Here’s the thing. I didn’t read much in the way of games journalism back in 1998. I read Nintendo Power. Sometimes I may have seen an article or preview in a friend’s EGM or something, but the internet was still new to me. All I knew is was a place where you could find cheats and FAQs for video games, outrageous Flash cartoons on Newgrounds, and pictures of naked ladies. I didn’t really know about message boards. I didn’t read online reviews.
I know Quest 64 has a bad reputation, and I’ve read bits and pieces about it over the years. But really, the most I can tell you about why people dislike it is simply speculation, because I wasn’t there when it happened, and I might be the only person in the world who has written a retrospecitve on friggin’ Quest 64.
Let’s start with what was considered the most important part of an RPG back in 1998: the story. Quest 64 barely has one. You’re a little magician boy, and your dad went missing while he was searching for a magical book. You have to go find him. Also along the way some people steal some magical artifacts. There really isn’t a lot more to say. It ends up being the usual thing about how a big bad demon was sealed away by said magical book and artifacts, and that he’s trying to break free.
It’s not original. It’s not compelling. It’s not even interesting. This is in stark contrast to the flood of JRPGs on the Playstation that had twisting, overwrought, anime-inspired stories, which gamers ate up with all the vigor back then. We thought they were great, but we were stupid teenagers. Turns out they’re all just as terrible, and Quest 64 might have a better story than all of them just by virtue of how it just lulls in the background and lets you focus on the gameplay.
The one thing about Quest 64’s narrative that stands out though, is that it’s pretty forward-thinking in regards to women. There’s nary a damsel in distress to be seen. All the major female characters in the game are shown to be competent and self-sufficient. The princess is a warrior-in-training, the woman who you meet at every inn is a font of hints and local information, the most powerful magician in the land is a woman. One of the magic artifact keepers is a lady, and she does ask you to get it back when it’s stolen, but it turns out to have been stolen by another woman. A few of these ladies do, of course, get the way-too-skimpy costume treatment, but at least that isn’t what defines them.
Of course, this is all based on a playthrough where I spoke to almost no NPCs and mostly skimmed the story-based dialogue boxes. So I don’t know, maybe there’s a lot of world-building going on behind the scenes and the women are all needy and helpless and I was just too busy not caring to notice. Again, the story is really not at all important, and the game basically just wants you to spend most of your time with it playing instead of reading.
Here’s the thing about that, though. The gameplay is Quest 64 could be great. It’s got a lot of good ideas, but the execution falls kind of flat more often than not. For example, there is no world map here. Pretty unusual for an RPG of the time. The game’s world is also very open and basically just yours to explore. The problems that arise are that the world is actually a lot more linear than it might seem at first. Basically all you need to do to finish the game is to beeline to the next boss, which opens up the next section of the game. The camera is also pretty terrible an uncontrollable, meaning that you can’t assess your surroundings of just look at the scenery without running around trying to get the camera pointed the way you want it.
The other big problem with the game world is that most of it is just big empty spaces. Towns are filled with buildings, landmarks and people, but everything else is pretty barren. It’s a big, bright, colourful world, but there’s just not much to see. Even worse are the dungeons, which are essentially just long, twisty corridors. No puzzles, no exploring, and barely any treasure. There isn’t even any block-pushing. One dungeon has an actual maze but the rest are basically you just running forward and then getting into a fight every few steps. Final Fantasy XIII really doesn’t seem so bad when you compare it to Quest 64.
Battles, on the other hand, are the real meat of the game. You know, because they’re pretty much all there is. And the battles are good. Not quite great, but definitely worth the italicization. I think that if the sequel had ever happened, it could have been a truly great game, but Quest 64 set up a darned good base, anyway.
Combat is Quest 64 is fairly active, but not quite so much that you’d call it an Action RPG. Battles are random, but happen right where you’re standing. There’s no whisking you away to battle dimension here. A big circle is shown on the map, and that’s the combat area. If you move outside the circle, you run away. And here’s the big thing: escaping is guaranteed to work. It’s a wonderful feature, and really should be an industry-wide standard.
The fighting is turn-based, meaning you do your thing, and then the enemy does their thing, and repeat until someone dies. You’re solo for the entire game, and while monsters can appear in groups of up to five, only one of them gets to attack on the enemy turn. This not only keeps you from getting overwhelmed, but also adds to the strategic focus of the battles.
Said strategy is mainly based on postioning, which is a lot more fun than your typical menu-driven fare. You get a small circle to move around in as much as you want on your turn, and then you get to either bash the enemy with your staff or use a magic attack. The circle grows steadily bigger over time. Enemies will also move around the field on their turns, and use different attacks based on their distance from you. It’s a light layering of strategy, since your main decisions are which spells you can use from where and which of an enemy’s attacks you’d rather take, but it’s there.
You also get a chance to move around a bit when a monster fires a spell, giving you the chance to dodge it. Most of the time, it’s very difficult to do so, as your window of opportunity is small, and you can’t see what your doing, as the camera zooms in on an attacking monster. This turns around completely during the final boss fight, where the camera is set at a fixed distance, and two of his three attacks are incredibly easy to dodge. So yeah, it’s a neat feature, but it really could use a little fine-tuning.
The other really great feature relating to battles is that no matter which way Brian is facing and how the camera is oriented when you win a fight, they will both point back in the direction they were facing when the battle was initiated. It might not seem like much, but it is a huge boon when you’re travelling through dungeons that look the same the whole way through. It’s even nice on the world map, as it’s easy to get disoriented after a fight, and not remember which way you were going. Luckily, this game remembers for you!
Leveling in Quest 64 is very cool, but not totally practical. Basically, your stats grow as you use them, a la Final Fantasy II. Defense and HP increase as you take hits, agility goes up just by walking around, and MP increases as you cast spells. Stats don’t grow very quickly though, and as you get farther into the game you can get outclassed very easily, leading to required grinding. The saving grace is that running away from fights is easy, and your MP refills quickly as you walk around, letting you use healing spells basically whenever.
You do gain a sort of regular experience by winning fights, and each time you gain a level, you get to choose one magic element to improve. The four elements (fire, water, wind, and earth, natch) grow independently of each other, and you get a new spell each time you hit a certain level for a given element. The bonus with these is that scattered about the world are little bubbles that let you instantly level up an element, and if you’re diligent in finding these, you can get very powerful very quickly. Really, these bubbles are the only reason you’d ever have to actually explore the game world.
And that’s about it for Quest 64. It eschews pretty much everything else you’d expect from an RPG. There is no equipment for you to buy or find. Not that you could buy anything, as there is no money at all. Items are mostly found in chests and very rarely dropped from enemies (I got two item drops in my playthrough). There’s at least one shopkeeper in each town that will give you a set item whenever you drop by if you don’t already have one. There are no sidequests, no bonus dungeons, and very little in the way of secrets. I was going to say that there are no optional areas, but there is a secret castle in the desert that you probably won’t find if you don’t know it’s there.
Quest 64 is a very short and linear game. Apparently the Japanese version got a handful of improvements, but that’s not the version I was playing so it doesn’t really matter. What I got was a game that showed a glimmer of imagination and innovation, but ultimately didn’t deliver. I don’t even care that it didn’t match up to the standards of a 1998 RPG, I’m just let down that it didn’t really push its original ideas to their limits. This is a game that could have had an amazing sequel, but alas, it will never be, and Quest 64 will forever remain the bland game with some neat ideas.