I Blew Off Final Fantasy, True Story

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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