For those of us from Europe this game will always be known confusingly as ‘Final Fantasy Mystic Quest’, and for others in America its ‘Final Fantasy Adventure’, however in truth this game is at its best using its Japanese title ‘Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden’ marking it as the first entry into the massively popular ‘Mana’ series.
Squaresoft at the time had three main ‘characters’ who were powerful voices in development of their games. Sakaguchi, creator of the Final Fantasy series was an avid devotee to menu based combat and storytelling. Kawazu was a fan of pushing unique gameplay elements and headed up the SaGa line of titles which were appearing on the Game Boy at this time, and finally Aoki (who had had a run working on Final Fantasy with Sakaguchi) wanted to push more realistic combat with real-time attacking and defending. Square finally gave him this chance by offering him the ‘Emergence of Excalibur’ project on the Game Boy, a Final Fantasy sub-brand which would evolve into the start of the hugely successful Mana series.
Graphically the game was stunning for its time and holds up extremely well today thanks in part to an uncluttered screen and some excellent sprite-work. Characters and monsters are instantly recognisable at a glance whilst manoeuvring around the screens, which scroll in a panel-to-panel manner similar to the ‘Legend of Zelda’. Health, MP and Gold totals are all displayed along the bottom of the screen in a clearly defined font alongside a bar that is slim but quickly gauged by the player. Locations are interesting to look at and different animations for various weapon attacks add additional flair to the games presentation. Bosses come in different sizes, with a two-headed dragon early in the game being most impressive, and menus are easy to navigate.
Composed by Kenji Ito (though the Chocobo track is credited to Nobuo Uematsu and repurposed from the Final Fantasy series) the soundtrack to Seiken Densetsu is surprisingly memorable for a Game Boy title and pushes the capabilities of the handheld to its limits. Sadly sound effects haven’t held up as well over time and sound clunky or washed-out as you play, with only the noise for damage coming off particularly strong.
The games story centres around a player-named hero who is the prisoner of ‘Dark Lord’, a powerful warlord who has a sinister goal. Warned by a dying friend of his intentions and urged to seek out the knight Bogard, you escape the arena only to be pushed from a cliff by Dark Lord himself. Surviving by the narrowest of margins, the hero stumbles upon a player-named heroine who is also in search of the reclusive Bogard and together embark on a world-spanning journey. The game’s story is fairly well conceived and although character names (such as ‘Dark Lord’) have undergone simplistic translation changes it remains accessible and interesting to play through to this day. The switch to English did cause a great deal of dialogue to be cut or simplified at the time of the games original release, leading to some emotionally poignant moments falling flat, but the game builds momentum as it goes, opening with a strong sequence and moving forward from there.
Gameplay marks the sharpest deviation from the Final Fantasy series that spawned this title. Immediately players are thrust into an arena battle where the basics of combat are made evident without a wordy tutorial given to explain them. Slashing the sword deals damage, but depletes the gauge at the bottom of the screen. If the gauge is full a powerful attack is triggered whilst if the gauge is empty only minimal damage occurs. The trade-off is speed and manoeuvrability, as you’ll have to continue to successfully dodge an opponent in real-time in order to stay alive long enough for the bar to hit 100%. Levelling helps with this, giving the player an option of which area to buff, from health, magic power and speed of bar charge. All three are important, but triggering those special moves is pivotal to some boss battles. Gameplay sees you explore one screen at a time, with just enough of interest on each to keep your attention before moving on to the next, be that an enemy, small maze or chest to plunder. The game does make use of disposable items such as tools and keys to give depth to exploration, (axes cut down trees for example) but in this manages its one sin – it is possible to trap yourself in a dungeon room with no way out because a door locks behind you and you have no keys left. I’ve only seen this happen once, but it is possible and if a player saved in that room it would destroy that save for them, forcing a restart of the whole campaign. As the player explores he unlocks new weapons and even a mount that gets upgraded mid-game. Its main addition to the format over ‘the Legend of Zelda’ is in the NPC characters who accompany you through portions of the game. These run on a basic AI and can be incredibly helpful, with each being able to use a special move of their own.
For a handheld title released in 1991, Seiken Densetsu is one of the best games on the original Game Boy and perhaps one of the most playable handheld action RPGs out there. A strong story focus, puzzles and light but interesting systems lead it into classic territory. The subsequent Mana series would cut ties with Final Fantasy altogether and go its own way based on the elements and themes this game presents, and although there are updated versions of this title available (‘Sword of Mana’ on the GBA and ‘Adventures of Mana’ on iOS, Android and Vita) I’d still recommend going to the original over playing any of these ports. It’s deservedly a classic.