This year celebrates the 30th anniversary of the release of one of gaming’s biggest franchises, Final Fantasy. Debuting on Japan’s Nintendo Famicom in 1987, legend has it that the game was a last ditch effort to save its fledgling developer, Square. The game wouldn’t make its way stateside until 1990 on the Nintendo Entertainment System, which is when I first got to experience it.
I remember clearly that the cartridge cost $70 and I cobbled together half of that and split the cost with a classmate, so we could share the game. And we did share it over the summer of 1990. I must admit, this setup was not the best way to play a game. After wrapping up the volcano and lighting the second orb, he took the game back and I didn’t see it again until he had wrapped it up. At which point, I just started a new game.
Wonky first experience aside, I have fond memories of the game on NES and returned to regularly over the years. I’ve played it on nearly everything it has released, except for maybe the Wonderswan. With the release of the NES Classic last year though, I thought what better time and way to celebrate its anniversary than to go back to the original as it was first played by me? You know, minus the weird trading between dungeons.
Few games are as burned into my memory like the opening of Final Fantasy is. Visiting the tiny kingdom of Coneria and learning of the kidnapped princess at the hands of Garland. Leveling up against Imps, GrImps, Wolves, and the occasional MadPony until my party was strong enough to venture north to the temple and rescue Princess Sara. Once rescued, the real adventure begins and the world opens up dramatically. Today, so many years and playthroughs later, that opening is still fully engaging for me.
Going back to it on the NES though, does bring with it some design shock. For one, combat encounters were developed on a very particular set of turn based rules. Each turn you select actions for your party to perform including the ability to attack physically or cast magic. Physical attacks and some spells require you to select a target. This is honestly pretty standard practice. But where returning to Final Fantasy on the NES brings in that design shock, is that if you select a character to perform an action and the receiving target has disappeared your character will still perform the action on the empty space, in effect wasting their move.
This can lead to some “cheap” deaths or “unfair” encounters that can strain your patience, especially when saving is relegated to inns in towns, or usable habitats on the open world. Nothing taxes me more than losing a significant chunk of progress because the game handles saving as a reward instead of a safety net.
If you can get past that one odd design quirk, that probably had more to do with the memory limitations of the NES at the time than anything else, Final Fantasy offers up a pretty great early era, open-world RPG. It doesn’t offer up an overly deep story, but what it does have is enough to string you along. It has a solid bestiary and some fantastical boss fights against massive behemoths that can leave you white knuckled and tense. Even today, the enemy designs look great, especially the more intricate bosses like Tiamat and Kracken.
It also lays the groundwork for so much of what comes in later entries to the series. Musical themes, weaponry, and little world building items from this game sprinkle every other Final Fantasy game. For me, even with its lack of story, outdated battle system, and lack of modern functionality, it might be my favorite in the series. Thirty years old and it still stands tall as one of the best.