Review by honestgamer
It's your call: dinosaur or classic?
Four heroes showed up in front of a mystical castle, each holding a waning orb, and the world has never been the same since. The story is familiar to many who consider themselves role-playing fanatics. It's nothing fancy, it doesn't develop into a whole lot more over the course of twenty hours or so, and yet somehow the tale drew enough gamers that Final Fantasy's creators were later able to create such memorable characters as Cloud Strife, Sephiroth, Kefka, Squall, Cecil, Kain, and a host of others so many of us know on a first-name basis. But I'm not here to talk about those games, because they aren't what I'm reviewing. I'm here to ask and answer one simple question: does Final Fantasy now deserve to be considered a memorable experience in a world flooded with glitzy role-playing entries, or should it fade away to be forgotten like some extinct dinosaur?
Looking at the game with modern eyes, it's easy to see a number of flaws in almost every aspect. The world map is too small. The graphics are bland at times, gaudy at others. There isn't enough diversity in the soundtrack. Monsters are too easily defeated in some instances, too challenging in others. There isn't enough variety. These are all flaws that can't be ignored. But here's the good news: they mostly don't matter.
As I mentioned above, the graphics range from bland to gaudy, and they're almost never anywhere between the two extremes. Towns are a collection of square buildings with a little art to distinguish one from the next, and with icons serving as signs so you know which building is the magic shop and which ones aren't. They serve their purpose well enough, and that little image of a wan or the word 'INN' is always a welcome sight, but you're not going to pause as your eyes are overwhelmed with the wonder of it all.
The world map is more of the same: green, gray, and blue, with the infrequent deserts lending splashes of yellows to one cramped, bland mural. If the map is tiled, it's not in an extremely obvious fashion, but the result oddly enough is that things never feel quite so charming as the technically inferior Dragon Warrior titles that were the rage at the same time.
The monsters that inhabit this map fare much better. The artist really knew what he was doing here, and it's only recently that Square has strayed from those classic designs to offer us something else. Imps look like the little devils they are, scyths in hand. Ogres carry big clubs and have faces only an ogress could love. Bosses also were quite impressive for the time. There are five huge ones, and you always know when you're facing one just by the enormous size and artistic detail. The last opponent in particular is a feast for the retro-loving eyes, even if the color tones look like crap.
And of course there are the backgrounds to consider. Though later games in the series easily stomp what's found here into the dirt, Final Fantasy's humble beginnings aren't nearly so bad as one might suppose. Each area has the faint outline of a distinguishing landmark, such as the watery columns in the water temple, or the trees lining the background when a battle takes place in a forest. Mind you, nothing is so impressive as to take your mind off the fight at hand, turn-based though it is, but no one can say the artists didn't try.
The composers also tried. Complete a battle with at least one character alive and you get to hear a rousing victory tune that is still a hallmark of the series. Wait a while at the title screen and you're treated to one of the most memorable tunes ever produced for the Nintendo Entertainment System. The overworld theme is nice, too. The only real problem, then, is that there's simply not enough music. Chalk it up to system limitations and give Square the benefit of the doubt. Still, I would have liked to hear more, particularly when what's here is so darn good.
Of course, we all know it's not the graphics and sound that make the game, particularly when a game has aged past its prime. The heart of any true role-playing game is the gameplay (a fact even Square has been known to forget). I'm happy to report that despite a spotty memory in recent times, Square's developers remembered this fact when it counted. Final Fantasy has some of the greatest gameplay mechanics around, and many aspects are liberally used in numerous console role-playing titles to this very day.
When you begin the adventure, you get to choose four characters. They can be from any class. You can even have four of one class, if you like (you'd be a fool to do it). There's no obligatory 'hero' class, so you really do have full control. There are three main classes of magic users, as generic as you can imagine. And there are other staples of pen-and-paper role-playing titles, such as the thief, the warrior, and the black belt. Better yet, each of these classes can evolve at the game's halfway point, and suddenly you can have a team of wizards, ninjas, and knights. Not only that, but they can learn new abilities, which makes your party more versatile just as the monsters are getting smarter. This change keeps the game fresh just when it is beginning to lag, which means its importance should not be under-estimated. The Dragon Warrior series didn't adopt a similar system until Dragon Warrior III, so the whole class change thing is definitely Square's early claim to fame.
Also nice is the inventory system Square devised. While many role-playing games of the time limited players to an extremely limiting amount of items, Square headed in a completely opposite direction. Characters can now carry 99 of any given item. The inventory is shared by a party, rather than by individuals. It's a nice little innovation, and one we take for granted now.
Another innovation is the magic system. While Dragon Warrior games had players earning new spells as they levelled up, then drawing from a pool of magic points to cast those spells, Square went a completely different direction. Spells are purchased in shops (often at a hefty fee), and they each have levels assigned to them. A level four spell can only be used by a level four magic user. Not only that, but you only have limited use of each level of spell. As your level increases, you can use more and more of the early-level spells, but the newest, most powerful spells are always limited. This is a neat little innovation and it forces users to plan ahead. Do you use that powerful spell to wipe out the group of ice wolves, or do you save the use of that powerful magic for the boss at the end of the cave?
Not all decisions are as much fun as that, however, which is where Final Fantasy suffers a little. Dungeons and towns are often quite far from one another. While this makes sense in a 'oh, that is so real life' sort of way, it's a pain in the butt for the gamer. What fun is paddling up a river and wandering a series of rivers in a canoe when every few squares you're facing another random encounter? It's no fun. Adventuring into new territory is always a dangerous proposition, sure to eat through the supplies you've scrimped and saved to purchase. Even if you survive a cave, you might not make it back to town, and there's an hour wasted. Whether the game is forcing you to paddle up a river in a canoe, sail across the ocean in a canoe, take the long trek on foot, or even take to the sky with an air ship and fly to some remote location, the result is always the same: boredom.
It's too bad this one factor cuts into the game's enjoyability so much as it does. Just about everything else one would expect is here. As I've said, you get the airship here, and it's something that was so cool that Square would continue to use it in almost every Final Fantasy game to follow. Dungeons are also quite the frightening experience, long and windy paths that feel as if they're leading you into the very bowels of the planet. And though the story isn't something to write home about, it's certainly not a wet noodle, either; be ready for a few surprises before the game reaches its conclusion.
Working back to the question I posed at the start of this review, I would have to say that Final Fantasy certainly does show its age. For every major innovation it introduced, there's something we've since left behind that most of us would rather we never saw again. But for the gamer willing to put aside those annoyances for the sake of discovering an old classic, Final Fantasy still offers everything it needs to in order to make it an easy recommendation. I'm not sure I want to live in a world where people think slick FMV sequences and orchestrated soundtracks make a game like Final Fantasy unplayable. A role-playing game is all about the playing, after all, and this is one of those titles that proves it.
Rating: 4.0 - Great
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