I was seven years old when I was first exposed to the world (metaworld?) of Final Fantasy. It was a few days after Christmas of 1999 and my cousin had received Final Fantasy VIII as a gift. Being seven in the presence of a teenager meant I had no right to take a turn in his game, and it wasn’t even a game where you could take turns. So I sat back and just enjoyed the cinematic experience of the game. That moment had a profound impact on me and is what truly led me to identify as a video game enthusiast for the better part of my formative years. The sheer narrative scope of RPGs astounded me.
We here at NRW review music and films, and so I wanted to kick off a series of video game reviews with a game whose name has grown to weigh more than any contribution to the series. Final Fantasy received its name because it was believed that it would be the last game Square would be able to release before declaring bankruptcy. It was their “Final Fantasy”. Little did they know it would be a massive success and create a massive series of unconnected but thematically similargames and eventually give us this masterpiece.
But Final Fantasy wasn’t always a blend of science fiction and fantasy. The first installment of the series was purely a fantasy JRPG. I played the PS1 port of the original NES game because it is most faithful to the original. The first thing that comes to mind when I think Final Fantasy is how unrelentingly difficult it is. I’m not saying that later Final Fantasy games were particularly easy, but none of the games I played (FFVII, FFVIII, FFIX, FFX, FFX-2, Tactics, Tactics Advance, and Tactics A-2) feel so punishing as this original tale.
Before I move on to the actual gameplay, I’d like to share with you the thoughts that went through my mind for the first hour of playtime:
“Gee, that Prelude song sure is pretty sounding.”
“I get to name all four of them, and they have nothing pre-established? Onward Fart and friends!”
“Nah, I don’t think I’ll need a white mage.”
“This is a lot like tactics, but with a worse story and battle mechanic.”
“I spy with my little eye a damsel in distress (cough, Sarah, cough)”
“To quote the King, “If you bring my daughter back safely, I will build a new bridge. I am counting on you.” Is that the going rate of missing daughters these days?”
“Buying spells? What black magic is this?!?! (see what I did there?)”
“Level grinding? Again?”
“Jesus, everything costs money.”
“First boss? That was a joke.”
“Thanks for the lute, princess. This looks ambiguously useful for the future.”
The early portion of the game will have you staying close to the nearest town and going back in after every couple of battles to heal up at an inn or buy some more potions. Everything costs money in this game, from full saving to learning magic. Random encounters can be simple, like running into one horse (not a magical horse, it is literally just a horse) or they can be as grueling as an eight enemy encounter. It’s really difficult to figure out where is safe to walk and where is not. From a design standpoint, this is a cost that was probably hard to avoid.
The game is huge. The overworld rivals the scope of A Link to the Past (fellow Nintendo fanpeople, I’ve got a treat for you at the end of the article). It only becomes more massive when you get the boat and find yourself surrounded by water as far as you can see. It is nowhere near as linear as the series has become. To be fair, the game becomes more manageable once you get your party to around level 20, especially if you grind enough to do this early. The boss battles are never particularly difficult. I’d say that moving through each dungeon and dealing with the random encounters and noticeable LACK OF SAVE AND HEAL POINTS is much tougher than the actual bosses.
You control four characters with no exposition apart from some vague talk of a prophecy. They’re pretty vacant as far as personality is concerned. Don’t expect any dialogue. You are allowed to choose their jobs, which is an exciting amount of customization afforded considering how old the game is. I chose a Warrior, Red Mage, Thief, and Black Belt. I named the Black Belt Cid to ensure that I wouldn’t play a Final Fantasy game without a Cid in it. These empty vessels don’t have much plot to work with. Apart from an interesting / convoluted / nonsensical time travel related twist, the story is really a “go fetch this for me” excuse.
The pixilated graphics of the game are actually quite beautiful. This is primarily due to the vivid colors and all around bright atmosphere. The world of the game feels hopeful, and the art accompanies it perfectly. I’ve always said that old video game scores were so memorable because of the limitations of the system. The original composers could only have three sounds playing at once. This led to a greater focus on melody. There is a reason a lot of these songs are so instantly recognizable. I mean, just listen to “Prelude”. It’s downright moving.
I hope I don’t sound like I’m badmouthing what has become one of the most influential games of its generation. Once you get some experience under your belt (metaphorically and literally, grind grind grind), the game becomes enjoyable, and actually highly addictive. I found myself happy to be level grinding and saving up for new swords or spells. The scenery is interesting enough that I found myself wanting to genuinely explore for personal enjoyment. Talking to every NPC and interacting with everything I could even led me to discovering a pretty interesting Easter egg, especially considering how much of a Zelda fan I am.
If you are a fan of this series and like the idea of game history or analyzing the medium as a whole, I definitely recommend finding a way to play this game. You can enjoy it for what it is. The NES and PS1 versions are, according to my research, notably more difficult than subsequent ports. I loved playing this game, and wish I could have been alive at the time of the game’s release and had that feeling like I was playing something that would be huge. I’d love to continue the discussion on this. I’m curious if any NRW readers/listeners played the game at the time of release. What was that experience like? Did you enjoy it? And if you are like me and played the game years after the fact, how did you like it? What party did you complete it with?
- Joey Edsall