Square Enix’s Final Fantasy franchise, for better or worse, has almost single handedly defined and shaped the RPG genre as we know it today. Final Fantasy on the Nintendo Entertainment System was the first series incarnation, and probably the best RPG ever to appear on the NES. Indeed, the genre benchmarks set by Final Fantasy were not surpassed until the next generation of videogames. Its closest gaming rival, the Dragon Warrior series (also a Square Enix product), had four entries during the NES era, but it never amassed the same critical adoration as the vast world of Final Fantasy.
One of the more impressively notable aspects of Final Fantasy are its multiple characters, and the player’s active choice in picking their particular classes. Be it Fighter, Thief, Black Belt, Red Mage, White Mage, or Black Mage, you can create your own specifically tailored band of heroes. Each character class exists as a distinctive entity and continually upgrades during the course of the game. Some classes are weak until suitably upgraded, most notably the Thief, who eventually emerges as one of your party’s most important members. Of course, this begs the question: Do you want to lug around his dead weight until the necessary upgrade level is achieved?
When looking at gameplay in a turn-based RPG, controls are not enough of a singularly contributing factor to ever leave the game at fault. Instead, we must look at certain, defined areas of the game, such as menu set up, ease of navigation, and so forth to build a more accurate picture. Though the menus are easy to navigate, and the separate houses of magic are original and intuitive, perhaps the biggest gameplay annoyance is the restriction enforced through buying potions one at a time. In a game where you’ll consume enough potions so that character blood types will be ?Heal+’, spending ten to twenty minutes just stocking up is nothing short of annoying.
Final Fantasy’s graphics are some of the best the Nintendo Entertainment System has to offer. Most visually impressive are the monster sprites, thanks, in large part, to the poses they assume. None of the monster sprites exude loud or bright colors; instead, largely muted colors are juxtaposed with aggressive physical poses to help the sprites appear convincingly prepared to shred your characters back to their pixellated origins. The background environments during battles look much like an afterthought when compared to the monsters?but this is perhaps the only review snub the graphics incur.
Game music on the NES generally sounds much like cheap electronic keyboards, but not so with Final Fantasy. The sheer amount of development thought placed into Final Fantasy’s musical score is sublime on all fronts. Instead of arbitrary ?beeps’ and ?boops’ it’s a virtual orchestra soothing your ears while on your world-saving journey.
The dialogue from the townsfolk is varied, though mostly useless in a narrative sense. They almost never help directly, and those few who do offer assistance either deliver it cryptically, or provide info needed much later in the game – which usually means backtracking because you’ll have forgotten where you first heard it. However, it’s still markedly better than everyone in town repeating the same banal phrases in a zombie-like manner.
The plotline in Final Fantasy is quite complex. It opens with a simple ?rescue the princess’ quest that turns into a time loop-breaking adventure. While the overall plot is extremely well developed, the storyline and dialogue is standard NES fair. While there are no delay-inducing translation hitches, you will still spend considerable time wondering exactly what needs to be done next.
There is almost no guiding narrative direction in Final Fantasy, aside from rescuing the princess and re-igniting the four orbs. Where are the four orbs? You will ask yourself this question repeatedly. Where do you take the crown? Where is the flying ship? All these questions to ponder frustratingly – and no in-game answers to alleviate your need for knowledge. Progression in Final Fantasy depends entirely on the player’s desire to explore for themselves. After several hours of doing this – sometimes with little fruits for your labor – one thing you will be glad to have is the physical map bundled with the game. If choose not to consult the map, be prepared to spend a great deal of time wandering; especially as the in-game map only reveals previously visited locations.
Unfortunately Final Fantasy also suffers from an extremely common problem: forced level raising. This happens whenever your character(s) enter a new area and are too underpowered to really explore. Or when a particular level or dungeon boss is much stronger than the previous parts of the dungeon. Yet, because of the vast size of the game world and the poor direction offered in Final Fantasy it won’t feel much like leveling up as much as being lost.
Another reason you probably won’t complain about constant battling is the ever-present desire for gold. Everything beneficial costs money in this game, especially spells. Having the standard two mages in your party guarantees your need for greed. Make no mistake; this is just as aggravating (if not more so) than leveling up or wanderlust.
Like most classic RPGs, there is no serious replay value associated with the game, unless you plan on achieving the quickest time (you’d be surprised how fast you can finish with the aid of glitches and advanced knowledge of where everything is located), or want to beat the game with different party members. There are no optional side quests, and the Easter Eggs on offer are negligible.
Qualms of detail aside, Final Fantasy exists as the benchmark of quality and marquee RPG title for the NES. No one else did it better (or does it better) than Square Enix – though not even their other big name RPG, Dragon Warrior, was as well refined as Final Fantasy. At thirty or so hours of gameplay time, this is one of the longest games for the NES, and those players who want to see solid RPG fundamentals in action should definitely take a look.