Originally titled Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden in Japan, Final Fantasy Adventure (Mystic Quest in Europe) marked the formal beginning of the Mana franchise. Conceived as a Final Fantasy spin-off, Seiken Densetsu abandoned the series’ traditional turn-based gameplay in favor of action-RPG elements. Enemies litter the overworld, protagonist Sumo can engage in combat in real time, and an emphasis is placed on how different weapons affect gameplay. All the while, Final Fantasy archetypes and monsters inhabit the newly created “World of Mana.” That said, as a spin-off of an established franchise while also being the first game in a new series, Seiken Densetsu feels retrospectively out of place in both franchises it’s representing.
As a Final Fantasy spin-off, Seiken Densetsu forges too much of its own path to be linked to another franchise. Final Fantasy imagery is abundant, with Black Mages appearing as enemies rather often and the main character’s main method of transportation being a Chocobo, but the game’s overall presentation is in stark contrast to the Famicom trilogy. The mere fact that Seiken Densetsu was developed as an action-RPG necessitated a distancing from its source material; Seiken Densetsu borrows from Final Fantasy rather liberally, but only as a backdrop.
As the first game in the Mana franchise, Seiken Densetsu introduces the concept of the Mana Tree and Mana itself, but not much else that would go on to define the series. In that regard, it almost seems shocking that Seiken Densetsu is the jumping off point for roughly two decades of games. It has very little in common with its successors due to Secret of Mana solidifying the elements that would define the franchise. Going back from Secret or Trials of Mana to Seiken Densetsu can be, frankly, jarring. The ring menu is still a basic RPG menu, cannon travel is still basic RPG traversal, and party members are on a constant rotation, with Sumo alone for most of the adventure.
Pulled in two different directions with no clear footing, it can be easy to assume that Seiken Densetsu doesn’t succeed as either a Final Fantasy spin-off or a Mana game. While perhaps true in the most technical of senses, that doesn’t mean Seiken Densetsu is any lesser a video game. If anything, the fact that it’s so awkwardly stuffed between two franchises allows it to forge its own path — one that has led to its own series, of course, but that also allowed the Gaiden game to stand out as its own, independent RPG. Aside from its remakes, there’s nothing quite like Seiken Densetsu.
In terms of gameplay, Seiken Densetsu plays more or less like the Game Boy Zelda games, albeit with leveling. Sumo can attack in four directions, block projectiles with his shield, and moves on a grid-like map à la Koholint, Labrynna, and Holodrum from Link’s Awakening, Oracle of Ages, and Oracle of Seasons, respectively. Progression is gated behind key equipment, and dungeons involve an equal mix of both combat and puzzle solving. On a conceptual level, Final Fantasy Adventure seems clearly influenced by the Zelda series — until one realizes that Seiken Densetsu predated both A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening.
Of course, this simply means that Seiken Densetsu modeled itself after the original Legend of Zelda, but this frame of reference does shine light on how quietly innovative the spin-off actually was. Seiken Densetsu’s gameplay model wasn’t just a natural evolution of one of Nintendo’s flagships titles — it was the logical next step for all 8-bit action-adventure games, RPG or otherwise. With a grid-based map, exploration would be more intuitive; with equipment that affected the overworld, players would form a more intimate connection with their surroundings; with multiple weapons and builds to choose from, no two play-throughs would be the same.
The latter in itself is worth mentioning — Seiken Densetsu’s RPG elements are surprisingly involved. Rather than Sumo leveling up and randomly increasing his stats, players choose from one of four stats to improve at each rise in level. Not only that, but the original Japanese release saw each stat also associated with a Final Fantasy ‘Job Type’ — Power leads to a Warrior build, Stamina leads to a Monk build, Wisdom leads to Wizard build, and Will leads to a Sage build. More importantly, improving a stat per level up increases it by 2 points, while also boosting “related” stats by 1. On the flipside, the fourth remaining stat will go unchanged, meaning that players need to be mindful of how they’re leveling Sumo, lest a stat go underdeveloped.
While Power, Stamina, and Wisdom speak for themselves, Will is something of an oddity. During gameplay, the Will meter will charge up while Sumo is in between actions. Fans of Secret of Mana might mistake this for a stamina meter, but in actuality, it’s a way of pulling off super moves. Once the Will meter is fully charged, Sumo can pull off a MAX attack that changes how his weapon attacks. The higher the Will stat, the faster the gauge refreshes, and the more Sumo can use his weapons to the best of their abilities.
Naturally, being a more primitive RPG that released fairly early in the Game Boy’s life cycle, Seiken Densetsu is missing some rather helpful quality-of-life features. For instance, there is a grid-based map, but only five visible landmarks — all of which look the same — making the overworld surprisingly unintuitive to navigate, especially after unlocking the Chocobo. Weapons create more varied exploration in the overworld, but needing to go back and forth into a menu slows down the pace. And puzzles often use enemies creatively, but enemies moving completely at random make an otherwise engaging puzzle tedious.
In spite of how poorly the game plays out at times, Seiken Densetsu has one element that makes up for any gameplay issues: it is horribly translated, yet startling, gripping story. At its core, Seiken Densetsu is a story-driven game, and one of the best ones on the Game Boy — if not the absolute best. The World of Mana as it is first presented is dark, jarring, and needlessly cruel. Characters die on screen, often in classically tragic ways. The main hero not only doubts himself, but reflects on all the death around him, lending to a more sensitive protagonist. Where the game is light on text, it more than makes up for with emotional set pieces carried by concept and music alone.
The first death of a party member is a moment that hits hard and lingers over the rest of the game. There is a change in atmosphere not only just in the overworld, but also in how Sumo addresses others. He’s at the heart of a simply plotted story with a simple script, but each narrative beat is paid a great deal of respect, a scarcity for the era. The pure strength of the story is almost enough to make up for the shoddy translation. While the main beats may not be particularly impressive in a modern context, it’s not hard to appreciate what Seiken Densetsu did with just 8-bits.
When it comes down to it, the narrative is what ensured Mana could become its own franchise. Of everything Secret of Mana takes from its predecessor, the story shines as the clearest link. Seiken Densetsu has the most intimate narrative in the series, but it set a precedent for genuine emotion and nuance that the best entries in the series would thrive off of. What began as a simple Final Fantasy spin-off became a full-fledged series full of ups and downs, all linking back to one humble adventure.