The Final Fantasy Project: Final Fantasy I, part 1

I don't expect it to last, but it'll be nice while it does.

Artwork from a sketch by Yoshitaka Amano

The Final Fantasy Project is a look back over the franchise’s entire history, starting from the beginning and moving up to the most recent game when I finally finish this whole thing.  Those of you who have followed my work in various places may remember that I already started this project over the summer, but it sort of fell off the radar between a combination of Final Fantasy XIV and the steady realization that the format I had picked was not actually a good one for what I wanted to do.

So consider this a revival.  Not a reboot, though; I’m still pretty happy with what came out of my work over the summer, so the first couple of weeks are going to involve a repost and cleanup of what was written during the initial run.  That’ll be compressed as much as possible, but if you really want to spoil yourself, the original versions are out there.  So let’s start from the very beginning.

All right, technically the beginning is the rules.  They are as follows:

  1. This playthrough covers all installments of the main series, from start to end.  Spinoffs such as Final Fantasy Tactics are out.
  2. Only single-player titles are eligible, because playing Final Fantasy XI from beginning to end is both impossible and dumb.
  3. Do sequels count?  Only so long as they fulfill the following criteria, which may be referred to as the Dirge of Cerberus Exclusion:
    1. They are actually video games.
    2. They do not star a completely optional character
  4. Each installment must be played in the most recently released format realistically available.  Yes, that means I won’t be playing Final Fantasy III in its original incarnation.  Luckily for me, I’ve played all of these before, so I can compare and contrast.  Also worth noting is that changes to graphics without significant changes to actual gameplay are not counted as the most recent format; gameplay is paramount.
  5. All games must be played to the ending, not to 100% completion.  Clearing optional stuff is allowed, but it is not strictly necessary.

The rules are kind of necessary, because the franchise is sort of sprawling and huge, if you haven’t noticed.  But it starts off in a kind of unassuming place.

I don’t need to tell you much about Final Fantasy, or Final Fantasy I these days if you want to be pedantic.  It was originally meant as a swan song, a game that no one expected to sell well.  And seeing as it’s been around the longest, it’s been re-released and remade and remastered so many times that it could pass muster as an honorary Star Wars film.  This isn’t the reason why I made my “most recent update” rule, but it does have some interesting effects on the game, because the original version was kind of brutal.

See, Final Fantasy wasn’t really meant to be its own thing.  It was more like a Dungeons & Dragons that worked on the NES.  Leveling was brutal and often random, and your characters learned spells at strict tiers – with a limited number of casts per tier.  Use up all your level 3 spells and you’re boned until you hit up an Inn again.  Not to mention that magic was often half-useless, expensive, and sometimes just plain did not work.  If a party member died, for a very long time, that was it until you could make it to a chapel and raise them.  Your healing magic ran out fast, so you needed lots of potions at any given moment.  The idea of being able to recover magic or resurrect a dead party member in the field was alien… at least until you gained access to the (limited!) resurrection spells at higher levels.

The 20th Anniversary remake changes that to a system more familiar to series veterans.  Now you have a pool of MP, access to the ever-important Phoenix Down and Ether items, a lot more money… it’s suddenly a very different ball game.  Nintendo Hard to modern game in one upgrade.

In fact, the 20th Anniversary version clearly wants to backfill elements that would later become givens in the series.  The result is… strange.  For someone who’s played the original multiple times, it’s familiar, but everything’s just slightly off.  Your characters move a little fast, leveling is a bit too quick, magic is much more disposable and reliable, character deaths are no longer nearly as terrifying.  Suddenly the instant-death attacks handed out by several monsters feel survivable rather than infinitely cheap.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let’s start at the beginning, when my party of Zael the Warrior, Souji the Red Mage, Chrom the Monk, and Laharl the White Mage marched into Cornelia and get promptly recognized as the Warriors of Light.  The remake adds a few bits to explain what you have to do first (go beat the snot out of Garland), which I must admit beats the original version’s approach of “walk around and bump into walls until you wind up going in the only direction available to you.”

That’s how the game is designed, really.  You have a very limited number of places available to go at any given moment, and in the original game that was all you could expect for direction.  Well, and talking to NPCs who repeat the same canned dialogue to point you in the vague direction of your next objective.  The remake adds a lot more little nudges to cut down on the aimless wandering, but you still find yourself with a game that lays everything out in a neat little path while looking open.  There are very few places you can go off the rails, which kind of puts the lie to the idea that these games became linear; they just stopped pretending they weren’t.

Once you finish wandering around and leveling a bit, you head up to the Temple of Fiends, defeat Garland with ease, and get the ability to cross the bridge.  The remake lovingly recreates the opening screen you get on the bridge-crossing, something that always seemed very magical to me.  Text still scrolls really slowly, though.

One of the new scenes added to the remake, for the record.

“Quickly, fulfill a prophecy that later turns out to be self-negating!”

Not much feels different for a while here, still putting the Warriors of Light into a massive sidequest until you can easily forget all about your stated objectives. You head to Pravoka, beat pirates, get a ship, head to Elfheim, then go to the Marsh Cave to retrieve a crown for some other loser.  You may note that none of this has the slightest damn thing to do with restoring the crystals or whatever.

Gameplay-wise, this part of the game has always been cake, and the remake only makes it easier.  Spells are far more versatile, and your mages are encouraged to cast instead of holding back all the time, but it was largely the same as ever.  Partly because I went cruising along on the Peninsula of Power, a well-known geographic feature of the first game that features high-level enemies a low-level party can beat up for massive experience and gil.  You head up, kill a few things, watch your levels fly up, and eventually you watch the game’s equivalent of tactical nukes bounce off your forehead.

It wasn’t until I hit the game’s second real boss battle, Astos, that things felt notably different.  At the point when you face Astos in the original, a dead character is dead, period.  The Life spell isn’t available until after you beat him, and that’s the only way to resurrect someone.  And Astos does have access to the Death spell, something he used right away against Zael.

This time, I had a Phoenix Down.  Instead of that death spell being a huge threat, it was an inconvenience I could fix.

Better?  In some ways.  There’s no defense against the spell in the original, aside from crossed fingers.  Adding a counter adds strategy that wasn’t there.  But it also removes an element of fear and power, the sense that Astos could casually snatch away the life of my character with no more than a word.  It’s probably the right change from a gameplay standpoint, but it does remove a certain element of fear.

You wind up playing it as a different game.  The original version encouraged a burn approach, where the optimal way through every fight was to kill it as fast as you can.  Your resources are very limited and every new turn is a chance that you’ll lose someone, at which point you become that much more likely to lose multiple people.  This is a more measured approach, less desperate.  It makes the game feel more mellow, for better or worse.

At any rate, Astos was beaten, a canal was opened, and my ship can sail on toward my first actual objective, the corrupted land caused by the Earth Fiend, Lich.  So it’s time to start digging.

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About expostninja

I've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.

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