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.
With Garland dead, the team returns to Cornelia, where the game expects you to talk to the princess and, if you don’t, I hear tell the cartridge will actually jump out of the console and bite you, hours and hours and hours later. It happened to a friend of a friend of mine. It seems the princess has to give you her harp to get through the final dungeon (she says Garland wanted it for some reason), but in earlier versions you could just walk out without talking to her. I’d hate to be someone who missed talking to Sarah. By the end of the game, going back to talk to someone from the very first quest would never, ever occur to me. There is a woman in Cornelia set to remind you to talk to the princess, but in one of gaming’s more famous glitches, this woman was accidentally rendered invisible, making this all so much worse.
So you speak to the King, even if you do forget to talk to his daughter, and he declares you the true heroes of the prophecy and has a nearby bridge repaired so you can move on with your game.I’m almost shocked the original Final Fantasy was capable of modifying its overworld like this, it doesn’t seem like it was built at a point in time when games would do things like that (the first Game Boy game had a moving castle a few years later, but a few years meant a lot back then). You even get a neat cutscene of sorts when you cross said bridge. Early Final Fantasy loves this sort of extended cold opening, followed by a dramatic reveal of the title, and it wouldn’t be until FFVI’s legendary intro that they’d consider cutting to titles before a stretch of gameplay.
Having crossed the bridge, we started on what should have been the next, simple leg of the quest: “walk east.” Except then my Black Mage died. And then we got lost because I didn’t remember the GBA version has a world map. Once we were even more lost, I finally did remember the world map, but we couldn’t remember what button the GBA Player thinks is Select (it’s Y or X, by the way). And then I started to insist there was a dungeon to the north that I thought I remembered from my brief attempt to play this game several years earlier, and felt certain we were supposed to go there. As it happens, there is a cave to the north, and we stopped in for a visit, but it’s not a dungeon and I’m not sure what I was going on about. The cave is just the home of a blind witch named Matoya and her famous theme song, neither of them particularly eager to help us at the moment. Finally, we collapsed in a town to the east, cut with a thousand cuts.
This town had a problem, because it’s it would be weird if an RPG town doesn’t. This town was being harassed by Bikke the pirate, who happened to be in town at the moment, so we went over to shake some pointy things at him after we had patched up. A few minutes later, Bikke was left cowering among the butchered bodies of his crew, and he begged us through choking tears to spare him in exchange for his sailing ship. We’re the heroes. This fight went a little easier than I remembered from my one playthrough of the GBA version, but I chalked that up to a similar fight in a town in Final Fantasy Legends II, and shrugged it off. As you are going to learn, I may have been mistaken.
(Ironically, once we did reach that fight in Legends II, it nearly killed us!)
Bikke’s sloop is docked in a lake (ships in FFI actually requiring docks to land somewhere). The fact that you’re in a lake keeps you contained for the time being, in a region consisting of Cornelia, a Dwarf settlement to the northwest that we avoided for the time being, and Elfheim, to the south. This is nearly the only Final Fantasy game with Elves (excusing a monster, they do not return for decades), and one of the very few with Dwarves. Elfheim had a similar town-and-castle setup to Cornelia. For those not willing to abuse the so-called “Peninsula of Power” (a crop of land that accidentally gives you access to end-game monsters), the forest around the town of Elfheim is a traditional grind zone. This is because the Ogres that live there aren’t nearly as dangerous as their XP and Gil imply, and also because Elfheim is packed with expensive junk you just need to buy. So we did some grinding here as well.
First things first. We stopped in Elfheim to buy spells, and almost forgot to go to the castle entirely! The people there filled us in on the updated plot: their prince had been enchanted by “the Dark Elf, Astos,” and put into a neverending sleep. Someone told us that Matoya could make the cure if she had her “Crystal Eye,” but beyond that, no one actually gave us any directions or objectives. We knew that sort of thing would happen in this kind of 80s RPG, game, so we headed west. There was nowhere else to go!
Throughout our playthrough, we oscillated between following a walkthrough and going it alone. This wasn’t like the Phantasy Star solo marathon where I at least tried to avoid walkthroughs. Marathon rules let us go with this sort of thing no problem, though we tried to avoid spoilers by keeping it to mechanics and short-term directions whenever possible. At that moment, we were following a walkthrough, after my “No, I swear, there’s a dungeon to the north!” fiasco. The fact that these directions came from a walkthrough will be important in a minute, trust me. As a result, we headed straight to the dungeon to the southwest, the first proper dungeon in the series: Marsh Cave. We knew from the walkthrough that the incentive to go to Marsh Cave came from a fortress to the northwest, but we also learned that we didn’t have to go there, so we skipped that initial step. In our defence, Marsh Cave was actually closer to Elfheim and a coin flip would have landed us there just as easily.
The Marsh Cave expeditions (plural) were the largest blot on our record. I mean that: game-wide. The entire experience was an all-out failure. We went in, and my character died almost at once, forcing a retreat. We went in again, got lost and fell back. We went in, I handed back to Kyle, who had managed the first attempt and so knew the route, he got to the bottom… and we both ended up lost again on the way out! Anyone who read my Phantasy Star 1 journals may be able to suspect where this is heading, so I’ll just get to the results: thanks to all the EXP we earned during these repeat trips, we never, ever, ever, ever, ever felt challenged again, for the entire game, even once.
At the bottom of the Marsh Cave, we found a Crown being guarded by some copyright infringements: “Piscodemons.” Piscodemons were recolours of a more famous monster, the Mindflayer from D&D. FFI was full of D&D infringements at first, most of which were edited in American release, but the Mindflayers stayed intact. The wiki gave me an explanation for that, suggesting that D&D’s owners actually own the trademark for “Illithid,” the Mindflayer’s proper name, while the concept actually comes from public domain Lovecraft works. While the Mindflayer enemies in Final Fantasy are famous for their ability to cause instant death with their everyday attacks (an absolutely ruthless power) the Piscodemons lacked that power and only got to be second boss by virtue of their stats, so our grinding saw us through.
And somewhere around here, unrelated to our accidental grinding, things started to go… weird.
Following the walkthrough, we went to the king in the dilapidated castle to the northwest, which we found filled with bats. We talked to the gentleman. His response was to immediately begin cackling, transform into the evil Dark Elf, Astos, and then said that if we wouldn’t give him the crown, he’d take it by force. A fight broke out. He used his Death spell to kill my character (again) on turn one, but we had a Phoenix Down on hand and mopped him up quickly. As I said up front, the Phoenix Downs are a retroactive addition to this game and we were lucky to have one in the first place, since they’re expensive for the early game, but I think we would have won without it. My character rarely, if ever, actually contributed to the party’s victories.
Astos dropped a Crystal Eye he had been bragging about, which we knew from my misadventure to the north belonged to Matoya. Now… let’s… look back on this, shall we? I’m going to be on this one scene for a while, but it has bearing on the entire game, trust me.
First off, Astos himself. His plan was to trick someone into fetching him the crown. His execution? To wait in a ruin, pretend to be a king and then, when they bring him the crown, he turns into a monster without actually taking it? When they were just going to give it to him moments later? And don’t mistake me: the game could have easily implied that the Light Warriors didn’t want to hand over the crown before the transformation. All Astos needed to add was “You won’t do it?” or even more efficient: “No?” But no, he just transforms. So he made an inexcusable blunder, but… maybe that’s the point. What with all the cackling, maybe he’s meant to be an erratic, chaotic little fairy. Earlier translations seem to prove that he’s a little weird, the GBA version just lost that. Okay, fine.
But what about our heroes? You have to look at this two ways: we could have talked to Astos beforehand, or not. If we had spoken to Astos, we would have got a paper-thin story about the crown somehow being able to restore the castle, which just puts the Light Warriors somewhere on the sliding scale between generous and gullible. But that’s not the situation as it played out for the two of us. We went to the Marsh Cave of our own accord, without ever meeting the false king. What we got was a man living in a dirty, wet ruin thanking us for a crown he never requested, who then transformed into a monster for no reason except to try to kill us. We ended our first playthrough not long after this mission, and you can probably imagine our mood. “Yes, thank you for the crown, rarr I’m evil, give me the crown!”
Astos demanding the crown without having ever asked for it is definitely our fault, I won’t deny that. Freedom in games takes a lot more design work than the 80s was really willing to provide, and tricks they couldn’t have known. Still, one can’t help but wonder why the party was even there, in his castle, in the first place, since they had never spoken to him?
But it’s worse than that. Here’s what happens next, and don’t worry, this is a little busy but I’ll give you a recap. We start by giving Matoya the Crystal Eye (“Oh, you’re not as handsome as I thought you would be either”), and she makes a potion for the Elf Prince. He gives us a special key to unlock locked doors (…could’ve just picked his pocket…). Fast forward a bit, and we’ve used the key to find some “Nitro Powder” in Cornelia. We give the powder to some Dwarfs out west and they use it to blow a canal through a nearby isthmus. Crown -> Astos -> Crystal Eye -> Matoya -> Potion -> Elf Prince -> Mystic Key -> Nitro Powder -> Dwarfs -> A Way Out of the Lake.
Except when you think about it backwards…
If the Dwarfs wanted explosives, where would we have known to look for them? Maybe we missed it. Running through an online script for the later Anniversary Edition, I do see an answer for this, but we didn’t run into anyone in the GBA. The game did imply that the Elf Prince had the Mystic Key, and that Matoya’s potions could cure him, and searching another text dump, that Astos stole the crystal eye. Fine. Except while there’s a mountain of evidence suggesting the king in the ruin is a fake, we finally trip up when we realize there’s nothing suggesting he was Astos! And if there was evidence suggesting the King was Astos that we just missed, why did the Light Warriors help him at all?
There are two possible outcomes: either our characters didn’t know to go to the King because they didn’t know he was Astos (and probably should have noticed he was suspicious and not helped him), or they shouldn’t have helped him because they did know he was Astos. Which brings us to the real question: why were we there with the crown in the first place?
After years of pondering this question, I finally found something approximating an answer. After comparing a few Let’s Plays, it seems the GBA version removed a line talking about Astos waiting in disguise and seclusion. This line was replaced in the GBA with a line about Astos taking over if the Elf Prince never wakes, which doesn’t help at all! Perhaps someone at Square Enix realized that if the warriors know the King is Astos, they shouldn’t be helping him, but missed the plot hole where Astos threatens you for the crown without ever asking for it. Man, I sure know how to find a tiny crack in the wall, don’t I?