Retro Review: Final Fantasy (NES)

That the original Final Fantasy still holds up at all today is indicative of why the series has endured for so long. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea these days, but Final Fantasy was an example of excellent design back when it was new. It had a slightly different take on the RPG genre than Dragon Quest and introduced a slew of interesting new systems (albeit with an enemy roster ripped directly from the D&D Monster Manual) that still hold up.

Unlike later games in the series, Final Fantasy doesn’t focus much on its story. It begins as a pretty vague “save the world” plot but degenerates into incomprehensible time travel gibberish by the end. Final Fantasy is a surprisingly non-linear game, especially in the second half, and you’ll have to look for clues and hints to determine where you’ll need to go as the game progresses. The game lacks any really obtuse puzzles, or anything a bit of exploration won’t sort out.

While the traditional job system wouldn’t appear until the third entry in the series, Final Fantasy allows you to choose four characters from among six classes. Since you can use the same class multiple times, there are technically over 1,000 possible party combinations. Practically speaking, the game is nearly impossible without a Fighter, and a White Mage is another must-have. Even given those restrictions, there are 36 combinations, all of which are perfectly viable (and the game can be completed with almost any combination if you’re patient). One of the best parts of the game is the optional sidequest that lets you upgrade your characters to advanced versions of their classes, complete with a new sprite and new abilities. Even the generally inferior Thief becomes a valuable party member when upgraded to a Ninja.

The main quest is memorable, if only for the challenge. Each dungeon has its own unique feel and requires special preparation and a different play style. The spell slot system taken from D&D plays heavily into this. In particular, the fact that your White Mage’s undead-killing spells share slots with healing spells will change your strategy in certain cases. You’ll often find huge treasure troves in out of the way areas, suggesting that you delve dungeons over multiple trips. The game doesn’t play like a modern RPG where you can clear out every new dungeon on the first shot. In fact, the game expects you to gain levels making these multiple attempts to clear out a dungeon.

Not every dungeon is great, though. The Marsh Cave and the Ice Cave in particular can be extremely frustrating. While the Marsh Cave simply requires more resources than you’re likely to have, the Ice Cave is filled with encounters that are just blatantly not fair. Challenge is one thing, but certain enemies like “Sorcerers” (Mindflayers) are more likely to make you quit the game in frustration than offer an enjoyable encounter.

Cheap enemies aside, this is not a game for the faint of heart. There is no tutorial period, and even the first dungeon can easily kill you if you’re not careful. The game has a brutally limited inventory system that requires you to make tough choices with gear, especially late in the game. The spell slot system makes spells too precious to waste in the early going, which can easily lead to every battle being a knock-down, drag-out affair. And the game does a terrible job telling you what items and spells actually do, effectively requiring you to check a guide (I suggest this one!) to get the most out of what’s available.

No discussion of Final Fantasy would be complete without mentioning the bugs. There are quite a few, though most can be worked around. The game was meant to have a number of good party buff spells, but almost none of these work. (Though the exception, FAST, is one of the best spells in the game.) Given that the game makes you choose 3 of 4 available spells per level, it’s easy to work around these broken spells if you’re aware of them. Exploiting elemental weaknesses is a big part of the game, but the elemental properties of weapons do not work, either. Fortunately, while the other bugs are numerous, most won’t substantially effect your quest.

It takes some investment to fully understand Final Fantasy, but once you do, the game is mostly very well-balanced. You can, of course, simply grind your way past anything if all else fails, but it isn’t required. As a result, Final Fantasy has something to offer anyone from the novice JRPG player to the seasoned veteran. It can be rough to visit this game for the first time in the modern gaming era, but there’s a reason it established a long and well-renowned series.

Review Score: B