I do not want to call this a confession – if you are a regular listener to the RPG Sites Tetracast podcast, then you already know my deep, dark RPG secret. Although I may have played several Dragon Quests, enjoyed most of the Kingdom Hearts series, lost myself in Chrono Trigger and even reviewed a SaGa or two – I had not touched a main line, numbered Final Fantasy until I started my journey with Final Fantasy XIV early last year. All the references in FF14 that I’m sure other players were dizzy over? Well, even though I’m not bored enough to miss the most obvious connections, the vast majority of them rose above my head like an airship.
I always knew I had to fix it in the end, and it just so happened that the news that Final Fantasy XVI was being developed by the same team that I̵
I have to thank him – it’s a choice I would not have made on my own, but after playing the original Final Fantasy, warts and all, for myself, I can say that I agree. If you go out of your way to play the original Final Fantasy in 2021 (and beyond), you will be doing yourself a disservice by transferring the original to the modern PSP / Mobile releases.
There are aspects of the original Final Fantasy that have long since left the series, ironed out for ease of use. For example, if you kill an enemy, any other ally who aimed at the same enemy will instead attack thin air and throw away a turn. Instead of the modern MP system, the game uses an approach with more in common for RPGs on tabletops such as Dungeons & Dragons – each game is assigned a power level, and when you level up your stomach players, they gain access to a variety of “costs”. “For each level of spell casting. Some might say that this is blunt mechanics that may deserve to fade away in the past, but their allure and historical relevance as part of the first Final Fantasy is clear.
Despite what seems to be the reputation, the original NES Final Fantasy is not exactly a difficult game – it just requires you to get involved in it, and have a game plan to tackle the many challenges. I do not think it is a coincidence that many of the game’s dungeons have branching paths, with only one path leading to your goal. While the level design itself may have some issues, I do not necessarily think that the ideas behind that level design are valid. For example, let’s consider the first real dungeon in the game – Marsh Cave.
Enemies in this dungeon tend to be weak against Holy and Fire attacks, which means you may be tempted to spam them early to make things easier for yourself on the journey to the strong enemies guarding the chest that contain your premium. It comes with the warning that you will probably be weak, and without enough of attack magic, for when you finally get there. Unlike other dungeons in the game, you can not exactly teleport out of the dungeon once you have received the crown you need to develop the story – so even if you managed to kill the enemies guarding it, you will still have to worry about pull yourself out of the cave before you can even save, let alone recover your spelling costs.
While you can probably clear a dungeon on your first try with enough preparation, it feels like the game wants you to take your time, explore each floor and perhaps more importantly learn about the enemies that are there. Some enemies you can (and should) fight with little or no trouble; others you may want to run from, as dealing with them requires resources that can be better used elsewhere. Such as on groups of enemies that you can not escape from.
Then the branch paths. Final Fantasy is a game explicitly about resource management, planning and the path of least resistance. The easiest course is probably the best available to you, and rarely are there very explicit difficulty points that you should not be ready for, provided you play carefully. Dungeons are clogged, confusing and not necessarily well designed. At the very least, they are obviously meant to be confusing.
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If you end up taking the North Path instead of the South Path your first trip into Marsh Cave, you’ll probably be frustrated to find that you’ve hit a dead end – wasting resources, even though you may have had early access to equipment such as you might otherwise have picked up later in the cave. You will return, leave the cave, refresh the party and try again. What you have lost in time, however, you will have gained knowledge, as an understanding of some of the enemies that exist in the cave, what they are weak against, which ones you can run from, and so on. This is the point; in this game’s original 1987 design, you’re not necessarily meant to shoot all those dungeons.
While levels and equipment can certainly help you on your journey in FF1 – I would argue that your most important resource is your knowledge, with the second most important being foresight. Although the game never directly tells you where to go in the story, talking to NPCs will give you a pretty good idea. The game expects a lot from the player compared to many modern RPGs, but I would not say that what it asks for – your respect – is actually not so much in the big scheme. If you have any experience playing RPGs on the table, it is very easy to see the parallels here, and with a mindset on the table, it is not difficult to feel at home.
Just to make no excuses for it – I would be willing if I tried to argue that Final Fantas’ original NES version has not gotten older, because it certainly has. It looks decent for NES, with particularly brilliant enemy art, but even when it was new, the cracks were clearly visible. Many of the game’s features were bugged, others simply did not work. I used a guide to help myself through the process, and I certainly would not disapprove of you doing the same. There are simply some aspects of the experience you need to be aware of going into, and I can not blame any players who want to be able to play a blind game – you have a bad time if you try it with FF1.
Final Fantasy Origins – The PS1 collection of Wonderswan versions of the first two games is probably the best, most accessible version of Final Fantasy that you can play today, if you avoid the modern mobile release based on the PSP port. It solves the flaws that plagued the original, while maintaining many of the aspects of the original’s design that I now believe are an important part of the identity. I would still argue that if you are ever serious about seeing where the Final Fantasy series started, you owe it to yourself to play the original – bugs and all.