Original Release: 1987 JP/1990 NA, Platform: NES, Developer/Publisher: Square, Image Source: GameFAQs
When I was six years old, my parents stopped at a garage sale on the way home from some trip into the United States. I can remember getting out of the car with a sigh. What can I say? I was young, impatient, and not looking forward to tagging along behind my Dad as he spent forty-five minutes looking at a few small tables of used junk. I never would have imagined that this impromptu stop at some random person’s house near the border of Quebec would be a life changing event.
As we browsed through this person’s cast offs, my eyes caught sight of a familiar construct of grey plastic. Reaching across the table, I grabbed onto an NES cartridge labeled “$5.” I was shocked. I’d never seen a video game that cheap before. Then again, I’d also never seen one in such terrible shape. Its chassis was covered in dings and chips as though it had been lobbed across a room a few times. Worse than that, one entire section of it looked as though it had been re-purposed as a chew toy for an overzealous dog.
“It works fine,” said the host of the sale, offering a sudden interjection. “I tried it out yesterday.” I looked at the game again. I’d been so distracted by the cartridge that I’d failed to see the cover art, which was still mostly intact. Against a black backdrop there was a crystal ball containing a castle in the sky and a sword and an axe crossing behind it. At the top the title read “Final Fantasy.” My interest was immediately piqued by the fantasy imagery. “What’s it like,” I asked. “You walk around and kill stuff with swords,” he shrugged. “It’s kind of like Zelda.”
The second those words (aka: lies) passed from their lips, I had to have it. I showed it to my Dad who fished five dollars out of his wallet and handed it over. The garage sale host, in turn, produced a little black instruction manual along with a larger red Nintendo Power strategy guide. Pulling them into my arms, I retreated back to the car to get my first glimpse of what I just knew would be my new favorite game.
It took me all of half a second with the strategy guide to realize that this was nothing like The Legend of Zelda, something further confirmed when I got home and started trying to play it. Why couldn’t I see any of the monsters on the map? Why did I have to click on words to fight instead of doing the deed myself? What in the mother of heck were all these “stats?” A complete and utter virgin to role-playing games, I struggled with it for about five minutes before giving up. My Dad walked in, saw that I was playing something else and shrugged. “At least we only spent five dollars on it.”
It was my older brothers who would eventually get me to give it a sporting try. Returning from a weekend at their father’s house, they immediately took it and, with the power of their superior reading skills, used the strategy guide to dive into the game. For weeks I watched them play, quietly soaking in the depth and newness of the experience unfolding on our TV. The disappointment I felt during my initial moments with the game was swiftly transforming into an eagerness to try it again for myself. It wouldn’t be long before I did and, armed with more realistic expectations, I soon found myself falling in love not just with Final Fantasy but (though I didn’t know it at the time) with the RPG genre itself.
Returning to the game again years later, I’ll admit to feeling some apprehension. While I know very well that games age, the original Final Fantasy is one that I have a lot of love for and one that I still wanted to enjoy. Luckily, while the years have indeed changed my tastes and some of my impressions, I found it, overall, to still be an enjoyable and challenging JRPG experience.
It begins with a scene setting text scroll: “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.”
It’s a simple story and the game never really expands much beyond that initial framework. And, honestly, I kind of consider that to be one of its strengths. Granted, it comes with drawbacks -the player party is a blank slate and the characters largely two-dimensional- but there’s also something about the game’s simplicity that’s kind of charming. It’s never ruined by the sort of overwrought plots and narrative convolution (at least until the end) that now dominates the series in its modern iterations. It lets you create your heroes, gives you your quest, and then sets you to the task of completing it. It’s focus is giving you an adventure rather than choking you with melodrama.
If that sounds at all appealing to you then your enjoyment of Final Fantasy will most likely boil down to whether or not you can get into the gameplay, something that might not be possible for every gamer. Let me throw a few phrases out. Turn-based combat. Random encounters. Level grinding. If any of those sound unappealing to you, you might want to leave this one alone because Final Fantasy has these in abundance. If you’re like me however, and actually enjoy these things, then Final Fantasy might be worth your while.
Combat is turn-based combat boiled down to the bare essentials. You walk around the map, triggering random battles with invisible monsters that reward you with gold and experience points when you defeat them. Battles are fought from a side view and involve giving each of your characters a command (Fight, Magic, Item, Run) which they’ll act out automatically after the beginning of each combat round. The order of combat and the damage dealt and received are determined by behind-the-scenes statistics that can be affected by spells, armor, and weaponry.
While this might sound familiar to most RPG fans, the gameplay does have pieces that some might find a bit archaic. One of the issues I’ve frequently seen people complain about is the fact that it doesn’t automatically give a character a new target if an enemy they’re attacking is defeated before their turn comes around. If two characters target the same enemy and one kills it before their partner’s turn, the second will wave their sword at nothing and receive an “Ineffective” message for their effort.
Personally, I actually like this and have always felt that it added a bit of strategic flavor to what, otherwise, would be a really basic battle system. I’ve played remakes of Final Fantasy that remove this “problem” and it essentially killed the experience for me. The majority of encounters required little more than my hammering the A button until everything on the screen was dead. Mind you, most of Final Fantasy‘s remakes also neuter the difficulty (the original can be brutal), but I still think the NES release gained more by including this mechanic than subsequent versions did by removing it. In the original game, every combat action, big or small, requires thought and preparation. You always need to be thinking about where each character’s turn can be put to best use. You can’t just mindlessly bash your way through if you want to win.
A far more legitimate complaint about the gameplay would be some of the technical issues that plague the NES version. I can remember when I was younger not wanting to invest in certain spells on my repeat playthroughs because they didn’t seem to actually do anything. As it turns out, this wasn’t just boyhood me imagining problems. The NES game apparently came packaged with a number of bugs that rendered certain spells and weapons either useless or, in the least, far less useful than they were supposed to be. Some examples include weapons with non-working buffs against certain enemy types or, in the worst cases, spells that increase your enemy’s stats when they’re supposed to be lowering them.
The game’s potential and real problems aside, Final Fantasy is, overall, still a solid and fun experience. The opening class choices (you can fill four slots with any combination of six classes) offer a lot of opportunities for varied strategies, while the combat is challenging without ever feeling unfair. Modern gamers might chafe a bit at the absence of niceties like in-dungeon save points, but if you put in the work and plan ahead, you’ll rarely come across anything insurmountable. The difficulty also serves as fertile ground for some intensely satisfying victories. As tense as some of the fights can feel, the sense of accomplishment you get from conquering them is well worth the frustration of getting your butt handed to you by a tricky boss (screw you Astos). Much like the story, the game-play is simple but strong.
I’ve said nothing up to this point about the visuals or music. Some of that comes from the fact that this is an NES game so, obviously, most of the graphics haven’t aged well. That said, I do have to say that I absolutely adore the Final Fantasy‘s in-battle pixel art. It’s so classic looking and I can’t help but love it. The music is also quite wonderful. Not that should surprise many people. It’s Nobuo Uematsu, a.k.a. one of the most brilliant and beloved game composers of all time. Even with his involvement though, I’ve always felt like Final Fantasy is a bit under-considered when it comes to the franchise’s great songs. The emotions and feelings he was able to capture –adventure, majesty, melancholy– with the limited hardware of the NES amazes me to this day.
There are a lot of old-school RPGs that are practically unplayable by modern standards. While some might disagree, I wouldn’t count Final Fantasy to be among them. Sure, you could attribute some of my opinion to the fact that I’m a longtime fan of the game. As I wrapped up my latest playthrough though, I was left with the unshakable feeling that is an RPG that still has value beyond being a relic of gaming’s past. Try it out if you can and, above all else, give it the chance it deserves. As I learned 22 years ago, first impressions can often be wrong.
Next week I’m going to revisit Final Fantasy’s most tense moment and spend a bit of time discussing the value of challenge and how its absence can ruin an otherwise solid game.