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Final Fantasy Adventure: Prequel of Mana

Final Fantasy Adventure is an action RPG released on the Game Boy in 1991. It was the predecessor to the SNES classic Secret of Mana. In Japan the series is called The Legend of the Holy Sword. The English name "Final Fantasy Adventure" was taken from the game's Japanese subtitle, Final Fantasy Gaiden ("gaiden" means side-story). Square conceived of the game as an action RPG spin-off from the Final Fantasy series that had saved it from bankruptcy. Final Fantasy Adventure came out almost simultaneously with Final Fantasy IV on the SNES. In addition to item and spell names, the game includes Chocobos and Moogles. These elements were dropped in the sequel, which established its own identity.

Final Fantasy Adventure is an excellent game, surpassed in its genre on the Game Boy only by the later The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening. Despite the Final Fantasy name, the game most closely resembles The Legend of Zelda on the NES. You move a protagonist (his name is up to you) through single-screen overworld and dungeon zones, seen from an overhead perspective. Most screens contain enemies that you slash with your weapon.

The game's main gimmick, which distinguishes it from Zelda, is that you accumulate weapons of different types, all of which have their pluses and minuses. This isn't like a Final Fantasy game, where weapons get increasingly stronger but only certain classes can use certain types. The game's sole hero can use any weapon, and while they do get stronger as the game progresses, the different types affect what the weapons do. For example, axes (in addition to harming enemies) cut down trees, creating new paths. Flails hook onto posts, pulling the hero across gaps. The morning star destroys blocks and certain walls. You need to switch between weapons at many points to move forward in the game. While this was an innovative concept, in execution it grows tiresome. There is no quick menu enabling weapon changing on the fly; each time you have to go through the menu.

Another unique aspect is the willpower meter at the bottom of the screen. Between swings of the weapon, the meter slowly fills. If the meter is full, a special attack is unleashed. What that attack is depends upon the weapon type. For example, with a sword, the hero flies back and forth in a line across the screen, striking all enemies in his path. The flail gets extra reach, enabling it to reach posts across long gaps.

Another interesting element is that you gain various NPCs throughout the game who follow you around (one at a time). You can use the "ASK" command in the menu to receive a bonus from that character. For example, the girl (you name her) heals your wounds, and the end-of-game robot restores all your MP. There's no limit to how often you can ASK for help! The idea of tag-along NPCs comes from Final Fantasy III on the Famicom.

Being an RPG, the game uses XP. Once you've slain enough enemies, the hero levels up. Each time you choose one stat to increase more than the others (though they all increase). The stats are willpower, stamina (HP), wisdom (MP), and attack power. It's probably best to focus on stamina and power. Weaker players may need more HP, while better players may want to focus on power, so they can dispatch enemies as quickly as possible.

MP is used to cast eight different spells, which you slowly learn from books. The first spell, Cure, is by far the most useful. The Ice spell turns enemies into snowmen. This is necessary at several points in the game, when you need to cover up switches to open doors or reveal staircases. The only way to do this is to create snowmen you can push onto the switches. This "puzzle" is reused several times in the game. Indeed, one of my main criticisms of the game is the relative paucity of genuine puzzles. In fairness, this was also true of the original Zelda, in which puzzles mostly involve pushing a block or bombing a wall. Final Fantasy Adventure focuses more on combat than puzzles. The most difficult puzzle involves walking around certain trees in a specific pattern to reveal a dungeon. You trade an item drop to an NPC to get a vague clue about what to do.

Combat also leaves something to be desired. When you hit an enemy, it often doesn't get knocked back but just continues its more or less random movement pattern. Enemies take several hits to defeat. It doesn't feel like proper combat as much as it does chasing roving monsters, while repeatedly tapping a button. Nearly every screen contains multiple monsters, and they repeat frequently. There are good number of different enemies, all with whimsical and cartoony sprites (especially the series' signature Rabite, which is like a rabbit slime). But almost all of them are interchangeable and offer little challenge. There are numerous boss fights. The bosses use large, interesting sprites, but mostly just move back and forth. While I didn't find them particularly difficult or fun, they at least break up the monotony of killing wandering monsters.

Which leads me to my final criticism: the plot is cliched and driven by fetch quests. You must save the Mana Tree from the Dark Lord Julius, who wants to use its power to resurrect an empire. There is a girl, whose mother gave her a magical pendant that is the key to the Mana Tree. The hero needs to find the titular Holy Sword to defeat Julius. Early RPGs weren't known for their fantastic plots, but this feels thin to me even for the time. I'm tempted to blame it on the bad translation, but Final Fantasy IV was translated just as poorly.

The game also contains one grave error. Your item inventory is small, requiring you to constantly drop items in order to pick up new ones. Most items cast spells of little value (for example, the pillow casts sleep). However, one item is absolutely essential: keys. You buy keys in stores, and if you run out of keys in a dungeon, you have to leave to buy more. There's one dungeon, more than halfway into the game, in which you can become soft-locked! There's a locked door on both sides of you and they re-lock after you leave the room. This happened to me! The game allows you to save in dungeons (because it was a handheld game), and my save file was permanently ruined about five hours into the game. Fortunately, I had an unfinished save file from a couple years earlier, which I had left off not long after that dungeon. This is a serious flaw to have in any video game, even by the standards of 1991. If I hadn't had the other save file, I would have given up on the game. 

Game Boy games obviously aren't known for their amazing audio and graphics, but this one holds up as well as any does. Final Fantasy Adventure falls short of the Zelda series as well as its sequel, but it's still a good Game Boy game. Plus, at a runtime of around 10 hours, the game is far longer than most other games on the system. I recommend it to retro action RPG fans.

Grade: B+


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