A Final Fantasy Retrospective – Final Fantasy III (Famicom)

SINCE Final Fantasy III never received an English localisation in its original form, I’m relying on A.W. Jackson, Neil Corlett and SoM2Freak’s comprehensive fan translation to bring you this article. I haven’t played the DS remake so I can’t comment on it. On a personal but important note: Unlike the rest of this series, Final Fantasy III is the only game I’ve not played prior to writing about it. Eek.

The bold experiment of Final Fantasy II sold well enough but disappointed legions of young Japanese families who balked at the idea of clubbing themselves in the face to get better at things. Akitoshi Kawazu, maverick renegade auteur, was shipped off to the Final Fantasy Legend spin-off, which would eventually morph into his signature SaGa series. Hironobu Sakaguchi scratched his chin, scrambled his brains and said, out loud, “Let’s just do the first one again. Except, like, 15 times better.”

So Sakaguchi went back to basics. Almost every innovation brought in by FFII was scrapped, meaning the narrative emphasis, keyword system and activity-based stat progression were nowhere to be seen in the follow-up. Final Fantasy III was designed as a clear return to the formula of the original game, both as a way to even the keel of a teetering ship and as a send-off to the NES/Famicom in a year – 1990 – when the Super Famicom/SNES hit Japanese shores.

You’ve seen this before: Four random schmucks, who you name, are christened as the Light Warriors and battle primordial forces of nature in order to restore the balance of the world, and its Crystals, while periodically righting the wrongs of city-states and dungeon crawls. It culminates in a final battle against an amalgamation of the world’s evil who appears out of nowhere to spout aphorisms about the Void before you stab, punch and/or blast its face off.

While the premise and aesthetics are undoubtedly familiar, the rest of the game is not. Outside of another new world to explore, the battle system is much faster and smoother, with new, helpful icons to indicate who’s targeting what at any given moment, now with adorable numbers popping up above the enemy’s head to indicate how much damage is being dealt instead of a text prompt at the bottom of the screen.

Cities, towns and dungeons are strikingly more detailed, with dozens of secret passages and hidey-holes concealing great treasure. NPCs allude quite heavily to half of these but the rest go unmentioned, which handily incentivises active exploration and encourages you to examine candles or try walking through walls like you’re using a Gameshark.

Back attacks make their debut, swapping everyone’s Rows so your fighters are neutered and your mages are meat shields, adding another (terrifying) layer of unpredictability to battles. Spell charges replace MP, sadly, but the number of charges is much more generous this time, meaning you’re not sweating quite as much six floors deep into a dungeon you can’t save the game in. You can use items from the goddamn menu in battle without having to manually equip them, which is a bloody godsend.

Items also, mercifully, stack, meaning you don’t have to endlessly faff with inventory management (as much). Auto-targeting is finally a thing, three games in! (Except for Magic.) Nobuo Uematsu’s soundtrack is predictably rockin’, with some delicious percussion buffing the chip-tune melange conjured out of the creaking Famicom hardware, while Yoshitaka Amano’s character and monster design is more detailed and fully realised than ever before.

But the most crucial change of all – one that fundamentally altered both Final Fantasy and the console RPG landscape as a whole – was the implementation of the Job System. Dragon Quest III had a rudimentary iteration of this system, but where that system was characterised by its rigidity, Final Fantasy III‘s version is characterised by its fluidity. Once you’ve obtained a selection of Jobs (effectively Classes), they are completely interchangeable through the menu. The only penalty for switching Jobs is the depletion of Capacity Points, the amount of which differs by Job, which are distributed after each battle along with the standard Gil and Experience Points.

Jobs also “level up” to a maximum of 99, mirroring the weapon/spell proficiency of FFII but incorporated with approximately 67 times more grace and 23 times less grinding, and character stats also scale to both the Job and the Job’s level. The capacity to mess around with the system and discover its deeper mechanics and game-breaking potential is tantalising, but it’s surprising just how balanced FFIII actually is. Each Job has its advantages and disadvantages, statistically or otherwise, encouraging the player to experiment in order to find ideal party formations.

A lot of this balance comes down to the inherent, specialist abilities for certain Jobs. Thieves, predictably, now have a special command for Steal, and can also open locked doors in the overworld which otherwise require a specific item. Dragoons have Jump, a command that launches your character into the sky to plummet into the enemy at Mach 5 on the next turn, inflicting a great deal more damage than normal; this also has the benefit of effectively removing the Dragoon from the field for that turn, and it’s a good way of both avoiding and inflicting heavy hits.

The Evoker and Summoner Jobs, meanwhile, have the ability to Summon primordial elemental beasts like Shiva, Ifrit and, er, Chocobo (and other series veterans like Bahamut and Leviathan), introducing the staple of Summon monsters to the series. Equipment and magic is locked to specific Jobs, meaning you can’t break the game over your knee with Crystal Armour for your White Mage or Summon magic for your Viking. Final Fantasy III caters to player experimentation without crippling the difficulty of the game itself, adhering to a steadily mounting level of challenge that rigorously tests the player but is rarely unfair.

Even when it seems unfair, there are usually Job-based solutions providing workarounds, like the aforementioned Garuda boss fight being hugely mitigated by the Dragoon’s Jump. The game heavily hints toward this by dotting Dragoon equipment around the town, and having NPCs loudly espouse Garuda’s fear of Dragoons, but the battle itself appears out of nowhere and is very likely to wipe out the unprepared player. The game rarely resorts to these arcade-y difficulty spikes, however, and a little grinding or Job dabbling will usually provide the answer if all else fails.

The entire Job system is an easy-to-understand, difficult-to-master joy that provides so many options for customisation and combat, presenting a perfect blend between the rigid Classes of the original game and the free-wheeling tinkering of the second. It’s charming, put simply, and charm is abundant throughout. Each town, NPC and dungeon possesses a distinct personality and atmosphere, and you find yourself looking forward to every new location that lies around the corner.

My personal favourite segment is helping out the random group of weird old men who are – maybe? – convinced they are the true Light Warriors. It’s a bizarre, humorous scenario that underlines the episodic structure of FFIII‘s narrative. There’s much more focus placed on the player helping out individual towns and characters with their problems – usually resolved by murdering the shit out of a demon – over the Crystal restoration shtick. It’s nothing spectacular, obviously, but it’s satisfying nonetheless.

If nothing else, it’s a testament to Sakaguchi’s design ethos and his willingness to let the player uncover these moments on their own with minimal hand-holding. FFIII also gets creative with its overworld mechanics, such as the use of the “Mini” spell to access tiny crevices and dungeons. It’s a wonderfully clever addition that, since Mini status reduces Attack and Defence right down to 1, incentivises using the Black Mage due to the unaffected Magic stats, or the Thief to Escape from battles with minimal fuss.

Later, flying off the edge of the game’s ostensible world map reveals a much vaster expanse of water. It turns out that the initial overworld is actually a Floating Continent, and the world below has been completely flooded. It’s a surprisingly haunting moment for a 1990 Famicom game, as you roam the seas searching for specks of land poking out of the waves, with a particularly mournful Uematsu composition over the top.

But it’s not all fun and wonder and 8-bit rainbows. Though FFIII is undoubtedly the biggest, most polished and best-designed of the three 8-bit games, there are still some aggravating design choices lurking in the finer details. Choosing to Run from a battle inexplicably reduces the entire party’s Defence to zero, meaning that a failed attempt to flee can absolutely shank you if you’re not careful. Given the heightened difficulty of the game, it makes sense that Sakaguchi and co. would want to punish players choosing to ignore precious experience, but their solution is far too severe and can, in some cases, completely wipe the party out; a particularly aggravating outcome for a player who just wants to skip the odd battle and get on with things.

The encounter rate is far more lenient and sensible this time and dungeons are much better designed. The designers nixed the expansive, open-ended, deathbox-laden layouts of FFII for more linear hallways with branching and/or hidden paths leading to treasure, but none of that matters at the endgame. Eureka and the Tower of Sylx are gruelling, seven-floor dungeons that at least have the good grace to provide the player with the best weapons and Jobs in the game.

These are indispensable for The Dark World: a fiendishly difficult final hurdle that bombards the player with tough encounters alongside five(!) imposing bosses. Four of them hit like absolute trucks, and the final boss spams FlareWave after FlareWave turn after turn, until you beat her or you die.

There are no recovery springs. There are no save points. If you enter The Dark World and you are under-levelled or unprepared, you will die. Presuming you’re not abusing save states like I eventually did, you will be forced to re-load the game with hours of progress squandered. The final dungeons of the first two games were gauntlets too but never to this absurd extent. If you’re not affected by the thought of losing upwards of two hours’ progress every time you try to beat the final stretch, congratulations. I am.

Sadly, these last two hours (or 14, depending) go a long way toward souring the taste of Final Fantasy III. The game is overflowing with fun and charm in almost every other department, cramming two world maps, three Airships, 23 Jobs, numerous side-quests, Chocobos (in more than one forest!), Moogles (making their debut sans “kupo”) and an innovative, well-balanced Job system into a then-enormous 512KB cartridge. Even with the shocking design of the final stretch, it’s easily the best of the 8-bit trilogy and slots into the series chronology nice and snugly.

In any case, it’s three down, 15 to go. Join me next time as Square launches its flagship series into the 16-bit era with Super Nintendo pomp and circumstance: Final Fantasy IV.

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