Final Fantasy (NES) Review

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Review by tankMage (June 2019)

Score: B+ (8.8/10)

Final Fantasy: The Most Ironic Title Ever

   By now I’ve played a few NES RPGs and they all leave something to be desired. Final Fantasy blows every 8-Bit RPG I’ve covered on this site out of the water with superior graphics, music, and a battle system that must have been revolutionary back in 1990. But this game has a lot of technical issues that suck some of the fun out of playing it. Namely a host of bugs and a user interface that made me want to punt the cartridge into a dumpster or Sakaguchi’s (The creator of Final Fantasy) face. Still, I’ve enjoyed this game over the years and there’s a lot of stuff in it that hardcore RPG fans may appreciate.

   Incidentally, there’s something of a legend surrounding the development of Final Fantasy. It goes that Square was near bankruptcy when Sakaguchi was given permission to start work on his dream RPG “Fighting Fantasy”. If the game failed, Sakaguchi would go back to school, so he changed the name to “Final Fantasy”. The rest is history as the series took off like a rocket and Sakaguchi remained in the industry for decades. I’ve looked into the legend and there seems to be some degree of controversy as to whether or not this story is true. Unfortunately, my rather cursory investigation of the topic didn’t yield anything conclusive one way or another, so I’ll leave it to you to determine its veracity. Regardless, Final Fantasy struck a chord with both western and Japanese gamers, becoming a widely known franchise by the late 1990s, earning it a place in gaming history.

That Old School Difficulty

   For the most part, RPGs softened up during the 16-Bit era. On the other hand, older console and PC RPGs from the 1980s actively tried to kill the player’s party… well there’s plenty of exceptions to this rule, so keep in mind I’m making generalizations. Anyway, Final Fantasy falls into the latter category and most players can expect to see their party get wiped out once or twice. Intrepid souls looking for a challenge will likely enjoy this aspect of the game, but it’s only fair to warn potential players that they’ll have to deal with Insta-Death, level grinding, and problems without obvious solutions. Many of the facets of this game that may be considered unfair by some are offset by a number of excellent guides created by fans of the series, so keep in mind that a little planning and a good choice of party members can make the game a breeze.

Story

   Final Fantasy seems to draw more from western RPGs than the nascent Japanese branch of the genre. As a result, the focus is more on the lore and there is no character development since the party is merely an avatar for the player. While this makes for an interesting fusion of two separate philosophies (Western RPGs are more closely tied to Dungeons and Dragons and Japanese RPGs often mimic Manga/Anime) fans of JRPGs may find the story lacking as a result. However, the game world is rich with lore that would be built upon and re-explored as the series evolved.

   The player is presented with the legend behind the events that take place in the game before the start screen displays, giving the plot a sort of “grand narrative” that serves as a framework, but much of the story is left vague and it’s often up to the player to interpret events. Personally, I love the sense of mystery imparted by narrative styles like the one we see in this title. The events that shape the world of Final Fantasy are often revealed in snippets of dialogue or are evident in the locations the player explores. That said, the tale this game tells is a simple one and it may be a bit too stark at times, though it is all wrapped up rather neatly with a surprise ending that left me satisfied.

Yup, it’s a story.

Graphics

   It would be overly bold on my part to say that Final Fantasy has the best graphics as far as NES RPGs go as I haven’t played them all, but I will say that this title set a high bar for future releases. Some of you may be familiar with my disdain for the Dragon Warrior battle engine, which merely displays enemies that flicker when they take damage. Well, Final Fantasy’s battle engine was a refutation of that boring bullshit. Players can see their heroes as well as the enemy, both of which are nicely rendered and about as good looking as you can expect from a console made in the mid 1980s. In fact, connoisseurs of 8-Bit graphics will probably find the character designs delightful. Even Square seemed to value memorable sprites like the Red and Black mages, because renditions of them appear throughout the series.

   Not only do players actually get to see their party in combat, but there are also attack and magic animations. Granted, these animations are stiff, cookiecutter affairs, but they were a much needed step forward. There are also different sprites for weapons that make the player feel like they are making real progress as they buy or find new arms. Some effort was also put forth to include magic effects, which are underwhelming. Most spells use the same graphic with a different color thrown in for variety. Still, it’s an improvement over the lack of magic effects seen in other games from this era. The enemies are also cool looking and highly detailed, but they lack animations and there aren’t even any indicators that allow the player to tell which enemy is taking a turn. On a side note, players may even recognize foes like Imps that appear in later games.

Final Fantasy’s distinctive foes were present even in the first game.

   The battle engine may look good, but the overworld, dungeon, and town graphics are all pretty average. All of the sprites have that stunted, dwarfish appearance that were par for the course at the time. Animations are also lacking on the maps, though most sprites at least have simple walk cycles. The only thing that makes the maps stand out is the amount of variety that comes into play as the player explores the game. There are spooky temples, castles, caves, technologically advanced ruins, and even volcanoes to explore, which is definitely a step up from the repetitive caves we see in other RPGs on the NES.

Music and Sound

   None other than the legendary Nobuo Uematsu did the soundtrack and while the song loops are fairly short, they are also some of the best classical style pieces on the Nintendo Entertainment System. I had already played Final Fantasy IV and VI by the time I was finally able to snag a copy of this game, so I had an idea of the high standards the series had set for video game music. With Final Fantasy being an NES title, I really didn’t know what to expect, but it turned out that Nobuo Uematsu’s early works were just as memorable as the songs he would create down the road.

   The sound effects are also good and Square made the best of the console’s rather limited ability in this department. They even somehow managed to make the sound produced when one of your characters takes a hit in battle rather visceral. I always wince when one of my weaker party members gets whacked by a tough monster and the signature “Whooomphfff” sound plays, making the situation that much more tense. However, the magic sound effect can get irritating if you have a lot of mages and there’s generally not much of a difference between this game’s sound effects and anything else you’ll hear on the NES.

User Interface

   Final Fantasy has a lot of UI issues. In many ways its user interface is a cut above other RPGs from this era, thanks to a decent battle engine and main menu where everything is neatly laid out. This is more of a case where a lot of little flaws come together to make a big headache for players. Many new players will be dismayed by the fact that their characters will attack monsters that are already dead unless they plan their attacks carefully or spread them out; at least this adds the need for strategy, I suppose. Then there’s the equipment screen, which is horrendous, thanks to its lack of space. The party can only hold sixteen pieces of armor and sixteen weapons at one time, which means you’ll have to drop items to pick new ones up later in the game. Not knowing what’s in a chest to begin with can make this issue frustrating unless you have someone go without headgear or you have a Black Belt (who doesn’t need armor) in the party.

   I also found it annoying that heroes who get poisoned, killed, or turned to stone are moved to a different position in your lineup after a battle. While this may not seem like a big deal, enemies are less likely to attack heroes in the lower ranks, which makes it important to place characters with low armor and hit points in safe spots. Having to constantly stop to shuffle party members around in certain areas gets old really fast, even though the devs probably added this feature out of consideration for the player. Purchasing spells and items is an unpleasant experience as well. Once you buy a spell, you’re stuck with it even if you don’t like it. Spells are split into eight levels and each level has three open slots. Learning a spell fills one of those slots permanently and there’s usually more than three spells to choose from on each level. You’re screwed if you do not like the spell you learned or if it’s bugged, unless you saved before purchasing the spell. The item shop keepers will only sell you one item at a time (an old joke among FF1 fans) and buying healing items can get really tedious as you will have to constantly cycle through dialogue to get just a few Heal Potions.

Shop keep! Ten potions please! Oh, crap…

Gameplay

   In spite of all its bugs and dismal UI, FF1 features some great classic RPG mechanics and is a fun adventure if you are stout of heart enough to endure some of its more punishing aspects. It also has a ton of replay value if you enjoy experimenting with party combinations, since the player can choose from five different classes to fill four party member slots in any manner they wish. If my math is correct, there are about 126 possible party permutations that players can create and there are even more if you count things like solo runs. Aside from its class system and battle engine, this RPG isn’t all that different from its peers, though it does fine tune the formula a bit.

   First, I should probably explain the classes a bit more. Fighters, Black Belts, and Thieves are focused on physical combat. They generally have higher hit points than the other classes and deal more damage with weapons, but each one has its own niche. The Thief is agile, the Fighter can use the strongest equipment, and Black Belts are masters of unarmed combat. The rest of the classes (Black Mage, White Mage, and Red Mage) are all magic users with lower physical stats than the more combat oriented classes. Their ability to cast healing or offensive spells makes up for their limited melee combat capabilities. Sakaguchi made these basic classes more interesting by providing the player with the opportunity to upgrade them, which unlocks new abilities and allows them to use better gear.

   Battles work like just about any other turn-based RPG, but players will notice that there are far more magic options. Enemies also tend to resist certain spells or physical attacks, requiring the player to become familiar with his foes in order to win battles. Final Fantasy wasn’t shy about throwing bosses into the mix and just about every dungeon has one waiting in its depths. Bosses may be taken for granted in the genre today, but they were often rarities in NES RPGs, so FF1 is more exciting than its peers thanks to its unique bosses. This is also where the game can be merciless. Many bosses hit like trucks or use spells that can instantly kill your party members. Even regular enemies use insta-death later on. Personally, I enjoy a little extra challenge, but it does feel like blind luck plays too much of a role in combat until you figure ways to block one hit kills.

   As one would expect, there are plenty of towns and dungeons to explore, all of which are connected by a world map filled with random battles. For the most part, exploration is fairly simple; talk to townspeople, get hints, visit dungeon, get special item, rinse and repeat. Having played this game without the assistance of a guide many years ago, I can safely say that it isn’t terribly difficult to navigate so long as you pay attention to clues. However, there are a few points where players will have to look carefully or think outside the box a bit. Of course, this is a moot point in the age of the internet, where just about every game has a walkthrough. Last, but not least, there are various vehicles that players can travel around in, including a ship and an airship. The airship is an especially nice touch, since it allows the player to explore without having to fight random enemies.

   The dungeons are mazes filled with treasure and deadly foes. Players are given plenty of incentive to explore these places, because they will often find upgrades for their equipment or money that can be used to buy spells. At times, the player is forced to backtrack through dungeons, presumably to beef up total play time, though this tends to be rare. Many of the dungeons have teleporters that players can use to reach the surface after beating the boss, which is a great quality of life feature that other RPGs eventually embraced.

   While the gameplay is quite good, bugs blemish what would otherwise be an excellent experience. All games have at least a few bugs, but this one is so riddled with them that it is a marvel that it’s even playable. Some spells are bugged and do not work as intended or at all. Elemental weapons are bugged and do not work properly. It’s widely believed that the Intelligence stat does not work at all, since it has no real effect on a mage’s performance. The list goes on and on. Oddly, most of the bugs are rather innocuous and I didn’t even notice them until years later. Still, players who buy the LOCK spell are wasting their time and money since it doesn’t work and you’re not going to do extra damage to Frost Giants with a Flame Sword, so these bugs can definitely mislead players into doing things that are not at all to their benefit.

  Finally, I should also mention that this game can be a grind. Weapons, armor, and spells cost a lot of money and some parties can be insanely expensive to outfit. Years ago this game developed a reputation even among its peers as a grind fest, but after writing a guide for it I came to realize that maybe this reputation is a bit unfair. Dungeons often have tons of gear and money. In fact, players can spend hours farming gold to buy new stuff, only to find copies or better items in the nearest dungeon, so maybe it isn’t necessary to fight endless battles in order to buy new stuff. That said, this is not something that would be readily apparent to new players, so it’s still something of a problem.

Final Thoughts

   As NES RPGs go, this is probably as good as it gets unless you get a chance to play Japanese titles that never made it to North America, such as Final Fantasy III and Just Breed. Keep in mind I’m talking about turn-based role playing games in particular and not Action RPGs like Crystalis. At the end of the day, this title has a lot of glaring flaws, but it also has a lot to offer by way of replay value and strategy for those who can overlook some of its more irritating quirks. I’ve played through FF1 about four times and every party combination has turned out to be a new experience, which says a lot for an RPG made in the late Eighties.

Recommendations

Final Fantasy is a good choice for dedicated fans of the series and classic RPG lovers.

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