The Final Fantasy franchise’s popularity and influence on games is second to none and can’t easily be overstated.
You almost certainly know that Final Fantasy is a turn based jrpg for the Nintendo Entertainment System because Final Fantasy more or less invented turn based jrpgs(yes, I know Dragon Quest/Warrior came out first, but it honestly feels like Baby’s First Ultima 3. Calling Dragon Quest the first jrpg is like calling Kingsfield the first Souls game).
In the era of the NES, where the biggest games went on to form the genres we still play today, Final
Fantasy has about as many games inspired by it as Mario or Castlevania (far, far, more if you count RPG Maker). That being said, far fewer people have played the original Final Fantasy than Mario or
Castlevania. In fact, I might be the only person I know whose played the original NES version (as
opposed to the forty freaking remakes). I’m fairly confident that everyone I meet has played the
original Super Mario Bros. at least a little bit. Why is that? Could such a fundamental game have
aged so poorly? Let’s find out.
So from an audio/visual standpoint this game is showing it’s age about on par with anything else published in 1987. You can count the pixels on any object and count the different colors in the whole game pretty quick and, most distressingly, the background of the battle screen is just
blackness with a little sprig of whatever biome you’re standing on at the very top. That being said, they don’t make ugly Final Fantasies and even the first one is really pleasant and interesting to look at. The design of almost everything is really worthy of discussion. The monsters average about twice the size of the players and are frozen masses of pixels, but all look pretty distinctive; from shamelessly D&D inspired goblins, liches, drow, and dark knights, to Lovecraftian sahagin and masses of tentacles, to just weird stuff that doesn’t really fit anywhere like trains, t-rexes and horses. The Final Fantasy tradition of interesting and varied monsters, whether or not they make a damn bit of sense in the setting, was realized crystal clear in the first game. An even more interesting tradition started here as well; androgynous player characters.
So in the beginning of the game, you choose four player characters of six classes; The fighter who can tank, aggro and use the fanciest equipment, the monk who dodges and makes critical hits with minimal equipment, the white mage who does healing and support magic, the black mage who uses offensive magic, the red mage who does a bit of everything and the thief who is just a crappier monk. Visually they’re less detailed than the monsters but they have animations. They’re also very well designed; distinct, iconic, adorable, but still androgynous blank slates(As a side note, this and FF 3 are the only FF games that use unnamed protagonists with next to no backstory). The music and sound have a similar dilemma; inspired composition working in primitive hardware, but I’m less inclined to give this one a pass. I can listen to any version of any song from Castlevania, but after a half an hour of the world map theme from Final Fantasy I muted the game and listened to podcasts. The composer, Nobuo Uematsu is deservedly a legend but I feel he didn’t hit his stride until FF2 and didn’t really achieve legendary status until FF4. In the first game however, the music is mostly interesting because you realize how far the composer is going from here, not because any music here is better than, say, Robocop 3.
Gameplay is another interesting thing to talk about here because it sort of touches on all jrpgs and even most games with rpg elements. If you put almost any Mario game in any language in the hands of any toddler they’ll just intuitively ‘get’ how to play. They’ll probably also enjoy it, because jumping and running in Mario feels good on a primal level. The same could be said of Tetris, or Contra or even Street Fighter 2 after a fashion; but not Final Fantasy.
Nothing is intuitive, and not just because literacy is required. Even if you get that the FIGHT
command attacks with the equipped weapon and the RUN command retreats from battle you may not realize in time that your characters start out effectively naked. They have no weapons, armor or spells. You have to go into the nearest town which places you into a different kind of map, then go into the various different shops and spend your 300 gold wisely among your four characters. Each character has a separate inventory and you have to equip each item and spell manually. Figuring out where to go is no more intuitive. You have to go to the castle on the world map that looks like part of the same sprite as the town, but it isn’t. You then find the king in the castle who tells you that his daughter has been kidnapped by the knight Garland who likely has her stowed away in a cave far to the northwest. If you go right to the cave in the northwest, Garland will wipe the floor with your sorry asses. You have to grind until you’re at least level 2, preferably 3. If your white mage dies, there is no phoenix down. You have to go to church(clinic in the touchy American version) and slip the priest 80 bucks to bring him/her back.
None of this is explained and almost none of this is hinted at. Although every rpg from Ultima
(Dungeons & Dragons, really) up towards the Playstation era is like this, assuming you’re smart
enough to eventually master the many systems is a different flavor of challenge from classic
“Nintendo Hard”. It’s also just as rewarding as killing a Mega Man boss in it’s own way. There is a lot of satisfaction to be had in planning character and spell setups for tackling dungeons and even the grinding has a kind of zen satisfaction to it. Combat itself may be utter trash and an afterthought with all of the aforementioned menu madness and all of the depth and strategy done in the menus before the fight begins, but the planning is a big part of the joy.
The story is also… pretty good. While broad and relatively formulaic, it actually does a few clever things. Saving a princess from a dungeon and defeating a dark knight is the closest thing there is to a tutorial and is promptly forgotten about until the end. It also has one of my favorite jokes in any game with (Spoiler alert for a game made before most of you were born) Bikke the Pirate being an utter coward who gives up and offers you his ship when you were expecting an epic boss fight. Even the time shenanigans are kind of charmingly bonkers. It all has such a nice tone. I must have killed over a thousand sentient beings in my latest playthrough and I found the whole experience to be quite charming, peaceful really. Everything has a swashbuckling whimsy to it that doesn’t come off as childish so much as optimistic.
So Final Fantasy is still a good game but I cannot recommend the original NES version. Mostly
because all of the remakes I mentioned earlier are better. Especially Final Fantasy Origins which debuted on the Playstation and can be found on most modern systems. The translation is better, combat and menus are more intuitive and the graphics look like a late SNES Final Fantasy(ie gorgeous). It’s exactly as modernized as it needed to be and not one bit more. The best part is that it comes with Final Fantasy 2, which is easily the most underrated Final Fantasy and an awesome game in it’s own right… but that’s another review.