Likewise, it was a great personal secret that I had never actually beaten the fucking thing. Despite my ongoing love for the series, my ability to complete every last moment of Final Fantasy VIII, my claim to fame that I'd beaten nearly every American FF, there was still a big black spot in my past. I'd never seen the closing moments of the game that started it all. It wasn't until a couple months ago that I finally sat down, popped that old cart back in, and really set into it with that one goal in mind. A lot had changed in the thirteen years since I first played this classic, but once I'd adjusted to the transition from PS2 to NES, in many ways it was like I was back in 1990 all over again.
Truth be told, this is an extremely fun game to play, even today. It's not a pretty thing, nor is it an enjoyable listening experience. It's got several flaws, and they smack you right in the face. A reminder of a time when games couldn't rely entirely on their appearance, the bulk of what makes Final Fantasy worthwhile is the experience itself, not the pictures on the television screen.
It's the premise that launched a million clones; you take control of a party of wanderers, customizing them from the very get-go. Your group can contain any combination of Fighters, Thieves, Black Belts, White, Red or Black Mages. Though it's a much easier path if you mix and match your roster, there are people out there who've managed to complete the entire game with four white mages. You're given the chance to name each one of them, though in true 8-bit fashion, your writing can't go any longer than four letters per warrior. Each different class its own has unique strengths and limitations; a fighter can do the strongest physical damage, but can't cast any magic until far later in the game. Likewise, a black mage excels with offensive magical spells, but doesn't know his way around with a sword. Its a simple system, but remains full of possibilities even today.
Though your characters have no speaking lines, it's easy to become attached to them. If one of them falls in battle, it's like a personal offense. It's as though one of your own children was just murdered before you, and you've been given the chance to exact your revenge on the bastard who's responsible. I've caught myself in such a furious rage over this game, that I've actually sat back and laughed at the words coming out of my own mouth. Not to mislead, however, this isn't fury in a "throwing the controller across the room" sense, in fact it often comes out sounding more like "now I'm even more motivated to kick your ass." You'll become emotionally tied to your party, no matter how much they resemble cardboard cut-outs. You'll root for your fighter to make that pivotal strike, for your white mage to get off that healing spell before the enemy attacks. You'll enjoy a moment of personal triumph and pride, as they finally slay that difficult opponent. It's something I can't put into words, something that I haven't seen replicated exactly ever since. While I love the dramatic turn the series took immediately after this first title, there's still a lot to be said for an understated cast like this one. Your characters develop extremely slowly, but in so doing force you to recognize their strengths and weaknesses early on.
The graphics for this title aren't as polished as the later titles in the NES collection. The bright blue backdrops of the introductory screen, as well as the status screens, are almost painful to stare at. Likewise, each battle takes place on a flat, boring black field. Your only hint as to the location of the fight comes in the form of a small, panoramic illustration that runs along the upper quarter of the screen. The enemy designs are very strong, if easy to forget about due to the sheer amount of times you'll see them. Bosses are large and intimidating, and generally worth fighting, just to catch a glimpse of. This title doesn't feel any closer to Yoshitaka Amano's conceptual art than the Fantasies that followed it, but the resemblance is still there. What we're looking at is very dated, no question, but even within the limitations of the old NES, they could still be better.
While this standard gameplay system may have set the table for hundreds (maybe thousands) of games to follow, there remain dozens of major unresolved problems. This battle system was not completely ironed out by the time it was released, and often steps over the line between challenging and downright annoying. It's extremely easy for an enemy to poison your characters, an issue which becomes a drain on both your hit points AND your pocketbook, as antidote potions are needlessly expensive. In addition, whenever a member of your party is the victim of such a lasting status effect (poisoning and stoning are the most common), they're immediately moved to the bottom of the assault formation, where they're much less likely to take any additional damage. While this may seem like a helpful feature, its actual implementation is a major burden. If the strongest member of your party is poisoned, the weakest member of the party steps forward to fill his shoes at the team's head. In effect, it does the last thing you'd ever want it to do, and if you're not paying attention it's very easy to get caught with your pants down.
One thing that's ALWAYS annoyed me about the Final Fantasy series is its love of the "Paralysis" and "Sleep" status effects. I've never understood how we were expected to believe that half your party could mysteriously fall asleep in the middle of a fight, let alone remain sleeping through severe physical damage. It's something that happens all too often with this first title; you'll be in the middle of a heated fight against an army of undead foes, and suddenly your best fighter is "Paralyzed," after taking a weak little strike from the enemy. How exactly is he paralyzed? They certainly didn't do any damage to his spinal cord or nervous system, because he's up and about immediately after the fight is finished. Is he paralyzed with fear..? I fail to see how he could do battle for several minutes with these monsters, only to succumb to his fears midway into the fight. Nevertheless, these ailments make it an agonizing deed to do battle with several types of enemies, to the point where you'll run from them on sight. I've watched too many times as six weak enemies slowly hacked away my entire party, because each one of them was "paralyzed."
I won't even go into the numerous, unavoidable, "instant death" attacks and spells.
The musical composition employed by this first double-F is one of the all time classics. It's the stuff of legend, hints of which are still used in today's newest releases. Who could forget that opening melody, or the jumpy little tune that announces you've won a fight? The dozens of original songs within this title perfectly fit their surroundings, and couldn't have been any more flawlessly assembled. Unfortunately, the actual performance is beyond abysmal. The screeches and roars of that old sound card have never been so irritating. After a couple hours, you'll mute the television and put in a CD, or at least turn the volume way down. My cats are scared of the television set when I'm playing this game, due to the horrible sound it emits.
The organization of data falls a little bit under suspicion with this title, as well. For instance, when in battle you're given the choice of attacking, using magic, running, "drink"ing a potion or using the "item" subscreen, in which you may change your character's armor and weapon. I'm not sure why you'd ever wait until the heat of a fight to upgrade your weapon of choice, but the option's there if you want it. On the same subject, purchasing and equipping new armor and weapons is virtually impossible without a visual aide of some sort. There exist possibly a half dozen armors in the entire world that may be equipped by a mage, and you're left to guessing which ones they are, as the game itself gives you no visual clue. I'm extremely fortunate to have kept hold of the maps, enemy status sheets and equipment listings from my original purchase of the game, but I'd imagine some folks aren't so lucky. It couldn't have been so much to ask, for Square to implement a failsafe against purchasing equipment for someone who can't use it.
As with any RPG, if you'd like to get anywhere in Final Fantasy, you'll need to talk to some non-playable characters. They're sprawled generously across every town and castle, though most have nothing of value to tell your party. One of my personal favorites was a dwarf, who wisely shouts "HORRAY!!!!" when spoken to. Serving as further evidence to the large helping of morons populating this world, almost every individual roams the overhead map with no specific destination in mind. Amusing as this may be, it quickly grows old as they meander their way directly into your path time and time again, blocking the narrow hallways and caves with their own fat asses. It's like they'll go out of their way to get into yours, and then.... slowwwly.... wander..... away. Even the dungeons suffer from this problem, as bats float their way around the rooms with no particular place to go.
If you've heard the term "random encounters," you pretty much know the big story behind Final Fantasy. Everything in the game is built around a simple formula of "wander countryside, meet random enemy, defeat said enemy, repeat." Each 'chapter' of the game brings with it a whole new tier of difficult enemies to strike down. This is not a game for those unprepared to invest hours upon hours of their life to aimless wandering. If you want to survive, you'll have to do a TON of experience gathering, which basically means you'll run around the map killing stuff. While this becomes extremely tedious in a short amount of time, it also serves an extremely important purpose; you become much more finely tuned to your crew, and learn easier and faster ways to defeat their foes. You'll feel secure in your choice of spells and assault technique against a certain kind of enemy, when the time comes to use it.
I can't imagine the series without this title as a launch point. It established so many of the storyline conventions that were later whittled down to a science. When you unearth the first airship in FF history, it's a genuinely cool moment. Our first glimpses at the infamous "elemental crystals," which have become an underlying thread to almost every version since, came in this title. Here they were clear orbs, rather than crystals, but the theme remains the same. It's a true classic in every meaning of the word.
My only other complaint lies not with the game itself, but with the aging of the old NES hardware. I'm sure every child in America experienced it at one point or another; the horrifying moment when you realize the game has locked up. It's an issue which plagued nearly every Nintendo Entertainment System in the world, and it's an even nastier issue when it strikes in the middle of a long stretch between saves. There's no way Square could've prepared for this issue, aside from perhaps an easier method for saving (you may only record your progress when staying the night in an inn, tent or house), but it remains a terrible flaw that especially effects Final Fantasy. Nearly every battle I've fought has been accompanied by an underlying sense of dread. Will this be the battle that kills my system? Will everything freeze, the music suddenly holding on a single, fading note, just as my thief is about to strike? It's something that adds a whole new element of tension to the process.
Despite my numerous gripes; the horribly dated graphics, the horrific squeal of the music and the endless level-ups, there's something about this game. Something that drives you to keep coming back, to gain that extra level, to see if maybe this time you can take down that boss. It's a trend I've noticed more and more as I've started to play some of the older classics, something that's missing from the majority of today's polished row of hip titles. Though the visuals and the audibles may be nowhere close to what we can get with today's advanced processors, there's an innocence that's rarely matched. There's a reason Chess and Checkers have been played for centuries without modification, and that same reasoning applies here to Final Fantasy I.
Once you've picked this game up, you won't want to put it down until you're through. There's a little switch in the back of your mind, and it flips on when the power light of that old NES warms up. It's like you become physically unable to stop playing it, once you've ventured past that crucial first hour. If you've forgotten just how appealing the Gamecube's great-grandfather truly was, as I had, you're gonna want to take another look at this one.
Overall Score: 9.2