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.
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.
From Bahamut’s cave, we went back to the volcano near the sage-town and killed Marilith, and I have to ask… why? Here’s the full scoop: Lich was destroying the continent to the southwest. This was well presented and displayed. The Fiend of Water and the Fiend of Air arrived centuries earlier and had already devastated the North with the terror of ecological success, but to be frank, besides the trees there wasn’t much sign of their evil. Okay, the Fiend of Water sank a city and polluted the water. This is mentioned in the text in the next few towns. Text certainly isn’t as evocative as the rotting land graphics to the southwest, but not bad. Meanwhile, the Fiend of Air doesn’t seem to have done anything about the air (FFV actually seems to mock FFI for this by showing what would really happen if you messed up the air), but you’ll soon learn that she is guilty of other crimes. Outside of the intro, backed by actual evidence inside the game, Marilith’s crimes include…
Absolutely nothing. Oh, sure, there’s a brief mention in the opening demo, if you wait on the main screen. But that’s it, it’s not backed up by any evidence in-game. Her volcano’s not even spewing lava on the NES, and video games are so excited about lava that I’ve seen lava drawn on dormant volcanos. The only incentive you have to kill Marilith is to get directions to the Levitation Stone. It’s not even a very good incentive, considering the game asked you to operate with limited directions during the Elfheim segment. With that incentive removed, it’s just the sages at Crescent Lake calling a hit on an innocent demon-women, like some sort of mafia don. “You like the canoe we gave you for killing the Lich? Well, I happen to have information about a new form of transportation you might be interested in, if you can make the information… worth my while.” Jackasses!
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, as well. The front door is a whirlpool, I don’t quite understand why it had to be here and not any other notable part of the ocean. 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 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.
The Chaos Shrine was a great big ruin, and not in the sense Final Fantasy normally means when it says “ruin,” with the hundreds of rooms and active machinery. This is the actual ruin kind, with all the fallen pillars and the walking dead crammed into the only accessible floor. Some of the doors were even locked, making it one of the smallest dungeons in the entire series. Garland doesn’t even have much room to wait for you: he sits in front of a black stone with the princess not five steps into the dungeon, concealed by a single door and a prayer that no one will open it.
The black stone is actually the most interesting thing in the room, but only in the NES version, where it’s part of a set. It looks like a black crystal ball, and there are four other such crystal balls in the world. In later versions, the others were given a makeover while this one remained the same. The peculiar thing is: it’s definitely supposed to be the same thing as others, so the oversight is surprising. I hear the connection is confirmed in Dissidia, the Final Fantasy crossover game, so the fact that they never redrew the crystal ball even in releases made after Dissidia makes this seem even stranger.
You’ll notice I’m not talking about the boss fight. What a coincidence, you’re going to notice that all across the Marathon when it comes to first bosses, because most of them aren’t worth talking about. Unfortunately, this is true of most of the bosses from the 8-bit era – the bosses won’t really pick up until FFIV. But Garland is a piece of work. You probably expect me to talk about his infamous line: “I, Garland, will knock you all down!” but the line never really bothered me. We’re talking about an industry where the end of the world was once addressed as “Kangaroo.” This isn’t even a ranking localization flub. As for the boss: first bosses in Final Fantasy are pathetic and Garland doesn’t even spice it up with spells or special attacks. The only “spice” to Garland’s fight is that if you haven’t grinded, he may kill you. Maybe. He’s really no more remarkable than a tough wandering monster. Happy new franchise, everybody.
That’s enough about characters, let’s hit the digital tarmac! We selected our party, and they walk into the world out of nowhere: that’s not even hyperbole, they just march in out of legend, carrying four crystal shards. Or “Orbs,” in the original, text-restricted NES version. And when I say they march in out of legend carrying only four crystal shards, I mean I feel fortunate they’re even wearing clothes. They have Crystal Shards, kitchen knives, and rags. The spellcasters don’t even come with spells! Just seconds after you’ve agonized over character selection, the damn game tells you to go shopping!
This is how a lot of classic RPGs liked to start off: you agonize over character build followed by… agonizing a different way, which is like following up an kart racing minigame with a slot racing minigame and calling it “variety.” If you want to see it go bad, go check out my Phantasy Star journal archive, because ai carumba. Phantasy Star started you off in town, something Final Fantasy doesn’t care to do, but the rest was all downhill. Things could be worse in both cases, that’s just what early RPGs were like. Look at me and see the eyes of a man who’s played pedit5. Things could be worse.
Final Fantasy 1 on the NES opens directly to a text crawl explaining the backstory. Later revisions put the opening text off until after you’ve done character creation, where it’s unskippable. I want to say that later versions are in the right here, since this opening text crawl is nearly the only insight into the plot you’re going to get. I want to say that, but can’t help but feel that the opening info-dump is the sloppiest narrative convention on the rack. Oh, I admit: FFI doesn’t stand without this opening text crawl, but that’s a problem that could have been solved with just a few tweaks. One of my favourite games of all time has a similar, maybe even worse version of the same problem, and it deserves to be raked over the coals for it. If I’m going to be harsh on one of my favourite games, I’m sure as hell not going to let up for Final Fantasy I. At least FFI’s is shorter.
It gets worse: this exposition is stacked on top of FFI’s character creation segment. Considering you can skip the opening crawl on the NES, the otherwise clunky 8-bit version starts coming off as crisp and efficient for the one and only time in the entire comparison.
I’ll cover the text crawl all the same. It’s not very complex. The four classical elements are all out of whack: winds, gone. Fires, ablaze. Earth and water, dying. Thankfully the prophet Lucan has prophesized that four lucky contestants will come along to save the day. Come on down!
We had just crossed the street from the Electronics Boutique in the plaza near Kyle’s house, and were settling in at Wendy’s like we often did, and started talking about future marathon plans. I don’t well remember what we were playing the day Kyle suggested it. By this point, The Marathon was not only ongoing, but it was well and truly unstoppable. You can read about them here, but in brief: we were playing through (often speed-running) series of single-player games together, swapping the controller at set points. The Marathons hadn’t started with that much fanfare. Mega Man 9 was coming out, so we took up Mega Man 1-8. It was a change from our usual schedule: a little of this, a little of that, one infamous ongoing game of Harvest Moon: Back to Nature, starring my greedy alter ego and his army of sweet potatoes and no remorse. Now it was all different, now there was direction. Hardly a conversation went by where we weren’t quoting our own Mega Man in-jokes. Over 100 Robot Masters and counting, and everything mechanical a “jerkbot.” Everything mechanical is still a “jerkbot,” actually. And if King Jet, an awful boss from Mega Man and Bass couldn’t stop The Marathon after near three hours of failure and tedium, nothing could.
Somewhere in the conversation, as I’m picking away at my fries, we’re talking about doing Kingdom Hearts next. If the Marathon is unstoppable now, it needs fresh targets, new jerkbots to steamroll. But somewhere in that conversation about KH, Kyle makes the fateful suggestion. Final Fantasy, he says.