How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!
-Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene 1
“The following is contributor post by The Badly Backlogged Mage.”
The introduction to this review should have written itself.
It’s 1987, the inexperienced and struggling Japanese software developer Square decides to gamble its entire future on one last game; one last throw of the dice – a “final fantasy” – when… critical Hit! Despite having never made an RPG before, Square finally has a smash hit and re-writes the history books – it introduces JRPGs to the West, its innovative playstyle spawned a legion of imitators, and all of this came from a small company that had never even made an RPG before.
I swear that I’ve heard that tale a hundred times about the first Final Fantasy – it’s a classic rags-to-riches and it makes great copy. But sadly, it has one minor problem.
It’s not true.
Square was not inexperienced. FF was not its first fantasy, nor its first RPG, nor even its first hit (ever heard of Rad Racer?). FF was not the first JRPG in the West, it was not particularly innovative, and despite selling fairly well, it was no FFVII. FF1 was only sold in two countries, USA and Japan, and sold somewhere between 400,000 and 1.1 million copies (exact numbers are hard to find). By comparison, Excitebike sold 4.10 million copies.
Sure, Square was in financial trouble and called the game “Final Fantasy” as a homage to its current financial status. But even that is an exaggeration – they originally actually wanted to call it “Fighting Fantasy” so it would abbreviate to “FF”, but that name was already taken.
So does that mean Final Fantasy is an over-hyped piece of junk?
Final Fantasy is, at heart, a mashup of Wizardry (the first hit RPG) and Dragon Warrior (aka “Dragon Quest”, and the first JRPG to head West). But it takes the best of both RPG lineages to make a game that stands the test of time. Whether by accident or design, Final Fantasy is a prime example of “flow”, and an example that is still fun to play today.
Although I think it’s safe to say that if it weren’t for Final Fantasy VII, it wouldn’t be sharing the NES mini with Excitebike.
The Western RPG influence is obvious the minute you start the game.
Unlike later games in the series, there is no protagonist. You begin with creating a party of four “blank slate” characters, each of whom can be one of six available classes – Warrior, Thief, Black Belt and White/Black/Red Mage. You name each character and begin your quest with, predictably, a King telling you to save a Princess. You buy (and equip) your starting weapons and armour, then head out to start the game-long process of grinding gold and XP.
At this point, Final Fantasy has more in common with Wizardry than Final Fantasy IV. While character creation is nowhere near as complex as Wizardry and its ilk, unlike later FF’s there is no characterisation, no strong story and certainly no love interest. Choosing your party makeup means that there is a fair degree of customisation, particularly for a NES game. There are six classes and four slots, so you cannot do it all – you need to pick a strategy and then work with it.
Mid-way through, all of your characters change class into the “master” version of their starting class – Warriors become Knights and Thieves become Ninjas, etc. Again, this will be familiar to anyone who ever levelled up a Priest to a Bishop in Wizardry.
But it’s about there that FF’s Western lineage stops.
Most notably, FF eschews the Western “first person” perspective for the more Japanese 3/4 perspective used, for example, in Dragon Warrior. This means that while the party creation and combat might feel like Bard’s Tale, the focus of the gameplay is completely different. The dungeons in Wizardry, Ultima and Bard’s Tale were mazes – the point of those games was to map your way through the labyrinth. That experience is not Final Fantasy – you can put the graph paper away.
The lack of mazes goes hand in hand with the second difference – Final Fantasy is nowhere near as unforgiving as western RPGs of the era. You won’t be constantly starving to death like you did in Ultima II, nor churning through PCs who die like flies and cost a fortune to resurrect. This might have been accidental, there are some significant bugs that, in my mind, make the game a lot easier. The game is hard by modern standards, and the randomness of combat means that a fight can go from easy to impossible very quickly. But don’t forget that this is 1987, the same year that gave us Wizardry IV. Comparatively, Final Fantasy played right into the “JRPGs are easy” trope.
The gameplay is also quite streamlined. You will not be swapping party members in and out to deal with different challenges; party members cannot be changed and there is no good/evil/neutral alignment. You will not be pondering which set weapons or armour to equip; there is always one item that is unequivocally the best. You will not be carefully working your way through a complex magic system either; the range of spells is quite small, your mages cannot cast many spells without resting and there are no “magic points”, so there’s precious little strategy in choosing what spells to cast. You will certainly not be mixing reagents as you did in Ultima IV.
Also, while there is not much of a story, there is a story, which was not often the case in Western RPGs at the time. Finally there is, of course, the art style, which is clearly anime-inspired. Well, as anime as you can get on a NES anyway.
There are other gameplay elements that are sometimes called JRPG, like the grinding and the random encounters, but they were not JRPG at the time. We were grinding through random encounters in Eye of the Beholder in 1990 and there were no schoolgirls or big purple hair in sight.
So where does that leave you? Well, pushing “fight/fight/fight” a lot.
Final Fantasy doesn’t require a lot of thought to play. Aside from the initial party selection and the occasional spell choice, the player’s only meaningful choice is usually whether to keep going or return to the Inn. This may be due to some infamous bugs that make it far less complex and, to my mind, far easier than the Japanese version. Those bugs were as follows:
- critical hits were accidentally much easier than planned (which coincidentally made thieves useless);
- magic spells do not increase with effectiveness as your mages increase in level, making magic, which was the normal way of complicating gameplay in an RPG, far less important; and
- creature types were also ignored. Certain weapons were supposed to work better against were-creatures, for example, but they do not, which means that one weapon will always unequivocally be the best one to use. This robs the player of the chance to make any interesting choices with weapon selection or inventory management.
I previously thought these bugs were unique to the US version, but I was wrong (oops). I still think that they bugs would, on balance, help the game in the USA, where the NES was mostly being used by kids. Final Fantasy was far simpler than its PC contemporaries, but it was not a PC game. It was not competing with Pool of Radiance, it was competing with Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. There were some NES RPGs at the time, Ultima III, Ultima IV, Swords and Serpents and (of course) Dragon Warrior, but they were not smash hits.
Final Fantasy could be played, and beaten, by an 8-year old. The same could not be said for Swords and Serpents. It is probably not accidental that one of those two games was far more successful than the other, despite Swords and Serpents being released by RPG king Interplay, who would go on to make Fallout, amongst many others.
Having read all that, you might be wondering why on earth I still recommend a game that, by accident or design, suits 8 year olds. Well, this is where the genius in FF1 starts to come in. In a word – FF1 is fun because of one thing – flow – that feeling of playing a game endlessly and calmly as the world melts away around you. FF1 is repetitive, but it mixes that repetition with a few tricks that keep your mind focused on the game and your hands on the buttons. The end result is that playing the game feels almost meditative, I could play FF for hours in a zen-like trance.
So how does FF keep you focused, you ask? Well, first, it’s the combat system. While 99% of the time you’ll select “attack” for a character’s action, your choice of target is essential. As with most games of the era, you need to select all actions (and targets) at once in between combat rounds. But if, by the time a character’s turn comes around, their target is already dead, then their turn is wasted; and did I mention that the creatures don’t display hit points? This means that the player needs to pay attention to how much damage (on average) each character can dish out, and how much damage (on average) each monster can take. The net effect is that despite how easy combat may be, you cannot just mentally switch off. You cannot beat Final Fantasy by holding down the button; you must stay focused on the task at hand.
Second, it’s the unfolding world. Most RPGs of the time (such as Dragon Warrior) gave the player their ultimate goal right at the beginning of the game. Strictly speaking, you could go anywhere right from the start – you were only ever prevented from doing so because the monsters there would stomp you into dust.
Final Fantasy did not do this – it drip feeds quests, and gradually opens the world up as you complete them. This gives a feeling both of actually achieving something, and a thrill of discovery as the world unfolds out into the next section. Importantly, it also means that you never feel overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the map before you.
For example, remember how I said that this game begins with you being told to rescue a Princess? Well you actually rescue that Princess in the first dungeon. That dungeon is the only dungeon that you can reach at the start of the game, and when you complete it, the King builds a bridge connecting the starting continent with its neighbour. This theme gets repeated a few times – you get a boat, or a canoe, or an airship, or build a canal. Each time there’s a feeling of accomplishment and discovery, and a new sizeable (yet manageable) area to explore.
Some readers might be surprised to see me list this as a positive, because there are many games (such as Skyrim) that use that “see the big open world” feeling with such great effect. But Final Fantasy is a different sort of game; its pacing would not work if you overwhelmed the player with choice.
Then there’s the combination of infrequent save points (none of which are in dungeons) and the way that nearly all combat encounters, even the easy ones, leave you a little bit weaker. This means that the player is constantly balancing “risk vs reward” as they know that they cannot keep their gold and XP if they can’t make it back to town. Every combat becomes, to an extent, an interesting choice – do I continue, or do I head back?
This was, of course, far from unique. Still, when combined with the meditative nature of the combat and the game’s gentle pacing, it meant that each battle increased the tension just a little bit… until next thing you know you’re gripping the controller so tightly that you’ll break it in half.
Finally, of course, there’s the perverse enjoyment at watching gold gather and XP bars fill. Again, hardly unique, a staple of the genre, but it is so central to this game that it cannot be ignored.
This is not to say that the game is by any means perfect. It has two major flaws – first, if you don’t want a peaceful, gradual game, then this is not for you. Second, it’s very slow. I played this on a NES emulator and cranked the speed up by 300% – I do not recommend playing the original NES speed unless you are either very, very frightened of sudden movements, or very, very drunk.
The 8-bit Review
The visuals accurately convey the aesthetic, which is pretty impressive when you consider the technical limitations of the NES. But there’s still plenty of times when the pictures are too unclear to make out what’s what. Most enemies are palette swaps of each other, and because they’re not individually labelled, that can get confusing.
The game also doesn’t tell you whether an enemy is weak or strong to various elemental types of damage, or keep track of which status effects are affecting which enemies. You will never get a note that an attack is “resisted” or “super effective”.
Despite this, I’ve given the game a 6 for visuals because of one significant visual design choice – a sideways view of the fight scenes. I won’t be bold enough to say that FF was the first game to do this, but it must have been one of the early ones – most RPGs at the time (such as Dragon Warrior) used a first person perspective.
The side-view was a stroke of genius because it made it easier to put in place some basic attack animations for your characters, and it also meant that you could regularly see, and get attached to, your four characters. A nice addition to the Dragon Warrior formula.
I feel bad ranking the audio as 6/10, because the music is very good. But there’s not much of it, so considering the length of this game you’ll probably turn it off after a while. Again, it’s no doubt due to the technical limitations of the NES.
This game is all about flow, and it does it beautifully.
This is a perfect game to chill out to with a beer in hand.
This game has more narrative than most NES games, but that’s not exactly stiff competition. It has a plot, which is nice, and it even has some neat story developments at the end. Those developments don’t make much sense, but I guess you can’t have everything.
The plot, if you are interested (Ctrl+f Accessibility to skip SPOILERS) begins as follows:
“The world is veiled in darkness. The wind stops, the sea is wild, and the earth begins to rot. The people wait, their only hope a prophecy ‘When the World is in Darkness, Four Warriors will come…after a long journey, four young warriors arrive, each holding an ORB“.
These fabled orbs are…never mentioned again until the very end. In the meantime, the four “Light Warriors” commence an impressive series of fetch-quests for anyone who talks and has a name that isn’t “villager” or “guard”. The first such quest, as I alluded to above, is to save a Princess from the evil fiend, Garland. Eventually these fetch-quests will lead you to kill the four fiends of Earth, Wind & Fire (who do not look anything like in their film clips) and also Water. Killing each fiend causes one of the four orbs to light; when all four are lit a portal opens taking the Light Warriors 2000 years into the past. There they discover that…urg…that Garland (the very first boss that you killed) was sent back in time by the Four Fiends, and that the Four Fiends were sent forwards in time by Garland, and that this has made Garland deathless and very powerful on account of it making no freaking sense whatsoever. The Light Warriors defeat Garland, who has become the Archdemon of Chaos for some reason, thus ending the time loop and restoring peace to the world. BUT! Fixing the time loop means that no-one remembers fully remembers what the Light Heroes have done, so they don’t get a parade in their honour. The end.
Personally I think this is what really sets Final Fantasy apart from Dragon Warrior. While the two games are very similar, Dragon Warrior uses a clunky menu system for interacting with the world outside of combat. Want to talk to someone? Open the menu, select “talk”. Want to open a door? Open the menu, select “door”. Want to take the stairs? Open the menu, select “stairs”.
Final Fantasy wisely cut all of this out and replaced it with a single button that may as well be labelled “do stuff”. And it works perfectly. It cuts the average number of button presses from 3-4 to 1 for basic interactions, and speeds up the game immeasurably.
Still, I’ve given accessibility a low-ish score because modern gamers would expect nothing less, and the game still has plenty of old design choices that will infuriate players today – save points, for example.
This game could still be beaten by an 8 year old, but realistically I don’t think one would bother playing it unless they are either very open minded, or used to old game design.
A lot of its challenge stems from its randomness, giving it an almost roguelike quality. For example, some monsters will stun a character on a successful attack. The character that a monster attacks is chosen at random. This means that, if you’re unlucky, you could lose your best fighters in the first round of combat, leaving your mages to fight off a horde of werewolves while armed with pointy sticks.
There’s also a fair number of insta-kills and no phoenix downs, although there is a revive spell (later on in the game) and resurrections are quite cheap, provided you can make it back to town.
So yes, it’s challenging by today’s standards. But we’re playing in an era when you unlock an achievement for finishing the tutorial.
As stated above, this game is basically Dragon Warrior with a streamlined interface and party combat from Wizardry. It was, however, the first game I’m aware of that combined these two particular elements, and also the first game to use the side-perspective for combat. So it’s not entirely derivative.
My Personal grade: 7/10
There are three reasons to play this game:
- you’re a Final Fantasy series fan and you want to see where it all started;
- you want to play a mid-80’s RPG and mapping seems as fun as a hole in the head; or
- you’re in the mood to do something a bit mindless and peaceful for a while.
This game would work wonderfully on a portable device such as the PSP or GBA. I could see myself happily playing it while waiting for the bus. Unsurprisingly it’s been re-released for both machines, and also for touch-phones, although I doubt that the interface would work well on a touchscreen. Why it isn’t available on the Nintendo store for DS I don’t know – but maybe that’s because I live in Australia and tech companies seem to hate us.
At the end of the day, Final Fantasy is a game that fills a very specific niche. If you fall outside that niche, then this game isn’t for you.
Aggregated Score: 6.1
The Badly Backlogged Mage courageously fights a rearguard action against his unfortunate spending habits. You can follow his crusade at https://mrbacklog.blogspot.com.au/
***This post is part of a larger undertaking. Final Fantasy: a Crystal Compendium is a community project bringing together over two dozen writers to create quality work on games from all across this beloved franchise. Check out more at this hub article.*
****This post originally, and mistakenly, said that the bugs were unique to the US version. It was amended on 21 February 2018 to fix that mistake. Thank you to the commentators who noticed that, and apologies for the error*
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