Final Fantasy (NES)

Christmas 1990 was my season of Final Fantasy. Enix’s Dragon Warrior (aka Dragon Quest) had served as my introduction to turn-based RPGs the year before and I was chomping at the bit for more of that same monster bashing, treasure hunting, level grinding fun. Nintendo Power magazine had been pushing the game like nobody’s business over the lead-up to the holidays, going so far as to make their October issue a dedicated 80-page strategy guide. I suppose they were still banking on RPGs blossoming into a national craze here the way they had in Japan. Sorry, guys. Between my own recent gaming experiences and this unrelenting press hype, I couldn’t shut up about Final Fantasy. There was no doubt in my mind it’d be waiting for me under the tree, although that might just be because I made it a point to discover where the presents were secreted away beforehand so I could check.

Obsessed? Maybe a little. In any case, it’s tough to blame me. Square’s little Dragon Quest killer that could represented a major leap forward for Famicom RPGs when it debuted in Japan in December of 1987 and that impression carried over to its eventual American release. To understand why, it’s useful to compare it to its most prominent Japanese competitor, Dragon Quest II. Not only did the much flashier Final Fantasy clean up in the graphics department, its RPG mechanics were exponentially deeper. Dragon Quest II’s party of three predefined characters was child’s play next to Final Fantasy’s four member team built from the player’s choice of six distinct character classes. Combat also received a shot in the arm. Dragon Quest’s static first-person view was replaced by a revolutionary battle screen that showcased both the monsters and animated versions of the player’s party. Even the methods used to navigate Final Fantasy’s sprawling world felt like a step up. Both games give the party a sailing ship for ocean voyages, but Final Fantasy threw in a canoe for rivers and that almighty franchise staple, the Airship. In short, lead designer Hironobu Sakaguchi and his team really threw down the gauntlet with this one. Final Fantasy is a bold, swaggering title that’s better than the first two Dragon Quests combined and knows it. In retrospect, it had “flagship” written all over it. It’s no wonder Square swiftly abandoned its eclectic roots to become a highly focused purveyor of RPGs thereafter.

What does one actually do in Final Fantasy? Well, in terms of story and overall gameplay structure, it’s an archetypal late ’80s console RPG. Four heroes known as the Light Warriors are prophesied to appear when the world is in peril, each bearing a darkened orb representing one of the elements. Their mission is to restore light to these orbs by defeating the four Fiends, an alliance of evil magical beings responsible for turning said elements against humanity. This is accomplished via the usual mix of open-ended wilderness exploration and dungeon delving fetch quests, during which thousands of randomly appearing monsters will be slaughtered for their precious gold and experience points.

Like virtually all other RPGs of its era, Final Fantasy lacks the extensive characterization and constantly evolving plot lines that would become synonymous with the genre in the decades to come. NPCs express themselves with the most concise of declarations and none of the Light Warriors are given a single line of dialog. It’s a basic “save the world” errand with no elaboration furnished or required. The primary reason anyone would want to experience it, then and now, is the wealth of meaningful choices baked into in its core mechanics.

The main attraction is that character class system I mentioned. I can’t say enough good things about the six options on offer here. Three of them (the Fighter, Black Belt, and Thief) are primarily physical combatants, two (the Black and White Mages) are useful only for spellcasting, and one (the Red Mage) attempts to split the difference. Within these broad categories, care was taken to ensure every class shines in its own way. The Fighter, for example, is a rock. He can use any weapon or armor and is a steady, reliable source of melee damage throughout the game. The Black Belt, on the other hand, starts incredibly weak and the few items of equipment he can use only tend to make him weaker. By the late game, however, the Black Belt’s bare hands will drastically out-damage the Fighter’s best weapons. The Red Mage works much the same, except in reverse. His combination of magic with decent weapons and armor makes him the strongest class by far early on, yet he ultimately can’t keep pace with all the high-end spells and gear of his more focused counterparts. On top of all this, some classes can gain all new abilities partway through the game as part of an optional quest. This system of trade-offs makes Final Fantasy exceptionally replayable. Want to try an all physical or all magical team? Go for it! Four White Mages? You’re insane, but the game won’t stop you!

Another facet of Final Fantasy I enjoy is the combat. This is mainly due to one very controversial quirk of the battle system: Specific enemy targeting. Unlike in most turn-based RPGs, you don’t target whole enemy formations with your characters’ physical attacks, only single baddies. This feature is often perceived as a flaw or annoyance, since if two Light Warriors are going after the same monster and the first one kills it, the second hero’s strike will whiff for lack of a valid target. Most later revisions of the game remove this penalty in favor of a more forgiving automatic re-targeting. That’s a pity, as I think the older method is great. It forces you to plan each and every turn carefully in order to avoid wasting valuable moves. You need to consider the average damage output of your characters, the hit point totals and defenses of their opponents, etc. All these mandatory mental calculations are a perfect antidote to the mindless “mash the attack button to win” default of many other RPGs. If you’re looking for a solid reason to consider the classic NES version of Final Fantasy over its many remakes, this more involved and challenging take on combat is it.

On the flip side, the best argument for those remakes is the ludicrously buggy nature of the original. Final Fantasy shipped with an extremely ambitious magic system for the time and most of it either doesn’t function as intended or doesn’t function at all. The intelligence statistic is supposed to govern the strength of spells. In reality, it’s meaningless and this greatly hampers the effectiveness of late game attack magic. Some spells, such as TMPR, SABR, and LOCK, do nothing. LOK2 has the opposite of its intended effect, making the foe you cast it on harder to hit rather than easier. There’s also a whole cycle of enchanted swords meant to deal increased damage to particular enemy types. None of this bonus damage was actually implemented, resulting in a bunch of mediocre “non-magic magic” weapons you’re better off simply selling. I’m only scratching the surface here, believe it or not. While not quite game breaking, this avalanche of cumulative programming blunders serves as an unfortunate beginner’s trap for anyone not already well-versed in playing around them. If you have the ability to run patched game ROMs from a flash cartridge or in an emulator, do consider loading up AstralEsper’s Final Fantasy Restored or a similar fan-produced bug fix.

Looking past its bare bones narrative and litany of baffling bugs, I’m still in love with the first Final Fantasy. I love its timeless Nobuo Uematsu score, highlights of which were destined to be reverently repackaged into every subsequent series entry. I love its eldritch and intimidating Dungeons & Dragons-inspired monster designs by master illustrator Yoshitaka Amano. Above all, I love its anything goes class system. Case in point: Halfway through writing this review, I got the urge to see how a group of two Black Belts and two Red Mages would fare. Just like that, I’ve started my next playthrough! So here’s to my first thirty years with Final Fantasy. Maybe I’ll finally be bored of it when 2050 rolls around. I wouldn’t bet on that if I were you, though.

Live A Live (Super Famicom)

Happy New Year, classic gaming fans!

I’ve mentioned it before, but I rarely get around to playing turn-based RPGs anymore. The amount of hours they require is too great for me to fit more than one or two a year into my schedule. Back when systems like the SNES were new, I was living carefree enough that all that play time felt like a selling point rather than a millstone round my neck. Ah, memories.

As soon as I learned about the 1994 Super Famicom exclusive Live A Live (that’s “live” as in “live streaming”) a couple years back, however, I knew it warranted a spot on my short list. Live A Live’s defining gimmick was too fascinating to ignore: Eight chapters, each with its own setting and characters, presented in anthology style and capped off with a final chapter that ties everything together. Not to mention it’s the product of Square at the very height of their creative prowess, as exemplified by fellow 1994 alumnus Final Fantasy VI. Yeah, that sounds like something worth kicking off a new decade with.

Live A Live strikes out bold with a cold open. You’re ushered straight from the title screen to the chapter select menu without a shred of explanation. Highlighting the seven characters on offer reveals one-word labels like “Cowboy,” “Ninja,” or “Caveman.” It’s clear you’re not intended to be thinking about which of them is the best or right choice. You’re supposed to follow your gut and pick whoever you think is the coolest or most intriguing. These first seven chapters can be played in any order and will likely take you anywhere from thirty minutes to three hours apiece to complete. They’re set in diverse time periods, from the prehistoric to the far future, and all have their own self-contained game worlds, casts, and even title screens and end credit rolls. Think of it like an RPG sampler platter.

There are gameplay tweaks unique to every chapter, as well. The ninja’s adventure sees you infiltrating an enemy castle and includes a stealth element. Depending on how patient and adept you are with your invisibility cloak, you can finish with a body count anywhere between zero and a hundred. The shortest chapter, set in the modern day, has you controlling a contestant in a Street Fighter style martial arts tournament. It’s literally all combat. There’s no game world to explore whatsoever, only an opponent select screen. It’s polar opposite is the far future chapter. Here, you control a newly-built sentient robot aboard a starship carrying a dangerous alien cargo. Dialog and character interaction are pushed to the forefront, as the only combat takes places through the medium of a video game machine in the ship’s lounge, making battles technically a game within a game.

If bits and pieces of this game’s premise are starting to sound oddly familiar to you, then congratulations: You’re on to something. Yes, Live A Live’s focus on jumping between time periods while controlling a robot, a caveman, and a medieval knight, among others, is more than a little suggestive of Square’s much better-known 1995 masterpiece, Chrono Trigger. It should come as no surprise, then, that Takashi Tokita served as Live A Live’s director and one of its two writers, roles he would reprise the following year for Chrono Trigger. A few of the latter’s callbacks are downright blatant, such as when a magic sword is used to cut a path through a cliffside to a villain’s stronghold. Interesting as these parallels are to the JRPG veteran, I wouldn’t venture to say Live A Live is merely a dry run for something grander. The way its first eight chapters are fully compartmentalized gives it a stop-and-go narrative flow completely unlike the traditional unified quest line that defines Chrono Trigger.

It defies other key genre conventions, too, mostly in the interest of keeping the pace brisk. No currency to accumulate or shops to spend it in means you’ll find all your equipment upgrades through basic exploration of the compact game worlds. There’s also no limit placed on how many times you can use your special techniques in battle, and any damage your party sustains is automatically repaired after each fight. In other words, you have no need to make periodic trips to inns and temples in order to restore health and magic points or resurrect dead characters. In fact, the usual RPG towns only appear when a given chapter’s story calls for one as a backdrop. While some players may miss the perceived depth conferred by elements like this, I reckon it’s nice to have your time respected. There’s nothing so special about gold grinding or backtracking to heal up that would justify padding a two hour chapter out to four in my book. The battle system itself (a chess-like affair based around movement on a 7×7 overhead grid) is functional and easy to grasp. Although it won’t win any awards, its simplicity compliments the rest of these streamlined mechanics.

On balance, Live A Live’s avant-garde approach pays off in a big way. The highlight by far is the story. Most of the first eight chapters are just long enough to get you emotionally invested in the leads and satisfied at the climaxes of their individual journeys. Factor in a finale that furnishes your dream team of heroes from across time with a worthy adversary to face off against and you have one resounding success on the storytelling front. This dramatic heft is expertly bolstered by a rich and expansive soundtrack courtesy of industry legend Yoko Shimomura (Street Fighter II, Parasite Eve, Kingdom Hearts). Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t heap some of this praise on the Aeon Genesis group’s extraordinary fan translation effort. Unofficial as it obviously is, they went above and beyond the call of duty here, including unique fonts and text box designs for the various chapters which weren’t in the Japanese original.

About the only flaw preventing Live A Live from joining its sibling Chrono Trigger in the pantheon of peerless 16-bit greats is a predictable one: For all its strengths, it’s quite uneven. When I stated above that “most” of its nine segments made for satisfying journeys, I meant around 2/3 of them. Both the cowboy and wrestler chapters are incredibly bare bones, clocking in at half an hour or less. What’s there is quality material, there simply isn’t enough of it for me to get cozy and start feeling invested. At least I can’t say I actively despised these chapters, unlike the godawful mecha one. Apparently intended as a parody/homage to Akira and other near future sci-fi anime, it’s the only part of Live A Live that drags due to its vague, repetitive, and overly specific progression requirements. As if that somehow wasn’t bad enough, it’s also a non-stop cavalcade of unlikable characters, cringe-worthy humor, and nonsense technobabble plot contrivances. The idea of having to slog through it again someday if I want the undeniable pleasure of re-experiencing Live A Live as a whole is a genuine bummer.

Whatever you do, though, don’t let that dollop of negativity dissuade you from giving Live A Live a shot. Its reputation as a lost classic in Western gaming circles is well-founded. Structurally, it’s one of most experimental JPRGs of the ’90s, and it achieves this without coming off pretentious or intimidating in the slightest. Why settle for one fresh start this year when you can have nine?

Final Fantasy IV: Namingway Edition (Super Nintendo)

I’ve covered several fan-made hacks of existing games over the past few years. Not only do these labors of love by talented hobbyists fascinate me on a conceptual level, the best of them are just as fun to kick back and play through as the classics they’re built upon. The other hacks I’ve examined to date, such as The Legend of Zelda: Outlands and Castlevania: Chorus of Mysteries, have all sought to deliver entirely new adventures rooted in the time-tested core mechanics (the “engines,” if you will) of their source titles. The so-called Namingway Edition of Square’s celebrated 1991 RPG Final Fantasy IV is something else entirely. What we have here amounts to a complete fan re-localization intended to replace the game’s deeply flawed original English version.

The tumultuous saga of FFIV’s initial North American localization is widely known, so I’ll keep this as brief as I can. For starters, it wasn’t even called Final Fantasy IV here back in 1991, but rather Final Fantasy II. The second and third games in the series wouldn’t see official release outside Japan until 2002 and 2006, respectively, so Square opted to rename this fourth entry in order to avoid confusion. Ironically, it would have opposite effect once the Internet became commonplace later in the decade and Western gamers started trying to read up on all the Japanese exclusives they missed out on. Don’t even get me started on the decision to skip over the fifth game and then call the sixth Final Fantasy III. Oy.

This name change was only the beginning. The gameplay itself was simplified for the North American audience to an almost insulting degree. Nearly every character lost at least one unique special ability, numerous inventory items were omitted, and enemies were given weaker stats across the board, rendering combat a cinch. Square would eventually release this iteration of the game in Japan as Final Fantasy IV Easy Type.

Finally, the translation was mediocre at best. This isn’t lead translator Ted Woolsey’s fault per se. He had to contend with a perfect storm of insane deadlines, tight cartridge memory limits, and Nintendo of America’s Puritanical content restrictions. All considered, the work is commendable. It’s also awkward, dry, and corny by turns. While this occasionally led to iconic moments like sage Tellah’s immortal “spoony bard” diatribe (which all future re-translations to date, including this one, have wisely left intact), the naturalness and nuance of the source material largely failed to shine through.

The first question before us is simple: Has the six person team behind the Namingway Edition (Rodimus Primal, vivify93, chillyfeez, Grimoire LD, Justin3009, Bahamut Zero) succeeded in delivering the pristine, unbutchered English version of Final Fantasy IV that I and so many others were denied back in the day? In a word: Absolutely! The missing battle commands like Rosa’s Pray, Edward’s Salve, and Yang’s Brace and Focus are all present and fully functional, as are all the previously cut items. You’ll need them, too, as your enemies actually put up a fight here. The new translation is all-around more functional and pleasing. Even minor elements dummied out of the official release (the disrobing dancing girl in Baron town, the hidden developer room) are enabled once more. Hell, the team actually went above and beyond by adding one very welcome new feature: A run button for getting around towns and dungeons faster! There’s no doubt in my mind that the Namingway Edition is currently the definitive way to enjoy Final Fantasy IV on the Super Nintendo.

This raises a second, much thornier dilemma, however: Should you bother? In order to determine how well Final Fantasy IV proper has withstood the test of time, I’m going to focus on the trio of vital elements that really set it apart from its JRPG predecessors for me nearly three decades ago:  The innovative Active Time Battle combat system, composer Nobuo Uematsu’s lush score, and the dynamic story that drives the main quest.

The Active Time Battle (ATB) system introduced here will be familiar to any Final Fantasy fan, given that iterations of it comprise an integral part of no less than eight main series entries, including all-time critical and fan favorites like VI and VII. Designer Hiroyuki Ito derived the idea from Formula One racing, believe it or not, envisioning the combatants as cars of varying speeds completing laps around a track at different intervals. Instead of inputting commands for all of your party members at once, a speed statistic regulates how much downtime individual fighters have between their command prompts. More interesting still, when it is time to enter a command, you need to be quick about it. The computer-controlled combatants each have their own speed stats and will continue to execute their attacks regardless of whether or not you’re ready for them. In other words, simply having a command menu open doesn’t freeze time. The enemy design compliments this real time dynamic expertly. Some adversaries transition in and out of defensive postures as the battle progresses. Attacking these foes at an inopportune moment can result in reduced damage, devastating counterattacks, or both. Other fights effectively impose a time limit on the player, as in the case of the huge animated stone wall boss that slowly advances across the screen, threatening to crush the heroes if it should survive long enough to reach their side. I can’t emphasize enough what shot in the arm ATB was to traditional JRPG combat. The need to swiftly determine your optimal strategy and then punch in the necessary commands accurately and without hesitation adds an element of skillful execution that almost bridges the gap between a turn-based and action RPG at times. It’s as tense and exhilarating today as it ever was. So far, so good.

Uematsu’s soundtrack also hasn’t aged a day in 28 years. I can still remember my middle school self being blown away by just how real the instruments sounded. While this wasn’t my first exposure to the Super Nintendo’s unique sample-based audio chip, it was the first release I encountered for the system that went all-in on a grand pseudo-symphonic style. The very notion that these soaring strings and rumbling kettle drums were reaching my ears courtesy of a common cartridge and not one of those cutting edge CD-ROMs was just staggering. Although that sense of naive amazement is long gone, the compositions themselves are still marvelous. Final Fantasy IV’s main overworld theme in particular never fails to leave me enraptured, evoking a sense of intrigue, wonder, and a long, perilous journey ahead. In some cases, these tracks verge on being too good for the material they support. The famous love theme of Cecil and Rosa is easily the most compelling thing about their otherwise tepid on-screen romance.

Unfortunately, it’s on that last note that I have to start dialing back the effusive praise some. Final Fantasy IV’s epic, genre-redefining story is…way less cool than I remembered. Now, try not to bust out the pitchforks and torches just yet. I’m not saying the plot here is bad, just that it’s not nearly as substantial as it seemed to me at age thirteen. The quest of knight Cecil Harvey and his dozen or so colorful companions to stop some pretty underdeveloped evil dudes from collecting the many magic crystals they need to take over the world is akin to a Saturday morning cartoon or melodramatic anime/manga series aimed at adolescents. Motivations are simplistic, lone exaggerated personality traits stand in for characterization, the heroes routinely make maudlin gestures of self-sacrifice that most often have no long-term consequences at all. It’s all still charming and enjoyable in its superficial, pulpy way, but don’t come expecting any of the more somber or thoughtful beats that later entries in the series leaned so heavily on. There’s just very little in the way of dramatic weight being thrown around here.

Take Cecil’s famous transformation scene on Mt. Ordeals, for example, where he renounces his past as a dark knight to take up the holy mantle of a paladin. It should be a real turning point for him as character. The problem is that we’ve never really experienced Cecil as a villain prior to this. He wouldn’t have even qualified as an anti-hero. When we’re introduced to him in the game’s very first scene, he’s already wracked with guilt over obeying an immoral order from his king to steal one of the magic crystals from some innocent townsfolk. Almost immediately after that, he renounces his fealty to the wicked monarch and devotes himself entirely to protecting the victims of his former liege at any cost. From a dramatic standpoint, then, all he really does at Mt. Ordeals is transition from being a good guy in black armor to a good guy in gold armor. You never see him do anything thereafter that you couldn’t imagine the “old Cecil” doing. Square could have done so much more in terms of spinning a real arc out of material like this, as almost every subsequent Final Fantasy entry would prove.

One thing I can applaud Final Fantasy IV’s storyline for is its pacing. Like the best serialized adventure fiction, it knows how to sink its hooks into you and keep the stakes feeling high throughout as it ushers you briskly from crisis to crisis. Slight as it is, this sucker really moves. That, in conjunction with the gripping battle system and some truly majestic tunes have kept it a cut above most of its genre peers to this day. It’s been officially remade multiple times for the PlayStation, Game Boy Advance, and more, but if you’re like me and harbor a nostalgic attachment to the look, sound, and feel of the Super Nintendo original, you should strongly consider giving the Namingway Edition hack a go on your next playthrough. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the final Final Fantasy IV.

Seiken Densetsu 3 (Super Famicom)

I finished, but I’ve only just begun!

It’s tough to know where to start with a game as legendary as this one. Released in 1995, Seiken Densetsu 3 is developer/publisher Square’s follow-up to their hit 1993 action RPG Secret of Mana. It’s also the first of the Seiken Densetsu (“Legend of the Sacred Sword”) series to never leave Japan. By 1995, the rise of next generation consoles like the Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn led to Square deciding that investing the necessary time and money required to translate and localize a massive, text-heavy Super Famicom game like SD3 would be a bit of a fool’s errand. While this may have made good business sense at the time, it was a minor tragedy for English-speaking RPG fans and cemented SD3’s reputation as perhaps the most lamented of the great “lost” 16-bit games. Until 2000, that is, when the first version of the unofficial English fan translation hit the Internet. Does it live up to all the hype? Several times over!

I played SD3 on a reproduction cartridge containing the English version of the game ROM. The label on my copy bears the somewhat misleading title Secret of Mana 2. Many gamers have fond memories of Secret of Mana/Seiken Densetsu 2, but the first game in the series for the Game Boy, released in North America under the title Final Fantasy Adventure in order to piggyback on Square’s most popular franchise, is often unjustly forgotten these days. You can bet I’ll be showcasing Final Fantasy Adventure someday.

Like its predecessors, SD3 is an action RPG with a very distinctive art style that’s cute, colorful, and extremely lush. In fact, you could easily make a strong case for SD3 being the single best looking game ever released for the console. Sprints are sumptuously detailed and sport tons of smooth animation. Even the lowliest generic NPC townspeople in this game show off more visual detail and smoother walk cycles than the main protagonists in most 16-bit RPGs. Many of the backgrounds are positively jaw-dropping and could even be described as painterly. Furthermore, the audio is almost as superb as the visuals. While I enjoyed the compositions in Secret of Mana a little more overall, the tunes here are very catchy indeed and the production quality is top notch. Like Square’s other soundtracks from this period, SD3’s is about as close to CD quality audio as it’s possible to get on the Super Famicom. It’s also quite extensive, with over fifty tracks.

This is all probably to be expected, though. Secret of Mana was also noted as one of the most gorgeous console games to date upon its release. Where SD3 really sets itself apart from the rest of the series is in its innovative story structure. The game has six unique protagonists to choose from, each with their own exclusive story elements to experience. There’s Angela the sorceres, Carlie the cleric, Duran the swordsman, Hawk the thief, Lise the amazon, and Kevin the werewolf.

The first thing you’ll do when starting a new playthrough is select your main character. After that, you’ll pick two of the remaining five heroes to serve as support characters for your lead. This means that you can only ever have three of the six playable characters in your party during any single playthrough. Over the course of the game, you’ll get to see the entire storyline for your chosen lead, an abbreviated “Cliffs Notes” version for each of the two sidekicks, and the three characters you don’t pick at all will only appear in brief walk-on cameo roles as NPCs.

Now, before you get too excited, this isn’t really like having six RPGs in one. It’s more like one and a half. No matter which characters you pick, the overarching plot and quest structure will always be essentially the same. You’ll mostly go to the same places and fight the same monsters and the unique elements of each character’s storyline tend to be concentrated at the very beginning and very end of the quest. Still, it’s really cool to see the same events play out from multiple perspectives and to get more background and dialogue for each individual hero. Your choice of main character also determines which of the game’s three villains will emerge as the primary antagonist.

Thankfully, it doesn’t seem like there’s any way to sabotage yourself by choosing a poor character or combination of characters. The designers did a great job of making sure that all the heroes are strong enough to hold their own and the game never gets so difficult that an optimized party or single strategy is necessary to continue. I went with the scientifically proven method of picking whoever I thought looked the coolest. I ended up with Angela, Hawk, and Lise and I did just great. Very smart design on Square’s part.

As if the multiple protagonists angle somehow wasn’t enough to make SD3 one of the most replayable RPGs ever made, there’s also a branching character class system. Any time after reaching level 18, a character can switch from their default class to either a “light” or “dark” class, each with slightly different abilities. For example, Lise the Amazon can pick the light option and become a Valkyrie or choose dark and become a Rune Maiden. Characters can repeat this process at level 38, so if Lise chose to become a Valkyrie, she can pick the light option again to become a Vanadis (light-light) or the dark option to become a Star Lancer (light-dark). There are thus a total of six additional classes per character, representing light, dark, light-light, light-dark, dark-dark, and dark-light. Once you make your choices, there’s no going back, so you would actually need to play through the game four times with a single character if you wanted to experience all six of that character’s class options. That seems a bit excessive to me, but the option’s there if you really want it.

It should be understood that class changing will never drastically alter a character’s role in the party. Using Lise as an example again, she’ll always have the same primary function no matter which classes you choose: She’s a robust “tank” style character that vanquishes foes with her spear attacks. Going down the light path will grant her “buff” spells that increase your party’s stats in combat while the dark path offers “debuff” spells that decrease enemy stats. Ultimately, though, she still remains a fighter type character. Similarly, no class change will ever make Angela the mage into a viable hand-to-hand combatant, but you can tweak her spell selection somewhat. This means that there’s really no way to ruin a character by picking a “bad” class, since the class changes only enhance an already competent character’s core strengths. They never undermine those strengths. Again, this is very clever design.

The main story of Seiken Densetsu 3 involves a fantasy world where the power of magic (mana) has begun to wane. Only the Mana Sword, a legendary weapon used by a goddess to create the world, can possibly reverse this process but it’s sealed away by the power of eight mana stones, each containing the essence of an evil god-beast vanquished by the goddess in primordial times. Three factions of villains send their respective nations to war against their neighbors in an effort to seize all the mana stones, break the seal, and claim the godlike power conferred by the Mana Sword for themselves. To stop them and restore peace, your heroes band together and set out to find the holy sword first. Each hero also has their own individual motives for joining the quest, including getting revenge for a fallen comrade, rescuing a kidnapped relative, and so on. It’s not the most unique premise for an RPG (every Seiken Densetsu game revolves around conflict over the titular sword, after all) but it does a serviceable job of pushing your party to every corner of the game’s diverse and charming world over the course of around 25 hours or so.

I’m very much pleased to report that SD3’s gameplay improves on Secret of Mana’s in virtually every way. Secret of Mana is a very beloved title among 16-bit RPG fans, even a bit of a sacred cow, but I’ve always had major issues with its gameplay. Hit detection felt highly inconsistent, the lengthy charge time on weapon attacks slowed the pace of melee combat to a crawl, and the optimal fighting strategy was usually just to cast the same attack spell over and over again in rapid succession.

Well, SD3’s hit detection has been honed, so say goodbye to well-aimed attacks that whiff for no apparent reason. The weapon charge bar has been replaced by a tech meter that builds as you land blows and filling it up allows you to release more powerful attacks without slowing down combat as a whole. Most importantly, the magic system has been tweaked with balance in mind and you can no longer abuse the trick of repeatedly opening the menu and tossing out an endless stream of spells before your helpless enemy can even react. The end result of all this is that combat in SD3 flows much smoother and feels much more engaging and all-around satisfying. It’s a real joy to beat up on fluffy little rabites and ducks in army helmets this time around. They even improved the pathfinding abilities of computer-controlled party members so that they get stuck on the scenery less often, although this will still happen on occasion.

Multiplayer gameplay also makes a return. I didn’t get a chance to try it out myself, but it seems safe to say that the faster weapon combat and more balanced magic would make for an improved experience.

Is Seiken Densetsu 3 a perfect game? Not quite. I already mentioned that the story a bit on the basic side, despite the promising addition of multiple viewpoints. Not every gamer has a problem with clichéd  JRPG plots, characters, and dialogue. For some, an abundance of familiar tropes might even be desirable; a kind of “gaming comfort food.” If this is you, you’ll adore SD3’s simplistic narrative, in which one-dimensional cackling villains just can’t wait to reveal their “true forms” and mortally wounded characters exclaim things like “Goodbye, cruel world!” If you don’t prefer your RPGs lightweight and corny, though, just be aware going in that this one isn’t packed with thought-provoking concepts and big emotional payoffs.

I also wish that the class changing system could have been made available to the player earlier on in the game. Eighteen levels is a long chunk of time to be stuck in each character’s relatively boring starter class. After the first class change, there’s an even lengthier twenty level gap until the next. By the time you’re finally able to unlock each character’s final, coolest class at level 38, you’ll find that the game is almost over! My party was level 47 when I defeated the final boss and I didn’t even feel like I needed to be that strong. My take is that offering class changes at levels 10 and 30 instead would have improved both the early and late game experience significantly.

Seiken Densetsu 3 is still one spectacular action RPG, however, and a drastic improvement on Secret of Mana in virtually every way. It’s a huge title with so much going on that I didn’t even get around to mentioning some of the major new innovations, like the dynamic day/night cycle that affects enemy encounters and Kevin the werewolf’s transformations. If you liked SoM, you’ll love SD3. If you loved SoM, SD3 will likely secure a place near the top of your personal “best games of all time” list. It plays like a dream, represents peak audiovisual achievement within the 16-bit console generation, and will have you wanting to play through it all over again before you’ve even finished your first go-around.

I just feel sorry for all those sweet little rabites.