Lufia & the Fortress of Doom

Doomed Beginnings

In 1953, the Japanese company Taito was founded, specializing in vending machines and producing vodka for the country. The corporation didn’t delve into videogames until 1973, making a smash with the arcade game Space Invaders and opening an American branch. They eventually began producing games for game consoles such as the NES and its sequel system, the latter of which would see many roleplaying games that fans would consider classics such as the fourth and sixth Final Fantasies. In 1993, Taito itself ventured into RPGs via developer Neverland, producing the Estpolis series, the first entry of which received the name Lufia & the Fortress of Doom outside Japan.

The game shows simultaneous promise and alarm bells with its intro sequence, where Doom Island appears in the skies and its inhabitants serving as the main antagonists, the hilariously-named Sinistrals, terrorize the world below. A group of four warriors spearheaded by the redheaded Maxim, armed with the Dual Blade, ventures onto this avian isle to battle the Stupidnameistrals, in a sequence that actually provides good backstory to the game and has the player as an active participant as the quartet of heroes navigates the fortress on Doom Island. Nine decades after the villains’ defeat, Maxim’s descendant, along with his friend, the titular and enigmatic Lufia, face the second coming of the Sinistrals.

Aside from the backstory and one major twist, the narrative generally falters, with two of the main playable characters, the green-haired Aguro and elf Jerin, almost devoid of development, with the plot itself suffering from endless fetch quests and having glacial pacing, not to mention poor direction on how to advance. The translation was actually one of the better efforts of the era, aside from some terrible decisions such as the asinine name of the antagonists (called the Four Mad Gods in Japan), many enemies, and a purge of Christian symbols from churches. As was the case with many other titles of the era, the plot wasn’t a big drive throughout the game.

Not helping the dismal pacing is the battle system, which follows a structure different from other turn-based systems of the era one could certainly describe as unique, but is also much worse. Rather than have the player input commands for all characters and have them exchange blows with the enemy, Lufia instead adopts a weird formula. The player inputs commands for a few characters in a random order and can’t undo them, maybe one of them takes their turn, the player inputs commands for other allies, an enemy or two takes their turn, and the last characters for whom the player inputted orders finally execute their attacks.

When the player encounters groups of the same enemies, moreover, they can’t choose to attack a specific one, just the group. If all enemies in a group are dead, and the player had assigned an ally to attack them, the command will go to waste, akin to turn-based RPGs of the 8-bit era such as the first four Dragon Quests. On the plus side, the game shows how many uses of each skill the player has left before their characters exhaust their MP, and victory results in the acquisition of experience for occasional level-ups and increased stats, money, and occasional items.

On the negative side, the encounter rate is horribly inconsistent, though the player can reduce their occurrence with Sweet Waters that eventually become purchasable. However, odds are the player will need to fight as much as possible and grind in order to survive the game’s toughest encounters, with many foes late into the game able to kill characters with a few physical attacks or magic spells. The endgame, though, is actually somewhat tolerable, since the final dungeon isn’t terribly lengthy, and all but one of the bosses prior to the absolute last one remain dead once defeated.

What is more intolerable, however, is that most standard battles take far too long to complete, given how long is necessary for characters and enemies to execute their commands, with those that affect multiple allies or foes, for instance, affecting one at a time instead of all simultaneously. There are also many stretches in dungeons without saving that precede boss fights, with treks likely to exhaust the player’s party especially if they liberally use magic to try to make standard battles go by quicker. Fortunately, the game is nice to players when they die, with a blue fairy taking half their money, but there’s really no excuse for the other negative aspects of combat.

Not helping is the poor control, with players likely noticing during the introductory backstory sequence the slow dungeon movement, which is the same on the overworld, although some genius at Neverland thought it would be cute to make travel through towns significantly quicker, making zero sense. This perplexing design decision singlehandedly adds hours of unnecessary playtime to the game, and the lack of maps for dungeons makes getting lost even more tedious. The menus are also clunky with poor control, and even with the ability to view how prospective equipment increases or decreases stats, shopping is a chore. Pretty much the sole saving grace is the ability, like in battle, to see how many uses of skills the player has left before exhausting MP.

Lufia’s composer seemed to work under the belief that taking other music and distorting their notes somewhat would constitute a soundtrack, as demonstrated by themes such as that in the saved game menu, which resembles “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” from Song of the South. Moreover, two of the town tracks resemble the theme from Zoobilee Zoo and “When You Wish upon a Star,” and the castle theme sounds like a screechy version of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” The science laboratory theme also sounds like a cross between “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and “Born Free.”

Granted, some of the tracks are passable, such as that played during the introductory scene, the overworld theme, the boss battle music, and the sailing tune. However, some of the music such as the main battle theme and dungeon theme are a bit too short, with the former for instance looping after less than a minute, made more noticeable by the tendency of battles to drag on. The general poor quality of the music is what furthermore kills it, and while the soundtrack does have a certain degree of memorability, it’s not in a good way.

The visuals are also lackluster, with Lufia potentially passing for a late 8-bit RPG, although the color scheme is fairly pleasant, and some of the environments look alright. However, the graphics are laziest in battle, where the player’s characters battle the enemy atop status panels overlaying the overworld or dungeon scenery. The monsters have a degree of animation, though it consists mostly of jiggling around and mirroring themselves whenever they attack the player, and when the player’s character execute normal attacks, they do so telekinetically. In the end, there were plenty other better-looking RPGs in the game’s time.

Finally, the first game was one of few in its time to have an in-game clock, with a playthrough taking somewhere from one to two days total, and while there are a few sidequests such as the collection of Dragon Eggs, and a postgame measure of how many treasures the player found, there isn’t enough entertainment to warrant additional investment of time.

Overall, Lufia & the Fortress of Doom was at best one of the weaker turn-based RPGs of its era, given the unusual nature of the game mechanics, the glacial pacing, the underdeveloped storyline, the poor musical and graphical quality, and the lack of motivation to come back for more. That the obvious design issues with the battle system continue to go overlooked by the mainstream videogame media is baffling at best, and given that many of the game’s apologists piously proclaim it as one of the strongest entries of its franchise, even put it on the same level of its truly-enjoyable brethren of the time, that doesn’t say much about the general quality of the series, and there are definitely other better 16-bit RPGs out there.

The Good:
+Some of the story is okay.
+Localization one of the better of the era.
+Some music is okay.

The Bad:
-Baffling game mechanics.
-Glacial pacing of the plot.
-Asinine localization decisions.
-Music is of poor quality.
-The graphics, too.
-Little reason to go through again.

The Bottom Line:
Taito’s first RPG, and it shows.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Super NES
Game Mechanics: 2.0/10
Controls: 1.0/10
Story: 3.0/10
Localization: 2.5/10
Music/Sound: 2.5/10
Graphics: 1.5/10
Lasting Appeal: 0.5/10
Difficulty: Hard
Playing Time: 1-2 Days

Overall: 1.5/10

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