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!
By the way, this marathon’s screenshots were provided by Valis77’s longplay of the NES version at World of Longplays (YouTube). Between this and the archived journals, Valis is quickly becoming my 8-bit RPG hero!
Unlike virtually every other Final Fantasy game, Final Fantasy 1 doesn’t have very strong or established characters. It just wasn’t the way of the age. Even if Dragon Quest did have Erdrick, he was a cipher, and most other games of the era went even more oblique. Wizardry had only given way to a pre-defined character in Wizardry 3. Ultima, the other early Wizardries, and the early JRPGs were all unnamed protagonists or named by the player (at least, as far as I can tell from HG101’s coverage of the murky history of the early jRPG). This phenomenon of unnamed or player-named protagonists isn’t that surprising given the genre’s descent from tabletop RPGs.
In FFI, you get to select four party members from six “job classes,” to use a term from later Final Fantasies. You’re (essentially) locked into the job classes in this game, after you’ve made your initial selection. You can have duplicates, and if you’re a hardliner looking for a challenge, you’re free to let three of them drop dead in the first few minutes of the game so that you can go on solo. Good luck with that. One cute feature from remakes is that you can automatically name characters after similar, non-players characters from later Final Fantasy games, but in the Marathon run, Kyle and I were happy to put in our own.
A player starting the game for the first time is probably going to have some trouble deciding which characters to take with them. The manual, which in the US was an extensive 80 page “Explorer’s Handbook” and strategy guide, was happy to make a few suggestions. As far as I can tell, every other version in the west gives you the default party and gives you no further advice beyond one-sentence blurbs, which are outright misleading in a few cases! Oh, the default parties are fairly solid, but some optional advice wouldn’t have killed anyone.
This is where the discussion of mechanics gets started. In later marathons, I talk a lot about how the games deviate from one another and from standard RPG formulas, so here in FFI we have the luxury of establishing a norm. I’m going to assume a basic understanding of RPG mechanics to save us a few dozen pages and get right down to brass tacks.
There are six job classes in FFI, three magic-users and three bruisers. The first class is the Fighter, which is almost too good to skip. The fighter has the best armour at any given point in the game, if you can afford it. He’s a giant tin can that sucks money directly out of your wallet, and he also hits harder than everyone else. This vacuum on your bank account pays dividends, as the Fighter not only functions as a boss killer but protects squishier party members. Modern (post-WoW) RPGs tend to divide those roles into DPS and Tank, but here in FFI you can have it all. You don’t want to go into FFI without a fighter unless you’re trying for a challenge. We took a Fighter and in a moment of early egotism, named him after Kyle.
The second class is the Thief. In the NES version, the Thief is toxic. This is partially due to a combination of coding errors, and sadly those errors are so fundamental that I do have to talk about them. But we’ll slow down this whole operation if I start babbling here. To put the matter in brief: in the NES version, don’t bother. In fact, ward off with fire. In more recent versions, he redeems himself somewhat, but the situation has changed so drastically in new style FFI that new problems arise. It’s not all bad: the Thief gets the second-best armour, costing less for slightly lesser returns, and he hits fast. The first three Final Fantasies had you landing extra blows in a single round of combat to account for your speed, which I’ll talk about more at a later point. This makes the Thief great against normal enemies, if not very good against bosses. We took one and named him Rei after the thief from Breath of Fire III.
The third fighting class is the Monk, called Black Belt in FFI on the NES. The Monk is a weird class. The general idea is that he uses martial arts to fight without equipment: he has almost no armour and he can fight bare-handed. Yet the game still has a few Monk weapons… and they make the Monk weaker more often than not? Even at the earliest stages of the game? The rest of the series used the idea of Monks using weapons in a few neat ways, but in this game the weapons are a trap. It’s the strangest thing.
It’s hard to make a big broad statement about where the Monk is preferable over the other classes and where it’s not… except the to say that every class is better than the NES Thief. The Monk’s unarmed martial arts get better at higher levels, even more than his stats would suggest, and he gets bonus defence as well. That means he’s great at high levels, but Final Fantasy I is a short game, so you’re not likely to get that high to begin with. Levels go up to 50 in the originals, 99 in Dawn of Souls and later editions. If you get that high, the Monk will be king of the castle. But… you won’t. That’s the thing. So if the Monk’s supreme end-game stats aren’t helpful for the average player, what is? I say the Monk’s greatest asset to the average player is that he’s not going to cost you a cent while still turning into a quality performance. It helps him work well with expensive mages and Fighters. In the end, Kyle and I chose not to take a Monk. This was back in the days when the Marathon was still a damned rush, and we were afraid we’d try to beat the game well below recommended level, so what good could we do with a Monk?
The three Magic-Using classes are far easier to describe… once I’ve described the magic system. Final Fantasy I sets the standard for the series with two major “schools” of magic, the White and the Black. White Magic heals your characters, protects them by buffing their stats, and has spells to fight against the Undead. Black Magic harms and weakens your foes, while also buffing your characters’ attack powers. Later games would shuffle things around a lot (White Magic got all the buffs, Black magic got all the debuffs), but in this game White is all but purely defensive, and Black all but purely offensive. You learn spells by buying them in shops, as they become available, which makes spell casters expensive. There are eight “levels” of spells, and your characters have to level up their character level to gain the higher spells levels, hampering anyone trying to rush through the game, like us. Oh, and you can only learn three spells of each level, so you’re going to have to make some choices.
Now that you know all of that, the three magic-using classes are a breeze to describe: the White Mage casts White Magic spells, the Black Mage casts Black Magic spells. They’re both squishy and vulnerable but eminently useful. The Red Mage, on the other hand, can cast both spell types, and is even acceptable in combat, while being good at none of these things.
Is it worth taking a Red? Well, White and Black Mages can cast the very best spells, Level 8, but the Red Mage can only go to Level 7. The three-spells-per-level limit is also a lot harsher on the Red Mage since he has to choose from both lists, so you can’t expect him to carry the load of two wizards just because he can cast their spells. Lastly, the Black and White Mages have more spell casts in them, which means different things depending on the version but comes down to the same concern. But that’s just detail. No, the real disadvantage to being a Red Mage is stats… in new style Final Fantasy. In the NES version, there are no disadvantages at all, which wasn’t the intent. Yup, it’s time for another Fundamental Glitch, one so impactful that it made the Red Mage almost the best NES class period. Like the Thief glitch, I’m going to put it off, Let’s just say that there are some pretty serious disadvantages to being a Red Mage in other versions, but he serves a purpose.
We ended up taking a White Mage named Jiwal, after a character from one of my novels, and a Black Mage named after myself. Jiwal proved to be invaluable, her healing spells never stopped being useful, though the my own character probably should have been a Red Mage, as we never really used his high-level spells.
Now you may have noticed – it’s far more noticeable for me, after several of these journals under my belt – that I’ve barely said why we took these party members. Well the short answer is… we didn’t think it through. We went in to the Marathon planning to take Fighter / Thief / White Mage / Black Mage, and I don’t even remember why. I think I had read a recommendation for this party years before, when I first picked up Dawn of Souls and barely played it. So we went charging in headlong based on half-remembered information that might not have relevant for the version we were playing. Like heroes. Oh, we came out fine (in fact, I imagine any New Style party with a White Mage, Fighter and two others would be okay in the end), but things could have gotten ugly.
In all honesty, I feel it’s not very fair that FFI forces you to pick a party before you’re familiar with the gameplay. It was traditional of the era, but I’m bringing the critique against the whole early genre. Really, the only reason FFI can get away with this is because it’s so short, and because it’s relatively easy. Longer, harder games, Ultima III coming immediately to mind, are less able to excuse this front-loaded decision-making. Square only really gets off by accident of its size.
Having grown up with this mess, I stand by my complaint: telling a player to fuck off 32 hours into a game because they made a bad call at the start is spiteful when it’s intentional and it was incompetent when it’s unintentional. This isn’t just in terms of party composition (Adventure game puzzles like the infamous King’s Quest V rat puzzle come to mind), but thirty years of RPGs have shown us the mistakes in Ultima and FFI, and it’s an experience I’d rather leave in the 80s. FFI seems particularly wretched because any benefit that comes from its freedom of play is shot by the lack of information on which to base that freedom without the extensive manual from the NES: part of the problem with games that do this is that Ultima had plenty of manuals but that’s the part everyone else skips! Unfortunately this is a topic we’re going to come back to, and not just in this series.
Well that was a lovely start! Here’s hoping things will look up once we finally get to the gameplay.