Since new canals leave no debris whatsoever to block your passage, we were able to head through Jim’s Folly immediately, damning whatever environmental consequences we were leaving in our wake. This involved sailing past another New Style bonus dungeon, which for some confounding reason is actually the third of the four dungeons, not the second. In fact, we’ll pass the fourth before we find the second, too! The front door to this bonus dungeon was little more than a whirlpool in the middle of the ocean, so I don’t quite understand why it had to be at this part of the ocean and not any other notable water-feature. I don’t quite know who organized this mash but I have a few choice words for them either way.
Now properly in the ocean, we technically had the freedom to visit most of the planet if it weren’t for the docking restrictions. The docking restrictions in mind, it seemed best to keep on course for the time being, which led us to the town of Melmond where the Earth was dying. This was probably the best example of the four corrupted elements in the entire game, with unique graphics and everything, it’s nice work. We poked around (we had left the walkthrough behind at this point, reasoning that there was no chance of getting lost) and found out that the source of the decay was to the south, at the Cavern of Earth, where the land used to be the most fertile. Also, all this trouble is clearly the fault of a vampire. Why the townsfolk felt the vampire is responsible is not explained. Oh, they knew he existed, and they’re stereotypical like that… erm, I mean they’re “superstitious” like that! What did I say? Whatever: it’s baseless, and the writing looks sloppy for doing it, but in true RPG tradition, it was the only lead we had.
So we went south and had a pretty easy trip of the dungeon. I mean that: we found the correct path more-or-less at once, which was good because the dungeon opens with no less than 8 paths to get you lost. The dungeon has a lot of Earthy enemies, they’re throwing their weight into the gimmick, but even for my sparse surviving FFI marathon notes, I still remember this one going very fast. How fast? The Vampire made a show of saying how you can’t kill the undead, only to die in a single turn. That fast.
He dropped a “Star Ruby,” but we were more interested in the stone slab in the back, which “pulsed with evil”. The Light Warriors did nothing about it. No… “It won’t budge.” No… “It’s sealed with magic!” No: the Light Warriors, destined to save the world from ultimate evil, saw a slab, obviously blocking a passage, pulsing with evil, and said “Eh. Fuck it.”
We returned to the town as we obviously had to do, and of course the earth-rotting problems hadn’t been solved. No kidding! We took a break to grind for the 5000gil Kyle needed to buy a suit of armour for his character, but stopped short. You see, we had explored a little (Kyle may have used the grinding as an excuse to do so, I don’t remember), and I made a guess that the next stretch of plot was going to take place entirely aboveground. If that were true, we could grind “on the go,” since the enemies would be the same.
It turned out I was right: we gave the Star Ruby to a stone-eating titan, and borrowed a staff from some sage to open the stone slab. Kyle got his armour sure enough… only for it to become outdated almost instantaneously when we found a better one in a box.
Armour upgrades weren’t our only number trouble at that point. Kyle and I had realized an extra problem with our being over-levelled, on top of the piddling challenge the game was giving us. I haven’t mentioned it yet because I was holding it off for quarter-century spoiler reasons, but characters in this game have the option of promoting via a mid-game quest, and by doing so will gain spell levels (generally, all but Monk), and higher stat gains when levelling up (ironically, also all but Monk, because the NES version has another glitch where the upgraded Monk gains less magic resistance than the original). This means we’d want as many of our level-ups to be post-promotion as possible, and the longer we dawdled prior to promotion, the worse off we’d be in the long run. Also, it was driving us up the wall that we couldn’t learn the White magic spell Teleport or the Black Magic spell Warp, spells that let you get out of dungeons faster. Why? Because they’re both post-Promotion spells. Argh!
We considered the extreme: we could cut ahead in the game right this second and try to get the promotions early. We charted out a route through the game to reach the promotion, but no luck! We reached a stopping point as soon as we tried to start: the man that was supposed to give us the canoe we’d need to traverse rivers… wouldn’t. And wouldn’t you know: so few people on the internet have tried to talk to him without completing the dungeon under the evil slab that no walkthrough could explain what the problem was. Finally we found a Let’s Play showing the scene where you get the canoe, and the GBA dialogue actually says the canoe is a reward for killing the boss under the slab. Holy crap! Do you have any idea what’s hiding under that slab? Is this the only canoe on the planet? And you have to murder an eldritch hell-monster to get it? I’ll make it myself, thanks!
So… grumpy as we may have been… we returned to the cave with our magic crowbar. In the basement, we found only slightly more difficult enemy groups, though there was a small antechamber where every square would had guaranteed battles with Earth Elementals. That was an unusual touch. Just a little further in, we found the real business. In the 8-bit versions, this final room houses a large crystal ball, like the one in the Chaos Shrine: an Orb not like the ones in your characters’ possessions. In newer games, what you see is a large crystal to match the crystal shard in your inventory. Sometimes, like in the CGI intro to the Anniversary Edition, the large crystal is depicted suspended in the air. While we’re on the subject: yes, the Orb in the Chaos Shrine was supposed to be some form of magical Crystal, just as important as this one. The remake doesn’t even care.
Of course, no giant floating sparkly is going to go undefended in a video game. Examining the orb/crystal, you’re accosted by a voice and soon attacked by an evil being. It seems this giant rock is the Earth Crystal, source of all elemental Earth energy on the planet, and it is being drained by Lich, the Fiend or Earth, an undead super-being.
Lich was the closest thing to a challenge we had had in some time. But let me clarify: not that much of a challenge. Perhaps I should have said “he was the first fight that took more than two turns to clear, and would be the only one for some time.” I wish I could be more descriptive, but even though it’s been years, I still remember this not being that much of a drag. The first major boss in the game really did just collapse in front of us.
After the fight, our heroes did… something involving one of the small crystals they had been carrying at the start of the game and the large Earth Crystal. It was clear this was a good thing and that it probably fixed the Crystal, and that’s probably more than enough.
The day was saved, even if the damaged earth in the nearby town was not (I doubt Square’s programmers could have been arsed to correct that), and we retraced our steps to the other side of the planet to get our damn canoe. The canoe was held by a member of a Circle of Sages, who were hanging out in the woods outside the town of Crescent Lake. The Circle also included Lukhan, the man who first made the prophecy that the Warriors of Light would come and save them. Even though Lukhan used a different sprite from the other Sages in New Style, he actually had less to say than the others. In fact, of the two times the game directs you to speak to the Circle, I’m fairly certain it’s one of the generic nobodies that tell you what you really need to know? In this case, the sages told us to return to them once we had restored all four crystals, and also instructed us to use the canoe to kill Marilith, the Fiend of Fire (originally “Kary” in the NES, after the Hindu goddess Kali for some culturally narrow reason. This is surprising, since the Marilith – a monster from AD&D 1e – was almost certainly what FFI was shooting for in the first place and the NES FFI certainly didn’t care about copyright infringement). Hells no. We had our canoe and we were back on track to get early promotions. Marilith can stew.
In the NES version, getting early promotions would be easy. The NES version makes the logical and I feel deliberate conclusion that the heroes should be allowed to launch their canoe from the open seas into a river. You can use this mechanic to get ahead on the quest to find an early promotion. 80s games were more open in this sort of way, and often made foolish game balance concessions in the name of “realism” – the ship-to-canoe trick seems to match both qualifications. Unfortunately for Kyle and I, this feature appeared to be disabled on the GBA (Ed. it’s definitely back on the PSP), and you are now only able to use the canoe if you start on land.
For our attempt, we would have to go north to the Cavern of Ice, skipping Marilith’s dungeon and essentially nothing else. I don’t know why the heroes go to Cavern of Ice in the “real” story. Indeed, it’s clear that by skipping the dungeon, we violated our Marathon rule to always stick to the main narrative, but I suppose FFI’s narrative is so thin that we just didn’t care! At the time, we had a walkthrough and weren’t going to let a lack of in-game motivation put a stop to our min-maxing. You can see how a few years the Marathon have gradually sanded away the Marathon’s original inclination to treat the game like a vending machine made of high stats and Harvest Moon sweet potatoes!
The Cavern of Ice was interesting enough once we got there, the key word being “once.” The maze-like system of rivers that led to the place was the real bother (and included the fourth bonus dungeon). Hell, the monsters on the river seemed to be considerably stronger than most of those inside. The real gimmick of the Ice Cave was that it was full of enemies who could cause Instant Death, often with their normal attacks. This dungeon was probably meant to single-handedly justify the Thief, before the programmers screwed up the Thief’s ability to run away. Oh, and there’s a glitch in FFI NES where you can’t use protective items against status effects caused by standard attacks, which makes the Mindflayers in this dungeon even more dangerous on the NES. Thanks to the Instant Death gimmick, the Ice Cave marked the only time in the entire playthrough that the our Fighter and Thief died, once each, both to Mindflayers. For the record, I don’t believe Jiwal, our White Mage, ever died once in the entire game, which was probably for the best.
At the end of the dungeon, we picked up a “Levistone” we would need to power the series’ trademark airship. To get it, you had to beat another boss with Instant Death attacks: an “Evil Eye” in most versions, but a “Beholder” in the original Japanese, complete with art depicting the iconic D&D monster of the same name. D&D players will know how dangerous Beholders are, which makes this boss fight the more embarrassing. See, to balance out its Instant Death attacks, the Evil Eye was made out of tissue paper. Kyle (the real Kyle, at the controls) killed the Evil Eye so quickly that he was positive it was a random encounter and kept looking around for a boss after getting the Levistone. He just wouldn’t believe me when I said that was probably the boss, and I had to get out a walkthrough to confirm. Looking around the internet, it’s clear we were supposed to have a far worse time of this dungeon, so I might as well say it again: we were over-levelled, and it was dramatically impacting the game.
From there we used the magical Levistone to power the series’ first Airship, a flying sailing ship, like with propellers and everything. The Airship is a Final Fantasy staple, and goes more-or-less unexplained in this first game, where it is found buried in the desert. Why was it buried in a desert? How were we even supposed to find it? It turns out that an Elf gives you the hint, aka a minor NPC halfway across the planet. Doesn’t this game just scream “the 80s?” The funny thing was: it was the same Elf who was supposed to give us that hint about Astos!
Airships in Final Fantasy have three things in common: you can fly over everything or nearly everything; you usually can’t be attacked while riding them; and you can only land on open grass. We used the airship to fly to the north, where there we found two continents so devastated by the calamities assailing the planet that they were covered with rich forests, flowing rivers and no damn ports for our ship. …Wait, this is what happens when the bad guys take over? A healthy and prosperous spread of the taiga is the ultimate triumph of evil over good? Wow, if Square is casting “too much forest” as a bad thing, environmentalism really didn’t hit this series until the 90s, did it? Hell, even the lumber industry could get behind this. Maybe they were feeding off a very 70s fantasy “Law versus Chaos” angle but it’s still silly they didn’t just draw some wasteland tiles.
Pathetic or not, the trees did hinder our ability to land the Airship. We had to park considerably far away from our destination, the “Citadel of Trials” on the western half of the larger continent. I can’t help but compare the northern hemisphere of FFI to Earth’s northern hemisphere somewhat, plus a few islands in the middle. This larger continent divided by mountains into Europe, Central Asia and East Asia… if Central Asia were entirely desert from the cape of India to the north pole.
Walking across the continent to the Citadel, we got some bad news: we discovered we had levelled up to the level we were supposed to be at when visiting the Citadel, and so had essentially not gained any time at all. Dammit!
When we reached the Citadel, we were confronted by a sage or spirit of some sort that let us in because we had the Crown from Marsh Cave. The… Crown we either had no reason to pick up in the first place? Or picked up because we were extremely gullible? The Crown with no obvious connection to the Citadel? The Crown Astos said would let him take over the world with the Crystal Eye even though both items have only mundane powers, like how the crown that let us into this hallway here? The Crown you have to have if you got this far in the game, making this entire segment unnecessary?
According to an NES Game Genie code list I’m checking, the old man at the castle really does check for the Crown even though there’s no way you could be there without it. This game, you guys. This game. There are only three reasons I can imagine this might have happened. First is an incredibly cautious programmer. Second is that the entire thing with Marsh Cave may have once been a sidequest, or maybe the game was more open-ended? Third is that at one point, you may have been able to lose the crown (maybe by giving it to Astos) and so lose access to the Citadel of Trials?
Based on my limited experience with FFI before and after this playthrough, it seems The Citadel of Trials is always a joke. If I were to hazard a guess, the difficulty is to make up for the fact that it’s a teleporter maze, but they went perhaps too far. Stubbornly trying keep our level as low as possible, Kyle and I were running from most fights at this point. After avoiding an obnoxious group of Mummies that followed us everywhere (and seemed to follow us into a later dungeon, where we finally fought them!), we picked up the dungeon’s key treasure: …some rat’s tail. Which is apparently a symbol of heroism. This is an intentional joke, so I won’t harp on it, but it’s… not really that funny. After that, we fought a minor boss guarding the exit. This was the last time the game could have a boss guarding an exit, because after clearing the Citadel, you can finally get your promotion and the Teleport and Warp spells (finally). Since it would be silly to have bosses appearing at the exits when you could just jump past, the devs surrendered the ideas and went on to do other things. Make sure to think back on this discipline from the devs once we get to the FFIV journals! I trust it’ll be worth the insight.
To finally get your promotion, you need to go to a nearby archipelago populated by friendly dragons. Their leader, Bahamut, is happy to promote you in exchange for your mummified vermin tail. Now, after our extended look at the character types at the start of this journal, you might expect a long look here at promotion, but there’s not much to say. All characters will start to gain additional stat points on level up. Promoted characters also gain access to a few new items of equipment, and spells. Yes, this includes the Fighter and Thief, who gain the earliest three levels of White and Black spells, respectively. Since we’re talking about fairly weak spells, this isn’t very useful for either character, especially considering how few casts they’re going to get, but it has its uses. The Knight can help your White and Red Wizards save their spell casts by performing minor healing, and the Ninja can use Haste and Temper to get you buffed for a boss in record time. Just don’t start treating them like dedicated casters.
(By the way, I still think there’s something wrong about a game where it’s considered an upgrade when characters get to do less things, like the Knight allowing your Wizards to sit on their asses even longer than before. Final Fantasy 1 is just this strange experience where fighters run dungeons and wizards sleep on the couch until the bosses show up.)
With this transformation, the game has essentially reached its half-way point. The transformation is a nice delimiter between the two sides, as well, as we move into the harder, final half, along with the final two fiends. Or… final three fiends, if you’re skipping around like a jackass for some reason. Yup, that would be a dick move.
That’s “Harder” half of the game, mind. Not “Hard.”