Ben crawls his way through the dungeons of the first Final Fantasy.
Posted on Tuesday, April 24th, 2012 by Ben Keil
Back in 1987 when Square was attempting to find a name for their dungeon-crawling RPG, they probably just thought Final Fantasy sounded epic. They couldn’t possibly have known that it would develop into a long-running series that is its own brand. But over the last 25 years, that is exactly what it has become. This Final Fantasy-A-Thon is going to chronicle my journey across those years, one installment at a time. There have been numerous changes and developments, but to truly see those we must start at the humble beginning. The very First Final Fantasy was released in 1987 for the Nintendo Entertainment System. It has since seen numerous re-releases across a variety of systems including the WonderSwan Color, Playstation, Game Boy Advance, PSP, and iOS. Since I was two when it first came out, my playthrough will be for the Playstation version. The game was released with Final Fantasy II and titled Final Fantasy Origins (FFO). Here’s what that entails: the optional dungeons that were added to the GBA and all subsequent versions will not be covered. The graphics received an upgrade, but the gameplay remains the same as the original. One difference is the game allows for Memo Saves. This means you can save anywhere you like onto a temporary file that is deleted with a hard reset or when the system is shut down. There is unlockable artwork from the original game for those looking to complete the bestiary. Also, the FFO version provides an option to play on Normal or Easy difficulty. The Easy option allows for decreased equipment/magic prices and faster level-ups. Normal plays exactly like the original. For the record, I manned up and played on Normal (and yes, there were times when I regretted it). All right, enough intro stuff, let’s get to the game itself.
The game starts out in the most thrilling of ways: with a selection screen. You get to choose names and classes for the four characters you’ll control for the rest of the game. The characters do not even have default names like future installments, so that ought to tell you quite a bit about the character development to come. There are six job classes from which to choose, each with a potential upgrade later in the game. They are Warrior, Monk, Thief, White Mage, Black Mage, and Red Mage. You can choose any combination of the four, including multiples of any job class. Naturally, this has led to many hardcore players doing masochistic things like trying to beat the game with four white mages. I opted for a balanced party of Warrior, Monk, White Mage, and Black Mage (the thief is a slightly less powerful monk with better defense, and the red mage has decent attack and cast low-to-mid-level white and black magic and before you say anything else: yes, I should have used one).
Now that you’ve made those irreversible decisions that will drastically affect how you play the entire game without having played a single second yet, it’s time to begin the story. You start out at Castle Cornelia; and it’s a good thing that your Four Warriors of Light, who have no background story on how they met or became Warriors of Light, just happen to be wandering the area because evil knight Garland has kidnapped Princess Sarah! You volunteer your services, take down Garland fairly easily, and return the princess. The king builds a bridge in your honor. Cross the bridge and explore a new continent with no real direction or purpose. That’ll be a continuing theme for the first quarter to third of this game. There’s no driving plot or even subtle hints offering guidance as to where to go next. You go to whatever town, castle, or dungeon is within your ability to access. Finally, after killing some pirates and stealing their ship, defeating the dark elf Astos, blowing up a land bridge, slaying a vampire, and feeding a stone golem your hard-earned ruby, we discover our purpose in this great big world.
Deep underground you encounter and (hopefully) defeat the Fiend of Earth, Lich. You soon discover that he is just one of four fiends guarding an elemental crystal that you must kill in order to preserve the crystals, thus saving the world. This quest takes you inside a volcano to defeat Marilith, to a sunken city to defeat Kraken, and ultimately to a sky fortress to defeat Tiamat. Halfway through this quest, you can visit the king of dragons, Bahamut, to complete a trial that will upgrade your job classes. It’s not difficult and well worth the time. After the fiends have fallen, you learn they’ve created an archdemon in the past named Chaos. So off you go, back in time to defeat Chaos. Thus concludes the first game.
As you can tell, the story is very simplistic and almost non-existant in the early stages of the game. So what about the gameplay? With the exception of bosses and enemies hiding by treasure chests, battles are encountered randomly. After completing battles, the player is rewarded with experience and gil. Players gain levels by accumulating experience and automatically have their stats increased based on which job class they are. Battles are turn-based, giving you time to contemplate your next move. The magic-casting system is very different from that of later games. Spells are given levels numbering 1-8. Rather than consuming MP to cast a spell, the magic-caster can cast a spell of each particular level a specific number of times depending his/her level. This makes spells extremely valuable in dungeons, since the only ways to recover your spellcasts are through resting at an inn or using a tent on the world map. Use your magic with extreme caution.
Outside of the previously mentioned Memo Saves, a game can only be saved (to a memory card) by resting at an inn or using a tent. On the FFO version, this makes the Memo Save a life saver. Outside of the first few bosses, I died at least once on every boss, mainly because I got beat up just trekking through the dungeon. I can only imagine how difficult this game would have been on the original version for the NES. To be fair, dungeon-crawling is an essential part of this game’s experience. The problem in today’s day and age is that you can easily hop on the Internet and download a map of the dungeon. Now you can grab all the treasure chests and head for the boss quickly and efficiently. What’s lost in the aimless wandering is plenty of experience and, consequently, levels gained (beyond that, you don’t gain as much gil preventing you from buying as many new spells and gear as you may want/need). I’ll be honest, I did use maps for several of this game’s dungeons (mostly the middle few dungeons). As a result, I had to spend some considerable time level grinding before the last two dungeons just to give myself a fighting chance. For me, this game served as a harsh reminder that us gamers today are spoiled by gentle learning curves and relatively easy single-player campaigns.
There are a few other things worth noting for the sake of the series as a whole. Several long-running staples in the series make their first appearance in the first installment. We run into our very first “Cid”. In this instance, Cid doesn’t make an official appearance. He is merely mentioned as the creator of the airship that the Warriors of Light use. Bahamut, king of dragons, is seen in the game and will upgrade your job classes once you complete the Citadel of Trials. Lastly, the mythical sword Excalibur can be obtained late in the game and is the most powerful weapon your Knight can wield.
Overall, the first Final Fantasy is game that’s worth a look, particularly if you enjoy nostalgic games, but is far too simplistic to leave a lasting impression. If I were doing an official review, I would rate it Vanilla. The story is simple, with a minimalist plot and no character development whatsoever. However, the ending to the game does provide a time paradox so it deserves a bit of credit for showing promise (hold your thoughts on the time paradox issue, we’ll revisit that much more extensively in FFVIII). The game’s bread and butter is dungeon crawling, and it does excel at that. The dungeons are expansive and full of enemy-guarded treasure chests to loot. However, with a simple battle system, little plot to drive me on, and (at times) brutally hard random enemies to fight, it felt like I was moving from one sadistic dungeon to the next just for the sake of it (although I suppose that’s what a dungeon crawler is). To be fair, at the time of its release most games had little to no story and technological limitations prevented the game from having a deep battle system. However, as we’ll see with the next installment, there was plenty of room for improvement and innovation, even in 1987. Despite its several flaws, the game provided a welcome challenge and is worth playing to see the foundation being laid for RPG epicness to come.