Way back in the mists of 1989; when we were all wondering how Nintendo’s Game Boy could possibly stand up to the mighty full colour Atari Lynx and whether it was really worth handing over $200USD/£190 for Sega’s new console, Squaresoft (as it was then known) decided to release an RPG — The Final Fantasy Legend (AKA: Makai Toushi SaGa) — on the Game Boy. This was a risky move at the time; the Game Boy was a new device and RPGs aren’t inherently suited to a format that won’t even turn on without 4AA batteries loaded into the back of it. But the development team was apparently unfazed by the challenges presented by their chosen format, and created a game that’s not only a good RPG for almost-90’s era handhelds but a pioneering title in its own right.
It’s obvious that the game is content to go its own way right from the start, asking you to create and name a character that can not only be a human male or female but also an esper (uncharitably referred to as “mutants” by the official English translation) or even a monster. Such freedom of choice doesn’t sound like much to those raised on earlier computer RPGs like Ultima, Wizardry and Dungeon Master, but for a new title on a relatively limited format to throw out the rulebook from the very beginning is as refreshing now as it was confusing then.
This unorthodox approach certainly didn’t end at the character sprites either, with each class having its own very unique way of becoming more powerful – humans don’t actually level up in battle at all, relying on stat boost potions bought from shops, espers gain new stats and abilities after battle in a semi-random fashion, and lastly monsters evolve based on the meat they consume from fallen foes.
With all these new and unexpected battle mechanics to get to grips with it’s a good thing the plot is a completely straightforward affair about climbing a tower to reach paradise, right? Well… while the plot has some pleasant nuances the combination of the Game Boy’s cart size and a classic late-eighties English translation mean that story sequences are short and sweet, which has the very welcome effect of cutting every scene to the chase; this gives players more time to focus on inventive party setups and experimenting with the various swords, bows, whips and more that the game offers would-be adventurers.
So, is The Final Fantasy Legend still worth playing twenty five years later? Absolutely. If anything this game suits modern RPG fans more than it did its original audience, as it’s one of all-too-few RPGs that doesn’t confuse a lack of time to play with a lack of interest or experience in the genre, and that makes the decision to keep the game’s remakes locked away on the WonderSwan Color (2002) and Japanese mobile phones (2007) all the more baffling. Whether you know the game as The Final Fantasy Legend or Makai Toushi SaGa, Squaresoft’s bold leap onto portable hardware was a successful one and remains an essential RPG experience for any gamer.