Published on September 29th, 2012 | by CB0
O. Dio, OD10, Odio: Squaresoft’s Live A Live
It is undeniable that back in the days of the Super Nintendo, Square ruled the Western RPG market. With absolute classics such as Final Fantasy II, Final Fantasy III, and Secret of Mana, even Japanese favorite Enix was having trouble keeping up with Square’s hold over RPGs in the American market. However, despite being a powerhouse in the West, the company did refrain from releasing some absolute classics including Final Fantasy V and Seiken Densetsu 3. It is in this category that one can find Live A Live, a unique little game released in the September of 1994 for the Super Famicom. Development was directed by Takashi Tokita, who later worked on Chrono Trigger (a.k.a the best game ever (link)), and the game’s unique battle mechanics were handled by Nobuyuki Inouie, who went on to direct Mother 3. What came of this partnership was a unique and fun RPG that is truly a hidden Japanese gem.
Live A Live starts by letting the player choose between seven chapters that take place throughout different periods of time: Prehistoric, Bakumatsu, Kung Fu, Old West, Present, Mecha, and Sci-Fi. Each chapter is its own, self-contained story and has its own unique characters and tone. While each story does retain the same battle system and basic game mechanics, each also has a unique gimmick that separates one from another. For example, in the Bakumatsu chapter, players can use an invisibility cape to stealth through the story, while in the Mecha chapter they will use psychic powers to progress. At first, it seems that there is no connection between any of the chapters, but everything comes together at the end in a way that I wouldn’t dare spoil.
Gameplay wise, I can honestly say that I’ve never really played a game like Live A Live. Outside of battle, the game plays very similarly to, say, Final Fantasy II: the sprites are on the smaller side, players explore and battle, etc. One interesting note is that besides the Mecha chapter, there is not really a true over world in any part of the game. Instead, areas tend to naturally flow together in a way similar to EarthBound: however, the graphical style is more akin to earlier Square RPGs. As mentioned before, gimmicks are used to vary gameplay outside of battle and generally keep each chapter from feeling stale. There is also plenty of armor customize characters with, for those who enjoy treasure hunting and stat boosting.
Where the gameplay truly shines, however, is in the game’s unique battle system. Battle takes place on a 7×7 grid, and players can move their characters around the board at will. Instead of having a basic attack and magic, each character has a set list of powers that are gained between levels 1 and 16. Any power can be used at any time, but each power also has a set range on the board: for example, an attack may hit in a box around you or in a diagonal line. Attacks range from simple attacks to healing to inflicting status effects, and each character learns a different set of moves, so everyone has plenty of fighting potential. That doesn’t mean players can get cocky, though: enemies have tricks of their own up their sleeves, and tactics must be developed if one wishes to survive. In addition, while the long lists of powers and menus do seem a bit outdated at times, they don’t take long to get used to and are much more streamlined than other RPGs of the time due to an overall smaller range of customization.
Live A Live’s graphics are a bit of a mixed bag. Outside of battle, the sprites are nothing special and the worlds are definitely not up to the standards that Final Fantasy III set in Japan 6 months earlier. Still some may find that there is a strange charm to these graphics, which may be credited to the unique anime style and changing settings. The in-battle graphics, however, are nothing to scoff at: it is obvious that Square put a lot of effort into making the battle sprites highly detailed and stylized. The music is extremely underrated: seriously, there were songs running through my head months after I beat the game for the first time. Each track fits its chapter well, from the classical Japanese instruments heard throughout the Ninja chapter to the hard punk-meets-techno sounds of the Mecha chapter. Let this be a shout-out to video game cover bands: this game is full of great songs to work with! (Seriously! Click the text for a playlist link!)
Overall, Live A Live is a unique little RPG that is highly recommended to importers and retrogamers who need a break from the Final Fantasy style that was popular during the days of the Super Ninttendo/Super Famicom. The fantastic battle mechanics and small gameplay tweaks keeps the game from getting stale, and the graphics and music are also well crafted. It is actually one of my personal favorites, and though it has since dropped out of my personal Top 10 list, I still like to give it a play through every year or so. Importers will have to spend between 30 to 80 dollars for a physical copy of the game, which may be a little steep for a game that is not even in English. For the rest of those interested, there is an English translated ROM of the game that can easily be found with a Google search that can be played through any SNES emulator. While we may not see another game quite like Live A Live in the future, that does not mean that this Japanese gem should be forgotten. -CB