Review by caspienne

"Revisiting the game 20 years later."

Final Fantasy III – 20 Years Later

This year, 2010, April 27th marked the 20th anniversary of Final Fantasy III since its original release on the Famicon (essentially a spruced up Nintendo Entertainment System). Because the first three Final Fantasies were never officially sold outside of Japan until long after their proverbial “light had been spent,” even the most avid gamers are often ignorant of Final Fantasy's origins as a series. But thanks to Square Enix's complete remastering in 2006 the first three games can be made accessible to modern North American fans that don't own a Famicon or don't feel like using an emulator.

This may sound like an exciting opportunity to visit the beginnings of the best-selling series, especially because of the tremendous leap forward in graphics, but players will soon see that 20 years has been hard on this game. In fact, after replaying Final Fantasy III, I found that all the game really delivered was a largely forgettable adventure built around poorly-developed characters and an ill-conceived plot.

The game wasn't bad. It just wasn't fun, and as a result I found myself often thinking about other retro-games worth revisiting instead. Why was Final Fantasy III so unenjoyable? Let's take a look…

1. The plot suffers.

Viewers can already see problems fomenting as soon as the game is begun. You are thrust into the position of Luneth, a boy who has fallen down a pit of some sort. Looking for an exit, you soon fight a boss guarding a strange blue crystal that begins to talk about destiny or something and being a “warrior of light.”

Already there are issues with the plot: Why was Luneth wandering about 10 miles of your town when there are monsters, pits, and certain death? Luneth's walk through dangerous territory is never addressed. This omission is important because it sets the stage for later plot gaffes like this one. It's almost as if the developers assumed that as long as there are battles the gamer will care what happens.

Well it's not true. I don't care about the “end-of-the-world” plots if the writers are uninterested in providing an explanation for the irrational behavior of the protagonists, side characters, and enemies. For instance (don't worry, no spoilers ahead), when a certain enemy protects his fortress with giant stone ogres, you are told from the beginning that the only way to get past the marble beasts are by collecting four mysterious ‘fangs.' Why fangs? For that matter, who designs an ultimate defense system whose weakness is four fangs? Furthermore, why was the enemy completely uninterested in collecting those fangs before you do? If I had a fortress that was otherwise completely invincible I would be entirely absorbed in making sure no one else had them. This is just one example of gross plot holes that force the gamer into the position of the writers; we have to force ourselves to overlook the issues with the story and as a result our interest in the story lessens.

The gaping problems with the story are tragic because in 20 years this should be the part of the game that still shines. I can forgive cliches and cheesy moments, but leaps in plot development should have been taken care of in the pre-production stage. Remember, Final Fantasy III was developed after Squaresoft (later to become Square Enix) had been rescued from bankruptcy. Squaresoft wasn't rushed this time around like they were in 1987 with the original Final Fantasy. While the company wasn't necessarily rich, it certainly had the brainpower and time to fix these issues and that's why these “sins” are so unforgivable from the player's perspective.

2. The world you play in is expansive but unexciting. You can see good ideas in the mix, they are largely undeveloped and as a result the game lags.

Final Fantasy III pushed the Famicon to its limit in terms of memory available. As Final Fantasy III developer and brainchild Hiromichi Tanaka put it in an interview with Eurogamer, “When we developed FF3, the volume of the content in the game was so huge that the cartridge was completely full.” To Squaresoft's credit, it definitely shows. Final Fantasy III is quite large, boasting four different world maps and plenty of towns and dungeons. This should interest fans of Square because you can see the groundwork that sprung later “epic” quests that later Final Fantasies became famous for.

It can be argued that without Final Fantasy III's grand scope there would be no Final Fantasy VII, which has become Square's calling card. Players can see obvious parallels between Aria and Aeris, the floating continent and Midgar, the Tower of Owen and the upper sector of Midgar. By contrasting Final Fantasy III with later Final Fantasy games you can also see which points the developers felt III worked and where they realized they screwed up.

But more revealingly, the modifications the developers made in later games are quiet concessions of why Final Fantasy III didn't work, broadly speaking. You can see the interesting and innovative job/level system that was the genesis for the frameworks of Final Fantasy XI and XII. Yet because it took so long for the creators to adapt III's method, it goes to show that the developers quickly realized that it wasn't very fun to play, and that it would take significant reworking before they were confident enough to use it again.

Basically each of your four characters has both overall levels and job levels, which both grow from gaining experience after fighting battles. The overall levels influence your fighter's strength, defense, etc… You can also change jobs, say, for instance, going from a warrior to a bard. The jobs also change your strength and magic and stuff. As you can guess, knights are significantly stronger than white mages, but have much worse magic defense than a black mage. However, a knight with an overall level 99 will have a higher magic defense than a black mage with an overall level 1.

It sounds interesting – at least, it did for me – and to a limited extent it works. Yet the game has two problems with the job system, which surprised me in a bad way. The first problem is that III goes overboard with the jobs and includes far too many. I never used a red mage outside some initial curiosity and I never needed to because making two characters black and white mages was a better tactic. But wait, you might say, shouldn't the players get as much choice as they can? Almost 100% of the time I would agree with you, but I disagree here and the reason is because of the second problem: the game forces you to change (stiltedly) jobs and this only frustrates the player.

From early on I can manage my party and find jobs that match my characters. For the rest of the game I played with that combination of jobs and never changed. Except in odd moments where a certain boss had unexplained or ridiculous status protections (which harks back to the aforementioned plot issues). In those moments I would have to change my party lineup to scholars or dragoons or whatever. These were not fun and challenging curveballs that the game was throwing, however. Because there is only one boss who demanded a scholar the net effect is that the player will ditch all the equipment they struggled to buy as soon as the battle is over. In other words, fights like these become chores and not challenges.

3. The details and the devil that's in them.

Other parts of the game have aged, for better and worse. The music is hit-and-miss, but fortunately mostly hit. The best, in my opinion, being Noah's song. On the other hand, some of the music for towns and side moments came off laughably dopey and left me wondering what Nubuo Uematsu (the solitary composer for Final Fantasies until 10) was thinking.

The translation for the new Nintendo DS is decent, but not great. There were interesting allusions to Levantine places and names like Canaan, Ur, and Gilgamesh (Gigameth in the game). These calls to times and places of antiquity has been repeated in later Final Fantasies and copied by other series. In some sense, it creates a feeling of age and believability by referencing other myths and histories. For the most part the translation successfully translates the spirit of the text, avoiding literal translations that lead to embarrassing results when jumping from Japanese to English (one can almost not help but remember Opera's cry from Star Ocean 2 ‘I'll turn you into a beehive!')

The translators also attempt to fix some of the plot holes. I have avoided mentioning one of the biggest gaps in the story because of spoilers – which is unfortunate because it detracted heavily from the game for me, and otherwise deserves critique. Let it be said, for those who have played the game, it's the gap in logic revolving around Goldor and a certain disappeared crystal. The player's first job is to collect and protect crystals, yet halfway through the game you suddenly forget about the final crystal altogether and start on a different quest. Why!? What about that last crystal? You need it to, quote, “preserve the stability of the entire world.”

The translators inserted a scene with a mage called Dage to explain this problem. In this optional and easily skipped conversation, Dage tells you that… well, you play it and find out. The gist is that the translators had to fix Sakaguchi's problems. The sudden and glaring lapse in priorities is the fatal flaw of Final Fantasy III's storyline. It best embodies the problems that made this game difficult to enjoy.

4. Concluding thoughts. Sakaguchi, more plot problems, and how the characters best demonstrate why the game is mediocre.

So why did this problem with Goldor and the crystal happen? The kindest explanation is that perhaps the developers were rushed and were forced to overlook this problem in order to concentrate on Final Fantasy IV which was due later that year for the Super Famicon. But you know what I think? I think designer and writer Sakaguchi turned in the script on the first draft and no one questioned him. If this was the only hole then I wouldn't think that, but bluntly there are too many holes and flaws and gaps in logic for me not to get suspicious. And it might actually be true as it was Sakaguchi that rescued Square single-handedly from ruin three years prior. Perhaps no one really felt like they could question him by that point.

In the last five years, recent interviews with Sakaguchi, Uematsu, and others have given us clues as to why these conceptual problems occurred. As Uematsu put it in an interview with 1Up.com, Sakaguchi was struggling at this point to meet deadlines. The way he described Sakaguchi's intense involvements in all aspect of game design hints that perhaps he was overextended, overworked, and outdone. It leads me to speculate that he could have made a cleaner game had he taken a step back and let others have more input. I'm not suggesting he had to hire more people, as I know Square didn't have a great deal of money. But the game might have been improved had he gotten artists to comment on the plot, and programmers to comment on the music. Sometimes regular people have a lot to offer.

Anyways, Uematsu said that during the first six Final Fantasy games Sakaguchi nearly dictated everything about the music, and it leads me to wonder if Sakaguchi did that with everything else too. But ultimately these speculations are nothing more than vague suppositions as I wasn't there. As time goes on hopefully more interviews can crop up, leading to insights into what was going on with the making of this (and other) games.

The game as a whole wasn't bad. The fights were fun and at times memorable. Commandeering airships was nice as you usually could avoid random battles that way, thank God. Getting Phoenix Downs was extremely annoying however, and you can see that problem corrected in Final Fantasy V.

Yet the game's biggest problems are its omissions. Not the nit-picked complaints about Luneth roaming around dangerous mountains or the difficulty of getting a much-needed Phoenix Down. In the end, the characters were simply sprung upon the player and we are assumed we'll care about them. Characters enter and leave your party with little explanation. Their moments with you are brief and ill developed. They become excuses for the writer to advance the story with little room for logic.

When Alus joins your party he recommends reasoning peacefully with an insane man who wants to kill pretty much anything that moves. This is a good idea? Seriously? Who would ever come up with that cockamamie scheme? This is a thinly covered excuse to get you to talk to the right people; it shows how the plot cares little for how a character would really act. Forcing characters into irrational and downright stupid behavior is the real problem because it tells us that the script was never very good in the first place.

But it also attests to how difficult it is to make a good game. No one can accuse the creators as uncaring. But when a designer is pushed for time and resources as Squaresoft was in the late 80s then the it becomes even more important to make sure the plot wasn't sacrificed in the process. It's unfortunate that Final Fantasy III's plot had to go this route. The game largely piggybacked off of the battle system of I and II, and innovated by introducing a job system that somewhat worked. But a game's fighting system ages much more poorly than plot. The battle system of III, Tactics, VII, VIII, X, and XIII are all vastly different from each other, even if they are all “turn-based.”

When a designer wants to leave a lasting and indelible mark in the world of gaming then what is important is making sure the plot functions to make sense of everything else: the battle system, the characters, and so on. In other words, a designer needs to answer a question with every game they make. I think it's an important question so I'm going to bold it:

Why should I care?

Why should we care about the characters, about the plot, about fighting, about everything? I think role-playing games that succeed have pretty good answers for the question. Final Fantasy X had a unique and emotionally-gripping story that went beyond man vs. boss, and told about the importance of creating and crafting our own destinies without fear of gods, ritual, and death. Unlike First-Person Shooters or even Action-Adventure, RPGs (try to) place greater importance on the storyline, and therefore are obligated to deliver more punch. So when I asked myself, “Why should I care about Luneth?” I was disappointed that the only answer I found was “Because there's a boss to beat and we said so. Now level up.”

With low replayability to boot, the game serves mostly as a novelty piece. It's interesting to see how Final Fantasy began but otherwise this is part of a collection of forgettable video games. I would have loved to rate this higher but I can't.


Reviewer's Score: 5/10 | Originally Posted: 06/24/10

Game Release: Final Fantasy III (US, 11/14/06)


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