Some days ago, I happened upon an article about the making of Final Fantasy VI which was tweeted out by the editor-in-chief of this fine blog, and it was a pretty interesting read. It didn’t explicitly tell me much about the game I didn’t already know from having played it, outside of the fact that it was developed in just one year, but it did set my mind upon a different Squaresoft game from that same year. One overlooked in the shadow of the company’s flagship franchise, and never released for English-speaking audiences (an independent translation has since been available for years, but as to how to find it, I couldn’t possibly speculate).
Live a Live’s central plot device is nearly identical in theory to that which served as a guiding ethos for Squaresoft’s Final Fantasy VI development team (both games debuted in 1994, FFVI in April, Live a Live in September), the idea of a game featuring several protagonal characters, each on relatively equal footing with one another. This is actually achieved to a more strident ideal in Live a Live than the massively more popular and well-regarded FFVI, though this is achieved at the expense of character development. In FFVI, the characters (fourteen fully playable, in all) are rolled out at a relatively steady pace as the plot churns onward, giving each character at least a few moments in which to familiarize and endear themselves to the player. They also inhabit the same world, time, space, and interact with one another in a rich, layered story.
This is not so in Live a Live, which boasts eight playable characters, each of which occupies their own, independent world. As such, it’s harder to grow much investment in the life or personality of any one in particular, because you don’t get to see them in relation to one another until the game’s final chapter.
(Also, I’ve never done this before, but this game does turn on a considerable plot twist in it’s later moments, which I describe later in vivid detail. If you want to play this, might be wise to be aware of that spoiler risk.)
There are seven chapters open at the game’s outset, which can be tackled in any order you please. They span the course of human history, beginning with a boorish, farting caveman with a shock of green hair, and ending with a spherical robot drifting through desolation on a spaceship. There’s an obvious chronology to the chapters, and I suppose it might be most appropriate to play them in that order. I, however, did not, because I don’t like cavemen and consequently put that one off until the end.
The chapters not only traipse through time, but through national boundaries as well. After playing as the caveman Pogo, likely the worst and least affecting chapter of the lot, you take the role of the ninja assassin Oboro in feudal Japan, whose chapter can play out as much as a stealth infiltration mission as I reckon a 1994 RPG could muster (this one also falls most heavily into the realm of historical fiction, as you’re ultimately given the option to join Sakamoto Ryōma and strive to dismantle the feudal system). This is followed by a long sojourn in China, first playing as aged martial arts master Xin Shan Quan, before taking control of one of his three pupils — either a quick, athletic young woman, Lei, the obese but powerful Sammo, or an at-first unremarkable boy name Yuan.
Each story features different tropes, both in theme and design, as well as gameplay style. The subsequent Cowboy chapter, played out in the American West, is for its bulk a non-combative affair, as your wandering gunslinger Sunset must set traps throughout a town anticipating a siege by bandits, followed by the chapter which is meant to occupy modern times, “The World’s Strongest.” A sort of mish-mashed paean both to games like Street Fighter and Punch-Out!!, as well as the necessity of ordered, sequential advancement common to the Mega Man series, there is no world or town to navigate — playing as an obsessive trainer and wrestler, Masaru, you just pick the next foe and fight him straight away.
The sixth chapter is probably the most ambitious, in size, scope and story, owing to its reliance on themes and designs borne from Japanese mecha animes. Playing as an orphaned teenager with psychic abilities named Akira (you’ll find that this game is somewhat reference-riddled), you must investigate, reveal, and destroy a nefarious attempt by the Japanese government to liquify humans, and use the resultant goo to energize an enormous bird idol, climaxing in a battle between the enormous statue and the indomitable Bukiri Daioh mech.
In the final chapter of the original seven, as mentioned before, you take control of a tiny, rotund robot named Cube, the creation of a tinkering mechanic on board a spaceship. This is the least action-oriented story of all, attempting to create a more atmospheric, survival terror sort of feeling — Cube merely has to talk to people, determine the motives and incidents that unfold, and discover the cause of the mysterious deaths that plague the ship’s crew. This is by a wide margin the chapter most steeped in sci-fi references drawn from other works, with crew-members like Kirk and Corporal Darth, a lethal alien meant to be secured for research roaming the halls, and the ship’s self-aware supercomputer, ultimately, being behind all of the chaos. Despite the heightened peril as the story wears on, Cube never enters a traditional, RPG-style battle until the final moments, when he discovers he can defeat the computer in combat by plugging himself into the ship’s Captain Square arcade game machine.
At the conclusion of the last chapter, whichever you saved for the end, you’re sent back out to the character lobby, this time with a new choice unveiled — the “Knight.” His name, as is quickly revealed in his introduction, is Oersted, a blond-haired, daring and skilled knight in the kingdom of Lucretia. After winning the hand of Princess Alicia in marriage by defeating his friend and cohort, the wizard Straybow, in tournament combat, Oersted is hurdled through a grinding and psychologically devastating ordeal — Alicia is abducted by the evil Demon King, and he’s forced to trek to the villain’s cavernous lair to rescue her, aided by the aforementioned Straybow, as well as two of the kingdom’s legendary heroes, Uranus and Hash.
The story proceeds, for a good half of its length, as a highly-generic medieval-style RPG, featuring rote characters, situations, and motivations. But then something unexpected happens, which defies the expected narrative of Oersted’s existence, as well as the tidy, heroic nature of the preceding seven stories. The team’s trek to rescue Alicia goes horribly awry, as a monster at the heart of the lair wounds and kills Hash, and Straybow is cut off and left for dead after a rock collapse, leaving Oersted and Uranus left to return, and report word of their failure.
Upon returning to the castle, however, Oersted is tricked by an illusion, and believing the King to himself be the demon responsible for his plight, he slays him, and is thrown in prison. Uranus frees him from his cell before expiring himself, leaving Oersted alone to return to the caves, to seek out the true Demon King, while tortured by the hatred he now feels from all those that once hailed him as a brave and just warrior. Motivated by his love for Alicia, and his prevailing confidence that she, despite everyone else, still believes in him, he fights his way back to the core of the lair, where the last excursion went so terribly wrong.
Finding a secret passage that leads to a mountain’s peak, capped with an enormous statue of the Demon King, Oersted encounters the source of all his suffering — Straybow, very much alive, and driven mad with loathing for his former ally. Incensed and anguished after losing the story’s opening battle against Oersted, Straybow discovered a secret passage, leading to the Demon King’s peak, and resolved to fake his own death, and save Alicia himself. He further orchestrated the illusion which spurred Oersted to murder the king. Pledging to avenge his last defeat, the final battle of the chapter begins. But…
It’s not that different from the first time you fought him. He’s stronger, yes, but on somewhat fundamental terms no real match. The insecurities that drove him to his evil deeds were, it seems, grounded in a reality. Even having sold himself to evil, he can’t hope to best the kingdom’s dashing young knight. After he is slain, however, Oersted’s true punishment comes to fruition. Alicia appears, and explains that she’d waited for Oersted to save her, but he never came, that it was Straybow who saved her. She yells, excoriating Oersted for relegating Straybow to a life in his shadow — “to always be the loser” — before professing her love for the slain wizard, and fatally stabbing herself.
With his last refuge gone, the only person who had still mattered to him dead, Oersted loses his mind, and himself becomes the Demon King — “Odio.”
The reveal of that name, Odio, is the singular moment most significant to the coherence of an over-arching plot, that weaves together each and every one of the stories that precede it. Because, as an astute player will have noticed, each of the preceding bosses in earlier chapters had a name derived from that of the Demon King: O-D-O, Ode Iou, Odi Wang Lee, O. Dio, Odie Oldbright, Odeo, and OD-10. It’s Oersted himself, reborn in purest evil, who you’ve been fighting over and over again throughout history.
This gives way to the game’s finale, which can unfold one of two ways, as you’re kicked back to the character lobby — you can either select one of the seven heroes, or again select Oersted. If you choose the latter, you’ll take the forms, respectively, of all seven bosses you defeated to reach this point. If you slay all seven of the heroes, well, you win, kind of. If you lose to one of them? Oersted induces an apocalypse. So, you sort of win anyways?
Should you pick a hero instead, they will awake within a colorless, empty version of Lucetia, under the thrall of Oersted’s evil. Throughout the landscape, all seven of the heroes, once seemingly unrelated, are scattered, and can be collected to form a fighting force to defeat the final boss, Pure Odio (Odio, by the by, is a Latin verb, “to hate”).
Throughout the course of Live a Live, there are various, obvious indications of an insufficient ambition relative to the huge scope of the tale it wishes to weave. And that’s a real, genuine tragedy, because what rests within it is the kernel of a truly groundbreaking game, in both plot and mechanics. I have no hesitation in saying that if it had received the same level of care, in graphical quality, music, and writing (though this may be slightly unfair, as Live a Live was never released in America, and the only english version that exists is not an official translation) as Final Fantasy VI had, it would be revered as one of the generation’s defining RPGs. Sadly, this is not the case.
The music is reliably competent, but there’s nothing like enough variation within each chapter, and the sound quality simply doesn’t measure up to the level of what Squaresoft had already evidenced they could achieve at that time. The graphics are extremely pared down and simplistic, often looking cartoonish in a distinctly more Westernized fashion than expected. The battle system, eschewing the traditional Final Fantasy-style stationary, turn-based system for a movement grid, is fun and challenging, but feels like a slight reach for its time. And, the truth is, omitting Oersted’s arc and the final union of the heroes against him, what you’d have left would feel a lot less like a cohesive work than it would a series of, shall we say, RPG-style minigames, none strong enough on its own, and collectively too detached to truly make a whole. Some of the characters, Sunset and Pogo in particular, feel so bare as to barely rise beyond the one word descriptions “caveman” and “cowboy,” and the rest fall in varying levels of depth.
But, fortunately, those last two chapters need not be omitted, because they do exist, and in simplest terms they’re the game’s masterstroke. Even in the pantheon of the bigger, better, more revered games Squaresoft made in that era, I can’t think of a plot device more thrilling and less expected than how Live a Live rolls out its full mythology in the form of Oersted, and his tale of tragedy. He’s the guy that makes it all tick, and that’s a very good thing.
I really can’t stress enough how much I want more people to play this game. If you only play one mid-90s RPG this year, please, give this one a try.