There are a few things in life that are certain. For instance, there will always be people who never use their blinkers when taking a turn into Burger King at 1 am. Another fact is that everything ages, including video games. No matter how good a game is on first release, it will eventually show its age in one way or another. The key is how well they age. Super Mario Bros 3 remains an absolutely fantastic platformer to this day thanks to its tight controls and superb level design. On the flip side of that is the much beloved Gameboy ARPG Final Fantasy Adventure.
Now, I appreciate retro games. I’m willing to put up with annoyances from a bygone era if the core game is still enjoyable. I’m sad to say, friends, that Final Fantasy Adventure was dated the moment it released due to numerous small choices that add up to a cumbersome and thoroughly tedious final product.
The best way to see how dated it was at launch is to compare it to the Zelda series. When Final Fantasy Adventure first dropped, it was up against A Link to the Past, with both of them releasing in America in November of 1991. ALttP was an extremely anticipated title, so it’s a wonder Final Fantasy Adventure did well enough for its sequel Secret of Mana to see a Western release as well. FFA was billed as Final Fantasy meets Zelda, with the magic and leveling of the former, and the dungeons and combat of the latter. Only unlike Zelda, Final Fantasy Adventure focused almost entirely on combat, with a few puzzles sprinkled here and there throughout the overworld for good measure.
Like I said, I can tolerate dated game design if the main game is still good. I’ve put up with some seriously ancient RPGs in my time and have been able to enjoy them despite their flaws. The problem with Final Fantasy Adventure is that it was dated from the moment it released. To start with, let’s take a look at its inventory system. In order to use a basic healing item, you need to pause the game, move down the sluggish menus to your items, find the item in your stockpile and press B several times so you can equip it. This, however, is not indicated on the extremely simple HUD at all. Once you have the item equipped, or think you do, you have to press the B button again to use it. Some effect will appear, and you’ll gain health back.
It’s a tedious, extremely stilted process that grows old after an hour of play time. The problem is that you have to use literally every item in this manner. See a cracked wall and don’t have your pick axe equipped? Time for several button clicks to break that wall down. Want to use an item that puts all on screen enemies to sleep? Better get clicking, buddy. This is exacerbated by the fact that magic uses the same button. So if you have your healing spell equipped, but need to use another item, you need to pause, equip, use, then re-equip the spell. Oh, and did I mention that some enemies, often times ones in the same room, are all vulnerable to different kinds of spells? So if you hope to clear a room, you’ll have to swap out spells and items multiple times in the span of a few minutes.
The worst offender as far as the inventory goes is the keys. From the very first game in the series, key use in Zelda was automatic. If you saw a locked door in a dungeon, you knew there was a key hiding away somewhere waiting for you to claim it. If you’re exploring a dungeon in Final Fantasy Adventure and use a key on a door, only you want to backtrack, guess what? When you go back to that door you’ve already unlocked, it’s locked again. Better hope you have enough keys. Because, see, unlike Zelda, keys in Final Fantasy Adventure aren’t rewards for completing puzzles. Instead, they’re items dropped by certain monsters and sold in shops. Only the way the game is paced, you have no way of knowing if you’ll need keys in the upcoming dungeon, meaning the only course of action is to have a bunch of them eating up space in your inventory at all times. Even worse is running out in the middle of the dungeon. I had passed the point of no return in the endgame and ran out of keys with no discernible way of finding more. If only I was told that, ten floors back, there was an enemy who sometimes gives out keys as random drops.
This leads me to perhaps the absolute worst part of the game: the “dungeons”. In Zelda, dungeons all have a distinct look, and you’d be hard pressed to find a room in one dungeon that looks exactly the same as another. Not so here. Every single room in every single dungeon looks exactly the same as the one before it. There are no visual cues to indicate you’re on the right path. No real puzzles to let you know whether or not you went up or down. No map of any kind. It all adds up to every single dungeon feeling just like the last, only bigger and more confusing. What’s more, any puzzle the dungeons do have are simplistic to the point of being insulting, and much like how unlocked doors will relock again if you leave the room, the outcome of completing the puzzle is totally undone if you leave. So when you’re lost and wandering around trying to find the right way to go, you need to redo everything you’ve already done.
The weirdest part of the game, though, is its reverse difficulty curve. In the beginning, the game’s total lack of feedback and wonky collision detection means you’ll be kind of flailing around hoping you actually hit the monsters while also taking hits yourself. You’ll probably die quite a few times. Then, once you get the classic healing spell Cure you can pretty much bulldoze your way through the game. It only becomes easier the more spells you get, with one just being called Nuke that more or less lives up to its title. By the end, you can take out most or all enemies with little to no effort as long as you’re okay switching between spells with obnoxious regularity.
From what I can tell, this seems to be a more or less cherished game that most remember fondly, but I think (and I really hate using this argument) it’s because of nostalgia. I think that comparing it to the classic Zelda games at the time is a more than fair argument, as that is more or less what it was billed as. The problem is that it was making mistakes that Zelda figured out how to get past a long time ago. Its dungeons all look exactly like one another, whereas each one in Zelda has some kind of distinction to help exploration along without a map. Its inventory is more cumbersome than even Link’s Awakening (whose constant item switching is admittedly dated, but was helped along in the Switch remake), and that game was released only two years after this one. Its combat gives the player little to no feedback whatsoever, with no knockback or anything to even let the player know if their attack connected or not. I can appreciate the ambition of its (poorly translated) story, with it having a late game twist unique for its time, and the retro graphics and soundtrack still holding their own charm. Still, all of these little gameplay choices add up to something that is, quite frankly, flat out annoying to play. I wanted to like it when I played through it recently on the Collection of Mana, but it quickly reared its ugly, poorly designed head, and I still can’t quite believe that so many hold it in such high regard.