The Fiend of Water slain, we headed off to Mirage Tower to complete the game’s sole remaining major quest. Well, better get the chimes ready and… what? We just walked in? This game has otherwise been pretty good at telling us why we had to solve a puzzle after we had solved it. That’s a good thing for a game to do, and pretty rare to see it done… this lapse seems very strange, considering FFI has been so well behaved in the past. What would have happened if we didn’t have the chimes? There’s no way to tell!
Mirage Tower was Kyle’s run, but he had to step away for a moment and so I did some searching. I imagine that caused a bit of confusion when he got back, because he accidentally Warped us out of the dungeon thanks to a misplaced cursor on the spell screen. One mistake led to another, and this led to us both forgetting to explore the second floor, which cost us some good weapons and armour. At the top of the tower, more friendly robots (as opposed to their lethal monster brethren) told us we needed to find the “Warp Cube,” but thanks guys, one step ahead of you here. Obviously the Warp Cube was the cube we had received from the robot behind the waterfall. The cube got us up to the Wind Fortress, home of the Air Fiend, Tiamat.
We started using a walkthrough in the Fortress, though I’m not sure in hindsight what prompted us to do it. We weren’t frustrated with it, and it’s not a very complicated dungeon. The monsters weren’t that dangerous, even if they were a step ahead of the others so far. It was probably just the fact that most of the chests in the dungeon were full of utter crap, like Clothes (the starting armour!) and money, which we no longer needed. In fact, most of the chests in Final Fantasy have cash in them, and I suppose after a while we just wanted to move on with the damn game without opening every box. Considering we would have gotten even more over-levelled if we had searched the place, this was probably for the best.
By the way, the dungeon looks far more science-fiction-y in the NES version, while implication sci-fi were limited in remakes. Personally, I’ve seen elements of science fiction in almost every single 80s RPG, and I say that without hyperbole. I think I can name more games that do have it than don’t. It long since lost its kitch. The ancient society was actually space aliens! And I don’t care! I too have read Expedition to Barrier Peaks!
When we reached the final floor, we putzed around a while, like the world wasn’t in danger and we were just waiting for the bus. Veterans will know why: we were looking for Warmech, gaming’s first Superboss. “Superboss” isn’t a universal term, but you can tell what it means if you’ve played a few RPGs. Superbosses are bonus bosses that are more powerful than the final boss. Well, usually. Warmech wasn’t stronger than the final boss, but it used to be much closer, and it has a pretty storied reputation as a result. There was no prize for killing Warmech however, and without one, we got bored stopped our pacing. As for Tiamat, she was probably the biggest challenge we had had in Final Fantasy I since Marsh Cave. No exaggeration. She still didn’t stand a chance against us at that point, but she was trying. Really, what do I blame for this easy game? The difficulty of Dawn of Souls, or our high level? It’s probably a mix of both.
One nice touch about newer versions of FFI that I should bring up is that in the original Final Fantasy, there was no boss music. This changed in the Wonderswan release, which introduced four boss themes. Minor bosses like Garland and Astos got “Inside a Boss Battle,” while the Four Fiends got two variants of the same boss theme between them: one for Lich and Kraken and one for Marilith and Tiamat. I was never certain if those were split up just for variety or along gender lines. Last of all, there’s a new Final Boss theme. Personally, I prefer the new Final Boss theme, but later games like Dissidia that reference FFI tend to ignore the new Final Boss theme in favour of the normal battle theme used for all bosses on the Famicom/NES. I guess it’s not quite as famous, but I happen to like it and it’s too bad it’s so often ignored.
So, four Fiends down and four crystals restored. That’s the whole plot, right? We went back to Crescent Lake to get our final instructions from the Circle of Sages. Right, guys? …Instructions?
The Circle of Sages turned out to be so useless that I had to borrow the controller from Kyle just to read what they were saying again at my own pace, which has never happened before or since in seven years. Lukahn, the guy who prophesied about our characters and the only member of the Circle with a unique, eye-catching sprite, had nothing to say at all. The guy who gave us the canoe? Was still saying the same thing he did before we killed Lich. In fact, many of the sages were still on their original text. Okay, fine, that’s the 80s, but the rest? I can barely describe it. I just don’t have the words, because their words were all the wrong words. It was like someone took the plot to Bob and George and tried to tell it to me via a poorly paid 80’s localization team, except this game was released and re-translated in 2004.
How do I… how do I put this? I remember it hitting me like a landslide of jumbled words. The word “time” shows up a lot, but not in any way that makes a jot of sense. The Chaos Shrine, the first dungeon, is mentioned by name. As it turns out, the Chaos Shrine is supposed to be your destination, but it’s not mentioned in a context that tells you you’re supposed to go there unless you understand everything else that’s going on. And there is no way you could possibly understand what’s going on unless you already know how this game ends!
Okay, hold on, back up. This will be easier to explain as it is happening, let’s move on a few steps. Kyle and I already knew what to do thanks to decades of cultural osmosis. First off, we left Crescent Lake to visit the Dwarves. We had found a clump of Adamantine in the Wind Fortress, you see, and wanted it forged into a weapon. We found the smith (whom the NES version has the gall to name “Smyth”) and he turned the Adamantine into the Excalibur for Kyle’s character. Now that we had our ultimate weapon, we headed off the Chaos Shrine, where we talked to the local bats. Yes, it seems it was these bats that used to be the party of five missing Lufenians, and they were able to tell us what the Sages could not, not that we’d have ever found them with the Sages’ garbled information as a guide.
The Lufenians told us their plan: we heroes would use our crystal shards on Garland’s Dark Crystal to open a door to the past, where we would engage the Fiends and someone called “Chaos.” Okay. Okay, I can work with that. And yes, this mysterious Chaos, I am so curious about this new foe. …Except, if you know what the sages are saying, you know exactly what Chaos is. So either you knew what the Sages were saying, and the Lufenians are setting up a plot twist that isn’t a plot twist, or you didn’t know what the Sages were saying and never found the Lufenians in the first place?
So we did what we were told, and found ourselves in the Chaos Shrine in the deep past. The exit was blocked in the past but the rest of the dungeon wide open and in full repair. We wandered lost for a while before finding a trap door, and, when we inspected it, the Warriors automatically took out the harp from the Princess Sara at the start of the game and started to play it. As one does to open trap doors. I guess this does make a certain amount of sense, because Garland did take the harp with him in the first place, since he was trying to…
…but Garland wasn’t going to the past. Right? Or was he? Okay, maybe he was trying to go to the past. But why do you need to play the harp to a trapdoor? Why does this mystical sequence just cause a rope ladder to appear? Why did he kidnap the princess in the first place? We don’t need a princess to get in! Why did we know to play the harp here at all? Worse, in the original game, you have to play the Lute manually, and there are no clues to do so. Why? Again and again I find myself asking: Why?
Why did did we go north of Cornelia when there was nothing in that direction to even investigate? Why did we go to the Marsh Cave in the first place? Why would we ever be gullible enough to work for Astos if we knew it was him, or why were we even there if we didn’t? Why did we even interact with Astos when we couldn’t have known he had the Crystal Eye until the moment he transformed? Why did we have to kill a Fiend – a greater demonic figure with the power of the elements shrieking at his fingertips, to get a canoe?? Why was there any hurry at all to kill Marilith? Why did we need the crown to get into the Citadel of Trials when it makes no game design sense and has no given story sense either? Why are we perpetuating the institute of slavery instead of stopping the only instance of it that seems to exist in the entire game-world, when the game explicitly makes the fairy’s kidnapping out to be morally repugnant? For a while – the course of two major bosses – everything our characters were doing made perfect sense, but then why did they go to the Chaos Shrine when the Sage are saying nothing but gobbledygook? Why did they play the harp here, in this exact spot? Where did they even learn to play the harp – was it when they were learning Lufenian?
Pretty much the only answer to any of these questions was “because there’s nothing else to do.” Having nothing else to do is the only thing that drives FFI’s structure. I want to defend respecting the player and generally open RPG design, but Square’s attempt to do so was so terrible that it may have locked them in the generally linear game design patterns they followed for the remainder of the series. In most cases, the problems I’ve listed above could have been solved with just a few more words of text! And maybe they were. Maybe I missed some words that explain the problems, and if I have I’ll cop to that. Or maybe the localizers or updated versions are responsible for the plot holes like with Astos. If there are situations where the plot hole was explained, I apologize, but unless I’ve missed a huge chunk of the game, I think I can safely say this game has a writing problem wide as the sea, even in the 2004 translation. There are sometimes no clues to your objectives whatsoever, which I can accept to a point, but FFI goes too far, and in such a small product, that’s pathetic.
Worse is the roleplaying perspective. Most of the time, your quest is written in such a way that it seems like your characters simply stumbled into victory like they were the cast of 8-Bit Theatre (something I, sadly, have yet to read through). When your motivations do make sense, they’re often poorly explained, to the point of not just frustration, but comprehensive disaster. Could Square have done better with the technology? Yes, and they prove it themselves with FFII, III, and the Game Boy Legend/SaGa games, which were even more technically limited but far more coherent and engaging. These problems probably stem from the complications of localizing a game in the 80s, not to mention Square’s financial trouble during the original development. But that explains the problems… it doesn’t erase it.
Okay. Oookay. Let’s wrap this up next entry, why not.