Final Fantasy Adventure
Japanese release in June 1991
North American release in November 1991
North American reprint by Sunsoft in April 1998
Published by SquareSoft (reprint published by Sunsoft)
Developed by SquareSoft
Mana without the Mania
Final Fantasy Adventure is unique. It’s a gaiden title of Final Fantasy that subsequently transformed into its own franchise. Some of it is awesome. Some of it is weird. Some of it is bad. But ultimately you’ll have fun with Final Fantasy Adventure. That’s why it’s essential.
Memo about Screenshots
I play games for Game Boy Essentials on my trusty backlit Game Boy Advance SP and then I go and gather screenshots on an emulator. This means that to have screenshots of the game I need to play through everything twice. Final Fantasy Adventure being a bit too long for me to play twice, this article will thus be light on screenshots. If you want to see pictures of the game, I recommend looking up lparchive.org, who have a Let’s Play from the Something Awful forums. Interestingly, the modern definition of a Let’s Play is a commented video of a play-through of a game. It originally meant a written post with pictures commenting a typical play-through of a game. Look it up.
Prints and Reprints
Let’s talk a bit about history. A long time ago, in January 1997, Squaresoft released Final Fantasy VII on PlayStation in North America and everyone went bonkers. “You mean the game is in 3D! With videos! It’s like real life!”
It had everything: Giant swords, cyberpunk aesthetics, casual racism, amnesia!
To capitalize on this newfound craziness for all things Final Fantasy, Sunsoft struck a unique deal with SquareSoft. You see, between 1989 and 1991 SquareSoft had released four under-appreciated games on Game Boy. They were SaGa and Seiken Densetsu games. However, when they brought them to North America between 1990 and 1993 SquareSoft decided to call them Final Fantasy Legend I, II & III and Final Fantasy Adventure; they probably hoped to capitalize on the burgeoning popularity of the series in North America. SquareSoft’s attempt to bring the RPG to Game Boy was kind of forgotten by 1998, when Final Fantasy VII transformed the series from the best-known franchise of a niche genre to the most important game of all time, oh my god Cloud is so badass guys! For SquareSoft and Sunsoft, it was too good to be true. Four games with the title of the hot fad of 1998 that were pretty much ignored back when originally released. Sunsoft jumped on the opportunity, signed a deal with SquareSoft and reprinted those old games for Game Boy in 1998. Their timing was perfect: they rereleased the four games just six months before the Game Boy Color came out. That meant they did not have to deal with an audience that would have expected Color support for those old titles.
But why where they kind of ignored back when originally released? Because RPGs were not exactly the most popular thing in 1991 and the Game Boy back then was mostly seen as a puzzle machine. Longish Japanese role-playing games with crazy levelling systems were not meant for mainstream Game Boy appeal. The gaming world was very different after Final Fantasy VII. Here’s a taste of that world.
I was only twelve in 1998 when I encountered those four reprinted games in a Wal-Mart. They were all there in a row in a game display case. To my twelve-year-old self, this was a glorious sight. I had already seen Final Fantasy VI, a friend had rented this amazing game called Chrono Trigger for his birthday, older friends had shown me Final Fantasy VII on their PlayStation (I had wisely chosen to ask my parents for a Nintendo 64) and I think I might have played Final Fantasy IV on ZSNES back then. I’m a bit foggy on the exact dates of my descent into piracy, but I do vividly remember making a school video presentation about NESticle in the 8th grade in 1999. I am that big of a nerd. Anyway, I was riding the Final Fantasy hype train hard. Before me stood not one but four Game Boy Final Fantasy games. I somehow managed to persuade my mother to buy me one game. I then had to choose. Being a crazy completionist, I chose The Final Fantasy Legend, to start with the first game. I got Final Fantasy Adventure later on, when I saw it in another store. Don’t worry, we’ll get to the other Game Boy Final Fantasy games in due time. Today though, Final Fantasy Adventure gets to shine.
Final Fantasy Adventure can be summarized very succinctly: A linear Legend of Zelda knockoff with RPG elements. Let’s now unpack that description in way too many words.
Final Fantasy Adventure may first lead you to believe it uses an open world map like a Legend of Zelda but it doesn’t. The game instead has a story-driven path that you must follow. You start off around the middle of the world map, and you go through all the sections of the game as the story dictates. It’s not a disadvantage per se. It’s fun to follow along the path of the game, playing through the flimsy dumb 90s RPG attempt at a story. While you can at one point go back to all the previous sections of the game, this is useless. In a game with a truly open world you go back to places you’ve been before to unearth secrets. Here, there are no secrets to be found in completed sections and enemies are a pest: they hurt for literally 1 damage and the experience points they give are so meagre it might as well be nothing. The only thing that will come out of you exploring the map is you’ll get lost in old sections of the game and you’ll eventually forget where you were supposed to go.
The openness of the game is actually a masterclass in what not to do when you want a cohesive world map. The geography of the world is all weird. The map is one incomprehensible continent with no real sense of place and sinewy rivers that make no sense. Deserts are right next to ice plains; every region of the game is next to another with no logic behind their placement. To top it off, when you can access it all at once, you navigate it with a robotic chocobo that can run on water but can’t fly, so you get stuck on every nook and cranny without having an easy way to go from one place to the next. To me the best example of good map design is how they deal with the sides of the map. In any SquareSoft game with a world map, say Final Fantasy V for example, you have a large body of water between the sides of the rectangular map to help you make sense of where you are. That way you’re confused just enough to buy into the fiction that you’re on a spherical world. In this game, you’re all the way to the right of the map and go one screen right and suddenly you’re all the way to the left without a screen of water to kind of transition you from one side of the world to the other. I vividly remember trying to make sense of the geopolitical atmosphere of the Final Fantasy IV world when I was a kid. I never did it with this game.
Legend of Zelda Knock-Off
Kōichi Ishii, father of the Chocobo, co-composer of the Crystal Theme and developer at SquareSoft looked at The Legend of Zelda and said: I want to do something like that. He tried to get such a game made for years and he finally got it done on Game Boy, when SquareSoft management finally gave him the go ahead to make an action game on Game Boy. So there’s no surprise the game is so similar to Zelda.
The game features the same grid-based movement as the first Zelda game. You get the same overall way to move, the same overall way to attack and the exact same screen to screen scrolling of The Legend of Zelda. To me that’s cool because that gameplay system has not been used often enough by good developers. At the time Final Fantasy Adventure came out, games that emulated The Legend of Zelda were hit or miss. I’m not a developer, but I guess it’s very easy to mess up an action-adventure game. Which leads me to a point they did mess up: the enemies.
The movement patterns of enemies is uninspired. They jump all around the screen with a complete disregard for the obstacles on the map and they don’t react to being hit by you or ever try to actively attack you. You don’t feel like the enemies are meaningful, they’re just there. In contrast, Zelda enemies obey the same rules as Link. Some enemies can jump above walls and obstacles, but their design always implies they can jump. They look like rabbits or have long springy legs. The best example are the many rooms filled with red and blue knights with shields that you have to hit from the side in Zelda. You get the feeling they’re trying to get you. Those knight rooms are nerve-wracking, hard to clear and super fun! In Final Fantasy Adventure enemies are never that meaningful. You have knight enemies similar to Zelda, but their patterns are not polished at all. They’re just boring to fight. They clump together, they fidget in place. Even the bosses’ movement patterns are kind of lame. They move in uninteresting ways.
One of the other things that Final Fantasy Adventure tries to emulate from Zelda are the obstacles cleared with tools. The game does not have a specific set of tools; instead it uses its many different weapons as your tools. The developer’s intent was to make you focus on using different weapons for different enemies and using those same weapons to solve some simple puzzles. You have six different types of weapons, and you continually need to alternate between them. It could have been interesting if the game had pushed the idea further but enemies are simply immune to some weapons and not to others with no rhyme or reason. I would have preferred meatier, more complex puzzles but it’s still somewhat fun.
The game is an RPG first and foremost. It features an experience system, where each level is rewarded with a choice. You have four statistics and you need to choose one of those every level. However, each choice will also slightly improve two of the other stats. So you skew your character in a direction but you can’t really screw your character development too much. Each choice is meaningful and you can clearly feel the usefulness of all four stats when playing. So the choice you make is impactful and fun to make. This is good, you don’t want your levelling to feel perfunctory. It means the game has a very fun gameplay loop. Explore map, talk to people, find dungeon, kill enemies, get level choice, defeat boss, get new weapon/spell, repeat. It’s the game’s greatest quality: it’s fun to sit down for a couple of hours and go through a couple dungeons and get a couple of levels.
Since this is an RPG, the game features spells. Eight of them. You gain them through story events and most of them are useless, as per SquareSoft tradition. Why would you want to go through the trouble of muting enemies when you can simply kill them with less burden? I wish to note the ice spell which turns enemies into snowmen. You then have some puzzles which require you to push those snowmen on switches to make stuff happen. It’s borderline interesting.
All good RPGs come with multiple characters, right? But since this is also an action game, you can’t control more than one character at a time. To solve that problem, the game has assist characters. They move and attack just like the enemies, which means they have no rhyme or reason to their patterns and are absolutely useless to fight. They are only useful when you use their ASK command, which makes them do something. Different characters do different things: they will heal you, sell you wares, explain things, etc. Those ASK commands try to inject some personality into those characters who join and leave you according to the whims of the story.
The music by Kenji Ito is memorable and catchy in that Japanese RPG vibe. You hum the songs and are happy to hear them again when you haven’t heard them in a while. It’s a good job for his second soundtrack (he also did Final Fantasy Legend II on Game Boy).
The game’s items are the standard SquareSoft fare, with potions and healing items and useless crap and sellable rocks. The game does have two crazy items: mattocks and keys. A mattock is a mining tool very similar to a pickaxe. I think the translators probably meant to use the word pickaxe but got sidetracked. The mattocks allow you to destroy rocks or create openings in walls while the keys obviously allow you to open locked doors; so far so good. The weird thing is those items are bought in stores and are consumables. You buy those items in any store and you need to carry many of them, so you don’t run out. Keys can be used four times (leaving a screen and coming back will reset a door) after which they disappear from your inventory. Keys in real life don’t work like that! You need to carry a large set of both to make sure you don’t run out while exploring a dungeon. To confuse you further, there are two unique story-driven keys that open very specific doors. The doors opened by those keys are not visually different from the regular doors, so prepare to get frustrated. Mattocks are eventually made obsolete, replaced by a ball and chain weapon that can destroy rocks and break walls as well. It isn’t surprising that I have never seen a game with a similar system. It’s so crazy.
I have explained how crazy keys and mattocks are. It hit me how maddening the mattocks and keys were when I lent the game to a friend. That friend always plays games in an interesting way. He is absurdly talented with games, always patient to a fault. Other things though, he will have no patience for. Here’s his story of frustration with Final Fantasy Adventure:
There is a big metal golem boss you cannot hit with any weapons you encounter in a dungeon. The only thing you hear if you hit him with any weapon is the clink sound of resistance to a weapon. You can leave his boss room though, so what you are supposed to do is keep exploring the dungeon. You encounter a room with exits on all four sides which all seem to lead back to the dungeon’s entrance. You know the type; a Lost Woods exploration puzzle where you need to figure out which direction to go to in which order. Failing to go in the correct direction will throw you back to the entrance of the labyrinth. If you closely examine the map, you can figure out the pattern you need to follow to reach another boss that has the ball and chain weapon that you can then use to destroy the golem boss.
What my friend did is he killed the golem with consumable mattocks instead.
Since the ball and chain weapon is a mattock but in weapon form, I guess the developers didn’t bother to differentiate between them. The golem is thus vulnerable to mattock attacks. My friend filled his items slots with mattocks (which each have eight uses) and relentlessly attacked the boss. He beat him, but since the game starts assuming you don’t need mattocks after getting the ball and chain, shops stop selling them and you get stuck with no way to buy more mattocks. Which promptly happened to my friend and he just stopped playing the game. Final Fantasy Adventure is far from perfect, but it can lead to interesting things.
There is another exploration puzzle in the game too convoluted to figure out easily. You have to get an item from a specific enemy type. Interestingly, this enemy can be found later in the game still giving the same item, now useless: clear carelessness from the developers. You give the item to a kid who then tells you a secret message: Palm trees and 8. You then have to figure out on your own that you have to find two palm trees among the hundreds of palm trees on the map in that section of the game and do a figure eight around them. This then opens up the dungeon you need to get into. It was way too obtuse for my young mind. When I was a kid I got stuck on that section for months.
Speaking of enemies that reappear, some enemies are present for the whole game and end up hitting you for the very anticlimactic 1 damage but other enemies can one-hit you. Without an autosave system, this is exasperating. You have to be careful and save often.
Finally, the game has a map system in dungeons that shows rooms you previously explored. Unfortunately, that system is reset every time you shut down your Game Boy, obviously not saving that data and strictly keeping it in RAM. It’s a shame and forces you to finish a dungeon in one sitting if you don’t want to get lost or if you want to explore everything without missing anything.
Don’t Get Fooled by Imitations
Final Fantasy Adventure was remade in 2003 on the Game Boy Advance as Sword of Mana: it sucks. I bought the game when it came out, super psyched for a remake of one of my favourite games only to hate everything about it. They were clearly attempting to make a Secret of Mana for Game Boy Advance and failed miserably. Secret of Mana is Final Fantasy Adventure’s better known sequel for Super Nintendo. It’s considered a classic. I’ll go against the grain here by saying I don’t care for Secret of Mana. Never really got into it, never really liked it. So I particularly don’t like that Sword of Mana shed its Final Fantasy elements to adopt the SNES Mana style. That’s the one change with Sword of Mana that might actually be a plus for you. The rest of the game is non-arguable; it’s a very disappointing mess. Go read some reviews of that game, everybody unfortunately agrees.
Final Fantasy Adventure was remade again in 2016 as Adventures of Mana for iOS, Android, Vita and god knows what else. I have not played it, but it looks to be much more faithful to the original. I wouldn’t bet money on it being more fun though. I don’t plan on ever playing it. I’m sticking to the original with real buttons.
To me it’s weird how so much of Final Fantasy Adventure is half-baked, barebones or incomplete but I still love it. Future Mana titles would extrapolate systems to cover those missing pieces to hubris but here since the systems are so simple it’s kind of endearing.