“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” ―Edmund Burke
Breath of Fire is as traditional as you can get with an RPG, though not all classics are created equal. Big on dungeon crawling and battles but short on innovation, it hasn’t aged as gracefully as its contemporaries, namely the Final Fantasy (IV and VI) games against which it is often contrasted. Breath of Fire feels more as if it belonged on the NES rather than the SNES but this is Capcom’s first attempt at developing a full-fledged RPG after dabbling with role-playing elements in their Game Boy title Gargoyle’s Quest and their Japan-only survival horror RPG Sweet Home.
Created in tandem with Squaresoft who handled the North American release and translation, Breath of Fire was notable as a cooperative effort between Capcom and Square. They ought to have continued that partnership since it might’ve greatly aided the poor translation of Breath of Fire II, which Capcom handled alone, and it might’ve meant even more optimum RPGs in the 90’s and not less. It also might’ve meant that Capcom would not give up on their own intellectual properties so easily, run them into the grave of blandness and then refuse to revive them, e.g. Breath of Fire and Mega Man. That’s why there were so many characters in Marvel vs. Capcom that nobody’d heard of!
A foundational game which inspired Capcom’s best known RPG franchise, Breath of Fire also served as an introduction to RPGs for a young version of myself. This game was really my first (at least the first RPG I can definitively remember completing on my own) and I appreciate having been able to jump in to the series from the very first game, something which I was too young to do in 1987 with the first Final Fantasy. Truth comes out. In actuality, though my impressions of it aren’t the most favorable, as we shall see, I can respect Breath of Fire as a standard for what traditional RPGs are to be in my view. The game remains an exemplar of RPG traditions for all of their sluggishness and cumbersome mechanisms.
Clearly set in a medieval, swords-and-sorcery world, the game’s prologue opens by asking some heavy philosophical questions. I recall that this blew my mind. Consider I’d been playing typical Nintendo fare up to this point (again, as far as I can recall), so dredging up concepts like the brevity of life and its alleged meaninglessness weren’t concepts I’d been confronted with in Mario or Zelda games.
It should be noted that one of the earmarks of the Breath of Fire series is its loosely interconnected continuity. This has always been one of the most fascinating things about the original game and its sequels. It’s one of the few reasons why I return to play the first game at all. The recurring characters Ryu, Nina, Deis, Myria/Tyr, Ladon the Dragon God, and several others playing out this drama over the span of thousands upon thousands of years of history was fascinating to me. Seeing what happened to the Dragon Clan after the first game millennia later was a great source of interest and up to that point I hadn’t played anything that treated sequels in such a way.
The first Breath of Fire comes with its own vast history. Thousands of years ago, the Dragon Clan were an ancient race of humanoids who could transform into dragons. They built a mighty empire but eventually their civilization waned.
This cryptic language describes a civil war which erupted among the Dragon Clan, splitting them into the Light Dragons and the Dark Dragon Empire. They fought over the goddess of desire, here named Tyr, elsewhere Myria in future games. This goddess offered wishes and the dragons fought for her favor as she watched and presumably enjoyed watching their war escalate. The world was saved from destruction and the “Goddess War” was ended when a hero from the Light Dragons rose up and imprisoned the goddess of desire, sealing her away using six elemental keys.
Fast forward to the present day of Breath of Fire and the Dark Dragon Clan has amassed an empire bent on world domination. Their ultimate goal is to free the goddess and use her power to achieve their goals. Unfortunately, while the Dark Dragons have grown strong and militaristic, the Light Dragons have grown old and feeble, residing in a small village in small numbers. While the Dark Clan has embraced their ferocious dragon-side, the Light Clan sealed away their powers in a move toward pacifism. But history is to come to the brink of destruction once more. The world needs a new hero.
Cue the orphaned Ryu and his sister Sara, both members of the Light Dragon Clan. The Dark Dragons attack their village in the night and Sara tries to defend her people by facing down their leader, Jade (aka Judas in the Japanese version, which I think is more appropriate). She’s taken captive after failing to stop the warlord, protecting Ryu and her people in the process. Young Ryu is the only able-bodied member of the Light Dragons left and he leaves his village to embark on a quest to find the six keys of the goddess before the empire does, in order to keep them hidden and keep the goddess of desire in her prison.
Along the way he meets Nina, a winged princess of Winlan (later Windia), as well as several other friends who join his cause: Bo of the Forest Clan, an anthropomorphic wolf archer; Karn, a professional thief; Gobi, a fish merchant with an eye for monetary gain; Ox, a large… well… ox-man; Mogu, a mole from a subterranean clan; Bleu (later Deis), a naga-esque immortal with magic and ties to the goddess. Each of these party members have a unique ability beyond their typical spells, strengths and weaknesses, and equipment in combat. Nina can later transform into a giant bird to fly the party around, Gobi can transform into a giant fish to shuttle around the team underwater, Karn has an interesting fusing ability with unused characters, Bo can travel through forests unhindered and so on. This minor detail is just about the most innovation to the RPG formula that Breath of Fire has to its name.
Also, fun fact: the character design was done by Keiji Inafune, otherwise known as the father of Mega Man!
There isn’t much variation within this game. This makes it reliable and what we often refer to as “solid” but it also makes it predictable and somewhat boring. The story progresses linearly through top-down perspective world map, towns, and dungeons as the hero and his cohorts proceed from one problem to another collecting the goddess keys until they reach the ultimate showdown you saw coming since the game’s prologue.
Perhaps because of how standard Breath of Fire is, it suddenly dawned on me while writing this review just how often it is that a hero, an individual, saves the world. Why do we tell stories like this? Why is our narratology dominated by tales of singular people beating incredible odds to bring about a good ending? A variation of the quote above by Edmund Burke presents itself: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for society to look away.” I take issue with that variation because I think by comparison that it is a falsehood. In the archetype of the hero and the adventurer, one of the oldest mythos structures known to history since the Mesopotamia’s Gilgamesh, individualism is more significant of a focus than society (while it’s true that Gilgamesh was king over the society of Uruk, it was his individual choice to go out to fight Enkidu and later Humbaba).
In what RPG, or traditional story for that matter, do you ever see society, or by extension government, a body, save the day? Society does the opposite in A Tale of Two Cities. Rather, it is the individual who goes to the guillotine for an innocent man. It is the individual who saves the world. It is the individual who rescues the princess. It is the individual who defeats the Dark Dragon Empire. It is the individual (Ryu) who decides to embark on the quest and enlist the aid of other individuals (the party) to stop the evil Dark Dragons.
Forget the obsession with toxic and invalidating identity politics and judging people by the color of their skin or political affiliation, because individualism still matters. It is the improvement of the individual (a matter of the virtuousness and objective morality of a person’s character) which in turn improves society, person by person by person since society is made up of individuals, not the other way round. Society cannot force people to be good people no more than you could force a man to love his neighbor as himself by putting a gun to his head and demanding it. But individuals can make themselves good people. Change the heart, change society. Put the cart before the chocobo. You don’t have to agree with me but I hope you at least sympathize with the point I’m trying to make.
It seems to me that we’ve been telling ourselves stories like these for countless generations and yet there are many alive today who miss the point, that heroism begins with individualism, as does motivation, redemption, equality, empathy, charity, virtue, righteousness, courage, morality, character. A society or government body cannot change the heart of an individual, only the individual can do that, and the individual can then go on to change the world, just as surely as Ryu did in Breath of Fire when he took those first brave steps out of his village to find the six keys.
Closing up this thought, this is one terrific reason why I think video games are valuable as an acceptable past time, namely because they are capable (though admittedly not always culpable) of commending goodness and decency through the stories they tell. Fundamentally, that’s the value of storytelling itself. So it’s easy for me to think of Breath of Fire as an old, dismissible game that was quite nearly below average. But if I think of it in terms of its traditional heroism, then it becomes something that’s really actually inspiring. Don’t we all want to be heroes?
The 8-Bit Review
In retrospect, a lot of the graphics in Breath of Fire strike me as ugly. Now the odd town in daylight with the tranquil waterfall and picturesque windmill are quite nice, as are the simple animated character sprites in battle, rendered to scale with enemies and each other as opposed to the super-deformed style of the FF games or the static first-person perspective battle sprites of RPGs like Earthbound. Breath of Fire’s approach to scale realism with its graphics is noteworthy but so much of the fighters and fiends are so simplistic that they’re uninteresting. Perhaps that’s the best summary for most of Breath of Fire’s graphics: they do not interest beyond a glance.
Considering Breath of Fire II came out a year later and the graphics were this much better, I think it’s safe to say that Breath of Fire lagged in this department.
A lot of this collaborative soundtrack is meant to sound adventurous and so that’s what it sounds like, and it doesn’t evoke much else. The main title track is bombastic and loud and exciting but it’s not very memorable, nor does it highlight a specific musical theme in the game that I can recall. Lack of memorability is mostly what brings this soundtrack down. Unless we’re talking about the world map theme, just about the only thing in Breath of Fire‘s music that is memorable to me. Probably because its tune is repeated in the second game.
One thing which does interest me about this soundtrack, which brings the total score back up, is the emphasis on dark harpsichord music, this sort of quasi-baroque, high society music that brings with it a sense of wealth and heritage. Capcom has employed this particular sound in many of their games but here I think it finds a characteristic home. The track below is one which won me over right from the start of the prologue.
There are several examples of this sound in the game. It’s like a Gothic dance.
Everything is counterbalanced by something else and you’ll find that some of the music is overly repetitive. This may just be a symptom of Breath of Fire’s early development in the beginning of the 90’s but it has a soundtrack as limited as its style of traditional gameplay.
Most everyone who has played a standard RPG will not be surprised by Breath of Fire. When I think of average mechanisms of gameplay in an RPG, I think of this game. Top-down perspective, save points in towns, menu screen and traditional items, party members, equipping weapons, fighting through dungeons, random encounters, it’s all here. It had a few good ideas which are unfortunately far outweighed by the bad ones, which ultimately make it feel sometimes like wading chest deep through water, pushing through the game rather than taking it in passively. Out of the earliest games I can remember, it is the RPG which feels the most like a grind.
There are a couple reasons for this:
Most bosses are just tanks. Boss fights demand little strategy other than don’t die and deal as much damage as possible. Rarely do exploiting weaknesses or timing come into play. Bosses, annoyingly, also had a second “hidden” life bar. This meant when you reduced a boss’s life bar to zero, it wouldn’t die. You just had to keep blindly dealing damage until it keeled over. I’m sure my mother had no small concern when she heard me yelling things in the living room like “What the purgatory?! Just die already!!!” Super frustrating. Why not just hide the whole life bar then, dispense with it entirely?
The biggest complaint would have to be the random encounter rate being way too high. I don’t say that this is “my” complaint because I’ve seen many others express the same gripe. This coupled with Ryu’s slow waddling speed means exploring dungeons takes forever. Sometimes you may make it only two or three steps before having to fight another enemy, and a lot of these battles can be pretty taxing. There are items in the game to reduce or even stop random battle occurrences, but then you can’t level your characters so it’s a double-edged sword. Reducing the random encounter rate would’ve gone a long way.
So what’s good about the gameplay? The dungeons themselves are actually quite engaging. Many of them are very maze-like and not straight forward at all. Some of them have gimmicks with their own set of laws that must be adhered to in order to complete them, such as warping tiles or invisible floors. Considering how much time you’re going to be spending in dungeons, the variations between them go a long way in keeping the game from being a total drag. As I understand it, Breath of Fire was a leader in the movement away from dungeon uniformity in RPGs.
Also, trade ins for weapons right at the shop, the auto-battle function, and fusing characters, as well as riding the giant bird and fish, are some of the more fun and streamlined aspects of the game. I don’t believe that the good outweighs the bad here so it’s not a total loss.
All of the game’s heavy ideas hit you right at the beginning. For me, I’ve played through this game a few times in my life and it is the beginning and the end which are the most memorable. Pretty much everything else in the middle feels like meaningless running around doing errands or it’s forgettable problem-solving. The game could’ve used a little more balance but ideas like the goddess of desire turning out to be the goddess of destruction (a Buddhist take on desire being the root of evil) and the Dragon Clan tearing itself apart for her wish granting is an idea with some impact, serving as the backdrop for a trite story about imperial world domination and embarking on a quest.
Two of the moments, again beginning and ending, which I always felt were strongest were moments dealing with Ryu’s sister Sara and her fate. Her brave selflessness facing down Jade at the start of the game to get herself captured to protect her people was enough emotional motivation to put you in Ryu’s shoes, but it is later when we discover that she (spoiler: highlight to reveal) is under a mind control spell by Jade and tricks Ryu into giving her the six keys and her own brother has to kill her that the tragedy comes full circle.
There’s also a kind of childlike (not childish) innocence to Breath of Fire’s dialogue: “It’s all because of this war. The war makes people crazy.” I don’t think this was intentional. I just think this is how Squaresoft did the translation but with so many anthropomorphic characters, the game seems to lend them a childlikeness which highlights their innocence and suffering under the hands of the Dark Dragons. There’s an element in which this simplicity helps sell the game’s simple premise. Too bad there’s the occasional tpyo to ruin some story beats.
Two big things about accessibility: the menu screen and the item names. With the menu, they decided to really heavily on icons for navigation. It’ll take a little bit to get the hang of all the icons and their sub-menus, though most of these are fairly obvious. Something like “AB” for auto-battle may be mystifying at first. I can remember hitting that icon button just to see what it did and then being confused about why the game wasn’t letting me select attacks every turn.
Then there were the item names. Things had to be abbreviated for the English translation, so we’re left with idiotic item names like “Mrbl1”, “T.Drop”, “WMeat”, “S.Ptn”, and “Wtzit”. I kid you not. Good luck interpreting those and knowing what to do with them.
The game is broken once you achieve the final dragon form for Ryu called Agni (named after the Vedic Hindu fire deity), since the thing does 999 points of damage with each attack. So the biggest challenge in the game is pushing through all those dungeons and all those random battles. It is more a marathon than it is an obstacle course.
I’ve already expressed that Breath of Fire didn’t move the cultural norm forward very far. It didn’t stray away from traditional role-playing at its core. With so few changes to the formula, it is a good example as a a standard RPG, but that also means that only its story and history as Capcom’s RPG franchise distinguish it as somewhat unique.
My Personal Grade: 3/10
The best thing about Breath of Fire are its sequels. I can’t vouch for the fifth and sixth games but the other sequels are superior. By establishing a fantasy history, the future games could come along and enrich the memory of the first game by adding destiny, intrigue, heritage, and evolution. The notable connection of the Breath of Fire titles (at least that connection exists clearly in the first three games) began with Breath of Fire. It helped to found this mythos more interesting than itself merely by virtue of being the first game. Being first is the best thing about it and maybe, after all this time, it is the only “best” thing about it at all. If that sounds harsh, it may just be. This is my opinion, after all. You may have a much more nostalgic haze over Breath of Fire to improve it in your hindsights but I think we can agree that there are many other RPGs from the time that have aged a lot better. I’ve never played the GBA version, so I can’t comment on that.
Final funny story: I begged my parents to get me the Aura Interactor for my SNES, which was a vest you strapped to your chest that picked up audio and converted it into vibrations. My young mind reeled at the thought of feeling like I was actually being punched in the gut every time I played Street Fighter II, or feeling the rumble of the thunder every time I cast Bolt in Breath of Fire. It was unsurprisingly less impressive than that since speaking in a raised voice trigger vibrations and it didn’t reliably pick up audio cues from the TV. I think I wore it for a week or so and then forgot about it. Ah the frivolity of youth!
Aggregated Score: 5.0