Final Fantasy III – Four Shmucks Walk into a Hole…

Final Fantasy III for the Famicom had a rocky history outside of Japan. Even though it was created in 1990 as the last 8-bit Final Fantasy, it was not ported in any way until 2006, not even in Japan. The hype around Final Fantasy in the PSX era led to PSX re-releases of every game from I-VI except FFIII, and several of the games also made their way to Wonderswan and the GBA. Why not number 3? While I can’t speak for the Wonderswan version, I imagine the lack of a Wonderswan version made porting a GBA version more difficult… but hardly impossible! Oh well. For one reason or another, FFIII never made it over here until the DS era, and that meant it was born into a different era of design sensibilities for Square Enix.

The three eras of Final Fantasy ports that spanned the PSX era and turn of the century had different intentions in mind. The PSX/Wonderswan era was about remakes that were close to straight ports, with GUI, audio and graphical enhancements and little else. The GBA “Finest Fantasy for Advance” line was more eager to add new features, going so far as to re-balance FFII, and to scramble FFI entirely with the “New Style” design (technically Dawn of Souls was not considered part of “Finest Fantasy for Advance” until after the fact, so maybe that explains why it got the most changes). But the games were still closer to straight ports than the DS versions. The DS remakes… *sigh*… were challenge remakes, though it’s hard to say whether or not that was intentional.

Apparently it wasn’t a big enough selling feature for Square to remake the two DS games – FFIII and FFIV – in 3D. No, the games were heavily rebalanced, with major gameplay changes to boot, like with FFI but even more extensive, and always toward making the game harder. FFIII was already hard, but the challenges were shuffled up, even though in some cases, the clues to the original challenges remain. I suppose Square Enix expected that the largest market for these games were people who had played the originals, and this seems doubly clear in FFIV, where the challenge seems to come from already knowing what’s going to come around the corner. There were also narrative refinements to both, which I’ll discuss in the respective Journals, which you can also see a selling feature for veterans.

Unfortunately, this challenge remake of FFIII is the only version that has ever been ported to the west. It was later ported to iOS – the version we played – and to PC. (The game was also ported to Ouya, without which I doubt we’d have ever seen a PC port, so thanks for that, dead microconsole!) Unlike FFIV, the PC version of FFIII never got a difficulty selection menu, either! The gameplay has undergone such substantial changes that even though I was satisfied with my FFI experience, I don’t really feel like I’ve played the original FFIII even after completing this version. The narrative changes are fine, but the gameplay doesn’t match up. I still want to play the Famicom version one day (or better yet, a more loyal remake) because this version is just… it’s not right!

Because we started the Marathon before FFIII was ported to iOS, I picked up a copy of the DS game and resolved to do a “Solo Marathon” of this game and all the (many) other Final Fantasy DS games. I stopped part-way through FFIII when the iOS announcement was made, since iOS can be put on the big screen (at the time, using an Apple TV). One consequence of this change in play is that the earliest Journals for FFIII were from the solo play, with little to no input from the group marathon’s time spent catching up. As for the Solo Marathons, they’re still technically going, I’m just not a very big fan of 4 Heroes of Light and have gotten distracted by Shin Megami Tensei 1.

Screenshots in this Journal come from Valis77’s longplay of the of FFIII Famicom translation by Alex Jackson, Neill Corlett and SoM2Freak. Longplay available from World of Longplays (YouTube). Ed. Sorry about the lack of 3D shots, but at the time this Journal went up, I couldn’t find a source for its screenshots in time for publication, and had to go with the original.

One of the most significant changes in the 3D remake is the addition of names and personalities for the lead characters, as well as drastic changes to the opening hour or two to accommodate those changes. The original begins with four ageless, faceless, gender-neutral, culturally-ambiguous adventure-persons falling into some hole, one after another (they’re all male in the fan translation but I believe gender-neutral pronouns are used in the original?). They all have the job class: “Onion Knight.” According to the wiki, this bizarre job title refers to a Japanese expression for poverty, and I quote: “the ‘Onion Life,’ peeling away one layer at a time and crying all the way.” In the 3D version, just one character falls into the hole: a boy named Luneth, job title “Freelancer.”

Final Fantasy III introduced the “Job System” that Final Fantasy is now famous for. In this system, your characters can change their class at any time with certain restrictions. This allows you to prepare your party for any number of situations, or to try to build the “ideal party” for all situations rather than just specific ones. FFIII ranges towards the former, but a number of changes were applied to the DS version that risk upsetting that sort of “puzzle” design. I’ll discuss the system a little later, once the 3D version gains the ability to take advantage of it.

We learn that Luneth was knocked into the hole thanks to an earthquake, which is not quite as silly as four people being knocked into the hole by the same earthquake, one after another… but once you see where the hole actually is, it’s still ludicrous. We’re off to a great start! Heading into the cave, Luneth was attacked by Goblins and other such monsters, which had presumably been powered down to account for his lack of backup. Not powered-down was the loot lying all over the place: still enough for a party of four.

Honestly, the changes between the original FFIII and the DS remake are so considerable that it puts “Old Style” and “New Style” FFI to shame. Outside of places like this original dungeon, numbers have been tweaked high, mostly to make up for a major problem with FFIII DS remake: it could only have a small number of enemies on-screen. FFIII originally worked on the same enemy ranks system that had existed in FFII and would carry with the series at least into FFIV (I say at the time of writing), essentially eliminating a layer of basic, everyday tactics in favour of brute slugfests against a single rank of foes with their stats cranked. By looking at changes like this, you can see why I’m not certain whether FFIII DS was a “challenge remake” by design or by accident: if this change came first as a matter of technical necessity, maybe all the others were just following in its footsteps?

As an opening game dungeon, the cave wasn’t that complex, but included a feature that would appear in several of the games to come: a healing spring. This spring is actually a frequent element in FFIII, with two different varieties appearing throughout the game: some that heal you fully, and some that simply bring party members back to life in place of a House of Life.

Our first boss, plus our first look at Valis’ party.

I pushed Luneth through the cave and came to fight a “Land Turtle” boss, which turned out to be the guardian of this world’s Crystal of Wind. Wow, if the Guardian of your crystal can be taken down by one kid under level 5 – or even four kids – you should probably rethink your security. (Ed. In hindsight, I wonder if the Land Turtle was actually attacking the Crystal rather than defending it? You’ll see what I mean as we go on, but the game never suggests one way or another.)

The Wind Crystal (not identified as such quite yet) told Luneth to hike it up to the surface and find three others chosen by destiny. I can’t imagine what it told the Kids in the original, but based on the evidence, I believe the original scene was cropped and stuck to a later part of the DS game with craft glue. You’ll know when. Teleported to the surface, I indignantly returned to the cave to pillage the halls I had been teleported past, and was duly rewarded. I also found the hole Luneth fell in, a teeny thing in the middle of a huge room, and wondered why on earth he was even there to begin with, though I don’t really expect an explanation.

I headed to the nearest town, supposedly Luneth’s hometown, only to learn that (like Josef’s death in FFII) everyone in town already knew what happened with the Crystal. Did the game cut out a scene where Luneth stood on a soap box and told everyone that a rock had spoken to him? By talking to the populace, I learn that Luneth is adopted and, like every adoptee in early gaming history, his parents just knew he was fated to something-something save the world someday. In the original game all four kids were foster siblings, but in this version there are only two: Luneth and his foster-brother, Arc, whom we’ll see in a moment. To make matters worse, there is no sign of the other members of the party, just complicating our job here.

Speaking of Arc, he proves useless on his own: his neighbours seems to think he’s a coward, so he runs off to prove himself before Luneth can even talk to him. Instead, I’m treated to a tutorial on this game’s zoom feature. I still can’t believe that’s a thing. The zoom feature helps you find secrets, and is utterly infuriating. You have to zoom the camera in to find sparkles that mark either items or the switches for secret passages, and it’s so time consuming to zoom in and out like this that I’m prepared to miss items just because I’m not willing to stare practically at Luneth’s forehead, but you just know the game is going to hide some plot-important switches and that’s already pissing me off.

Still holding a squad’s worth of equipment, I only spent my money on low-level spells, figuring I was safer off with the spells than without, and perhaps more than just a little stuck in a FFII mentality, thinking I should be buffing the spells up as soon as possible, which was silly of me because that’s not a thing in this game. Magic in this game actually functions like FFI on the NES and Famicom, despite the “New Style” conversion of FFI predating the re-release of FFIII. That means ammo-limited spell casts, spell levels, the works.

Following my only lead (both in terms of information and the fact that the world map was structured like a canyon, making it impossible to go anywhere else), I went to the village to the south, where Arc was waiting. He joined me and I immediately dumped a quarter of the tonne I was carrying into his hands. I believe he was level 1, though I didn’t get a very good chance to look, as you’ll see.

Note the “outline people” facing sideways on the left side of the room.

I searched the town only to find that all the townspeople had been turned into ghosts by an angry Djinn. The effect the game uses to convey this was curious, but cute: two-dimensional chalk outlines walking upright, around the town. The people of town somehow knew that the only thing that could save them was a Mythril Ring, but the only one they had was taken out of town by the blacksmith’s daughter. This was obviously one of our future party members, and it seems she ran away because she didn’t want to be a blacksmith any longer.

One other thing I learned in town was that the Djinn had been freed by that earthquake I mentioned, and that the quake had also blocked the only way out of the valley with a giant boulder that appeared out of nowhere, which is not how earthquakes work.

Someone in town mentioned that the Djinn was hiding in a cave. With that as my only clue, I went to the back of town and found a cave, and mistook it for the Djinn’s hideout. Arc and I tried to check out the cave to see what was going on there, only to be promptly mauled to death by skeletons. Whoops. Luckily for me, that wasn’t the Djinn’s cave, just the town’s mine, and the issue here was that the mine was properly balanced for a party of four. It didn’t occur to me to head back once I had my party, but I did return eventually.

After my death, I reloaded a save from just before entering town, and forgot that talking to one of the shades in town had advanced the plot! This meant I wandered aimlessly for a while. I found a castle to the northwest with a man guarding the door, who would not let me in. I eventually returned to the bespelled town and re-discovered that one of the ghosts was actually that games’ Cid, who gave us permission to pick up his airship parked and somehow hidden to the west. Inside, the party discovered Refia, the blacksmith’s daughter, already waiting there and trying to hot-wire the ship. She told us she no longer had the ring we were supposed to be looking for but that the the king in that castle had it… somehow.

She joined the party, and we headed back to that castle, where the man let us in only to reveal he’s the only (apparent) survivor of another of the Djinn’s attacks. His now-ghostly king charged us with fixing the problem, and told us he didn’t have the ring. This plot point was from the original, so if I’m going to fault anything for this scavenger hunt, it’s the remake, for implying that Refia had stolen the ring in the first place, turning this into a daisy chain. The king tells us that his daughter has the ring and has already gone after the Djinn herself. He then charged the man from the front door to go along with us. His name is Sir Ingus, our fourth party member, and like many a knight in RPGs, he was armed with rags and a knife.

With Ingus’ help, we travelled up a lightly monster-infested tower in the castle to grab an undead-killing sword before heading off to the Djinn’s real HQ to the north. We were divided from the HQ by a small body of water, which was pretty much the only reason we needed the airship at this point of the game. In fact, this airship could only fly over flat land and bodies of water, really no more remarkable than a canoe (despite our in-jokes). In many ways, it was akin to FFLIII’s un-upgraded Talon, which can be no better than or even worse than the Float spell you have from the beginning. Except the Talon has heavy weaponry and is basically a floating command centre, making it far more valuable than our hovering canoe here!

Inside the cave, we navigated the tiny dungeon and ran into the castle’s princess, Sara. You might remember that name from FFI (where it was spelled “Sarah”), or from our custom party in FFLI for that matter. She joined us, introducing us to this remake’s odd handling of guest party members. In the original FFIII, guest party members did nothing, which seems like a fair design choice considering only a few stay for any real length of time, though I do feel the DS made a blanket improvement nevertheless. In the remake guests will sometimes step in, often at the first turn of a fight, to randomly cast some later-game spell (great!) or launch a petty attack (boo). Sara had Aero, and I read she also had Cure, though Kyle and I never saw it in action in either Marathon run.

Sara following the party in the original. Note the lag instead of the strict caterpillar crawl, good detail work.

I ran into the Djinn very quickly after meeting Sara, and exploited his weakness to ice, destroying him with Arc’s Blizzard spell and the party’s Antarctic Wind items, since I wasn’t likely to use those elsewhere. He didn’t have much of a shot against a player willing to use bomb items. Sara trapped the Djinn in the mythril ring, but the four of us were suddenly transported away by the Wind Crystal’s poor sense of etiquette and Square Enix’s weird editing. Ingus still managed to tell Sara to not worry and to return home – which was actually a coded way of telling the player where to find her. Sneaky!

By the way, Crystal, I tried to come to you after I met Ingus, i.e. finding the other chosen ones like you requested, but would you talk to me? No. No you would not.  Nice to be respected by my employers.

Prev: The Final Fantasy Legend – Deicide
Next: Final Fantasy III – The Plunk Heard ’Round the World

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