By Anna Wiggins
So here we are. Final Fantasy. I often say that Tolkien was my “first fandom”, but I don’t actually know whether I was introduced first to Bagginses or Chocobos. At any rate, Final Fantasy is a part of my personal mythology, signifiers and metaphors that are wired into the way I think, stirring oddly specific sense memories during my mind’s idle moments.
The Final Fantasy franchise is peculiar. Despite the games (mostly) bearing sequential numbers, the games in the series are not sequels of an ongoing narrative. For the most part, each game takes place in a different fantasy world, with its own cast of characters and internal logic. There are occasional references between games, but these are more akin to easter eggs than any attempt at continuity. Instead, the Final Fantasy games have a shared iconography that grows over the history of the series. Crystals, giant riding chickens, magic that comes in colors, astonishing liberties taken with world mythology; Final Fantasy is a set of common stylistic elements that is eternally being rearranged into new shapes.
Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest is the first Final Fantasy game I have detailed memories of. I know it wasn’t the first Final Fantasy I played; I have vague memories of Final Fantasy II and even Final Fantasy. (And its contemporary, Dragon Warrior. There’s a secret history there, a moment in 1989 or so when I swore fealty to one of two rival houses without knowing it. But that’s another story.) But practically speaking, Mystic Quest was my jumping on point. And I remember being excited about Mystic Quest because it was a Final Fantasy game. Luckily for me, in 1992 I hadn’t really developed the ability to discern quality yet.
Because Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest is not a good game. Playing it, I get the impression it isn’t even trying to be a good game. The story is thin, even by the standards of early 90s poorly-translated RPGs. The visuals are less detailed and interesting than earlier games from the same company. Instead of being difficult and rewarding tactical thinking, skill, or even memorization, the game punishes the player arbitrarily, with unavoidable instant- or near-instant death doled out according the whims of the random number generator. There are few choices to make, and the overall experience feels hollow and pointless. It is impossible to feel any sort of connection to these characters or events.
(What I didn’t know at the time is that this game was created to be an ‘entry-level’ game, an attempt to make the Japanese-style RPG experience appealing to Western players, where the genre was faring poorly. Whether Squaresoft executives actively thought Western players wanted less story and characterization, or if this was just a phoned-in effort, is unclear.)
And yet 8-year-old me was riveted by this game. I had to realize, on some level, that this game was not as interesting or as fun as its predecessor. And yet I played this game eagerly, consumed it. I don’t really know what made me love it, what changed between then and now. Part of that may have been a reflex against disappointment; I didn’t get new SNES games very often, so maybe I convinced myself it was a good game. And part of it may have been related to my growing unease in my own body; nearly anything that made me forget about my physicality for a while was appealing. Or maybe it was just some quintessential trait of my childhood mind that faded with time.
An attempt to recapture it, then. The protagonist appears to be a young man, and he has no name. (Canonically, his name is Benjamin, but the game itself never mentions this) I’m used to protagonists being boys. I choose a name; certainly not my own. (I didn’t even know my own yet) By 1992, I was probably naming all my video game characters Frodo or Aragorn.
Then into the game. A forest town where everyone has been magically aged. A girl who can talk to forest spirits! Kaeli was my favorite character in the game, I remember that. What the game lacked in dialogue, my mind made up for with imaginations. (Headcanons, I guess we’d call them now.) These simple, barely sketched-out characters took on lives of their own in my mind.
As the game progresses, the protagonist travels with a rotating cast of companions. (But only ever one at a time) The companions don’t gain levels or new spells and equipment; only the protagonist is dynamic. But they come in and out of the game frequently enough that there was always something new for my mind to latch onto.
Already mentioned was Kaeli, who talks to trees and wields an ax. (The implications there never occurred to me as a child; I wonder how much of that conversation was intimidation, and how much apology?) In my mind, I think she was a fairy or an elf, though the game doesn’t actually suggest anything like that. But she could talk to the forest! That must mean something.
Next up was Tristam, whose entire characterization can be described as “he is a treasure hunter”. He pretty much just shows up when there’s a spot in the story where the protagonist would otherwise be alone. He fought, incongruously, with shuriken, so I decided that obviously he must be a ninja. He had some secret reason for traveling with you that he never revealed, though I never tried to guess what that reason might be, out of respect for his privacy. (Tristam’s name in the Japanese version was Rokku, sometimes translated as “Lock.” This will be important in a couple years.)
Phoebe has even less characterization than Tristam. Her entire motivation for being in the game is having an uncle who might be able to help the protagonist. She uses some sort of claw weapon, and then later a bow. I have always been enamored by archery, and I remember having a vision of Phoebe as a regal, elegant markswoman.
And finally Reuben. Reuben was my least favorite character, for no reason I could put my finger on. I just didn’t find him as interesting as the other people. He is, anachronistically, in a rock band, and tags along with the protagonist well past the point where he has any real motivation to do so. I didn’t miss him when he fell off that bridge. (But I was glad he was unharmed.)
The particulars of the dungeons and quests never felt that important. There were four crystals to ‘rescue’ and four towns to match. Often, a minor character would refuse to help you until you performed some urgent task for them first. These elements felt natural and obvious to me in a way that is probably familiar to anyone who grew up with RPGs. So, those elements faded into the background; it was the characters that I really remember, that I spent so many hours with. Fighting monsters and wandering through mazes was just something we could do together.
Near the end of the game, all of the characters I’ve described above come together in the same place. Strangely, they suddenly all act as if they know each other; like they are some sort of team that’s been working together the entire time. It’s a bizarre plot hole, and it’s an entirely unearned sense of camaraderie. I didn’t particularly notice this in 1992, though. In my mind we had all fought together, and it was no surprise that we came together as friends at the end. As a weird little proto-trans girl who had a hard time making friends, this game made me feel less alone.
Of course, the game was not successful. It is not well-remembered by the Final Fantasy fandom or the games industry. It is a dusty, cast-off fragment of the franchise. It only bears minimal traces of the usual iconography of Final Fantasy. There are Crystals, White and Black Magic, a single reference to Chocobos, and… that’s it. It is hard to look at it now and see it as anything other than disappointing and frustrating. And yet I loved it, once. Not as much as I would love Final Fantasy III just a couple of years later, perhaps, but I loved it all the same.
And the secret truth is that I feel a kinship to this game, even now. My history is intertwined with a failed, discarded relic best left forgotten, something that used to be rewarding but is just frustrating now, that never lived up to the expectations of its name. And I used to know how to love it.
I think I used to know how to love myself, too. But it’s been a while. I struggle with low self esteem, episodes of debilitating anxiety and depression, and suicidal ideation. In my more charitable moments, that’s how I describe it. More often, I would say that I am a failure of a person best forgotten, that can’t live up to her name and her oaths.
But writing is magic, so here is my spell. Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest is flawed, but that doesn’t make it impossible to love. There was once an 8 year old girl who proved that. More importantly, Mystic Quest wasn’t the end of the story, it was the beginning. A rough start, but it was followed by Final Fantasy III. And, later on, Final Fantasy Tactics, Final Fantasy X, and Final Fantasy XIV. The same elements can be rearranged endlessly. The secret is to keep iterating, keep trying new things. And in every iteration, there will be things worth loving.