The N64 saw Nintendo’s grip on the video game industry finally weaken, as it was thrashed in sales by the Playstation. There are a lot of reasons for this perceived failure, but one of the most commonly cited reasons for the N64’s substantial losses in the market is a deficiency of standard RPG’s in its library, often attributed to Nintendo’s decision to stick with space-restrictive cartridges as their chosen media. RPG’s on the Playstation were typically 40+ hour monoliths packed to the gills with FMV’s, which weren’t exactly easy to cram onto the price prohibitive slabs of plastic that the N64 used.
While the validity of this assessment is debatable and strikes me as revisionist (many of even the most stellar of RPG’s on the Super Nintendo struggled in North America during the previous generation, even after considerable effort to promote the genre), it’s undeniable that the N64’s stable features a dearth of titles in the genre. Quest 64 was an early attempt to cram an epic, stat-laden adventure into an N64 compatible chunk of plastic, and while it’s partially successful, the game’s many deficiencies will likely prove too much for seasoned RPG veterans.
The story of Quest 64 follows an apprentice mage named Brian as he sets out into the world to find his father who has disappeared while trying to recover something called the Eletale’s books. This, as you probably would have guessed, requires him to traverse the magical island of Celtland, defeating monsters and collecting MacGuffins, which, in this case, are elemental gems. There’s not a whole lot going on with the story, which puts it closer in line with some of the earlier Dragon Quest games in terms of plot simplicity. Storytelling is pretty sparse on the whole, requiring the player to converse with the game’s many NPC’s to gain any insight into the goings-on of the world, such as they are.
It’s a pretty drab affair, but every so often, Quest 64 allows its personality to bubble to the surface in isolated moments. Unfortunately it never manages to really cash in on these pockets of intrigue. Dialogue throughout the entire game is incredibly brief, and almost all of it is optional. On one occasion, I walked past a key character to first explore the environment and found myself whisked away to the next objective with no way of returning to find what context they might have provided. In another instance, I went out of my way to meet with a character who I assumed would provide me with a task or directions on where to go. Instead I was greeted with a frivolous message about how famous I was. The character lives on the top floor of a castle, and neither they, nor the castle itself, serve any sort of purpose. There was no important information to be obtained, no incredible equipment to loot, just a bunch of empty rooms and empty dialogue. Multiple instances of such encounters stick in my mind and it ends up making the whole game smell like freshly cut corners.
Quest 64 fits the mold of the traditional dice-rolling and stat building RPG, but it is remarkably different in a number of aspects. Most noticeably, it eschews using a typical leveling system, instead allowing stats to improve separately based on individual factors. Agility only gains experience from actually moving about in the overworld and during battles, your MP gauge can only be extended by performing magic attacks, and so on. You can also find elemental gems in the environment that instantly increase your skill with that element, so it’s nice that there’s at least some incentive to exploration.
There’s no class system, instead focusing almost exclusively on elemental magic. Upon gaining a level in magic, you can place a point in any of the four elements, which enhances your abilities and unlocks new spells in that category alone. This is interesting as it’s streamlined and simple, but it carries the drawback of being rather inflexible. You’re rewarded for focusing on a specific branch of magic, but certain branches hold indispensable spells that make them more valuable than others. Choosing without prior knowledge of each branch’s abilities can lead to a pretty rough adventure.
While Quest 64‘s simple mechanics have their advantages, it’s hard to deny that the game is constrained by the fact that it simply doesn’t feature many of the systems and mechanics that are commonplace in the genre. The most glaring of omissions is that of a currency system. There are no item shops, so you’re left relying on what you find in chests and what villagers provide (one item per town, free of charge). Leveling up your magic is literally the only form of character building within the game. There’s no equipment with which to upgrade your character, which leaves no incentive to do sidequests since the game has nothing to provide as a reward.
So, as a result of there being no reward for doing so, sidequests were omitted completely, and without them, Quest 64 is left as an incredibly linear experience, which isn’t a format that works well for it. The game employs a random battle system that was pretty prevalent in those days, and the game’s strict lack of variance is made only more glaring by this mechanic’s tedious nature. There are no other party members to round thing out, and very little in the way of strategy. That’s to say nothing of the frequency of these random battles, which make the adventure start to feel like pure drudgery.
WELCOME TO CELTLAND
Perhaps due to the N64’s limited cartridge space, Quest 64 features a very simplistic art style, yet despite this, it still manages to pull off some pretty attractive vistas. The draw fog, normally an oppressive feature of N64 titles, is pushed back to a somewhat remarkable distance, allowing the world to feature landmarks such as distant cliffs and hills. The desert, despite being mostly just a mess of sand mounds, is probably one of the more convincing looking deserts I’ve seen in the early 3D era. Some of the enemy designs are rather creative, and there’s a decent variety of them, but the bosses are a tremendous letdown. Rather than giant monstrosities, the bosses could be mistaken for your average NPC. Only a few enemies, bosses included, are significantly larger than Brian, so there isn’t much to impress in terms of scale.
Tucked into the corners of some of the environments are landmarks that suggest some sort of side-quest, dungeon, or shortcut that was cut from the final product. At one point, a character even references one of these areas and suggests that it will open up when specific conditions are met, but if my research is correct, there’s nothing beyond it but a textured cave. There’s a tonne of little side characters who have their own little stories in relation to what’s going on — soldiers who abandoned their posts, traders who can’t get through hostile territory, mothers whose children have wandered from home — but none of these add up to anything, and all of them are optional, or perhaps worse than optional, as none of them provide any useful information. At best, the game will throw a referenced character at you as a boss, but most of the time, NPCs are reduced to something less substantial than set dressing; obstacles in your way as you comb the environments for spell upgrades.
A LITTLE TOO MUCH OFF THE TOP
If one game embodies N64’s problem with JRPG’s, it’s Quest 64. It’s not the only RPG in the console’s library, nor is it even close to being the best, but because it was released during a time when the N64 was still struggling to retain its competitiveness, it almost achieves a higher profile than its peers on the console.
That’s unfortunate, because while Quest 64 isn’t entirely a bad game, it’s hardly a worthwhile one. It has the marks of a game that has been cut back substantially in development, lacking many features commonplace to the genre and being sparse with its storytelling. Even named characters that appear as though they should have some sort of impact on the plot rarely have more than a paragraph or two of dialogue. Locations and settings come and go as you’re railroaded through a constrainingly linear adventure. Without a compelling framework to tie its same-y dungeons and random encounter laden fields and caves together, or even a satisfying character building system, the game just drags on. By the time all is said and done, Quest 64 winds up crushed beneath the weight of its all-too-frequent monster encounters and unexciting bosses, resulting in a merely mediocre game.
This review was conducted on a Nintendo 64 using an original cartridge purchased by the author.