Welcome back, Retro Junkers! It's time once again to blow the dust off of a largely forgotten game of the 16-Bit era that deserved better treatment than it got from gamers back in the day.
If there's one thing the Super Nintendo was known for, it was for popularizing the Japanese RPG, a genre that was pretty much all but ignored in America during the 8-Bit generation. Sure, RPGs were still largely a niche market in the early to mid 90s, and they would not really find their way to mass popularity until Final Fantasy VII launched on the Playstation in September 1997. But I believe it was largely due to the SNES's collection of largely quality titles that people first began to take notice of the genre. Thanks to games like Final Fantasy II and III, Illusion of Gaia, Secret of Mana and Chrono Trigger, RPGs gained a reputation for strong storylines, usually amazing music, and vast worlds that gamers could uncover. It's almost hard to believe that except for Illusion of Gaia, all of those games I listed above were made by one company - Squaresoft. Back in the 90s, Square pretty much had RPGs down to a science.
Naturally, other companies tried their hand at the genre as well. One of those companies was Taito, a Japanese arcade manufacturer who is perhaps best known for making classic games like Bubble Bobble and Elevator Action. In 1993, they dipped their toes into the RPG waters with their first attempt, Lufia and the Fortress of Doom. This was and is, by all accounts, a perfectly standard RPG. It didn't have the best graphics or soundtrack, but its story was fairly interesting (including a surprisingly bittersweet and heartfelt climax). The only things holding it back is that it didn't really do anything new as far as RPGs go, and it had a terribly excessive amount of random battles, which made exploring the map and dungeons a tedious chore at times.
Maxim and friends battle a Sinistral during the opening of Lufia and the Fortress of Doom
One of the things that was interesting about Lufia is that it featured a playable prologue set 100 years before the events of the main story. In this part of the game, you played as a party of warriors led by a man named Maxim, who had entered the titular Fortress of Doom in order to do battle with the four Sinistrals, God-like beings who were threatening the Earth. So, you basically got to play through the ending of an earlier story, as you helped Maxim and his friends defeat the Sinistrals. It was kind of a unique idea at the time, giving the player the chance to experience the backstory first hand. Once the battle was won, the final moments of this story played out, and the game then flashed forward 100 years to the events of the main game, where you spent the remainder of the time.
Apparently, this prologue sequence struck a chord with gamers, because when it came time to do Lufia II, the developer decided to flesh out this earlier story, and make the entire game about Maxim's quest! Yes, despite its title, Lufia II is actually a prequel, not a sequel to the original. What this means is that those of you who play the original before the sequel pretty much already know how Lufia II ends, since the opening sequence in the first game displayed part of the ending. So, this is the rare instance where it's wise to play the sequel before the first game. But, it's not just for the sake of the story. Lufia II is a vastly superior game to the original in almost every way, and is also one of the hidden gems in the vast RPG library of the Super Nintendo.
Let's take a closer look, shall we?LUFIA II: RISE OF THE SINISTRALS
RELEASED: FEBRUARY 24, 1995 (JAPAN)/1996 (U.S.)
Don't be surprised if you've never played this game or even heard of it, as it has never gotten much attention here in the U.S. Heck, the game's original developer, Taito, didn't even bother to bring this game over here, even though they translated and published the first game in America. Instead, a small developer named Natsume did the honors.
Okay, so the English translation we got is kind of cheesy, but trust me, this is a *great* game...
We should be lucky that the game even made its way over here, because by the time it came out in mid-1996, the Super Nintendo was pretty much a distant memory. The Nintendo 64 was about to hit, and the Playstation had pretty much already captured the hearts and minds of gamers everywhere. To my knowledge, Lufia II was the very last RPG released over here for the venerable 16-bitter. At least it's legacy with RPGs got to go out on a high note, as Lufia II is some of the most fun I've had playing an RPG. It's brilliantly designed dungeons combine the best of exploration and turn-based fighting of Final Fantasy, with the insanely fun puzzle-solving aspects of action RPGs like Legend of Zelda. It's a combination that works beautifully, and creates a memorable experience that sadly few have played.
So, let's take a closer look at this great game, and what makes it a hidden treasure of 16-bit, starting with the story...THE STORY:
Much like the original game, the story in Lufia II is not exactly original, but it's serviceable and works well enough. You take control of Maxim, a young man living a fairly carefree life and making a living out of hunting monsters for his local village. There's a girl in the village named Tia who has a not-too-hidden affection for our hero, but the big dunce is too busy doing manly things like fighting monsters to notice her attention, so he basically keeps her in the "friend zone" for most of the game. Trust me, there will be MUCH more about this aspect of the plot later.
The number of monsters has been increasing and is making travel to other villages difficult, so Maxim decides to visit a nearby cave to check things out. After defeating the problem-causing creature, he is visited by a mysterious woman named Iris, who tells Maxim that he will soon embark on a difficult and trying journey to save the world from an evil force that is causing the increase in monsters. Sure enough, Maxim goes on said journey, and eventually learns that four god-like beings called Sinistrals are behind the turmoil and threatening the innocent people. These four beings have decided that they are superior to the humans who populate the world, and that they should rule it. Our four antagonists include Daos: The Sinistral of Terror, Gades: Sinistral of Destruction, Amon: Sinistral of Chaos, and Erim: the sole female member of the team, and the Sinistral of Death. With titles like those, you know that they don't have the best of interests for Maxim's world, so you're going to have to stop them.
For the most part, that's the gist of Lufia's II plot. You basically go around, helping out random people in the different places you explore, and ultimately learn more about the Sinistrals and how you can possibly defeat them. Of course, there are plenty of side plots and characters that you encounter along the way, but the story sadly never goes much deeper than that, and is probably the weakest aspect of the game. The somewhat lazy English translation that Natsume has provided doesn't help matters much. There are some errors, such as character names being spelled wrong at certain times, or sometimes the writer even gets names confused, and calls a character by a completely different name. And there are some unintentionally funny moments, such as when one of the Sinistrals decides to insult you during the final battle by calling you "a bunch of hoochies". Yeah, way to drain the drama out of the situation there.
Naturally, Maxim won't have to tackle this journey on his own. A variety of friends that he meets along the way will help him at different points of his quest. Tia is naturally there from the beginning, as she doesn't want Maxim to leave on such a dangerous quest on his own, but along the way you also meet a fighter named Guy, an elf named Artea who is handy with a bow and arrow, and even an absent minded scientist named Lexis, who fights alongside you for a short while, but mainly contributes by inventing various modes of travel for you, such as a submarine or an airship. But the most important character to join Maxim's quest is Selan, a famed female soldier from a neighboring kingdom. She starts out kind of standoffish toward Maxim, feeling she doesn't need the help of a fellow fighter. But after a while, her attitude thaws, and she starts to get close to Maxim. During a montage sequence that happens midway through the game, Maxim and Selan fall in love, get married, and even have a child together.
The wedding of Maxim and Selan...and all I could think was "poor Tia"...
While this is kind of a cool aspect to the plot, it also kind of infuriates me by the way the game decides to handle it. Maxim and Selan barely spend any time together when they suddenly decide they want to spend the rest of their lives together and get hitched. And where does this leave Tia, the woman who has been pining for Maxim since the beginning of the story? Well, she suddenly decides to leave the party, apparently realizing that Maxim and her work better as friends rather than a romantic couple. It's just so slapdash and sudden. There was a good opportunity for drama here, maybe create a love triangle within the party. Instead, everything just happens, and with little cause or reason. Maxim and Selan suddenly love each other, and Tia suddenly decides she would be better off without him. Maxim doesn't even say goodby to Tia, which kind of makes your character come across as a bit of a jerk. I really wish this sequence had been handled better, as it's obviously supposed to be an emotional sequence, but it kind of comes across as rushed and unsatisfying.
What does make the story ultimately work is how it all turns out in the end. Yes, if you've played the original Lufia, you basically know the outcome of Maxim and his quest, but even if you do, the ending that the developers have come up with is highly emotional, and even a little sad. I'll admit, I teared up a tiny bit the first time I witnessed it. The combination of the emotion the writers put into the game's climax as well as the music that plays out during the aftermath of the final battle really gets quite emotional. If the entire game's plot had been this good, it would have been a masterpiece.
So, I know I've kind of been harping on the plot and the writing for a while now, but those are not the features that make Lufia II the hidden classic that it is. That would be the gameplay...GAMEPLAY:
Here is where the programming team behind Lufia II went above and beyond, and made the game not only a huge improvement on the original, but also an underrated classic that seldom gets ranked amongst the top games on the system, even though it should. At first glance, it seems very much like a garden variety RPG, much like the first. You fight turn based levels, gain experience and gold, and rest and gather information in towns. But, it doesn't take long until you start to see the improvements, and then just how brilliant the game really is.
Let's start with the subtle improvements first. In the original Lufia, one of the most frustrating things about the game was how frequently the game would drag you into a random battle. It was hard to explore many of the game's massive dungeons when you were being stopped every two seconds. Lufia II fixes this in two major ways. The first is that random battles are not only much less frequent, but they only happen on the world map. And because they are more spread out, you feel more free to explore. And that's not even the best part. Not only are random battles in the dungeons a thing of the past here, but they have been strategically redesigned.
In Lufia II, whenever you're in a dungeon, the monsters are visible, giving you the option of completely avoiding a battle if you want to (which usually is not the best idea, since experience and gold are valuable here), or at least do the battle when you want to. How you approach a monster also determines the battle. Come in to the monster from behind, and you get to strike first. But if the monster moves in and surprises you, you get the advantage. While this practice seems fairly common today, you have to remember at the time it came out, it was still a novel idea, with Chrono Trigger being the only other example I can think of that featured visible monsters.
"The World's Most Difficult Trick"
But the biggest addition is the emphasis on puzzle solving. No longer are dungeons simply a matter of exploring and finding treasures in Lufia II. Now, many of the dungeons feature Zelda-inspired puzzles that will test your brain and reflexes. Like in Zelda, many of the puzzles revolve around switches, pushing and pulling blocks, and using tools such as bombs (for blowing up weak walls or floors), a grappling hook (for pulling yourself across chasms) and arrows (for striking far away switches and objects) in order to progress. Naturally, the puzzles start out simple enough, but believe me, by the second or third dungeon, you'll be searching for an FAQ on how to solve some of them. Resist the urge, though. Lufia II has some of the best puzzle-based dungeons ever devised, and it's worth it to try to figure out as many as you can on your own. Just try your luck on the "World's Most Difficult Trick" - a puzzle that occurs late in the game where you have to slide a bunch of tiles in order to move a certain tile with four treasure chests on it over to where you are. Sounds easy, but trust me, this puzzle has caused many of the most daring challengers to pull their hair out solving it.
So, the dungeons are fun, inventive, and filled with brain-taxing puzzles that can literally take hours to solve if you don't know what you're doing. Most games would be fine with that alone, but the programmers added even more to the game. How about "Capsule Monsters" - Optional creatures you can discover along your quest who will fight along side you? Not only do they build levels along with you, but they can grow and evolve if you feed them the right item or piece of equipment they're hungry for. There's a wide variety of creatures for you to find, each of them with multiple evolution forms, and their own unique fighting styles and abilities. There's also a casino, where you can waste countless hours gambling away your hard-earned money for valuable items and even more cash. And, believe it or not, the programmers still were not done. They also threw in the ultimate test for just about any RPG fan. I'm talking about the Ancient Cave.
There's a lot of treasure in the Ancient Cave. Lots of monsters, too...
Ah, the Ancient Cave. Completely optional, and completely unrelated to the game itself. However, if you're going for bragging rights and want to see everything the game has to offer, you simply must try your luck with what is easily the most daunting dungeon ever conceived in any 16-bit RPG. You think I'm joking? Well, let me tell you about some of the finer features of the Ancient Cave. It's 99 floors long, and can take around 60 to 80 hours to beat. Yes, that's right, this "optional" dungeon is long enough to be a game in itself. When you enter, all of your characters lose their weapons and items, and are sent immediately back to Level 1. So, you have to plunder the many chests within the cave to power your characters back up, and get them into fighting shape. Still not enough? If you leave the Cave, you lose everything, except for the stuff you find in Blue Treasure Chests. This is the valuable stuff that can only be found in the Cave, and will make the actual game itself easier to complete.
The Ancient Slime who awaits you on Level 99 of the Ancient Cave.
The Ancient Cave is a true endurance test in the best sense of the word. The only way I have ever been able to complete it is with an emulated ROM, which allowed Save States. I have attempted to beat it many times on my cartridge copy, but have never had the patience. This optional dungeon is certainly not for the faint of heart. It's long, it's taxing, it's difficult, and it holds some of the toughest monsters in the game, especially as you get toward the end. I can picture the programmers having big grins on their faces when they were designing this dungeon. I can only imagine what gamers first felt when they came upon this place. The Ancient Cave is one of the true badges of honor in the gaming world. Beat this place legit (i.e. no Save States), and you have bragging rights for life.WHY I CONSIDER IT A HIDDEN TREASURE OF 16-BIT:
It's a combination of all of its features that make this game such a monster, and a standout game in the Super Nintendo's library. Due to bad timing, the game was just never given a chance. By the time it came out, the Nintendo 64 was about to be launched stateside, so not many people were paying attention, and the game got only a quiet and limited release.
Unfortunately, much like Demon's Crest, that means the game is very rare, and will go for a big price if you want to add it to your collection. When I tracked it down at a used game store a few months ago, I paid $170 for a complete boxed copy. And unfortunately, unless you emulate a ROM, tracking down a copy is going to be your only option. To my knowledge, neither of the Lufia games for the SNES made it to the Virtual Console, which is really a shame. These games, especially Lufia II, don't deserve to be forgotten.
There is, however, a remake floating around out there. Back in 2010, Square-Enix decided to release a revamped version of Lufia II for the Nintendo DS. It's called Lufia: Curse of the Sinistrals, and was brought over here by Natsume, the same people who handled the US release of the SNES version. The story basically is the same, save for some changes (you meet certain characters earlier than you do in the original), and it also features a really good remix of the game's soundtrack (which was already pretty spectacular in 16-bit form). The big difference is that the game has been changed from a turn-based battle RPG, to a more 3D action oriented adventure. While this is not a bad game, I greatly prefer Lufia II for the SNES. For one thing, I don't like the artstyle in the remake. I'm just not a fan of how the characters look in their character portraits. It looks like the artist was going for a semi-anime/semi-realistic look, and it just doesn't work for me. But, you can be the judge. If you really can't track down the original, this remake will do just fine. I just prefer the original.
And with that, I think this will close out my series of Hidden Treasures of 16-Bit for now. I may pick it up again someday, but I need to focus on a massive project that I'll be starting here on Retro Junk in a month or so. I'm really excited for it, and I hope you will be to when it is revealed.
Until next time Retro Junkers, keep the past alive!