So I promised I would talk about glitches. It’s not as though I want to talk about glitches just for the sake of it, though they can be pretty fun. The trouble is, like I implied up top, FFI has so many fundamental glitches that they’ve dramatically changed the way the game is played: versions that have the glitches are played one way, versions that have removed glitches play very differently, and one glitch was considered too big to remove! So I’m going to talk about those fundamental glitches, and as it turns out, there are so many that I have to subdivide them. Yeah. So let’s get started with the glitches that turned the Thief into a useless piece of shit in the original NES release.
That big glitch I mentioned in the previous paragraph is the Critical Hit Rate error, an error so central to the way the game plays that it’s been maintained in remakes where they could have easily fixed it. Simply put: weapons were supposed to cause critical hits based on a hidden trait of the weapon, making some weapons – Thieves’ weapons, by and large – more dangerous on a lucky roll. That means that an advantage thieves were supposed to have in the original plan was that they cause crits more often than warriors and monks. But accidentally (or as a really spotty last-minute change), the game pulled the crit rate numbers from the weapons’ index number in the game’s code. As a result, weapons added to the game later, usually because they were from the end of the game, do critical hits more often, to the point that I believe they’re above the intended rate of even the best crit rate weapon!
You can imagine how this dramatically changes the way the game is played: in this regard, NES Final Fantasy is actually easier than it was intended to be, at the cost of removing a lot of the reasons to play as the Thief. But just wait, because not only is that ease of difficulty about to be undone by a another glitch, but the Thief is about to be ruined by a third!
While Thief weapons was one thing, the Thief’s only native advantage is that they’re supposed to make running away from battle easier. Discretion isn’t usually the greater part of valour in an RPG, since you gain EXP and cash by winning fights, but FFI had a lot of instant death attacks and I believe this was where the Thief was supposed to shine. If the thief could save the party from instant death in the 80s versions where there were no Phoenix Downs, they might be worth the trouble of lugging through every other dungeon, saving you a lot of grief and restoratives. The trouble is: the mechanic just flat-out doesn’t work, the entire Fleeing command is pulling data from the wrong place (the character’s location in the marching order) and the Thief gets no bonus at all in the original. Now the NES Thief has lost both of its intended advantages!
Even if those glitches had been fixed (Origins, the last Old-Style release, fixes the fleeing glitch) the Thief is still underwhelming in Old Style. He only shows up in two of the NES manual’s recommended parties, and neither have much to recommend him, except that he’s going to save you more money than the tin-can Fighter. The Monk can do that even better, so why bother?
The other fundamental glitch in FFI is the Intelligence Glitch. This glitch created quite a few peculiarities with the Red Mage, king shit of Old Style, and near-afterthought in New Style. But this glitch doesn’t just upset the Red Mage: it ultimately upsets the entire game from top to bottom. Between the critical hit rate change making the game easier (and having never been fixed even as a public experiment), the fleeing glitch making the game irregular, and the Intelligence Glitch making the game harder, who knows what Old Style FFI was supposed to play like.
So. The Intelligence Glitch. This one also exists in Origins, but it’s still so drastic a problem that FFI’s difficulty will never be the same as the broken, broken NES version. Essentially, just like how your Strength makes you hit harder and your Speed makes you hit more often, the spellcasters’ Intelligence is supposed to improve their spellcasting. It does not. This not only means that the game is much harder and spellcasters less effective (perhaps compensated by the Critical Hit Rate bug), it means there is far less reason to take the Black or White Mages, since their primary advantage over a Red Mage was supposed to be that they had higher Intelligence! Oh, they have those top-level spells and spell charges, but when everybody sucks, the person who sucks the least is emperor. The Black and White Mages are supposed to be better casters, while the Red Mage was supposed to trade power for versatility. In Old Style, no one gets power, so versatility wins almost every time.
In fixed versions, it’s hard for me to say what’s what. Magic is still a heavy force in Old Style Final Fantasy, so proper White and Black Mages must have been even more powerful in the original plan (and makes me wonder if the Intelligence Glitch was actually intentional, however silly it makes the devs look). The NES manual, which appears to be operating under the assumption that the glitch is not in place, recommends the Black and/or White casters in four of the six recommended parties, and the Red in only three, even though, in practice, the Red is far better. In New Type attack spells have been downgraded as compensation, but are more plentiful, while healing spells are plentiful and valuable, making a White or Red Mage seem like a pretty critical investment.
In the end I can’t help it: I’m an ex-programmer and semi-mostly-ex-designer and systems analyst, and seeing all these holes repulses me from the Old Style versions on principle. Of course, Old Style managed to hold together and find an audience in spite, didn’t it? FFI found a niche as an easy and simple RPG in a market convinced that only hard games and complex RPGs were viable financial properties. The critical hit bug eased the game, the intelligence bug flattened the complexity even further (and FFI was already a very simple RPG), and the running bug was essentially neutral: the end result was easy and simple for the era, and that gave them an appeal the other early RPGs didn’t have. We’ll talk more about how the easy versus hard debate affected Final Fantasy in the 90s, but I believe in the 80s, it did what the reduced difficulty of international release of Mega Man 2 did to platformers: sold units to kids. Final Fantasy may have had the luckiest set of glitches this side of Tribes, because without them, the whole franchise may not have survived.