Final Fantasy USA: Mystic Quest, also known in other regions as Mystic Quest Legend… but not that Mystic Quest, which would be the Game Boy title US Squaresoft fans will remember as Final Fantasy Adventure, which was actually Seiken Densetsu, better known as the prequ- [sigh]
The game in the photo at the top. You know, that one. That game – whatever you want to call it – is a game in a hurry, keen on running headfirst from one huge event to the next. Hey kid – yes, I know you just escaped a collapsing mountain – look over there: Big tower – you can’t miss it. Dark King. Crystals. Yes, very sad. Better sort it out, hadn’t you? Anyway fight this literal behemoth by yourself and then we’ll crack on with the next important thing, OK?
Wait no, I have questions: Who’s the old guy? Who am I? What’s going on? The game has no interest in telling you, so it’s a good thing the forty-seven page manual is on hand to go into a bit more detail. Let’s see… you’re… ah! you’re “The protagonist” and you want to… it says here you really want to defeat the Dark King… travelled the world alone… foretold hero… OK so not exactly brimming with fresh information, is it? And the mysterious old man on the cloud giving you advice? According to his entry he’s called White, and he’s… oh dear. He’s a mysterious old man who gives the hero advice. And he rides a cloud too, in case you hadn’t already spotted that. Thanks a lot, manual.
Even if you include the time spent flipping through those pages it still only takes about fifteen minutes to gain your first party member – Karen (Kaeli in the English release), a green-dressed teenager with her own axe – and get attacked by a minotaur. Within forty you’ll have cleared your first major dungeon with another new teammate, beaten the boss within, saved the earth crystal, and returned the dull browns of the withered village of Foresta back to their vibrant greens.
As whirlwind as all that is Mystic Quest doesn’t feel shallow for it, and the reason for that has already been demonstrated by those repetitively obvious manual entries I mentioned earlier: The game never makes the mistake of trying to pretend it’s any more complicated than it really is. World building and character dialogue may only span a few sentences, but those short snippets of text comprise every single thing you need to know, so why make them any longer than they need to be? It feels economical rather than superficial, your actions always directly relevant to the task at hand (unless you choose to go elsewhere or spend some time clearing out those entirely optional XP-giving battlefields along the way) and your latest ally quick to identify the most pressing issue and then help you fix it. Whatever items you need will be found along the way if not outright given to you when required and every new weapon brings with it a new way of interacting with the world, whether that’s blowing straight through cracks in walls and floors with bombs, poking statues with your sword, or grappling across otherwise impassable gaps with an extending claw. After getting so used to RPGs of all types and ages making you jump through the old talk to the guy to talk to the guy to have a rest at the inn to talk to the girl to find out which cave off to the north-east you need to go to hoops this go for it attitude feels electric – and sometimes a little confusing. I can just… get on with things? Really?
In fact it can be so straightforward you end up tricking yourself into searching for a more convoluted solution. One of the first things Mystic Quest ever teaches you is how to jump – an action permanently mapped to a dedicated button like Sonic The Hedgehog – and yet later on when confronted with a path that was “blocked off” by a treasure chest it took me far too long to realise that all I had to do to get around it was hop on over and carry on.
The fighting’s equally uncomplicated, everything flowing as swift and smooth as a greased weasel down a water slide. With just two party members to handle at the most (one of which can become a remarkably intelligent AI controlled assistant at the tap of a button), no classes or jobs to train, equipment mostly something that happens automatically in your inventory, and straightforward icon-based magic casting there’s simply not that much for you to worry about. Not even death can hold you back, as you can restart any failed fight as many times as you have the patience to do so without penalty. It’s a small detail that transforms your relationship with enemy encounters, even beyond the straightforward relief of not having to restart from your latest save (which itself can be wherever you please): If you learn that a boss is weak to a particular weapon or spell too late to avoid a total squishing you always have the chance to try again and do better, and should your party get confused and end up roasting themselves to death with a powerful fire spell (comedy blinking through the soot animation and all) it’s just funny, because no real harm’s been done.
To confuse this easygoing behavior with mindless monotony would be to miss the pixellated woods for the neatly tiled trees – Mystic Quest doesn’t lack reams of stats because it’s a paper-thin ghost of an RPG, it lacks reams of stats because it has taken the time to honestly interrogate longstanding genre traditions and cast aside any it doesn’t find useful. Enemies will decay before your eyes as they take damage, flying birds turning into plucked chickens and enormous ice golems melting in stages as the fight wears on. An axe is an extremely effective weapon not only against trees but also anything else that would be susceptible to a forceful chop, including giant worms. Seeing as attacking a cockatrice with a melee weapon is guaranteed to petrify the assailant, why not hit them with ranged weapons instead? This is swift, smart, design backed up by that unmistakable Squaresoft-grade presentation: That “flare” of light as a battle begins and the music kicks in (truly some of the greatest tunes to ever come out of the SNES) make it clear that this is a game trying to squeeze every last possible drop of goodness out of its tiny cart and limited budget.
The common train of thought is that Mystic Quest is “My First Final Fantasy“, the one outside not only the numbered mainstream entries in the way the likes of Final Fantasy Tactics and Dissidia are but truly apart from all of the “real” games bearing the series’ name. It’s the one for people who don’t understand what “good” RPGs are – or what RPGs are at all – and to choose to spend time with this, an RPG on the same system as a vast number of English-language fan favourites and highly regarded niche classics, only reveals how uneducated and inexperienced you are.
But the truth is Mystic Quest is not RPGs simplified, it’s RPGs distilled. There’s plenty in here that many games in the genre – from any era – would be better for copying, from the plot’s unapologetic desire to get straight to the good stuff to the way the environmental interaction and fixed enemy encounters work together in perfect harmony, making this perhaps the only RPG ever to not leave you weeping at the thought of pushing pillars around a room or hunting for a hidden switch. Even the small cast of characters are a positive point in the game’s favour, each one given a brief turn in the spotlight before politely giving way to a fresh face. Mystic Quest isn’t just a Final Fantasy spinoff, it’s a template for a better sort of RPG, and a playable peek at a fantasy road less travelled.