Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Mad Science (How The Final Fantasy Legend Is A Work Of Genius)

(Oops, been away for a month without comment again. Sorry about that. Nanowrimo is in full swing now as well, so that is getting most of my attention. Gonzo Secret Project is somewhat stalled, so let's make a promise. We've played with time here before, throwing entries from the future into our present. I'll do the reverse. If Gonzo Secret Project is not finished by the time I complete my Nanowrimo work, we'll hop over it and I'll make progress on the lesser-knowns of the NES library. Then one day it will come screaming at us, a missile fired from the past. Now that that's said and done, here is something I've wanted to write for a week or so about a game I beat. Enjoy.)

Four days before November, I watched a video made by another video game psychochronographer, Jeremy Parish. He's doing something called Game Boy World, which is a look at every Game Boy game ever made. God help him, as he's doing the Japanese releases as well. Anyway, his video was the 18th game ever made for the Game Boy: December 1989's Makai Toshi SaGa, or as it became known when it crossed dimensions, The Final Fantasy Legend. I can't remember what drove me to want to play it upon seeing the video, but I was. Despite the obvious fact glaring me in the face. SaGa, you see, is an Akitoshi Kawazu creation. I've liked to describe video game creators as alchemists on this blog. If that's true, then Akitoshi Kawazu is nothing less than a mad scientist. He got his start fiddling with the original Final Fantasy, and if I'm to believe what The World Wide Web tells me, he took strides to make it a lot like Dungeons and Dragons. Elemental weaknesses and character classes and stuff like that. Final Fantasy was of course a hit, and for whatever reason the powers that be gave Kawazu the keys to the kingdom for Final Fantasy 2.

That's when he showed his true colors. 

Final Fantasy 2 is seen as the black sheep of the Final Fantasy series, and that's a term that always makes me grimace. Whenever I hear it, I can't help but picture a child turning up his nose at a new vegetable. "Black sheep" is codeword for WAH WAH TOO DIFFERENT WAH. Black sheep is the phrase people use to dismiss Castlevania 2 and Zelda 2. Black sheep is the phrase people use when talking about Final Fantasy 2. Kawazu, ever the mad scientist, used his newfound power to influence the game design. Experience points were done away with, and now what you did in battle determined how good you were at it. Swinging a sword 100 times would make you Level 2 Good At Swords. Casting a magic spell a lot would make it more powerful for that character. Taking a lot of damage would increase your constitution and maximum HP. It wasn't a bad idea, but the problem (for me, anyway, when I beat it) was that the game was too damn brutal unless you gamed the system. Confirm an attack on an enemy and then cancel it, and your Good At Swords counter went up to 1/100. Now sit there for five minutes attacking and cancelling 99 more times to get your Good At Swords stat to level up. Do the same for your magic. As for HP? Hit yourself over the head to knock your own health to critical levels and earn the gains. It is tedium, and if you do it incorrectly you can mess up the entire game. When I beat Final Fantasy 2, it had taken part of my soul away from me. It was a new sensation at the time. I whispered "never again" and bore a grudge against the cackling mad scientist who had concocted this creature, a Kawazu's monster that shambled around Japan for 15 years before finally breaking through and terrorizing us.

A year or so later, development on Final Fantasy 3 began, and now I'm going to quote Pitchfork Pat regarding Kawazu and that game because it's one of the best comparisons of a thing I've ever read:

"Using a long piece of string tied to a 10,000-yen note, Masafumi Miyamoto (SquareSoft's founder and top dog) managed to lure Kawazu away from the Final Fantasy division of the Square building and set him up elsewhere, giving him the SaGa series to mess around with -- much like that Simpsons bit in which Marge bakes a separate birthday cake for Homer to ruin."

So here we are. December 1989. Makai Toshi SaGa, hereafter referred to as Final Fantasy Legend because I'm a stickler. I saw the video, and despite knowing what I knew about Kawazu, I wanted to try this odd concoction he had created. I decided to not go it alone, so I put the call out there. Crono, Jetstorm, Zeloz, and anyone else... thanks for going into this madness with me. What we have discovered is something special. The Final Fantasy Legend is brimming with potential and wonder. It has Kawazu's stamp of unpredictability and madness, but this time he's eliminated the tedium of it. This time, it's compact and charged with the janky and unpolished simplicity that only early Game Boy can bring. In short, it's a work of genius from a madman who dares to go against the grain. That doesn't even take into account the really weird shit that happens in the latter half of the game.

Okay, this is your spoiler warning. Warning: There are spoilers. If you're curious about this game, I'd say give it a shot. If you're one of my pals still going through the game, I'm about to yell at everything cool it did in the latter half. This includes the ending, so be wary. I mean, it's a 25 year-old Game Boy RPG so it's not going to have any really big scary twists, but the way I talk about it might influence your own reactions to these bits. Hence the warning.

Alright, so right away the thing that sets Final Fantasy Legend apart from Final Fantasy 2 is choice. This is Choose Your Own Obtuseness. Kawazu's madness can and will swirl you up if you so choose, but you can mitigate that. With a party of four humans, you get a somewhat normal game mechanics-wise. Granted, humans buy all their stat upgrades in stores instead of fighting X amount of battles, but you still build them how you want. Take a mutant, too, if you like. They gain stats as they go along, and learn and un-learn special abilities depending on... something that I don't know. Then there are monsters, who eat meat dropped by monsters at the end of battle to change into other monsters. There are rules to the transformations, of course. They are never explained in-game. That's Kawazu for you. Instead of a Frankenstein-like Kawazu's monster, he creates a swirling storm composed of pure chaos. The KAWAZU VORTEX grows in strength as he makes more SaGa games, but you don't have to worry about that. Only I do.

Now let's look at a GameFAQS review of Final Fantasy Legend. I should note that this game has the most varied scores of anything I've ever seen. With an X/10 scale, it has gotten every number. I'm about to quote from the only 1/10 review on the site, a review which also rates every aspect of the game on an X/10 scale. This annoys me, but that's a whole other entry. Let's look.

"Control 5/10- The controls are somewhat responsive yet really simplistic. The controls also play a big role in the battles, your weapons break after a while so its a real downer.

Gameplay 1/10- Wow, this really sucks!!! This whole game is a big mess of frustration and annoyance. You start fighting and your weapons only last for so long so when you need to upgrade to some better armor, you save up for it and by the time your ready to but it you need to buy another weapon so you play for hours through boring battles and stupid music until you FINALLY save up enough to get your armor! This is the biggest flaw in the game!

Story 1/10- Simplistic, crappy..... A whole bunch of people find a tower go inside expecting to find paradise, but, none of them come out! Sou you go in and.....
Its really stupid! You get one character at the beginning and you go to the guild and buy three more. There I've mainly summed up why the game sucks."

The weapons have durability? Someone had better tell Fire Emblem that it's actually a 5/10 and "a real downer". Also you fight monsters to earn gold and get new equipment. In a Japanese RPG made in 1989. The grinding in this game isn't even that bad, trust me. I've beaten Mother. I've beaten Dragon Warrior. The grinding in this game is Not That Bad. As for the story... they didn't have room for any complex 80 hour sprawling epic with anime cutscenes. It's Game Boy. It's simple. You want to climb to the top of a tower to find Paradise. Along the way you fight monsters, enter strange new worlds, and try to solve people's problems by killing the Four Symbols of Chinese mythology.

The game's divided into four "worlds", with floors of Tower ascent in between. I don't have much to say about the first and second worlds. They're cute in their own way, and involve simple tasks. The first world has you collecting armor, a shield, and a sword from three kings. The only real eyebrow-raising moment is getting the shield. A traitor kills the king before you can get it, and you then kill the traitor as he begs you not to hack him to death with swords. Once you do so, one of your party members will speak for you. "You're scum. You make me sick.". That's the first clue that something is amiss. Then you use the equipment and find a Chinese myth turtle wants to kill you, so you kill him first with swords. World 2 has nothing really like that. It's an ocean world with islands and a palace under the sea ruled by a Chinese myth dragon who you kill with swords. World 3 is where the fun sort of begins. There's a resistance against Byak-Ko, the Chinese myth tiger oppressing the people from his flying fortress. You infiltrate and try to save the sister of one of the resistance members, only to find that she's sided with Byak-Ko for power. You bust out of jail and find Byak-Ko ready to kill them both... but the resistance sister sacrifices herself to save her sibling, and then you kill Byak-Ko with swords. Welcome to your first taste of grimness. It's about to go into overdrive.

World 4 is a post-apocalyptic ruin of Japan, something straight out of Shin Megami Tensei. You move underground through subway tunnels, and have to collect old circuitry. Eventually you get some sort of jet scooter to zip around the overworld quickly, and you need it. Because a Chinese myth bird named Su-Zaku is constantly pursuing you on the overworld. Every encounter you get into will be with him, and he is invincible. You can only run away. Let's stop and take stock of this. By now, if you've made it this far in Final Fantasy Legend, you have a handle of how things work. You've got a super mutant, or a great monster form, or some humans with 99 strength. It was at world 3 or so where I felt like I could take on anything and everything with my superpowered team, and world 4 shatters that confidence with something you can't kill. It's more than that, though. It's a monster that forever comes after you, wanting to make you dead, that you can't kill. Forget Pyramid Head. shrug off Nemesis. Hell, even cast aside your memories of Scissorman. Akitoshi Kawazu invented the survival horror monster, in December 1989, on the fucking Game Boy.

Now let's talk about ambiguity. I love ambiguity. I've been looking at the newest series of Doctor Who critically for the past few weeks, both in text form by myself and in audio form as co-host for a friend of mine. What we keep coming back to are elements of the story that aren't explained in the story itself. I can shrug this off easily in a narrative, either not caring in favor of the exciting things happening or papering over any "plot holes" with little effort. Some of the other guests don't like doing this and see it as a shortcoming of the writer for Not Explaining Shit. Whether this is valid in a Doctor Who sense is irrelevant. It's valid here because early janky Game Boy physically had no room to explain things beyond the simplest of lines. We never learn what cataclysm wrecked Japan in the World Of Ruin. Was it the final result of the Cold War? Did a god disguise himself as the President and launch ICBMs to cleanse Japan of the demonic? We don't know. My personal thoughts? Suzaku did it. An invincible firebird burst forth one day, and no weaponry could break its shields. 1999. The Day of Suzaku. Well, in any case, you combine broken machine parts with plutonium to create ERASE-99, and then you go through a skyscraper and a subway before fighting Su-Zaku on top of the train and beating him.... but not before its wrath descends upon a town and kills every inhabitant. You can investigate the bodies, and the prompt tells you "This man is dead.". Remember that.

With the four Chinese direction bosses done, we ascend more Tower. Hidden away in a side room is the most grim moment of the game, more grim than an entire town dying to Chinese fire bird. Once again we find a room full of corpses. Examining them, however, doesn't tell us that "this man is dead.". Instead we get the far more chilling "This child looks dead.". Further examining the bodies will yield a diary where the children state that they're running out of food before praying to the "Creator". If you do this, the game doesn't tell you the item you get; a nuke. Holy shit. That's dark as hell, and again it's brimming with ambiguity. It's like a horror movie where you don't see the monster; any scenario we can come up with to how and why these kids died is more horrific than the scenario writer jotting something down and making it canon. But no, guys, the story's a 1/10. It's a simplistic and crappy story about climbing a dumb tower, right?

A final gauntlet awaits you, with a boss named Ashura and a return to the beginning of the game before climbing way way up and fighting the Chinese myth monsters again in more powerful forms. Final Fantasy Legend has one save slot and you can save anywhere. I saved during this ascent and found myself at very low HP. I could have made the game unwinnable in this way. That's another trap set by the KAWAZU VORTEX, but you reach the top and find healing. You also find the Creator. He explains that the entire tower ascent was a fun game he created because he was bored. The party reacts in abject horror, and as became customary in RPGs to follow in the PS1 era, you kill God with swords. Except... it's not God. Give it a quick think. His name is the Creator, he talks about everything being a game... it's Kawazu. Akitoshi Kawazu is the final boss of his own goddamned game, the characters are horrified at the concept of their fictionality... and what are you to do but hack away at him with swords? That's what you do to the last guy. You fight him and you win. The entire thing was a metafiction, and the party approaches a door behind the Creator. Where does it lead? We don't know. They reject it, and go back to the base of the tower. I think the door is Kawazu's entry point back into our universe. He can cross over because he is creator, and this is his charged emboited space. Our protagonists are but code. They cannot leap out of the screen, so they remain in the world they know. It's comfortable, and they can kill monsters with swords any time. As they stand at the entrance to the tower, they proclaim "See you again!".

Fucking. Genius. 10/10. Hundred out of a hundred, best game. It's a janky early mess of a game but it does so many neat things and makes you think that... I love it. By god, I love one of mad scientist Akitoshi Kawazu's hot messes of alchemical chaos. He made more SaGa games, and some of us are playing them now. Some of us are planning to play more. God help us all as we brave the KAWAZU VORTEX. We may not survive, but I've learned things about going against the norm. Things that will stick with me. Including the lead of my party, who personally struck the final blow on the Creator Kawazu. It's appropriate for this blog, and there's only one way to close this massive bit of rambling.

All hail Peko The Destructor.