Final Fantasy III: Four Orphans, Three Wizards, Two Worlds, One Game
by Pitchfork


The year was 1989. SquareSoft's mailboxes were full of angry mail from Japanese mothers who had bought their children Final Fantasy II and now faced massive hospital bills because their kids were bashing themselves in the skulls with baseball bats and big sticks, thinking it would make them stronger. While Final Fantasy II was a valiant effort, a bold stride into new territory for the blossoming console RPG genre, Square decided it would be in everyone's best interest if they took a "back to basics" approach with the series' next installment.

Using a long piece of string tied to a 10,000-yen note, Masafumi Miyamoto (SquareSoft's founder and top dog) managed to lure Kawazu away from the Final Fantasy division of the Square building and set him up elsewhere, giving him the SaGa series to mess around with -- much like that Simpsons bit in which Marge bakes a separate birthday cake for Homer to ruin. With Kawazu out of the picture and Sakaguchi back in the driver's seat, Final Fantasy III's game plan wrote itself. Experience points and leveling up were back. The Light Warriors made an encore appearance, and the concept of having party members with distinct identities and personalities got put back in the freezer for the time being. The four magical Crystals of the elements were back. The MP "charges" system from the first game was reinstated.

Also set to return were the first game's character classes. But then some intern who happened to overhear a couple of designer meetings had an idea. "What if, you know, you could change your characters' classes?" he asked Sakaguchi one day.

"What," replied Sakaguchi, "You mean like in the first game when we had the Thief changing into a Ninja? Yeah, that was pretty awesome."

"Something like that," the intern said. "But what if you could do that, like, you know -- whenever you wanted?"

A prolonged silence followed. When Sakaguchi finally spoke, he rewarded the intern with a permanent position on the Final Fantasy development team. Before the intern had a chance to say "Domo ariguchi, Mr. Sakaguchi," Hironobu produced a chloroform-soaked rag from his blazer pocket and shoved it into the intern's face. Office security was quickly notified, and the intern's limp body got dragged down to the basement. A few phone calls and one hour later, an unmarked white van pulled up to the Squaresoft building. A team of Yakuza doctors removed the employee's brain and placed it within a high-tech life-support apparatus that would indefinitely keep it alive and in Square's employ. Sakaguchi knew that Squaresoft couldn't ever afford to lose this kind of visionary brilliance. After all, the unassuming intern had just provided the basis for the Job System, one of the best things that ever happened to Final Fantasy.

Though Final Fantasy III's version of the job system isn't as sophisticated and doesn't offer the near endless customization options of its Final Fantasy V and Tactics incarnations, the freedom to change your character's classes at will is still a brilliant addition to the game. Thief not pulling his weight? Turn him into a Dragoon or a Monk. Up against a boss with high magic defense? Turn your mage classes into physical classes, then change them back afterwards. Bored with the tried and true "Sword Guy/Fist Guy/White Magic Guy/Black Magic Guy" party? Toss in an Archer, a Geomancer, a Viking, or a Dragoon to mix it up a bit. What's more, the game is full of unusual challenges and "trick" areas in which the best (or only) way to proceeded is by using certain Jobs.

And that's how it all began. As for the poor genius intern? His brain soon proved to be one of the company's most valuable creative assets. Virtually all of SquareSoft's greatest accomplishments throughout the 1990s were tied in one way or another to its input. "So we're making this new game where party members can combine their special attacks in battle," Sakaguchi asked the intern's brain sometime in 1994. "But we think it needs some extra pizazz. Whatcha got for us?"

"Time travel. It needs time travel," the brain spoke through a mechanical voice box connected via cable to his life-support machine. "And get get Akira Toriyama on the phone. He'd be all over dat shit." And wouldn't you know, Chrono Trigger went on to become one of Square's greatest successes.

Among the brain's other ideas were the opera scene in Final Fantasy VI, Tifa's breast size, most of Parasite Eve, Einhander's electronic soundtrack, the Sprite character in Secret of Mana, and adding Final Fantasy VII characters to Ehrgiez, to name only a few. Unfortunately, at some point during Final Fantasy VIII's development, a jealous Kawazu began mixing the brain's nutrient solution with ammonia. Soon the brain was voicing new ideas about a Final Fantasy CGI movie to the company's higher-ups. Later, after Spirits Within proved to be the biggest mistake Square would ever make, the development staff stopped consulting the brain altogether, and it is believed to have been lost in the shuffle during the company's merger with Enix.

Okay, so it's possible (perhaps even likely) that I made all that up. But the truth (or what's being passed off as it, anyway) is a lot less interesting. Deciding that the deviant Final Fantasy II should be followed by a return to form, Sakaguchi implemented the same inspired design strategy that proved so successful with the original Final Fantasy: stealing ideas from Dragon Quest. 1988's Dragon Quest III introduced a system that allowed the hero's three allies to switch between seven different classes. Final Fantasy III one-ups its rival by tossing in twenty-two classes (though several of them are just powered-up versions of each other), easing the requirements and restrictions on changing from one class to the next, and giving certain classes unique battle commands like as Jump, Cover, Terrain, etc. Once again, Dragon Quest did it first, but Final Fantasy did it better.

More important to Final Fantasy III than its return to the classes and mechanics of the first game is Sakaguchi's being put back in charge. What a world of difference this makes. While Kawazu concocts innovative (though not necessarily well-executed) ideas regarding RPG design, he sure wasn't able to make Final Fantasy II feel like something other than fifteen to twenty hours of fetch quests across a bland planet inhabited by people with no personalities or memorable characteristics. (Note: not to keep ragging on Final Fantasy II, but notice how Square goes out of its way to gussy up its sprites and textures for the Wonderswan port later on. It was the least they could to do to give the old clunker some semblance of the character it desperately needed.) Final Fantasy III revives the spirit of the original game, placing exploration and discovery back at the forefront of the experience. The world that Sakaguchi, Terada, and the team cooked up is one of the richest and most imaginative in the series; you'll want to keep playing just to see what's waiting around the next corner. Despite being developed and released a decade before Square began marketing its products as experiences rather than games, Final Fantasy III is nothing if not a trip.



The Light Warriors
Four orphan siblings raised in the village of Ur by Topappa, the town elder. One day while they are out adventuring, an earthquake sends them tumbling into an chasm. Waking up underground, they discover one of the four elemental Crystals, which endows them with MOON PRISM POWER MAKE UP abilities allowing them to transform from short-trousered little waifs into mighty heroes.


From 1977 to 1983, Danzig was mastermind and vocalist of The Misfits, the massively influential horror punk band that remains, to this very day, the best thing ever to come out of New Jersey. His current gig, however, has him serving as the frontman of the Light Warriors' latest incarnation. His hotheadedness and expertise in the martial arts make him well-suited for his role as the group's physical powerhouse.


When Sisters of Mercy vocalist and putative "Godfather of Goth" Andrew Eldritch was asked to join the Light Warriors, he made a gigantic fuss about royalties and ultimately refused. Compelled by his strong sense of justice, the Sisters' drum machine Doktor Avalanche snuck away from Eldritch to join the Light Warriors in his stead. He is a jack of all trades who alternates between a variety of offensive and auxiliary roles. Because of his mechanical nature, the Doktor often has difficulty understanding human emotions.


The Prince of Drum & Bass himself is third in the Light Warriors' ranks. As an electronic music producer and DJ, John B often prefers to stand back and let Danzig and the Doktor take care of the hands-on stuff while he backs them up with buffs and healing spells. He frequently locks horns with Danzig because of their musical and philosophical differences, but he is particularly close with the aloof Doktor.


Unaccustomed to bringing up the rear though he might be, the face of Canadian industrial act Skinny Puppy is the Light Warriors' resident master of offensive magic. With an artistic career and persona defined by the dark, creepy, and inhuman, Nivek is perfectly equipped for wielding arcane magic and summoning vicious deities. Despite his ghoulish appearance, Nivek possesses a stoic personality and often helps Danzig and John B resolve their differences.

I dare you to tell me that my Light Warriors aren't at least twice as cool as Luneth, Arc, Refia, and Ignus from the DS remake.



In her second incarnation, Princess Sara is an adventurous go-getter instead of a damsel in distress. When Djinn places a curse on her people, Sara arrives on the scene before the Light Warriors, and helps them defeat and reseal the sinister Arabian stereotype. Afterwards, she becomes their number one fan and groupie.


Final Fantasy III has a guy named Cid who builds airships. Who knew? Though Final Fantasy II introduced the character as a young, well-groomed, adventurous type, Final Fantasy III's "strange old coot" take on Cid is the more familiar version.


A fast-talking wanderer whom the Light Warriors stumble upon in a dragon's nest. He's an amnesiac, so you can probably bet he'll turn out to be pretty important. It might also not be unreasonable to suspect that he's a representative of an ancient lost civilization who was selected as a guardian and put in stasis, and that his appearance portends an impending disaster only he can prevent.


Sensing the potential consequences of Zande's actions, the Water Crystal places the surface of the planet in suspended animation and pulls it underwater. Only Elia -- a young priestess of the Water Crystal and Final Fantasy's first Woman in a Refrigerator -- can reverse the spell. (I should mention that the "Boundless Ocean" theme that plays while the Light Warriors explore the flooded world beyond the Floating Continent is more haunting than an NES tune has any right to be.)


Four stupid (though well-meaning) old weirdos convinced that they're the real Light Warriors. I don't know why they're in this game.


The exiled prince of Salonia is the second of Final Fantasy's three "wimpy princes whose balls drop during the course of the plot" characters. At least he stays out of the way during fights.


When Archmage Noah passed away, he distributed his inheritance among his three disciples. Dorga received his master's magic and knowledge, effectively making him the most powerful magic-user on the planet. If I were some sort of obsessive-compulsive geek, I might ask why he needs the help of four magical orphans to deal with the disciple who didn't inherit Noah's incredible magic power...but I'm afraid that is a nit that will have to go unpicked.


This loony old bat is the second of Noah's disciples to whom we are introduced. When her master died, she inhererited his sovereignty over the world of dreams. Though she shares his name, Unne has no relation to the renowned baller linguist of the first Final Fantasy.




An evil fire spirit released after the quake on the Floating Continent. He places a curse on the inhabitants of Sasoon and Kazus, and our heroes' first task as the new Light Warriors is to kick his ass.



A shady rogue living at the bottom of a subterranean lake. Guzco's ultimate goal is to seize the power of the Fire Crystal, but needs to take care of a few preliminaries before he can get the ball rolling. He's a tenacious bastard, and has quite a few tricks up his sleeve.



Former advisor to King Argus, Hyne went inexplicably mad after the earthquake. Using his magic, he uproots the Eldest Tree of the Living Forest, converts it to his personal airborne fortress, and locks up King Argus and his Knights of the Square Table (seriously?) inside. Players mostly remember Hyne for being the first Final Fantasy boss to use the old "Barrier Change" trick.



A wealth-obsessed psycho living in a solid gold mansion. Due to a misunderstanding, Goldor believes the Light Warriors are trying to steal his most prized possession: a magic crystal that turns stuff into gold. He fixes their airship with a special chain to slow them down, so the Light Warriors pay him a visit to convince him to take it off. You can guess how well it goes.



The first of the Dark Crystal guardians, four -- well, three -- of the nastiest bosses in all of Final Fantasy. Cerberus is the weakest of the bunch, and deliberately tricks you into a false sense of security before you go off to face the other three. "That was a snap!" you think. "If the rest are anything like this guy, this should be a breeze!" Hah.



Named for Greek mythology's "mother of all monsters" who copulated with Typhon and gave birth to Orthos (as well as Hydra, Scylla, Chimera, and others). Her strategy consists of following a set pattern: she'll start off the battle with some devastating spell that hits your entire party, then nip at you for a round or two as you try to recover and mount an offensive. Then she'll cast Drain on one of your party members (likely halving his HP), signaling that she'll cast another gigantic spell during the next round and start the cycle over again. Ugh.



Remember Kraken from the first Final Fantasy? Remember how he was perfectly capable of killing off your entire party with physical attacks, but often chose to squander his turns with ineffective spells like INK and LIT2 instead? Well, the Two-Headed Dragon is sort of similar to Kraken, only he's got thousands upon thousands more HP and doesn't have any spells to waste turns on.



The strongest of the Dark Crystal bosses, Ahriman is like Echidna on PCP. He'll open by hammering you with a tremendous non-elemental spell, then use elemental spells for the next round or two before switching back to another gigantic non-elemental attack. Rinse, repeat, Game Over. Consider yourself lucky if he decides to cripple you with Quake instead of Meteo.



So: Dorga received all of Noah's power and magic. Unne got control over the world of dreams. Zande, Noah's third disciple, received mortality and life as a normal human as his inheritance. I guess I can sorta understand why he's got a chip on his shoulder.

Zande sings to the tune of "well if I have to die, then everyone else should die! And right now!" With his magic and demonic agents, he tries to drain the Crystals' power, disbalancing the forces and triggering a flood of darkness to consume the world.



The Cloud of Darkness is the first clear example of Final Fantasy introducing a boss with Necron Syndrome. As soon as Zande drops, ths horrible evil diety jumps in from nowhere to announce that she is the Endboss and/or One Behind It All from the Very Beginning. She's also the Final Fantasy equivalent of an SNK boss -- in other words, she's unbelievably cheap. Beating her is simply a matter of surviving Flare Wave after Flare Wave long enough to cut her HP to zero, which is much easier said than done.

Other Characters



Here's something the series hasn't seen before: a town of wee people. (The American DS version calls them "Gnomes." They're too small to be terribly important, but they are a friendly bunch. And making a return appearance are the dwarves, now sporting a fresh new "bearded black mage" look.



You may have read the text from the opening screen and thought, "What the hell's a Gurgan?" Well, here they are: a blind race with the ability to prophesize the future. Think of them as Final Fantasy III's take on the Circle of Sages.



Hmm. Final Fantasy III introduces a group of fairies that live in a secluded forest and tend to a sentient tree, and a race of cute little white fuzzballs. Both get leased to the Seiken Densetsu games, but only the Moogles find their way back.



Final Fantasy III is the first game in the series with a Summoner class, and you know what that means. The iconic genjuu Ifrit, Shiva, Ramuh, Titan, and Odin all make their first appearances here, and series veterans Leviathan and Bahamut join their ranks as well.



The descendents of the Ancients speak of a disaster that occurred 1,000 years ago when their ancestors' technology caused the power of Light to run amok, threatening to annihilate the world. All would have been lost had the Dark Warriors not emerged to stop the Flood of Light and save the day. Even though the Dark Warriors and the Light Warriors should technically be opposing forces, they must band together to save both worlds -- Light and Dark -- from the Void.


Okay. There are twenty-two character classes in Final Fantasy III, and I'm already low on steam from talking about all the characters. Let's just cover the important ones here.


The Ninja can use every piece of equipment and throw Shurikens. Sages can cast every type of spell and get more charges than any other mage class. It's probably impossible to beat Final Fantasy III at a reasonable party level without a team composed entirely of Ninjas and Sages.


There is no reason to use Bards. Ever.

Onion Knight

Sure, they're virtually obsolete from the moment you see the title screen, but the original blank-slate "free-lancers" of Final Fantasy III are exponentially better than Lueth, Arc, Refia, and Ignus. Remember when these games left stuff up to players' imaginations? The Onion Knights represent a time when Japanese game developers relied on the brain attached to the hands holding the controller to help construct the experience, and I love them for it.


Scholars have two abilities. One lets them check an enemy's HP. The other reveals any elemental weaknesses an enemy might have. The latter is almost never worth wasting time with, and the former is useful exactly once in the game. It's no wonder the class got overhauled in the DS remake.


Light Warriors don't come much cuter. If I had kids, I would dress them like this.


One looks like a thirty-year-old pedophile trying to squeeze into the Peter Pan costume he wore trick-or-treating when he was twelve. The other appears to be getting devoured alive by a giant green sock. (Spyda opines it looks more he put on Kuribo's Shoe backwards.) Either way, ick.


Think of him as a Summoner trainee. He can cast Summon magic, but isn't capable of using it to mow down whole screens of enemies just yet. Each of his spells has a "white" and "black" effect, selected randomly when cast. White effects usually give your party a small boost or inflict status ailments on enemies, while black effects inflict elemental damage on a single enemy. It's a lot more useful than it sounds, and really comes in handy in the Cave of Shadows.

Black Mage/Magus

I hate to admit it, but Black Magic kinda sucks in Final Fantasy III. Physical attacks and Summons are much better, making the Jobs relying exclusively on Black Magic a lot less useful than fighters or Summoners.



Console RPGs aren't what they used to be -- and depending on your tolerance for pain and the scarcity of time you can dedicate to playing video games, that might not be such a terrible thing. Early console RPGs are notoriously brutal, and Final Fantasy III is no exception. In fact, it's possibly the most difficult game in the whole series.

Though some of the games from the last decade have increased the difficulty quotient after the relatively breezy SNES and PlayStation iterations, they're still nothing like the 8-bit games. Final Fantasy III is as tough and merciless as it is fun and colorful, and we're going to take a look at six of the nastiest hurdles it throws at players.

6.) "We've got a runner!"

Rather than being a particularly rough boss or a dungeon, our first entry is a strange rule implemented in Final Fantasy III and then never used again in future installments. It's so evil and makes your team's life so difficult that I almost suspect Kawazu showed up at a developer meeting with a fake mustache and a wig, insisting that being able to run away from random encounters makes things too easy and that a deterrent should be implemented. How else could Final Fantasy III's "you run, you die" policy have been devised? It has Kawazu's acrid, unmistakable stink all over it.

Unlike in Final Fantasy II, your team is capable of running from most battles in III. But there's a catch: when you select the "run" command, even with a single character, the entire group's physical defense stat drops to zero for the duration of the round. The monster that hit your Knight for a trifling 100 HP last turn will now pound on him for 1500 HP. A single round of failed attempts at running practically ensures two dead Light Warriors. (Did I mention that the shops in Final Fantasy III don't sell Phoenix Down?) If you decide to opt out of a fight in Final Fantasy III, you'd better be feeling lucky.

5.) Maze of the Ancients/Sylx Tower/Eureka


A test of your patience and endurance. All of best equipment and the two "master" Jobs can only be acquired in Forbidden Land Eureka, whose entrance is in the Sylx Tower basement. Before entering the Sylx Tower and warping to Eureka, you first have to park your airship outside the Maze of the Ancients, go inside, and muddle your way through. Eureka is a fairly big place, and the Exit spell doesn't work there. Once you reach the and get all the swag you came for, you have to trudge all the way back to the entrance. This puts your party back at the base of the Sylx Tower. If you decide you're too low on resources to tackle the climb and fight the endgame boss gauntlet at this point, you have to fight your way back through the Maze of the Ancients, board the airship, and come back later to do it all over again. For a game that punishes fleeing from battles as severely as Final Fantasy III, this is really rather sadistic.


4.) Mini Dungeons

Several areas of the game require you to cast Mini on all of your party members in order to enter a dungeon, and they must remain shrunk while inside. In the "mini" conditon, a character's physical attack and defense both drop to zero. All you can do is switch as many characters as you can to magic-using classes, move everybody to the back row, and hope your magic charges last.

3.) Garuda

Garuda is tricky. Firstly, it's possible that the fight will catch you totally off guard. You just don't expect to fight a vicious boss like this in the middle of a town without any warning. You're walking to the castle with your new friend to have a chat with his father, and then suddenly BOOM DEATH FROM ABOVE GAME OVER.

Hopefully you've been making a point to solicit information from the townpeople; otherwise, you probably missed a clue to Garuda's weakness. His Thunder attack dishes out more damage than your healers are capable of keeping up with, so the only solution is to avoid getting hit by it altogether -- by turning all your party members (or as many as possible) into Dragoons and making them Jump every round.

2.) Cave of Shadows


A nightmare. Most of the monsters here possess a particularly diabolical property: striking one with any melee attack (aside from blows with a Dark Knight's sword) that doesn't kill it causes it to split off into two units with HP equal to the original's. These guys also hit harder than anything you've faced so far, and they usually come at you in swarms.

What's more, the Cave of Shadows is deep. I'm almost positive that it's the longest dungeon in the game, but I guess it's possible that it just seems that way. It's also full of false-wall mazes, which get longer and more complicated with each floor. The boss waiting for you at the bottom is relatively easy, but by the time you face him, you've got a staggering party that's already used up most of its resources.

Evil...but not the worst.


1.) The Dark World

The last stretch of Final Fantasy III goes like this. First, you climb the Sylx Tower and fight Zande -- a fairly difficult boss -- at the top. Then, after some cutscenes, you find yourself in the Dark World. You have to trudge your way through, fight four three difficult bosses, and take on the extremely hard endboss.

Bear in mind that Save Points didn't exist until Final Fantasy IV. If you get a Game Over at any stage of the process, you have to start over again from the bottom of the Sylx Tower. Climbing the tower takes a good twenty to thirty minutes. Navigating the Dark World and fighting the bosses takes thirty to forty.

So let's say you reach the top of the tower for the first time and get killed by Zande. You reload your game, climb back up, and beat him. Then you get to the Dark World and beat Cerberus, but get killed by Echidna. So you start over again. You climb the tower, beat Zande, beat Cerberus, and beat Echidna, but get caught unawares and killed by the Two-Headed Dragon. So you start over. You climb the tower, beat Zande, beat Cerberus, and lose to Echidna because of a fluke. So you start over. Climb the tower, beat Zande, beat Cerberus, beat Echidna, and beat the Two-Headed Dragon, but get killed by Ahriman. So you start over. You climb the tower, beat Zande, beat Cerberus, beat Echidna, beat the Two-Headed Dragon, and then get killed by Ahriman again. But this time you have a plan. You climb the tower, beat Zande, beat Cerberus, beat Echidna, beat the Two-Headed Dragon, and beat Ahriman, but are then completely obliterated by the Cloud of Darkness. So you try again. You climb the tower, beat Zande, beat Cerberus, beat Echidna, beat the Two-Headed Dragon, beat Ahriman, and are then killed by the Cloud of Darkness even quicker than before. So you start again. You climb the tower, beat Zande, beat Cerberus, beat Echidna, beat the Two-Headed Dragon...

Meanwhile, as all this is happening, minutes and hours of your all-too finite existence as a sentient lifeform on planet Earth are steadily and irrevocably slipping away. Flowers are blooming outside. The sunset casts the clouds and sky from orange-crimson to a speckled violet. Shooting stars blink out across the twilight. The old playground you visited every day as a child is about to be bulldozed. Old friends you haven't spoken to in years suddenly remember you and wonder where you are in the world now. Somewhere, a person you've never met and who could possibly be waiting for you has lately began talking to someone else a lot like you. And here you are, twelve hours and fifteen tries into defeating the Cloud of Darkness, positive that this time you'll get it for sure.

The last dungeon in Final Fantasy III is fucking tough.



Though I'm not a fan of the retreat mechanics, I really like this one. Everything else about the trip is great. Final Fantasy III isn't only the biggest and the best of the series' 8-bit iterations, but a marker for when SquareSoft entered its stride as an RPG developer. It's a shame this game never hit the states until the fairly recent release of the DS remake (which is almost a different game altogether), but given its release in the waning days of the Famicom/NES and the relative obscurity of the genre and brand overseas, it couldn't be helped.

Given how Final Fantasy III introduced the the Job System -- which has since become synonymous with "tremendous abuse potential" -- it's all the more surprising that the game has the distinguished honor of being one of the least-borked entries in the whole series. If you can look beyond its datedness, you'll find one of the best-designed RPGs SquareSoft ever made. For what it's worth, the respondents of a 2006 Famitsu magazine poll rank Final Fantasy III as the eighth-best video game ever made, beating out every other title in the series in the series but IV, VII, and X.

So: A balanced Job System, high challenge factor, Sakaguchi at the top of his game, simplicity, and retro charm. What more could you ask from a Final Fantasy game?

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