History Lessons: Final Fantasy

Other History Lessons posts (including my Introduction) can be found here. As always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

I’ve written about a lot of Japanese-style role-playing games on this blog, but most have been smaller, free offerings created with a tool like RPGMaker. I haven’t really dug into the big names, in part because they’ve traditionally been tied to console systems that I do not own. And when trying to take a historical look at games like Final Fantasy, the first entry into the phenomenally successful and long-running Japanese role-playing game series, this leads to another problem: while console games are often re-released so they won’t disappear along with the older consoles they ran on, they are often modified significantly in the process.

Take the recent PC release of Final Fantasy VI as a perfect example. One of the best-loved entries in the series, Final Fantasy VI is an excellent candidate for preservation, as fans and new players alike will be happy to purchase a new version that runs on modern hardware. Yet the recent release completely changes the art style, which turned off most fans. This is despite the involvement of the original artists, who were apparently trying to hew closer to early concept art from the initial design documents. Fans, however, wanted something that looked like the game they played and loved when they were younger, and were rather upset with the new art.

This type of thing is not an isolated incident, either. The first Final Fantasy game, which I wanted to revisit for this post, has seen no fewer than seventeen re-releases since it first appeared in 1987, the majority of which contain changes to the art, music, script (new translations or even straight rewrites), and even entirely new places to explore within the game. While bug fixes and updated art and music can be nice, very few of these releases are motivated by archiving the history of the series. I want to go through the series (or at least the earlier entries) to look at how they evolved, and how the designs have shaped the genre since. That means I want to play the original version of the game, as it appeared in 1987 (or 1990 in the United States).

For that, there’s always another option: emulation. This is how many older PC games are played today, using programs like DOSBox to simulate much older computers. Sites like GOG prioritized the preservation of these older games in their original forms, with modifications only made when necessary to get them to run on modern machines, and often taking advantage of emulation to do so. Developers and publishers have largely endorsed this practice, with many older titles that are reliant on DOSBox emulation being sold on GOG, Steam, and other sites.

But for older console games, this practice is legally murky. If one owns an original Playstation disc and uses it with a PC-based emulator, then it’s probably OK, but what about the old cartridge games that could only be read by their particular console (which is no longer produced)? Some of these have seen official releases through emulation, but those are typically still tied to a specific console, and many games remain unavailable. But certain enterprising fans have managed to extract the data from the original cartridges, creating a file known as a ROM, and distribute it over the internet for use with computer-based emulators. Which means players can download and play these games for free from unofficial channels.

Prevailing opinion on the internet is that if one owns the game in question for the original hardware, then running it through emulation instead (even if that means downloading the ROM from somewhere) is OK, in a moral sense. But the legal situation is less clear and often debated. Opinions range from those who think these older games should be freely available due to historical interest (see, for example, the console game library at the Internet Archive) to those who believe that the emulated games should only be played when made officially available by the publishers.

I do own Final Fantasy on an original cartridge. At least I used to; it is likely buried in a box somewhere at my parents’ house, if they haven’t donated it or thrown it out by now. I played it almost to completion on an original Nintendo Entertainment System (which is the same as the Japanese Famicom, but rebranded for an American audience) when I was much younger. So I feel I am justified in using emulation to play it again now. My other options are to play the heavily modified Android release which will look nothing like the original, or buy a Nintendo Wii or 3DS for the sole purpose of playing an official emulated version of the game, neither of which appeal.

So I turned to the internet for a guide to running an emulator for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). This led me to Retroarch, a sort of uber-emulator front end that can run emulators for all sorts of different hardware, and allows an absurd level of customization. Clearly designed to be operated with a gamepad, Retroarch’s menus resemble the interface from the more recent Playstation consoles, and the sheer number of options is daunting. I followed this guide (including a few sub-links) to get set up for NES emulation, and found it worked like a charm, from authentic sound right down to the particular visual quirks of the NES. Seeing that brought back a lot of old memories.

Before I get into the game itself, I should provide some historical context. Japanese-style role-playing games, as we know them, grew out of early Western dungeon crawler role-playing games like the Wizardry series, which were very popular in Japan. The first Wizardry game appeared in 1981 and the series saw releases throughout the 1980s, laying the foundation for the 1986 release of Dragon Quest (known as Dragon Warrior in the United States to avoid legal conflict with the DragonQuest pen-and-paper role-playing game) by Chunsoft for the Japanese Famicom system. Although it wouldn’t appear in the United States until 1989, Dragon Quest was a huge hit in Japan and had already spawned two sequels by the time it came to American shores. I’ve played it, but not extensively. The hallmarks of the Japanese-style role-playing game are all present: top-down exploration of a tile-based world, with randomized battles appearing on a separate screen and navigated through a simple menu of commands. I remember fighting lots of monsters to slowly accrue enough money for better equipment so I could fight tougher monsters. This type of “grind” would become a mainstay of the Japanese-style role-playing game, although it has been de-emphasized in many recent releases.

Dragon Quest would go on to spawn numerous sequels in a long-running and very successful series. But in 1987, one year after Dragon Quest was released, Square released their own role-playing game for the Famicom which would lead to one of the most famous and enduring franchises in videogame history. That game was Final Fantasy, but its success was in no way assured; Square were in financial trouble, and the development team joked that the “Final” in the name was because it very well could have been Square’s final game. Another version of events tells a more mundane story: the team wanted something that abbreviated to FF, which would sound good in Japanese, and had originally wanted to call it Fighting Fantasy, but had to change the title to avoid conflict with the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks that were popular in the United Kingdom at the time. Either way, the game was a success, Square was saved (later merging with Enix to become Square Enix), and the franchise endures today.

For many, the Final Fantasy games epitomize the Japanese role-playing style. They share the same top-down exploration and turn-based (or timer-based) battles of Dragon Quest, but feature a party of colorful characters and a heavy emphasis on a linear story (often with many non-interactive scenes). Most of the games have little to do with one another, except for some more recent entries, which include a few direct sequels. Recent entries also branch out into different styles of play, including real-time action and even a massively-multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG, or more commonly just MMO) with Final Fantasy XIV. I haven’t played many of the more recent entries in the series, but what I’ve seen of them bears little resemblance to the earlier games I remember playing when I was young. I find this evolution fascinating, and wanted to follow it through myself.

The original Final Fantasy, then. Firing it up, I was immediately hit with a wave of nostalgia upon hearing the main theme. The series is famous for its music, but from the first entry I can only remember a couple of tunes: the main theme, played on a chiptune version of a harp and recurring in many of the later entries, and the fanfare upon winning a battle. Ironically, these are the pieces of music that one hears least often while playing. The title theme only plays when starting the game or on certain very specific menu screens, and while the fanfare will play a lot given the number of battles in the game, players will quickly learn to skip it so they can get back to exploration. So in practice the fanfare only really plays when characters gain levels, an event that extends the post-battle messages and lets the fanfare play for a while before players can skip ahead. Far more common are the tunes playing during fights or while exploring various locations, but I find these much less memorable. I recognized each one upon hearing them again this time around, but now that I’ve finished playing most have faded from memory once more. They tend to be shorter and simpler than the more famous pieces of music from later games, and also emphasize the limitations of the audio hardware in the NES, which can clearly only maintain a few voices at a time.

But before I complain too much about the old technology, I should step back and look at the game in context. Final Fantasy released in Japan in 1987, which is only one year later than Might and Magic: Book One, the subject of the very first History Lessons post on this blog. The comparison between the two games is night and day. Sound in Might and Magic is limited to a few sparse beeps, and it barely has any graphics. Final Fantasy has bright and colorful art, and full synthesized music. The NES may seem old and limited by today’s standards, but at the time it had much more power than other platforms, and games like Final Fantasy were the pinnacle of gaming production.

Anyway, after basking in the main theme, I was asked to create a party of four characters by choosing from a set of character classes. This is the only Final Fantasy game I’ve played that does this; other entries tend to have pre-made characters with specific backstories and relations to the main plot, and they are often unique in terms of their skills and abilities rather than being defined by a set character class. Pre-made characters like this can be more easily integrated into the detailed stories that later entries offered. Still, some of the classes introduced in the first game have survived in some form or another throughout the series; the black mage, for example, is an iconic figure who recurs often. The selection of classes at the start of Final Fantasy gives the player a lot of options, but there is little choice to be made once the game itself begins; character leveling is handled automatically without any input from the player, who must be content to tune the party through choice of equipment and magic alone. There are many opinions as to which parties work best, but I decided to use the same party I used when playing the game for the first time: a fighter, a thief, a white mage and a black mage. This is not the most powerful party (thieves aren’t really that useful) but it gives a good mix of abilities and lets my party make use of a wide array of equipment.

That done, I was deposited outside Corneria, the City of Dreams, to begin my adventure. Compared to later entries in the series, the story in Final Fantasy is simple. The world is in chaos, the wind has stopped, the earth is rotting, and the oceans are raging wild. A prophecy says that four heroes known as the Light Warriors will arrive to set this all to rights, and it happens that the four characters I just picked show up at exactly the right time, each bearing a mysterious orb. In a way, I kind of liked this simple set up, because it dispensed with a lot of the exposition I would otherwise have been subject to. People my heroes met would often say something like “Well, you look like the Light Warriors, and the prophecy says I’m supposed to give you this, so here you go.” To be fair, my party did have to prove itself a few times first, but soon enough most people they met were on board, and we just set out fulfilling the prophecy. As we traveled, we encountered no non-interactive story scenes whatsoever, with everything told via (mostly optional) conversations with residents of the various towns. This was refreshing, considering that later games could get bogged down with too many long narrative scenes.

It also meant that it was not always immediately obvious where to go. Or at least, it seemed like that when I first played, but now I could see that the huge world was actually carefully designed to guide players to the next objective. One of the major differences between Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest — aside from Final Fantasy’s party versus Dragon Quest’s single hero, and the side-on battle view in Final Fantasy that let players see their characters in action — is Final Fantasy’s inclusion of vehicles. At the beginning, players can only travel on foot, and therefore can only access a few locations. Finding a ship opens up the world some more, followed by a canoe that allows travel along rivers, and finally the iconic airship which would appear in every entry in the series I’ve played. Even with new vehicles, however, there are still clever limitations placed to keep players on track, like the ship being limited to an inland sea until specific story events unfold.

I remembered the game involving a lot of the grind I mentioned earlier, but I was surprised to discover that I started the game with enough money to buy all the best stuff in Corneria. Therefore, I decided to just head out on my first task, and had no trouble completing it straight away. As I continued through the game I found I could usually just get on with things rather than having to stop and save up money first. Upon reaching a certain town — a town I remembered well since I’d spent so much time there grinding for money when I first played the game — I did save up for a while. But I soon realized I could have skipped that and just gone onwards with the quest. The story is structured such that I kept returning to the same town after each task, and each time had earned more money in the process. I wasn’t meant to buy everything right away; in fact, that’s exactly what the manual said, encouraging me not to worry too much about it and just continue with the story, buying more stuff later when I returned.

I’m not sure what the Japanese manual looked like, but the one for American release includes a walkthrough for the entire first half of the game. And for anyone who got stuck after that, there were plenty of guides in the popular Nintendo Power magazine, which many players read religiously. This seems odd now, but Nintendo were entering the US market right after the video game crash of 1983, and part of the strategy for making video games palatable to consumers again was to market them as toys aimed at young people. I suspect that concerns over whether a younger audience could figure out how to proceed in Final Fantasy led to the decision to include the guide in the manual. But that is just supposition; this was hardly the only game to be bundled with hints or even full guides. When I was playing the game originally, however, I was grateful for all the guides, and often shared new tips and knowledge with my friends who also had the game. In fact, it often felt like we were playing the game together, sharing our strategies and rumors about secrets or other tricks. Perhaps it’s not so odd that the most recent game in the series is an MMO; with the original, we were playing communally anyway.

But even with all of this information available, there are a lot of things in the game that are not explained at all. Since I’d played most of the game before, this time I was interested in how things worked and I followed along with some guides online. It turns out many aspects of the game are far more complicated than I realized. For example, the elemental magic spells seemed straightforward — use lightning attacks against water-based creatures, fire against icy creatures and ice against fiery creatures — but it turns out there are actually a whole bunch of other “elements” in the game that are never mentioned anywhere. Most of these correspond to the many “instant death” spells in the game, which have a chance to instantly kill a creature, or leave it completely unharmed. Late in the game, when enemies have lots of health, these spells become more and more attractive, but it’s not clear which ones are most useful. With a guide, I was able to determine that these spells corresponded to certain elements, and enemies either had resistance or vulnerability to these same elements. But it would have been nearly impossible to determine this in-game, by trial and error, without referring to a guide. Other things, like special properties of late-game equipment, are also unclear without referencing a guide of some sort. This isn’t helped by the fact that many things in the original NES release apparently don’t work at all, from special attributes of certain items all the way up to entire spells. These things would confound any player without access to a modern guide.

Much of this, however, would be easier to guess for players familiar with Dungeons and Dragons. While later games in the series would establish their own rules and quirks, Final Fantasy takes much inspiration directly from Dungeons and Dragons, including the way many spells work. In fact, the spell system as a whole borrows from early editions of Dungeons and Dragons, a fact that I did not remember. I was used to the “magic points” of later games, with each spell costing a certain amount to cast, and magic points regenerating via potions or resting. But in the first game, there are no magic points. Instead, spells are grouped by level, and characters can only cast a certain number of spells of each level before needing to rest. The number of casts available increases with character level, but there is no way to replenishing spent spells without resting (at an inn, or outdoors with certain items). Further, there are four spells in each level but a given character can only learn three, so one must choose which spells to prioritize. This system changes one’s strategy quite a bit. Magic-focused characters often find themselves using weak physical attacks in combat rather than waste their valuable spells on lesser foes, and some spells are rarely used since other spells of the same level are too valuable. In fact, in a few cases it isn’t even worth filling all three slots, which can save a lot of money.

Having to rest to restore spells also makes treks through dungeons far more tense than in later games. In later entries, the random battles can feel like a breeze, since it’s easy to use spells and other powerful abilities and then simply recharge magic points with potions or other items. Instead, the challenge came from special “boss” encounters; some games went so far as to include locations that restore the party to full health just before boss encounters, as these were expected to test a party to its limit. In Final Fantasy, the boss enemies aren’t that much tougher than regular fights, but regular fights can pose a real threat, and one must carefully ration when to use powerful magic in regular battles versus saving it for the boss. The dungeon itself, through both its randomized battles and its final boss encounter, is the true enemy. And since it’s impossible to rest while indoors, there’s a real risk of losing progress if the party loses a battle. In fact, certain sections of the game have enemies so deadly that it’s really a matter of luck whether the party can make it through in one piece.

Even so, the game is shorter than I remembered. There aren’t too many places to go, but this means the game moves at a decent clip and, without worrying about grinding nearly as much as I did the first time around, I was able to make progress quickly. The pacing is done well; early on I had to worry about poisonous creatures and keeping my party stocked with curing items for any extended expedition, but later on I had better magical and physical defenses and was instead focused on optimizing my characters’ gear and establishing proper battle strategies for eliminating dangerous foes before they could unleash their powerful attacks. This progression reinforced my characters’ growth as legendary heroes and the escalating stakes of the story. And simple though it is, I enjoyed a lot of the details of that story. It took me to varied locations that were like characters unto themselves. I was impressed with how much variety the developers were able to pack into the game, given the simplicity of the engine and maps. Talking with people around the world revealed snippets of its history, which is more elaborate than I expected, and many of the things my party did and the places they explored would be echoed and built upon in future Final Fantasy games. I don’t want to spoil anything specific, so I will just vaguely say that, like Might and Magic before it, Final Fantasy turns out to be about more than it first appears.

This is especially true of the ending. I never finished the game the first time around, because my parents were concerned about me playing games in marathon sessions and limited me to an hour per day. An hour is not long enough to complete the game’s final dungeon, and with no way to save in the middle, this meant I couldn’t finish it. So I saw the final parts of the game for the first time when I played it for this post, and the ending is far crazier than I would have imagined. It has a quirkiness to it that I also saw in Might and Magic: Book One, but haven’t seen in more recent games, including the more recent entries in the Final Fantasy series. I wish more games were willing to explore these ideas, but it seems that as the game industry has matured, games have trended towards a more serious tone. Here’s hoping some levity will start to creep back in.

I’ve been focusing on ways in which the first game feels different from its successors, but on the whole it’s similar. The groundwork is there. And it’s surprisingly enjoyable to play today. The interface is clearly dated, but Final Fantasy offers satisfying strategy in its combat, and there’s always something new to discover in the world. This is the core that the series would build upon, refining the combat mechanics and telling ever more elaborate stories. While Final Fantasy is clearly inspired by role-playing game progenitors like Dungeons and Dragons, it already displays the seeds of its own identity, an identity that would take shape later and establish the series as an enduring mainstay in the gaming world.

The evolution of the series was not obvious to American players at the time, as only a few entries ended up being ported over from Japan. What Americans knew as Final Fantasy II was actually Final Fantasy IV, and the American Final Fantasy III was actually Final Fantasy VI. It wasn’t until Final Fantasy VII for the Playstation that the numbers were equalized across markets and players in the United States realized they’d missed three of the games. So while I’ve played all the games listed above, I haven’t played the entries in between, and I’m interested to try them and see how they bridge the gaps. Maybe there are some that are actually regressive, some dead ends in design that were later retracted? Or maybe they slot in neatly, clear transitions in style and design?

I plan to find out, but not right away. Final Fantasy may be shorter than I remembered, but it’s still a hefty dose of Japanese-style role-playing, and I need to take a break before I dive into another one. Knowing me, it will probably be a long break, as I get distracted by all sorts of other games I’ve been meaning to play. But I’ll get to Final Fantasy II (the real one) eventually, and when I do you can expect another extremely long post about it here.

Until then, happy adventuring!

As discussed above, there are lots of versions of the game available. If you want the true original, you can run it through emulation as I did, or seek out the virtual console version on the Wii. Otherwise, there are versions for iOS and Android available that are based off of the enhanced PSP version, with new graphics, script and full-motion video sequences.

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