by Jason Parker (Ragachak)
Though I grew up in the 80s, I actually didn’t play Final Fantasy on the NES until the mid-90s, despite owning a Nintendo since it came out around ’86. I remember the moment quite fondly, too. There was a retro/used video game store right across from my neighborhood, and I went there anytime I could convince my Mom or Grandmother to take me. Other times, I’d just ride my bike up there. I saw a copy of Final Fantasy 1 and wanted to try it, and wound up spending close to a half hour picking a team, naming them, and doing some leveling up outside of Corneria. I begged and pleaded (every year) to get them to go buy it for me. This was before the price of NES games really began to skyrocket, and the collecting scene had not really grown to the level it did in the 2000s. In fact, I didn’t get to play Final Fantasy 1 until well after I got out of High School. I played more of Final Fantasy 2 and 3 (4 and 6) than I did of 1. I eventually played several playthroughs of the NES version, completing some of the more difficult challenges (four white mages, for example).
Final Fantasy 1 was a real achievement for consoles, despite the many (many) loopholes, glitches, bugs, and problems the game had. A single-player RPG where you had a party of characters that you selected the class for, went on a difficult but rewarding journey, upgraded their classes, traveled back in time and did battle with an ultimate evil? Sure, Might & Magic came out before Final Fantasy, but that was an entirely different kind of turn-based RPG. It was more like a PC RPG (since Might and Magic is a PC franchise mainly), and Final Fantasy 1 was its own beast. It changed RPGs forever. A turn-based RPG where you got to see your characters and the enemies, and incorporated a lot of the then-current AD&D rules, like initiative, armor class, spell slots, armor/weapon types, each character needing specific types of spells and equipment.
There are so many options for Final Fantasy parties, where your four characters can be a Fighter, Black Belt, Thief, Red Mage, White Mage, and Black Mage. During the Bahamut portion of the game, you can undergo a rite/ritual to upgrade to Knight, Master, Ninja, Red Wizard, White Wizard, and Black Wizard. This will drastically change some characters, like Knight being able to cast some spells, as a prime example. First-time players could very well miss it though if they don’t find Bahamut and his castle. This is one of the first games where you really needed to talk to everyone, and many times that could not be enough. Nintendo Power was the MVP though, having the free Final Fantasy strategy guide, for subscribers. It was one of the several free strategy guides they released, and it was definitely a driving point for me wanting the game since I had the guide and would read it obsessively.
Your first goal is just to save the princess of Corneria from the rogue knight Garland. Once the strongest knight in Corneria, for reasons unknown he kidnaps the princess and leaves, fleeing to the Temple of Fiends in the Northwest. He’s not really that strong, but you’re a team of heroes and he’s just one sinister knight. Easy, right? You bring her back home, but you better not forget to talk to her again. That useless item she gives you is the key to getting to the last dungeon. Now you’ve learned that the world is slowly dying. The seas are slowing, food isn’t growing. The land is growing hot and unbearable. The crystal’s power is weakening (if not gone) and it’s up to this squad of colorful badasses to go fight the four fiends and recover the Orbs. Lich, Kary, Kraken, and Tiamat are the four henchmen of Chaos, who has trapped the world in a time loop. Peace won’t happen until Chaos is bested once and for all.
It’s a nice, long RPG (unless you’re speedrunning), and it’s key to talk to everyone to figure out just where you’re going next. Despite it being a very linear game, you do a lot of globetrotting. It’s not easy though. It’s frustrating and tedious to level and grind unless you know the right spots to do it, like the Penninsula of Power. That’s a spot on the map where enemies much stronger than normal appear, and it’s one of the best early grinding spots in the game. In the NES version of the game, Mages felt almost impossible to use without items that cast spells, because you have very limited spell slots. The Black Belt class was bugged and borderline useless in the early game too. These were both corrected in the GBA version (Dawn of Souls). Then there are the wealth of enemies that can instantly kill you with death spells, death attacks, petrification, etc. This is before the time of Phoenix Downs, and you only had a few Life spells per rest period. No ethers, either! So you had to go back to Church. Few things were more frustrating than losing two party members mid-dungeon, having to trudge all the way back to town and fix the problem.
While the actual game is frustrating and difficult, it’s not all bad. Visually it was the first of its kind, and it has some of the most memorable music any RPG. It’s the first of a franchise that is still going strong today, and there are some pretty easy-to-exploit things in the game for exp, like Chest Bosses. Some treasure chests have a boss in front of them or an encounter that triggers. It will be triggered every time you step on it that tile, so with knowledge and preparation, you can grind these spots for tons of exp and gold. This is also the first RPG with a “Superboss”. A Superboss is typically much stronger than the Final Boss and is hidden somewhere in the world. In a lot of games, these are also in the post-game, but there’s only one spot you can find the Warmech. It can cast the strongest damage spell in the game, and it, like most bosses in the game, it can murder your whole team. Warmech, which has an incredibly low encounter rate on the last path of Tiamat’s Flying Fortress.
Garland Might Knock You All Down: 3/5
Final Fantasy was truly the first of its kind in the West, and kickstarted my love of the series, despite my first real exposure being a Nintendo Power magazine featuring Final Fantasy 2. It’s filled with bugs, glitches, and the NES version feels frankly unplayable once you’ve played the GBA or PSP versions of the game. But it was bold, it was fresh, and it was something we had never seen before. It was a colossal undertaking and was the first RPG I played that really felt like an epic, nearly impossible quest. It felt far more difficult than Final Fantasy 4, and my first playthrough of that took 80+ hours. Despite having one ending, and one linear path, it had replay value in the challenge of trying different party combinations and different approaches to party makeup. It’s not even in my top five Final Fantasy games of all time, but I have fond memories of it. I had memories of this game before I even played it, which is a testament to how strong the pull was. Final Fantasy 1 unknowingly led me down this path, and though I played other RPGs first, this one made me smile so much more.