Franchise Festival #114: Breath of Fire

Welcome back to Franchise Festival, a fortnightly column where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found in the archive here.

This week we’ll be inhaling the history of Breath of Fire. Cover art is from MobyGames unless otherwise noted. Please consider supporting that website, as its staff tirelessly catalogs key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium.

Background

Enix and Square brought the role-playing game (RPG) genre to Japan in the late 1980s following a decade of RPGs like Wizardry (1981) and Ultima (1981) being restricted to Western audiences. Dragon Quest (1986) established a turn-based gameplay template that most other Japanese studios would emulate over the next few years, while Final Fantasy (1987) offered an even more appealing visual style in which characters could be seen from a third-person perspective while battling oversized monsters. By the early 1990s, RPGs were nearly as popular in Japan as sidescrollers and other studios were looking to try their hand at the genre.

Breath of Fire (1993/1994)

Capcom, which was known for challenging 2D action titles like Ghosts and Goblins (1985) and Mega Man (1987), began to branch out into other formats with the pioneering one-on-one arcade fighting game Street Fighter II in 1991. Buoyed by an overwhelmingly positive critical reception, Capcom soon assigned a small team to produce the company’s first RPG. Yoshinori Takenaka, Yoshinori Kawano, and Makoto Ikehara – all comparative rookies at the studio – designed the game’s systems based on what they enjoyed in earlier RPGs. Mega Man co-creator Keiji Inafune provided many of the game’s pre-production character illustrations before that role was taken over by Tatsuya Yoshikawa early in development. The upbeat soundtrack, which has more in common with platformers than the rousing anthems of Dragon Quest‘s Koichi Sugiyama or the atmospheric compositions of Final Fantasy‘s Nobuo Uematsu, was written and recorded by Yasuaki Fujita, Mari Yamaguchi, Minae Fuji, Yoko Shimomura, and Tatsuya Nishimura. Capcom’s Breath of Fire launched on the Super Famicom in Japan on April 3, 1993, before being localized and published by Squaresoft for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) in North America on August 10, 1994.

It wouldn’t be a ’90s RPG without a burning hometown. Source: MobyGames

As with most early RPGs, the game’s plot is relatively straightforward. Half-dragon protagonist Ryu and a team of allies set off on a quest to rescue Ryu’s sister from the sinister Dark Dragon clan. In addition to the Dark Dragons, Breath of Fire‘s world includes a host of other anthropomorphic beast tribes represented by party members: Ryu is joined by Windia’s Princess Nina, who hails from a tribe of people who can transform into birds, wolf-man Bo, fish-man Gobi, ox-man Ox, snake-woman Bleu, and mole-man Mogu. Though final traveling companion Karn seems to simply be a human thief, he is revealed to have an ability that lets him merge with any other party member during battle to produce a powerful hybrid fighter.

Characters, from left to right: Nina, Bo, Mogu, Ox, Ryu, Gobi, Karn, and Bleu. The latter would reappear in Breath of Fire II. Source: Wikipedia

Gameplay heavily echoes Final Fantasy IV (1991). The player navigates their party through an overworld, towns, and dungeons from an overhead perspective as they proceed from one story beat to the next. Random combat encounters interrupt overworld and dungeon exploration, plunging Ryu and up to three companions into turn-based battle with enemies on a separate isometric landscape. Menu navigation allows the party members to execute standard attacks, use items, or cast spells. Ryu is also able to temporarily transform into a dragon that grows in strength over the course of the adventure. Characters’ stats are based on their level, which rises as they accumulate experience points from battle, and equipment purchased from shops or found in the environment.

While its overall mechanics resemble Square and Enix’s contemporary titles, a handful of quirks set it apart. Fishing takes on an outsized role as an optional pastime that Ryu can engage in when he discovers fishing holes throughout the world. This minigame has a distinct set of controls that are based on reflexes, unlike the rest of Breath of Fire‘s slow-paced menu-driven gameplay, and rewards the party with useful items or equipment. Boss encounters are likewise different from other RPGs, as these enemies persist for a short time even after their health points (HP) are depleted. 

Overworld animals, like the deer that appears here, can be hunted by Bo. Source: MobyGames

Breath of Fire‘s most enduring contribution to the genre, however, is its emphasis on overworld navigation abilities. Most characters have a unique trait that allows them to interact with their environment outside of combat when placed at the head of the party. Bo can move through forests and hunt wild animals for meat, Gobi can swim, Ox can smash rocks, and so on. This introduces exploration action progression similar to The Legend of Zelda or Metroid, making inaccessible early-game areas interesting to revisit once Ryu has been joined by a new party member.

Both the SNES original and the Game Boy Advance (GBA) version – seen here – feature lush combat spritework. Source: MobyGames

Breath of Fire performed well in Japan and respectably in North America (where an unsubstantiated rumor suggests that it replaced Final Fantasy V in Squaresoft’s release calendar). Criticism was directed towards its derivative nature, though its strong audio/visual presentation and overworld navigation elements gave it enough of an identity to merit a sequel. A worldwide Game Boy Advance port in 2001 finally brought it to Europe, where it had previously been unreleased due to the unpopularity of the SNES hardware, and re-releases on the Wii eShop, Wii U eShop, and Nintendo Switch Online service have made it easily accessible to new generations of fans.

Breath of Fire II (1994/1995)

Breath of Fire II was developed by a team mostly comprised of Breath of Fire alumni under producer Tokuro Fujiwara. Exceptions include the soundtrack, composed entirely by Yuko Takehara rather than the team that had worked on its predecessor, and characters designed exclusively by artist Tatsuya Yoshikawa. Having taken on the role of lead designer, Yoshinori Kawano was also replaced as writer by Makoto Ikehara. The game launched in Japan on the Super Famicom in December 1994 before making its way to North America almost exactly one year later; the North American version marks the first time the series was published outside of Japan by Capcom, while a European version published by Laguna Video Games in April 1996 represents the franchise’s debut in that region.

Clockwise from left, the playable characters of Breath of Fire II: Jean, Rand, Sten, Spar, Bow, Nina, Ryu, Katt. Source: Breath of Fire Wiki

Its story, set centuries after the events of Breath of Fire, concerns descendants of Ryu and Nina who share their ancestors’ names. The player initially encounters Ryu at age six, when he learns he is a prophesied “Destined Child” and mysteriously loses his father and sister. The plot then jumps forward ten years to Ryu and his friend Bow, now members of a Rangers Guild, rescuing an abducted Windian princess named Mina. The two heroes are then joined by Mina’s sister Nina and set forth on a larger-scale adventure that eventually puts them at odds with their culture’s church, which is secretly run by a remnant of Breath of Fire‘s evil goddess Myria. The player encounters one of three alternate endings depending on how they respond to a couple of key decision points in the story.

Breath of Fire II‘s presentation is more or less identical to its predecessor. Source: MobyGames

Aside from a handful of iterative updates, mechanics are unchanged from the preceding game. All characters in the party – including the feline Katt, Rand the pangolin-man, monkey-man Sten, frog-man Jean, plant-man Spar, and sorceress Bleu – can now use the fusion technique that had previously been unique to Karn. Each also has an overworld navigation skill that opens up new areas. Unlike Breath of Fire, in which the player could only fish at designated locations, Breath of Fire II sometimes allows the player to participate in the fishing minigame following random encounters.

I can’t stress enough how bad this translation is. Source: Legends of Localization

Given the game’s narrative ambitions and consistently engaging gameplay, it’s a shame that Breath of Fire II is perhaps best known for its poor English translation. The shift in North American publishing rights from Squaresoft to Capcom meant that Ted Woolsey, who had provided a serviceable localization for the preceding title, would be replaced by a team of uncredited translators who either lacked familiarity with the English language or were simply too pressed for time. The result is one of the most infamously incomprehensible scripts in a 16-bit RPG. Not even a 2001 Game Boy Advance port that reduced encounter rates, increased experience point accumulation, and updated the interface made any improvements to the game’s translation. Happily, a 2009 fan translation by Ryusui finally produced a version of the game that conveys the intent of Makoto Ikehara’s original script.

Breath of Fire III (1997/1998)

Ikehara was promoted to lead director and Yoshikawa took on the role of art director for Breath of Fire III. Given its move from the Super Famicom/SNES to the PlayStation and the beginning of a new narrative continuity, the development team briefly considered dropping the number from its title. They eventually opted to treat the game as a thematic conclusion to the overall arc they’d begun with the series debut. The new CD format offered opportunities for an enhanced presentation – including fully polygonal environments, light voice acting, and a distinctive jazz-influenced soundtrack by Yoshino Aoki and Akari Kaida – while also requiring programmer Tatsuya Kitabayashi to overcome the technical challenge of load times. Breath of Fire III launched in Japan in September 1997 before making its way to North America and Europe in 1998.

Clockwise from left: Rei, Garr, Momo, Peco, Nina, and Ryu (center). Source: Breath of Fire Wiki

In contrast to Breath of Fire II, the plot is unconnected to the events of the preceding game. The new Ryu is introduced first as a young dragon before transforming into a human and setting out on a quest to avoid capture and exploitation by humans. Over time, he is joined by a new Nina, cat-man Rei, rogue Teepo, scholar Momo, oversized Guardian Garr, and onion-like Peco on an adventure that articulates as a series of vignettes set against a backdrop of encroaching desertification and resource scarcity.

The overworld is now isometric, as is the standard town/dungeon exploration. Source: MobyGames

Field exploration, now depicted from an isometric perspective rather than a bird’s-eye view, retains earlier titles’ emphasis on character-specific navigation abilities to interact with environmental features. Battles are scaled down to include only three participating party members at a time, but tactical depth is enhanced through the addition of formations; these allow the player to arrange their party in a manner that heightens certain stats while reducing others. For example, the attack formation makes characters hit harder while reducing defense and increasing the likelihood of the lead character being attacked. Ryu can also now combine different chrysms acquired throughout his quest to produce more powerful dragon forms during combat.

Ryu appears in battle here as a yellow dragon, infused with chrysm. Source: MobyGames

Skills and masters represent Breath of Fire III‘s other major mechanical evolutions on what had come before. Perhaps taking inspiration from Final Fantasy V‘s (1992/1999) Blue Mage job class, characters can now sometimes learn enemy skills when they are used during combat. Party members can similarly apprentice with NPC masters found throughout the game world to further enhance their skills or learn new ones.

Breath of Fire III introduces the camp, a pleasant scene in which Ryu can chat with his allies about recent events. Source: MobyGames

As with Breath of Fire and Breath of Fire II, Breath of Fire III was positively received and was the subject of an enhanced port during the 2000s. The PlayStation Portable’s Breath of Fire III introduced a new widescreen aspect ratio, expanded fishing minigame, and online multiplayer elements when it was published by Capcom in Japan on August 25, 2005 and in Europe on February 10, 2006. This version finally came to North America as a digital-only release on the PlayStation Store in February 2016.

Breath of Fire IV (2000)

Breath of Fire IV was developed by a team nearly identical to the one that had worked on its direct predecessor. The biggest staff shakeup was the departure of Akari Kaida and the ascension of Breath of Fire III junior co-composer Yoshino Aoki to the role of sole composer; when writing the soundtrack, she looked to Asian musical traditions rather than the jazz that had dominated her work on the previous game. Breath of Fire IV launched for the PlayStation in Japan on April 27, 2000 – just one month after the launch of the PlayStation 2 – and came to North America in November of the same year.

Architecture in the Western Fou Empire has a distinctly Chinese aesthetic. Source: MobyGames

The game’s cosmology sees a race of immortal dragons known as The Endless watching over the world and governing how its basic elements (water, air, and the like) interact with one another. The Western Fou Empire and the arid Eastern Kingdoms, respectively influenced by real-world China and the Middle East, enjoy a truce following years of military conflict at the start of the game. Unfortunately, the sudden appearance of half-dragon Ryu and god emperor Fou-Lo threaten to destabilize this already unsteady status quo.

The world map is now a series of nodes, like Final Fantasy Tactics (1997/1998). Source: MobyGames

The perspective frequently shifts between Ryu and Fou-Lu during Breath of Fire IV‘s early hours. The former, discovered in a desert crater with no memories of his past, joins up with the winged Nina and cat-man Cray as they track Nina’s missing sister Elina throughout the Eastern Kingdoms. A host of whimsical allies – animated armor Ershin, mercenary Scias, and marksman Ursula – join Ryu and contribute their own unique combat and exploration abilities to his quest.  Across a narrow sea, meanwhile, Fou-Lu’s story sees the newly revived ancient accumulating power and dodging agents of the Fou Empire as he looks to assert his authority over his former country. Both plots eventually converge as Ryu and Fou-Lu come into conflict with one another.

Breath of Fire IV features some of the best spritework on the PlayStation. Source: MobyGames

The battle system is enhanced through combos, a new dragon transformation system for Ryu, and the addition of a secondary area in which characters can support front-line fighters while steadily restoring their own action points (AP). Combos are activated automatically when two or more party members use skills that harmonize with one another, resulting in a more powerful attack that often strikes enemies multiple times. Ryu’s dragon transformations are more powerful than those of Breath of Fire III, as he slowly evolves over the course of the game rather than temporarily customizing his form using chrysms, though this carries with it the burden of constant AP usage to maintain the strengthened form. Once his AP runs out, Ryu returns to his human appearance and can’t transform again until his AP is restored.

A faerie town minigame serves as a pleasant, highly detailed distraction from the main quest. Source: MobyGames

Breath of Fire IV was widely beloved by fans even as its launch was overshadowed by the debut of Sony’s new home console. The North American version suffered from a rushed localization, which resulted in a slightly higher difficulty level due to the omission of Scias’ analysis ability, but it still retains the overall flavor of the original text. Sadly, an enhanced PC port from 2003 was likewise locked to Japan. Capcom seems to have lost confidence in its flagship RPG property just as the North American appetite for the genre grew in the years following the launch of Final Fantasy VII (1997).

Breath of Fire V: Dragon Quarter (2002/2003)

Though Makoto Ikehara and Tatsuya Yoshikawa respectively reprised their Breath of Fire IV roles as director and lead artist on Breath of Fire V: Dragon Quarter, this title represents a significant mechanical and artistic break with the series’ history. At the request of Ikehara, writer Yukio Andoh based the game’s plot on Ryu Murakami’s post-apocalyptic novel Gofungo no Sekai (“A World Five Minutes Later,” 1994) while plans for online functionality and a revived fishing minigame were abandoned during development. Breath of Fire V: Dragon Quarter was published by Capcom for the PlayStation 2 in Japan on November 14, 2002 and then in North America and Europe – where its title number was dropped – in February 2003.

For the first time, characters and environments are both rendered using polygonal graphics. Source: MobyGames

For the first time, the series trades its traditional fantasy landscape and tribes of beastmen for a claustrophobic subterranean environment populated exclusively by humans and monsters. Post-apocalyptic society has been structured into layers based on social standing since being forced underground by warfare some time in the distant past. Ryu, now just a working class boy who receives his powers from a mysterious telepathic dragon rather than being a half-dragon himself, turns against the authoritarian government of his grimy city when he joins a silent young girl named Nina and sharpshooting rebel Lin on their journey to the surface. They’re pursued by Ryu’s erstwhile friend Bosch as he becomes increasingly compromised by his relationship with the underworld’s elite.

Choosing equipment is a matter of life and death in Dragon Quarter. Source: Kamon the Skunk

While its plot is more limited in scope than earlier titles, Dragon Quarter‘s gameplay makes it one of the most experimental RPGs of the sixth console generation. Random encounters are abandoned in favor of visible enemies who are fought in the actual areas where they appear. Once play switches from exploration mode to battle mode due to the player character striking an enemy or vice versa, each combatant takes a turn in the order dictated by their speed stat. Action points are reduced by movement around the field and the use of weapon or magic skills, which can be strung together to produce powerful combos with added status effects. Once a character’s action points run out, or the player decides to bank additional points for a future turn, control proceeds to the next-fastest character.

Even the save system requires careful consideration in the North American version, where the save tokens used at payphones are limited in the style of Resident Evil. In the Japanese original, there is no such limitation. Source: Kamon the Skunk

Overall progression through the game has more in common with the roguelike genre than with traditional Japanese RPGs. Health can’t be regenerated except through the use of expensive healing items, so it is possible to find the party in a state where they can’t continue. When this happens – either through defeat by an enemy, the overuse of Ryu’s dragon transformation ability, or an option found in the game’s menu – the player has the opportunity to either load from their last save point or restart the game with banked items and party experience points available from the beginning; character levels do not carry over to subsequent playthroughs, but party experience is a separate currency accumulated during combat and can be applied to individually level up characters at the player’s discretion. Many plot points are only available by repeatedly returning to the game’s early hours using this Scenario Overlay (SOL) mechanic.

Aiming your attacks via targeting circles is critical to success to Dragon Quarter‘s tough combat. Source: MobyGames

Unsurprisingly, Dragon Quarter received mixed reviews from critics. Most enjoyed its deep tactical combat while conceding that the short story and radically different aesthetic would likely alienate longtime series fans. These concerns proved correct, as sales outside of Japan were abysmal. Two commercial failures in a row meant that Capcom was forced to revisit whether the costs of localization were worth their while. At the time of writing in December 2021, no more Breath of Fire games have been published in North America or Europe.

Breath of Fire 6: Guardians of the White Dragon (2016)

Capcom’s decision to focus on its bestselling franchises during financial turmoil in the 2000s meant that, even in Japan, Breath of Fire would experience a long hiatus after its fifth entry. Plans for a sixth game, developed by Capcom Korea rather than the staff who had worked on previous titles, were made public in 2013 but repeatedly pushed back. The delays finally came to an end with the release of the free-to-play Breath of Fire 6 on Windows PCs and Android devices in February 2016, then on iOS in July 2016.

For the first time in a Breath of Fire game, you could customize your protagonist. Source: Steparu

The game was set in a new European fantasy world influenced by the first three Breath of Fire adventures. 1,000 years after an unnamed young man used the Power of the Dragon to end an apocalyptic war, people have managed to rebuild and forge an uncertain peace. The Insidia Empire, however, has begun to violently incorporate peaceful communities into its own expansive state. The player enters into this messy historical moment when their fully customized hero is found by a wandering magician after the destruction of their hometown, Dragnier Village. The first portion of this episodic adventure sees the hero setting out on a quest to find Dragnier Village’s missing Mayor Ryu.

Towns were populated by garish advertisements. Source: Steparu

The player interacted with the world by tapping the screen, which resulted in their avatar navigating sprite-based 2D environments and battling enemies in real time. The inherently simplistic texture of touch-based combat was made slightly more complex by the presence of a Breath of Fire IV-inspired combo system and Fellows, AI-driven party members who trailed the hero and attacked enemies based on the hero’s actions. Experience points boosted the player character’s overall stats, but enhanced gear had to be bought using either in-game or real-world currency via microtransactions.

Followers accompany the player character in dungeons. Source: Steparu

The reception for Breath of Fire 6 was resoundingly negative. Fan participation rapidly dropped off, prompting Capcom to discontinue the game’s operation before its episodic story had even reached a conclusion. Its status as a server-based app, rather than a standalone piece of downloadable software, means that the game has been unavailable to play since September 2017.

Spinoffs

Bizarrely, no fewer than four separate spinoffs of Breath of Fire IV were produced during the long hiatus between Dragon Quarter and Breath of Fire 6. This is likely down to the explosion of mobile phones in Japan during the early 2000s, years before their proliferation in North America and Europe, since none of these titles came West. As is typical for mobile titles of the era, none are available on modern hardware or digital storefronts.

Breath of Fire IV‘s Ershin clearly loves Daifugō. Source: Breath of Fire Wiki

The first such spinoff, Breath of Daifugō, launched on NTT DoCoMo, SoftBank, and au devices in August 2003. It’s a straightforward version of the Japanese card game Daifugō with Breath of Fire IV art applied to the user interface and backgrounds. Gameplay includes single matches against AI opponents, an Endless Mode that allows the player to keep going until their cards run out, and a multiplayer Tournament Mode.

Thank goodness, Breath of Fire is finally all-in on fishing. Source: Breath of Fire Wiki

Breath of Fire: Ryū no Tsurishi next premiered on the same platforms in October 2005. Fulfilling fans’ long-running wishes for a standalone version of the series’ popular fishing minigame, Ryū no Tsurishi puts players in the shoes of Breath of Fire IV‘s Ryu as he extracts the denizens of a massive lake. 34 different fish species are available, and a merchant will sell improved gear used to catch bigger fish as Ryu turns in his prey.

Honō no Ken to Kaze no Mahō features the franchise’s step outside of turn-based combat. Source: Breath of Fire Wiki

The franchise’s third spinoff, Breath of Fire IV: Honō no Ken to Kaze no Mahō (2008), is more ambitious. Players control Ryu and Nina as they engage in real-time combat with enemies while exploring five dungeons using the Breath of Fire IV game engine. The adventure is light on story, as it’s set midway through the events of its source material, but offers an impressive array of puzzles and monsters to overcome.

Breath of Fire IV‘s faerie village returns in Yōsei-tachi to Hikari no Kagi. Source: Breath of Fire Wiki

Breath of Fire IV: Yōsei-tachi to Hikari no Kagi is the last spinoff at the time of writing. Released on NTT DoCoMo and SoftBank devices in 2008, and then the au platform in 2009, Yōsei-tachi to Hikari no Kagi is a combination of Honō no Ken to Kaze no Mahō‘s dungeon exploration and the faerie village sidequest from Breath of Fire IV. The latter sees Ryu and Nina directing the growth of a small town as they attempt to attract and care for a population of adorable faeries.

Conclusion

Breath of Fire began as a somewhat generic RPG inspired by the commercial success of Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, but slowly carved out its own identity during the late 1990s. Rushed development cycles and half-hearted localizations were not enough to keep the franchise from developing a cult status even outside of Capcom’s home country. Unfortunately, its poorly timed fourth entry and experimental fifth entry sank the series’ commercial prospects in the West. An outsourced free-to-play title in the late 2010s finally confirmed what fans had feared for the better part of a decade: Capcom was no longer willing to give Breath of Fire the resources necessary to produce a full, modern RPG. 

Makoto Ikehara and the Dragon Quarter team, meanwhile, went on to produce the unique Mega Man X: Command Mission (2004) before kick-starting the rise of roguelike mechanics on home consoles with Dead Rising (2006). Even Dragon’s Dogma (2012) bears traces of Ikehara’s unique approach to Western fantasy. Breath of Fire may be gone, but its legacy lives on in unexpected places.


What do you think about Breath of Fire? Which is your favorite series entry? Do you prefer the more traditional or experimental titles? Let’s discuss in the comments below.

Be sure to tune into the monthly Franchise Festival podcast if you’d like to hear an even more granular exploration of noteworthy video game series. If you enjoy the articles or the show, please consider backing us on Patreon.

As ever, here is a tentative list of upcoming articles:

  • #115: Metal Gear – January 7
  • #116: Dragon Age – January 21
  • #117: Time Crisis – February 4
  • #118: Kentucky Route Zero – February 18
  • #119: Drakengard/Nier – March 4