Let's go back in time. It's 1990. The Company Then Known As Squaresoft is living large, riding the waves of success earned by 1987's surprise hit Final Fantasy. Piles of money. Mountains of cocaine. You know the deal.
Fueled by glory and riches, Square decides to localize a bunch of their Game Boy RPGs and sell them in North America. But they don't think we'll buy games with weird titles like SaGa and Seiken Dentetsu. So Square has some brainstorming sessions, possibly involving cocaine, and eventually decides to release them under the Final Fantasy label. The SaGa series becomes Final Fantasy Legend; Seiken Dentetsu morphs into Final Fantasy Adventure.
This is absolutely brilliant. These games would not only help build the Final Fantasy brand in the U.S.—something that would pave the path for decades of spiky hair and Aeris deaths to come—but sell well enough to justify a re-release years later. Thank god for cocaine.
(Note: This is a joke. I do not actually know how many of Square's decisions have been fueled by cocaine. Or any drug. Please don't sue us.)
First we got Final Fantasy Legend, perhaps the worst entry in this set of wrongly-titled Final Fantasy games. You had to control four party members—each of whom could be a human, mutant, or monster—and fight your way through a massive tower. Eventually you had to kill God. Standard stuff.
Particularly interesting was that characters couldn't level up in Final Fantasy Legend: their stats would instead grow and evolve based on the equipment and items you gave them. Also, enemy monsters would drop meat. Your party's monsters could then devour that meat to gain abilities and stat boosts.
Let me repeat that. In Final Fantasy Legend, you could eat the meat of your opponents. Early 8-bit sprites couldn't capture this very well, but as a child, I liked to imagine my character clubbing an enemy to death and pulling out its heart, Mola Ram style. Then my party would swarm the enemy's body in a cartoon cloud of dust and body parts, everyone ingesting their fill of blood and gore and delicious, delicious monster meat.
I was a twisted kid.
Still, it's fun to look back and realize that even in 1990, JRPGs were shifting and experimenting in radical ways. And people say they never change.
Final Fantasy Legend II would go on to tweak and enhance the formulas introduced in its predecessor. You had to visit a whole bunch of fascinating worlds filled with cool little mini-plots, like a high-tech city run by a goddess that exiled anybody who wasn't pretty enough to live there. Or a Magic Schoolbus-like adventure through the body of a high priest.
The second Final Fantasy Legend also played around with the concept of death. When your characters run out of energy and die, most RPGs will just send you to a game over screen and ask you to try again. Final Fantasy Legend II sent you to a Nordic version of the afterlife, where the god Odin asked if you would like to try again. If you said yes, he'd bring you back to life.
This seemed like an unnecessary gimmick—until late in the game, when you'd actually have to travel to that same heavenly temple and battle Odin, who it turns out was only reviving you so you could help him succeed in his Master Plan Of Evil. It was a cool little bit of payoff.
Update: I was a little off on this one: You did indeed fight Odin, but not because of his master plan. That was Apollo. Odin battles you because his last wish is to fight a strong warrior or something like that. (The English translation isn't great.) Thanks to everyone who corrected me!
Next up was Final Fantasy Adventure, best known as the game that preceded the more popular Secret of Mana. It was a really great action-RPG that took you through some very cool places. If you play it today, you'll notice a ton of familiar-looking sprites and themes that were revisited in Secret of Mana. Square would later release an awful remake for the Game Boy Advance called Sword of Mana that we shouldn't speak of again. Play the original instead.
1991's Final Fantasy Legend III, the best of the bunch, added all sorts of cool new features to the formulas mastered in the first two. Instead of just boosting stats, enemy meat would actually change your characters' classes this time around. Your characters could transform into the monsters, beasts, cyborgs, and robots that populated the game's various worlds. You also got this badass ship called the Talon that could travel through time and fire cannons at your opponents while you were in battle. It was very cool!
(Fun fact: many of the sprites, mechanics, and dungeons from Final Fantasy Legend III were later reused for Final Fantasy Mystic Quest on the Super Nintendo. Legend is harder, though.)
It's a shame you can't legally play many of these games today without a Game Boy. They're great experiences that any RPG fan should have the chance to try. While Square Enix recently remade Final Fantasy Legend II and III for the DS with some enhanced features and gorgeous cel-shaded graphics, they've shown no interest in bringing those remakes over to U.S. shores. Sadly. It's depressing that Square won't take as many risks today as they would 20 years ago. Maybe they need more cocaine.
Just kidding. Seriously, don't sue us.
Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG. It runs every Friday at 3pm ET.