Final Fantasy is, now, undeniably, the most influential RPG video game series of all time. There are others that are remembered fondly, or have a longer history, but none that have had the lasting power of Final Fantasy, spun off as many games, and just stayed in the popular consciousness as long as Square|Enix’s cornerstone series. The thing is, though, it almost… didn’t.
The original game has become far larger overall in hindsight than it was leading up to its release. It’s even got its own myths surrounding it, like the reason it was called Final Fantasy was that it was the “swan song” for Square before they were going to go bankrupt. Nice story, but not exactly true. It was fair that Square was in a bad financial spot… their initial contract with Nintendo saw them making very little, if no, money. Nintendo’s business practices were very sketchy back in the day (another great book about how the sausage is made, The Console Wars, goes into how they tried to control and dominate contracts… something they still do with their shenanigans around being the only supplier of Switch game cartridges).
If you’re thinking to yourself, “wait, Square had games before Final Fantasy?”… yes, they did. Rad Racer (and its sequel – which came out after Final Fantasy)… those were developed by Square. Nobuo Uematsu, the genius behind the music that lodges into your brain when you think of Final Fantasy was even the composer on them. These were effectively Nintendo “first party” titles for their system, and published through them, which meant that Square didn’t see a ton of money. There were some other games, but most were released only in Japan, and it was quickly becoming clear that survival in the industry meant releasing in the North American market (or EU, which was tiny in the console market).
3D World Racer, a cool looking but terrible game, was also one of theirs, and while a modest success, it’s actually the game that was responsible for Square surviving their troubles. It sold around 500k copies worldwide, and let them continue to make other games. There’s another myth that Final Fantasy got it’s name because it was the last gasp as well, but that was an invention of the internet, and series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi has said it was named as such because he wanted a game that could be abbreviated as FF in English markets.
It was originally going to be called Fighting Fantasy, but there was a board game of the same time. The Fantasy part was sort of required, as they were fantasy games with swords and wizards, so they went with another word, Final, and the name was born. So, the company was in trouble, and the success of Final Fantasy meant they would continue to make games, it wasn’t quite the all or nothing game it’s been made out to be.
But what the game was, especially in the west, would become a revelation. Which is kind of weird, looking at it in hindsight, as the game doesn’t do a whole lot that’s really revolutionary. It borrowed heavily from Enix’s Dragon Quest (called Dragon Warrior when first localized in the US) games, had a fairly light story even compared to other RPGs not named Dragon Warrior, and was lacking some really basic design elements. It had a few innovative elements (like being able to select your party makeup), but for the most part, it took other stuff and just put it together.
The big difference maker was, ultimately, the success of Final Fantasy in the US, where RPGs in general hadn’t seen a lot of traction (or even been put into the market). There were certainly games that came out before them, just not really in the US. It’s weird to look at the release dates for NES games, and see how there was so much lag between Japan and the US. Most games were 2-3 years between their Japanese and North American release, and potentially a delay after that to get into the EU. Final Fantasy didn’t come out in the US until 1990, despite having been out since 1987 in Japan.
RPGs were seeing a sort of uptick in the US at the time that it hit as well… though most that had seen any success were firmly in the action RPG camp. Games like Faxanadu (1989) and Battle of Olympus (1989) both saw the genre branching out past PC ports of niche games and two Zelda games. I guess there was Ultima III (1988), played by dozens of people, but the pickings were fairly slim before that.
It’s funny that Dragon Warrior ultimately showed up almost a year before Final Fantasy did, but didn’t sell particularly well in the states at first. Nintendo Power covered it, but it really wouldn’t blow up in the US until later in 1990, after Final Fantasy came out, when the magazine decided to give a copy away to any subscriber who sent in a card. I did, and the game showed up 4-5 weeks later. I was probably unique though, as I had already purchased Final Fantasy on my own because it was recommended to me by a clerk at my local Shopko when I was looking for two games after I got a bunch of money for selling old toys and games at a garage sale. For the record, my two choices were Super Mario Bros. 3 and Final Fantasy.
Man, this is all making me feel old… that store’s been gone for ages. It was a regional chain in the upper midwest, and we had it in town well before we ever had a Walmart. Target, KB Toys, and Shopko were the places to go and look at games, and Shopko had the a whole dedicated electronics section with a big wall of games. Easily the best of the three. Young me didn’t know a whole ton about role playing games… my mom said D&D was evil, and like all of her asinine beliefs, I ignored them, but it would still be a year or two until I actually played a game of it.
Final Fantasy would turn out to be a hit in the US, selling 700,000 copies and outselling the Japanese version of the game… a first for an RPG title. It spawned sequels (which wouldn’t get a US release until much later), spin-offs (which were rebranded here), and made NES games like Crystalis (the best NES game ever made) possible. The series itself has sold hundreds of millions of copies across all of it’s various titles, and turned Square into a titan that eventually merged with its old competitor Enix (that’s a whole different story, though – Square was in another bad spot after The Spirits Within bombed).
With all that in mind, it’s still weird that the original game is so… difficult to play. I mean, the actual original game is only available on cartridge or the NES Classic and as a Wii Virtual Console release (in Japan, it was on the VC for 3DS and WiiU). That’s probably for the best. The original game has aged, let’s say… poorly. There are some real gaps in the gameplay design that make it less than fun to play, problems that had been solved in other games that weren’t as rushed as the original was.
It was remade in 2002, as Final Fantasy Origins on the PlayStation, with better graphics, a better soundtrack, and a vastly improved save function (in the original, you could only save when visiting an Inn or using a tent). In 2004, what I consider the best version was released for the Game Boy Advance, packaged with the “never released in the US” sequel and under the moniker “Dawn of Souls.” It came out a few more updates, bonus dungeons around the four bosses, and was great, if limited to the small screen of the Advance.
Not going to lie… I’ve looked, more than once, into buying a used GameCube and tracking down the GameBoy Advance adapter and software for it just so I could play the Final Fantasy releases that came out on that system (I, II, IV, V, and VI). Yes, I know, I can just play a ROM, but RetroPi UI is ugh and my couch is soooo comfy compared to my computer. That version was then remixed again into the PSP version of the original game, with more graphics refinements and merging all the various fixes together from Origins and Dawn of Souls.
That version, in turn, led to the iOS (and later Android) version, which is what I’ve been playing… it’s the same game but with touch controls. I’m not a big touch control gamer, but the nature of the game makes it easy and it looks pretty great on my iPad Pro.
The biggest issue has to be when a creature dies, and your party had targeted it. All attacks were wasted after that point. It’s a huge problem, because the RNG nature of damage meant you could fail a fight just because you didn’t have the ability to redirect. Spells were far more limited in that version as well, favoring spell slots over magic points (a more D&D choice, but it’s not great there either). When you used up those slots, that character was worthless until you could get somewhere and rest.
Things like Phoenix Down wouldn’t come until remakes, so if you died, you had to lug a corpse to the guy in a city to raise your character. Certain enemies were absurdly unbalanced and dangerous in that sense, with the Rub or Stone spell being cause to just go reset the game. If it was like older games, where you were the only character, that wouldn’t be that big of an issue, but this was a party-based game, and it sucked.
Beyond that, the plot is pretty threadbare and basic, even for the time. There is one, you’re the warriors of light in a prophecy, sent to beat back Chaos and make the world into Narnia or something. I mean… it doesn’t matter, and the game never explains it. It never explains where you came from, how your party came together, why you’re doing it, or how things went to hell in the first place. The characters aren’t thin, they’re effectively nonexistent. They’re the archetypes of the game, Fighter, White Mage, Black Mage, Thief, etc…. and nothing at all past that.
A lot of the little things that have become staples of Final Fantasy games are absent in this game, as well. Biggs and Wedge aren’t introduced into the series until VI. Moogles don’t appear until III. Chocobos aren’t in the game until the sequel. No Summons (III), no romance story, and a lot of the more common monsters aren’t in there (some are, though, like the Evil Eye). Really, the only tropes that get their origin at the start are crystals, Bahamut, and the name Cid (though it’s only in a single line of dialog).
Still, there’s something so visceral and enjoyable in the basic gameplay, and something about taking a walk down memory lane to a world that’s unrecognizable next to today. It makes me feel like going and watching a bunch of cop movies where they have to drive around and find a pay phone to call into HQ.
That being said, there are parts of the game that just as nonsense as when the game was first out. The final boss, Chaos, is still so wildly unbalanced compared to nearly everything else in the game, and your party dynamics can make him easy or nearly impossible. Just taking their default party selection means you likely have to ground out ten extra levels to beat him. Seriously, that Curaga is ridiculous, and the defense feels even more imbalanced in the remade version.
Otherwise, outside of the graphics, most of the changes are minor. They renamed some of the old spells, stuff like Harm became Dia, for reasons I’m sure. Nuke became Flare… that sort of thing. Some characters have names now, there’s more dialog, spells retarget if the target dies (but doesn’t do that with heals).
Honestly, the issue with the game is that it is so front-loaded, and it really runs out of steam at a certain point, right around when you hit the Water or Wind Temple, really. You’ve outrun the point when you can get decent gear, and it’s less and less a challenge. Really, you only get two or three items across the last two dungeons of note, which makes it feel a lot more “busywork” than it needs to.
Outside of the main plot, there was additional content added in four extra elemental-themed dungeons. They’re sort of procedural, in that the treasure is in random spots, but the floors are all the same. I don’t find them all that fun, and didn’t bother with them in my playthrough. Roguelikes aren’t really my jam, even if this is barely within that realm.
As a piece of nostalgia, the game is fun to play through and enjoy from time to time… but this would be a very hard game to play through if you weren’t looking back on it. If it ever happens to show up Switch, I’d gladly pay for it yet again, and probably run through it. But as it sits, unless you have an older DS or Game Boy Advance sitting around, or really like to play on iPad, it’s hard to go back to the game. I mean, I suppose I could score this, like we do on reviews… but it’s kind of tough. It’s probably a solid 3 out of 5, with a bit of YMMV when it comes to nostalgia.