The original game in the now-massive Final Fantasy franchise was neither original, nor final. It’s a long running joke now that no game in the series is finite in any way, shape, or form. The original title was to be Fighting Fantasy, but there was already a series of role playing gamebooks under that name, so Square and game creator Hironobu Sakaguchi went with Final Fantasy, as the company was struggling at the time, and—had the game failed—it would have been their final game produced.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably a fan of Final Fantasy, and you’ve either come here to take a nostalgic look back at the game that started it all, or you’re here because you’ve been told this is an archaic, unplayable relic that is important historically, but not necessarily a must-play experience.
Now look, before you say it, I am aware of Dungeons and Dragons, Ultima, Wizardry, and of course, Dragon Quest (aka Dragon Warrior), which debuted on the NES one year prior to Final Fantasy. I know these series were first, and that Final Fantasy took many elements from them, but have any of those other series endured, evolved, and grown in popularity in quite the same way?
There is perhaps a case for the Dragon Quest series, which has always had a massive fanbase in Japan, but that series has—for the most part—been comfortably set in its way for quite some time now (and I for one, wouldn’t want it any other way). Speaking strictly from a Western audience perspective, Final Fantasy is the biggest of the JPRG franchises, spawning tons of remakes, sequels, prequels, side-quels, movies, and videos.
But enough of the history lesson, what is the original Final Fantasy about? Well, don’t stop me if you’ve heard this before…
Tropes As Old As Time
Four Warriors. Four Elements. Four Crystals. See what I mean? You’d have already stopped me. The world is shrouded in darkness. You travel with your band of four warriors from town to town, helping the town folks, fighting enemies in the overworld and dungeons via random encounters, and leveling up your party with better weapon, armour, and magic. Nothing about this is earth-shattering, or groundbreaking, but at the time, it was a step forward from the games I previously mentioned.
The random encounter battles play out through turn-based combat, the enemies on your left, your party on the right. You battle by selecting commands at the bottom of the screen, and then watch your actions play out turn by turn. This is now considered quaintly old-school (although Dragon Quest still uses this system) as new JRPGs have jettisoned turn-based battles in lieu of real time battles. While menu selection is still a part of the process, modern games give the player a greater sense of agency as you can often move around the battle field and strategically position yourself and party members, while frantically casting spells and playing defense.
While the combat in Final Fantasy was easy to grasp, it did have several drawbacks. For one, combat can get quite tedious relatively early on. In addition to that, the original NES version had an issue some people feel is actually a pro rather than a con. I’m talking of course about what I call “whiffing.”
In modern RPGs, if you planned to attack a guy, but someone else on your team kills them first, the AI changes your attack to a different enemy. In the NES version of the game, if one of your party members kills an enemy that multiple people have targeted, once the other party member’s turn comes up, they attack the enemy that is no longer there.
Some might say this was just how turn based games were done at the time, as they’ve corrected that issue is the subsequent remakes of the game. However, for everyone that complains that turn-based RPGs usually consist of you mindlessly spamming the Fight command until the battle is over, here is where strategy comes in.
I enjoy the fact that you need to pay attention to how much damage certain party members inflict on certain enemies. If I know my Fighter can take out an enemy by themselves (providing they connect on the hit), I’ll use my Mage characters to cast spells or chip away at enemies that might require a second, stronger hit from a more physical character on the next turn.
With that being said, now is as good a time as any to say that I do not recommend playing the original Final Fantasy on the NES Classic, or on a Virtual Console system.
For the purpose of this article, I played partially through the NES version of Final Fantasy until I simply had to give up. Granted, there are enough resources online for me to have completed the game, and I still own the original game (complete with the 84 page Explorer’s Handbook), but the menu system is unbearable.
You have no idea, when purchasing items, whether or not your characters can equip them. You just have to purchase them and find out. The handbook tells you the first items you should purchase for each character class, and then you’re on your own. Again, the internet is your friend, sure, but subsequent remakes have implemented some marvelous quality-of-life improvements.
I completed the game playing Final Fantasy Origins, a PSX game I purchased long ago on the PS3 store. Granted, I could no longer save to my PS3 (for whatever reason), and I couldn’t find my PS Vita charger (because I easily lose things), and had to play it via my old, still-working PSP, but still, it was better than the original version.
Origins (which comes bundled with the divisive Final Fantasy II) is more modernized. When you shop for weapons, armour, and magic, your characters helpfully raise their hand if they can use them, along with an indicator telling you if the item is weaker, stronger, or equivalent to what you currently have. Additionally, there is the Optimize feature, which automatically equips each character with the best items.
Also, in the first town you enter, Cornelia (originally called Coneria in the NES game), the Inn has several NPCs that offer tutorials on menu management. This version comes with an Easy Mode too, which I did not use, as I recalled the original game wasn’t all that hard to complete if you leveled up as you went along. You are also able to sprint when in towns and dungeons by holding down a button, although you must traverse the overworld at the usual slow pace. Either way, at normal speed or sped up, this game is still a slog at times.
Old timey RPGs are notorious for their grinding. It was a way to extend the gameplay. It’s why old NES games would tout “over 100 hours of gameplay!” on the back cover, because 90 hours would be spent pacing back and forth fighting the same groups of enemies over and over in order to gain experience and cash (gil).
As a kid in the late 80s and early 90s, I had nothing but time. I was a happy grinder. The tediousness never really bothered me. I was tipping up at all times, getting a little stronger, a little richer, with each subsequent battle.
Modern games have mostly done away with grinding to a degree. You still level up, gain experience, all that noise, but usually not to the Nth degree like Final Fantasy. Couple the grinding element along with how cyclical the gameplay itself was, and you had a pretty boilerplate RPG. Yes, it set the blueprint for what Final Fantasy could later evolve from, but it’s not a real treat to play these days.
Still, it is a much more streamlined game in the PSX remake and the Dawn of Souls version for the GBA. Bugs like spells not working (or having the opposite effect of what they’re supposed to do) have been corrected, you can dash while in towns and in dungeons, and there is a helpful compendium that tells you how many treasure chests are in each unique location in the game.
There are still issues such as random encounters being too frequent (although once you attain the airship that problem mostly resolves itself), but again, this is par for the course for RPGs at the time. It would’ve been nice to have an item that prevents weaker enemies from attacking (Dragon Warrior had it) during parts of the game where you just need to get somewhere, but as Always Sunny‘s Mac would say, “it’s like having a picnic at the beach and getting pissed when the seagulls show up.” You gotta expect it.
My typical Final Fantasy I party usually consists of two bruisers and two magicians. This time I selected a Warrior (“Xeno”), a Thief (“Shifty”), a Red Mage (“Jack”), and a Black Mage (“Pookah”).
A warrior is your big time damage-doer. A thief is perfect for escaping battles. A red mage is a hybrid of the white and black mage, so I like having the option to use healing and defensive spells, while also carrying a few damage spells when I need to go on the attack.
At a certain point in the game, you can evolve your party into adults, making them more powerful and capable of advanced spell casting. This is important, as the magic meter system in the NES and PSX version doesn’t use the now-standard MP meter, instead giving you a set number of attempts to cast spells in each casting level.
What is Final Fantasy I About?
The game (on the PSX) opens with a cutscene of a blue gem in a cave. A warrior wanders the dry and desolate land and encounters a giant red FMV dragon. The warrior’s blue crystal around his neck protects him from the fire of the dragon. This opening cut scene then leads to the title card. What does it all mean?
The story begins as a great darkness has shrouded the world. The wind has died (however that works), the sea is raging (so it’s over-working), and the earth has begun to decay (eh, I think that’s just called erosion, or normal wear and tear). Nevertheless, things are bad, and the people are concerned.
But the prophecy of Lukin has foretold all of this. When darkness comes, four Warriors of Light will appear. And sure enough, they do…just sort of appear. And they each have a crystal, one for each of the four elements This leads to the opening title screen. For a second time.
You arrive in Coneria (changed to Cornelia in all future versions) and are instantly sent to speak to the King. You are the crystal bearers and the King knows it’s not a coinkydink four warriors (all with crystals) are here just as the prophecy foretold. Moreover, his daughter, Sarah, has been kidnapped and is being held thirty feet away in the northern Temple of Fiends (later changed to the Temple of Chaos) by Garland, who was once a knight on His Majesty’s not-so-secret service.
The King offers to finally getting around to repairing the bridge that once crossed the northern strait if you rescue his daughter. The King seems like a decent enough ruler, but his army can not defeat a seemingly benign foe, and is not self-motivated enough to repair a bridge until compelled to do so in order to offer something in trade for the safe return of Sarah.
So the King sends you, and your filthy, dirty faces off to defeat Garland and rescue Sarah.
In the PSX version I played, approaching the fountain and hitting the action button causes the dialogue, “What a grimy face! Wash it with my water!” to display. Sooo…it’s a talking fountain, now?
You’ll whiff a lot early on. Some battles get comical at times, with you and the enemies trading misses at an alarming rate. Still, getting your party to level 3 is enough to get you through the battle with Garland. Upon defeating him, you return Sarah to the King, receive the Lute, and gain access to the Northeast Passage after the King’s men repair the bridge.
As you cross the bridge, the iconic image of the four warriors appears and the story truly begins as we are treated to the Final Fantasy title card for a third and final (introductory) time.
From here the game begins a standard routine of guiding you from one place to another, giving you enough information to suss out what you need to do next. However, I did not rely on the map (which is—in all versions—accessed via a strange two button command) so I still got mildly lost, just as I always do.
You’re On a Boat
You’ll travel to Pravoca, a town overrun by pirates. Local townsfolk complain and even say things like, “The pirates came and sacked Pravoca… Wish they’d go back out to the Aldean Sea!” Whoa. That kind of rhetoric is dangerous, buddy. But he’s right. They gotta go.
Encounter Bikke, the pirate, and he’ll sic his nine weak ass pirates on your party. You can instantly put them all to sleep and deal with them easily. After that, he backs down, promises no more violence, and gives you his ship. And the Warriors of Light are totally cool with that! More like the Warriors of Looking the Other Way, if you ask me, not that it’s any of my business.
Another town person tells you afterwards, “We thank you for teaching THEM a lesson. Those rogues no longer threaten us.” I mean, I’m glad I helped the people of Pravoca, but their language has vaguely xenophobic undertones. I’m shocked none of the people in town mention that, “Some pirates, I’m sure, are good people!”
From here, you are directed where to go next, and the process pretty much repeats itself until you’ve fully explored the three unique continents of the unnamed world.
While tedium is an issue in the game, by far the most frustrating issue is that combat can often be a little too random. There is nothing worse than encountering a large group of enemies that can poison or stun you—except for when they get an early strike and poison or stun your party before you even get a chance to do anything.
Ghasts, those paralyzing bastards can stun your whole party, leaving you defenseless. Other times, just for fun, they leave your weakest party member alive, almost toying with them. The little kitty cat scratches they make only adds to the visual of you as an injured little mouse, at the mercy and whim of a killer animal playing with its food before devouring it.
In newer RPGs, the weaker enemies will avoid you (and are visible), but back then, you had random encounters that were maddeningly frequent.
When I look back on the original Final Fantasy, I don’t necessarily think people need to replay the game, because in many ways, they already have. There is nothing in this game that is going to blow them away, so it’s all going to be familiar. It’s a piece of history, and quite frankly you don’t need to subject yourself to 10-12 hours of straight level-grinding to appreciate this game as a precursor to greater things.
However, even as someone who has played through this game multiple times on multiple consoles, I do find comfort in this type of game where things aren’t overly complicated, and you’re not inundated with lengthy cutscenes and stilted dialogue. Final Fantasy is the beginning of something great, and it deserves your time, but you shouldn’t feel compelled to complete it. Not to worry though, the series would provide some of the greatest RPG experiences ever made in due time.