Review by TheSpelunker

"A good, early RPG in which dying to a group of Gas Dragons can be as time-consuming as manually buying 99 healing potions."

The Final Fantasy series is now a celebrity among video games, but back in the late 1980's this was not so; its first game came with an Explorer's Handbook telling you the solution, and besides fewer people then knew of role-playing games. The gameplay was similar to Dragon Warrior, its predecessor on the NES, but had differences and was so entertaining that, in a way told by some Asian proverbs, the teacher, Dragon Warrior, became its former student's student, in a spiral of competitive sequels on the NES. You control a party of four different classes, choosing from Black Mages, White Mages, Red Mages, Thieves, Fighters, and Black Belts, and must restore light to the four orbs that symbolize the four elements (and beat the four bosses disrupting them.)

The game uses the two-dimensional overhead perspective used in both Japan and the USA by Nintendo's early RPGs; dungeons, towns, and the overworld all share this 2-D overhead perspective. Battles are seen from a third-person perspective, arranged as an electronic form on a computer might appear, having fields of different sizes; they show important things such as hitpoints, commands, the party, enemy, and at the top a picture of the battle's terrain where it happens. During most of the game you wander and fight monsters after a certain number of steps that attack on the overworld and in dungeons. You gain experience points and gold that lets you go to weapons, armor, and items stores. The gameplay in most ways resembles both Dragon Warrior I and Dragon Warrior II on the NES, very straightforward RPGs, but has surprises, such as new methods of travel and a thoughtful plot for its time.

The solid blue screen that you see before beginning tells the story up till the four heroes appeared--you must pick the four heroes--and plays a pleasing piece of music. You may choose a party of Fighter, Black Belt, White Mage, and Black Mage (perhaps the best,) or challenge yourself with an unusual party, for example, four Red Mages or four Thieves. Though they buy spells and equip weapons and armor, characters in Final Fantasy I lack the personality and diversity of RPGs released a few years after. Mostly the bosses, the elemental fiends, and a few others that you fight, talk; your characters do not speak; villagers may reveal important clues or sell items. The story is pleasant, and early and streamlined, involving the four elements, which as a theme was common in Japan and the USA (Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy in Japan; Might and Magic in the USA;) but its ending is thorough and explains much of what happens afterwards. Certain plot twists were also surprising; they pushed the envelope beyond the simplicity of the four elements of fire, earth, etc.

There is a prelude after crossing an early bridge; in a cutscene it plays a melody and prints heroic text emphasizing the heroes' mission--the earliest instance of this that I have seen in an RPG. Though the sound effects that accompany dialogue sound like muted cats' screeches when text appears in boxes, which is not bad, the story is successfully interwoven with the sound, for example, in the beginning, during the prelude, on the overworld, in dungeons, and fighting. The plot also combines well with aspects other than the sound such as the gameplay, well-matched in its simplicity with the story.

The party begins more or less with nothing if I remember; you pick Black Mage, etc., or whatever classes you want, in order to create your team of four. Then you fight easy creatures outside of town, gather gold before buying equipment, and progress about the overworld, restoring light to the elemental orbs. On the overworld you encounter more dungeons than towns; there are caves, castles, temples, and a volcano. You must find three means of transportation, allowing passage across the water and other things. But in the water, as on land and in dungeons, monsters attack after a certain number of steps; you have to fight them throughout the game both to earn gold and to gain levels. Even today the overworld is well-structured and pleasant to observe.

Towns are distinct in Final Fantasy I because of the shops, which use a menu-based system; you see a black screen with a picture of the shopkeeper and your party; and you can buy weapons, black magic, white magic, items, or armor. Potions that heal you, which are necessary, are bought manually and stack to 99; you may be buying them quite often. Magic spells are explained well in the Explorer's Handbook if you have one. But if you bump into them enough the villagers blocking streets will move out of the way. One of the oddest moments of exploring towns was encountering a gravestone that says 'Here lies Erdrick;' Erdrick is the main character's ancestor in Dragon Warrior, Final Fantasy I's rival.

Dungeons are difficult as they often are in better RPGs; in the beginning and at the end you cannot enter most dungeons and hope to beat them in the first try; you have to leave and go to town, or may outright die, which returns to your last save. There is a variety of monsters and tempting treasure chests inside; the graphics are great and the music motivates you. Dying is not uncommon, thus Final Fantasy I's dungeons resemble most early role-playing games', which works well compared to newer games' less challenging ideas. I remember the last vividly and the hours spent blitzing through it, dying a few times, barely surviving the finale.

Final Fantasy I had some big battles, including one involving a major plot twist; I had not expected much of a plot and was surprised. You fight bosses at the end of dungeons and find the four elemental fiends in exotic ones. Besides them you fight random monsters of which there is a huge bestiary; and you can upgrade your characters once; you progress from, for example, Thief to Ninja, Black Mage to Black Wizard, or Black Belt to Master. After beginning a new game you have much to look forward to when you can level-up, then earn gold in order to go to the item shop, and finally buy 99 healing potions.

The first dungeon is not balanced very well with the others; you may zealously level up for it but be overleveled later, and then, at last, underleveled. The challenge sometimes seems to be unsteady, but it is in general rewarding. One point is that attacks, as now they are in RPGs, are not rerouted from an invalid target; for example, you attack a target with four people and after two hits it dies; the other two attacks are then ineffective against the dead target. Monsters are tricky as well; some poison you; many others cast a death spell. Did I say you can pick whatever classes you want for your party? Unless you are doing a challenge-run you ought to consider a White Mage, who can cast restorative magic. The monsters that you fight have terse, nasty attacks such as 'CRACK,' 'RUB,' and 'GAZE, ' and the results are unpleasant. Items do not replace all white magic spells (antidotes stack to 99, but no FenixDn, as in Final Fantasy II, exists; only a white mage or the town's priest can revive the dead.)

You may buy houses, tents, and cabins and carry them (better than the dungeon suites,) in your inventory. In dungeons when you use them it says 'Not enough room here,' but outside when used they restore HP or with cabins and houses MP, and save the game, otherwise a distinction only of inns. The worst part is buying potions; it takes a long time; and it may mark the first game that I played while reading a book. Making buying 99 potions require 99 * 3 = 297 actions reinforces that healing potions should not be taken for granted; but some players may be less tolerant of manually buying 99 potions than I. You must also reorder your party every time that a character is poisoned or killed, which continues in one or two sequels as well; but I should say in its favor the game is not a micromanagement exercise; you also solve various puzzles requiring backtracking to earlier towns and speaking to villagers or others, and this can be enjoyable too.

I may be partial to Final Fantasy I because it introduced me to the commonest style of RPGs on consoles. I remember my uncle had this and Wizardry for the NES--one, a modern, streamlined console RPG, took me forward in time, and the other, a classic computer RPG, took me back in time. I was lucky that both are nice directions to go in; and Wizardry was enjoyable as well. Then finding that the SNES also had Final Fantasies was great; and the two sequels on the NES to my surprise were unreleased in America (FF4 in Japan was called FF2 in the USA--it was released on the SNES.) Back then an Explorer's Handbook offering detailed solutions accompanied Final Fantasy I; the sequel was even more complicated and would not have translated well (though a translation would have been appreciated--in fact, the localization of Final Fantasy II began but stopped prematurely.). People with Nintendos could play Dragon Warrior I-IV at any rate; they are very similar to Final Fantasy I, which was inspired by them and which would later become their worthy rival.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 05/21/08

Game Release: Final Fantasy (US, 05/31/90)

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