I was surprised when I looked up the publication dates of this game. It came out in June of 1993 in Japan, and was translated and released here in December of 1993. There are some rough spots in the translation (no worse than other games of that era) and Lufia II is the one that’s infamous for translation issues (glitchy graphics in a specific dungeon and various text issues.) Lufia & The Fortress of Doom is a polarizing game for me. I played it as a kid and struggled all the way to the end of the game.
This was a time before there was GameFAQs and when your main source for information was Nintendo Power or the like. I remember hating the dungeons in the game. Looking at them now, they’re still pretty difficult. Many of them have multiple levels, and some feature warps between various areas. Due to the screen size, you can have the Phantasy Star III issue with wandering down dead ends that you could’ve seen if the screen was bigger. However, the dungeons aren’t as samey and easy to get lost compared to Phantasy Star III.
I also remember feeling frustrated with the plot. The writing wasn’t that bad, and I do remember being pleasantly surprised that they used lower case letters in the translation. In the beginning of the game, a team of four heroes head in to kill the Sinstrals. They’re successful, at a cost. Later, your hero and his mysterious childhood friend Lufia are caught up in the strife as the Sinstrals return. A good amount of the game involves finding the children of the original four heroes to remake your party. My main frustration with the game, back then, was that the game seemed to be paced with the assumption that you were pretty young.
For example, at the very start of the game, the hero says that he likes Lufia’s pie. She hurries off to bake one. However, a mere ten paces from the kitchen, someone mentions that there’s monsters in a nearby town. The hero runs out in a panic to go talk to the knights about the attack – and Lufia is infuriated that he left when she was about to give him the pie. You then get townspeople telling you to make up with her and that she’s crying. The innkeeper scolds you for leaving. You have no way to apologize to her. I understand the humor of the clueless hero and sort of romantic misunderstanding between the two of them but to talk to her, you need to advance the plot.
To advance the plot, you need to get orders to scout at the town under attack. Then, you need to leave town and grind to about level four, and then walk a short way north to a new town. You should be strong enough at that point to walk another short way north to a cave. After traveling through the cave, you go to the town under attack and then can head back home again. There, you can talk to Lufia. Dragon Quest games tend to use this kind of plot pacing where you have some kind of crisis, you go do a mission or explore a dungeon, and then the plot is wrapped up. Lufia’s execution, at times, just doesn’t work for me.
I think part of my lack of patience for the game is the battle system. The game, for example, does not retarget enemies if they die. You also have a staggered turn order due to your agility stats. So, for example, in the introduction, you start a battle, and you get to pick orders for Artea (your fast elf character) and Selen (your mage). Then, usually, Maxim (the ancestor of the hero) and Guy will have their turns. Artea tends to act after Maxim’s orders are picked, and Selen tends to move after one enemy and after you pick Guy’s orders. This does allow you to retarget enemies as the round goes on, but you still end up occasionally missing. This is particularly annoying if you’re using magic, since you can end up wasting MP. Add in a long rambling dungeon, and you can imagine how things can get frustrating.
I suppose my main problem with the game is that it feels like a medium budget retro-themed title. The first area in the introduction, for example, attempts to emulate lighting effects and reflective floors. However, the sprite work feels inspired but limited, and for all that it’s lovely, there’s none of the fancier effects that higher budget games might use. (For example, in the picture above, a fancier game might have a reflection of the heroes in the floor, a more varied landscape, or emulating tinted light for the sunset.) Ignoring the gloss, the gameplay and the battle system is basically like Dragon Quest. The graphics look like the best NES game ever, but definitely aren’t the best the SNES can offer. The music is catchy and competent.
Unfortunately, the game keeps a lot of retro elements that don’t really improve the game in my mind. The game is pretty grindy, and the battle system feels kind of awkward. You have a range of magic and items, but you’ll spend most of the game using a very small set of spells. Buying items does let you see what you can and can’t equip, but isn’t too informative about upgrades and downgrades for your characters. Dungeons are long, complex, but amount to a slow pace from beginning until you can find the end. The plot’s pacing can feel pretty slow and some of the big revelations are blatantly obvious before the game finally admits that you can know something.
There is an undeniable charm, even with the elements that I find annoying. I still like Lufia, even when the romantic misunderstandings annoy me, and I still remember getting the replacement for Artea and how much it seemed to be an accomplishment. Would a modern player love the game? I suspect if they didn’t mind the battle system, and they loved the plot, it’d be an easy sell. However, every time I try to replay the game, I get as far as getting lost in a dungeon, and it’s really easy to see only the flaws in the game.