My entire adult life, I have been nagged at repeatedly by friends, brothers, work colleagues and neighbors’ cats about the fact that I have never played a Final Fantasy game. It’s not that I hate them, or even that I hate the idea of them. I love turn-based tactics games, I love RPGs, and I love…well, sushi and Fullmetal Alchemist are the only Japanese things I know I love, but I certainly wouldn’t disqualify FF for being Japanese. Hey, NieR: Automata is one of my all-time favorite games!
So, after decades of social abuse, I have decided to finally cave to the peer pressure. I’m playing a Final Fantasy. In fact, I’m playing Final Fantasy I.
Starting at the Start
I know this wasn’t the outcome that any of those pesky needlers were seeking. I’ve heard countless conversations about which Final Fantasy is best. Is it Final Fantasy VII with Cloud and his strife? Is it Final Fantasy IX with its funny little wizard? Or maybe Final Fantasy XII with its controversial but certainly modern real-time combat?
I don’t think anyone ever accused Final Fantasy I (or just Final Fantasy, if you like) of being the best in the series. But I’m disregarding all of that because I like to start at the start. I have an uncanny quirk for playing games sequentially, even when I know they’re narratively unconnected. I like to experience the evolution of a series. Not just its story but its gameplay, its combat, its visual design. I played through both isometric Fallout games because Fallout 3 got announced (no regrets). I played through Deus Ex and Invisible War in preparation for Human Revolution (some regrets).
I want to see how Final Fantasy was built from the ground up. I love that the series has Chocobos in every game (except this first one) and that despite their disconnected narratives, there’s always a character named Cid (also, except in this first one).
I don’t have to be a long-term fan of the series to recognize the look of the Black Mage in Final Fantasy I and to know that he is not only a visual touchstone for Vivi in FFIX but for Veigar in League of Legends too. I want to see those links, the growth that the studio has gradually and incrementally built across its franchise.
I was warned that the original NES version of Final Fantasy I might not be the best way to play it today. I’m willing to make some concessions, and having compared some screenshots and read some write-ups, I decided that the PlayStation One version, Final Fantasy Origins, would be the best way to do this, if I was going to do it to myself at all. Seemingly, the NES version is brutal due to its age, and the PSP “Dawn of Souls” remake had the difficulty fixed to “Easy Mode”, which damages the gameplay experience. Origins seems the happy medium. Thanks to the PSOne’s graphical upgrade, this version also holds up surprisingly well with crisp pixel art and gorgeous enemy designs, especially in the boss battles.
For anyone who hasn’t tried playing Final Fantasy I (which is probably 99% of you reading this), it’s not an especially accessible game to play anymore. Games were made differently in 1987, with an expectation that players would take the time to painstakingly discover its secrets, exchanging their findings around office water coolers and in school playgrounds (and with the aid of hardcopy Prima guides and cheat cartridges too).
As such, FF1 has no tutorial, no quest log, and no waypoints. It has a big open-world map crammed with dungeons to be explored and towns to visit. “Towns” is probably a generous term; they’re more like small villages that contain seven buildings; an inn for resting, a temple for resurrecting, and five shops. Weirdly, every town has these same buildings, and only these buildings.
The world of Final Fantasy I is surprisingly…Dungeons & Dragons. From years of passing Final Fantasy knowledge, I expected swooshy-haired anime heroes with giant swords and sprawling cyberpunk cities surrounded by mythical beasts, more robot than creature. I wasn’t expecting a cave crammed with dwarves and a forest full of elves. There’s a vampire in a cavern, and my main character is a warrior in chainmail wielding a broadsword. I also wasn’t expecting the magic — of which Final Fantasy games would go on to have infinitely complex and deep approaches — to basically be a D&D-lite system, with spells assigned levels and mapped to a number of uses per level, replenishable only be resting.
The Princess Is in Another…
I often jest that every level 1 D&D encounter is a band of goblins, so it was with a wry smile that my first encounter in Final Fantasy, after leaving the town of Cornelia, was (you guessed it) a band of goblins.
The late 80s had an unhealthy obsession with tiny heroes rescuing kidnapped princesses, and Final Fantasy wasn’t immune to this fad. The first mission sees a grief-stricken king asking you, the heroes, to rescue his daughter. You also quickly find yourself on a quest to cure a bed-ridden prince of a potent curse before the wider plot asks you to save the entire world by restoring the element Crystal Orbs and vanquishing the four Elemental Fiends.
The combat in Final Fantasy I is the part that most ties it to my understanding of the series. Walking around the world map for anything longer than five seconds will prompt a ‘random encounter’ with a group of enemies.
Big blue menus (you know the ones!) cover half the screen as you plot the attacks, items, and magic of your four party members one at a time, selecting their targets from the screen above. For the most part, the Warrior, Thief, and Monk all pretty much just attack with their melee weapons. The mages make things more interesting. White Mages primarily focus on healing, whilst Black Mages dish out deadly damage and debuffs. The Red Mage is a mix of the two, dabbling in a variety of white/black magic but mastering neither. I didn’t bother with that guy.
Items carry magic spells or act as potions for curing health damage or poison. Oh, so much poison. Honestly, if you ever do play this game, stock up on antidotes until your inventory rattles when you walk. Figuratively speaking; I don’t think they could simulate rattling in 8-bit audio.
Completing my first combat was my favorite moment of the game; not through any sense of achievement (they were just goblins, after all) but because of that tune. The Final Fantasy Victory Fanfare is an iconic piece of gaming sound design. If you’re sat there thinking you don’t know it, you’re wrong. You do. Google it. Here, let me Google it for you. Hearing that opening few seconds for the first time made me realize that, yes, despite being a game from 2002 remastering a game from 1987, this is a Final Fantasy.
Even with some quality of life tweaks in the Origins version of the game, Final Fantasy I can be grueling at times. The game expects a lot of grinding levels and repeating areas. I must have visited that damned Marsh Cave a half dozen times, clawing my way there and back from Elfheim and dying to zombies and ghasts that paralyze my team members and pick away at their health. And let’s not even mention the Ice Caves. God, I miss the “Escape Rope” mechanic from Pokémon, my only other real JRPG experience to date (I discover the Warp/Exit spell exists later into the game, but it’s a long way off).
A total party wipe is a complete loss of progress up to the last save point, but if you limp back to the inn successfully, you’ve at least gained the XP and Gil (gold, basically) that you earned on the journey. Just when you think you’ve made some progress and can breeze from top to bottom of a dungeon in one sweep, the next cave/temple/volcano is just around the corner. Prepare to limp.
First and Final
Uncovering the airship is a mid-game epiphany. A Final Fantasy staple, being able to travel around the world map unharassed at lightning speed feels like Christmas come early after hours of slow traipsing and constant encounters. The map becomes opened up, with previously visited areas now a regular stop-off point for supplies, like a service station on a long road trip.
By the final hours, I began to feel the monotony of the grind. In classic RPG format, the final area is a marathon through all the enemies and boss fights that you’ve previously encountered. It’s a great power trip to see how easily those former bugbears now fall to the might of my party. My Warrior is now a Knight, my Mages now Wizards, in the earliest form of what would become Final Fantasy’s oft-copied ‘job’ system. My Master is now hitting 12 times in a single round, my Black Wizard using spells that literally resemble nukes. No, seriously, in the NES version, the ‘Flare’ spell was called ‘Nuke’! That abominable Marilith doesn’t stand a chance, and only the final boss, Chaos, poses any true singular threat to me now. My ‘load’ screen is testament to that fact.
If my time with Final Fantasy I is any indication, it’ll take me years to play through the entire series — if I ever even manage it at all. Possibly, Final Fantasy I is all I’ll ever achieve (though the urge to fire up FF2 on PSP is strong). But if that’s the case, I don’t regret picking the oft-forgotten debut game. I’ve had a blast with this old classic that revitalized a genre, rescued a studio, and launched a franchise. You can keep your Sephiroths and your Aurons, my broadsword-swinging Knight just kicked the ass of Chaos.
Okay, so all you FF fans love Final Fantasy II, right?