It begins with a scene setting text scroll: "The world is veiled in darkness. The wind stops, the sea is wild, and the earth begins to rot. The people wait, their only hope, a prophecy... When the world is in darkness Four Warriors will come.... After a long journey, four young warriors arrive, each holding an orb."
It's a simple story and the game never really expands much beyond that initial framework. And, honestly, I kind of consider that to be one of its strengths. Granted, it comes with drawbacks -the player party is a blank slate and the characters largely two-dimensional- but there's also something about the game's simplicity that's kind of charming. It's never ruined by the sort of overwrought plots and narrative convolution (at least until the end) that now dominates the series in its modern iterations. It lets you create your heroes, gives you your quest, and then sets you to the task of completing it. It's focus is giving you an adventure rather than choking you with melodrama.
If that sounds at all appealing to you then your enjoyment of Final Fantasy will most likely boil down to whether or not you can get into the gameplay, something that might not be possible for every gamer. Let me throw a few phrases out. Turn-based combat. Random encounters. Level grinding. If any of those sound unappealing to you, you might want to leave this one alone because Final Fantasy has these in abundance. If you're like me however, and actually enjoy these things, then Final Fantasy might be worth your while.
Combat is turn-based combat boiled down to the bare essentials. You walk around the map, triggering random battles with invisible monsters that reward you with gold and experience points when you defeat them. Battles are fought from a side view and involve giving each of your characters a command (Fight, Magic, Item, Run) which they'll act out automatically after the beginning of each combat round. The order of combat and the damage dealt and received are determined by behind-the-scenes statistics that can be affected by spells, armor, and weaponry.
While this might sound familiar to most RPG fans, the gameplay does have pieces that some might find a bit archaic. One of the issues I've frequently seen people complain about is the fact that it doesn't automatically give a character a new target if an enemy they're attacking is defeated before their turn comes around. If two characters target the same enemy and one kills it before their partner's turn, the second will wave their sword at nothing and receive an "Ineffective" message for their effort.
Personally, I actually like this and have always felt that it added a bit of strategic flavor to what, otherwise, would be a really basic battle system. I've played remakes of Final Fantasy that remove this "problem" and it essentially killed the experience for me. The majority of encounters required little more than my hammering the A button until everything on the screen was dead. Mind you, most of Final Fantasy's remakes also neuter the difficulty (the original can be brutal), but I still think the NES release gained more by including this mechanic than subsequent versions did by removing it. In the original game, every combat action, big or small, requires thought and preparation. You always need to be thinking about where each character's turn can be put to best use. You can't just mindlessly bash your way through if you want to win.
A far more legitimate complaint about the gameplay would be some of the technical issues that plague the NES version. I can remember when I was younger not wanting to invest in certain spells on my repeat playthroughs because they didn't seem to actually do anything. As it turns out, this wasn't just boyhood me imagining problems. The NES game apparently came packaged with a number of bugs that rendered certain spells and weapons either useless or, in the least, far less useful than they were supposed to be. Some examples include weapons with non-working buffs against certain enemy types or, in the worst cases, spells that increase your enemy's stats when they're supposed to be lowering them.
The game's potential and real problems aside, Final Fantasy is, overall, still a solid and fun experience. The opening class choices (you can fill four slots with any combination of six classes) offer a lot of opportunities for varied strategies, while the combat is challenging without ever feeling unfair. Modern gamers might chafe a bit at the absence of niceties like in-dungeon save points, but if you put in the work and plan ahead, you'll rarely come across anything insurmountable. The difficulty also serves as fertile ground for some intensely satisfying victories. As tense as some of the fights can feel, the sense of accomplishment you get from conquering them is well worth the frustration of getting your butt handed to you by a tricky boss (screw you Astos). Much like the story, the game-play is simple but strong.
I've said nothing up to this point about the visuals or music. Some of that comes from the fact that this is an NES game so, obviously, most of the graphics haven't aged well. That said, I do have to say that I absolutely adore the Final Fantasy's in-battle pixel art. It's so classic looking and I can't help but love it. The music is also quite wonderful. Not that should surprise many people. It's Nobuo Uematsu, a.k.a. one of the most brilliant and beloved game composers of all time. Even with his involvement though, I've always felt like Final Fantasy is a bit under-considered when it comes to the franchise's great songs. The emotions and feelings he was able to capture -adventure, majesty, melancholy- with the limited hardware of the NES amazes me to this day.
There are a lot of old-school RPGs that are practically unplayable by modern standards. While some might disagree, I wouldn't count Final Fantasy to be among them. Sure, you could attribute some of my opinion to the fact that I'm a longtime fan of the game. As I wrapped up my latest playthrough though, I was left with the unshakable feeling that is an RPG that still has value beyond being a relic of gaming's past. Try it out if you can and, above all else, give it the chance it deserves. As I learned 22 years ago, first impressions can often be wrong.
Next week I'm going to revisit Final Fantasy's most tense moment and spend a bit of time discussing the value of challenge and how its absence can ruin an otherwise solid game.