"WARRIORS. Revive the power of the ORBS!!"

Everyone knows the story by now. Squaresoft, a fledgling and tiny gaming company during the mid 1980s, was close to going bankrupt in 1987. They more or less borrowed ideas from other games, but somehow made all of those ideas worse and released nothing but failures. They couldn't get anything right; if you've never experienced Rad Racer or King's Knight, you're better off not ever knowing them. As Square came closer to their inevitable demise, a college dropout named Hironobu Sakaguchi started creating one final foray into the video game business based on the Nintendo hit, Dragon Warrior. He called it "Final Fantasy", thinking it would be Squaresoft's last video game.

Little did Sakaguchi know, Final Fantasy would become a giant success that would single-handedly save the company and cement its status in the industry for years to come. Square would immediately get to work on Final Fantasy 2, which was objectively terrible and in the running for worst RPG ever made. Final Fantasy 3 would go on to be better than 2, but not by much. And none of it mattered. The original Final Fantasy made Square so much money that they could afford to screw around and release a couple of stink bombs. Then as we all know, they would get back on track with their first SNES release. "Final Fantasy" to this day remains the biggest oxymoron in gaming vernacular.

The obvious questions here: What made Final Fantasy so good? Is it still worth playing today? In a nutshell: Everything, and yes.

Squaresoft never claims to not borrow other games' ideas, but before Final Fantasy came along everything it borrowed was objectively awful; they made everything far worse. Final Fantasy's success came in taking a game already amazing and influential -- Dragon Warrior, in this case -- and improving upon it in every conceivable way. It was Square's first time with taking a good idea and making it better, but they made it count this time. Dragon Warrior was about one lone hero's quest to slay the evil dragon via trading blows with one enemy at a time, one enemy at a time. It was good for its time and undoubtedly influential, but it was also rather hollow. Final Fantasy offers more of everything. More characters, more spells, a bigger world, a much deeper and riskier and meaningful storyline, more weapons, more enemies, more bosses, more people to save, better graphics, better music, and pretty much a better everything else. Final Fantasy is the gamut of "Dragon Warrior is good, but we can do it bigger, better and have more people care about it".

The game starts with you choosing a job class -- Fighter, Black Belt, Thief, Red Mage, White Mage or Black Mage -- for four characters. Thieves don't actually steal anything in this, but the other jobs are self-explanatory. There is eventually a side quest where the job classes all promote to powerful versions of their former selves, with the most notable upgrade bring Thief -> Ninja. The world is covered in darkness, with the four elements of our earth twisted by evil. Four warriors of light show up, each holding an orb. Kill the fiend controlling a natural element, and the orb lights up. Consequently, the world gets a little more order restored to it.

This is where your four characters come into play. Your party is plopped right in front of a castle town called Corneria, and trouble is immediately afoot. The princess has been kidnapped by the former good knight, Garland, and it's up to you to save her. Thus, the first of the millions of Final Fantasy fetch quests begins. It was also the first sign that Final Fantasy would think outside the box with its storylines. Final Fantasy has a reputation for being convoluted nonsense; whether you agree with this assessment or not, the roots of it are clear. You have to rescue the princess before you even see the game's title screen. Once you succeed, the king doesn't give you a conventional reward. He instead doesn't let his daughter out of his sight, and has a bridge built to make sure you get the hell out of his kingdom ASAP and go about saving the world.

For its time, Final Fantasy was very unconventional and edgy with its plot. It's easy to look at the game now and see rather rudimentary work, but there were good things done here for it being 1987. There is the simplistic "save four elements, light up four orbs, save the world" thing, but you're traveling into volcanoes, going to the bottom of the ocean in a submarine, getting teleported up to a castle in outer space and traveling 2000 years into the past while doing all of this. A good story is told even though NPCs are all limited to whatever can fit in one text box. Only the final boss gives any sort of soliloquy, and he gets a grand total of three text boxes -- and they had to move him and give him an entirely new text trigger after each movement to make him work, no less. Best of all, Final Fantasy's entire story gets told without the heroes ever speaking. Not even once. By today's standards, this game would have been laughed off the production table for there not being 20 minute monologues between characters about their imaginary personal lives and contrived inter-personal relationships. There are no pretty boy teenagers with murdered parents, no slaves from persecuted kingdoms, no long-lost sibling anti-heroes, and no grand epiphanies. Just four mute heroes saving the world and wreaking total havoc upon any monster that dares look at them the wrong way.

Actually this isn't completely accurate, since Final Fantasy monsters can be quite a challenge. You can fight up to 9 enemies in some random encounters in this game, and some of the monsters have rather nasty tricks and spells. To make matters worse, the Fighter and Black Belt are the only jobs that aren't completely puny early in the game. There's no way to revive people outside a Life spell, or by using a clinic in town. If your White Mage/Red Mage dies in a battle, you're boned. The meat of Final Fantasy comes in dungeon crawling, conservation of items and spell charges (Side Note: Spells use set charges rather than magic points in this, and there is no way to restore charges other than Inns), then fighting a boss and coming out alive at the other end. Only after you've leveled a lot or find some infinite spell-casting items will you be able to plow through dungeons a little easier.

The gameplay choices might seem a little weird, but they were a good experiment given this was made in 1987. Battles take place randomly, on a separate screen. You input a command for every character -- fight, cast a magic spell, use an item and so on -- and there's a round of text-based effects. For the most part, characters with higher agility go earlier in the round. The battle continues until one side wins, unless you try running away. Winning nets you gold and experience, then you continue onward. Random encounters have been a debated topic in gaming circles for years and years, but the staple of any Japanese RPG is to fight monsters, gain experience, grow stronger and win. One can question how much strategy is truly involved when you could potentially lose to a boss, then back out, level for an hour and smash said boss with the exact same strategy once you've gained a level or two; however, a lot of gamers have loved it from the beginning and continue enjoying it to this day.

There are two major aesthetic problems with the original FF battle system. One, your character will not change targets if the monster he or she attacks is dead before their turn comes. So if you attack an Imp and it dies, your character will attack empty space rather than switch to an enemy still there. This is inarguably the worst part of the game. The other huge in-battle problem is how group spells target one character a time. If your Black Mage blasts a group of enemies with Fire 2, you have to sit there and potentially read [Mage] [FIR2] [Imp] [100 Damage] [Terminated] 9 times. Even on the fastest battle speed, it gets old fast. The random encounter rate is also rather high and not altogether random in this game. Without getting into too many technical details, know that you'll fight a lot of battles and will consider running from many of them.

Outside of battles, there are other annoying things to deal with. The worst of them all is having to buy one item a time, so it's a real strain on your gaming thumb to buy 99 Heal Potions for that next dungeon. Weapons and armor have no descriptions whatsoever, so you have to trade everything among party members to see who can equip what, then check status screens to see which one is best to go with. On top of this, armor and weapons are held by characters in an entirely different screen than items. It's not so bad, until your armor gets full and you have to drop something in order to take whatever armor is in that next treasure chest. Then there's the annoying status effect's side effect, where characters inflicted with a bad status are reordered to the back of the party. So after a fight where someone gets poisoned, for example, you have to go into the item or magic screen, cure the poison, back out to the main screen, press Select and reorder everyone to where you wanted them in the first place. This gets stupid really fast when you're in a dungeon with a lot of status effect monsters.

Lastly on gameplay, there are some rather famous bugs in it. A lot of the spells are either bugged or flat-out don't do anything, like SABR or XFER. The weapons that are supposed to give you bonus damage (Ice Sword, Flame Sword, etc) against certain monsters don't actually do anything. Then there's the infamous Giant's Step and Hall of Giants where you can cheese demigod levels of experience with no effort at all. There's the Luck stat not being at all relevant in your running chances; if one of the top two characters has a character in perfect condition two spots below them on the battle screen, the run chance of any applicable battle is 100%. There's the hilarious armor bug for the Black Belt/Master where you can level up, go into his armor screen and he ends up with more Absorb naked than he does equipped with armor. To this day, new bugs are being discovered and exploited. Even a spider's web would be jealous. This is to be somewhat expected when your game only has one programmer -- the enigmatic NASIR -- but you'll honestly wonder if Square played this before releasing it. As a completely hilarious side note, the game's ultimate weapon can be equipped by any job class. This is important because characters don't really have their own strength stats; a weapon doing 50 damage means it does something in the range of 50 damage, with the difference being how some job classes get more hits on the enemy than others. Ultimately, you can have some girly White Wizard doing more endgame damage with the ultimate weapon than some beefcake Knight. It's quite awesome to witness.

With graphics and music, Square's only necessary result was being better than Dragon Warrior. Square ended up going above and beyond all expectations and releasing a true masterpiece on both fronts. Nobuo Uematsu has gotten his fair share of hate through the years, but there's a reason he's been around making Final Fantasy music so long. He, like the original game, was made famous from the first installment in the series. Nearly every track in Final Fantasy is memorable, and a couple are reused to this very day. Some reuses can be very subtle. Everyone knows about Prelude and Victory Fanfare, but take a really close listen to Beyond the Cave next time you listen to Final Fantasy 6's Forever Rachel.

Graphically, Square began their habit of going above and beyond with the original title. The only major graphical flaw was treasure chests not opening once you procured their items. Other than that, the graphics and atmosphere were top-notch. For an NES title, you really do feel like you're walking across plains, in caves, or inside some gigantic futuristic space castle that miraculously has plants growing inside of it. This game also started the trend of separate races living in every town. The world of Final Fantasy had humans, elves, dwarves, scholars, robots, dragons, and even a class of mermaids. This was extremely imaginative, and all of it was done with some gorgeous sprites. For the limited number of colors NES sprites could offer, Square did an outstanding job of creating a world for you to feel a part of. The big benefactor here was Yoshitaka Amano. As Square continued progressing, the Amano's surrealist artwork drew more and more ire from fans. Perhaps we shouldn't have been so critical of Amano, because our reward for Amano's excommunication was a character designer who thinks every lead has to be a pretty boy with zippers growing out of belts, which in turn pop out of the flowing blond hair of seemingly transsexual males. Were Amano in the Final Fantasy series as long as Uematsu or Sakaguchi, you'd have to wonder how differently Sephiroth would have looked. Regardless, it's easy to see how Amano, along with Sakaguchi, Uematsu and the Final Fantasy series itself lived on reputation for years and years because of the original title's success. Most of the Amano hate is somewhat justified, but not in the first game. Amano's art influenced some outstanding enemy sprites in Final Fantasy, and the only flaw here is how the sprites are given a ton of palette swaps throughout the entire game -- even right at the beginning. More Amano art would have been very welcome here, while he was clearly at the height of creativity.

Overall, the obvious comparison to make with Final Fantasy is to Dragon Warrior, but there is no comparison to be made; Final Fantasy is better in nearly every way. Has Final Fantasy showed its age all these years later? Of course; the game has been ported and remade more times to count, and those ports and remakes are all improved from the original title. Did Final Fantasy's success create a wholly unnecessary fanbase split between Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy fanbases, that rages on to this very day? Of course it did; everything that comes first goes through the "get off my lawn" phase once something younger and better shows up. It's the reason senior citizens have the world's highest suicide rates. Society cruelly tosses them aside once their perceived use is over. Most telling of all is how the Final Fantasy series went on to become bigger and better than anything the Dragon Warrior series will ever experience. This isn't even debatable; sales and history have remembered Final Fantasy as the premiere, influential JRPG series. The only thing Dragon Warrior has going for it is showing up first, but gamers do not subscribe to manners. "Dance with the one who brought you" is not something the gaming audience has ever believed in. Gamers have proven throughout history that they will jump ship at the first sign of improvements elsewhere.

Final Fantasy may be old, but it's worth playing once or twice even today. It might be an old house that's really weathered and infested with Lord-knows-what in the basement, and it might not be something you'd want to live in, but it's still a hospitable house. You just have to appreciate it for what it used to be, rather than comparing it to that brand new home just around the corner.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 01/22/10

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

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