Game Review

Final Fantasy (1987)


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



BBMage “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.


Truly, he was ahead of his time

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 FFVIIFF1 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?

Again, no.

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.


Character creation screen

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.


Could this be foreshadowing? It feels foreshadow-y

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.


Decisions decisions…

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.


If your target is already dead, then your attack is “ineffective”.  You will earn to hate that word.

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.


Explosives being the time-honoured way of clearing any blockage on a map

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?


Another victory like this and we’re done for

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
visual Visuals: 6/10
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.


I guess the ghoul is… this one?

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.

audio Audio: 6/10
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.




gameplay Gameplay: 9/10
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.

story Narrative: 5/10
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.


They can’t all be great one-liners.

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.

accessibility Accessibility: 6/10
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”.


The menu in Dragon Warrior.  Why would I ever want to “stairs” an NPC?

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.

diff Challenge: 7/10
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.


I just beat this combat with only my White Mage.  You should be very, very impressed.

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.

unique Uniqueness: 4/10
As stated above, this game is basically Dragon Warrior with a streamlined interface and party combat from WizardryIt 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.

pgrade My Personal grade: 7/10
There are three reasons to play this game:

  • 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


***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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27 replies »

  1. A couple of weeks late, but:
    “Wizardry (the first hit RPG)”
    While Wizardry likely outsold them over its lifetime, 1979’s Temple of Apshai and 1980’s Ultima I were both also considered hits.

    “…and Dragon Warrior…”
    Dragon Quest itself was designed to be a console-friendly equivalent to Ultima and Wizardry, both of which were popular with Japanese computer users. (Final Fantasy might be what we’d see if someone had created an “updated” version of Dragon Quest using Ultima 3 & Wizardry 3.)

    “Most notably, FF eschews the Western “first person” perspective…”
    The majority of Western RPGs used a 3/4-overhead isometric perspective for everything outside of a dungeon (towns, castles, countryside, etc.); some, like Temple of Apshai and related dungeon-crawl RPGs using the Dunjonquest engine, used only an isometric perspective. It’s inaccurate to claim that the three-quarter overhead perspective was a “Japanese” thing.


    • Thanks for your comments! Yes, I had wondered if someone would bring these up.

      On Wizardry – depends what you call “hit”. Wizardry outsold those games by a lot, 2 to 1 in Ultima’s case and something like 5 to 1 for Asphai (exact numbers hard to find etc etc). I think it’s fair to put Wizardry in a different category to those two games, hence me calling it the first RPG “hit”. But yes, it’s open to debate.

      On Dragon Warrior – Interesting, but I don’t think U3 had much in common with Wiz 3 other than both being party-based. I haven’t played Wizardry 3, although I understand that it’s basically Wiz 1 (but far less successful). Which is why, I suppose, I focused on FF’s similarities to Wiz 1 over Wiz 3. Which I suppose means it would be equally accurate to call FF a cross of Dragon Warrior and Wizardry 3.

      First person perspective – 3/4 or overhead view wasn’t, of course, unique to Japanese RPGs, though basically nothing is/was. You can find examples from either continent that tick any box. I’ve called FP a Western trope of the era because that’s what the heavyweights did – Wizardry, Ultima, Bard’s Tale, Might & Magic, Dungeon Master, etc etc. Even if it was “only” in dungeons that was a pretty big “only” – it’s not an accident that the comparative screenshots I use on this point are labelled “underground in FF” and “underground in Ultima IV”. Ultimately it’s a judgement call of course, there are no stats for this sort of thing. But I’m happy with the call.


      • Oops I meant to say “Interesting, but I don’t think U3 had much in common with FINAL FANTASY other than both being party-based”.


  2. I’ll start by saying I’m never going to play this game, but reading your assessment of it was a joy. I now feel thoroughly informed (and entertained), thanks for filling in all those gaps in my knowledge!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Awesome review, and a great first entry to this series! It’s funny how far this series has come – I borrowed this cartridge as a kid, and man oh man was I ever confused / frustrated by it. Out of nostalgia, when I was later an established FF fan, I played it again with a walkthrough by my side. It may have a sloppy narrative and confusion progression, but DAMN IT it’s so frigging charming.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Good stuff here! I agree with you about the accessibility, and I’m especially glad you covered the misassumptions about the franchise’s name. And you’re right, why isn’t the NES game on the DS Virtual Console? Heck, the 3DS did get a version of the PSP release, but only if you pre-ordered FF Explorers. Why did they never give it a general release, either?

    Footnote: to the best of my knowledge, all the glitches you discussed actually are present in the Famicom release (and for that matter, the MSX)? Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a site that could confirm.

    Liked by 2 people

      • You’re right, those are all nerf! Though I’ll mention that the critical hit bug is an exception, it’s all buff. The highest “normal” critical hit rate is 10, but weapons soar past that by as early as the second town. And this is the glitch they’ve dutifully reprinted up to the present day. :/

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yeah I thought about the nerf/buff balance and thought the net effect was strong buff – the increased crit rate seems to effectively makes every class a thief, plus they get the full benefits of their actual class. So a warrior has a thief’s crit rate with a warrior’s base damage. Put it this way, if I hadn’t looked it up, I never would have noticed the mage or weapons nerfs, but the thief is noticeably pointless.

          It’s an assumption of course – maybe the INT bonus was so significant that mages should have been way OP. The only way to be sure would be to analyze the code or do a statistical comparison. Otherwise it’s just a Q of “which secondary source do you trust more?”.

          I’ll look into it – maybe there is a clear answer I missed.

          Thanks for pointing this out though guys, I’ll let you know what I find and update the article accordingly.


    • Thank you!

      And re: the bugs – really? I used secondary sources for the bugs, I didn’t sit down and play the original to compare. I suppose it’s possible…though how the story got around I’d love to know. I’ll have to look into it – I really have no intention of statistically comparing damage output in the two versions, so hopefully I can find a definitive answer.

      Liked by 1 person

    • You were correct! They were not USA-specific bugs, but universal. I don’t know where I read that but the net seems pretty definite on that one. So I guess they were accidental, although I still think they probably helped in the US market. I’ve updated the article above and made a note about the amendments below.

      I’ve also stated that the bugs, in my view, make it a lot easier (as opposed to definitely make it easier). I looked into it further and I’m pretty confident that the critical hit bug overshadows all, but it’s a subjective assessment so the language should reflect that.

      Thanks for your comments! (I admit that I feel rather silly)


      • No problem!

        FWIW, I definitely agree that making an easier game helped one’s product to succeed in the North American market. There was a market for hard games too (Battletoads), but it wasn’t the only market. There’s a reason Mega Man exploded over here after Mega Man 2 added an easy mode!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for writing this up, BB Mage! I really think that this is one of the most fair-minded retro reviews I’ve read. It’s easy to over-glamorize the “classics” and those iconic games to portray them as more than they were. It seems like you did a ton of solid research and you were able to give the game its credit where it was due while maintaining the reality of the situation. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that rags to riches story, and now I’m happy to know the numbers associated with that, in actuality. I’m glad you took on this article yourself and did it justice.

    Congratulations on your magely review debut, too!

    Liked by 2 people

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