Hello! It’s been a long time since I’ve put something on the blog hasn’t it?
Final Fantasy (FF) has been on my mind a lot lately, most likely because some big PlayStation game was released about a week ago. I had realised that I have a lot of blind spots with this series, even though it does contain some games which I have played and adored. Most of the games made before Final Fantasy VII were ones that I had started but never got very far. There were also early games that I had never played before. So what better way to fix this than to start from the beginning.
I’ll be playing most of them in order, but I may jump around a little and play certain games out of order (I will be playing the main numbered games in the order that they came out). As of writing this article I have now played and completed:
- Final Fantasy (FF1)
- Final Fantasy II (FF2)
- Final Fantasy III (FF3)
I couldn’t think of what else to title the collective of games I’m writing about here but “The NES Trilogy” seems to fit because that’s where they come from. What feels weird to me about calling them that is I have played more recent iterations of them because that’s what’s more readily available. The versions of FF1 and 2 which I had played were released for the PSP in 2007. The version of FF3 I’ve been playing released for the PC in 2014 and is still receiving updates in 2020.
I wonder what I would think of the original versions on the NES if I had played those instead. Would I be kinder knowing that they are older and aren’t up to more modern standards? Would I be meaner because they don’t have the small conveniences which have been added into the games over each subsequent re-release? If I’m honest it most likely would be the latter. This caveat I thought worth mentioning since I’m going to be talking about the series’ origins, but by playing these iterations I’m essentially viewing through a modernised lens where Final Fantasy already exists as a gargantuan mega-franchise.
Some of the changes are small conveniences which we take for granted, like attacks auto-targeting onto a different enemy when its initial target has already been defeated. Some are a little more drastic like FF1 switching to a different magic system similar to what is in later games, which I imagine has significant effects on the pace of the game. FF3 has an entirely new presentation being a 3D game featuring 8-directional movement as opposed to its original 2D 4-directional movement, and a pace of combat that feels a little lumbering compared to its predecessors (though the very recent addition of an “auto-battle” feature has quickened it somewhat).
A lot of the revisions in FF1 and 2 come from a compilation release on the PS1, which gives them both strong consistency in aesthetics. The updated visuals and sound brings them closer in line to later games in the series, but their differing approach in game design and storytelling makes them still feel like very distinct games. The PSP releases which I played did not change a lot from that.
FF3’s 3D visual overhaul breaks that consistency, and while the series’ reliance on recurring elements means that any game in the series can always be recognised as such from appearance, this edition of the game really contrasts with the others mentioned here. This edition makes it clearer that when a series lasts as long as this, new talent comes aboard. The character designs really illustrate that difference for me, as newer character designer Akihiko Yoshida’s designs here have a much cleaner and simpler look than original designer Yoshitaka Amano’s wispier style.
While these direct comparisons are fun to make, I think it’s also worth highlighting what each game is like individually. I also think it’s worth mentioning that this article contains plot spoilers for Final Fantasy II.
This is a weird one, it’s so early on that it feels more like a framework to eventually build on since certain “defining characteristics of Final Fantasy” are absent, and what is there feels almost incomplete. For one example, the prologue music which is a staple of the games shows up here, but only the quarter note arpeggios feature in the song, the chords that define so much of the song for me are not here yet (and won’t appear until Final Fantasy IV).
There’s also not a lot of mandatory exposition throughout the game except for a text-based narration at the opening and closing, a lot of details are left for villagers and townspeople to tell you, so it’s very easy to assume that the game has little story outside of dialogue from a few boss characters that you have to encounter. It’s an interesting method of storytelling but it’s easy to see why it was dropped for subsequent games, as it’s so easily missable.
Character classes are picked at the start and kept for the rest of the game. Later on you get to upgrade to stronger classes, but they are still based off of the one you picked at the start. This feels more in line with a Western RPG to me, since when I think of class based Japanese RPGs, they usually have extreme flexibility in changing classes at any time. There are of course exceptions to this on both sides, as there always is.
The game didn’t offer a lot of challenge so it was quite breezy to get through, with the exception of the final boss which was a tough battle but I managed it without a game over. It’s also short for an RPG at about 15 hours, and is simple enough to feel very approachable especially in its more modernised GBA, PSP and mobile phone incarnations. If you’re interested in taking a look at the comparably humble beginnings of one of the most well-known RPG series, I would say that Final Fantasy is worth a shot.
Final Fantasy II
This one opens with an action-packed cutscene demonstrating the setup for the game, an Evil Emperor taking over the world with demons he has summoned. The playable party of heroes is seen making an escape attempt, but it is unsuccessful as you are then forced to actually take part in a fight against the Emperor’s knights using the game’s battle mechanics. You will lose, it is impossible to win the fight as the enemy strength outmatches yours considerably. Once you do fall in this battle, the game carries on as normal, but from that moment one of your initial party members is now missing. This is a statement that Final Fantasy II is going to be doing a lot more to tell a story. While this game does have some moments like that throughout, it still feels much less often than what you would see in more modern games.
There’s some very cool stuff that happens in it. You defeat the Emperor two-thirds of the way through the game, and then he eventually comes back having just conquered Hell and brings more armies of demons with him. There’s also an evil dark knight who’s related to some of the party members, so it does feel kinda Star Wars-ish (another series which Final Fantasy does love making reference to).
The progression system feels incredibly experimental compared to the other games I’m talking about here. Character statistics are increased at the end of a battle based on specific actions taken during it; max HP goes up when you take hits, attack goes up when you hit something, magic gets stronger when you use it. It’s a weird system that’s fun to play with initially but eventually it reveals its drawbacks.
It was surprising for a game in which every possible stat can be grinded up to max, that my party of characters managed to feel distinct. This is because of the sheer amount of time it takes in order to max every stat, so for a normal length playthrough it’s much better to create a party of specialists. You need a black magic caster, a healer and a physical attacker and you can’t quickly be all of those at once. There’s also only a limited amount of magic slots on each character, so no one can learn every spell.
The biggest drawback of this system is that every stat has to be increased from usage. It leads to some bizarre strategies in order to get a stronger party. I would attack my own party members in order to increase their HP, which would in turn increase attack.
Magic was one of the biggest issues I had with this game, as every spell would be earned as a “level 1 spell” and required constant use in order to make it stronger. This became a problem as spells earned much later in the game would still start at level 1 when all my others were at level 10, which meant that I had to spend some time repeatedly using spells against weak enemies to make them worth casting in battle against stronger foes.
The ideas FF2’s character progression system includes are interesting in theory, but in practice here they make the experience a little more tedious. Thankfully this wasn’t a dead end for it and they would be utilised in Square’s other RPG series SaGa (lead by FF2 designer Akitoshi Kawazu). This style of stat growth is also very similar to the one found in the Elder Scrolls games, and in my short experience with them, it seemed to work well there.
Over the course of the game the fourth party member slot is filled with different characters. From a storytelling perspective I liked it, as it meant I wasn’t always spending large portions of the game with only the same party members. What made it less interesting was that because they were temporary, I didn’t want to spend as much time levelling them up to be as strong as the rest of the party, meaning that they were often very weak compared to other members.
As I played more of FF2 I really came to dislike the dungeons. They went on a bit long and got a little too labyrinthine. Even when I had to look up a map for a dungeon online I felt as though I was playing one of those mazes from a child’s activity book. This, coupled with the character progression systems, was what really made playing the game feel dull at times.
If you’re curious about this one it might be worth playing to see the systems at work. I was initially very intrigued by it until it became tiring. With its more clearly defined story I could see how this series did end up evolving, and I thought that was neat to experience. You could just as easily take a look at how the game does its story by looking up YouTube videos.
Final Fantasy III
This game reintroduces the character classes found in FF1 but now with a lot more flexibility. The second game had gone a little too far in its systems of making fully malleable party members, but Final Fantasy III finds something in-between that I much preferred. You can now change classes (now named “jobs”) at any time as long as you’re not in a battle.
This sounds great but I had a few problems with it. Not all jobs are available to start, and I guess it’s useful so that players can get an understanding of the systems at a gradual enough pace so that they are not overwhelmed, but I just wanted to get to the stage where all the jobs that I wanted to play with were available. I already had an idea of the party I wanted to form and just wanted to work towards that, though it did feel good once I had earned all the jobs I wanted.
There are also points in the game in which certain jobs are clearly better suited than others. You will get to a town and everyone will talk to you about the next area you are going to, they’ll mention how the monsters there are easily bested by a “dark knight” or a “dragoon” and a lot of the items you find there are more suited towards those classes. So if you want to have an easier time against those enemies, you best have a dark knight or dragoon in your party.
The game also has systems to discourage changing jobs too often as well, as each job needs to be levelled up individually per character, and getting them to effective levels at times can be very grindy, especially as some useful jobs are unlocked very close to the end of the game. There is also a mechanic called “job sickness”, which makes a party member weaker for a few battles when they begin a new job.
A lot of other games with similar job systems also have this kind of levelling but with a much smaller ceiling so that you don’t have to spend quite as much time getting the job up to a usable level. I haven’t encountered many of these sorts of games that feature job sickness either.
Even though I do have complaints, the jobs themselves are good, they feel like they have more distinguishing features from each other than the ones in FF1 (where melee-damage-dealing classes just felt very similar to each other). Knights will guard weakened party members from attacks, Dragoons can jump into the air to do a massive attack, Vikings can provoke enemies to hit them instead of the other members. It doesn’t have the diversity that newer games bring, but as a starting point it’s still fun to play with these ones.
The battle system itself feels more well-tuned compared to the previous games, with combat encounters that offer a fun sort of challenge at times, and I didn’t find them too overwhelming. Being able to take newer jobs into them also makes them feel a little more varied.
Dungeons are also much simpler than in the previous game, and are relatively short by comparison. Progressing through them felt quick, and while it doesn’t have a lot of big story moments to go through, it really does feel like the game has very little downtime, except for when I needed to grind for jobs.
And I haven’t really got a lot to say about the story in this one, it’s standard “save-the-world” stuff, and it doesn’t have an emperor coming back from the dead bringing the armies of hell with him so I didn’t find it as cool. It doesn’t feel like a huge step up from FF2 in terms of how it presents its story.
Out of the three games I had the most fun with Final Fantasy III. If I could only recommend one of this original set to someone, this would be it. It feels like the most well-balanced out of them, with decent pacing and battles that offer a good challenge. While it is a bit grindy I would say it’s still an alright game. There are a bunch of other Final Fantasy games I like considerably more than this one but those are for another time.
I have a feeling this will be a fitting name for this section, since like the namesake fantasy of the series as I play more games in the series I’ll continue having thoughts on prior entries since comparison is inevitable.
Old games have a reputation for being harsh, and I’m surprised how much these games weren’t, but I don’t know if that’s down the habits I had when playing them. If possible I will grind until I am overpowered in a lot of games.
I have to admit that the way I am playing these games is specifically because of the modern structure of information availability and communication. If I bought FF3 in 2007 for the DS, I would not have put anything up on Twitter and other places about how I was playing it, and less people would have responded about how difficult it was. Because I was told by multiple people that the game was difficult, I looked into ways to make it easier on myself and those worked.
Some of those walkthroughs and maps I made use of would have probably existed in 2007. The fact that UK releases of these games used to take much longer than the Japanese and US releases meant a lot of that sort of information was already collected by the time it reached this country (fun fact: Mario & Luigi: Dream Team was a game that came out in the UK before it did in Japan and the US, I got stuck on it once and tried to look up a walkthrough, none of them existed at that point so I just had to figure the game out myself).
I do wish that I had a little more to say about the story that these games tell, but that aspect feels so much simpler and scaled down compared to future entries that I don’t feel like I can say a lot about it. It’s much easier for me to talk about the systems at play since that’s what I spent much more time with these games. Maybe if I ever revisit these games at another time, I might be able to poke at the narrative aspects a little more.
Final Fantasy is also a series known for it’s fantastic music, and while I did refer to it earlier as “incomplete” in these games I think that was a little unfair. When these games were initially made, they were complete, it’s just that future entries added more on top of it. Because these are some of the earlier games, there is less music than what later games have. Dungeon and battle themes repeat, and while some of the tunes are indeed catchy, they don’t quite reach the very high strengths that later games in the series do.
The versions which I played all feature much newer sounding versions of the music than the bleeps and bloops found in the original NES editions. I found the rearranged music in FF1 and 2 to be very good (1 even includes some extra music to add a slight bit more variety since the original game only included a single battle theme). FF3’s new soundtrack I found to be weaker than its original, the instrumentation on it made it sound a little generic. The final boss theme has a good rearrangement, but mostly because it is a fusion of both the new style and old to make something that sounds a little more unique. Here is a link to a Spotify playlist I have made including my favourites from these three games.
I did have issues with Final Fantasy 1-3, and a lot of people would argue that it’s likely because of how old these games are. They were initially designed 30+ years ago, and I don’t think this is what makes them flawed. Dragon Quest IV is a very strong example of classic RPG design, and I would put it up there along with my favourites in the genre. It was also released around the same time as FF3. All of these games in this era were somewhat experimental, I just feel that some experiments come across more successful than others.
I’m going to continue to keep playing more of these games, and I’m looking forward to seeing what they bring. I know for a fact that I’m going to enjoy revisiting ones I’ve played before, but filling in the blindspots is what’s most exciting to me.
I suppose you might want to know where I rank these? From worst to best:
- Final Fantasy II
- Final Fantasy
- Final Fantasy III
Until next time!