Saturday, April 23, 2016

Xak: The Art of Visual Stage (SFC) Review

Received: January 16th, 2016 / Written: April 14th-21st, 2016
Published: April 23rd, 2016
Year: 1989, 1993 | Developed by: Tokai Engineering
Published by: Sunsoft | Licensed by: Micro Cabin | [|O|]

Hello everyone, StarBoy91 here; passionate about video games, big retrophile, and fan of all things 16-bit.  =)  When Nihon Falcom's Ys I: Ancient Ys Vanished and Ys II: Ancient Ys Vanished - The Final Chapter came out in 1987 and 1988 critics and audiences fell in love with them, having left an impact thanks to its amazing rock soundtrack, simple but intuitive controls with a good degree of challenge, and the very detailed and intriguing storytelling.  But, with every successful product there will always be something from a different company that will try to cash in on the success of said product, and Ys is no exception.
One of the most well-known Ys clones was Zoom Incorporated's second game and only contribution to the A-RPG genre in 1990's Lagoon, which got ported to the SFC/SNES in 1991 by Kemco-Seika.  It followed the Ys mold to a T in terms of structure, except for the controls (the Nintendo 16-bit port, anyway) which involved swinging your sword consecutively against enemies up close (very close) as opposed to shoving them; and while it may not have won audiences over I personally found it to be irresistible (I can't explain it, but there's something about its charm that draws me to its world) thanks to its sense of mood and atmosphere, various worlds and dungeon designs, as well as its music.  =)  I know it's not everyone's cup of tea, and I completely understand, but I honestly don't mind it for all its faults that it's got.

But there was one Ys clone that came out prior to Lagoon which only remained in Japan, which is why it's not as well-known.  In 1982 a Japanese developer/publisher called Micro Cabin was founded who most Western gamers would probably recognize for developing games like Guardian War on the 3DO and Mystaria: The Realms of Lore on the Sega Saturn, before the company went defunct back in 2008.  But in June 1989 came out the very title that not only was a breakthrough game for Micro Cabin but one that would eventually become a franchise in of itself: Xak: The Art of Visual Stage.
Originally released for the NEC PC-8801 and NEC PC-9801 computers, the first Xak was successful as it received numerous ports: first on the MSX2 that November, then it got converted to the Sharp X68000 on April 1990 (five months before Lagoon's debut), followed by a Riot-developed/Telenet Japan-published NEC PC-Engine port (alongside its sequel Xak II: Rising of the Redmoon) in the form of Xak I & II on December 1992, and on June 2004 it got ported to mobile phones.  But in-between the two ports came out a version for the Super Famiconsole in late February 1993 developed by Tokai (no, not Vic Tokai, Tokai Engineering) and published by... um, Sunsoft?  Peculiar choice.  =/  So what's today's title like?

Long ago there was a great "War of Sealing" that was being waged between the ancient gods who were benevolent but weakening and the demon race, which resulted with the slow collapse and inevitable mortality of the gods.  After the war the world got split into three parts by the gods: the human world Xak, the faerie world Oceanity, and the demon world Xexis, the last of which was sealed from the other two worlds to ensure that no demons would threaten peace again.  But unfortunately some demons remained on Xak, and other means to access its world from Xexis was being concocted.
One of the demons left on Xak was Badu, who used magic to make humans do his bidding; the god of war Duel put a stop to Badu's evil schemes and sealed him in an ice cold mountain.  When that was said and done, Duel lived the remainder of his life in a village called Fearless.  Two hundred-fifty years later Badu broke out from his prison, and once more Xak got invaded by monsters.  The King of Wavis, in order to bring an end to this chaos, sends forth the messenger faerie Lou Miri Pixie to find and inform famed warrior Dork Kart so that he would restore peace.
In the village of Fearless lived a sixteen year-old named Latok Kart, Dork's son, who lives with his blind mother Saria.  After picking up his childhood friend Elise's grandfather (and Fearless mayor)'s glasses from the village chapel it is there that Latok and Elise discover Pixie, who desperately needs to inform Dork of the recent uprising of monsters in Xak; but Latok's father has disappeared, and no one knows where he is.  So in this time of need, the young Latok agrees to go forth on behalf of the King to slay Badu once and for all, and hopes that along the way he'll find his missing father.

Attacking a hog on a bridge
Because I haven't played any other version of Xak: The Art of Visual Stage I will be talking about the Super Famicom edition exclusively.  The top-down A-RPG structure is very much like that of Ys; while the combat is more like the original The Legend of Zelda in that Latok's lunging his sword (technically swinging, but it's so swift it may as well be a lunge) against his enemies, overall it follows the Ys formula very closely.  With the X button you can access a menu where there are sections for equipment, items, status, loading, saving, and options (in that order, and the equipment and items sections are laid out in similar fashion); you use the sword with the B button, you use the item you've currently selected with the Y button, and with the A button you talk with people and inspect things.  Unlike the Ancient Ys Vanished diptych or Lagoon where your character moved in a square-pattern, in Xak you get to roam in all eight directions (like The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past), which is pretty cool.  =)  And except during boss fights you can save (or load) your progress during any part of the game in any one of three game files.

Fending off against blue demons
When you take damage during the game you can stand still in a safe spot as your health slowly, slowly replenishes itself; later on will be a cape you can wear that will enable you to heal deep in the underworld (though there are edible items like bread and steak which can speed up the process).  In the Ys games it was only ever possible to get one of the same item, but in Xak you can have up to ten of the same item which is quite convenient.  With each monster and boss they are worth differing amounts in gold value and the stronger the monster the more experience points you get; and with each level gained the defeat of the same monsters will grant you significantly less experience points (but their gold value will not change).  Like the Ancient Ys Vanished diptych you'll not be allowed to access your menu during boss fights, but you can pause it with the Start button.

"Whispy Woods says 'hi', tree-cutter!!!"
The visuals in Xak are quite detailed but at the same time are very bright (for the most part) and colorfully polished to look at, for they are pleasing to the eyes.  =)  The village of Fearless is very lively with all the people walking around, the sense of shading in the fort you venture in is effective right down to the detailed walls and floor décor, the lava during the volcano segment glows brightly, and both the way towards the fort and cliff standing above the underground realm have got a really nice view below you to name a few examples.  There are a wide range of enemies: among them blobs, skeletons, tail-whipping lizards, carnivorous plants, three-headed lionesses, wasps, and even golems and they all animate well.  The bosses are huge not to mention very intimidating in terms of design, like the evil tree early on in the game with that unsettling glare as well as the two elements combined into one later on.  Badu is a very grotesque figure when you get to him even with that dark backdrop.

Huh, you don't often see sailors in dwarf villages
Latok has got a good in-game design (especially when wearing that cape), his walking animation is very decent, and when he uses his sword it's so swift in terms of speed and motion--the only nitpick is that his left/right sprites are precisely flipped what with his shield magically switching hands.  The NPCs are charmingly designed (there are many different kinds, especially a couple boys in Fearless who are so full of energy that they run faster than even you), whether it be humans or dwarves, and Pixie's sprites are appropriately tiny.  The vital characters when you talk to them have got beautifully drawn anime profiles, and the intro cutscene is great-looking: you get a small glimpse of the setup during the intro, which then segues to the title with a sky backdrop behind the title Xak, and soon after Lou Miri Pixie pops up and the title fades to reveal her flying through a whole skyline, followed by preceding well-drawn still shots (which are panned) colored in hues of red where the King of Wavis summons and sends her off to find Dork Kart.  It's really engaging stuff!  =)

Creepy abandoned place with giant wasps  ={
As one would expect from a game that's similar in style to Ys, Xak's music is mostly comprised of rock and it is absolutely impressive.  =D  Originally composed by Ryuji Sasai (who would go on to provide music for Final Fantasy Legend III and Final Fantasy Mystic Quest) and Tadahiro Nitta (who would go on to provide music for Illusion City: Gen'ei Toshi, Elm Knight, and Shenmue)--both of whom would reunite again in the series for the sequel Xak II: Rising of the Redmoon and the Xak spinoff Fray in Magical Adventure--the music does a succinct job at setting the tone and atmosphere for each respective setting and scene that plays out.  The very first song you hear during the title starts out soft and inviting until suddenly it becomes supercharged with an element of both intrigue and urgency to the proceedings; what a way to draw you into the game right off the bat.  =)

Time to partake in a little harpy-cide
The rest of what follows is also great and so engaging to listen to; among them the theme for Fearless (1:33--the only YouTube video I could find of the SFC version's soundtrack to which I could link to was with all its songs in the same video) which sounds so happy and jovial, the first battlefield you venture in has a theme (13:57) that gets you right into all its rock-induced action, the fort theme (22:08--one of my favorite songs) has an inviting and mysterious aura going for it that it adds so much to the atmosphere, the theme that plays at the cliff even as you go climb down to the cave (29:29) is so laidback and upbeat, and the underground tower's theme (44:38) is quite moody and deep.

Bustling town
The cool thing about Xak is that all boss fights have a different theme that accompanies them as opposed to the same one, too bad you won't get to hear the majority of them in full by the time you defeat them (you could always pause the game to stop and listen, but the music's volume will be reduced as a result).  =(  And funny thing, the themes for what should be brief events--like when you shop (5:50) or when you visit Latok's mother Saria (7:45) or other homes (6:43, 9:28, or 10:32)--sound a lot longer than you'd think they would be, which fortunately you could listen to as much as you want lest you feel you're done with the conversation in question.  The victory theme for when you defeat Badu sounds incredibly victorious and triumphant (1:05:08), the "ending" theme (39:53) for when you finish the first chapter sounds enjoyable, and the staff roll music (1:08:54) is so rewarding after all the troubles and difficulties are over that I could just listen to it all day.  <=)  The sound effects are decent, like the swift sound of Latok's sword, the item found cue is interestingly composed, there's a guitar riff any time you level up, and the sound for when you pause the game is so magical.

Imposing elemental forces!  =O
So there's a good amount of challenge in all of Xak; it starts out slightly hard on account of the low health capacity you have, but the more levels you get upgraded the higher the chances of survival--provided in subsequent areas that you are well-equipped and sufficiently leveled.  So the thing about the first two Ys games and this Ys clone is that if you fight the same monster after you leveled up the experience points will be reduced just slightly on account that you've become a little stronger, which means that the next most powerful monster will be worth lots more.  The normal way of disposing of them is with your sword but if you take damage you should stay in a safe spot until your health has been replenished just enough; there are scrolls you could use that would eliminate all onscreen enemies but that won't add to your experience point count.  And while it is possible to shove them with your shield by just walking adjacent to them you would risk suffering plenty of damage (and possibly dying); this is also important to take into account because while the majority of enemies can be taken down with the blade of your sword there are some that the blade simply cannot budge no matter how powerful you are (like the specter heads, zombies, and sentient lava).

Don't do it, it's a trap!
Occasionally there are moments when you'll be asked a "yes or no" question by certain characters and on rare occasions an enemy (and in one instance, you'll be asked thrice).  A lot of the times it's very easy to tell when you should say "yes" and when you should say "no", but if you choose poorly you might either not make any progress until you choose the right answer or worse yet get a game over.  That's the beauty of saving in any part of the game, you simply never know; which is why you should save often throughout your adventure (even when you're level grinding, which I'll get to shortly).  Xak is also quite particular when it comes to using, giving, finding, and showing items to characters; when you start the game you must agree to find Elise's grandfather's glasses in the chapel (press the A button at the middle right pew) otherwise you won't be able to start your adventure.  Later on in order to make progress you must give and/or show certain items equipped (the crest, for example) by addressing certain NPCs with the Y button as opposed to the A button like the first time.  When I first played Xak months ago I was lost on a few instances for a bit until eventually I resorted to reading a guide which said you have to press the Y button when certain items are equipped next to people--not exactly import-friendly for the first time playing it.  For my very recent playthrough, knowing exactly what to do, I managed to do it all without the aid of a guide (except for the puzzle in the end).

No, you're not seeing things: I am about to be
ambushed by my deadly clones
In the handful of towns and villages that are in this game there are shops where you could buy edible healing supplies (bread and steak), magic scrolls (enemy wipeout, rock destroyer, warps), and battle equipment; and the more powerful the equipment is the costlier it would be.  There is a catch to this though: you have to be exactly at the level (or over) in order to equip it.  So you'd think that you could at least buy it and then equip it when you eventually do reach that level, right?  Nope!  =<  You also have to be at the level in order to buy it then equip it; that's insanity<=O  No A-RPG does that!  And yeah, while it's true that in SoulBlazer you had to be a certain level to equip a sword or a blade at least by the time you got to the majority of them you made it to said sufficient levels; in Xak not only do you have to be a certain level to equip swords but also armor and shields.

Ogres ahoy!
Which means that when you're not level grinding you're essentially money farming, and when you're not money farming you're essentially level grinding, and a lot of the time you're simply doing both; this is a big chunk of the game, by the way.  While the money farming isn't a big issue since monsters always have the same gold value no matter how leveled up you are, level grinding is less of a constant in this regard and later on becomes frustratingly annoying because of this (namely in the tower before you reach Level 20 and can afford powerful defensive equipment as you also put up with enemies your sword can't touch; 1/20/17 Update: actually, they can if you magically enhance your swords).  And ironically enough, while this game is better than Lagoon in terms of gameplay and overall quality it's somewhat more frustrating than that aforementioned A-RPG; at least in Zoom's game your sword (despite its mandatorily close proximity) could hurt any enemy which is not the case here, it did not matter what level you were at when you found and/or bought new equipment since there were no restrictions, and the only time you had to money farm there was for one or two expensive pieces of equipment sold in the dwarf village of Denegul, that's it!  This is just ridiculous!  But it does get better when you can attain the most powerful equipment as you go along.

A three-headed lion, interesting creature
Xak: The Art of Visual Stage was such a success for Micro Cabin in its original 1989 outing, with lots of praise given to the story and the really great music throughout, that it wound up becoming a franchise.  In 1990 it got followed up by the sequel Xak II: Rising of the Redmoon with a slightly older Latok on a new adventure (the NEC PC-Engine version on Xak I & II combined the two games in one package) as well as a spinoff called Fray in Magical Adventure where you took control of Freya "Fray" Jerbain (whom Latok rescued from a wolf-inhabited forest in the first Xak) in an adventure that had a more lighthearted tone than the main series; in 1991 came Xak Precious Package: The Tower of Gazzel which transpired in a labyrinth and took place after Xak II and before Xak III: The Eternal Recurrence which came out in 1993 and was the game that bookended the series.  There was also a spinoff in 1992 called The Tower of Cabin which had you play as a new Micro Cabin employee with characters from the Xak series making cameos in it... yeah, I don't get it either.

I'm sure this spot near the waterfall serves a
purpose... just not in this game
As much as Lagoon is not well-liked by a lot of people it at least had the decency to feel very self-contained (and it was, given it was Zoom's only A-RPG) as there were no loose ends that would have to be tied in a potential follow-up.  What frustrates me more about Xak than all the level grinding and the money farming (not to mention the requisite levels in which you have to buy and equip things) is that it does have loose ends that are unresolved in the first game, that it doesn't feel self-contained, and that it clearly sets you up for more endeavors to come.  But that's not so much the problem so much as the fact that the first in Micro Cabin's series is the only iteration of the Xak franchise that was made available to play on the Super Famicom.  ={
HO-LY SHIT, WHAT DA HELL IS THAAAAT?!?!?  D=
And this kills me because during the ending there is a brief sequel bait that preps you for the second Xak; and unfortunately I do not own any formats in which I can play the other installments and spinoffs (I don't own a PC-Engine or a Game Gear system).  =(

I have to save Fray; if I don't save her she won't
be able to contribute to the series or star in her
own spinoff!
None of which I'll ever be able to play because I don't own
the systems they're available in  ='{
I'm not sure how Sunsoft got involved with publishing the Super Famicom edition of the first Xak, but between juggling with brainstorming the genre-bending Hebereke franchise in Japan and handling the Nintendo 16-bit Looney Tunes licenses for the West and within years struggling from bankruptcy, who thought they were eligible enough for this kind of game?  Actually, come to think of it, Tokai Engineering really only developed games for Sunsoft (notable among them the Nintendo 8-bit games Blaster Master and Journey to Silius).  Obviously license-holder Micro Cabin wasn't going to port it to the Super Famicom themselves (given how busy they were with other games), but was there seriously no other company available to port it?  =|  Needless to say Super Famicom gamers during the '90s were likely disappointed by the fact that the first foray to the Xak series was the only iteration they were going to play on that format; and the reason this is very frustrating to me is because Xak: The Art of Visual Stage is really good!

Jab at the spot
A few nitpicks I have with it though (minor compared to the laborious amounts of level grinding/money farming and level requisite equipping) is that any time you talk to a vital character the screen cuts to a black background with the small profile on the upper right side with the dialogue going on in the bottom, and the same goes for when you access the menu with the X button (while in the Ys games the menu was on top of the playing field); that's a waste of empty space.  Another downside is that the boss fights are very short and over with before you know it (namely when you're properly equipped and leveled up); on one hand I suppose it's a relief given all that time fighting enemies on the way there, but on the other hand it disappoints because they look imposing and are designed great but they don't last long enough (and as I mentioned earlier, their individual themes are longer than the battles themselves).  This is also true of Badu, whose pattern is so simple to follow that you can easily beat him without taking a hit... actually, that is what you have to do otherwise you have to start the battle over again.
What's cool is that during the penultimate segment of Xak it suddenly becomes Dragon Spirit, switching from top-down A-RPG to vertical-scrolling shoot'em up if only for this segment.  It's actually the best part of the game for me, and this genre is not something I specialize at.  =)  I was pleasantly surprised the first time I got to this part, and the boss here is pretty tough since he's all over the place.  The catch is that you cannot pause during this part and there is no swift rapid fire when you hold down the B button, so I hope you've got your consecutive button-tapping combined forces of thumb and index finger at your stead (and steer clear from the fire salamander as best you can lest you want to take damage).  It'll take you several tries to succeed in this bit, but with enough perseverance you'll pull through.

One of those "it's good, buuuut..." kind of games,
overall it's on fire
I first found out about Xak: The Art of Visual Stage (the Super Famicom version, anwyway) in early 2014 if I recall correctly.  I forget exactly how I learned of it, but I do recall that it was while I was browsing some YouTube videos of certain SFC titles to get an idea of what they would be like before I proceeded to import them.  There were several clips of different SFC games as shown by Vysethedetermined2 on YouTube, and this was one of them.  I was intrigued from what I saw of it as an Ys enthusiast, and while I wasn't crazy about the first The Legend of Zelda (in fact I don't think it's aged well) I did love what came after (namely A Link to the Past, Link's Awakening, and A Link Between Worlds).  I just had to try it I felt, but copies of it were few and far between in the reasonable price range on eBay (whenever I checked), and then at the end of October 2014 the 16-bit slot of the Retro Duo (how I initially had access to SFC carts) went bust.  =(

Oooh, Xak's equivalent to The Borrowers, nice!  =)
Once in a while I still checked eBay to see if Xak was available, and after I started purchasing SNES repro carts in 2015 (to try something new: import without importing) and noticing how many SFC titles were being fan-translated and reproduced to SNES format I wondered if this game would be one of them--it's not (despite the first four versions having being fan-translated online during the previous decade).  On Christmas '15 I received a Super Famicom console (along with five SFC carts), which made me so happy since I could play SFC games again!  =D  This was a good opportunity to not only replay the SFC titles I hadn't played since 2014 (including the very platformer I gave a second chance and apologized to for being so hard on: Xandra no Daibōken: Valkyrie to no Deai), but to also search for new ones to add to my collection and play.  I still wanted to give Xak: The Art of Visual Stage a try after almost two years of curiosity, so it has the honor of being the first Super Famicart I imported from Japan this year.  And in the end, it was definitely worth being curious about.  =)

Without the breathing mask you won't survive
this bit
As an Ys enthusiast Xak made me feel right at home, right down to the dungeon design and its fantastic rock soundtrack.  The gameplay was good, and while Latok Kart may not have been Adol Christin swift in terms of movement I felt he walked at a very decent pace (not to mention the eight-direction roaming really helps).  While I had to look up the guide a few times during my first playthrough it was easy to invest in (despite not knowing how to read Japanese kanji), plus there's a certain charm to its characters and its sense of atmosphere was effective.  A real shame that none of the sequels and spinoffs made it to Super Famicom format because for the most part I enjoyed this A-RPG and really wanted to explore more of its world, and the fact that I can't just makes me sad.  =(  The first time I played it I beat Xak in roughly eight hours and fifty (non-consecutive) minutes (including moments when I felt lost before consulting the guide), and my second playthrough recently lasted me about six hours and fifty (non-consecutive) minutes (without so much as relying on a guide until the last puzzle).
While America complained for years that the sidescrolling Tonkin House-developed/American Sammy-published port of Nihon Falcom's Ys III: Wanderers from Ys was the only game of the series they could play on the SNES and both America and Europe griped over the fact that Lagoon was the closest you got to a proper Ys experience on the console in the West, Japan only complained for a year until they got Xak: The Art of Visual Stage's port on the Super Famicom, which while not as good as the first two Ys games still offered a better alternative that was the closest you got to having a proper Ys experience on the Nintendo 16-bit.
But don't worry: Super Famicom gamers would experience the proper Nintendo 16-bit Ys experience in the Tonkin House-developed and published/Nihon Falcom-licensed Ys IV: Mask of the Sun nine months after the SFC port of Xak came out, in November 1993 (which is a much more import-friendly A-RPG than today's game if you couldn't read Japanese).  But if given a choice, Xak is a close second.  =)

Wonderful battle attire
If you're a fan of the A-RPG genre and/or really like to see the gameplay mechanics of Zelda mesh with Ys' overall structure combined into one, I think you'll really like this venture.  If you like challenge there's plenty of it, but if you're expecting breathtaking boss fights you're not going to find them here.  If you can forgive all its moments of level grinding and money farming and its mandatory level requisite for when you purchase equipment it's a lot of fun while it lasts during its six to seven hour length.  Xak: The Art of Visual Stage may be the only Xak available on the Super Famicom, and it's too bad, but as a game by itself it's really good.  =)  If you can find a reasonably priced copy on eBay (either in the teens or twenties dollar price range) I'd say give it a go; but if its particular way of handling items and kanji is cause for you to be concerned about being lost, don't worry it's not impossible (especially when you know what to do, and remember to talk with certain NPCs with the Y button depending on what item you've equipped).

My Personal Score: 8.0/10
<( ^o^)^TO EACH THEIR OWN^(^o^ )>
P.S. One day I might consider making my own guide for this game, with visual aid; which I'm guessing will be a big task.
 
P.S. 2 The ending shots I took back in January, while the rest of the screenshots I got this month.
 
P.S. 3 I need to start making a proper review for Ys IV: Mask of the Sun and re-review SoulBlazer, both posts are starting to age.
 
P.S. 4 If Ys Book I & II proved anything it's that the Ancient Ys Vanished diptych worked best when played side-by-side as opposed to on separate accounts (which is why Nihon Falcom paired them together ever since); if Xak I & II was supposed to do the same for the first two Xak A-RPGs it's too bad it only happened once on the PC-Engine.
 
Thank you for reading my review, please leave me a comment and let me know what you think.  Hope you have a great Spring day, take care!  =)
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Chibi Pixie, Fray, and Elise, awesome!  =D

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Final Fantasy Mystic Quest (SNES) Review

Received: June 4th, 2015 / Written: April 7th-17th, 2016
Alternative Titles: Final Fantasy USA: Mystic Quest [|O|]
Mystic Quest Legend [|O|]
Year: 1992 | Developed and Published by: SquareSoft

Hello everyone, StarBoy91 here; passionate about video games, big retrophile, and fan of all things 16-bit.  =)  Lately turn-based RPGs have become one of the most thriving and most successful genres not just in Japan but in America and Europe as well, which makes it hard to fathom that once upon a quarter of a century ago this was not the case on the Westside.
10/26/16 Update: Had to make a correction as I recently found out about Gdleen
In July 1991 SquareSoft created their foray title for the Super Famicom called Final Fantasy IV that when converted to NTSC SNES format would be christened Final Fantasy II (on account that at the time Final Fantasy II and III hadn't come out of Japan) that November.  This was not only SquareSoft's first Nintendo 16-bit game but also the second turn-based RPG made for the console (after Jorudan's Gdleen two months prior), and despite its less than satisfactory translation and the fact that its difficulty was reduced from the original Super Famicom edition (but reportedly challenging compared to Final Fantasy IV Easytype) it became a big hit and has since been highly revered by many that played it due to its strong impact it left behind thanks to its intuitive gameplay, great music, and storytelling.
On the other hand, March 1992 saw the Super Famicom release of HAL Laboratory's take on the turn-based RPG genre Card Master: Seal of Rimsalia which less than two months later translated to Arcana for North America that May to disastrous results.  It was heavily criticized for its largely repetitive dungeon designs, its take on the story, so-called "difficulty", random battles, and the fact that one human character's death instantly spells a game over.  While the game has since developed a following and is looked at more kindly these days (myself included, even though I sincerely acknowledge its flaws), in its heyday it did so poorly that HAL Laboratory was banned from sitting at the publisher's chair... ever again.  Bummer.  =(

"How do you know?  You just met me!"  <=|
During the '90s Americans were not as experienced with turn-based RPGs because they got nowhere near as many as Japan did and another reason contributed to the difficulty which may or may not have made them accessible.  SquareSoft of Japan, whose intentions were well-meaning, noticed this and so they wanted to create a game aimed at those new to or unfamiliar with the genre specifically for America that was supposed to "help broaden the genre's appeal".  That game was Final Fantasy Mystic Quest which the NTSC region got to experience in October 1992, and feeling that Japan wanted its own version of the game too the Super Famicom received Final Fantasy USA: Mystic Quest (because apparently Canada and Mexico do not count as part of the North American continent) in September 1993, until finally Europe got a chance to play it a month later (courtesy of Nintendo) as Mystic Quest Legend ("Legend" being added to the title on account that the European version of the Game Boy A-RPG Seiken Densetsu--Final Fantasy Adventure in America--was simply titled Mystic Quest).  How did it do?  It... backfired.  =(  But more on that as we talk about it.

Battlefields are a good place to fight while they last
A long time ago in a world far, far away that had no name, everything went smoothly until disaster struck, and it all started when Benjamin was climbing some mountains as his home village was destroyed.  At the mountains Benjamin meets a mysterious old man who tells him that that there is a Prophecy that foretells that he is the Knight who will restore balance, which is further confirmed after Benjamin defeats a nearby monster at the spot.  Benjamin, who at first is highly uncertain, is convinced shortly after that he is the man for the job; and in order to restore the world's balance he'll have to not only defeat the forces behind this mess but also retrieve back the four Crystals comprised of the elements of Earth, Water, Fire, and Wind.  Only Benjamin and his four companions he meets along the way will set things right.

Fighting slimes in a famished forest
As was the case with Final Fantasy IV before it Final Fantasy Mystic Quest is a turn-based RPG viewed from the bird's eye view where your character can only walk in four directions, aaaand that's where the similarities end.  SquareSoft's first Nintendo 16-bit turn-based RPG was known for introducing the Active-Time Battle (ATB) system where battles happened in real time, which meant that even if you were trying to decide your options and/or was trying to conjure magic or use an item the enemies and bosses would still attack you regardless.  Final Fantasy Mystic Quest aims to be more like the SaGa trilogy of games on the Game Boy (Final Fantasy Legend in America) as far as the battle system is concerned, which isn't surprising given that both it and Final Fantasy Legend III were made at about the same time; so basically you can take as long as you want to decide what to do without so much worrying about the enemies hitting you until its their turn.  And instead of the battle viewed from the sidelines it's viewed in third-person with the character(s) facing the enemies in front of them.

Jumping, yay!!!  =D
While the majority of battles in the earlier Final Fantasy were random, SquareSoft made sure to make the enemies visible here; and depending on the situation it is possible to avoid them if you don't wish to fight them.  During the battles you have the option to use your weapon, use an item, cast magic, defend yourself, or even abort from battle.  This game precedes Secret of Mana (Seiken Densetsu 2) and Secret of Evermore (or if you want to be obliquely tangential: Neverland's overhyped Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals) in that during the overworld you can switch between any one of various weapon kinds (swords, axes, bombs, and claws) to remove obstacles or make progress (i.e. using the sword to press a switch, holding down the button to climb walls with the claw); and you can switch between them on the fly with either shoulder buttons (even during battle provided it's your turn).  =)  You can also jump over gaps and hop along a series of platforms, and if you wished to save your progress you could do so anytime (with the Start or the X button) wherever you want whenever you want, like the Ys series.

The Watchdogs' tentacle-y offspring are very
bemused over the news of Wander Over Yonder's
cancellation in the near future
And speaking of Ys, Final Fantasy Mystic Quest's soundtrack largely eschews the instrumental fare of the Final Fantasy canon in favor of rock (with some exceptions), and it sounds great!  =D  Composed by Yasuhiro Kawakami and Ryuji Sasai (the former previously having provided music for the original Shinobi and Super R-Type, and the latter being known for his work on Final Fantasy Legend III and Xak: The Art of Visual Stage as well as its immediate sequel and spinoff) have done a really fantastic job at contributing a sense of energy and atmosphere to this turn-based RPG.  =)

Town sweet town, back to normal  =)
The overworld theme is very adventurous, and each town you visit has got their own two renditions of the same theme (before and after said towns' problems have been resolved) and they all sound quite nice and relaxing.  The forest theme is somber yet inspires wonder, the Focus Tower theme sounds menacing, the title theme is very inviting (and it plays during the ending), the credits theme is well-earned, and the theme for when you venture inside Spencer's Place is fascinating to hear.  The battle themes rock here: the normal one is good, and the boss theme sounds great, and what's cool about this game is that anytime you clear (or abort from) battle the area music will resume where it left off as opposed to starting from scratch like in most turn-based RPGs at the time.  =)  This is a rather welcome innovation, personally speaking as it makes listening to the whole song more convenient without resorting to standing still; a shame that only a handful of games in the genre followed suit in this regard during the Nintendo 16-bit period (namely Square fare Final Fantasy V and VI, Chrono Trigger, and Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars).

Well this isn't giving me Torneko no Daibōken:
Fushigi no Dungeon flashbacks
Some of my favorite songs in the game are actually some of the best songs you'll hear from the experience: there is this theme that is so urgent and epic that it's really exciting and gets you pumped, it's awesome!  =D  The theme that plays during the Fossil Labyrinth in the desert is atmospheric, the final dungeon theme leading up to the final boss is so rock-fueled and exciting, and just when you thought the game could not have a more epic-sounding theme the very last boss theme is beautifully and intensely composed.  Even gamers who are so dead-set against this game concur that the music is really great.  =)  The sound effects are decent and quaintly-chosen, like for when a Cure or Heal spell is conjured, when Benjamin jumps, and the sound effect that plays whenever you obtain the contents of a chest... though I question why when certain enemies do a choke attack on you it sounds like something that came out of a Gene Deitch-directed Tom and Jerry episode (of all that series' incarnations you base a sound from, why that one?).  =/

Well that's one way of setting up a corridor
The visuals for the top-down segments take their cue from Final Fantasy IV, although color-wise Final Fantasy Mystic Quest goes for a bright pastel-tone color palette and given its presentation and lighthearted tone it works.  While the overworld is made simpler in terms of design, it's made up for by the bulk of the towns and dungeons you traverse in; for example when you first get to Foresta it starts out decayed and orange, but after you retrieve the Crystal of Earth it's back to normal and it's refreshing to see so much green.  The Ice Pyramid looks appropriately chilly with its Egyptian theme, especially with the icy floor you can sometimes walk underneath; and the mountains have a great overlook.  Any time you battle there is a neat perspective of the respective area you're in from ground level, and the background for when you fight the final boss is mesmerizing.

Battling a giant red skeleton
Likewise with the 1991 turn-based RPG before it the main character and the NPCs in this game walk in that choppy two-frame animation and are in a tiny size, but there are some new things: Benjamin's jumping animation is quaint, and it's funny seeing him shrug in confusion anytime he is befuddled.  XD  Benjamin and his partners' sizes basically remain the same any time they do battle with monsters, but the monsters themselves do not; in the bird's eye view they may be about your size, but during battle they are much bigger than that.  Final Fantasy IV through VI had a very common aspect in that the characters had minimal animation while the enemies and bosses looked always immobile no matter what, and while the monsters here don't exactly animate either they do exhibit signs of deterioration after enough damage has been inflicted upon them.  For example, the Medusa enemies started with a full head of snake hair, but after a while they become bald; and among other examples are vampires turning to bats, toads becoming bloated, as well as a giant ice creature slowly melting.  The final boss has a few different forms, and it's satisfying when they dissolve as they bite it.  Maybe not much, sure, but it's refreshing somewhat for an early Nintendo 16-bit turn-based RPG.

Using the Bow of Grace now
Final Fantasy Mystic Quest was written by Chihiro Fujioka and Yoshihiko Maekawa (both of whom would eventually direct Super Mario RPG; Fujioka having collaborated with composer Sasai on a few occasions), but when it came to translating it for the NTSC region Ted Woolsey was the man who pulled it off, and it was the first time people have heard of his name (Final Fantasy Legend III may have been his first project, but America did not get it until ten months after this game).  As good as Final Fantasy IV was, its initial English translation was crap; not that it did not have its moments ("You spoony bard!") but I think everyone agrees that the translation was not exactly good (though to be fair it was 1991, and there were nowhere near as many resources at the time as there are today).  After the fact Square hired Ted Woolsey, who knew his craft when it came to converting words from a different language, plus the company gave him the aforementioned translated script as an example so that "there would be no 'repeats' of that mess".  Woolsey has gone on record to say that Final Fantasy Mystic Quest was one of the easiest games he ever translated due to its relative brevity, and I think it paid off because the translation here is very good.  =)
Since then Woolsey has gone on to translate future SNES Square RPGs from Japan onto American soil ending his run with Super Mario RPG, and for the most part when it came to these games the translation was near-perfect and largely sufficient; simply put he was the go-to guy to translate for Square during the '90s.  =)  He even translated for Capcom's original Breath of Fire (on account that they did not at the time have the skills to translate fully word-driven games), which is why SquareSoft got involved with its American distribution--the only crime Woolsey committed in this regard was not staying around for the sequel Breath of Fire II as Capcom did it all on their own, and that resulted in a translation that was so awful (in 1995, no less) it made Robert L. Jerauld's translation for Quintet and Ancient's Robotrek look more dignified by comparison.

When Final Fantasy Mystic Quest came out in 1992 there was a lot of umbrage towards it from many Americans who had played it, and it hurt this game pretty bad.  Coming off the heels of the successful Final Fantasy II (as it was known as at the time) certainly did not help given the title; but the fact of the matter is that Mystic Quest is not a Final Fantasy game, in the same way that ActRaiser 2 is not an ActRaiser game despite the namesake.  Final Fantasy Adventure and the Final Fantasy Legend trilogy were not Final Fantasy games either despite the moniker attached and people didn't have a problem with them (for the most part), so why is this game so different?
As not satisfactorily translated as Final Fantasy IV was the first time around, there was a sense of narrative and character depth throughout the journey that gave it a grand sense of scope; the story in Final Fantasy Mystic Quest is not overtly complex and the narrative was told in a simple, straightforward manner.
Another cause for complaint for a lot of people at the time (and even today), was that it was on the easy spectrum of the difficulty, and part of that attributed to the fact that your partner (Kaeli, Tristam, Phoebe, or Reuben) operated automatically thanks to the CPU while you (Benjamin) did all the hard work during battles.  While it is possible to toggle between Auto and Manual for your partner with the Y button, despite reducing some of the easiness it would still wind up being easy (especially when you're well-equipped and leveled up properly).  SquareSoft definitely had the right approach in lowering its difficulty for American audiences to attain accessibility, but they may have gone a bit far in that regard.

With the seven rainbow gems Benjamin ventures
forth to the Castle of Illusion to fight Mizrabel and---
Oops, sorry, wrong game  =|
But the biggest gripe people had/have with it is that it is far too simple and very easy, and with Final Fantasy IV being such a hit in America as II everyone had high expectations when it came to Final Fantasy Mystic Quest but they were let down.  Even those who did not play the 1991 title beforehand (or knew exactly what to expect) wound up disappointed by it.  I don't think people objected to the idea of a starter kit for those new to turn-based RPGs (it was definitely a sound concept), but they took issue when the moniker to a highly respected series attached was not as deep as they would've liked it to be.  Unlike games like Arcana and Robotrek where they were not well-regarded during their heyday but have gradually developed a following and were being looked at more kindly these past years, this is one of those rare games where the more time passes it seems like less and less people that play it actually like it with each passing year.  Harsh.  =(

Dragon Claw, very useful
Last year if I recall correctly a company (I forget which) tried to remake this game for the PC, but when current license-holder Square-Enix found out about it they filed a cease-and-desist order against them and those plans fell up in the air.  So there are some people who still care about the game, but it's a very small percentage.  For the most part when I found out about this game online many years ago people did not have a nice thing to say about it; there were exceptions of course, like FlyingOmelette (where I first found out about Final Fantasy Mystic Quest), RVGFanatic, and Shiryu, but otherwise it's not generally well-regarded.  I have wanted to try this game for many years despite the bad word of mouth lashed against it, but being a collector and being interested in trying many other games of the Nintendo 16-bit era got in the way of that.  Last Summer I finally decided it was time to try it, so I lowered my expectations and went in with an open mind that June.  And, while it's not without its fair share of problems, I honestly didn't think it was that bad; I actually kinda liked it.  <=)

Bat: "So you don't want Yooka-Laylee after all?
Fine, you can forget it then, a-hole!"  >={
It's certainly not a badly-made game, for its area designs are decent and fun to explore (despite being bogged by monsters), and there's a likable lighthearted charm to the proceedings.  It's not deeply written but there are moments of dialogue that are genuinely funny and/or charming, like when Tristam neglects to call Benjamin by his name (only as "kid") to which Benjamin shrugs or gets upset; or how in the town of Windia after the winds died down there's a small kid walking on the roof of a house exclaiming "You can see forever" which inspires wonder; and a lot of the interaction Benjamin has with other characters is cool.  It's neat how entering some houses in towns will peel away the outside of said house to reveal the inside as if it were RPG Maker, and there's an innocent quality to it that makes it endearing like how The Twisted Tales of Spike McFang was charmingly lighthearted and purely innocent (though this game is not as great as Red Company's A-RPG).  =)

Can you tell this was tailor-made for American
audiences?  =)
And in some respects Final Fantasy Mystic Quest does make for a pick-up and play kind of game that in some respects could introduce you to the ways of the turn-based RPG mechanics, even though it doesn't exactly go through with it all the way (Super Mario RPG kinda did it better and explained the basics).  Just like this game may have been a starter kit for those new to turn-based RPGs, I'm thinking of Quintet's SoulBlazer which honestly is like a starter kit for those new to A-RPGs and was much more successful in that regard.  While SoulBlazer was easy, there was at least a sense of gradual challenge the farther you went along and at least early during its proceedings you were expressly told to equip your armor and magic otherwise it wouldn't work so you had to do it manually on the menu; here, the difficulty is consistently easy up until the final battle (especially since you can afford lots of seeds, potions, and refreshers) and when you garner new armor and helmets (whether it be by completing a ten-round battlefield, buying it from someone, or just obtaining it from inside a chest) you're automatically equipped.  That's it.

Waterfalls galore
Not many RPGs came out in Europe during the '90s, the reasons being numerous: translation takes time, there was not as much resource then as there is today, and Europe was a multi-language continent (unlike Japan and America where they both rely on one popular language); so because they didn't want a part of Europe to feel left out on account that they could not translate to either French or Spanish or German on time or any reason the end choice was Europe as a whole would miss out.  Mystic Quest Legend (as it was called there) was Square's first turn-based RPG that made it to European shores; and unlike A-RPGs which were a high commodity (Europe got to play Drakkhen, Lagoon, Secret of Mana, Secret of Evermore, and three-thirds of the Gaia trilogy) by comparison the turn-based RPGs were few and far between in that region--the only other games in that genre being Might and Magic II: Gates to Another World, Lufia (II), and... Breath of Fire II??  How the hell does that work: they got the second Breath of Fire before the first game?!?  >_<  At least Neverland was smart to retitle their game due the first Lufia not making it to Europe (despite the second Lufia being a prequel).

Oh hey, it's Ness!  ...or is that Ninten?
At the time American gamers were very concerned that they struck out after one hit (Final Fantasy II) and two misses (Arcana and Final Fantasy Mystic Quest) in the turn-based RPG department as it was perceived, but fortunately for them things did look up after 1992 for the SNES offered many more games in the genre which were largely hit aaaaaand partly miss; but whichever game falls in either category is all in the eye of the beholder.  It's just amazing how far we've gone since 1991 where today RPGs (action and turn-based) are one of the most popular genres; over the years American gamers got more and more experience with turn-based RPGs and it turned out wonders for years to come.

The Freezer sure has seen better days
It's a shame what happened to this game and SquareSoft at the time; Final Fantasy Mystic Quest's intentions were noble and good, Square just wanted to help broaden and make the genre accessible to the inexperienced Western crowd, but both the game and company got criticized.  =(  While Square earned American gamers' respect back after Secret of Mana onward this game was not as lucky.  While a small fraction of difficulty or challenge would've surely helped, many people either did not like or just plain hated this game for the sole reason of being what it is: a starter kit to those new to the genre.  Only few in number were forgiving and liked it for what it was.
Final Fantasy Mystic Quest is far from perfect, but on its own merits it is simply harmless and inoffensive entertainment once in a while, and it is neither as bad nor terrible a game as many make it out to be.
Two months later on December 1992 the Super Famicom received the genuine follow-up to Final Fantasy IV, the widely regarded Final Fantasy V, which originally was slated to be localized to America during its heyday (as Final Fantasy III, before Final Fantasy VI ultimately took that title in 1994) with Ted Woolsey attached to translate.  Sadly it got cancelled during the middle of its official localization process, and one of the reasons behind that according to Woolsey was that it was "too advanced for general gamers" (namely due the jobs system).
After came a rollercoaster series of events where Square scheduled and then cancelled the American release (until the PlayStation One), which infuriated fans of the series and turn-based RPG genre to the point that they banded together and formed one of the very first (albeit unofficial) fan-translations for a video game ever, which paved the way for even more fan-made translations (and if not for that, there would be no repro carts for America or Europe).  Funny how sometimes cancellations inadvertently lead to good things.  =)

With our powers combined, you are
Captain Planet
Just kidding
If you're a fan of Final Fantasy do not expect this game to be as deep and complex as the main series because despite the name Final Fantasy Mystic Quest is not a Final Fantasy game.  If you're just looking for something simple that's not demanding this turn-based RPG is harmless as I said.  If you're searching for a game that's got plenty of challenge and difficulty you're not going to find it here; but if you're searching for some lighthearted innocent charm you'll find a reasonable amount of it here.  And if you're searching for a largely well-translated early SNES game outside Drakkhen, Lagoon, and Ys III: Wanderers from Ys you'll not be disappointed by Woolsey's craft.  It may not be SquareSoft's finest turn-based fare, but if you keep your expectations in check and go in with an open mind and are not overly critical of its shortcomings (and treat it as its own thing) you'll probably like this game all right; I know I did.  =)

My Personal Score: 7.0/10
<( ^o^)^TO EACH THEIR OWN^(^o^ )>
P.S. Originally I was going to make a subtle jab at the Game Boy Advance's inferior sound samples in response to Ted Woolsey's "too advanced" comment, but my review would've been longer than it already is.
 
P.S. 2 Both Breath of Fire II and Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals I honestly find to be overhyped and genuinely don't understand either titles' high praise (no matter how much I try), but truth be told if I had a choice I would sooner play Lufia II than play Breath of Fire II; because at least Neverland's game has great music, has reasonably swift walking pace that backtracking is not an issue, and it doesn't take forever to level up a character or do anything unlike Breath of Fire II (better yet, I'd rather play the original Breath of Fire, which I genuinely adore).  If you like them I'm not going to take that away from you (to each their own); but personally I just don't feel highly about them.

P.S. 3 The first time I beat this game in less than thirteen (non-consecutive) hours at Level 33 and my second playthrough which I've done in preparation for this review I beat it in less than eleven (non-consecutive) hours at Level 34.
 
Thank you for reading my review, please leave me a comment and let me know what you think.  Hope you have a great Spring day, take care!  =)
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Well, someone's watched Exorcist II: The Heretic while making this game!
And Quentin Tarantino did too given that he allowed Ennio Morricone to use "Regan's Theme" in The Hateful Eight's soundtrack which partially won Ennio his long-deserved Oscar  =)