The Final Fantasy Legend - The History

Developer/Publisher: Square

Format: Game Boy

North American Release Date: September 30, 1990

Also Known As: Makaitoshi SaGa (Japan)

The History

The success of the Game Boy following its initial launch in Japan in April of 1989 drew a lot of attention around the game industry. Square's president at that time was Masafumi Miyamoto, and the company had finally found some solid footing in the game business thanks to the success of 1987's Final Fantasy for the Nintendo Famicom. That game had already seen a sequel released in late 1988, and a third release was well on its way when the Game Boy launched. While Square would eventually become one of the biggest, most prestigious game publishers around, at this point they were very much in the business of jumping on trends. Thus, when Miyamoto saw Game Boy hardware and copies of Tetris flying off the shelves, he asked his developers to create a Game Boy game. 

While it may have been implied that Miyamoto was looking for something like Tetris, his staff felt that their customers would likely respond best to a role-playing game. Akitoshi Kawazu, who had designed the battle system for the original Final Fantasy and had been in charge of much of Final Fantasy 2's design, stepped up to the challenge. His team numbered just over ten and included staff who had worked on Square's Tom Sawyer and the Final Fantasy games. Among them was Koichi Ishii, a frequent collaborator of Kawazu's who would end up taking the reins of his own Game Boy project.

The Final Fantasy Legend was designed from the ground up with the Game Boy in mind. Naturally, the handheld nature of the hardware required many different considerations when compared to conventional consoles and home computers. The system's battery life had to be taken into account, along with the fact that while some players would be putting in long sessions, others might spend as little time with the game as it took to get from one train station to the next. No one had ever made a handheld RPG before, so all of these aspects were new challenges. There were also technical challenges to consider. Game Boy cartridges at that time could only hold two megabits of data, and the system famously could only display four shades of gray. 

Square originally planned for the game's length to run from about six to eight hours. That number was based on nothing more meaningful than how long it took to fly from Narita, Japan to Honolulu, Hawaii. The final game ended up taking almost twice as long to play through for most players, but it's clear the developers had this desired brevity in mind as they put the game together. At the very least, you could play through the whole game on one set of batteries if you wanted, though you didn't have to. While most console RPGs of the day only allowed players to save their progress at specific times and locations within the game, The Final Fantasy Legend included a feature that let players save anytime they wished. 

This save-anywhere feature was critical not just because of battery concerns, but also for the aforementioned case of the player who wanted to enjoy the game in shorter bursts of play. Also in consideration of these types of players, the developers opted to increase the game's random encounter rate relative to their other RPGs of the time. The reasoning behind that decision was that if a player could only play for a few minutes, they could count on at least one battle to occupy them. 

With regards to the Game Boy's hardware limitations, the development team behind The Final Fantasy Legend tends to speak of them as an obstacle that needed to be worked around. It has been mentioned that certain elements such as fire were difficult to get across in a monochrome display, and that the small size of the cartridge meant that many things had to be cut from the final game. They had to create a world that worked in black and white, and they needed to do it while conserving as much memory as possible. In spite of the tight memory squeeze, the team was able to fit in composer Nobuo Uematsu's sixteen-track soundtrack. Uematsu too spoke of the challenges involved with the Game Boy hardware, though in his case it was due to the differences compared to the Famicom sound hardware rather than any serious deficiency. 

The game released in Japan under the name Makaitoshi SaGa on December 15th, 1989. It was warmly received in its home country, scoring well with critics and players alike. The game would go on to sell 1.09 million copies in Japan, making it the first third-party Game Boy game to crest the million-mark in sales and the only one that would do so until the 1998 release of Enix's Dragon Quest Monsters. It was also Square's very first million-seller, exceeding even the sales of Final Fantasy and Final Fantasy 2 at the time. The success of this game not only led to further Game Boy projects from Square, but also kicked off a new brand for the company. It also helped cement Square's status as a publisher of high-quality RPGs. The founder of developer Game Freak, Satoshi Tajiri, has cited the game as a source of inspiration for the company's Pokemon series of RPGs. 

While a number of Square games had been published outside of Japan through companies like Nintendo and Acclaim, Square had decided in 1989 to start publishing games themselves in North America through a newly-formed US subsidiary named Square Soft. At this point, Final Fantasy had not seen a release outside of Japan in spite of being a couple of years old. Indeed, Square's most famous game in America was probably Rad Racer, an NES racing game that had been published by Nintendo. The company's first Game Boy game was selected as a candidate for their first batch of releases. An English translation was completed in March of 1990, at which time the game was planned to be released later in the year under the title The Great Warrior Saga.   

Nintendo's moderately successful marketing blitz for the May 1990 North American release of Final Fantasy on the NES and the generally favorable response from players of that game convinced Squaresoft to take advantage of the buzz and re-brand their upcoming Game Boy RPG in the West. It released under the title The Final Fantasy Legend on September 30th, 1990, which technically made it the first Final Fantasy spin-off under at least one definition of such. The localized version had some minor changes made to both its content and balance, but for the most part stayed quite faithful to the Japanese version. 

As one would expect of the market in that era, the response was considerably more muted than in Japan. Reviews were favorable but not exceptionally strong from most publications, with many complaints centered around the game's pacing and difficulty. The game was ultimately re-released in 1998 alongside a number of other Squaresoft Game Boy titles by Sunsoft. This was likely an attempt to take advantage of the suddenly-revived Game Boy market following the release of the Game Boy Color and Pokemon in North America. While The Final Fantasy Legend has seen a number of remakes over the years, this Sunsoft release was the last time the original Game Boy version of the game has been made available. It is unknown why Square Enix chose not to make it available through Nintendo's Virtual Console service on the 3DS, even in Japan.

(Photos are placeholders for the most part and will be replaced in the actual book)

Coming Next Week: The Final Fantasy Legend - The Game