Final Fantasy III

Fans rock.

The emulation scene used to be fairly exclusive, back when very few games actually worked. I remember being excited when new releases of VGB-DOS came out, supporting ever more Gameboy games. It was pretty much the only emulator that ran close to playably on my 486, but the ability to play Final Fantasy Legend on my computer (never mind that I owned the cartridge) was worth the choppy graphics.

As years passed, emulation became frighteningly mainstream. The tech behind it no longer interests people; folks just want free games. However, a second culture has emerged from emulation, one that still stays pretty damned exclusive, with much the same feel that emulation culture sported in the mid nineties--excitement over new releases, oohing and aahing at the latest updates, marvel when one more obscure (or not so obscure) game becomes available.

The culture is that of fan translation. Slaved over for weeks, months, even years, these works of digital art are lovingly polished by groups of people (or, more rarely, folks working alone) devoted to giving people new experiences. Games that we were denied become, not playable--you could always boot up an emulator and skip the plot--but genuinely enjoyable. [Unless, of course, the translated game is crap. Yeah, you, Final Fantasy II.]

Some of the first games to see attempts at fan translation were the Final Fantasies not originally brought over to the States. Take the set of people geeky enough to hack 6502 assembler, modifying symbol tables and enlarging data sections to fit a wordy language like English. Take the set of folks geeky enough to enjoy 8- and 16-bit Final Fantasy games. Unsurprisingly, the two sets happen to share a (relatively) large number of folks, and many different teams tried to translate the three games never released here. After a number of years, various groups actually succeeded; Final Fantasy III's complete fan translation is borne from one of those efforts.

My first experience with Final Fantasy II was via emulation, even though the version I (eventually, tediously, with a great sense of relief) completed was the PSX rerelease. Square (or Squaresoft, or Square Enix) never got around to releasing Final Fantasy III in an updated format, however. So it was with both excitement and more than a little trepidation that I started to play the third game in the series in as close to the original form as I could manage--FCEUltra and a first-generation PSX pad plugged into my computer. I had heard both good things and bad, but with a near-legendary series like Final Fantasy that inspires both rabid devotion and hatred, it's hard to judge beforehand just what sort of experience you'll have.

Well, having finished the game, I can safely say this: while Final Fantasy III provides a vastly superior experience than the second game in the series, it is still a rough diamond. There are many facets of the game which gleam prettily, but there are also enough big chunks of uncut crud to dull your sense of enjoyment.

You can tell that FF III came late in the Famicom's life cycle. The game is absolutely huge; there are two overworlds, an (admittedly empty) underwater world, and enough dungeons that one might wonder how anyone stays alive on a planet so littered with dangerous caves, towers, and secret passageways. Instead of set character classes, like in the first game, or no character classes at all, as in the second, Final Fantasy III offers up almost two dozen different jobs that your characters can undertake, and you can switch (almost) at will between them. The battle mechanics are refined even further; characters automatically retarget their attacks if the enemy dies before their turn at bat (although not so with magic), and battles move at a considerably snappier pace than in the two previous games.

That said, Final Fantasy III definitely suffers from its grandiose framework. Yes, there are three worlds, but one of them is effectively empty. Yes, there are twenty-two jobs, but I used a whopping six or seven throughout the entire game, and never found reason to use the rest. Yes, the battles are snappier, but the encounter rate is high enough to drive you to frustration. And while the enemies are never as cheap as those in FF II, the final dungeon goes from frustrating to infuriating as enemies regularly cast instant-death spells on party members. (For those who don't mind losing characters, that may not be so bad, but for my anal-retentive gaming style, that's a killer. No pun intended.)

It's as if Square realised that they wanted (needed?) a game with everything but the kitchen sink, but never quite got around to finishing the cabinets. With all that the game provides for a gamer to do, to experience, it feels unfinished. Not "every room but three is empty" FF II unfinished, but it's almost obvious where time started to run tight. the underwater world feels more an afterthought than the integral part of play it could have been, and the plot almost tops the original Final Fantasy with its irrelevance.

Thankfully, the game's mechanics remain fun enough to keep most of the creeping annoyance at bay. I rarely found myself bored, even when I gleefully abused the leveling system by repetitively slaying weak enemies for the job experience. The painful slog that masquerades as the game's last dungeon almost destroyed that glee. (A hint for developers: five boss fights without a save point is almost never cool.) A battle you have to lose near the end is indescribably lame, almost as if they want you to reload your game and clambor your way back up That Stupid Goddamn Tower One More Time. But you'll grit your teeth and do it. And when you summon Bahamut, utterly annihilating the swarm of beasties plinking away at your characters, you realise that Final Fantasy III still provides a damn fine experience despite its flaws.

Would I recommend it to a "modern gamer?" Probably not. There are too many gimmick dungeons, too many useless classes, too many chunks of crud to make the experience rewarding for those who expect a polished experience.

Is it worth playing? Absolutely. A rough diamond it may be, but that still makes it a diamond. It took me forever to beat, but only near the end did I get the obligation-instead-of-enjoyment twinges that bothered me constantly as I played Final Fantasy II, and the blame for those lies on my self-imposed gaming rules as much as any flaws of the game. If you can take a step back and enjoy it for what it is, Final Fantasy III will keep you pleasantly entertained for many, many hours. What more can you ask, really?

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Last Updated: 2004.08.22