Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals

   Though nostalgia is a powerful thing, more often than not the RPGs we remember so fondly from our youth lose something something when we return to them later in life. You see that the battle system was slower and clunkier than you remembered, or the once-vibrant characterization now seems thin and flat, or you find it difficult to go back to simple tile-based graphics after sampling the best visuals that the current generation has to offer. It's a rare game that manages to avoid aging this way, but Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals pulls it off with panache.

 Cave Dwellers
Dark, dank dungeon

   Like any SNES-era game, it has a few hurdles to overcome in the eyes of modern gamers. The sound and music are decent, but very few pieces are particularly stirring, and none are very memorable. An even bigger stumbling block is the graphics; while not ugly, they're also not very pretty. The color scheme is dominated by bright primaries, and most characters are only distinguished by their shade of hair. Enemy designs are somewhat crude, with thick black outlines that occasionally make them look cut and pasted from a storybook. Most dungeons are drab and dark, and with only a couple frames of animation per character, there's not much else to look at.

To be a Capsule Monster trainer is my destiny.
Gotta catch all 7!

   But if you can see past its flaws, Lufia 2 offers several things seldom seen in SNES RPGs. The most obvious change from the original game is a revamped battle system. In addition to RPG standards such as attack, item, and magic commands, Lufia 2 brings IP and capsule monsters into the mix, both of which were remarkably innovative and trend-setting. Final Fantasy VII and IX took note of the way characters' IP meter fills they take damage, in order to unleash a special attack when the gauge was full. And if the concept of hunting down assistant monsters which can evolve to become stronger doesn't ring a bell, try asking the nearest grade schooler. And, like the original, Lufia II features a Replay mode that gives double the experience and gold, allowing for quicker replays through the game.

   Even more impressive than the battle system innovations is the opportunity not to get into battle at all. Lufia II doesn't completely integrate enemy avoidance into its overall gameplay systems, the way later games would. Accumulating experience and gold is still a high priority, and avoiding enemies mostly just means you won't be strong enough to proceed. Still, it was a welcome change at the time to be able to choose not to fight if you were getting sick of battles, or if you were on your way out of the dungeon. The only unexpected encounters happen on the overworld screen; all other battles begin only when Maxim touches an enemy in the dungeons. Since most of them follow a particular movement pattern, and will only move when Maxim moves, you'll have to be cunning to avoid them.

 It's painful just thinking about it.
The headache machine

  Evading enemies isn't the only place in dungeons where you'll have to use your head. What Lufia II is known for more than anything else is its dungeon design, filled with well-executed puzzles. Borrowing a page from the Zelda series, you'll find six tools -- bombs, a hookshot, arrows, fire arrows, a hammer, and your sword -- necessary for navigating the dungeons. Puzzles are often more complex than just using an item; you'll usually need to use it in an unconventional way, or in conjunction with another item. Many of the hardest puzzles require no items at all but rather a good capacity for critical thinking and a lot of patience -- some would say that real prize for completing the World's Most Difficult Trick isn't the good equipment, it's the intense sense of accomplishment.

I always cry at weddings.
Wedding march

   Equally exhilirating is the fresh storyline. Ask yourself when you last saw a villain successfully play off of a hero's weakness, as Idura does to Dekar, or better yet when you saw a relationship handled as realistically as Lufia II tells it. At the beginning of the game, the situation between Maxim and Tia is that of your typical childhood sweethearts, but then Lufia II takes it to a place no other RPG does. Maxim becomes more and more determined to take up arms against the Sinistrals, and Tia becomes more distanced from him as she fails to comprehend why he wants so desperately to fight. The two drift apart completely when Selan, the hard-bitten Parcelyte general, begins to replace Tia in Maxim's affections. Finally -- in the middle of the game, not in the ending -- the two get married and have a son when it seems the world has no more need of them as warriors.

   Unfortunately, as fans of the original know, the story doesn't have a happy ending. The beginning of the first game was a flashback to the ending of Lufia II; both show how Selan is mortally wounded in the battle against the Sinistrals and Maxim stays behind to be with her as Doom Island crumbles. What Lufia I doesn't show is their entwined spirits roaming the earth, looking down on their young son who will give rise to another legendary hero down the line.

   Though not as central to the story as Maxim or Selan, the other characters are fleshed out just as well. Dekar is an enthusiastic goof who's none too bright, Guy enjoys teasing his teammates a little too much ("I present the 'Magical Wife,' Magical Selan!"), and Artea serves as a sober-minded presence to remind the rest of the party how much is at stake. The characterization is aided by a translation that provides natural, easy-sounding dialogue, although one that inexplicably gets about fifty percent of the monster names wrong.

   Most retrospectives can say nice things about a game but must grudgingly admit that the title in question is worth more for historical value than current-day enjoyment. Not so with Lufia II. As absorbing and enjoyable today as it was in 1996, it's well worth checking out for any RPG fan with a SNES. So take a trip to Doom Island, and don't forget to bring your brain.

Retrospective by Nich Maragos, GIA.
Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals
Developer Taito
Publisher Natsume
Genre Traditional RPG
Medium Cartridge
Platform Super Nintendo
Released 1996
495 screenshots
Character designs
American and Japanese box art, Soundtrack cover and liner notes
Director and Scenario composer Masahide Miyata
Character designer Ryu Kuragami
Music composer Yasunori Shiono
Dungeon designer Samichi Sugiura
Full game credits