I never expected to ever finish the original Final Fantasy. I first encountered it during the early days of my retro fixation, and within an hour or so realized that I did not have the patience to put up with a JRPG of such vintage. For a long time, I had a difficult relationship with JRPGs in general. I often derided the repetitive, turn-based random battles and meandering, uneven storytelling that are extremely prevalent in the most revered titles in the genre. Years later, I forced myself to acquire a taste for the mechanics I had long avoided, consummating my new appreciation by playing through the first two Dragon Quests.
Final Fantasy, on the other hand, I had still viewed with apprehension. It has taken me some time to finally gird myself and take the plunge, but having now played it to completion, I feel I’ve finally grown as a person and learned to accept the series into my heart. The game, though; it’s fine. Just fine.
YOU’VE FINALLY ARRIVED, NOW GET TO WORK
Final Fantasy kicks off with your chosen four characters arriving at a castle and being told that you need to hurry up and restore power to four elemental orbs to avert crisis. It’s pretty par the course, as far as old RPG’s go, eschewing such pleasantries as character motivation. You travel the world, build up your characters, right wrongs, and aim to defeat some ambiguously evil villain. Pretty basic stuff. I’d be more interested in what happened before the events of the game. Who are these people? Where did they get the de-powered orbs? Are they friends or did they just meet in the bar and bond over their possession of inert magical relics?
While the story doesn’t present much in the way of ambitious ideas, the gameplay at least features an early look at the series’ signature variety. Every segment of the game offers something new within the realm of its otherwise standard gameplay. Through the use of an ever-expanding collection of keys and vehicles, the world slowly opens up over time and offers something different over every hill. It’s not so much that the gameplay ever diverges from the typical JRPG grind, but it manages to prevent things from growing mundane by transplanting it into interesting new situations.
ONE SIZE DOES NOT FIT ALL
Old RPG’s have a habit of featuring restrictively obtuse mechanics, and Final Fantasy is certainly no exception to that. From the outset, you get to build your party using six class types. Each class is only capable of using a specific set of spells and equipment, but the game refuses to provide any reasonable indication of who can use what. This would be fine if ninjas were restricted to nunchaku and mages used staves, but certain characters are counter-intuitively restricted to specific equipment. The ninja can use some swords, but not others, and mages can use some staves, but not others. The same goes for armor; it all seems very arbitrary. The only way to tell if a character can or can’t use an item is by attempting to equip it, which leads to situations where you drop hard earned G on something and then find out that it’s not even usable by your party.
It all comes down to the interface being a pile of smoldering hate; which is something of a Final Fantasy tradition. The effects that equipment have on character stats aren’t easily compared, so the only way to know if one weapon is better or worse than another is to check the status screen, equip the weapon, then go back into the status screen to see what changed. And yet, that still doesn’t reveal what additional effects that equipment has. The effects of spells can at least be found within the game’s 80 page instruction booklet, but you’re on your own to figure out the equipment.
WORD ON THE STREET
Contrary to my experience with the interface, what really surprised me about Final Fantasy was how easy it was to figure out. Perhaps I’ve been jaded by the constant need to walk around in 8-bit circles in an effort to find the solution to the obtuse puzzles often found in the early days of adventuring, but Final Fantasy is refreshingly straightforward. At times, the way forward isn’t always clear, but if you take the time to talk to the world’s various townsfolk, you’ll more often than not find the information you need.
The translation itself has issues, especially when it comes to names. Your four heroes can only have names that fit a maximum of four characters, a holdover constraint from its native Japanese script. This necessitates either heavy abbreviation of your desired names, or the cheeky usage of other such four-letter words. Likewise, spells and equipment carry similar limitations, leaving mysteries like what the AMUT spell is actually supposed to be used for (spoiler: it’s practically useless). The dialogue is, at least, reasonably well done. It’s rather dry, but at least it’s to the point.
IT’S THERE AND THERE IT IS
While the series may have grown into one of gaming’s best known franchises, the original Final Fantasy is merely okay. It’s above-par for a primordial RPG, and obviously proved itself to be a capable foundation for the series as a whole, it just doesn’t do much to justify a revisiting outside its historical significance. I honestly had more fun with the original Dragon Quest (or Dragon Warrior, as it was known in North America at the time) and its sequel, both of which may have demonstrated some of the same problems that Final Fantasy has on display, but at least they have a lot of personality. But while Final Fantasy lacks a lot of the imagination that would help make later games in the franchise stand apart from their contemporaries, it cemented a number of conventions that would help the series become the force it is today.
This review was conducted on an NES using an original cartridge. Game was paid for by the author.