I Blew Off Final Fantasy, True Story

Final Fantasy Anniversary Edition

I blew off Final Fantasy for the Nintendo Entertainment System, without apologies, for almost two decades. Not because I hate roleplaying games, or random encounters, or, you know, Japan. No, I took a pass because at the time, and from a distance, the game screamed Ultima-for-dummies, i.e. a super-simple roleplaying experience for kids who hadn't laid eyes or fingers on an Apple II, Commodore 64, or Intel 386, much less roleplaying big-leaguers like Bard's Tale, Wizardry, and SSI's Gold Box series.

That's my (sorry) excuse for jilting the maiden installment in the bestselling roleplaying series going.

And after finally playing the PSP remake, it seems I got it wrong.

Here's why.

In Through the Out Door

Remember two-button joysticks? Keyboards without a mouse (keyboards that were computers, for that matter)? Coaxial box-adapters with sliders that let you switch between your computer and the TV? Put your wayback caps on, set the dial to 'mid-1980s', and let's try a little word association.

What comes to mind if I say 'Final Fantasy analogue'?

Ultima III: Exodus?

Ultima 3 Exodus
The box art for Origin's Ultima III: Exodus. Check out Exodus's Fu Manchu.

Ultima III: Exodus, with its controversial "Hey, are you really promoting Satan?!?" game cover, was a creature of the early 1980s and the venerable Apple II computer family. It employed crude, chunky, primary color pixels to fake a world with mountains, plains, forests, and cities squashed flat. It traded a "you-hit-me, I-hit-you" combat system for zoomed-in, snap-away battle arenas that supported thoughtful tactical play. Your party-of-one in prior games became a party of many, each member maneuverable independently during skirmishes. In exploration mode, you arrowed your party (represented by a single character) around the game's "overworld," scouting for treasure, bumping into enemies, accruing experience points to level up, and visiting towns to upgrade kit or restock supplies.

Somewhere in all that was a story about an evil wizard and forgotten lands and diabolically magical computers, but it hardly mattered. The game was really about poking your head inside dungeons and wandering through fields of jutting gray triangles and neon-green blobs to answer questions like "What's that squiggly-looking thing over there?"

Ultima 3 Exodus, Apple II
The title screen (and running demo) from Ultima 3: Exodus for the Apple II. Mad graphics for a computer game in 1983.

In 1989, FCI Inc. published a port for the NES. That's the version I played after fiddling with earlier installments on my primary school's Apple II, sneaking in perfunctory sessions over recess (parochial grade school administered by nuns, wildly allergic to electronic gaming). Before I'd saved up enough to spring for a Commodore 64, I puttered around the dual realms of Sosaria and Ambrosia on an NES attached to one of those old color tube TVs encased in a stylish wood frame that planted it flat on the floor (shag carpeting, actually) so you tended to look down instead of across at eye level to watching anything. (That sounds weird in hindsight, but try sitting on the floor in front of your spiffy "entertainment center" and playing for hours with your head tilted up 45 degrees)

Ultima 3 Exodus, SNES
The vertical battle screen--enemies up top, your party along the bottom--in Ultima III: Exodus for the NES.

Final Fantasy for the NES hit Japan in 1987, but didn't finish paddling across the Pacific for its US debut until May 1990--seven years after the Apple version of Ultima III: Exodus, and roughly one after FCI's NES port.

Final Fantasy
Snipped from the US NES box shot for Final Fantasy.

In May 1990 I'd just finished Ultima VI: The False Prophet--easily the most sophisticated CRPG then made--and was moving on to stuff like Eye of the Beholder and the Worlds of Ultima games. The NES was frankly in my rearview mirror. I was reading future-gazing stories about epic worlds replete with discrete physical objects like spades and spoons and scimitars you could actually heft or throw or quietly slip into your pockets. Also: Games with complex social and political themes, and that weren't afraid to put players in morally ambiguous situations.

Games like Ultima VII: The Black Gate promised to blow the lid off state of the art world design...

Ultima VI: The Black Gate
The infamous murder scene in the Britannian city, Trinsic. The game was 'voluntarily-rated' MP-13 by Origin, 'for mature players'.

...while NES games like Final Fantasy seemed to be gazing timidly backward, targeting younger players with simpler visuals and derivative gameplay.

Final Fantasy
Chatting up the king (the squat little man-thing squeezed between head-high armrests) in Final Fantasy for the NES.

Enter the Super Nintendo in August 1991. I bought one for games like Super Mario World, graduated to ActRaiser, stood by impatiently for Contra 3 and Castlevania IV, then stumbled on Final Fantasy II (the US version of Final Fantasy IV) when it appeared out of the blue on November 23, 1991.

Still skeptical, I bought a copy.

Final Fantasy II

A refreshingly non-Western mythos with a crazy cosmological slant? A musical score you'd actually consider listening to apart from the game? A mammoth world (or would that be worlds?) to explore with protagonists that completely shifted identities and abilities over the course of play? A "continuous time" battle system that rewarded on-the-fly tactical thinking? I was smitten...and after keeping my college roommate up nights power-leveling toward the finish line, a convert.

Still, Final Fantasy (the original) was off my radar. Square was already talking stuff like Final Fantasy Mystic Quest (bad) and Secret of Mana (rather good), and besides, you needed an NES to play it: I'd sold mine to fund a 386SX plus a copy of Microsoft Flight Simulator 3.0.

Alas Poor Link

Last night, 18 years after completing Final Fantasy IV, I finally caught up with 1990 and finished the game on Sony's PSP. Sure enough, it didn't have complex personalities or a story to speak of. Moral choices never presented themselves. And no, I couldn't pick up dinner knives or loaves of bread or brass candelabras and toss them around or use them as weapons or stuff them in trunks, satchels, and backpacks.

And yet I couldn't stop playing. I had to get the mystic key to open all those mysterious locked doors (what could they possibly be hiding?). And then I had to get the canoe so I could see where all those twisty streams went. And then I had to add the ultra-rare tyrannosaur-creature that pops up once every 64 random encounters to my bestiary tally (gotta catch 'em all!). That last "had to" took five hours, literally, wandering around a blank, featureless desert.

Final Fantasy Anniversary
Elfheim in Final Fantasy for the PSP, one of the few series nods to Western mythology...as well as a jab at Nintendo's Zelda series--poke around, and you'd come across a gravestone bearing an epitaph that reads "Here lies Link."

I didn't mind the random-occurring, relentless battles, premised on a simple "you go, they go" system that lets you attack, cast spells, use items, or run-run-away. The easy ones only took a couple seconds, and the longer, more complex ones were usually interesting enough to keep me engaged. You roll through a couple dozen, auto-level up, then haul your booty back to the nearest town in trade for better weapons, armor, magic abilities, and potions. Towns offer respite between battles and a chance to shop around or tag citizens for bits of information. Nothing mind-blowing, then, but an experience thoughtfully optimized for access and speed.

The bestiary contains surprisingly few Vampires, Goblins, and Dragons and tends instead to serve up exotica like Catablepas, Sahagin Queens, and Gloom Widows. Several creatures have elemental resistances or weaknesses, available for perusal between encounters in a catalogue (I gather that wasn't in the NES original?). Tactical options like "forward" versus "rear" positioning or "stealing" from enemies or simply knowing who's in queue to attack hadn't been introduced to the series at this point, so combat boils down to weighing spells and weapons against each creature's elemental disposition.

Final Fantasy Anniversary
Ochu, the plant-thing that keeps coming back in subsequent versions.

To complement the random battles, dungeons have "red herring" corridors and rooms: Labyrinthine byways that simply dead-end, no doors or stairs or treasure chest rewards. Without a map (or walkthrough--I used several) it's all trial and error, and you'll probably double or treble your battle tally. Think of it as a massive hedge game--your current stockpile of life-giving potions and tents and cottages, against how much you're willing to bite off before retreating to rest and replenish. In that sense, it's a little like Demon's Soul, where you're wagering experience points gained and resources consumed against the perils of exploring exacerbated by the vagaries of combat.

Sure, it gets world's better with Final Fantasy IV, galaxies better with Final Fantasy VII, and Final Fantasy XII...one of those games you use in a sentence with words like "peerless" or "apotheosis."

Still, Final Fantasy kept me planted on my backside for nearly 20 hours, the latter 10 pretty much "in a row." This is where it started, the game that launched a thousand roleplaying games (okay, actually a couple dozen--still impressive!).

Now I see why.

Speaking of launches, did you know Final Fantasy was actually a Hail Mary? That Square was on the verge of bankruptcy? Square co-founder Hironobu Sakaguchi planned to make one "final" game before exiting the industry for an alternative career. Imagine his surprise when...

Yep, you know how that story goes.

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