Greetings, old-school gamers, and welcome to Retro Rundown! In this Friday series, I pick a classic video game from my collection – I’m defining “classic” as “PS2 era and earlier” at this point (I know, it makes me feel old too) – and give it the Big Brother treatment, exploring the game’s history, themes, and legacy. I’ll even throw in a few personal memories with the game along the way, and see if I can touch on the shared experiences that make so many of us remember it fondly.
Most gamers will agree with me that there’s a period including the mid-to-late-’90s that should rightly be called the Golden Age of RPGs. I propose that this era extended from the release of Final Fantasy IV in 1991 to Final Fantasy X in 2001. There’s certainly no question that the highest volume of beloved RPGs (including a few I’ve already covered in this series) belong to the Super Nintendo and PlayStation, specifically. During this time, RPG lovers were so spoiled for choice that even a title considered below average – one without a die-hard fan base or instantly recognizable characters – might deserve a second look. Today’s entry, Lufia & the Fortress of Doom, is one such game.
The year was 1993. Squaresoft was the undisputed king of the JRPG (and was almost completely responsible for popularizing the genre in the US with its early Final Fantasy games), and Enix was still going strong with its Dragon Quest series in Japan. A few companies took a look at the massive profits that Square was generating with games focused on plot and characterization, and thought they’d dip their toe into the role-playing genre. This would lead to many standout titles that help justify this period as a Golden Age, but the one we’re focused on here was commissioned by arcade publisher Taito. Taito was known primarily for Space Invaders and Bubble Bobble – so clearly, they were playing against type here! Lufia was the first effort by a small development company called Neverland (which would go on to put out 25 titles in 20 years before closing), and is arguably their most noteworthy title. Its original Japanese release in June was entitled Estpolis Denki (“Biography of Estpolis”); Lufia & the Fortress of Doom followed in the US in December.
The story of Lufia throws the player right into the deep end, joining four heroes at the end of their journey to the titular, levitating Fortress of Doom. Maxim, Selan, Guy, and Artea (or just “Arty”, if you like the non-Engrish version) are there to destroy the Sinistrals, a quartet of evil deities that wish to take over the world, and allude to an epic quest that we never get to see (well, not until Lufia II, which would be a well-deserved prequel). The heroes win the battle, but at great cost as Maxim and Selan (the leading couple) have to sacrifice their lives. The bad guys swear with their dying breaths that they’ll return one day.
This opening sequence, while a bit jarring to first-time players, does a great job of setting up the world and introducing the combat and menu mechanics of Lufia. The game essentially kills off two playable characters early on, which was still a rarity for the genre. The bad guys are straightforward and menacing rather than scenery-chewing (at least in this iteration), but we get a sense of their individual identities right away: Gades, Sinistral of Destruction, is impatient and reckless; Amon, Sinistral of Chaos, is the deceiver type who sows negative emotions; Erim, Sinistral of Death, is the evil team’s healer and a powerful magic user; and Daos, Sinistral of Terror, is their powerful, intelligent, and genocidal leader.
CUT TO 90 YEARS LATER. Our protagonist for the rest of the game is a player-named redhead officially known as “Maxim’s Descendant” (but you and I both know his real name is Adam, coincidentally the same as my name). We meet him in his early childhood, when he encounters a young blue-haired girl with amnesia who is subsequently taken in by the village innkeeper and self-identified as Lufia. Another nine years down the road, Adam is a newly-minted knight and he and Lufia have a budding romantic attraction. It’s not until this point that the game begins in earnest; everything up until this point was to establish the tone that Lufia does a pretty good (if not stellar) job of living up to the rest of the way.
The most memorable sequence in the game proper comes early on, when Adam runs into a resurrected Gades and is quickly curbstomped in an unwinnable – but wisely interactive, so the game doesn’t tip its hand – battle; the Sinistral is for some reason driven away by the appearance of Lufia, and the mystery of her identity circles the plot for some time. As the player grows closer to Lufia and comes to appreciate the relationship between the two leads, the fact that the big reveal is ultimately kind of obvious – that Lufia is in fact the reincarnation of fellow blue-hair Erim gone horribly right – is less damning than it could have been. Once the hero finds out what’s going on, the question becomes whether he’s still going to care for her (of course he is) and whether she’ll return to her evil self or will retain the persona of the young girl he loves (a hazier answer, and one that provides emotion to the story).
True to the title, Lufia is the most interesting character in the game; the Hero shows some personality, but he’s ultimately a lens for the player to look through as the real story develops around her – hence the lack of a canonical name. The other two party members are little more than adventure stereotypes spiced up with a bit of decent dialogue; Aguro is an army commander who joins because he’s intrigued by Adam’s skill and the chance at saving the world, and Jerin is a half-elf, half-human maiden who isn’t welcome with either race but finds a sense of purpose with the party. Lufia, by contrast, is at turns naive, kind, strong, and even jealous to the point of cruelty; she feels like a real person, with both positive and negative human qualities, and the writing for her manages to elevate the other characters, particularly the Hero. The game’s ending is focused around her as well, and this was a wise move on behalf of the writers, as it really does tug at the heartstrings.
Lufia supplements its main cast with a few interesting side characters. Since the game opened with the story of the four original heroes, it’s instantly compelling to interact with the two who are still alive, Guy and Artea, both of whom have roles to play in the second coming of the Sinistrals. We also enlist the aid of Professor Shaia, an enthusiastic inventor who provides the party with various means of transportation around the world, and Shaia’s son Lou, who turns to pick-pocketing out of rebellion and boredom.
Exploration in Lufia isn’t as great as a contemporary Final Fantasy title, but it’s still above average. Once the player gains free access to the ship (which is later upgraded to a submarine and airship by the professor, unlocking further areas), there are plenty of bonuses for going off the rails and seeing what the world holds. You can make an early trip to an area with a town you aren’t supposed to visit for plot purposes until much later, where you can buy advanced equipment and fight monsters that are likely way too powerful for you at this time (but which dedicated players can use to quickly level up). There’s a bonus area in the corner of the map where you can buy back anything you’ve sold in your entire playthrough, among other goodies. And by far the coolest moment of world-building is when you realize that you’ve entered the remains of the fortress from the game’s opening, only to discover that it holds new areas and tougher enemies – it’s a very Super Metroid technique.
Gameplay is everything you’d expect from a classic JRPG. You’ve got your overworld map for exploration, plenty of dungeons and towns, and bottom-to-top turn-based combat. Each character has their own set of skills unlocked over time – well, except for Aguro, who just hits stuff really hard. There are a few quirks that give it a little bit of spice, however. In a callback to truly classic RPGs like Final Fantasy, you input an entire round’s commands ahead of time. If a character’s target isn’t standing when their turn comes around, they automatically miss instead of auto-updating to a new target. This forces players to pay a little bit of extra attention so as not to waste valuable actions in what might otherwise be a quick, button-mashing fight. There are a few obscure stats like weight that have a minor impact on attack order, but otherwise everything is pretty straightforward – a fun experience for fans of this sort of thing, and a bit tiresome to anyone else. The sprite-based visuals aren’t anything special for the era, either, but there’s a decent score to it that doesn’t get tiresome with repetition.
Lufia‘s plot is definitely filled with tropes and stereotypes, particularly the central conceit of a character with an amnesia-obscured hidden identity, a well that RPGs would visit many times in this era (e.g., Final Fantasy VI, Knights of the Old Republic). This has caused some people to be critical of Lufia retrospectively, which I think isn’t entirely fair. It’s important to remember that in 1993, most of these tropes hadn’t yet been beaten to death; at the time, the game’s depth and emotion were still fairly novel, and it was hailed by GamePro Magazine as the second-best RPG of the year (after Secret of Mana, since Squaresoft couldn’t let a year go by in this era without revolutionizing the genre). Had the game come out two years earlier, before Final Fantasy IV in particular, it really would have blown everyone’s minds – and possibly changed the trajectory of Taito America (which shut down shortly after Lufia‘s release).
As with my later acquisition of EarthBound, I was lucky enough to receive Lufia as a Christmas gift when I was about ten years old. My parents knew nothing about it and it definitely wasn’t on my list, but the artwork was cool and they were lucky enough to have hit a home run with what ended up being my first real foray into JRPGs. Perhaps I wouldn’t have appreciated it as much if I’d already played a Final Fantasy game to completion, but it turned out to serve as an excellent introduction to the genre, and I couldn’t put it down. I remember calling the Nintendo Power helpline, not because I needed help with the game itself, but because I was confused by the fact that the screenshots in their magazine didn’t have Lufia as a party member (I’d later find out out that it was because she leaves the party during a portion of the late game). The poor guy on the other end of the line didn’t really understand, and my folks probably weren’t too thrilled about the charges! But even so, my enthusiasm for the game, and ultimately everything it represented in interactive storytelling, never waned.
I’ve been lucky enough to have held onto the same copy of Lufia & the Fortress of Doom that started it all, still complete in box – which is now worth about a hundred dollars. If you’re just looking for the cartridge, it has gone up in value in recent years, like many of the non-blockbuster Golden Age RPGs, and is currently sitting at around $40. The real find, though, would be the sequel – worth about twice as much!
Speaking of which, even though Lufia wasn’t a huge seller for Taito, it managed to gain enough popularity in the States that they were able to sell the US rights to the franchise off to Natsume for Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals. For this game, Neverland wisely realized that they’d already written the end of a great saga – that of Maxim and company – and filling in the rest of the story would be plenty to make a worthwhile prequel. And while this one wouldn’t be a big seller either, it’s now considered one of the best hidden gems from the era, since it built on every aspect of Fortress of Doom and told a story that even surpassed it. But of course, it owes its existence to the work that was put in on Lufia! The series continued with a few other titles that consistently undersold, but were largely appreciated by fans. However, since nothing has seen a release since 2010, it could be that we’ve seen the last of the franchise.
In the end, Lufia stands as a very good game that isn’t considered great, largely because of its timing. But if you consider only those Golden Age RPGs not made by the Square-Enix juggernaut, this is one of the better ones, and certainly one that deserves more acclaim than it gets. Having a genuine heart to your story can go a long way in forgiving wrongs.
That’s it for this issue of Retro Rundown! If you enjoyed it, please check out additional offerings from yours truly. If you have a strong opinion about other games I should revisit in this series, hit up the Dashing Nerds on Twitter or Facebook, or leave a comment below!