Release: December 18, 1987 | Developer: Square A-Team | Publisher: Square
I have been playing the Final Fantasy games ever since late 1990 or early 1991. I can’t remember the exact date, but there was snow on the ground and both Mega Man 3 and Final Fantasy were recently released.
My affair began innocently enough; with a botched rental attempt. I had picked Mega Man 3 up off the shelf and when I got home I found, much to my horror, that the clerk had put the wrong game in the plastic case. My parents refused to take me back to Acme Video, not understanding the full impact of being robbed of a new Mega Man game. I decided to make the best of my situation and give this impostor a try. The game was Final Fantasy, and I was hooked immediately.
Around this time my cousin, Neil, who remains one of my best friends to this day, was playing the game at his babysitter’s. The game became somewhat of an obsession between us, with many sleep-overs spent plotting strategies and praying that we could avoid the Warmech in that final, long hallway before Tiamat.
Today marks the 30th anniversary of the release of the original game in Japan, so I’ve decided to go back and revisit the original game, the one that started this massive RPG beast in motion.
So let’s start where it all began: the beginning.
With one chance left to save a failing company, Hironobu Sakaguchi was tasked with creating what could’ve been Square’s last game. After sinking all it’s money into the development of what was to be an epic title for Nintendo’s Famicom Disk System, as well as many other failed (and rightly so, as they were terrible) Disk System games and Famicom titles, Square was on the verge of bankruptcy.
Pooling their resources, Square decided that they could afford to create one final, make-or-break game. Hironobu Sakaguchi went to work and decided to develop a genre game. He settled on the blossoming RPG genre, an area with which competing Japanese developer Enix was enjoying a massive amount of success through it’s young Dragon Quest franchise.
Taking many elements from American computer RPG’s such as Ultima and The Bard’s Tale, and also borrowing heavily from Enix’s Dragon Quest (who, in-turn had borrowed heavily from pen and paper RPGs), Final Fantasy was created with an emphasis on story and character development. Instead of a true role-playing experience, Final Fantasy would start you off in a predestined role, and allow you to grow and develop your party within a preset story arc. Final Fantasy ended up a more complex and detailed game than it’s contemporaries, namely Dragon Quest. You had a party of 4 playable characters to DQ’s one, you could battle up to 9 enemies per encounter to DQ’s one. The world was bigger, it contained more towns, dungeons, and non-playable characters. You also had a much larger selection of weapons, items, armor, and accessories to find and collect. Final Fantasy is a hard game, to be sure, but not nearly as hard as Dragon Quest 1, and all though both games took a significant amount of grinding to advance, Final Fantasy was much more forgiving with higher rewards for both experience points and gold and more enemy variety. These factors make grinding through Final Fantasy some-what less soul-shattering than Dragon Quest.
Another key difference between Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest was the amount of battle animation. In Dragon Quest, the depth of the sprite animation on the battle screen is a shaking effect when a critical hit has been landed. In Final Fantasy your playable characters are visible during battle and they also share the screen with multiple enemies. Final Fantasy’s playable sprites step forward and perform an action when their turn comes. These actions range from swinging a weapon to performing magic attacks. In an impressive innovation, the weapon wielded during these animations, as well as the animated magic sprite, changes depending on what weapon is equipped or what magic is being used. Your character also slumps when critically wounded, setting up a precedent of character expression that Square would eventually go on to master during the glory days of the Super Nintendo.
These small innovations, when packaged together, ended up giving birth to the console JRPG and pushing it beyond the simple beginnings seen in the first Dragon Quest games.
These gameplay touches and graphical tweaks would become one of the most beloved and defining attributes of future entries in the Final Fantasy universe, as each subsequent game in the franchise not only advanced the genre as a whole, but took bold steps in reinventing the series itself with fresh stories, new characters, constantly shifting and tweaked battle mechanics, and an ever-evolving character class configuration system.
The story of Final Fantasy is pretty average on the surface, having to do with prophecies, Light Warriors, elemental fiends, and darkened crystals. When examined in detail, the story was actually a key step in paving the way for subsequent RPGs by taking the genre out of the swords-and-castle setting of 9th century England and transporting you to strange new worlds; worlds were technology and customs from past, present, future, and fantasy join together and co-exist.
You are initially led to believe that you are playing in a long-forgotten era of ancient Earth, or medieval fantasy world. However, toward the end of the game your preconceived notions are shattered as you discover and explore an ancient satellite orbiting the world and its mysterious robotic sentries. It is further hinted that game may, in fact, take place in the future of our own reality, after society as we know it has destroyed itself.
The game may be somewhat forgotten in the eyes of current day RPG fans, and even within the series, it spawned. Other Final Fantasy games spurred more memorable innovations, characters, and stories. That being said, there is no denying the original 8-bit adventure’s place in the history and in the evolution of not only the RPG genre but also the importance the title holds as being the among the first video games too so artfully marry visual detail and narrative structure.