The Chaos Shrine was a great big ruin, and not in the sense Final Fantasy normally means when it says “ruin,” with the hundreds of rooms and active machinery. This is the actual ruin kind, with all the fallen pillars and the walking dead crammed into the only accessible floor. Some of the doors were even locked, making it one of the smallest dungeons in the entire series. Garland doesn’t even have much room to wait for you: he sits in front of a black stone with the princess not five steps into the dungeon, concealed by a single door and a prayer that no one will open it.
The black stone is actually the most interesting thing in the room, but only in the NES version, where it’s part of a set. It looks like a black crystal ball, and there are four other such crystal balls in the world. In later versions, the others were given a makeover while this one remained the same. The peculiar thing is: it’s definitely supposed to be the same thing as others, so the oversight is surprising. I hear the connection is confirmed in Dissidia, the Final Fantasy crossover game, so the fact that they never redrew the crystal ball even in releases made after Dissidia makes this seem even stranger.
You’ll notice I’m not talking about the boss fight. What a coincidence, you’re going to notice that all across the Marathon when it comes to first bosses, because most of them aren’t worth talking about. Unfortunately, this is true of most of the bosses from the 8-bit era – the bosses won’t really pick up until FFIV. But Garland is a piece of work. You probably expect me to talk about his infamous line: “I, Garland, will knock you all down!” but the line never really bothered me. We’re talking about an industry where the end of the world was once addressed as “Kangaroo.” This isn’t even a ranking localization flub. As for the boss: first bosses in Final Fantasy are pathetic and Garland doesn’t even spice it up with spells or special attacks. The only “spice” to Garland’s fight is that if you haven’t grinded, he may kill you. Maybe. He’s really no more remarkable than a tough wandering monster. Happy new franchise, everybody.
That’s enough about characters, let’s hit the digital tarmac! We selected our party, and they walk into the world out of nowhere: that’s not even hyperbole, they just march in out of legend, carrying four crystal shards. Or “Orbs,” in the original, text-restricted NES version. And when I say they march in out of legend carrying only four crystal shards, I mean I feel fortunate they’re even wearing clothes. They have Crystal Shards, kitchen knives, and rags. The spellcasters don’t even come with spells! Just seconds after you’ve agonized over character selection, the damn game tells you to go shopping!
This is how a lot of classic RPGs liked to start off: you agonize over character build followed by… agonizing a different way, which is like following up an kart racing minigame with a slot racing minigame and calling it “variety.” If you want to see it go bad, go check out my Phantasy Star journal archive, because ai carumba. Phantasy Star started you off in town, something Final Fantasy doesn’t care to do, but the rest was all downhill. Things could be worse in both cases, that’s just what early RPGs were like. Look at me and see the eyes of a man who’s played pedit5. Things could be worse.
Final Fantasy 1 on the NES opens directly to a text crawl explaining the backstory. Later revisions put the opening text off until after you’ve done character creation, where it’s unskippable. I want to say that later versions are in the right here, since this opening text crawl is nearly the only insight into the plot you’re going to get. I want to say that, but can’t help but feel that the opening info-dump is the sloppiest narrative convention on the rack. Oh, I admit: FFI doesn’t stand without this opening text crawl, but that’s a problem that could have been solved with just a few tweaks. One of my favourite games of all time has a similar, maybe even worse version of the same problem, and it deserves to be raked over the coals for it. If I’m going to be harsh on one of my favourite games, I’m sure as hell not going to let up for Final Fantasy I. At least FFI’s is shorter.
It gets worse: this exposition is stacked on top of FFI’s character creation segment. Considering you can skip the opening crawl on the NES, the otherwise clunky 8-bit version starts coming off as crisp and efficient for the one and only time in the entire comparison.
I’ll cover the text crawl all the same. It’s not very complex. The four classical elements are all out of whack: winds, gone. Fires, ablaze. Earth and water, dying. Thankfully the prophet Lucan has prophesized that four lucky contestants will come along to save the day. Come on down!