Review by Algus

"The best piece of bug-ridden filth I've ever played"

I'll not bother waxing nostalgic about “the game that started it all” and cut right to the chase: Final Fantasy is a monstrosity of crippled gameplay, game-breaking bugs, and horrendous scripting…and I LOVE it.

The Final Fantasy franchise has not earned its dubious reputation because of a misfire though. Final Fantasy is literally one of the best games ever made despite its predilection for bugs. All of the broken spells, unbalanced gameplay, and tedious grinding cannot hide the gem within. It is actually quite remarkable that Final Fantasy is as good as it is, given that the game was squeezed out in a rush (no doubt an explanation for the multitude of bugs) by a game studio that was on its last legs after a series of dismal flops (personally I thought 3-D World Runner was a great game, but that's a review for another time).

Let me begin with the graphics. Final Fantasy is simply visually stunning. It outclasses its competition, such as it is in every way. Compared to the Dragon Quest/Warrior franchise and other such NES RPGs as Crystalis and Mother, Final Fantasy is simply breathtaking. The game manages to be clear and colorful without ever looking tacky or crude. I would even go so far as to argue that Final Fantasy looks better than its successors. Compared to Final Fantasy II and III, the original game has a darker palette and a more mature aesthetic quality rendering it one part JRPG and one part homage to great western classis. This is fitting considering the enormous influence that Dungeons & Dragons clearly had on the first Final Fantasy. While there is much to criticize about Final Fantasy, its visuals are simply immaculate. The flickering problem that so plagued NES games is easily avoided through the use of static enemies and player characters that only move one at a time. While Dragon Warrior struggles with black backgrounds and nary a player character in sight, Final Fantasy uses lush “wall art” to give the player a sense of where the battles are taking place and the level of detail on enemies and players alike is outstanding. Weapons, too, have a variety of graphics and colors that help give you the sense that the mystical sword you just unearthed really has power and weight to it. Visually, Final Fantasy plays to all the strengths of the NES an despite first being published in 1987, it remains one of the most visually striking games in the NES's library.

Combat is arguably a mixed bag. You begin by issuing a series of commands to your characters: having them attack with their weapon, cast a spell, use an item, and so on (typical RPG fare). Once the commands have been entered, the combat round plays out with your characters and the enemy characters each taking turns until the round is complete. Due to this style of combat, things may not always go the way you want: the character you targeted with a spell might be killed before the spell fires (it is then wasted), an enemy you targeted may die or flee before you can land your attack, or the enemy may simply spam you with potent spells that effect your entire party. It is not an uncommon occurrence to have all your plans fall apart as the enemy mercilessly and efficiently eliminates your entire party whilst you're left scratching your head and wondering why the game chose that moment to not allow your characters to act early in the round. Final Fantasy is often unfair. Enemies that can kill you with a touch are not unheard of and ambushes can put a stop to your thirty minute trek through the dungeon, despite the fact that your entire party is at, or near, full hit points. Saving is limited and often inconvenient and you may find yourself left high and dry. Perhaps the greatest indignation of all, however, is that Final Fantasy isn't even a difficult game. When it isn't being unreasonable, it gives you all the tools you need to successfully adventure and, as you progress, the game rapidly becomes easier as you acquire more potent equipment and magic. Eventually you gain resistances and immunities to many of the most lethal attacks and by the end of the game, you'll be wondering where all the really difficult enemies wandered off to. Many aspects of Final Fantasy's combat system are archaic and often frustrating. However, if you're willing to put up with such frustrations (or, indeed, appropriately look at them as part of the challenge of the game) you should find an RPG that requires considerably more strategy than typical JRPG fare. For instance, as your characters will not auto-select a new target if their opponent is defeated, you will find that you need to plan for this so as not to waste an attack otherwise you may find yourself the victim of a potent salvo in the next combat round that saps the remaining hit points from your entire party. Ultimately the combat itself will prove to b the make or break factor in your enjoyment of Final Fantasy. If you like the combat, with all its blemishes, blatant cheating, and occasional tedium, then you'll simply adore Final Fantasy. If you don't enjoy the combat, you'll find yourself wondering why you're playing an unbalanced antiquated train wreck of a game.

Unlike most of its successors, Final Fantasy sports enormous replay value through its class system. At the beginning of the game, you'll be allowed to create four characters from a selection of six different professions. This allows for over two hundred combinations of parties with which to tackle the game. Some combinations make the game quite easy whilst others are extremely challenging to command. Creating a balanced party that you enjoy is less a matter of selecting the “best” classes and more a matter of art as well, as arguments on message boards across the Internet over the past two decades have proven. If the combat intrigues you enough that you'll want to stick around, you'll enjoy playing through the game numerous times to experiment with all six profession (it is impossible to use them all in a single game) and develop their full potential throughout the course of the game. The selection should please most veteran RPG gamers as well: The fighter, a traditional warrior that uses heavy armor and weapons, the black belt, an expert in barehanded fighting, the thief, the black mage, a master of combat oriented magic, the white mage, a healer and protector, and the red mage, a bard of sorts that has an excellent selection of both white and black magic as well as an impressive array of weapons. Not all is well, unfortunately. A series of severe bugs plague a number of these characters. The intelligence stat, which should help control the potency of magic, simply does not work and as a result magic is wildly unreliable: occasionally dealing colossal damage but also frequently only scratching an enemy. This is not to say black mages are useless, indeed black magic is potent enough without being amplified by the intelligence stat that it will serve you will, but it is frustrating to know that the game is not working as intended. To further grief black mage players, a number of black spells, such as the weapon-buffing TMPR, simply do not work. Mages are not the only characters plagued with bugs either: Thieves, who should be expert runners, largely loose what little benefit they bring to the party via a bug in the way the odds of successfully escaping a battle are calculated. Fortunately, the thief can later transform into the potent Ninja class and, as such, remains a viable choice. This is the story of Final Fantasy: bugs so numerous and frustrating that you can't help but be aware of them and yet not so damaging and game-breaking that you cannot progress in the game.

As to the specifics of the game, there are some unusual differences between Final Fantasy and later titles. In a very western RPG approach, each character has their own inventory that allows them to carry up to four weapons and pieces of armor. If you do not have space in a character's inventory, you cannot pick up any new weapons or armor. Consequently you'll be rummaging through your gear constantly to make sure you've got some empty spaces. While this is not a major problem for weapons, it can quickly become frustrating for armor as you find that your characters have 3 or 4 pieces of gear equipped and you cannot so much as SEE what is in an item chest unless you make room in your inventory and pick the item up. Fortunately, non-equipment items, potions primarily, have their own inventory screen that is not limited in the way that gear is. Thus, you can still carry 99 healing potions if you have the money and inclination to purchase them individually. Yes, in a clear show of both its age and the new ground it was breaking, Final Fantasy does not allow you to buy items in stacks. As for magic? Final Fantasy shows its Dungeons and Dragons influence primarily in two locations: through the types of enemies that you'll fight, and through its magic system. Each spell has a “level” for instance, CURE is a level 1 white spell. Each spell casting character is allowed to learn up to three (out of four possible) spells for each level (1-8). As your spell casters level up they will gain “uses” or “charges” for each level of magic. You begin play with two uses of level 1 spells, which will allow you to cast any two level 1 spells you know before you must return to an Inn (or later use the HOUSE item) to rest. As a result of this system if you choose to unleash your entire salvo of high end spells whilst progressing through a dungeon, you may find yourself reaching the boss with only a few charges of weak level 1 magic remaining. Many Final Fantasy players have expressed a certain loathing for this unusual system though personally I quite like it. Besides its similarity to older Dungeons and Dragons rule sets, it also calls upon the player to consider each spell use and gets extra mileage out of lower tier spells that might be quickly forgotten if the game had a more traditional magic point system.

One of the goals Square had when developing Final Fantasy was to create a game that had a more sophisticated story than Dragon Quest. While in one sense, Square managed to succeed, largely this goal was a failure. Final Fantasy adopts a minimalist approach to storytelling, an approach that is sure to disappoint newer fans of the franchise who are looking back on what they missed. There are no specific cutscenes to speak of, unless one was to count the opening scrawl when the game first loads. Some dialogues are required, as they provide key items, but these dialogues are a no more than a single “bubble” long (save one or two exceptions). The plot itself is typical Final Fantasy fare, largely devoid of the trimmings that made later games in the franchise so intriguing. Often, you'll find yourself alone, pondering where to go next. Final Fantasy encourages exploration and investigation though. Speaking with townspeople more often than not, points you in the right direction and scouting the region you have access to will quickly allow you to find all the current points of interest. Final Fantasy may not have much of a story, but it never leads you by the nose either. It expects you to do a bit of adventuring on your own. Never fear though if you have horrible nightmares of Square's SaGa franchise though, Final Fantasy never truly lets you get ahead of yourself. Places that you are unprepared for will often be locked up tight until you are able to retrieve the appropriate key item (or series of keys) in order to progress. This is not to say you don't have options but even at its most open, Final Fantasy willingly divulges hints as to where to go.

Still, if you are inattentive, it is quite possible to get lost and this may be one of the reasons that the original packaging for Final Fantasy was so luscious. The thick instruction manual as less a set of instructions and more a guidebook that provided an illustrated walkthrough of the entire first half of the game complete with strategies on party construction. Rounding out the package were a series of full fledged maps, equipment charts, and a bestiary. Any collector who is able to find an intact boxed copy of Final Fantasy will be quite pleased with all the goodies that are stuffed inside. If only modern games had such lavish contents included in the packaging. In lieu of having access to the maps and charts that originally game with the game, you may find that you will need to avail yourself of maps and guides published on GameFAQs or elsewhere on the net. As I said, Final Fantasy is always willing to provide hints as to where you need to go, but it is not always specific enough and occasionally the bizarre translation can be difficult to work with.

I have given Final Fantasy a high rating, despite my repeated complaints about the bugs. Given the immense replayability (something can be said for the simplistic story in that it doesn't bog down new games), outstanding visuals and music, and challenging (albeit a tad unfair) combat, I feel the game is well worth at least 8 points, despite the severity of a number of the bugs. However, Final Fantasy is an RPG that focuses on killing monsters and collecting treasures, not on telling a sophisticated story. This fact coupled with some of its more unusual, and antiquated mechanics, may leave many players quite impatient with the game. If you are primarily interested in RPGs for their story, and are not a fan of slower turn-based and round-based combat systems, then Final Fantasy may be suitable for no more than a 5 or 6 based both on the sheer number of bugs and on a number of gameplay mechanics that you may simply find unpleasant. If you are not all that interested in dealing with some of the petty annoyances of Final Fantasy, it may well be worth investigating either Final Fantasy Origins or Final Fantasy I&II: Dawn of Souls as both titles repackage the original game with a number of bug-fixes, updates, and other features that make the game considerably less frustrating to deal with. On the other hand, if you'd like to play a classic, with all of its warts intact, the original NES edition of Final Fantasy is awfully hard to beat and despite all of its blemishes, it still manages to shine.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 11/04/10

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

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