Over the years it’s become apparent that most video games fall into one of two categories. There are those that follow strict linear guidelines where the game is broken up by stages and in order to proceed the player must master each section to progress to the end. Then there are those that are more open ended and demand the player explore the world, find items to survive, tinker around to discover secrets and master gameplay mechanics. I’ve always liked both types of games well enough and there is definitely a place in this world for each style, but as I grow older I’m appreciating the freedom afforded by titles like The Legend of Zelda, and more recently the first big Japanese role-playing game (JRPG) to make it to our shores: Dragon Warrior.
Even though Nintendo didn’t develop the turn-based adventure series (Enix did), they saw enough potential in the genre that they appropriated the game as their own for American consumption. They’ve now done the same with Square’s Final Fantasy, which should be showing up at a retailer near you any day now. Released three years ago in Japan, this new series has been a verifiable hit across the ocean. In fact, they just received the third one last month! Nintendo is hoping to replicate that success over here. I’ve fallen in love with this new style of turn-based combat and I hope that it resonates with other players the way it has with me.
The first thing you’ll notice upon opening the game’s box is a gigantic 80-page instruction manual at about double the height of a normal one, so it’s absolutely packed with information. It’s officially called an Explorer’s Handbook, and for good reason – it contains a step-by-step guide to get you well into the game. In fact, this is something I’d expect out of an issue of Nintendo Power magazine and it’s fantastic to see it included for all buyers of the game and should help ease newcomers to the genre into the massive adventure. Thankfully the game utilizes Nintendo’s battery back-up technology so you won’t have to worry about hastily scribbled passwords impeding your progress thirty hours later.
Unlike Dragon Warrior, which was a solo hero affair, Final Fantasy has you hand pick your four adventurers at the beginning of the game. You’ll be able to pick from six different occupations: fighter, thief, black belt, red mage, white mage, and black mage. Each has different skills, attributes, and strengths and weaknesses. If this is your first time through the game it’s important to try and assemble a well-rounded group so you can more easily tackle the wide variety of enemies you’ll encounter.
The fighter is able to utilize the biggest variety of weapons and can wear heavier pieces of armor – so he can deal and take more damage than the rest of the crew. The thief has high agility, so the enemies will miss their marks more often, plus he’s a scrappy fighter to boot. The black belt is an interesting character because he doesn’t require weapons to take on his foes. The red mage is a sort of crossover character that dabbles in swordplay as well as white and black magic. The white mage is essential if you want a healer in your group, but she’s not going to be very great at offensive attacks. At the other end of the spectrum is the black mage, who can master a bunch of powerful attack spells that will help you wipe out hordes of enemies. Both of these magicians lack defensive traits, so you’ll have to try and protect them from harm as much as possible.
After you’ve assembled your crew of adventurers your first stop will be the castle of Coneria. By talking to all of the inhabitants you’ll quickly learn that Princess Sara has been kidnapped by an evil sorcerer named Garland and it’s up to the four Light Warriors (you!) to save her. Sure, it’s not the most original story ever told, but it’s really the tip of the iceberg because the game sort of fools you into thinking that’s the main quest when really it’s nothing but a prelude to a grand adventure that will have you crisscrossing continents on foot, via boat, and even aboard an airship to vanquish the evil from world. You’ll definitely get your money’s worth out of this Game Pak.
If you’re new to JRPGs, there are a few things to know before you buy Final Fantasy. These types of games are often more strategic than your average action title and will take you hours upon hours to reach the end. You don’t have to have nimble thumbs when you enter into combat – take as much time as you like to develop a plan to take out the enemies. Each character has different attack and defense stats and some enemies are more susceptible to magic attacks than others. The fighting takes place in turns, so you’ll often go first and decide which enemy each character will attack. You don’t want to lump everyone together on one singular enemy (oftentimes there are multiple baddies to take out at once) because if that monster is destroyed early in the round, all of your other characters’ moves will have been wasted until the next turn. Don’t worry if it sounds a bit confusing at first because you’ll get into a lot (and I mean a lot) of fights over the course of the game and you’ll soon figure out the best strategies to wipe them out before they take you out.
As you win battles you’ll gain experience points and when you’ve earned enough you’ll level up. This will increase your stats, such as attack power and defense. You’ll also be able to increase your magic levels so that you can purchase more powerful spells to attack and defend against more powerful monsters. You’re also rewarded with gold when you vanquish enemies in combat. This is essential to purchasing new, more powerful equipment to take on more difficult foes. If you ever hit a point in the game where you keep dying in a specific area, it’s probably because you’re under-leveled or don’t have the right equipment and spells in place. Don’t be afraid to spend some time wandering around the surrounding area and defeating enemies to gain more experience and gold so you can become stronger and take on the more powerful encounters.
Final Fantasy is a huge upgrade in presentation when compared to Dragon Warrior. The graphics are more intricately designed with more variety in the overworld and towns. Although the monsters are often a bit more detailed in Dragon Warrior, you only encounter one at a time, whereas in Final Fantasy you can stumble across up to nine at once! Combat has a unique display that I really like where your heroes are lined up on the right side of the screen and the enemies on the left. This makes it easy to select the foe you want to attack and there are even small animations of your characters as they move forward to attack. The scenery changes along the top of the screen to properly represent where you are, whether that is a forest, swamp, or even the ocean! These small details help to enhance the experience throughout the entire game and make this title the best looking JRPG on the market for the NES, but the lack of combat animations from the enemies means that action games like Mega Man 2 are still better looking overall.
One area that truly stands out with Final Fantasy is its soundtrack and it’s simply spectacular. When a game like this takes so long to play through, the quality of the music really stands out and thankfully Square has done a magnificent job. From the upbeat overworld music to the kicking combat tune to the adventurous sailing song – all of it fits perfectly with the visuals on the screen. Even with the variety of pieces you’ll hear throughout, you’ll still be listening to many of the tracks over and over again. Thankfully they’re all great and not once did I think about muting the game.
While not a cakewalk by any means, I did find Final Fantasy a little less of a challenge than Dragon Warrior, but I think that’s mainly because I’m now more familiar with how JRPGs play. Don’t get me wrong, you’re still going to come up against formidable bosses that will undoubtedly wipe out your entire party the first time you encounter them. Perhaps I just enjoyed the combat more here so in many cases I had leveled up enough beforehand to the point where I was prepared for the more difficult fights.
A key lesson I learned early on is to try to avoid running from battles if possible so that you always earn your experience and gold. These are essential to growing your team of warriors and you’ll need to constantly be upgrading their weapons, armor, and magic. This may result in wandering the overworld in search of enemies to battle – which some may find boring and repetitive. I didn’t find it excessive, but that’s because I welcomed the battles (for the most part) and so I was constantly growing stronger.
If you take a different approach and try to avoid enemies and don’t take the time to properly level up you’ll hit some major roadblocks and then be forced to sit in one spot, which is never a fun thing in any game. Your best bet is to sort of hang around a town and battle enemies until you get low on health, then jet back and rest, and start over again and keep doing that until you feel strong enough to tackle the more difficult enemies.
I had an absolute blast with Final Fantasy and it’s now my favorite JRPG. I’ve dabbled with a few on the Genesis, including Phantasy Star II, but those just didn’t grab me the same way this one did. With a fun combat system, a huge world to explore, an adventure story that seems to keep on going and going, and excellent graphics and music, there’s not really much here that I don’t like. I can see a potential problem for families with multiple kids wanting to play this game because it only includes one save file, but perhaps that can be overcome by working together as a team, taking turns on who gets to play. Whether or not this is truly the final one to release in the U.S. will no doubt depend upon how many of you support this new type of game. If you’re itching for a long adventure to play through this summer, look no further than Final Fantasy!
Final Fantasy Review
- Graphics - 9.5/109.5/10
- Sound - 10/1010/10
- Gameplay - 9.5/109.5/10
- Lasting Appeal - 10/1010/10
Final Thoughts: OUTSTANDING
Final Fantasy is by far the best Japanese role-playing game to ever release in the west. It’s got it all: beautiful graphics, amazing soundtrack, fun and innovative combat system, and an adventure that is sure to keep you busy for months. Lovers of strategic adventure games and older players should especially consider this one a must-have.