativity into Final Fantasy, as the first game was really little more than a Dungeons & Dragons fan game. Even with later version of the game retouching some of the more obvious thefts, such as Beholders, it was really sort of shameless. FFII ditched most of the standard elements its predecessor relied on: levels, character classes, daily spell limits by mana charges, that sort of thing. Instead, it applied a more organic system of character growth; all party members were equally versatile, unlimited in their potential, but ultimately best served by specializing in skills. Character growth was based on actual in-battle performance rather than arbitrary class distinctions. Take damage and your endurance would scale up. Cast a spell and your proficiency with that class of magic would increase.
It was an imminently logical approach that rewarded players for strategic diversity and specialization, but unfortunately it was such a radical approach that in its first, untested incarnation it was hideously broken. FFII became infamous for being that one RPG where players sat around and whacked their allies for hours on end in order to beef up their stats. FF Legend was a first attempt to rectify that flaw. Its characters were even more like blank slates than the build-it-yourself party of the original Final Fantasy -- in fact, you could freely recruit new party members from a guild at any time and kick out unwanted warriors. However, FF Legend's advantage was that it defined its characters by race: Humans, Mutants, and Monsters. Humans were physical powerhouses, able to equip all the best armor and weapons; Mutants were actually espers that, while frail, could learn an enormous variety of useful magic; and Monsters were basically recruitable enemies that could be transformed into more powerful types by consuming the flesh of defeated creatures (though never hominids). Each race suffered from certain drawbacks to balance their strengths and encourage the use of a mixed party: Human gear had limited use, Espers were fragile and their magic was unpredictable, and Monsters were as likely to experience a loss of power in the course of transmutation than they were a significant upgrade.
The problem with FF Legend is that, like FFII, these ambitious game systems weren't entirely ready for prime time. One gets the impression that Square pushed Legend out the door as quickly as possible to take advantage of the Game Boy's launch and said, "We'll fix it in the sequel." (The fact that Final Fantasy Legend II is essentially the same game with refined mechanics and more expansive options doesn't do much to combat this perception.) Unfortunately, this means that FF Legend features novel concepts that make the adventure something of a chore at times. Human gear is expensive and breaks after a set number of uses, which means players tend to hoard their best gear—although it almost doesn't matter, because Human stat growth is such that they've usually maxed out their hit points by the game's midpoint. Magic is powerful, sure, but there's no way to determine which spells your Mutants learn—they gain spells at random after battle, forgetting an existing spell in the process, and you have no control over which you gain and lose. You may have access to four intensely powerful attack spells, but it's possible to have nothing by enemy debuffs half a dozen battles later. And Monster morphs follow an opaque interior logic that requires an extensive chart to map out the possible interactions between your current species, the form's level, and the vittles you're munching.
At the same time, FF Legend made some smart concessions to its portable nature. Combat was kept simple and streamlined and ran at a snappy pace, constrained by the use of big, chunky text on a tiny screen. Area and dungeon maps could be complex, but they were also compact, making it difficult to become wholly lost. And best of all, players could save anywhere outside of battle in order to let them jump right back into their quest at a later time.
Of course, the story's nothing much to speak of: again, a team of random people (and creatures) bands together, climbs a tower, battles the Chinese zodiac and finally meets God. Or god, anyway. The Creator. In any case, the limitations of 8-bit RPGs means that the player's only possible interactions with Creator are fight, magic, or run, so inevitably you end up killing god, even though he's not especially evil or mean-spirited or anything. As with so many things about Final Fantasy Legend, it doesn't necessarily make a lot of sense. But it's not like you had a lot of options for portable RPGs back in 1990, so god took a glass sword to the face regardless. And thus was the formula for 20 years of shocking Japanese RPG plot twists irrevocably set.