Quest 64 is begging for a second wind
Games are made to be played. If someone wants to play a game that came out a decade or two ago, they should be able to without much hassle. While it has become much easier to play some classic games due to emulation, compilations and ports, far more have been left behind in the digital era, leaving gamers with few options to play their niche favorite or a game they are only now just hearing about. It's tough out there for a game like Ogre Battle 64, which as of this writing is currently only available on physical media since the digital versions were available on now-shuttered Wii/Wii U eShops - an out of print game for hardware approaching its 30th birthday.
While the recent trend of HD remasters and ports have mostly been great for consumers and publishers alike, it is the more obscure or poorly received games that continue to be overlooked. Where is the justice for the little guys, like Quest 64, a unique footnote in history of the console - and RPGs at large - that should be available for players to experience, even if for nothing more than curiosity. While it is far from a perfect, or even great, game, it is an exhibit from the pages of video game history that is frequently the butt of jokes (even our own). A full-fledged remake or even a remaster might be asking too much, so how about a 1:1 port to the Nintendo Switch's N64 online offerings?
Developed by Imagineer, Quest 64 was the first RPG released for the Nintendo 64 when published in the west in June 1998. The game has players assume the role of Brian, an apprentice mage who sets off from the monastery to find his father, who left the month prior in order to search for the Eltale book, a magical tome. The story is threadbare, as Brian is quickly tasked to recover crystals that represent the world's primary elements before battling against the antagonist. The story is linear and the game itself is lean, with players able to finish in less than 12 hours.
As Brian travels, he comes across enemies in random encounters. Combat takes place within a fenced area, with Brian and enemies given their own smaller circles to demonstrate their range of motion. During Brian's turn, players can move within the circle to position him to strike with his staff or deploy a magic spell. Combat reminded me a bit of Parasite Eve, as Brian can attempt to evade attack as he moves around his sphere. If Brian is not using his staff, he can choose a spell from his arsenal of elemental spells and abilities, including offensive spells, buff/debuffs, healing magic, and more. The actual combat itself can be a bit boring, but the number of spells adds some depth of strategy, even if the balancing is somewhat askew so that a few spells are completely overpowered. It's an interesting mechanic that could be rebalanced in a remaster or port.
During Brian's journey, he will encounter spirits either in the field or as a battle reward. When received, players can funnel the spirit into one of the four elements, strengthening abilities and learning new ones to use in and out of combat. This is a great bit of customization which allows for players to develop Brian as they see fit, although neglecting any of the elements will preclude or delay procurement of some powerful spells.
As with combat, the unconventional leveling mechanic adds an interesting wrinkle. It's not wholly original - it reminds me of Final Fantasy II and the SaGa series - Brian's core stats each have their own experience meter that gains with use (ie, a spell is used or Brian is struck). When the meter fills,, that core stat is increased - even in the middle of battle. Like the magic system, it can underwhelm at first, especially during the opening battles where Brian is under-powered. Yet there is still a palpable and enjoyable sense of progression, even if Brian's progress is not represented by numbered levels.
In some ways, Quest 64 feels like a great game for younger players, especially if you were new to RPGs in 1998 or just thirsty for one a few years into owning a Nintendo 64. The execution of these systems is where things start to get rickety. The high encounter rate is annoying, especially at the onset when Brian has few abilities and low health. Worse, it's incredibly easy to get lost after battle as the camera reorients itself, causing players to proceed in the wrong direction. Once I figured out I was going the wrong direction, I would be rewarded with another random battle. There is no currency in the game, and items are either given to Brian or found in a town or dungeon. While I was never hurting for restoratives, the tight in-game economy adds another frustrating facet to the gameplay.
All of these issues are apparent at the onset, resulting in the game putting its worst foot forward. Brian is without healing magic or much health during the first open zone. While it's a linear path, the journey to the first main town is hardly straight-forward because of the finicky camera. I believe this is part of the reason the game has such a bad reputation - many gamers recall playing this game at a young age, and giving up very early due to frustration with combat, leveling, or even maintaining a sense of direction.
Perhaps those frustrated early-quitters aren't missing out - even back in 1998, this game seemed destined to be forgotten as it came after Final Fantasy VII and just months before Ocarina of Time. Even then, Quest 64 is much more than its infamous reputation suggests. The combat and magic systems have merit, and they are complemented with a very on-brand Nintendo 64-era graphical approach, at times charming and bland and always a little blocky. The enemy designs are a bright spot, with some cleverly named and designed enemies as well as some special effects. It's all bolstered by a pleasant yet unremarkable soundtrack that matches the game's generic plot and Western title.
Let's face it: a full-blown remake or even a full-throated HD remaster of Quest 64 is unlikely. Yet this piece of gaming history - warts and all - could have a second life as a surprise release on the Nintendo Switch's online offering of Nintendo 64 games. With some marginal effort, we could even see the Japanese version released here with its presentation tweaks and additional story content. Quest 64 might not have been that iconic first RPG for the Nintendo 64 we deserved, but it's the one we got. Newcomers to the genre (or longtime RPG masochists) should be able to easily experience it for themselves, without an expensive trip to a hobby shop or eBay.