RPGs were extremely difficult to come by in the early 90s and gamers were eager to get their hands on whatever they could find. There were pretty much only five major RPG releases on the NES, so it’s no wonder they weren’t that popular in the West - no one knew they existed! There weren’t many signs that this sad state of affairs was going to change any time soon and the outlook was bleak. Enix even went as far as closing down their American offices! But Square held out and pretty much single handedly delivered RPGs for the west. In 1991 they released Final Fantasy IV (II in the States) And to the surprise of many, it was pretty popular! Square would go on to release a succession of quality RPGs for the SNES, but there were some other companies that wanted to try their hand at matching the success of Final Fantasy, in both the East and the West. One such company was Neverland, with the release of Lufia: And The Fortress of Doom.
Lufia is their debut title and unfortunately, it shows - it’s pretty much a straight Dragon Quest clone, but with a few Final Fantasy elements thrown in for good measure. For Instance, magic elemental damage actually effects monsters differently based upon their weaknesses and you can see your characters in battle, although not in a side view format, like Final Fantasy. The battles still take place in first person view, ala Dragon Quest, and the player simply watches the backs of the characters attack the monsters. Encounters are random, which is par the course for the time, and characters gain magic spells upon leveling up, like most Dragon Quest games and Final Fantasy IV. There are the “Four Fiends”, or Sinistrals in this case, whose names are a direct rip-off of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse of Revelation.
The series had moderate success and had three follow up titles: a prequel on the SNES, Lufia II: The Rise of the Sinistrals; a sequel on the Game Boy Color, Lufia: The Legend Returns; and a side story spin off on the Game Boy Advance - Lufia: The Ruins of Lore. Seven long years after the last installment, the series received new life with the DS release of Lufia: Curse of the Sinistrals - an action RPG telling a much different version of Lufia II’s events.
In Japan, the series is known as Estpolis Denki (“Record of Estpolis”). In North America, the series got its name from one of the main characters in the first game and even though Lufia herself is absent from all successive games, the title stuck. The Sinistrals (“Mad Gods” in Japan) I previously mentioned are also consistent throughout the series as the main antagonists.
Lufia is pretty unique among console RPGs in that it is a sequel to a, then unmade, game. The game opens 100 years in the past with the band of heroes from Lufia II fighting the Sinistrals. Maxim and his band of heroes, Selan, Guy and Artea, handedly defeat the Mad Gods and the ending sequence of Lufia II begins. It is at this point where the game fast forwards 100 years into the future and the player finds that Maxim’s sacrifice is in vain! The Sinistrals are reviving and it’s up to a new band of heroes to defeat them.
The Hero, a descendant of Maxim and Selan, is a pretty typical protagonist with bright red hair. He is not, however, a silent protagonist, and he will converse with other party members and with NPCs at various points in the game. He’s one of the two most powerful melee fighters in the party, and is also capable of casting healing magic.
Lufia is the main character’s childhood friend, and his love interest. Lufia is the most powerful spell-caster in the game, particularly when it comes to offensive and buff/de-buff spells, making her the default magic user. Personality wise, she is pretty fiesty, but has a crush on the Hero.
Aguro is a knight in the Lorbenian army, and the only party member who can not cast spells, as such, he is a stronger melee fighter than the main character. He considers himself a noble figure, though he is not above bickering with Jerin like an they’re an old married couple.
The final party member, Jerin, is a half-Elven girl who the party rescues from being sacrificed to monsters. She joins the party and, while not as powerful as the guys, her bows hit groups of enemies - greatly reducing grinding time. While she is not as powerful a spell caster as Lufia, Jerin gains healing spells more quickly, and more powerful ones to boot, making her the ideal healer for the party.
The battle system is standard JRPG affair with random encounters, elemental spells, heals, buff and debuffs. However, the characters have a lot of spell overlaps - especially when it comes to healing spells. But that humdrum system is not the worst of it, it has one huge, glaring flaw I have yet to mention! A problem that should have been left behind in the 8-bit era - an unforgivable targeting situation. If the player targets the same enemy with 2 characters and the first character kills it, the second will just whiff at air rather than target the next enemy in line. This is extremely annoying and downright game-breaking in such a grind heavy game. As far as I know, this is the only 16-bit game with this problem.
Characters have a rigid level progression path, with no choices over what powers they gain, what attribute bonuses they get, or anything else. Instead, any customization of your party members is done through items. Aside from standard weapons and armor, there are accessories that can provide an attribute boost, increase the power of certain spells or increase damage against certain kinds of enemies. There are also expendable items that will permanently boost one of their attributes. There’s also an optional side quest involving collecting dragon eggs scattered throughout the world, and exchanging these will grant extra bonuses.
Graphically, the game looks very bland. There are very few different tile-sets for the various dungeons and cities, so one dungeon will visually be identical, in terms of tiles and colors, to the next dungeon.
Lufia has an interesting setup, but lacks the niceties of later 16-bit RPGs - there’s very little in the way of character customization, there’s too much tedious grinding, and it doesn’t quite possess the drama or the charm of a Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest. Thankfully, the later titles build off this title and offer substantial improvements.
The US version of the game is fairly close to the Japanese version, aside from suffering from the standard Nintendo of America policies regarding use of crosses in temples. Additionally, in the Japanese version you could press the ‘X’ button to get a brief description of the item, but this feature was removed from the English release.
In 1994, Taito announced that Lufia was being ported to the Genesis. They put advertisements in magazines, though without screenshots. The only time the game was publically displayed was at a CES trade show, where very incomplete footage was shown. In 1995, the game was quietly cancelled. Development had been outsourced to an American company named Teknocrest, and was given an extremely tight deadline to be finished. In the end, the developers strung Taito along and barely worked on it, creating only a few demos. A romwas released showing off the title screen and a small dungeon to walk around. The visuals are essentially identical to the SNES release.
In 2009, Taito ported Lufia to mobile phones in Japan. Other than some new supplemental artwork, the game uses the same graphics.
The game received positive reviews upon release, but lately, they skew more negatively. Game Rankings, a site the averages online review scores, currently gives it a score of 69% but upon release, Electronic Games Magazine scored it 93%, calling it “the best RPG so far this year”. This goes to show how badly the game has aged.
Lufia was a good game for its time, I played it myself in the 90s and thoroughly enjoyed it, but it has really aged terribly. I would say to play it only if you love the Lufia series and want to see where it all began as well as become more exposed to the game’s lore, history and world. Although, truthfully, there isn’t that much of that to go around.