Yes, Dragon Quest. A Japanese Role-Playing Game (JRPG) franchise even more ancient than our actual topic of discussion, Dragon Quest became a socio-cultural phenomenon in Japan, so much so that an urban legend persists that the Japanese government passed a law, following the release of the third game, decreeing that no Dragon Quest instalment could be released on a weekday due to the unprecedented numbers of students and employees skipping school and work to play the thing.
The original entry is credited with giving birth to JRPGs as we know them today, with its turn-based combat and patient, strategic battles standing in stark contrast to the side-scrolling shooters and Super Mario platformers of the day. (This was all very ground-breaking for the unwashed console masses, but both West and East had seen these concepts and more through the Wizardry and Ultima games on PC. Insert “PC Gaming Master Race” here.) The combination of innovative, albeit simplified, mechanics and release on a console that had cornered the mass market made Dragon Quest an instant smash-hit in Japan upon its 1986 release, and a respectable success in North America in 1988.
Watching all this from afar was a man named Hironobu Sakaguchi, a high-end director at Square, Co.
Sakaguchi’s quadrilateral company had made a reputation for itself by releasing pale imitations of more successful games, like Outrun rip-off Rad Racer or the Space Harrier-riffing 3D WorldRunner. Though these two alone had each sold around 500,000 copies, Square’s financials were in dire straits. Sakaguchi, a university drop-out facing mounting pressure from within the company, saw Dragon Quest’s success as his last chance to make an RPG that he had been pitching for some time.
Originally calling it Fighting Fantasy, Sakaguchi amended the moniker due to trademark conflicts with the choose-your-own adventure book series. Assembling a small team of disgruntled developers, he knew that, if this failed, he would return to university and quit the industry altogether. It would be – to coin the longest-running bout of gallows humour in the gaming world – his Final Fantasy.
It’s a humbling thought to consider what might have transpired had Final Fantasy not been the hit that it was. It’s entirely possible, if hard to believe, that the JRPG would never have evolved beyond the Dragon Quest mould, remaining a niche property within Japan like the dating sim or the visual novel. By taking what Enix had innovated and improving upon it in almost every way, Sakaguchi and his team had stumbled on a formula that would ensure Square’s dominance over the console RPG field for decades to come.
But it wasn’t a perfect start. Final Fantasy has certainly aged better than most of its contemporaries but the cracks shine through. From a modern perspective the game is slow and often tedious, centred primarily on wandering from one sparse town to another and fighting numerous random battles along the way with vague hints of a connecting plot thread dangling over the player’s head. Without relentless grinding for experience points it’s also rather difficult, regularly resulting in Game Overs for the unprepared.
Its inventory system is limited to four weapon and armour slots per character, resulting in needlessly elaborate menu rummaging. The world map, while far clearer than the original Legend of Zelda’s, is still a nightmare to discern in relation to oneself and one’s destination, and the large number of RNG based encounters regularly lead to drawn-out battles even if you’re significantly stronger than your foes.
It’s not even entirely recognisable as a Final Fantasy game to begin with. There are no lengthy cinematic interludes or CGI-laden partitions between gameplay and narrative. There are no dolled-up anime pretty-boys wielding enormous swords with crippling psychological traumas and possible Oedipal hang-ups. There are no five-minute long Summon spell sequences for fanboys to drool over. There are no Moogles, no Chocobos. There is no Cid. For the most part, there are no recurring enemy types. No one talks for longer than what a single text box can convey. There’s no patented battle system. There’s no poorly-implemented world building through buzzwords and repetition. Almost everything that has come to be synonymous with the Final Fantasy brand is entirely absent in its very first game.
Even more striking is how it begins. Upon selecting New Game with a choice of four heroes and six distinct classes – Fighter, Thief, Black Belt, Black Mage, White Mage, Red Mage; a veritable menagerie by NES standards – the player finds themselves smack dab in the middle of the world map with 500G (not Gil) to their name. They have no equipment; no spells; no armour or weapons. There’s a town directly to the north named Coneria. The only choice available is to roam into Coneria, scoop up as much equipment as you can afford and scour the townsfolk for the lowdown.
Instantly, the game encourages active exploration, imploring you to seek out information within the world itself, going further to immerse the player in their environment than any seven hour CGI cutscene bombardment ever could. It’s left up to the player to discover the world for themselves, and it’s a welcome departure from the patronising, marker-filled banality of modern game design.
It also helps that these opening moments are scored by Nobuo Uematsu. The man is peerless within the industry for his scores, and the original Final Fantasy – his 16th video-game soundtrack – is no different, with several themes that have achieved breakout fame. Among them are the beautiful arpeggios of ‘Prelude’, the triumphant ‘Victory Fanfare’ and the stirring ‘Opening Theme’, all of which have re-appeared in almost every subsequent instalment in some form or another.
Equally important to establishing the game’s tone was the artwork of Yoshitaka Amano. An artist whose illustrations exploded with splashed watercolour and surrealist architecture, Amano was as integral to the presentation of Final Fantasy as Akira Toriyama was to Dragon Quest. Even compressed to 8-bit sprites, Amano’s monster designs are lovingly rendered and realised, bursting with such character that you almost don’t realise it’s the seventh time you’ve fought a party of four Wolves, two Imps and one Ogre in the span of 15 minutes.
Let’s make no bones about it: Final Fantasy expects you to grind out experience. It’s the only reliable method of making it through the game unscathed because you can – and will – be blindsided by groups of strong enemies that spam powerful spells at your unsuspecting face. For a while the catchy music made the grind feel surprisingly satisfying, but I found myself sagging around five hours in. Once the player gets a handle on how fundamentally broken some of the mechanics are, it’s a matter of time before frustration follows.
For a start, the battles seem random, and I don’t mean that in the sense of random encounters. The amount of damage dealt by the party and enemies alike essentially boils down to a dice roll. That group of Imps you massacred five minutes ago? The same formation could easily give you trouble if the stars don’t align. Watching a Fighter walk forward, mash his hammer and completely miss, three turns out of three, is incredibly frustrating to watch and especially so in quick succession, all while you’re slowly taking cheap hits as the battle drags on.
But these are luck-based grievances. A more egregious botch is the lack of auto-targeting upon an enemy’s death. Say, for example, you kill an Iguana with your Black Mage. If you had already targeted that same Iguana with your Fighter, that Fighter would rock up, swing his weapon and attack thin air, resulting in an “Ineffective” prompt, as if the game is revelling in your stupidity for assuming automatically damaging a different enemy was an expectation within reason.
This would be corrected for later versions of the game, but it is simply mind-boggling how such an obvious feature could have been overlooked in the development process. Arguably this provides some extra strategic depth by predicting what attacks will kill an enemy, requiring the player to forward-plan accordingly, but the aforementioned luck element doesn’t even guarantee a hit, let alone the killing blow. Regardless of strategy, you’re ultimately a slave to the random numbers game.
And then there’s the fact that certain spells simply do not work as intended. TMPR, SABR, LOCK and XFER are all rendered useless by bugs, while LOK2, intended to decrease enemy evasion by 20, actually increases it by 20. Specialist equipment like the elemental swords similarly fail to work as intended. The Intelligence stat, ostensibly dictating the strength of Magic, is literally broken, meaning a Red Mage’s CURE has the exact same potency as the White Mage’s. Critical Hit rates are also borked, resulting in a party that deals considerably less damage than it should in the opening hours and considerably more than it should in the end-game. The Thief, whose defining trait is a higher success rate for fleeing, is crippled because the fleeing mechanic is fundamentally bugged anyway.
And did I mention the Stun-lock-to-death potential of Ghouls and Geists? They can fuck off forever.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. The game has a colourful cast of memorable characters, ranging from the blind witch Matoya and her backward-talking brooms to the mermaid-cum-human lady who proudly proclaims, “I love having legs!” The world, at least for a NES game, is vibrant and varied, with several distinct races and bizarre locales. The dungeons are gruelling endurance tests designed to capitalise on the player’s sense of exhaustion and understanding of their resources, sending wave after wave of powerful enemies at them, forcing the player to think harder about their battle strategies and magic allowance.
Magic in the original Final Fantasy, it should be noted, doesn’t operate on the industry standard MP system. Instead, each spell level from 1-9 can accommodate a maximum of three spells, all of which are bound to a set number of ‘charges’. This results in a far greater depth of thought when dungeon-crawling because, inevitably, you want to save those spells for the boss that lies in wait at dungeon’s end, despite the gauntlet of regular enemies on the way. There’s no way to replenish your stock inside the dungeon itself. You have to rest at an Inn in a town five miles away on the world map, which also happen to be the only places you can save the game. Yikes.
It’s this kind of depth with which Final Fantasy excels. Beating said bosses at the end of the dungeon isn’t the challenge; in fact, they’re usually total pushovers. The challenge in Final Fantasy actually comes from managing your resources, namely items and spells, effectively. This means knowing when to hold back on your CUREs and HEALs and LIT3s; knowing exactly when to run and when to fight. The sense of gratification upon clearing a dungeon is overwhelming – until you realise, in some cases, that you have to walk all the way back out. Even if you make it out alive, there’s always the possibility of being ambushed by those fucking Ghouls and losing all that progress. It happens. It’s the worst.
Harsh as this might seem, it can only really happen to the unprepared. For the most part, how well a player fares in battle is inextricably linked to their understanding of the stakes involved. The game is primitive, undeniably, but it’s also refreshingly simplistic and immersive compared to the melodramatic, caterwauling nonsense pizzazz of modern JRPGS determined to overload the players’ senses while distracting them from the fundamental shallowness of the core mechanics.
And while the plot might seem banal by today’s standards, it was nigh revolutionary for 1987, a year in which most videogame stories revolved exclusively around saving the princess in some capacity. Final Fantasy opens with a royal rescue, sure, but that’s just the prologue before the title screen scrolls into view as the ‘Final Fantasy Theme’ blares its bloopy fanfare, informing the player that the plot’s only just getting started where most games simply ended.
It’s nothing complicated from there, but the fact that the game incorporates an an entirely optional (but highly recommended) Class Change side-quest from series staple Bahamut the Dragon King, dozens of memorable NPCs and a cosmic puppet-master final boss to fight when the party time travels 2000 years into the past to save the universe as we know it is already far more ambitious than any other console peer. It’s also batshit insane, and the conclusion makes less sense than an average Doctor Who episode, but at least they tried, damn it.
Final Fantasy is less about the story and its characters than it is about the player’s interaction with the game-world itself. It drew its audience into an environment that was grander in scope than any 8-bit game had any right to be. In striving to create his Final Fantasy, Sakaguchi had also – to add an additional layer to that original dark joke – made the fantasy game to end all fantasy games. If he was going out, he was going out with a bang.
Of course, that’s not how history reads. Final Fantasy was a roaring success in both Japan, in 1987, and North America in 1990, indefinitely postponing Sakaguchi’s study plans. While it may seem unpolished and tedious from the distance of 30 years, it’s important to bear contemporary standards in mind. By today’s standards it’s a fun, enjoyable enough romp that shows its age in many places. For all its faults, technical or otherwise, it’s absolutely worth checking out for any budding videogame historian eager to discover the roots of a hallowed series.
Just get the Dawn of Souls re-release for Game Boy Advance, if you can. The NES design flaws are largely absent, the updated graphics are just adorable and there are a few extra little tidbits that retroactively slot it neatly into the series’ established quirks.
For me though, it’s one down, 17 to go. Join me next time when I look at the insane, boundary-pushing experiment of the difficult second album: Final Fantasy II.