The JRPG Canon #2 - Final Fantasy

Editing videos is really hard when you have a full time job, and a podcast, and a kid, and a wife, and instead of taking 2-3 months to do each video on Youtube, I've decided to post my thoughts on my quest through the JRPG canon here, in text form, for our Ko-Fi backers. This should allow me to post one of these about once a week or two.

If you're just joining us, the JRPG Canon is a series where I play the first Vertical Slice of a JRPG and talk about why it is fun, and discuss what makes the game unique, and what it contributed to the JRPG Canon itself.

This week, I'll be discussing Final Fantasy, for the NES.

I probably won't go chronological for this entire analysis series, but I figured I should at least start with the "big two" as their influence is felt in the most games moving forward, with both good and bad ramifications. I probably won't, however, stop and play Ghost Lion or Metal Max on my way to games on the SNES. But since I'll refer to "Final Fantasy style" this and "Dragon Quest style" that, It's good to get these games out of the way first.

The History

Final Fantasy, originally conceived as Fighting Fantasy, was released for the Famicom in 1987, and was created by Hironbu Sakaguchi, with the scenario written by Kenji Terada, character designs by Yoshitaka Amano, music by Nobuo Uematsu, and Programming by iranian-american Nasir Gebelli. Which I guess answers the debate "Do you have to be from Japan to make JRPGs" pretty handily. Final Fantasy is a JRPG, so is Secret of Mana, and they were all programmed by an Iranian-American. Take that, pedants.

The Final Fantasy 1 Release party. I don't see Nasir anywhere,
but otherwise, a veritable who's who of squaresoft
for the next many years.
Sakaguchi-sensei, like Horii-sensei before him, was a huge RPG and computer nerd, and loved playing games like Ultima and Wizardry, and wanted to make his own for the NES, but Square didn't think there was a market for RPGs on console, which is just the funniest sentence to read from the future. For the last 30 years, Square has been synonymous with RPGs, but they didn't think they were profitable at one point in time.

It was only after Dragon Quest was released, and was a huge hit, that they decided to go forward with this project. It's interesting to note, however, that both Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy were adaptations of Ultima and Wizardry to consoles, and final fantasy was not directly created as a response to Dragon Quest. This comes through a lot in the design, which I'll touch on when we discuss the game proper.

The Original logo for Final Fantasy. It looks dope.

There is some apocrypha surrounding the name "Final Fantasy" that I’m sure you've heard. That square was gonna go bankrupt, so they released their "Final" fantasy game, but Sakaguchi-sensei has said that this is over-hyped. Notably by Uematsu, who started these rumors in the first place. The working title for the project was FF, because they could use two latin letters, and only 4 kana to write it, and so when Fighting Fantasy was already taken by a table top RPG, it was as Sakaguchi explains "a back to the wall type situation back then, and any other F word would have been fine." Final and Fighting are close enough, it sounds mysterious, it may or may not have had to do with square going bankrupt at the time, it all lined up, and the name stuck.

When the game was released, it was a huge hit, and now there are approximately 1 million Final fantasy games made since then. I briefly touched on Dragon Quest's remakes in my last video, but I would be incredibly foolish to not briefly touch upon the MANY times that final fantasy has been remade. Even more remarkable is the game was refined every remake. In Dragon quest, you get the same basic experience every single time, and all of the changes are graphical or quality of life control options. But Final fantasy?

On the MSX2 remake, they upgraded the sound, graphics, and tweaked some job classes.

On the wonderswan remake, they tweaked the graphics, buildings were given interiors, text was moved to the iconic blue boxes, cutscenes were added, a new script was written, targeting AI was changed, finally added a boss and final boss theme, and the Items and spells systems were tweaked.

On the Playstation remake, they had further upgraded graphics, orchestrated music, more save slots, a bestiary, FMVs and an easy mode

On the GBA remake, spells now use MP (more on this later), Brand new item system, classes are balanced, Difficulty is reduced, even more targeting AI tweaks, and some new optional dungeons.

On the Mobile Phone (we're talking flip-phone) version, almost all of these advancements were removed, including sound effects, only improving the item system, dashing, the targeting AI, and a quick save feature.

And finally, in the PSP remake, the graphics are overhauled once more, the magic, item, saving, dashing, script, FMV, music, bestiary, art gallery, and extra content changes from the GBA and PS remakes are back, and they added even more content, the highest resolution yet, and the best graphics the game has seen so far.

And the smartphone remake is this version, but with bugs.

So yeah! If you want to play this game in the best way possible, play it on the PSP or iOS. If you want to play it as originally designed, play it on the NES. If you have basically any other system available, play that version.

I will be discussing the NES version for this video, so all these pretty graphics are done for a while.

Note: I forgot to record while I was playing this game for the first time, so my screenshots are gonna come from a combination of ddegenha's Let's Play on, you can check it out here. And the more story based LP, Oyster and Petoux's playthrough here.

The Game

When you first load the game, you are greeted with an opening crawl, a la Star Wars, which sets the scene for you. This is already way more story than Dragon Quest had, though it's just flowery speak to say the same thing: World's fucked, better get some young heroes to save it.

When you start a new game, you're allowed to roll your characters, by selecting their job and their name. I chose a Fighter, a red mage, and two black mages, and named them after my kids. Bash and Ryan after my son, and Scar and Rose after my daughter. Get used to this, by the way. I always name my RPG characters after my kids.

After rolling your characters, you are unleashed on the world, with some money in your pocket, but no weapons or armor in your pack. It's here that final fantasy's unique spin on the RPG starts, and I did poorly at this the first time. You start with nothing, and have to buy it, instead of your characters having a loadout or something to start with. Your mages, as I found out, don't even start with a spell. So if you're like me and buy weapons and armor for everyone, you suddenly are out of money, and have to GRIND to do anything.

So I started the game with two mages who could do nothing, and had to fight enough monsters to get FIRE for them. But this actually was how I found out a cool way that Final Fantasy pushes you to explore farther.

With FF's bigger numbers, the differences in the first set of monsters and the second set of monsters are felt, but more likely to be able to be tanked. So you can survive longer in a place you're not supposed to be than you could in Dragon Quest. So you can cross into the forest near the beginning, and fight a few Grey Imps, barely survive, and run back into town, and get way more gold for your trouble than if you killed 5-6 regular imps in the first area.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before you do all this battling, you need your gear, which means you go into town, and speak with the NPCs there. The NES version feels very bizarre. There are not standard text boxes like we see in later games, where the box is first, and the text fills in, but it's almost like the box and text included are a singular sprite that is revealed with an annoying sound effect all at once.

I can hear this screenshot.

The towns are larger, and there are more NPCs than in dragon quest, which unfortunately does mean more repeated lines. Most of the people in the town just bemoan the loss of their princess, or talk about how Garland is evil. Even when you make it into the castle, the king has a single text box, and most of his advisors say the same thing.

In a second, we'll see why the NPCs and stuff are so limited, but for now, we've got our gear, and we know that Garland's castle is to the west, and the princess is inside waiting on us.

So you make your way westward, pausing to return to heal up, or buy more spells or items, and eventually make it to Garland's castle. The dungeon is revealed to you all at once, instead of tile by tile like in DQ, and is set-dressed to be a real space, instead of an abstraction. The monsters here hit really hard, and may require you to run to safety a few times before meeting Garland himself.

I guess I should speak on the battle system a little bit.

Like in Dragon Quest, you set the tactics for the turn at the beginning of the turn, and they play out in an order dictated by the characters' speed. Visually, however, the screen in Final Fantasy is much different than in Dragon quest, and borrows heavily from the wizardry games that inspired it. It is less the sort of "set the scene, what do you do" sort of presentation that Dragon Quest had, and more of a "We're in combat now, look at our combat stuff" sort of approach.

There is also a focus on the elemental properties of spells and characters in the game, which Dragon Quest did not have. Dragon Quests spells were translated to "HURT" and "HURTMORE" because them being fireballs didn't have any effect on the gameplay. It was just the spell that hurt the enemy.

Here, however, Creeps and Zombies are weak to fire, so when you come across them in Garland's castle, your black mages are suddenly heroes, because your fire spells do way more damage to these guys than the fighter's sword ever could.

So after defeating Garland, you return back to the castle, and you see that each NPC now has different dialogue. I remember starting up the game, and thinking that my quest would be to fix the ORBs and stop Garland, but it was now that I was realizing that this game is where the episodic storylines of the genre come from. I have a main quest, which is to fix the ORBs, and each new area has its own questline that I need to complete to move along the main quest. And the NPCs updating their dialogue was a cool reward for completing this quest, much like the victory lap in Dragon Quest.

I feel like this is a good stopping point for getting the feel of the game, as it's a microcosm of the experience. Square seems to agree, because in the few places where they offered demos to this game, killing Garland and building the bridge to the mainland was the end of the demo, and in FF1, there's even a cool in-game "And so the quest began" graphic when you cross to the mainland.

I was really surprised at how classy this was.

But my bare minimum for this series is a dungeon and two towns, so I wanted to explore the mainland a little before closing up my thoughts.

The world map is pretty big, and fairly explorable right from this point onward, which is pretty cool. On the starting island, there was only ever one way to go, westward, so there wasn't much of an option where to go, but here, you have a lot to look for, and no early sign you're even going in the right direction, like a town or anything.

Town #2: Pravoka

I did finally make my way to the second town, where I then decided I would not play this version of the game to completion. All of the prices for all of the goods in the second town are four times as expensive as the items in the first town. The items that were already too expensive to fully outfit my party with. A lot of the remakes lower the prices to make it easier, and I think that's a good move. It did give you replay value back in the NES days, but is the epitome of grinding to pad out a game's length.

In the second town, the "episode" is about pirates taking over the town, and I accidentally stumbled into the boss fight while looking for an item shop, and saved the day. This gave me my ship, which I felt was WAY early for this much mobility, making my already expansive world practically completely open, which was pretty cool.

I could tell that the gameplay loop for the rest of the game was further from Dragon Quest than I had thought, where the map is huge and empty, and more of a way to ferry you from episode to episode of the plot, rather than being the core gameplay loop itself.

I sailed around for a little bit, seeing how much of the world I could actually reach at this point, and saved my game and quit. I feel I got the basic idea of FF1 down from this much.

Gearing up is super important, even more so than in Dragon Quest. The Grind is emphasized here, and finding the optimal way to grind is the force that pulls you to explore, and try things that are dangerous. The skills you use are important in more ways than just how much damage they do, but their element, magic level, and the like are important as well. The addition of sub-stories makes you care about each town you come to as more than just a "What secrets do I learn from these NPCs" and "What items are for sale" but more "What's the story here" and it means that translation issues aside, I know Cornelia, and I know Pravoka's names, and their whole deal because that's the city with the missing princess, or the city with the pirates.

If you think I haven't played enough, or if I got something wrong, let me know. I am aiming to get a working knowledge of all of these games, and If when I get to Elfheim, the game changes and brings things in, let me know. I already know that the jobs digivolve into higher versions of themselves, but from what I can tell, that's just a cool progression thing, more than something that changes the core loop of the game.

Now, let's talk about my favorite bits of the game.

The Cool

I'm surprised to say it, but I really liked how the game focused on grinding as gameplay. Yeah, there are parts where it seems artifically padded, but I'm not talking about those parts. I'm talking about how grinding to get your next gear or spell or item, or survive in the next area is a focus of the game, in a way it's not in future RPGs.

Da-na-na-naaaah! Dun! Dun! Nah, na-na!

We have a modern aversion to grinding as a concept, probably from a few years of the genre changing to be something different, and grinding not being the focus like it is here. It doesn't suck to spend a few minutes trying to get the next awesome spell, because you always want the new spell, and beating the next roadblock, whether it be an upcoming boss, or an area of the map that's kicking your butt is your immediate goal, and it's fun to get closer to that goal.

I also liked when I first figured out that Creeps were weak to fire, it felt like I as a player had unlocked the skills needed to get through the first dungeon. These things were scary, until they weren't, and then suddenly I was better off in the dungeon, even without a level up, or more gear, or anything.

The Interesting

There are a whole bunch of interesting design solutions in Final Fantasy, and not a lot of them actually made it into the next set of games, so they are cool to look at.

My favorite one was that the NES was never designed to have battery saves, so when the NES powered down, there wasn't a focus on isolating the memory from the power supply like there was when you powered it up. These little power surges could arbitrarily change some of the ram's data, which on powerdown was no big deal.

For most games. Games with a save function, however, used SRAM with a battery backup and so at power down, there was a small risk of your save games getting overwritten. Now developers had one of two options. They could try and fix this somehow with a special chip in their carts, or, they could just tell the player to hold reset when they turn off their consoles. This is the route that FF went, and so when you save at an inn, the innkeeper breaks the fourth wall to tell you to hold down the power button.

Another interesting thing is a hold-over from tabletop games, and it feels so foreign to us from the future. This of course, is the Spell Slots. If you've ever played DND, you've probably had your eyes glaze over as the solution to how to balance magic users is explained. It's not the most intuitive, and in the DND games I run, I use a homebrew to get around it.

Basically, every spell belongs to a different rank, and each character has the ability to cast a certain number of spells from that rank before needing to recharge at a rest. This makes okay sense when you just have one level of spells. "Oh, I can use fireball 3 times before running out" but as you get farther along, it becomes a list of things to keep up with, instead of a simple MP number like other games (including future remakes of this same game) have.

It's a cool attempt to balance the power of the more powerful spells, and it's cool to see the TTRPG roots of it, but I'm glad I'm playing the rest of this game with MP.

The Things to Learn From

The core gameplay loop of this game is already grinding. You already are pushed into the next area as a way to make the grind more rewarding, and getting to the next tier of gear and magic already is difficult, and is enough of a positive reinforcement to keep you playing. But the prices and experience threshholds of this game is what is considered "difficult" in the remakes, and easy mode (which is the normal mode for the GBA and PSP versions) only changes your time needed to accomplish your goals.

This isn't difficulty, it's tedium, and balancing this is one of the hardest parts of making a JRPG, and it never stops being the hardest. In addition, the second town doesn't sell equipment from the first town, so if you get to a new place with a loaded pocket, you have to spend it on new expensive stuff, instead of maybe filling in the stuff you missed from before.

In addition, the core loop has you carving out the world bit by bit as you explore, only to return home to the inn to rest up and try again (and save!). But Inns are way too dang expensive in this game. The first inn in the game costs 30 gold to stay in. Meanwhile, all the gear needed to fully equip your Fighter is only 55. This means when you are grinding for gear, your goal is not just the price of the item, but the price of the item plus 30 times however many loops it takes you to get the price of the item.

These two things take away from the engagement of the core loop of this game, which I do think square has noticed, because both of these things are fixed in the remakes.

Closing Thoughts

I liked Final Fantasy NES more than I thought I would. I remember bouncing hard off of it back when I played it on the GBA, but playing it here in its stripped down form allowed me to see what they were trying for, and compare the game to their idea, more than the more modern iterations of this idea. The remakes do keep it more in line with the rest of the series, but that similarity only made me look at what was different, and not what was offered.

I do think I'm going to complete this game, now that I've had the taste of the original. But I'll be playing it on my PSP, with all the modern accoutrements and the the filthy casual difficulty setting, because something taking longer to do does not make it harder, just tedious, and I'll be excited to do more in the game and see what's going on.

Not to mention it's got-damn gorgeous.

If you have games you think I should try out, leave me a comment below. If you think I screwed the pooch on talking about Final Fnatasy, leave me a comment below. If you just want to say hello, leave me a comment below.

If you want to hear me talk about JRPGs with more of a focus on the story, check out the Podcast at or by searching for RPG Bookclub in your favorite podcatcher.

Thanks for reading, I'll see you soon.

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