February 4, 2017

My impressions of Final Fantasy for the NES

A week ago, I finished my first playthrough of the original Final Fantasy for the NES. In the past, I had not been super interested in playing this episode since it was said to be (understandably) rough around the edges, being the first entry in the franchise. A few factors changed my mind: first, I heard great comments on the FF1 run at AGDQ 2017 by Feasel and Gyre and I was looking forward to watching a solid speedrun; second, I discovered that a couple of my coworkers were big fans of this game; lastly, I’ve been thinking that there is a void in my video game culture due to not having played (or even watched) the early episodes of Final Fantasy. For these reasons, I decided to go ahead and play the game.

What I liked

I was pleasantly surprised by the game, very much so! Despite its age, the limitations of the platform on which it ran, and that there were no other Final Fantasy games to turn to for inspiration, I thought that it was a much more solid entry than I’d given it credit for. Here are some of the features of the game, in no particular order, that I found genuinely interesting.

The combat system

By far my favorite feature of Final Fantasy is its combat system. Final Fantasy does not have the ATB combat system that became well known with the entries on the SNES and Playstation; before a turn, you select the actions for your characters, and then they execute those actions, with monster attacks interspersed in between. I’m not sure that I know how the turns are selected: purely random maybe?

I like this system, because it is slow, and it gives me time to think (roguelikers will appreciate, I’m sure). I can take my time to figure out what enemy formation I’m fighting, how much I think each of my attacks might do, and formulate an attack plan. If I make a mistake during action selection, I can simply press B and correct my error. This very forgiving mechanic can allow you to realize that there is a better plan of attack while you are selecting your commands.

Most people have heard of ineffective attacks: if an enemy dies, every command that targets this enemy afterwards will whiff rather than re-targeting another enemy. I had thought initially that this was going to be extremely tedious, but it turned out that this opens up an extra tactical dimension: should all your party members target one enemy to ensure it dies in this turn, or should you spread your attacks to end the fight more quickly? It also pushes you to estimate an enemy’s hit points (I got really good at keeping an upper-bound on max HP) and guess-timate if you need one, two, or more attacks to defeat it. It also makes fights more tense, because you can’t hold down A.

The party selection

As far as I know, Final Fantasy is unique within the franchise in allowing you to select the members of your party, and not allowing you to change (e.g., you can change that nature of an FF5 party by switching jobs). I finished my own playthrough with two fighters, one red mage, and one black mage. I had my share of difficulties since I did not have a white mage; for instance, in the Ice Cave, seeing mages was extremely scary, because I did not have a party member that could use the LIFE spell (and the game doesn’t have Phoenix Downs). The speed-run I mentioned earlier used two fighters and two red mages; my colleagues’ parties were four fighters and fighter, white mage, two black belts respectively. Some crazy gamers have won the game using a party of only white mages or black mages, etc. This gives the game a lot of replayability, and many ways to increase the difficulty of the game.

The plot and the game world

Final Fantasy is not a complicated game, it’s even simplistic at times. Yet, I thought it was charming, and because of the NES’s technical limitations, there was only one side quest (the Castle of Ordeals), and everything else was very straight-forward: go fetch a KEY to get TNT so that you can have access to later dungeons. The NPCs have limited dialogue, but they can still gives you some hints about where you need to go and what you need to do to progress; for instance, you need to bring SLAB to Dr. Unne to understand the Lufenian language, and an NPC gives you a hint that this is the person you need to go see, but they forgot his name. The game also introduces many elements that would become staples of the series: black and white magic, different races, Bahamut, crystals, an airship, etc.

The beastiary

Many of the infamous enemies of Final Fantasy were in the very first entry: cockatrices, mind flayers, huge worms, etc. And many of those enemies are scary: I don’t think I ever actually fought mind flayers, I just ran away and hoped they didn’t kill any of my party members. Similarly, a group of 9 cockatrices ambushing you is sure to make even the atheist players pray to some random deity to avoid getting stoned.

The dungeons

Although the NES’s technical capabilities did not allow a lot of variety and flexibility, each dungeon really felt distinct from the others. The colors, the enemies, and the music all contributed to create a unique ambiance for each place you visited.

The music

Nobuo Uematsu is now a legendary figure in the video game world: his work was instrumental to the series’ popularity, and today millions of gamers remember fondly the tunes he composed. Final Fantasy on the NES had a very basic sound system (see this video for a nice primer), yet Uematsu found a way to make that simple system sing. I especially enjoyed Matyoa’s theme, the battle song, and Gurgu Volcano.

What I liked less

Final Fantasy is a great game, but it is certainly not without its flaws. None of the flaws are fatal, but they can detract a little bit from the game.

Bugs galore

One of the most obvious problem with the game is the amount of bugs that you’ll see, even in a normal playthrough. There are many magic spells that never work (e.g. TMPR), the INT stat is bugged and doesn’t do anything, the thief’s special aptitude for running away doesn’t work, etc. There are no showstopper bugs as far as I know, but if a magic spell doesn’t seem to do anything, it’s very difficult to know if it’s because the enemy is resistant/immune to it, or because there is a programming problem. One often has to resort to FAQs to know if it’s worth buying a spell or not.

The magic system

I didn’t care too much for the magic system where you have a limited number of charges for a spell level, and when those are gone, you need to go to an inn or use a house to recharge them. When it’s your first playthrough, it’s difficult to know if you should keep those charges, or if it’s fine to use them, so I ended up using magic only when facing bosses, or when grinding. Speaking of grinding…

Some grinding required

I had to grind quite a few times during the game to reach a level that would allow me to complete a dungeon. Today, such a requirement is considered tedious, but it’s a bit more understandable for a game like Final Fantasy that was exploring the genre for the first time. I still did not enjoy spending 30 minutes here and there just fighting enemies to have a sufficiently high enough level to go through the next phase of the game.

Buying items

The game has very few consumables: for example, the only healing item is a HEAL potion which gives you back 30 HP. As we mentioned, spell charges are limited, and cannot be recharged in a dungeon, so HEAL potions are essential to keep your party alive. The problem is that you buy consumables one at a time. It takes quite a lot of time to get 99 of them. Fortunately, an emulator can lessen the burden by accelerating the speed of the game, and allowing you to keep the Turbo A button pressed.

Limited saving

Since you can only save you game in inns or on the overworld using a tent/cottage/house, going through a dungeon can be really nerve-racking. Although it adds to the tension of the game (which I liked), it’s really tempting to use save states in an emulator to ensure that you don’t lose all your progress should you have an unfortunate encounter.

Parting words

If you are a fan of the Final Fantasy series and you would like to discover the humble beginnings of one of the most popular and beloved series, I can heartily recommend that you give Final Fantasy a try. Desprite being primitive in comparison to recent entries, I’m sure you’ll appreciate how this little seed of a game sprouted a large and strong tree of a series.

In my next entry, I’ll discuss Final Fantasy: Dawn of Souls, the port of Final Fantasy and Final Fantasy II to the Gameboy Advance.