FINAL FANTASY UEBER ALLES
by Pitchfork

   

The World is Veiled in Darkness


So! Let's start with some background. The year is 1987. Four years ago, two events tremendously and irrevocably altered the course of the emerging video games industry. The first was the release of Ninendo's Famicom console in Japan, the genesis (perhaps a poor choice of words in this context) of the video gaming industry as we know it today. The second was the near-total collapse of the North American video game sector, which, in the grand American tradition of bursting bubbles, was entirely its own fault. With Nintendo's 8-bit console becoming the only game in town (so to speak), the geographical axis of the video game world moved deep within Japanese territory. With all the American game companies fleeing the toxic money sinkhole they helped create, the Famicom presented Japanese software outfits with the double opportunity of a fertile market and a level playing field. Japanese game developers watched Nintendo's own Super Mario Bros., ExciteBike, and Legend of Zelda titles selling thousands of cartridges, and were eager for a stake in the action.

The first wave of third-party Famicom games arrived around the end of 1985 and into 1986. At first, most third-party NES games were ports of arcade and MSX titles, such as Jaleco's City Connection, Hudson Soft's Adventure Island, Tatio's Legend of Kage, and Capcom's 1942. Towards the middle of 1986, third-party games exclusively developed for the Famicom started hitting the shelves, such as Konami's Ganbare Goemon! Karakuri Douchuu, SunSoft's Atlantis no Nazo (ported to North America as Super Pitfall), Bandai's Dragon Ball: Shen-Long no Nazo, and Toei's Hokuto no Ken. Very few of these early third-party efforts are really noteworthy (or even that good), but one exception is the iconoclastic Dragon Quest, the third Famicom game created by longtime MSX and NEC PX98 game maker Enix.

Widely credited as the first true Japanese-style role playing game (JRPG), Dragon Quest was modeled after Western computer RPGs such as Wizardry and Ultima III, and offered Third Generation console gamers a totally different experience than what they were used to:



But let's return to 1987. A small game developmer and publisher called SquareSoft is floundering. After splitting off from parent company Denyuusha in 1986, it published a string of unsuccessful NES games such as Space Harrier ripoff 3-D World Runner, mediocre platformer Hao-Kun no Fushigi na Tabi (released as Mystery Quest in North America), OutRun clone Rad Racer, Wizardry-style first-person RPG Cleopatra no Mahou, and the unexceptional medieval fantasy shmup King's Knight. As the company drifted closer to bankruptcy, SquareSoft's Director of Planning and Development, a college dropout named Hironobu Sakaguchi, began work on a new game: a Dragon Quest clone dubbed Final Fantasy. Sakaguchi chose the name knowing that the project would likely be SquareSoft's last game and his own farewell to the video game business. Little did he know his gallows joke would go on to become the longest-running oxymoron in video game nomenclature.

Throughout its early years, SquareSoft's business strategy consisted almost solely of stealing other people's ideas. Many of its first efforts were inferior copies of other games, which might have been why the company performed so poorly to begin with. Final Fantasy itself was a Dragon Quest clone that never would have existed had Enix not broken the mold. But the difference was that it was the first time one one of Square's ripoffs was an improvement on the original. Not that that in itself was some momentus achievement, mind you. Dragon Quest is something like a Ford Model-T within the video game sphere: innovative, popular, and tremendously influential, but ultimately a damn jalopy.

I've taken some flak for badmouthing Dragon Quest before, but (at the risk of sounding like a fanboy idiot) let's face it: as far as the earliest installments are concerned, there's really no contest. Final Fantasy is the superior software. It's got better music, more items, more spells, more monsters, a richer world, and a more interesting storyline, and this is all just quantitative. Final Fantasy's customizable four-man crew eclipses the first two Dragon Quests' one and three-character parties. The expanded and improved turn-based battle system makes for a deeper game, inasmuch as the player isn't sitting around drooling for hours at a time while his one character trades 1 HP blows with a single monster. The concentration of early-genre bullshit is significantly reduced: there isn't as much EXP grinding, the player doesn't have to buy or find keys to open a hundred thousand locked doors, and never has to stress over how many torches he's got left. There's none of that "press the A button and select the 'Stairs' command to walk down a flight of stairs" nonsense, either. Dragon Quest may have come first and concocted the JRPG, but Final Fantasy made it good.


   


CHARACTERS


The Light Warriors

Pick four and get going!

FIGHTER/KNIGHT

Well, so much for balance. First guy on the roster and he's 70% of the team. The Fighter ("Warrior" in more recent translations) excels in dealing and receiving damage. He's about tied for strongest, has the most HP, and can use just about every piece of equipment in the game. When he gets promoted to Knight, he's even able to use low-level White Magic. If your party doesn't have any of these guys, you've effectively castrated it.

THIEF/NINJA

He's like a Fighter, only he can't equip heavy weapons or armor, has fewer hit points, and isn't nearly as strong or durable. But he is good at running away from battle! (Supposedly.) Thieves are all right. Their saving grace is that they eventually become Ninjas, which are vast improvements. They have access to almost as much equipment as the Knight and can learn some useful Black Magic to boot, but they're definitely not the dual-wielding, dodge-everything, throw-shit-at-people powerhouses they become in later games.

BLACK BELT/GRAND MASTER

Black Belt punches stuff. And...well, that's really all there is to say. Black Belts ("Monks" in recent translations) are low-maintenance units. They deal about as much damage as Fighters (even more at higher levels), but they're also less versatile and customizable. They don't really use weapons, can only equip basic armor, and never learn any spells. Boring.

RED MAGE/RED WIZARD

The name of his game is versatility. He can equip swords, wear decent armor, and cast both white and black magic. He doesn't excel at anything, but his being able to do a little bit of everything makes him a good addition to almost any team. A true pimp, through and through. It's worth mentioning that magic in Final Fantasy is fueled by individual spell "charges" instead of the MP pool used in Dragon Quest (and most later Final Fantasy games).

WHITE MAGE/WHITE WIZARD

Hammers and healing: the White Mage in a nutshell. She's good for three things: patching up hurt units, casting defensive buffs, and killing undead monsters en masse with HARM spells. The mark of the true Final Fantasy fanatic is having completed the game with a party of four unpromoted White Mages.

BLACK MAGE/BLACK WIZARD

This shrouded, beady-eyed little pipsqueak was always the most charming of the Light Warriors. Black Mage's job is to clear out swathes of enemies with elemental spells and use the FAST spell to spur Fighter into an amphetamine death rage. You'll notice that his promoted form has an uncovered face here, while later games and remakes always keep him shadowed.


Villains


GARLAND

   

The first Final Fantasy boss ever used to be a good knight, until...


BIKKE & PIRATES

   

Useless seafaring pansies who were somehow able to take over the port town of Pravoka. After the two minutes you spend wiping them out, their boss gives you his ship.


ASTOS

   

The scheming Dark Elf who put a curse on the Elf Prince in order to usurp the throne. He tricks you into slogging through the game's first really nasty dungeon (the Marsh Cave), then tries to kill you with RUB once you bring him what he wants. The jerk appears once again in Final Fantasy IV, then retires from the series.


LICH, THE FIEND OF EARTH

   

Residing in the Earth Cave (uh), Lich is responsible for the rotting blight spreading across the planet. Though he looks kind of like an anorexic drag queen with a meth problem, he can easily rip apart an unprepared party. I still consider Lich's sudden reappearance in the final dungeon the single most shocking moment in any Final Fantasy game.


KARY, THE FIEND OF FIRE

   

As the Fire Fiend, Kary (Marilith in more recent translations) is committed to seeing everything in the world engulfed in flames. Good thing she's been napping at the bottom of the Gurgu Volcano for the last few hundred years -- or at least she was, until you killed off Lich and woke her up. Oddly enough, FIRE works better than ICE against her and she's vulnerable to STUN. (According to Final Fantasy Wiki, "Kary" is a mistranslation of "Kali." Almost egregious a botch as mistaking "Exodus" for "Exdeath.")


KRAKEN, THE FIEND OF WATER

   

1,000 years ago Kraken and Tiamat joined forces and effectively destroyed civilization, marking their triumph by establishing themselves at the nerve centers of the societies they brought down. Tiamat struck at the Sky People, while Kraken went for the coastal city of Onrac. Now the Water Fiend lurks in the shadowed depths of the sunken Sea Shrine. Kraken is either a very easy or extremely difficult fight. Sometimes he'll just sit there and cast pathetic spells like INK and LIT2 as you pound on him, and other times he'll smash your party one by one with tremendous physical attacks.


TIAMAT, THE FIEND OF WIND

   

The mightiest of the Four is responsible for the fall of the technologically-advanced Sky People and has taken over their orbiting Sky Castle for his own nefarious use. Tiamat is a jerk and doesn't have any real weaknesses. They say he's vulnerable to BANE, but it's never once worked for me.


WARMECH

   

The distant predecessor to your modern-day Omega Weapons and Yiazamats. Some newer English translations have redubbed it "Death Machine," which is probably more accurate and definitely more appropriate. You do not want to bump into this guy in the Floating Castle.


CHAOS

   

The evil will of Garland combined with the powers of the four Fiends. This is already looking bad. It's always nice when a story comes full circle, though.


Other Characters


THE KING OF CONERIA & PRINCSS SARAH

   

The unnamed king of Coneria is a cheap copy of Dragon Quest's King Lorik, who himself is a cheap copy of Ultima's Lord British. Like Lorik and British, the King is there to tell Light Warriors what to do and send them on their way. Although he refuses to give the heroes any financial help, revive them, or record their progress, he's more than willing to build them a bridge over the river so they can get the hell out of his kingdom and away from his daughter. Princess Sarah, meanwhile, is the Light Warriors' biggest fan and has a few incarnations in later games.


MATOYA & BROOMS

   

Matoya is a blind witch living in a cave north of Coneria who dispatches the heroes on the very first of the approximate 79,853 fetch quests throughout the Final Fantasy series. Her only friends are backwards-talking brooms.


ELVES & DWARVES

   

Final Fantasy was one of the earliest adventure game to include towns made up of demihuman inhabitants, something which RPGs are now practically required to have. Before Square deemed classic Tolkein and AD&D races inadequately zazzy and started making up mythical anthropods of its own, elves and dwarves suited Final Fantasy just fine. Variations of the dwarves pop up now and again in various later games, but the elves aren't quite so lucky.


THE CIRCLE OF SAGES

   

Twelve wise men led to Crescent Lake by stars and prophecy. Dispensers of wisdom, plot developments and canoes, the Circle is an okay bunch of guys by me. Tuesday is Bingo Night.


BAHAMUT & DRAGONS

   

The Cardia Islands are home to a race of friendly dragons whose king is Bahamut. Though he almost always functions as a summon spell in later games, here he is an NPC who dispatches the Light Warriors on a quest to prove their courage. Bringing Bahamut the Rat's Tail from the Castle of Ordeals convinces him to transform your characters into stronger and more realistically-proportioned versions of themselves.


THOSE OTHER PIRATES

   

Sons of bitches.


WARRIORS, revive the power of the ORBS!!


From a present-day perspective, what might be most striking about 1987's Final Fantasy is how little it resembles its sequels. Almost none of the things we now associate with those two F-words are anywhere to be seen. There is no adolescent male protagonist in stylish clothes who comes of age and learns the meaning of friendship and duty as he travels the world and battles the forces of evil; nor is there a well-meaning but ultimately inept gorgeous female co-star who falls in love with the hero after being rescued by him three or four times. There are no long-haired, borderline androgynous antagonists with textbook Freudean disorders who want to destroy the world in order to save it. There are no cutscenes: the player's characters never speak (much less carry on five-minute conversations amongst themselves), and NPC speech is almost always limited to what can be squeezed inside a single text box. None of the Light Warriors are capable of summoning magnificent energy blasts during desperate moments; there are no god-conjuring spells with painstakingly-choreographed thirty to ninety-second animation sequences. There are no gimmicky weapons -- no gunblades, no razor-edged playing cards, no flintlock pistols that shoot magic, no eight-foot katanas, no Buster Swords. All of Final Fantasy's trademark critters -- moogles, chocobos, tonberries, cactuars, Ifrit, Shiva -- are nowhere to be seen. There is no trademarked real-time battle system, no specially-tailored character development mechanics like the Junction system or Sphere Grid, and no special moves involving quick button presses or spinning reels. The game certainly can't boast of having a four-year development cycle or an eight-digit budget: Final Fantasy was released within a year of its inception and worked on by about seven people (including its sole programmer, NASIR). Things were simpler then, that's for sure.

Certain 8-bit games have proved virtually immune to the passage of time. Take Super Mario Bros., Legend of Zelda, and Castlevania, for instance. Five successive console generations, plethoras of sequels and imitators, and today's improved hardware have done little to diminish their old appeal. Though they certainly show their age, these games remain just as playable and fun as they were twenty years ago, and don't need tweaked handheld ports or 3D remakes to hold their own against their new-gen successors.

Final Fantasy is not one of those games.

After over two decades of RPGs contributing new ideas to the scene, 1987's Final Fantasy might seem plain, primitive, and unremarkable, especially to members of an audience that cut its teeth on the likes of World of Warcraft and Mass Effect. Many of its most prominent characteristics -- frequent random battles, long and difficult dungeons, tight inventory caps, and EXP/gold grinds -- have been systematically elimated from console RPGs throughout the years. It's got a whole laundry list of design flaws and idiosyncracies. For instance: "hey, let's make it so the Fighter and Black Mage switch places in line whenever Fighter gets poisoned, then set up the interface so the player has to navigate through two entirely independent menu screens before everyone's cured and back in order!" (It probably doesn't sound annoying if you haven't played the game, but NES verterans know exactly what I'm talking about.) You've got a bunch of spells that don't actually do anything, like LOCK, TMPR, AMUT, and SABR. There's that cute little glitch that makes it so all those special, hard-to find elemental weapons don't actually do what they're supposed to, leaving most of them absolutely useless. And it's damn hard to overlook the absence of automatic target-changing in the event of a prematurely felled foe. Someone like Miyamoto would have never let this stuff pass in his game.

In spite of my own fondness for it, I understand why present-day gamers, including JRPG fans and NES enthusiasts, might not have the interest or patience to sit down with the game for more than a couple of hours. This is not to say that Final Fantasy is an unplayable relic, but it's definitely a title that needs to be appreciated in the context of its time.

   


So why was Final Fantasy such a success?

Since telling a story is traditionally what Final Fantasy is known to excel at, let's start there. The original game's plot, compared to the interactive graphic novel JRPGs of the mid to late '90s and the CG blockbusters from the last decade, is sparse and rudimentary. But this shouldn't surprise you: it was released during a time when video games' storylines were usually consigned to a page in the instruction booklet or a few words that scrolled up the title screen when the Start button wasn't pressed right away. Not even adventure and role-playing games offered anything much more complex than "the good white-bearded king summons thee to rescue Princess X and slay Wizard/Dragon Y." Final Fantasy, on the other hand, tells a story about world-sustaining elemental crystals, lost civilizations, time travel, and supernatural revenge. Its inclusion of subplots, mysteries, dozens of characters, and a climax where metaphysical/pseudoscientific gibberish and deus ex machina collide was years ahead of the curve. Pretty much everything in the game has since become the essence of JRPG cliché, but this was some cutting-edge stuff in a 1987 Nintendo game. (PC gamers, however, had probably already seen most of this stuff in the first few Ultima installments, and reserve this as one of their many causes for sneering at us console tards.)

Final Fantasy never focuses on the personalities and inner conflicts of its characters. Its story doesn't play out through cutscenes or by guiding the player along a narrative. Instead, Final Fantasy is about the interaction between the player and the game's world. The player guides his characters (mute, in-game proxies for the player and not the distinct fictional entities they are in later Final Fantasy entries) through the game and gradually uncovers its world's history and secrets. This kind of storytelling is only possible with the interactive nature of the video game as a medium -- as opposed to today's non-interactive cinematics, which would be better suited for non-interactive media like television and film. (Granted, Final Fantasy's story wouldn't exactly lend itself to any other media: TONIGHT ON HBO PRESENTS FINAL FANTASY! A little red man must deliver the CROWN to Astos so he'll drop the CRYSTAL which he must return to Matoya in exchange for her most potent HERB! Will the potent HERB revive the Elf Prince so he'll give the little red man the MYSTIC KEY to unlock the treasure room containing the TNT? Guest-starring James Gandolfini!) Again, it's still all very basic by today's standards, but one good thing you could say about this is that it means the partition between Final Fantasy: The Story and Final Fantasy: The Game is not nearly as solid as it is in today's JRPGs.

You're probably already familiar with how basic JRPG combat and exploration works, so there's really no need to explain Final Fantasy's here. You've got your turn-based, random battles at their simplest -- though the game does, to the best of my knowledge, introduce the concept of elemental affinities to RPGs. If you look at it next to more recent Final Fantasy games (and other JRPGs), you'll notice that it is less about battle tactics and discovering borked skill combinations than resource management and knowing how to choose your fights.

Final Fantasy doesn't give you much to work with. There is only one (1) health-restoring potion, and it's only good for about 30 HP. The party can hold up to 99 of these, which only sounds like a lot. You don't get as much healing magic as you'd like, and spell list forces you choose between expending turns and magic charges on spells that either restore a moderate amount of HP for a single character, or a piddling amount for the whole party. There is no way for magic users to replenish spell charges inside dungeons. The only way to restore a party member who's hit 0 HP is through a couple of spells that only the White Mage and promoted Red Mage have access to and cannot be used during battles. There are no save or heal points inside dungeons. The real challenge of Final Fantasy is in handling the deluge of random battles as best you can and finding ways to stretch your team's supplies as you guide them through labrynthine, multi-floored dungeons without maps. This actually makes the dungeon treks one of the game's highlights, and not just a series of annoyances that must be slogged through in order to progress to the next boss fight or cutscene.

Final Fantasy is a good-looking game for 1987, but 8-bit graphics are a matter of developers doing as much as they can with a very limited set of tools. Only so much personality can be imbued into eleven-color environments, 16 x 16 four-color overworld sprites, and 16 x 24 three-color battle sprites. All Final Fantasy really had to do was look better than Dragon Quest, and all that demanded was that designers put roofs on the buildings and assemble tilesets that didn't look like building blocks laid out over wallpaper patterns. But there's some geniune eyecandy to be found in the monster sprites, which are pixellated renditions (exceptionally faithful ones, at that) of Yoshitaka Amano's paper and ink illustrations. Sakaguchi was savvy enough to know that Final Fantasy needed something to set it apart from Dragon Quest's Dragon Ball look, and found a suitable foil to Toriyama in Amano's surrealist-inspired art.

What really establishes the game's atmosphere is Nobuo Uematsu's soundtrack. Uematsu has received his share of criticism over the years (not all of it undue), but being able to produce a memorable, felicitous video game score with the Famicom/NES hardware is the mark of a talented composer. Here you'll find some of Uematsu's best-known work, including "Prelude," "Opening Theme," and "Victory Fanfare," whose titles attest to his former job writing background music for TV commercials. Compared to Dragon Quest and the NES port of Ultima III, Final Fantasy's soundtrack is somewhat weightier, containing more complex, richer melodies, and fewer BLEEPS and BLOOPS. Uematsu's score and Amano's art make Final Fantasy a surprisingly evocative audiovisual experience that established aesthetic as a critical cornerstone of SquareSoft's approach to designing games. Contrary to popular belief, its concentration on image didn't begin with Final Fantasy VII or Mr. Nomura.

In fact, it's been about image from the very beginning. The signature and top selling point of the Final Fantasy series has always been this tacit claim that it's just bigger than anything else out there, whether we're looking at VI's operatic steampunk apocalypse, the gradiloquent romance of VIII, or XII's tremendous production of Star Wars X Lord of the Rings X Everquest. In truth, Square's real successes are patchier than it'll admit, but one thing it can't be accused of is ever thinking small. With Final Fantasy, Sakaguchi set out with the professed intention of making a video game with a bigger world and story than anyone had seen before. The title, I suspect, was only partly chosen for its value as a dark joke. It may very well have been Sakaguchi's boast that his (and possibly Squaresoft's) last game was going to be the adventure game to top all others. Again, not that this was too hard: the JRPG was still a young genre, and the bar was only set as high as Dragon Quest.

When it was released, Final Fantasy was as big as 8-bit video games got. In addition to having a larger world, more monsters, more spells, more items, more characters, and deeper dungeons, it also let players fly around the world map in a god damn airship. It's the only 8-bit game I can think of that requires the player to Rescue The Princess before he's even allowed to see the title screen. The heroes' journey takes the player around the world, into outer space, and finally into the past -- which is farther than Erdrick or Link ever got in their early games. (Link and/or Erdrick, depending on which version you're playing, can be found dead and buried in a corner of the third town you visit, and the dates on the tombstone suggest an untimely demise.) In additon to trying to just be fun, Final Fantasy was one of the earliest games that strove for an epic scope and actually succeeded -- to an extent. It did well enough, anyway, to rescue SquareSoft from financial oblivion, inspire generations of copycats, and turn Famitsu magazine into its fawning slave for the whole duration of its publication.

So to answer the original question -- what made Final Fantasy such a hit? Three things: novelty, charm, and good timing.

It's really no more complicated than that.


   


CONCLUSION!

So how does Final Fantasy really stack up? Well, it's not as technically exquisite as Chrono Trigger. Its combat system isn't nearly as interesting or fun as those in Grandia, Tales, or Shadow Hearts. It hasn't the tremendous scope of Xenosaga, the character-driven pathos of Valkyrie Profile, the sci-fi je nai se quoi of Phantasy Star, or the quirky genre-splicing of Paper Mario. But it isn't fair to judge Final Fantasy relative to these newer, more advanced games, because in all likelihood none of them would exist without it. Had Final Fantasy never appeared, the entire JRPG sphere may never have deviated from Dragon Quest, and remained, like the dating sim, a Japanese niche market. Without the innovation and energy Square injected into the genre during the years between 1987 and 1997, and without any other serious contenders to counter Dragon Quest's massive influence, the console RPG scene might have stagnated in the early to mid Nineties; and without its impact on the rest of the industry -- largely positive and progressive, at least at first -- Daikatana and Mortal Kombat Mythologies would be renowned today as the most beloved games in the Occident simply because we wouldn't know any better. (But this, however probable, is only speculation.)

In 1987, the important thing was only that Final Fantasy be better than Dragon Quest -- which it was and still is. And today? It's not perfect and it's only getting clunkier with age, but it's still a straightforward and fun NES RPG that's refreshingly devoid of any of the gimmicks or vapid pizazz that saturate modern-day console RPGs. Anyone who wants to call themself a "gamer" owes it to themselves to check it out at least once (Final Fantasy Origins on the PlayStation is the recommended version) for its value as a historical curiosity: these are the humble beginnings of the least humble video game franchise on the planet.

   


Next: The Terrible Twos





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