Retro video games that never got released outside Japan have a unique air of mystery about them, beyond the oft-cited Mother 3, Policenauts and Sweet Home. Given the language barrier and console region-locking, there's a sense that Japanese players there got to experience all kinds of lost gems we don't even know exist.
Live A Live, which is getting a Nintendo Switch remake on Friday, is one such gem. Originally released for the Super Famicom -- the Japanese Super NES -- in 1994, it was made by names that would go on to be some of the industry's most illustrious. Developed by Final Fantasy-maker Square, Live A Live was the directorial debut for Takashi Tokita, who worked on Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy 7. It features musical compositions from Yoko Shimomura, who also crafted killer soundtracks for Street Fighter 2, Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy 15.
So it's a game with incredible pedigree from the same era as Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy 6, two Super NES games RPG fans swoon over endlessly, and it only ever came out in Japan. If ever a game fit the "lost gem" criteria, Live A Live is it.
The Switch remake spruces up the visuals, giving the game a striking HD-2D look similar to Octopath Traveler and Triangle Strategy, and adds voice acting on top of the traditional text boxes. Visually striking and aurally delightful, it feels designed to mirror how classic 16-bit games exist in our nostalgia-filtered memories.
However expertly it gives life to the retro gaming aesthetic you fondly remember, Live A Live is a little different to the usual sprawling RPG where you play a single long story. Instead, you're presented with seven scenarios set in different points of history that can be played in any order: Prehistory, Imperial China, Twilight of Edo Japan, The Wild West, Present Day, The Near Future and Far Future.
The battle mechanics, leveling and equipment systems are consistent across all eras, but each has distinct gameplay and thematic elements. Each one lasts roughly two and a half to four hours, and you're often presented with choices that'll affect the narrative's outcome, adding an element of replayability.
Playing through history
Live A Live is overwhelming at first. I jumped into The Near Future initially, mostly because it was the first one highlighted on the menu. The game wastes little time jumping into Final Fantasy 7 levels of melodrama, opening with your character finding his police officer dad shot. You also have psychic powers, have a badass biker buddy and live in an orphanage full of quirky kids. And there's an oddball scientist with a giant robot.
Basically, it flings a lot of extremely anime elements at you in a short amount of time and feels like a mess.
Thankfully, the other eras mostly offer simpler narratives (or maybe I just got into the game's vibe). The Wild West scenario, which puts you in the boots of a mysterious outlaw on the run from a mouthy bounty hunter, is a standout. It's focused, fun and oozes atmosphere, but I blasted through it in just over two hours and was left wanting more.
Much of Live A Live's fun lies in jumping into each era and seeing what awaits you, so I won't go into too much detail about the others or the narrative elements that subtly link them together. Each tells a story that's satisfying in isolation, offers unique gameplay elements and introduces memorable characters, but subtle hints that the eras are somehow linked will compel you to explore the next. There's some trial-and-error when it comes to making major choices, but the game reminds you to save often to offset this.
Live A Live's eccentricities are balanced by the straightforward, fun turn-based combat system in which your party and the enemies move around a 7x7 grid, with a nice variety of physical and magical attacks that hit certain parts of the battlefield after their charge times elapse. It got me thinking in tactical way that brought back faded memories of Chrono Trigger's fights.
Most non-boss battles are straightforward and allow you to settle into the game's mechanics, but several of the final bosses took multiple attempts to defeat, forcing me to come up with distinct strategies to overcome their most devastating attacks. Each was super satisfying to overcome, and their designs were often delightfully grotesque.
Don't let the enhanced visuals fool you; this is still unmistakably an RPG from the mid-'90s. Environments are magnificently designed but can feel a bit empty and tiresome to explore -- I was bored with the Twilight of Edo Japan's maze-like castle by the time I finished the chapter.
The soundtrack is full of bangers, as you'd expect from Shimomura, and lodged themselves firmly in my brain for hours after each session. Unfortunately, most of the samples are short and become repetitive if you linger in an area or battle (though their brevity likely helps the melodies lodge themselves in your brain).
The cast is charming, but many of the characters are straightforward tropes, and the mostly solid voice acting isn't enough to overcome some weak scripting. Every single character is beautiful to look at though, positively popping off the screen and offering a pixelated hand to invite you on this old-school adventure.
And it's an adventure that RPG fans willing to put up with some dated mechanics should definitely take -- a sizable free demo lets you transfer your progress to the full game if you're uncertain. The love that went into remaking Live A Live while preserving the core experience is evident in every minute, right down the occasional tedium of '90s gaming. It'd be incredible to see more classics -- like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy 6 or Suikoden -- remastered in this manner.