Final Fantasy

To be honest, I don't remember the circumstances behind getting my copy of the first Final Fantasy. I don't remember if I got it before or after my copy of Dragon Warrior, and whether the NES port of Ultima: Exodus--and the trouble I got in for opening that particular Christmas present a good three months too early--entered my collection first.

All I know is that Final Fantasy captured my imagination like few RPGs before and since.

Part of that resulted from the fantastic Strategy Guide--you have to capitalize that, you see, for back in those days Strategy Guides were not the dime-a-dozen wastes of paper they tend towards now--that came with my subscription to the greatest propaganda magazine of all time, Nintendo Power. I was still a wee lad, recovering from the devestation of my mother accidentally destroying one of the discs of my Apple //c copy of Pool of Radiance, and RPGs had not become part and parcel of my life. The Strategy Guide showed me all of the secrets necessary to Win The Game, if only I had the perseverance to complete the quest for the four Orbs with my hand-picked group of Light Warriors.

After managing to get to the Temple of Fiends Revisited, I stopped. This came directly from a particular affliction I have had since youth and still possess--the fear of beating a game. I love playing them, but when I get near the end, I become tense and easily startled, and I start to worry about my abilities as a true Game Player--am I good enough to complete this challenge? Will I simply suffer ignoble defeat? Should I just not bother, since I'm certainly incapable of surmounting the difficulties ahead?

Occasionally, I'd glance at the cartridge while digging through my other NES games, and think wistfully of a time when I might have had the gumption to pick it up and finish it. But another affliction of mine kept me from finally trouncing the game--my deep desire for continuity. I don't like playing sequels before I play and beat the original games, and if I don't remember what I was doing in an RPG or adventure game when I pick it up weeks, months or years after the last time I played it, I have a habit of wiping the save game and starting over. So picking up Final Fantasy ten years later felt dirty to me, even though I knew all I had left to do was the final stage.

Not too long ago, however, I decided to embark on an Epic Quest of RPG History. The plan is to play all the way through every Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior ever released, starting at the first one and finishing up wherever the series end at the time of the Quest. Due to the twin wonders of emulation and fan translation, I can play the two Final Fantasies never released here in America, along with tighter versions of the fourth and sixth games in the series--both of which I own twice, one SNES copy and one rereleased PSX copy apiece.

And so the quest began with the original Final Fantasy, the game that, along with Dragon Warrior, could be said to have started it all. Throughout the game, I kept asking myself--how does this game hold up? Is it still worth playing today?

I believe the answer is yes.

To be sure, Final Fantasy has a number of problems. Levelling up is not only suggested but necessary; you'll find yourself quickly trounced if you don't take the time to boost your characters' statistics, and while the last boss of the game is a joke for any party of decent strength, getting there can be a great challenge if you are underpowered. This problem is compounded if, like me, you like to complete games 'perfectly,' with no character deaths; a number of bosses have instant death attacks that can force you to replay a dungeon over and over until you're lucky enough to not die. [Those who suggest using save states to make this easier miss the true point of emulation, that of experiencing gaming as it really was.] There are also a number of puzzles in the game that could be very frustrating if you didn't memorize the Strategy Guide when you were a kid, or don't make use of a resource like GameFAQs. The location of the airship is only vaguely hinted at, and learning Leifinish requires you to engage in the classic Talk-To-Everyone-All-The-Time RPG trope. There's also a nasty bug with the Black Belt character that can either hurt or help you, depending on how far into the game you are; fortunately, by the end of the game it's considerably more helpful than anything else.

There are things about Final Fantasy that, while not outright problems with the game, have definitely been refined since. The spell system seems ripped wholesale from Dungeons and Dragons, with spell levels and the like, but the spells themselves lack any description in-game and neither the manual nor the Strategy Guide made things any clearer. The combat engine, while a large step above the single-enemy fights of Dragon Warrior, has your characters attacking thin air if the enemy has already been killed before their turn. This can be frustrating, but it requires you to gain intimate knowledge of your characters' strengths and the strengths of the enemies they fight; a fine balance between spreading the attacks out too much and consolidating damage makes for a challenging game. The storyline is also practically nonexistent, and your characters are nothing more than non-speaking sprites; part of this comes from the fact that you can create your party out of any mix of characters you like, and part of it undoubtedly comes from the newishness of the genre at the time. [I, of course, used the Strategy Guide-suggested party of a fighter, a black belt, a white mage, and a black mage.] And a few helpful bugs in the game, such as the infamous Peninsula enemy-mapping, make the game less tedious than it could have been if you know how to break the rules.

However, despite all of these issues and semi-issues, the game has a certain charm. Its almost-innocent plotline is simplistic, but also honest; the fact that the last dungeon in the game is also the first, and the actual circumstances behind the whole situation, make for a nice loop that has rarely been done better in gaming. The lack of characterization of the Light Warriors allows you to make up personalities for them, and indeed construct any party you like. [I suggest ignoring the fact that the White Mage looks male once they've 'grown up;' otherwise, there are no female characters.] And the battle engine, while refined over the years, has an amazing number of similarities with most of the RPG battle engines in games today.

Aside from all of this, there's something to be said for participating in a piece of history. Playing Final Fantasy lets you see where the roots of the genre lie, their swift divergence from adherance to Dungeons and Dragons-style rules, and some stupid tropes that still hang around the collective necks of the genre like ugly albatrosses--random battles be damned! Anyone who is capable of looking beyond the simplistic graphics and storyline of the original Final Fantasy will undoubtedly find a lot to like. It doesn't quite stand up to modern masterpieces, but it's fun enough and short enough to entertain and educate during a slow summer week.

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Last Updated: 2005.12.14 [Typographical errors only.]