The Final Fantasy Project: Final Fantasy’s first generation

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

Artwork from a sketch by Yoshitaka Amano

You know what I really wish the end of Final Fantasy III signified?  That I could move off of my PSP.  Sure, I love the system, but I’d really like to be playing these games in a format that allows for proper screenshots.  Alas, the rules I’ve laid out keep me on this handheld through Final Fantasy IV and points related, not that things get much better once I move on to Final Fantasy V.

What it actually symbolizes, however, is that I’ve finished up the last game in the franchise that appeared on the NES, or the Famicom if you’d prefer.  All three editions are remakes, yes, but the original games started life in the 8-bit era.  It’s an interesting element that’s easy to overlook in favor of strict linear progression, but I think it has important implications and information about the franchise as a whole.  Yes, in some ways the hardware was just that – hardware, the stuff powerful enough to run these games.  But it also has implications for breaking up the flow of the series and how it’s evolved over time.

I’ve always spent a lot of time thinking about the franchise as a whole; some people show their fandom via collectibles and the like, I show mine by acquiring lots of metatextual analysis.  Looking at the franchise as a whole, it splits up nicely into five generations from inception to the present day, and not coincidentally, the first generation lines up with the move away from the NES/Famicom and into the next generation.  The first generation was all about creating a foundation, about establishing what the games could do – and more importantly, what they should do.

What do I mean?  Well, let’s look at the remake.  What’s the first thing that the Final Fantasy III remake changed?  It named the cast.  And while the remake made a lot of questionable design decisions, I don’t think that making the characters something other than faceless blanks is all that surprising.  If anything, I’m surprised that none of the remakes of Final Fantasy I have gone the same route.

Consider that even in the original version of Final Fantasy III, the designers took the time to provide a cast you could identify with.  Sure, the actual Light Warriors were generic, but the people traveling with them were given full personalities.  Simple ones, yes, but personalities just the same.  It was the last game that would rely on generic protagonists, at that, as even the next system-focused game (Final Fantasy V) would give your characters personalities whilst letting you mold them into anything you wanted.

Hell, Final Fantasy III marks the last appearance of Final Fantasy I‘s magic system, at that.  It was an idea that the designers decided just didn’t work nearly as well as the one that Final Fantasy II had… even though that system had tons of other problems.

Like the slow text scrolls, unfortunately.

Some things just don’t change over the years.

The fact is that the first generation was really all about creating a bunch of compelling ideas and seeing how they worked together.  It was about creating a foundation, a place from which further ideas could spring.  Not a template for future games to inherit, but a set of interconnected concepts that wind up as more than the sum of their parts.  When Final Fantasy II discarded the setting and story of the prior game, it set a precedent, established the idea that this was a franchise bound by something other than story or characters but by ideas.

Ironically, a lot of those ideas came about more or less based upon throwing things against the wall and seeing what stuck.  And a lot of them did.

The foundational nature of this first generation, I think, is why we see a lot of remakes of these titles but not the same sort of devotion you see for later titles.  On any best-of-the-franchise list, the first three games don’t show up, but that’s because they were so much a part of establishing what could be done that there wasn’t much time for them to really shine on their own.  Would anyone care much about Final Fantasy II if it weren’t a part of the franchise?  I tend to doubt it; the game is just too broken on its own.  But it established important ideas, like the struggle against an empire, the importance of characters and narrative, and even the traces of things like redemption and failure that would come later.

And that’s really the first generation in a nutshell: foundation.  When Naoki Yoshida talks about exploring the fundamentals of the franchise as a whole for Final Fantasy XIV, what he’s really talking about is keeping the game true to its roots, the elements that these titles brought to the table.  Yet at the same time, they’re not the same concepts.  Every single game experimented in some way at this point; it wasn’t until the second generation that the best concepts from the first generation were actually given firm shapes.

So perhaps calling it a foundation is even a bit too generous.  These three games, together, provide the raw materials that the series would spend years building with, but they themselves are far more malleable than their successors.  They are robust, but they lack a certain constancy that you’d expect from a foundation.  Here are the boundaries of what can be done, but not the limits.  And with a bit of experimentation, as would become clear, there are even more places to explore.

Best of the generation, without a doubt, is Final Fantasy III.  The remake certainly has issues, and it has a lot of decisions made therein that I feel weaken the game as a whole, but it feels closer in scope and in atmosphere to its successors than any other title.  It’s also available on a surfeit of platforms, meaning that odds are high you own something that can play it; the remake might even match Final Fantasy I for sheer ubiquity.  Worst is no great surprise either.  Final Fantasy II may have set a great deal of the series into motion, but the game itself fails to capture the same magic now.  Playing it turns from a thing of joy into an exercise of frustration and patience, and no one should ever be playing a game just to get through it if they’re not being paid for it in some way.

As a whole?  It’s still good, but it’s missing a certain quality, something to define the franchise as a whole.  I don’t think it’s really a spoiler to say that we’ll start exploring that when we move on to the second generation next week, kicking off our tour with the first game on the SNES and one of two mistitled games – Final Fantasy IV.

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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