Past the trap door, the Chaos Shrine was divided into floors based on the four Fiends and their monsters. This is a neat idea, but in execution meant fighting a lot of the boring old monsters from half the game away. Honestly, even the Wind Fortress enemies were behind-the-times, but that may have been because of our being over-levelled. If the game could have tweaked their stats to end-game level, this could have been a nice touch. At the end of each floor, the game ambushed you with one of the four Fiends, apparently at the height of their power, and these were adjusted to end-game level. This would be a lot more narratively significant if it weren’t for the fact that they were tied to squares on the map and you could fight them over and over again like they were minor enemies.
Breaking our usual Marathon tradition of who controls what, Kyle and I alternated between Fiend-floors. Lich and Tiamat put up the best fights, so as it happened, we each got one. Talking to Kyle these days, he remembers Kraken being an actual challenge this time thanks to high stats mixed with his high HP, so only Marilith was a disappointment. But that doesn’t mean all was well. On Kraken’s floor I got lost, and that was where Kyle and I lost what was left of our patience thanks to that great sin of random encounters: doldrums. Kraken’s floor would not stop throwing tiny, underwhelming monsters at us, none of which could even pray to kill us on their best days, and all seemingly based on the same two groups of monsters. We were so bored that there was no real joy left in the rest of the game. By the time we reached the end of the dungeon as a whole, we had almost exhausted (90%) our items due to very, very poor pre-planning (we, uh, forgot to shop entirely). Sounds like tension, right? Wrong. Even with our inventory exhausted, there was really no question of how the final boss would go. The Marsh Cave had rippled down the ages. We were fully healed, fully charged and close to optimally equipped. We could not possibly be killed by anyone short of a real Superboss. Chaos was doomed and we were going to able to sleep through it.
We came to the final room, set up like a pentagram (nice touch), and finally learned the full plot from our final foe: Garland, the traitor knight of Cornelia, and first boss come back from the dead. Clever, right? Assuming you didn’t work it out when the Sages outright told you this was the case. Well any cleverness that may have survived is about to be eaten up. Garland explains that he was rescued from death by the Four Fiends, who brought him back in time to become something greater: their master, the archdemon Chaos. Following this, Chaos would send them into the future to conquer the world. Any veteran of time travel stories would tell you that this leads to a paradoxical time loop, but Final Fantasy I is very proud of its big plot twist, and is happy to tell you that yes, this is a paradox! Garland declares that the time loop doesn’t just exist, but makes him immortal. He’ll forever exist in this time loop, surviving his death at the start of the game to become Chaos, and so become an immortal violation of the logical structure of time.
I could talk about the time travel issues in this, but it becomes hard to do when the game suddenly declares “The rules of time travel have been deliberately broken!” Square is giving their plot hole a big hug and declaring that it lets them write anything they want, you big meanies. This is at best a bad parody, the kind of Epic Movie-type thing where you have to slowly explain that saying something out loud doesn’t make it funny, except this game isn’t trying to be funny and I’m not sure how to even begin. At least FFI can blame its era. I had to deal with a similar developer thought process in a 2014 localization just a few months ago (unrelated to time travel, thank goodness). “Shut up and stop questioning me,” is just… it’s never good writing!
Our characters are about to make it worse: the Warriors of Light are just about to fight Chaos and, in so doing, are going to break the time loop. Doesn’t that prove Garland’s understanding of the time loop wrong? And if Garland’s understanding of the time loop is wrong, then isn’t it not actually working? I guess we’re not supposed to understand but it’s hard to take the story seriously when there’s no logic behind it, intentionally or otherwise. As a friend told me and I have repeated ever since: just because you’ve hung a lampshade on it doesn’t mean the problem isn’t there.
I’m acting like the game is already over, but perhaps I should actually get to the final boss before pretending that. In the NES version, Garland backs away from you as he is talking, into the centre of the pentagram, which I think was a clever effect that remakes sadly didn’t bother to reproduce. The reason they did it was purely technical: it allowed for multiple speeches in the limited NES engine since each “iteration” of Garland has a different speech tied to him. Once he gets to the centre, Garland challenges you, and transforms into his new form: Chaos.
The fight against Chaos is a little odd in the original NES game. He has a custom death animation, but like I said with Tiamat, the NES version has no boss music. Boss music wouldn’t first appear until FFII, and Square wouldn’t implement custom Final Boss music until Final Fantasy Legend I, though there’s some weird history about that that we’ll get to in the Final Fantasy II journal. Like I said before, the Wonderswan version added a final boss track, which makes this a lot more memorable. The remakes also dealt with Chaos’ boring, standard-issue Final Fantasy spells by giving them new, more impressive animations, which is a nice touch they didn’t really have to do. The level of polish for this one fight is impressive.
Not that it makes him any more threatening. Chaos in the original NES version had paralyzing attacks and 2000 HP, more than any of the fiends. He also has Curaja, the best healing spell. In the new version, he has 20 000 HP (15 000 more than Tiamat), which you’d think would be frightening, but didn’t seem to have Curaja this time around, or at least, he didn’t use it against us. The Final Fantasy Wiki is under the impression that he should have it, so maybe we got extraordinarily lucky against him, but it’s hard to say. Without Curaja, even 20 000 HP wasn’t impressive. By this point in the game, we had items that cast buff spells, enough to treble our power. Chaos didn’t have a half-chance.
The ending was almost preposterous. After all that confusion, only now does the game explain what was actually going on, as though they had cut and pasted a perfectly good exposition scene from the late game and tacked it on to the end. Having cleared out the time paradox, the world have been reborn. Was Garland still alive in this new universe? Did the King of Cornelia ever fix the bridge north of town for civic reasons? Does anyone care? I realize that’s the NES version’s fault – they probably couldn’t drop this much text in the middle of the game at the time, and that’s fine, but holy crap you could not have made us care after all the tedium from Kraken’s floor. The last thing the game said was that by destroying the time loop, the events of the game never actually happened. Good! Then we can stop talking about it. The End.
Final Fantasy I is one of those… well, as many others have put it, it succeeds on its accessibility, not its complexity and certainly not by any virtue of narrative. This game won out because Dragon Warrior was too dry and Ultima not just harder to play, but so much harder to play that a console couldn’t have handled it in the first place. FFI succeeds for the reason FFII would later fail, and we’ll get to that. That’s why Final Fantasy I is one of those RPGs that feels like it was supposed to be played as a casual jaunt. This game can be cleared in a day – we know, because we did. We cleared the game with time to spare in one play session plus some scraps from a previous day. Hell, after clearing FFI, we made progress in FFII the very same day. In the present day, Final Fantasy relies on its reputation as an epic, narrative-driven series, so it’s funny to think its founding entry as being less complicated than the average Flash RPG these days. That Square sold it bundled with FFII during the 90s and early 2000s made a lot of sense, and that they sell it full price and stand-alone these days is preposterous!
Now, Marathon rules say all we have to do to clear a game is to finish the story with all characters. This is more-or-less always going to leave gaps in the game’s full experience. In FFI, this meant skipping the new dungeons of the GBA remake, or even the PSP remake I picked up a few years later. Usually we have no regrets, but FFI is so small that one day, we may very well boot up the Anniversary Edition, make a familiar-looking party and give FFI another shot. For the time being, let’s cover the bonus dungeons in brief.
In the Dawn of Souls edition onwards, FFI includes a number of dungeons called “The Soul of Chaos.” These elemental themed dungeons can be entered after clearing each Fiend, and consist of a few randomized floors with their own supplies of treasures, monsters, and bosses from later Final Fantasy games: the Earthgift Shrine features bosses from FFIII, the Hellfire Chasm features bosses from FFIV, the Lifespring Grotto features bosses from FFV (including some of the strongest bosses in the GBA version of FFI overall), and Whisperwind Cove featuers bosses from FFVI. The Anniversary Edition even features remixes of the boss themes from those games. While Lifespring and Whisperwind are pretty solidly post-game content, Earthgift and, to a lesser degree, Hellfire feature challenges you could clear in the middle of the game. We actually considered going to Earthgift during the Marathon, but we decided to bar ourselves from the dungeon to avoid FFIII spoilers. Now that the Marathon has passed FFVI, all of these dungeons are ready to be plucked, so who knows what we’ll do in the future?
The Anniversary Edition adds an additional post-game dungeon: the Labyrinth of Time, featuring a confusing superboss called Chronodia, who becomes more powerful based on your actions within the dungeon. Obviously we’d like to take her on at her strongest, but whether we do that remains to be seen. For all we were overpowered in our Dawn of Souls game, I can’t guarantee we’ll be just as OP in a replay. We’ve tried taking on post-game content in later Marathon games, and with one hilarious exception, even our best parties haven’t been able to survive Final Fantasy’s post-game dungeons. This may be no different.
It’s been something like five years now, and Final Fantasy I is getting blurry in my memory. Looking back, it feels like the most insubstantial of the Final Fantasy games. Oh, it wasn’t the only one cleared in a single day. But it was cleared in a single day, and we carried on to the next game, and we were coming off of a Kingdom Hearts Marathon that was far more substantial. In a manner of speaking, I remember Final Fantasy I about as well as I remember playing Mega Man 6 in the original Marathon, as just one game in a cramped, rushed schedule. It lives on more through the strength of these journals than anything else, which emphasizes what the Journals are here for: analysis and critical interpretation, yes, but also a memory of my time with a friend doing something stupid and over-ambitious. Kyle’s girlfriend once asked him, “Are you ever going to finish playing all these games?” to which he said: “That’s not really the point.” And he’s right. This is about having some fun and making a goddamn mess, and this is where the Marathons started to become what they are today.
From here we go back to original Marathon journal entries, not rewritten ones like FFI. Oh, heavily edited journal entries, but essentially intact. They won’t quite match my current writing style but given time, everything will sync up. Final Fantasy II is also much more interesting than the original, so that will pick things up one way or another, even if our party has to stab themselves in the face to entertain you. Wow, that was an awfully specific analogy…