Recommended: Overall, the story, the game itself, and the art of Final Fantasy I are great for their time. Of course it doesn't hold up to a lot of modern RPGs, but there are a few that it still puts to shame, even some recent ones. I would say pick it up and play it if you haven't, and even if you have, give it a run through again, you might be surprised after years of RPGs that have followed since its release. I had a lot of fun playing it, probably more fun than I expected when jumping into an old game. I was afraid all the nostalgia would wash away as my adult eyes took in what my mind recalled as one of my favorite childhood games. I can say with certainty, it is still one of the best RPGs I've ever played, and holds a special place in my gaming history, even now.
Final Fantasy is a JRPG - arguably The JRPG - developed and published by Square. A classic adventure of prophecied heroes taking up the call to save the world. That's the most basic way to describe Final Fantasy I, but it does so little justice to the originator of the franchise that will see it's 15th instalment next year, and has spawned a staggering number of spin-off games, films, albums, art and much more. Final Fantasy was created by Hironobu Sakaguchi and released in Japan in 1987 by Square, and hit the U.S. in 1990. It is, arguably, the best fantasy RPG released for Nintendo and one of the most influential franchises ever produced. It was also expected to be Square's last game, as well as its creator's, should it have failed, hence the name.
Final Fantasy was almost never realized, as Square turned down the first proposal thinking it wouldn't sell. With the success of Dragon Quest Square reconsidered. Due to some copyright concerns the original name, Fighting Fantasy, had to be changed and since Square was on the verge of bankruptcy the name Final Fantasy was chosen. The company also wanted to keep the abbreviation 'FF' due to how it sounded in Japanese. Thankfully it wasn't Square's final game, nor Sakaguchi's, and we have been enjoying Final Fantasy for the last 25 years in one form or another.
In the Eye of the Beholder
Final Fantasy is, without a doubt, one of the most visually and audibly appealing games of its time. Heavily influenced by Tolkein fantasy and Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, Final Fantasy makes use of its 8-bit graphics and sound to give the player a deeply varied and engrossing experience in a unique but recognizable fantasy setting. The graphics, for its time, are striking. Vibrant colours set the stage for a variety of areas, caverns, cities, and ruins to explore. The huge bestiary offers a wide variety of monsters to battle amid scenery that is clean and well designed. Even the battle screens themselves have backgrounds to match the area the encounter takes place in, whether it be a fiery volcano, or temperate forest. The character avatars are simple, but make good use of colours, making them easily recognizable in their role. Like most games of the time, however, the sprites do not change based on equipment except for the weapons used. They do upgrade though, once you pass a certain stage of the game and your fighters upgrade to knights, your white mages to white wizards, and so on. The artists that created this world did a fantastic job using the minimal technology to create images that are easily recognizable and precise. When other games were delivering imagery that was hard to decipher, or had to be so large in order to produce enough detail, these artists seemed to use just enough to get the point across.
The animations, like the graphics, are simple but used sparingly so that the limitations of the technology are not so glaring. The monsters do not even move, and the characters themselves are limited to jumping forward and a quick flash of a weapon to attack or hands thrust forward to cast spells, and a short victory dance at the end of combat. Besides that the characters do collapse when slain, and kneel when poisoned or effected by some other spell condition. While the combat animations are simplistic, the spell-casting is actually quite flashy for what they had to work with. Colourful rays of energy and sparkling fields of magical light add some excitement to the turn-based combat that can become a little redundant from time to time.
The music is probably the most nostalgic facet of FF1, and even when it was new there were few game scores that stand out in my memory like this one did. Launching the game brought back memories of hours spent in front of our old tube Zenith, plugging away at our little grey rectangle adorned with red and black buttons. The first victory dance was like a blast from the past and made me want to sit right on the floor in my pajamas for hours. Then my old back would remind me that idea was not such a good one. Not all of the music is great, despite the memories they bring back. The opening scenes have some fairly annoying music, and a couple of the dungeons were a little unpleasant. The tune that plays while exploring the world map is very good, with subtle scenes that don't devolve into glaring repetition like a lot of older 8-bit games. The victory fanfare is by far the most memorable, something that, to this day makes me think of winning something big, or finally getting through something difficult.
Who Put Airships in my Fantasy?
Final Fantasy is a turn-based RPG with a fairly simple set of front-end mechanics, in part due to the platform limitations. Unlike modern RPGs, players of FF1 do not select skills or special abilities, or assign attribute points when your characters level up. The game does that for you, and your sole responsibility for character advancement is acquiring experience points, and equipping your characters with weapons, armor, and spells. Players move around the world, entering cities, caves, and different terrain where they face a variety of NPCs, or random and scripted encounters with creatures. Travel in this world is not only slagging through swamps and forests on foot, but eventually on the open seas in a ship, and in the skies on an airship.
Menus in the game are simple, and easy to navigate. You can move equipment from one character to another fairly easily, and equip different items, with one major drawback; space is limited. Each character can carry four weapons, and four pieces of armour, which isn't always enough to carry everything out of some dungeons when you get to the higher level areas. The biggest issue I had with this, however, wasn't the item limit but with how cumbersome it was to determine what weapons and armour were the most beneficial. There are no stats on weapons or armour in the character menu or in the store menus which leaves you with the only option of trial and error. On the character menu you can look at their status, which shows you their current weapon and armour stats, and then you can change them out to compare. If you don't have a guide, or a web page open showing stats, it can make shopping for gear a bit expensive as you'll buy items you don't need to see if they're better than what you have. In many RPGs you can count on gear you find in the next town to be better than the last, but that isn't always true here, so with my most recent play through I was looking up weapon and armour stats to know what was worth buying and what wasn't.
Combat in the game is a pretty simple turn-based affair. You explore the world, or dungeons, and run into random creatures and sometimes scripted events. Combat would start as a new window opens up, showing your characters and the monsters arrayed against them. You choose an action for each one of your characters, whether it be attack, drink a potion, cast a spell, or run. Then, based on the behind-the-scenes stats a sort of initiative is calculated for that round and everyone carries out their actions in order. Once the round is over it all starts again. While I love the Final Fantasy games this is one of the parts of them I never cared for. Combat becomes routine, redundant, and boring after awhile with the only thing to liven it up is finding new creatures to fight. Creatures have strengths and weaknesses, and part of the challenge is figuring out how best to fight them. It's not so bad when you are moving steadily through the game, encountering new challenges that you have to figure out, but when you have to sit down and grind a few levels before moving on, that's when this type of combat really becomes tedious. There's just not enough interaction with the game for my tastes. You choose an action, and watch the game play for you until everyone has gone and you start over. No room for defence, counter moves, or last-minute changes based on the flow of battle. Grinding is also something I don't much like, and thankfully isn't needed too much in Final Fantasy. There were a few points in the game where it was wise to gain a couple of levels before moving on, but for the most part you move from area to area, challenge to challenge, gaining the needed levels for the next part of the story.
My least favourite mechanic of all of them has to be the random encounters. I prefer RPGs where you can see the enemies, and avoid them if you want. There are times where I just want to get back to town, need to find a safe place to save so I can exit the game, or am just not in the mood to go through another combat scene. The way combat is done in Final Fantasy that's just not an option. You don't see any monsters, they just randomly spring upon you as you travel, with a few scripted encounters when it comes to bosses or level and treasure guardians. It's not always so bad, but being able to avoid fights from time to time would be nice. That said the combat itself is balanced in most cases. I didn't find many encounters that were too hard, even when I was short a level or two for the area. I did find a couple though, and they were by far the worst bits of imbalance in the game. The ice cave, usually done after completing the volcano for the fire orb, was definitely the hardest dungeon in the game, and contained creatures called mages. These nasties cast rub, a spell that insta-kills the target, long before you have something to counter it, and they always got to attack first when I encountered them. My only saving grace was only losing one character and being able to resurrect him with the white mage after we ran. The other encounter I found incredibly OP was the mancats on level 3 of the Sky Castle. You can't escape the scripted encounter, they attack first, and use several castings of Fire2 which inevitably kills most of your party before you get to retaliate. Prepare accordingly if you're going back through this game.
I think the coolest feature, especially for the time, was travel by ships. Already Final Fantasy had a pretty open world once you got through the prelude quest, but early on you get a ship, and not too long after that an airship to travel the world. I remember being amazed by that when I first played the game, but also a little put off at first. I was used to fantasy being fantasy and science fiction being science fiction. Final Fantasy was the first fantasy game I'd played, video or tabletop, that incorporated technology beside the magic and monsters. Once I got used to the idea I loved it. Few games of the time offered anything other than your avatar walking around the world to explore everything. I also liked that the airship was exempt from random encounters, which made the already fast mode of travel that much faster. The world itself was so well done when it came to exploration, having few limits other than how challenging the monsters became. Once you get through the prelude a large portion of the world opens up, and when you have the dwarves open the canal there's nowhere you really can't go. Granted you might get eaten by a creature much too hard for your level, but the option was there when a lot of games were limiting exploration to levels and areas based on your character. It was one of the first good attempts at real open world exploration and would be the theme for many future games in the franchise.
Tropes? We Don't Need No Stinking Tropes!
I love when a story teller takes a generic plot device, commonly referred to as a trope, and defies expectations. I know it didn't mean anything to me as a teenager, and I don't know if it was intentional, but looking back on it now after all that has happened recently I find the story of Final Fantasy kinda fun and a little snarky. You start the game and your first quest is to save the princess. Damsel in distress you say? Well, just give it a minute. You don't save the princess for you, it's not your girlfriend, or future bride, or a reward at all. You're doing her father, the king, a favour and rescuing her from some evil chump who took her away. Then, your next big quest, save the prince! Damsel in .... right, I said give it a minute. Not only did they give you a 'save the princess' tale, they give you a 'save the prince tale' and neither of them are the endgame. See, your real motivation is to find out what happened to the four elemental orbs that have gone dark, causing devastation across the world. You play the role of The Light Warriors, four heroes prophesied to return the orbs to their rightful state and save everyone, not just the princess or prince.
The story of Final Fantasy is still a basic good versus evil, save the world sort of tale, but it is delivered in a very unique way. The story involves time travel, a plot to release fiends on the world in the past to have them gain power in the future, and the heroes travelling back to put an end to it at its source. While many of the elements of the world and story call to mind Tolkien, or Dungeons and Dragons, there are parts of it that are all Final Fantasy, and will carry on into future games in the franchise. The elemental magic, the blend of technology and fantasy, and the hints at a history much older than you can imagine are all parts of the series that make it unique in its time.
That's not to say there aren't flaws in the first game's story, or more importantly, the delivery. Details are somewhat slim when it comes to finding out where to go next. While you can talk to almost every NPC in the game, most deliver generic flavour text while some of the important NPCs are so vague it's hard to tell if they are giving you needed information or not. Early on the hook is a bit lame. You meet the king, he says his daughter is captured, and he wants you to go save her. There's little lead up, or motivation for it, except you know it's a game and the most important NPC in your current area has given you a quest. They do try to spice it up with other NPCs, distraught over the disappearance of the royal child, but when compared to other RPGs with more in-depth plots there are times when Final Fantasy falls a little flat. I don't think this deters from the entire story enough to pass it of entirely, but there are moments where it could have used more meat, a little more dialogue, or a bit more back-story.