Since the American launch of Nintendo’s newest handheld, the Game Boy Advance, the nifty little portable has already developed the reputation as one of the systems of choice for fans of RPGs. Less than a year into its life, the GBA has offered gamers several impressive RPGs, including Golden Sun, Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, and Megaman Battle Network. The future looks even brighter, with sequels for Golden Sun and Megaman looming on the horizon, plus several other new titles. However, not everything on the GBA is an original game. Part of the system’s charm lies in the fact that it’s essentially a beefed up portable version of the Super Nintendo—and as any RPG fan knows, the SNES was one of the greatest RPG systems ever made.
While Nintendo and Square can’t seem to set aside their differences so that gamers everywhere can experience titles like Chrono Trigger in portable form, Nintendo and Capcom have no such problems. Thanks to this, we now have a new portable version of Capcom’s Breath of Fire for the GBA—a version that is a perfect port of the original SNES game.
The quest for the keys…
Narratively speaking, Breath of Fire doesn’t offer up much in the way of innovation. Gamers who’ve become familiar with RPG plotlines (and their reliance on cliché) will no doubt be able to figure out the major plot points well in advance of them actually happening. Is this a bad thing? Not particularly, especially when one considers that Breath of Fire was initially released in the early 1990s—back when RPGs were more of a niche genre than they are today.
The story revolves around Ryu, a member of the White Dragon Tribe. For several millennia, the dragon tribes ruled the land—governing the world through their power and decency. Unfortunately, a rift developed–caused by an evil goddess–and the tribe split into two factions: the white tribe, who locked away their powers until the world is threatened with danger, and the black tribe who seems far less interested in peace. Eventually, several heroes managed to lock the goddess in a dungeon sealed with six magical keys and a fragile peace returns to the land—a peace that is about to be shattered.
Ryu will have to reclaim the powers of the dragon tribe in order to save the world, but he won’t have to do it alone. No, as RPG tradition seems to dictate, Ryu will be joined by a motley band of fellow adventurers, each with different strengths and weaknesses and a desire to help him save the world from evil.
The game’s narrative and dialogue are all presented through text on the screen. Unlike a lot of recent releases, the translation here is top notch. Grammar and spelling errors are few and far between, the prose is well written, and the characters adequately drawn. Each character has his or her own personality, and while it’s a far cry from being three-dimensional, it’s still pretty good.
While the story is very traditional in its presentation and plot, it doesn’t hurt the overall experience at all. Breath of Fire may feature a standard RPG plot, but there’s a certain amount of comfort afforded by that familiarity. In this regard, playing the game is a lot like picking up one of your favorite books and re-reading it. You may know what happens, but the journey is still one worth taking.
The best way to describe Breath of Fire would be to call it a traditional console RPG. Made back in the genre’s early days, it doesn’t feature a lot of the originality that games in the past few years have offered.
The game features an overworld map for the party to travel and explore, towns and villages where you can interact with people who will sell you items, give you quests, or advance the storyline, dungeons with bosses to battle, menus galore, and random encounters where you’ll have to fight monsters to gain money and experience.
Battle is the traditional turn-based style of many RPGs. Your party of four characters lines up on one side of the screen, the monsters on the other, and you choose commands for the characters to act out. Battles take place on a battle screen, which loads up after you randomly encounter an enemy. Again, it’s all pretty traditional. If you’ve played a few RPGs, you’ll know exactly what to expect here.
One innovation is the addition of an auto battle feature, which allows you to simply command your party to fight and eliminates the need for you to push buttons repeatedly against weak enemies. Another nice touch is the inclusion of the run command, which will allow you to flee from battle.
Characters gain levels after winning experience in battles. Each new level offers up stat boosts, such as increased strength and hit points, and in some instances new spells for the magic users.
The core gameplay revolves around exploration. You’ll have to speak to various NPCs and complete a variety of ‘fetch quests’ to gain specific items and advance the plot. Reaching new areas will allow you to find and purchase better equipment, new skills, etc.
Each character is capable of fighting and some can also use various forms of magic. On top of that, each also possesses a special skill, which can be utilized by pushing the A button while that character is leading the party. These special skills are an important element of the game—you’ll need to utilize them to access a multitude of different areas.
The game is largely menu driven, with all your items, weapons, stats, and skills viewable with the push of a button. Armor and weapons must be manually equipped on characters by selecting the item from a menu. The menus themselves are well designed and completely self-explanatory. Accessing them is simple and fast.
While not much has been changed in the conversion of the SNES original to the GBA version, Capcom was nice enough to add in one new feature designed to take advantage of the GBA’s link cable feature. If you have a friend who’s playing the game, you can trade items with that person by using the link cable and connecting your GBAs. While certain items can’t be traded, swapping does have its benefits, as from time to time you’ll be rewarded with extra items.
The game itself is a relatively linear affair. There are a few sidequests here and there for the player to undertake if he chooses to, but for the most part, the game requires you to go from point A to point B. Because of this, the title doesn’t feature an abundance of replay value.
Essentially, Breath of Fire is the epitome of what a traditional console RPG is. The gameplay is not particularly groundbreaking, but it is solid. Fans of the 16-bit era Role Playing Games will no doubt be pleased with the game mechanics of this title.
Truthfully, Breath of Fire is a pixel-perfect port of the original SNES game. Because of that, the graphics are nice, but not as impressive as something like Camelot’s Golden Sun.
The game is 2-D with nicely drawn and animated sprites on flat backgrounds. Capcom hasn’t done much to upgrade the game’s visuals, but the title still looks nice. The colors are a little drab in spots, but that was the case with the original game as I recall.
Character portraits have been touched up, though, and the improvement is both noticeable and appreciated. Since the sprites tend to be so small on the GBA’s screen, these new portraits go a long way towards establishing both the characters’ personalities and their moods in individual scenes.
Spell effects are fairly well done—some look better than others. They’re generally nicer than some of the earlier RPG spell animations, but they look pretty dated compared with the ones in a game like Golden Sun. Attack animations are better, but don’t stray very far beyond the traditional ‘charge forward, attack, fall back into line’ approach of older RPGs.
Overall, the graphics are solid, if a bit underwhelming. The inclusion of some anime-styled cutscenes (mostly static—don’t expect Lunar: Silver Star Story-style animation here) really adds to the game’s visual appeal though, and I found myself wishing they’d have included more of them throughout the game.
About the only other negative is the fact that there are more than a few palette-swapped enemies that you’ll encounter throughout the game. A little more variety in terms of monsters would have been appreciated, but it’s not a major mark against the game as a whole.
Finally, a note about the game’s lighting. Many of us have had difficulty playing the GBA because of the screen’s general darkness. Breath of Fire doesn’t seem to suffer too bad in this regard—the game is bright, and when played with a light source (I heartily endorse InterAct’s Glow Guard), lighting is not an issue.
Aurally speaking, Breath of Fire doesn’t really take advantage of the GBA’s sound hardware. The music and sound effects are good, but they come through the system’s speaker sounding a little tinny overall.
The music is quite good, though, with a fairly wide variety of tracks utilized throughout the adventure. There is some musical repetition, but the tracks are solid enough that I didn’t ever mind. It’s not a classic soundtrack by any stretch of the imagination, but you won’t be playing it with the volume turned down, either.
The rest of the sound FX are serviceable. This is an old game that has been ported over with minimal tweaking, so one shouldn’t go into the game (which is on a handheld system with one tiny speaker) expecting some kind of lush orchestral score or rich surround sound FX work. Swords whoosh, spells crackle, and stuff rumbles when it’s supposed to.
All in all, the sound and music is more than functional here. For a handheld game, I thought they were actually quite impressive. I figure the overall tinny quality in some spots is more a problem with the GBA’s single speaker and sound hardware than an actual problem with the game’s musical score.
Ultimately, Breath of Fire belongs in the library of every Game Boy Advance owning RPG fan. Capcom has given us a faithful port over of one of its most venerable series and the end result is a fantastic RPG experience that you can take anywhere.
Old guys like yours truly have always longed to be able to play SNES-era RPGs on a handheld, and our wish has finally been granted. If you’ve already played Breath of Fire, pick up the portable version for a nostalgic trip down memory lane the next time you’re taking a long flight or car ride. If you haven’t played Breath of Fire before, grab this now and experience one of the classic RPGs of the 16-bit era firsthand.