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.
The nearby town, Cornelia, has all the basic amenities. Shops, gossip, the works. Among “the works” is the House of Life, not exactly a standard RPG feature these days, although it was at the time. As in the original Dragon Quest, you can’t revive the dead by going to an inn, and must instead you a different building, the House of Life, until you have the spells to do so yourself. You’re just making everyone’s life harder here by adding an extra step for players and programmers alike, early JRPGs! Old-style Final Fantasy I also lacks Pheonix Down items that can revive dead characters, which were first introduced in FFII, so there was no way to revive in the field without top-level spells, very loyal to early tabletop roleplay. New-style FFI does include the Phoenix Down, and it’s one of New Style’s few unambiguous difficulty reductions. Later games would throw out the idea that characters “died” in combat at all, saying they were Knocked Out instead, and the House of Life fell by the wayside, but it would be three main-line Final Fantasies and one Game Boy pseudo-spinoff before that happened.
Like I teased in the first entry, some hardcore players like to play “solo games” by letting characters die until only one character is still standing, and to carry on the game from that point without assistance. That idea always made me laugh, because even though the player knows the other characters are faceless nobodies, the game still assumes those dead characters are important, and will animate them using their crystal shards in certain circumstances. The game – the genre – is never clear how you cart your unconscious friends from place to place, so I can’t help but imagine the sole surviving party member lugging all three friends behind them because god forbid they carry their dead friends’ crystal shards. Clearly this was the easy way.
I don’t remember what Kyle and I bought in Cornelia, but I can hazard a guess from our buying habits in later games: Cure for Jiwal the White Mage, Fire for my Black Mage, and weapons for the fighters. Armour would have to wait until we had performed a quick grind for money in the wild. Unlike Phantasy Star, Final Fantasy I wasn’t likely to murder us in a single battle, so the grind would not be so dangerous. The new-style versions of FFI may be easier, and they’re easier versions of what was already an easy game for the era.
After outfitting, Kyle and I headed up to the castle to get our orders, despite this segment being so famous it hardly needed the formalities. You probably already know the setup: the princess, Sarah, has been kidnapped by the king’s once-loyal knight, Garland. He’s taken her to the Chaos Shrine (“Temple of Fiends” in the NES) to be sacrificed to some great evil. She needs some rescuers and apparently it makes more sense to throw unarmed strangers into the breach before your knights. The funny thing is the King’s reason for putting you on the task: he doesn’t actually believe you’re the Warriors of Light. Which… makes his throwing you into the pit to save his daughter even stranger! If Sarah’s life weren’t on the line, I suppose I’d almost admire the King for refusing to believe we’re the chosen ones out the gate. “You say you’re the chosen ones, o vagabonds with cutlery and shiny rocks? Hmm. HRRRMMM.”
We started with a grind session, which was something I actually tried to track during the early marathon journals, just to see how many we would have in each respective game. I also tried to track total party kills, which if you think about it are not unrelated. I gave up somewhere around the time we were playing FFIV: The After Years, but for the record, this game had three grinds. You pretty much have to grind at the start of a Dragon Quest inspired 80s RPG. Usually it’s not even easy – you turn on the game, step out of town, and are promptly mauled to death by an Owl Bear.
The enemy groups near Cornelia are goblins and wolves, nothing you can’t handle with a full party. After we got bored of ambushing Goblins that must have been made of glass, we went and dealt with Garland. The King’s former loyal knight has gone for a really long walk to the northwest. In new-style games, you even pass an entirely different dungeon along the way: one of the four bonus dungeons added to the GBA version, though you can’t get in to it at the moment. No other Final Fantasy game we’ve played to date has hurled your starting destination so far from the starting point – though it is awful easy to get lost on your way to your first destination in FFII and The Final Fantasy Legend.
This gap seems to be here to encourage grinding if only by accident, which is… cute, but a game is hardly going to earn my favour by hanging a lampshade on a problem instead of fixing it. Grinding was intentional in Dragon Quest, but not so much Final Fantasy, which was more about tactics in comparison than brute stats, so this opening segment seems all wrong. Modern RPG design for games that aren’t about grinding (most of them) suggests you should start off strong enough to complete your initial task so that you’ll gain experience as you go about that task to be strong enough for the next (with good tactics), but Square wouldn’t be that generous until FFIII. Yes, an easy grind is better than a hard grind (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been deterred from playing Phantasy Star just because I don’t want to grind three seconds after the title screen), but I’d rather take the simple, modern convention of actually starting the game when I start the game.
There is a shiny side to this grubby coin: the Chaos Shrine is in the exact centre of the map. That’s cute too, but couldn’t Cornelia have been closer?
I should probably talk about combat. FFI deviates from the standard RPG combat formula only rarely. You could say it was too busy helping to narrow, clarify and define a new “normal” to be experimenting in the first place. There are only three systems of note that stand out in my mind. First: characters at the front (or in this case, top) of the party are hit more often than those in the back. This was a pretty tidy replacement for the Dungeons and Dragons idea of marching orders, which was a big, honking, boring deal back in the original and Advanced D&D 1st Edition eras. Square came up with an better idea starting in FFII – the Rows system where characters can stand at the front or back of the party – but it kept FFI’s system for Final Fantasy Legend I and II.
The second system of note is that of multiple attacks a round. Modern gamers seem to be baffled by this. Or at least, it’s the system they’re loudest about. In the world of modern RPGs, a character strikes once per turn unless they have special abilities that let them do otherwise. In Final Fantasy I, however, characters are rewarded for high speed by being able to strike multiple times a turn, into the dozens at high levels. This was ultimately replaced in FFIV with a new system, but it doesn’t come without precedent. You see, the idea that characters struck multiple blows a turn is actually truer to the spirit of the original OD&D combat system, even if it wasn’t true to the mechanics (OD&D only let Fighters do this, mechanically). The majority of RPGs are truer to OD&D’s mechanics, but not the spirit.
You see: in OD&D, a single roll of the die typically represented an entire minute of combat, with a lot of back and forth between all parties (later versions of D&D favour much shorter combat rounds, dropping from 60 seconds to 10 seconds within only a few editions). The moment we started to animate little computer people striking their opponents once instead of leaving that minute of combat in the abstract, we started pretending the system was something it wasn’t intended to be. Final Fantasy I takes the Dragon Warrior system and backpedals, so that we have the mechanics of Dragon Warrior trying to simulate the implication of OD&D. It’s a confounding Frankenstein’s monster of ideas. Whether/why the original D&D system worked in the first place is a little out of our scope (maybe I’ll talk about it some other day if anyone is interested), but the FFI system seems to do okay, if only because it makes rooms for Thieves. If only Thieves hadn’t been terrible! But we’ll get back to Thieves.
The last weird feature is Magic, and this one is doubly weird because of its prominent changes between Old and New-Style Final Fantasy I. In versions prior to Dawn of Souls, Final Fantasy 1 worked on a “casts” or “charges” system, closer but not identical to D&D. Under this system, the player has a pre-set number of spells they can cast from each level before they have to return to an inn (no Ethers to recharge in the field: those also didn’t appear until FFII and New-Style FFI). The fact that Old-Style spell casts were so very limited, not to forget the fact that the limitation was tied to spell level and not to individual spells, made the whole system very strategic.
Unfortunately, strategy in this regard often means “doing nothing with whole characters for long stretches of time.” D&D-style “Vancian” magic worked in D&D because spellcasters could still roleplay solutions to problems as they came along, and OD&D especially elevated roleplaying and cleverness far above statistics. There’s a famous story about OD&D where Gygax once ran a game for a solo spellcaster armed only with a Sleep spell, who was pretty much a success with and without the spell. In the Final Fantasy I, the only person sleeping is your mage, who has to snooze at the back of the party for the majority of the game, lest everyone die fighting the boss because the mage didn’t have enough firepower left to defeat them. In a game where rote combat is everything, this old magic system comes off as almost boring when it’s not in use. That, in turn, makes most of the game boring just so the remaining scrap of gameplay, mostly boss fights, can be more intricate. I almost never approve of a system that hurts 95% of the game to salvage 5%. Dawn of Souls resolved to fix this problem, and did so in such a way that it broke the difficulty and made the game boring in a whole new way! Oh good!
Dawn of Souls and its successors are much easier than normal Final Fantasy, even though they cranked up monster stats to compensate, as though in a desperate attempt to stem the tide. The new-style Magic system uses Magic Points (MP) with each spell costing a set amount of MP from the caster’s pool. While at low levels, this may still force the caster to be strategic and/or boring: because FFI is so short, a larger percentage of it is spent on low-level play. You can’t win! But the real damage was in balance: with more spells going around, enemies couldn’t keep up. And this seems to have been an unintentional side-effect, because their HP was increased exponentially and they still can’t keep up. The devs can’t win, we can’t win, we’re in for a fun time tonight!