Revisiting an old friend.
I recently had a hankering for some old school JRPGs and so I booted up Lufia 2. It’s a puzzle focused classic from the SNES era. Like all well done games, Lufia 2 has important things to tell us about how to promote strengths and handle weaknesses in gaming. I go through some of those below.
Do something different/puzzles are fun!
Lufia 2 could have been a cookie cutter JRPG. The SNES had plenty of them and it would have joined a long line of competently made, but otherwise indistinguishable genre entries. Instead, developer Natsume put in puzzles. Not flip a switch and you’ve “solved” it puzzles, but genuine brain teasers that engaged your grey cells. The puzzles make clever use of enemies and in game items to break up the same old dungeon grind and reward crafty players with additional items. The fond memories of the puzzles brought me back to the game instead of going back to a number of other great SNES competitors. While lacking the production values of a Square RPG, Lufia 2’s puzzles added a unique element that helps the game stand out. Rather than try to surpass the giants of the industry by overcoming their strengths, developers should add something new or improve on their weaknesses. There’s a lot in Lufia 2 that can’t compete with Final Fantasy 6 or Chrono trigger, but by refusing to fight in the same arena, Natsume carved out a niche of its own.
We’ve come a long way on the sexism front.
To think, younger me never picked up on the “subtle” sexism that infuses huge parts of Lufia 2’s story and gameplay. From the host of happy homemakers to the griping about women not following the male lead, Lufia 2 is quite clear where it sees the fairer sex. Lest the men feel left out, don’t worry! This game wants to jam you into a Neanderthal mold. Empathy challenged meat heads are the order of the day with only one male party member showing any kind of intelligence and half of the male cast lacking mp entirely. Let’s leave the thinking to the womenfolk! Lufia’s male leads are your classic Leave it to Beaver dads who know how to bring home the bacon, but can’t understand those “crazy” women. The game’s cast is a laundry list of old stereotypes that, thankfully, wouldn’t fly in today’s environment. Games today certainly aren’t perfect, but they aren’t pumping out literal magic bikini armor.
If your story sucks, ignore it.
Plan A is always to have a good story, but plan A doesn’t always work out. Good stories are hard write. They take talent to execute and a strong commitment from the developer to ensure the game mechanics don’t overwhelm the plot. If a developer can’t make plan A work, then they should follow Lufia 2 to plan B: zip through the chatty bits. The short version of Lufia 2’s story is that a mysterious woman Erin tells monster hunter Maxim that badness is coming and he needs to go kill it. She later says this to a few other people. That’s it.
…okay, I’m leaving a little out, but not much. The reason why this overly simplistic narrative isn’t lethal to the game is that Natsume largely ignores their own plot. Dialogue rarely goes for more than a few minutes and then you’re back to puzzles and pain. There’s enough there to keep the player motivated, but not enough to overstay it’s welcome. Lufia 2 knows its main plot is weak and so it ignores it in favor of keeping the player focused on the part’s that the game does well.
Everyday life can mean more than saving the world.
Remember when I said I was leaving out a bit of the plot? Well, that part covered the Maxim-Tia-Selan love triangle. The short version is that Tia wants Maxim to settle down with her, but Maxim wants to keep adventuring. Tia joins Maxim out of concern for his well-being until Maxim falls in love with the warrior Selan. The scene where Tia realizes that her dream of playing happy homemaker to the fight loving Maxim will never happen is the most emotionally resonant of the whole game. It’s far more compelling than any of the plot beats in the primary storyline. People understand personal interactions more than they appreciate generic threats to the world. Lufia 2 doesn’t have a great story, but when it works, it’s when it focuses on the experiences of people.
Final dungeons should reflect the rest of the game
Almost from the outset, Lufia 2 establishes a basic pattern for its gameplay. Go to town, get quest, go to dungeon, solve puzzles, beat boss, and repeat. It’s not a particularly complicated formula, but it moves the game along and ensures that the player gets regular breaks between fighting, puzzling, and reading. The final dungeons ignore this pattern by removing the puzzling and reading bits and replacing them with nothing. Rather than display Natsume’s best puzzles, the last four dungeons completely remove puzzling altogether and even block the player from accessing the items used to resolve said puzzles. For a game that stands out due to its clever problem solving, this seems like a betrayal of the concept. That’s a shame, because the fighting is serviceable, but certainly not strong enough on its own. The lesson is obvious. If you’ve built your game on certain mechanics, don’t drop them at the end. Make them the pinnacle of what you’ve achieved before or your endgame dungeons will lack the same pull of the previous content.