,Nintendo ported the first Dragon Quest to the West in 1989. Based on how well Legend of Zelda had sold, they were confident it would be as big a hit over here as it was in Japan. It was not. The legend goes that Nintendo, anticipating feverish sales, had printed such a mighty batch of unsold cartridges that it was cheaper to give them away to subscribers of Nintendo Power than to continue paying for storage. It was an embarrassment that seems to affect the company to this day, as they would rather miss out on sales than have an excess of stock they can’t get rid of. I’m sure I’ll find a Switch for sale one day.
With the Western release of Final Fantasy in 1990, Nintendo seemed determined to make this one stick the landing. Every new copy of the game contained a color poster with a full, marked map of the game world on one side. A legend of every enemy, boss, their attacks and their weaknesses was printed on the other. The instruction manual was 84 pages long and contained a literal walkthrough of over half the game. Nintendo Power would release a strategy issue covering the rest. It sure seems like Nintendo decided Dragon Warrior’s failure was due to players not “understanding” it, so they were going to do everything they could to make sure you weren’t lost playing this one. It must have worked, because Final Fantasy went on to sell around 700,000 copies and kicked off a worldwide franchise that, I dunno, you might have heard of.
I can vouch for the importance of this documentation dump because I had the game back then and I hated it. I would have been about eight and it was bought from a pawn shop about a year or so after release. They only had the cartridge. I didn’t know that I was missing any juicy supporting info, nor was I a subscriber to The Power. Playing it completely blind felt nothing like the platformers I was used to. Why do invisible monsters keep stopping my guys when I’m just trying to get somewhere? What does it want me to do now? Uh, “Attack,” I guess? I made that one guy shoot fire a few times, but now he won’t do it anymore? And I made it to a castle, but there are new bad guys in there that kill my dudes in one hit!! This is dumb.
The development story of Hironobu Sakaguchi’s “final” game has been well-covered, as has its lasting influence on the genre and games as a whole. But it was definitely DOA for me. My experience (and with similar games through the immediate years) contributed to a long-lasting belief that RPGs consisted of weak to descent stories locked behind 120+ hours of random grinding, played by weirdos who put up with it because they “liked the combat system” or something equally absurd. I played Final Fantasy 7 when I was 15, solely because I was laid up from back surgery for months. I was wholly unprepared for the final boss, having done no grinding or side missions whatsoever, so I never actually beat the game and my RPG bias remained unshaken.
Having since played Wizardry and (gasp!) kind of liking it, I was most interested in how this game broke conventions of what had come before it. It’s not hard to see why Final Fantasy became as popular as it did, provided, of course, that you know what you’re doing.
You start by creating a 4-man party out of five character options. As a testament to the game’s quality, the “best” starting party is still debated today. Fighters have access to all weapons and all armor – they soak up damage and dish lots out as well. Thieves don’t do much to start, but as in Wizardry, they can become Ninjas that do obscene amounts of damage. Black Belts hit rapidly in succession, stacking some of the highest damage in the game. White Mages heal, Black Mages hurt, and the Red Mage is a combo Fighter/Mage that can’t use the best weapons or spells. I went with Nintendo Power’s recommendation – Fighter, Black Belt, White Mage, Black Mage. A programming bug in this version makes it so that a Thief in the first or second slot has a guaranteed escape chance, but I ain’t runnin’ from shit.
Your party forms the mythical Light Warriors, destined to battle four demons blocking the world’s energy sources of Fire, Earth, Wind and Water. These are represented by four Orbs you carry (crystals in the Japanese release, changed here for some reason) that shine brightly when their power is restored. This overarching quest gives you the reason to cross oceans to explore new continents. Each continent roughly houses a self-contained challenge or tragedy needed to solve to relight an Orb. You can then use the Orbs’ combined power to combat the game’s ultimate evil in a mild twist ending that is actually executed pretty well.
Right away, it’s good stuff. That starting island that I originally never left forms a sort of tutorial. Enemies are low level, there’s a basic boss, and a town with starter equipment. You’re organically learning the pace of the game and how to play it. Once the king rebuilds a bridge to the north, you start to grasp how vast the world really is. Smartly, that world keeps expanding through unlocks like a sailing ship and a canoe, letting you access areas you couldn’t previously at a controlled pace. You’re walled off from more difficult content in a natural way (no docks on this continent, hmm, how to get there?) while progression has an intended path that you can stray from non-linearly if you choose. The world size probably isn’t much bigger than the first Zelda, but measuring in continents and villages makes it feel grander.
Gameplay here can really be considered the start of the modern Japanese RPG. The influence of Wizardry (and by extension, Dungeons and Dragons) is obvious. Random encounters are brought over, as are stats that improve based on dice rolls, instead of XP points directly allocated by the player. Streamlining the party down to four members helps bring a little focus, while difficulty is scaled well in most all areas. It’s obvious when you’ve hit ground you shouldn’t be in. This gets blended expertly with an overworld similar to Ultima or Dragon’s Quest and overhead dungeons with a light puzzle focus like those in Legend of Zelda.
Unlike Wizardry, saves are comparatively generous. The cart contains a battery save and you can save at any town’s inn. You can also save in the field by using a consumable tent/house in the overworld – more can be purchased in town. The tents let you plant a save before risking a dungeon, while the inns heal your party and restore magic for a fair price. You’ll frequently seek out an inn between travels, making for fantastic, natural checkpoints. Leveling comes quickly too. Despite my fears, I really only ground out XP – as in, running in circles explicitly to level up – a total of three times across around 32 hours of time to beat. In all cases, less than an hour got me where I needed to be. The rest of the XP came pretty naturally while exploring dungeon maps or traversing the overworld. I was honestly surprised with how generally smooth the difficulty curve was.
Magic follows the DnD/Wizardry system of spell tiers and limited charges. My understanding is that this gets changed in later ports, but it’s a familiar system to me at this point and didn’t cause any unexpected trouble. You’re limited to three spells per tier – usually meaning that one possible spell must be left out – and buying these aren’t cheap in the early to mid game. By endgame you’re rolling in gold, but you definitely feel limited early on, especially in healing. There are no Ethers or Hi-Potions in this game, only a simple, regular Potion that heals maybe 20 points of your eventual many hundreds of HP. You’re always wishing you had more chances to heal, while no way to recharge magic outside of an inn tangibly cuts off your exploration and cuts short dungeon runs. Few things are as painful as having to head back to the surface to camp, knowing the only progress you’ve really made is knowing a few less turns to make. But, Wizardry was best managed in “squares you added to your map,” so this doesn’t feel radically different.
It also means offensive magic is just as limited here. Physical combat never stops being useful – with the exception of one minor enemy I can think of, no one is particularly immune or resistant to taking a sword to the face. Physical combat is also always free, so having a party loaded with close combat classes is actually a very viable strategy. The major benefit of a Black Mage is the ability to end large encounters quickly. You can face up to nine mixed enemies, which can definitely cause the eyes to roll if you’re running low on health and just want to get home. Being able to clean them out with a single spell is extremely satisfying. However, with magic limited, you’re always having to balance if this encounter is worth it, if a lesser spell will do, or how to proceed if you’ve already blown your charges.
This is stress you can avoid by not having a Black Mage, and it’s arguable about which is the better choice. I at least appreciate that no boss is going to require a specific class to beat it. A White Mage (for healing) is pretty much mandatory, however. A Red Mage trying to split the difference isn’t going to cut it by the end of the game, and there are enough dangerous undead enemies that a White Mage’s undead-slaying holy magic is actually pretty useful.
Magic is also one of the main places where you feel a major localization issue of this version. Many registers have a four character limit, most prominently your characters’ names and the names of magic spells. This was built to accommodate Japanese kanji, and the English localization team had to make do with how to convey things like “a spell that damages the undead” with only four letters. This leads to a lot of elusive choices. “PURE” doesn’t really cover what “Antidote” needs to, but they’re doing the best with what they have. “Thunder” to “LIT” is probably going for “lightning,” but why not “THUN?” I assume Nintendo of America wasn’t okay with a spell named “Kill,” so it’s changed to “RUB” (as in “rub out?” What’s with all the localization teams back then speaking like 1920s gangsters?) The spell list in the manual becomes a critical reference and you stand to be the most confused with this game if you don’t have it ready nearby.
The first Final Fantasy is also notoriously buggy. Fans have examined what you suspect is true when playing and confirmed that, yes, a number of spells just outright don’t work. Two spells meant to buff your characters have no effect at all – luckily, Haste is still the go-to for a Black Mage to boost a fighting character and it works just fine. Any sword that is meant to be more effective against a certain monster (Werebane, Dragonsbane) simply isn’t. Weapons that are supposed to balance low damage with more frequent critical hits just don’t. Luckily, these don’t fundamentally break the game. It does steer you away from certain equipment, but doesn’t really cripple the experience. Even the fact that the Intelligence stat appears to do nothing and Mages never improve still works in the context of Wizardry and the games that came before – your initial FIRE spell isn’t meant to morph into a better spell under this system; that’s what FIR2 is for.
Even without the bugs, combat gets weighed down a bit by early technical limitations. Each attack made by you or your foes rolls and modifies invisible dice, and in this version, these must be calculated one at a time for every enemy. You don’t apply a party-wide attack to the party as a whole – you have to roll for each enemy in it individually. Cast a SLEP spell and watch as the NES pauses to roll resistances for every enemy in turn. At the default message rate, this is five seconds. An early fight with nine pirates took 45 seconds to calculate, which feels like an eternity. You can change the message speed from the game’s main menu, racking it all the way up to something entirely unreadable. If you want to follow along with the proceedings, though, you’re going to have to pick a lower speed value and wait.
This version also doesn’t reassign attacks if the enemy that character was targeting dies. If your Fighter lays out the Goblin that your Black Belt was also targeting, the Black Belt’s attack will whiff with an “Ineffective” message. On the one hand, this encourages you to think tactically about every battle. Who is likely to kill an enemy by themselves? Who will need help? Which enemies should I focus on if I can’t kill them all in one go? It prevents you from lazily smacking the B button to assign everyone to attack whomever is open, and actually does keep you engaged in the fights. However, it is admittedly another point that slows battles down, and having an enemy flee before you can get to them feels like a cheap waste of an attack.
Combat graphics modify to show the weapon or spell your fighters are striking with, which is neat. They do not modify to show afflictions. Your own health bars on the far right will indicate if any member of your party is slept, silenced, blinded, etc, but you will not be able to tell who among the enemies remains affected. You can somewhat track this through the combat messages when you cast the spell – again, the effects are all calculated in turn so you can read when it hits and when that foe breaks from it – but this method is unreliable in large groups. It’s another mark against magic that really just encouraged me toward the “nuke everything” spells, or laying Silence on a boss until it stuck.
Finally, the game hasn’t learned what Wizardry did early on – getting randomly “surprised” at the start of combat and then killed by a powerful spell is pretty lame. Either side has a chance to surprise the other and get a round of free hits in. Facing enemies that are at your level and can cast party-wrecking spells is rare, but can happen. I ran afoul of some Wizards in the Marsh Cave that cast Fire3 and knocked out party members in the first turn. Hadn’t seen magic like that before, so it was time to hit the ol’ grindy trail.
That’s a lot of complaints, but it shouldn’t turn you off from the game. If it does, you certainly have your free pick of remakes to choose from – Final Fantasy Origins for the PlayStation is the best mix of modern updates and original intent (most modern remakes change the magic system). I’m not even sure I would recommend this version if you’re only casually interested, but to put it another way, I’m still not even sure I like older RPGs and I enjoyed my time here without reservations. Granted, I’m not sure how much of this was coming right off of Wizardry and viewing any generosity as an improvement.
Special mention should go to the music. Nobuo Uematsu’s melodies here are classics, still referenced and remixed today, both in and out of the series. The first nine notes of the battle victory tune might even be recognizable to people who haven’t played a single game in the series, while the title theme continues to form the base of every Final Fantasy game’s theme through the series.
And that’s Final Fantasy. Even today, it plays a lot like a modern JRPG, because it solidified many of the conventions we now take for granted. Its plot is relatively short, sweet, and contained – with even a surprise or two managed out of creaky 8-bit graphics and a mostly un-embellished translation. The world is exciting to explore without feeling like you’ll need a page of notes to remember where you left off. Combat is tactical enough without feeling punishing and leveling your band is always enjoyable. Certainly not a required play, but a fascinating entry in its historical context and a fun game in its own right.
A collection of smaller quests, smartly segmented, across a world that invites exploration. Battle system cements what has been tried and tweaked before into the reigning standard for these types of games. Sharp 8-bit graphics and character designs.
Digital space limitations mean you really need the documentation standing by to reference. Known bugs shift the strategy away from what’s intended, but you could still probably play (and win) without worrying about them.