Retro reflections by Matt S.
I’m going to talk about Final Fantasy in my retro reflections this week, because Final Fantasy is a game that is slowly slipping out of people’s thoughts. It’s almost never listed among people’s favourite games of the series any longer, and very few talk about it in an outright positive manner.
But Final Fantasy is an important game. On a very basic level, without it, we would have no Final Fantasy. But the impact that the game had on the development of the entire genre should not be discounted, either; Final Fantasy was influential for more than just its name.
I actually didn’t play Final Fantasy’s original version for many, many years. In fact, not until it landed on the Wii Virtual Console. I didn’t own a NES as a kid, and I didn’t even “discover” the Final Fantasy series until III (now VI) on the SNES. Instead, my first experience of Final Fantasy was with the PlayStation One remake.
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That game blew me away. The remake did beautiful things with the sprites and background, producing games that were, at the time, the best looking 2D Final Fantasy art going around. And having come to this game after playing Final Fantasy VII, VIII and IX, I loved the raw fantasy tradition that it adhered to; there were no gunblades, and indeed, very little technology at all. This was a classical fantasy world of swords, dungeons, and sorcery, and it really captured my attention as a result.
And the music. Oh, that spellbinding, remastered, music. I love Final Fantasy, as a franchise, as a whole, and in every single case the music has been a real foundation of my love for the games. Every time I go to Japan I buy more classic Final Fantasy albums. While my love for Hatsune Miku will never be dimmed and the Project Diva games will forever by my favourite rhythm games, Theatrhythm Final Fantasy is only second because it doesn’t include the green-haired angel. If I’m being entirely honest, the music is better in that game anyway. Within that near-universal love of Final Fantasy music, the soundtrack of that original game stands out as something really powerful to me, being beautiful, epic, soaring and emotional, all in one.
Many point to that first Final Fantasy lacking so many of the elements that have come to be iconic for the series: There’s no chocobos, no moogles. The characters aren’t even named, which is a real rarity for a series that has always prided itself on telling grand stories about heroes. But dig a little deeper and it’s easy to see that Final Fantasy, the first game in the series, had an enormous impact on the development of the JRPG genre as a distinct entity. It was with this game that Square Enix was able to point the cannon, and from that point on, the cannonball has been hurtling through space on its distinct trajectory.
What are some of those elements, I hear you say?
The first is the narrative structure of the game. Final Fantasy came a year after the first Dragon Quest game, but was far more effective at establishing the rhythm that we now understand the JRPG genre to dance to. In Final Fantasy, you’re generally pulled through the game in a linear fashion. You would travel from one town to a dungeon, only to defeat the boss and then move on to the next dungeon. Parts of the map that you weren’t ready to explore were locked off, funnelling you into the direction of the next key point of interest instead.
In Final Fantasy you’ll start out only able to travel north from the kingdom city that you start out in. Why? Because a bridge across a deep river has collapsed, shutting you off from travelling there until you’ve rescued the king’s daughter from an evil knight that has her locked away in a tower. Once you do that, the king repairs the bridge. Next, you need to defeat a pirate in the next village to get access to a boat, which will allow you to cruise around a limited section of the ocean. I say “limited” because there is a whirlpool that will block you from seeing even more of the world until you’ve been able to clear that away by completing yet more objectives.
This game was released pre-side quests, and there’s very limited room to deviate from the straight narrative path. Rather than being a criticism, though, I find Final Fantasy to be eminently replayable to this day because there’s a purity to the experience; it’s like the core precepts of the genre have been distilled right down to their fundamental building blocks, and the game flows better for it.
Final Fantasy also offers a bunch of features that I would consider to be guilty pleasures, even if they’re not overly in demand by modern standards. The most significant of these is, of course, the grinding. Final Fantasy is famous for some brutal difficulty spikes, and I have distinct memories of spending significant periods of time grinding away to make sure I was ready to meet those challenges. It wasn’t just the difficulty of individual enemies, either. There was certainly some of that, but every bit as much of an issue was the game’s love of putting objectives at the end of very, very long gauntlets, with minimal respite.
To this day, the part of the game that I dread coming up to the most is a section where you have to travel halfway across a continent on foot, fighting random encounters all along the way, before going into a multi-level dungeon, also filled with more monsters. And so many of those monsters were so good at the attrition effect; they could easily poison or wound me just enough that I had to use up my potions and magical resources too frequently after battles.
And that was the remake, which was significantly easier than the original. Many years later, when I sat down to play the original for the first time, I was struck with just how many people would not longer have the patience for the game at all. But as I said; I enjoy grinding as a feature in JRPGs, as I find it cathartic.
Rudimentary as the system was, we also got our first hint of the job system that would become such a common feature in Final Fantasy from the first game. Despite only being able to from a party of four heroes, in Final Fantasy you had six different classes to choose between. People liked experimenting with these, adding even more replay value to the game. Favourite challenges included a party made up entirely of White Mages, or a party with no magic users whatsoever. When you compare to Final Fantasy’s contemporaries, such as Dragon Quest, this feature was actually a major point of differentiation, and started the Final Fantasy series down the path of giving us control over the roles that our characters had in battle.
Final Fantasy is still available to this day; the remade version is on mobile and PlayStation Vita, via the PSP. The original Final Fantasy will be one of the marquee games on the upcoming Nintendo NES Classic mini-console. I actually recommend that version, because, as primitive as it will look, and as frustrating as it will be, it’s also a game that deserves to be remembered as something important and iconic; it’s not just a game, it’s a pivotal title in the history of game development, and through Final Fantasy we actually see the foundational pillar of the entire JRPG genre.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld