Retro Rave: Breath of Fire (SNES)

Retro Rave - Breath of Fire

The humble beginnings of an under-appreciated series. Let’s Rave about Breath of Fire!

I remember the first time I heard about Breath of Fire. It was in the July 1994 issue of Nintendo Power magazine. They had an 8-paged spread which covered some of the game’s features, mechanics, and the first couple of major events in brief note form. I flipped to the final pages of the issue to read the “Now Playing” review section, and I laughed at the pros and cons they listed:

 + Good depth and variety of play due to the many characters in your party. The game isn’t as linear as some RPGs such as Final Fantasy II. Lots of exploration without endless battles required for building your levels.

Limited magic. More fighting than adventure fans might like. Standard story and themes.

… who wrote this? “Isn’t as linear”? This game is hella linear! “More fighting than adventure fans might like”? Of course there’d be more fighting than in an adventure game… because it’s NOT and adventure game, it’s an RPG! You need to fight to GRIND FOR LEVELS SO YOU WON’T GET KILLED! It’s weird to praise it for not having endless battles only to complain about lots of battles. ACK!

Breath of Fire - Nintendo Power

Drink in that retro juice, boys! It’s delicious!

Anyhow, the issue piqued my interest enough to rent the game one weekend. And again the following weekend. Then again a couple of months later. I’ve lost track of the number of times I rented the game before I was finally able to finish it in 3 days. Only to rent it again. It became a regular visitor to my SNES until I was finally able to purchase it from the very store I constantly rented it from when they were clearing out their inventory.

Breath of Fire - Cartridge

My baby still works! 😀

Breath of Fire must have a baller story to get me to rent it so much. And it was… okay. But the story was just one cog in a mighty machine of RPG awesomesauce.

Centuries ago, the dragon clans, once living in harmony, began to to fight one other for the power of a wish-granting goddess; their fights turning into a full-out war that brought the world to the brink of destruction. A member of the Light Dragon clan stepped forward to put an end to the madness. He, along with seven companions, defeated the goddess and sealed her away using six keys that were then scattered around the world. Then everything went all peaceful.

Now, the Dark Dragon family, headed by the evil Emperor Zog, is hunting down the keys to release the goddess in a bid for world domination. They’ve disposed of opposition from the other families; the only ones to stand in their way are the Light Dragons.

As our story begins, the quiet village of the Light Dragons, Drogen, is razed and surrounded by the Dark Dragons. The Light Dragons, however, have long ago sealed off their powers wanting no part of the dragon family in-fighting. Sara, the only Light Dragon with any power left, turns the other villagers to stone to protect them from the scolding heat of the flames swallowing up the Elder’s home where they hid. She then goes to confront the invaders and their commander, Jade. Though the brave Light Dragon stood her ground, she is ultimately defeated, her fate unknown.

The spell of Stone lifts shortly thereafter. Sara’s brother, Ryu, ventures forth to find the Goddess Keys before Zog’s forces do, and to put a stop to the Dark Dragons.

Epic.

Breath of Fire - Evil Fool Zog

Damn right he’s an evil fool!

Fun fact about Breath of Fire: Capcom published the game themselves in Japan, but when the decision was made to bring the game overseas, they handed it over to Squaresoft, who already had a great deal of experience in localizing RPGs for the west. I’d say that was a good call: though there were a few name changes here and there, the actual text was pretty good. I am curious to see if I could get a hold of the original script for the heck of it (Japanese Vocab Building FTW!).

 

Breath of Prettiness

Breath of Fire is nice to look at. Though it follows the “characters are cute on map screen/ big during battle scenes” formula, the sprites on the map are quite large, and the maps themselves have quite a bit of detail in them. Flowers on the ground, fruit trees scattered about that you can actually get fruit from, palm trees in desert areas. These details are small, mind you, but they add a nice touch.

The battle sprites are just awesome. They’re presented in a 3/4th perspective, with the enemies taking the top left, and your party the bottom right. And they’re HUGE! The enemies are a varied sort: Pig men swinging swords above their head, Knights, floating slime things, flying fish… the list goes on. They all look great, and what’s really neat is that most of them are animated (and animated well, I must add!) during both their standing poses and attacks. Your party is static when standing still (except party members like Nina, who have the ability to fly), but they move during their attacks, and it’s just as awesome to see.

Breath of Fire - Zog

Breath of Fire bosses were the ultimate trolls! You’d watch the last of their lifebar deplete after you unleash a powerful hit, only to have them get a second wind and act all smug. BASTARDS!

Oh, and here’s something nifty: the menu system is all icon-based. There aren’t any descriptions for the menu icons, but they’re easy to figure out. Same can’t be said for the written descriptions of items, though. They’re so VAGUE! Seriously, your guess is as good as mine 😕

And the music is very whimsical and just sounds right. What I really love is how the music changes after key moments in the game. For example, the music for the world map changes three times; the final time returning to the awesome “Breath of Fire” main theme used at the start of the game. The battle music changes to something a bit more dramatic-sounding around the half-way point. It’s such a hummable soundtrack, and I love it to bits.

 

Every Journey Starts With A Single Step

Like many journeys, you start off a lone warrior; running into agents of the Dark Dragons at almost every turn. You will eventually meet seven companions who will fight alongside you, each fulfilling those traditional party roles (Nina the Healer; Karn the Thief, Bleu the Sorceress, etc.). What’s nice is that your party members have abilities that extent outside enemy encounters!

Everyone (with the exception of Bleu) has an ability they can use while travelling the world map. For example, Ryu can go fishing at designated fishing spots (and wells!) if you equip him with a fishing rod and some bait. Bo can hunt game that occasionally roam around after a fight, and he can lead your party through forested areas. Nina can transform into a giant bird and you can fly around the world map (she doesn’t get this ability until very late in the game, though). Each party member has a use, but some will be used more than others.

Breath of Fire - Fishing

Man, you can catch some crazy things when you go fishing in a well…

 

Unleash The Kaiser!

In terms of fighting, as with all RPGs that have quite an assortment of allies, many fall out of use (to an extent). For example, you’ll most likely always have Nina in your party because she’s the healer, but Bo (who totally kicks ass when you first get him early on in the game) becomes less and less useful as you progress.

The game kinda remedies this with Karn’s Transformation ability. He’ll be able to combine with two or more of your animal-humanoid companions to become a super-strong character. What makes these transformations a huge treat (besides being the powerhouses that they are), is that they’re immune to almost every status ailment (only thing that can hit them is the Death spell).

Speaking of Transformations, the big bullet point feature of Breath of Fire, and the one that carries over to every instalment, is the Dragon Transformation System. Ryu can transform into several different dragon types after enduring a trial at one of three different temples. These powers are stupid powerful… and make the game stupid easy.

Breath of Fire - Dragon Trial

Dragon Trials can be really tough, especially since you’ll be alone. Bring plenty of healing items!

That’s probably the only thing that really irked me about Breath of Fire. While this is addressed in the sequels (some solutions better than others), the original Breath of Fire‘s Dragon System is so broken. For a small amount of magic, you can transform into a dragon (the transformation gets you back to full HP, too), and you just stand there and unleash of flurry of attacks. The only way you go back to normal is if Ryu dies, or if you voluntarily revert back. It makes later foes, some of the baddest of the bad, complete pushovers. And these attacks count as physical damage with an elemental attribute, rather than being a magic-based attack… and that Agni 999 max damage is (to steal a phrase from the Fighting Game Community) Godlike.

Breath of Fire - Agni

Not to be outdone by Karn, Ryu’s Ultimate Dragon form has him fusing with EVERYBODY in the party to create this death machine that deals 999 max damage. EXTREME!

So yea. Dragon Transformations are dominate forces of nature.

 

Why is Breath of Fire So Endearing?

Breath of Fire‘s story is the quintessential RPG story in a high-fantasy setting: one lone hero sets off to stop an evil ruler from taking over the world; gathers companions who share his sense of justice. Yea, this is a common plot used in so many games, but still, there was a quaint charm. The characters are an interesting lot (not everyday I get to fight with a mole man!), and though many in the cast don’t speak as much as I would like, you can still get a glimpse to the type of personality they have (Karn is confident as a thief, Gobi loves his money, etc.).

Breath of Fire - Dream World

Hard to tell from a screenshot, but this Dream World background — trippy!

As is usually the case in RPGs, you gotta solve the problem in each village you visit in order to advance. While some are pretty straightforward (go stop the Wizard’s evil scheme and get an anecdote for the poisoned King), there were some that were much longer and very epic (the battle to save the underwater town of Prima and the metalworker town of Gant is an awesome story arc). And then there were the odd ones, like getting the flute from musical kingdom of Tunlan which ends in a massive cat-fight involving Nina, Bleu, the Princess of Tunlan, and the guards. Hell, you even play the role of a dreamwalker and start to invade people’s dream to bring the fight to the bad guys. And those dream sequences are trippy as hell.

Breath of Fire wasn’t striving to be a Final Fantasy, it was just doing it’s own thing and doing it to the best of its ability. And, for me, that was good enough. The story, the visuals, the music… everything just came together in just the right amounts to create a worthwhile experience for RPG fans and nostalgia fiends alike.

If you happen to stumble upon this lil’ gem on either the SNES or its re-release on the Game Boy Advanced, pick it up!

Breath of Fire - Ending

Walkin’ home in the sunset. Like a true hero would 🙂

How many of you peeps have played Breath of Fire? Share your memories in the Comments Section!