This is a guest post by ArcticMetal! Stay tuned for his thoughts on more Final Fantasy games in the future.
Last year I decided to start playing through every mainline Final Fantasy (except the MMOs) in their original language and release. I’ve been wanting to get into the series for a long time – I absolutely adore other JRPGs like Super Mario RPG, Secret of Mana, and Chrono Trigger – and playing through them in Japanese to get some more reading practice seemed like a great idea. I wanted to see how they evolved over time, in references and callbacks to previous games, in their storytelling, and their gameplay mechanics and quality of life. With that in mind I began with the least final Final Fantasy of them all: Final Fantasy for the Famicom.
Well, that’s a bit of a lie. I actually began with Final Fantasy 7 for the Playstation 1, but that’s a story for another day.
Choose Your Characters
Booting up the game you’re immediately presented with a choice that’s going to impact the rest of your playthrough: what classes should your party be composed of? Your choices are Fighter, Thief, Monk, Red Mage, Black Mage, and White Mage. I went with Fighter, Thief, White Mage and Black Mage.
This is an incredibly important decision because each class has restrictions on what they can equip and use. Fighters can wear the best armor and use the best weapons but can’t cast any magic, and a Black Mage is stuck with short blades, staffs, and the lightest armors but has access to all of the black spells. Class also affects stat increases, including HP, which in practice means all of your spellcasters are going to be quite squishy and will need to be protected.
Amusingly, there are no restrictions on your party makeup. You can have as many duplicates of each class as you want, which has led some to try a “White Mage Challenge” in which your entire party is composed of White Mages. Not something I’d ever attempt myself, but I appreciate that it’s possible!
Fighting with RNG
Once your party is selected and you’ve geared up in the starting town, it’s time to get into some random battles, and trust me, these are an experience.
At the beginning of every turn you give all of your party members a command, starting from the top and working your way down. After that, the round of combat begins, and all bets are off. Your warriors and their enemies will act in an order determined by RNG, weighted by their Agility stat. For example, a Thief will go before a Fighter most of the time, but not always. This wouldn’t be so bad, except for the fact that you command each warrior to target a specific enemy, and if that enemy is dead already by the time their turn comes around, they target the space where the enemy used to be, wasting their turn. On top of that, this happens even with single target spells, and losing a precious spell charge is painful every time.
This probably sounds like a nightmare…but a few hours in I was surprised to find myself enjoying it. I might just be a masochist, but it made me really think about the general ebb and flow of my party. “How many hits will it take to kill this skeleton?”, “I should have the Black Mage target this ogre, everyone else can handle those wolves”, and so on. Was this more tedious than auto-targeting? Absolutely. But it’s undeniable that it added a bit of tension and excitement to every battle.
The speed of combat, however, is excruciatingly slow. If, for some reason, you also wish to play the Famicom or NES version, I implore you to use an emulator with a convenient fast forward key. I never would have gotten through this game otherwise.
You might be wondering just how challenging this game is, and how much grinding it might require. Thankfully, even though this is a Famicom game, I would not classify this as “Nintendo Hard”, but it’s still one of the more challenging JRPGs I’ve played.
First and foremost, there are no Phoenix Downs in this Final Fantasy. That means if you only have one White Mage like I did and they happen to die in the middle of a dungeon, there’s no way to revive them or anyone else without going back to town. This can be mitigated by having two White Mages or a White Mage and a Red Mage, but those have their own drawbacks.
Secondly, there are maybe 2-3 points in this game where it is highly advisable that you grind out some levels and gil, including the very beginning. It’s mostly a smooth ride otherwise, but I had to grind for an hour or two total, and that would have been doubled or tripled without fast forward.
Thirdly, some of these enemies and bosses are absolute bastards. Early on you’ll be fighting undead that can paralyze your party members on hit, and you better pray they don’t paralyze your entire party. That’s child’s play, though, to certain enemies in the mid and late game that can cast instant death spells, or cause instant death through their physical attacks. This paired with the aforementioned lack of Phoenix Downs is a real headache.
And finally, due to the limitations of the Famicom, there is a real sense of RTFM when it comes to your weapons, armor, and spells. None of these provide any explanation in the game by themselves, but the manual has all the information you could want, if you know to look for it.
To mitigate all of these headaches I’m not ashamed to admit that I played through FF1 with a guide in hand. And frankly, if you ever decide to play this version of the game, I recommend you do too. You might be missing out on some nebulous “original experience”, but this game is from a different time, with different expectations. A guide will streamline your experience, reducing your frustration and enhancing your fun. At least, it did for me.
Crystals and Caverns
One thing I did not expect from this first Final Fantasy was how much inspiration it took directly from Dungeons and Dragons. I already knew that early JRPGs were inspired by Western RPGs like Wizardry and D&D, but it’s so obvious here that it feels like an unofficial D&D adventure. This is especially the case in the original Japanese release, as one of the bosses is literally a Beholder! The Beholder is a D&D specific creation, and the sprite and name were changed in the NES release, probably in fear of copyright litigation.
The other bosses and enemies, while not specific to D&D, would largely not be out of place there. You’ve got your trolls, ogres, skeletons, goblins, and the like. And some of these bosses are absolute classics. You get to fight a Vampire, a Lich, Tiamat, and even a Kraken!
The spellcasting system is also extremely similar to D&D’s spell slot system. You have 9 levels of spells, and a number of casts for each level of spell dependent on the caster’s level. So if you have 4 casts of level 1 spells, you could cast Fire 2 times and Blizzard 2 times, or Fire 4 times, etc. This keeps lower level spells in use throughout the game, but also reduces the amount of spellcasting overall compared to using an MP system. I’m glad they moved to an MP system for later games, but since this first game is balanced around the limited number of spell casts, it works well here.
As pictured in the Kraken screenshot above, there is a point in the game which I instantly and forever think of as “The Chaddening”. In a completely optional side quest, you confer with the dragon Bahamut and complete a trial to receive class upgrades for your entire party. This not only gives them new class titles and abilities (the Fighter becomes a Knight who can also cast some white magic, the Thief becomes a Ninja who can also cast some black magic, etc), but perhaps more importantly, it changes their sprites to become Fist of the North Star-esque hunks of comical proportions.
I can’t overstate how much this delighted me. You go from some chibi looking cute characters (which I also enjoyed!) to these absolute meatheads muscling their way down dark corridors. My Knight there looks like he can punch through a brick wall. Chaos, you better watch out, because Senshi is gonna suplex your ass.
This is the one thing I’m extremely sad is missing from future entries. Imagine if Aerith suddenly looked like she did about 1 million bench presses after Midgar. I think we all know it would be a better game for it.
Despite the jank, I thoroughly enjoyed FF1, and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the series’ beginnings, or just looking for a good classic JRPG. It’s a fairly short romp through a number of fun locations, the latter of which I do not want to spoil as I think it goes to some really interesting places (especially that Wind Crystal area). I hear the pixel remaster is a pretty faithful recreation, and the remixed OST is fantastic. There’s also the GBA version, but it changes the spell slot system to an MP one and consequently makes the game much easier. Because of that, I personally wouldn’t recommend it over the pixel remaster. If you do end up deciding to try it out for yourself, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!
Next time I’ll take a look at my personal favorite of the Famicom era, the much maligned Final Fantasy 2.