When Square Decides To Go Weird: The Case For Mystic Quest and X-2

Square Enix’s mainline games in the Final Fantasy series are usually not prone to taking significant risks. It’s what fans of the franchise want. They are very adamant about having the numbered games play a certain way. The few times that Square has decided to take things in a different or weird direction for a Final Fantasy branded game; it usually is met with a mixed reaction at best. For two games specifically, Final Fantasy Mystic Quest and Final Fantasy X-2, Square goes fully into being weird. That might be why these are two of the most controversial games in the franchise, but two of my favorites. Square certainly does not get weird with Final Fantasy often, but in the case of these two games, it works.

Recently, it has been easy to see Square as being tone deaf in the ways they are marketing games, most notably Final Fantasy XV, but you can trace it back all the way to 1992’s Final Fantasy Mystic Quest for the Super Nintendo. For some reason, the Japanese arm of Square thought that Americans needed an introductory RPG to understand the genre. Even though, this would be after Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy II (IV), and Dragon Quest I-IV were already out in the States. Americans knew how to play Japanese RPGs by this point. For some, these games had a large barrier to entry which seemed daunting to just jump in. Of course, that is speaking from our current time where the original Final Fantasy seems very hard to go back to given the way mechanics in the game work (IV less so.) In October of 1992, Square would release the friendlier RPG, Final Fantasy Mystic Quest.

Twenty-four years later, there has been a lot of coverage on the game and whether or not it is the worst Final Fantasy of all time. I get that if you had played it in 1992 or around that time after playing any RPG of that era, it would be upsetting and strange. To say it is the worst of the series though? That’s bullshit. It has its flaws though. The story is pretty mediocre, combat is simplistic, and it is significantly shorter than its predecessors. Out of all of the Square Final Fantasy RPGs from the NES and SNES era, this was the game that has aged the best and was way ahead of its time. Final Fantasy Mystic Quest utilizes mechanics that took other developers years and years to implement. You can save anywhere! No worrying about having to find a save point if you are in trouble or need to quit, it is right there for you. You don’t have to sit in a dungeon and grind, the game gives you specific spots on the overworld map to do just that and if you want to skip them, you totally can! The length of the game, which is around ten hours, has been a knock against it for years, but that is actually the perfect length for the game. Compare it to RPGs of its era and that time seems extremely short, but if you look at it today, it is absolutely fine. It can be hard to find time to sit down and play an 80 hour RPG, but having a game that can be done within a 1/8th of that time, is a godsend. The soundtrack is easily one of the best the series has produced with the battle themes being arguably the best the franchise has to offer. It is by no means a perfect game, which it didn’t need to be. It just needed to introduce people to RPG mechanics, which it does. Final Fantasy Mystic Quest might not have wowed people in 1992, but in 2016, it is easily well worth taking the plunge on. While Square might have had a strange reason to make the game, it is the company going in a weird direction that absolutely works and holds up 24 years later.

Sprite degradation is an excellent way to show damage in  Mystic Quest .

Sprite degradation is an excellent way to show damage in Mystic Quest.

Final Fantasy Mystic Quest was controversial in its era, but nowhere near as controversial as Final Fantasy X-2. In 2003, Square did something that they hadn’t done with the past ten mainline Final Fantasy games, make a direct sequel. For some, Final Fantasy X is one of the greatest games ever made. I am not one of those people. In fact, X might be my second least favorite of the Final Fantasy games I’ve played. The fact that I like Final Fantasy X-2 is strange given my distaste for its predecessor. Though, with two of my favorite characters from that game being Yuna and Rikku, it makes a little more sense.

X-2 is essentially a magical girl x J-Pop video game. If you look at it in that light, it makes sense that in 2003, the loud male demographic of video games looked at the game and was scared away. “A game not made for me and not overtly masculine like literally every other major game on the market? Why this is the end of video games! My beloved games can’t be made feminine! It will be the end times! I, a male video game player can’t like girly things!” –probably what some guy in 2003 said. You still see that type of attitude in 2016 which is just ludicrous, but the “gamer” culture in video games is shit, so it is not surprising people would still look at this game in that light. Final Fantasy X-2 is overtly feminine and doesn’t give a fuck whether you like that or not, but still has some problems like over sexualizing Rikku’s outfit or featuring the stereotypical hot springs scene. Outside of those problems, X-2 is about female comradery, female empowerment, and showing that saving the world doesn’t mean that you have fixed everything. Look at Yuna in this game, she has just come from saving the entire world, but sees many people die across her journey and loses her love at the very end and yet has to put on for the entire populace the persona of the summoner who saved the world. That is an insane amount of pressure to put on a 19 year old. Which is probably why she dives head first into sphere hunting with Rikku and Paine; it gives her an escape from everything. The game gives her more reason to go down this road, but even before that, it is well established that sphere hunting is her new role in life. It is also probably why Rikku sticks around her, because she’s worried about her friend and knows firsthand everything she went through. Without Rikku, who knows what dark path Yuna would have gone down? 

Sometimes, to unite the people, you've gotta perform your new hot J-Pop single on top of your ship in the Thunder Plains.

Sometimes, to unite the people, you've gotta perform your new hot J-Pop single on top of your ship in the Thunder Plains.

For a game that is a direct sequel to an expansive RPG, it would be easy to think that it would be more of the same. That is kind of true. X-2 is still an JRPG at heart, but takes the genre in a different direction, one that Square really hadn’t gone down with in the Final Fantasy franchise before and Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII being the only game after that could be seen as similar. Considering this is after everything that transpires in X, the entire world is open to you from the very beginning. This ties into how the game is actually played, which is mission based. Each area has its own little or major event that Yuna and the crew can go down and do. Having missions also factors in to which ending you get as you need to reach a certain percentage by the end of the game to get the good ending and you will not be able to do that by just doing the main missions. By letting you explore the world at your own pace, it allows the player to tackle whatever order of missions they want and play the game however they choose. Especially if you are just coming off of X, everything will be familiar albeit slightly different, with touches of fan service scattered. While X-2 does have bad fan service meant for the male gaze, it does feature copious amounts of the good kind of fan service when Yuna gets to catch up with characters she knows from X. As in getting to be there right before Wakka and Lulu’s child is born or seeing how Kimahri is handling being a leader. Not only are these fun scenes, but they flesh out these characters even more than what X was able to do.

I don’t really know why, but one of the reasons people throw hate towards X-2 is because of the Dresssphere system. Perhaps they didn’t want to play dress up or are not fans of magical girl mechanics, but Dressspheres are classic Final Fantasy. It is essentially the job system, but modernized for this game. Aren’t Final Fantasy purists supposed to love the job system, yet they hate this game? There are also Garment Grids, but I honestly still cannot tell you how that works. Maybe if I changed more during battles that would have come more into play. Speaking of battles, the system utilized in X-2 is a real fun take on the X Active Time Battle. Playing the game in Active mode makes the fights extremely fast paced and harrowing because you can’t just sit and wait to make a decision. You do that, and you’re dead. It keeps the player on their toes because you may think a normal encounter is going fine when all of a sudden two of your party members are petrified and whoops you just got a Game Over. Having only three party members also requires less grinding than normal, but you can enhance your party by capturing monsters in the field, but I did not really find the need to utilize that mechanic. X-2 is just a lot of fun packed into a sequel. What other game has you fight a weird doppelganger of the lover you’re trying to find, sing a duet with a ghost, and OH HEY THIS IS ALSO A PREQUEL TO FINAL FANTASY VII LIKE WHAT?! Final Fantasy X-2 is just weird and strange, unabashedly so, but that is what makes it work so well. Square took such a risk with this game and it works, thanks in part to the development team not sticking to the tried and true formula. I’m not sure X-2 has aged as well as Mystic Quest, but it definitely is a game that should be better received now than when it was released.

With Final Fantasy XV on the horizon and how disappointing that game looks (and that’s not even including the terrible looking VR part), it is a shame that Square does not seem averse to making games be weird and not the same as every other game before it. Perhaps the forthcoming World of Final Fantasy will fill that void, but even then, that doesn’t seem anywhere close to the weirdness of Mystic Quest or X-2. A common phrase in our culture is that X gets better as it ages. Final Fantasy Mystic Quest is a fantastic example of that in video games. While Final Fantasy X-2 might just now be getting to that phase of its life, it still is a champion of games that are feminine and proud of it as it was back in 2003. These are two games that prove Square can do strange and fun video games outside of the norm. That version of Square is missing from video games and hopefully at some point in time, it can return and bring us more fun and weird games.