Review: Final Fantasy (NES)

In this review, we try to make the orbs shine again in the RPG game Final Fantasy. We find out if this NES game got this massive series off on the right foot.

This game was released in 1990 and would kick off a video game series that lives on to this day. We are quite familiar with this series as we have played the remade sequel, Final Fantasy II and gave it a great score. Since only 3D remakes were made for North American audiences for the third game, we, for now, skipped ahead to Final Fantasy IV (named Final Fantasy II in North America) and found that game to be pretty solid. We played the remade Game Boy Advance version of Final Fantasy V and found that game to also be quite solid. Moving up in the series, we also played Final Fantasy VI (labelled Final Fantasy III in North America) and found it to be, to this date, the best RPG game we’ve ever played. Finally, we played Final Fantasy 7 only to be stunned by how bad it played. As an added bonus, we also played Final Fantasy – Mystic Quest and, despite others saying it was a bad game, were surprised by how great the game ended up being. So, with great interest, we decided to go all the way back to the original beginning of this series to find out how it all started.

You start the game by building a four character party. You can select the characters name (limited characters!) and class. There are six classes to choose from: Fighter, Thief, Black Belt, Red Mage, White Mage, and Black Mage. Each class has their own special abilities. Fighter can equip most weapons and armor found throughout the game and can slice enemies in half with ease. Black Belt, being of the fighter class, can also fight, though has a bit more limited ability to equip weapons and armor. Still, don’t under-estimate his fists of fury. White Mage is more magical in that she can cure allies and even raise them back to life if they fall in battle later on in the game. Black mage is also a magical character, only his spells are much more offensive (though some spells can also aid your characters ability to fight more effectively. Thief, meanwhile, well, we actually opted against using this character, so we don’t know much about his abilities. Surprisingly, there are no traps to disarm in this game, so we never got a chance to see what the thief has to offer. Finally, red mage. This character has been labelled as a jack of all trades in the magic user class and has the ability to use both white and black magic. Each character develops in different fashion and all have their weaknesses (black belt has no magic, white mage isn’t that good with melee weapons, black mage has terrible growth in the max HP department, etc.). So, your decisions on what you choose as a party will impact your gameplay all the way through.

Once you have selected the party you want to play with (we chose the ultra-original fighter, black belt, white mage, black mage party in case you were wondering), you can then proceed to start your adventure.

You start on the world map in front of a city with virtually nothing. All you have is 400g to your name. If you’re like me and have played many other Final Fantasy games in this series, you’ll think that this isn’t that big of a deal. You can go into town, buy a bunch of items, whack a few monsters, and constantly recharge at the inn. Well, this game is a little different in that things are a bit pricier. A stay at the inn, for instance, will cost you 30g. At the beginning, especially considering how much gold monsters drop, your pocket book will be hurting a lot. The main thing at this stage is to grind up a bit so you can, well, survive any adventure beyond a few squares from town. While things are expensive, it isn’t impossible to work things up including your arsenal of weapons, armor, spells, and items.

Another thing you’ll quickly notice if you like using magic is that magic works way different than in future final Fantasy (and many other RPG’s for that matter) games. While you do have hit points, your magic has number of casts per spell level instead of a pool of magic. In total, magic users have 8 levels. As they level up, they’ll obtain more spell points in each level. You’ll begin with spell points for the first two levels, but the first town only offers level 1 spells. Another important point is the fact that it seems that the cap for spell quantity seems to be set to 9 each spell level, so you can’t just get an obscene amount of healing casts without rest. This is much more limited than most games.

Equipment also operates in a rather bizarre fashion. You might be tempted to think that if you see, say, cloth, on one of your characters armor boxes that this means it is automatically equipped. Nope. You have to navigate to the armor section, select “Equip”, move down to the item in question and manually equip it so there is an “E” next to that item. Same goes with the separate weapons menu system. While this is a minor detail at first that can be easily missed, you’ll realize later in the game just how painful this system really is. If you obtain weapons or armor in the dungeons, they don’t go into the item inventory pool like many other RPG games. Instead, they take up a slot in the respective menu sections. Each character has 4 weapon slots and 4 armor slots. That means you can carry up to 16 weapons and 16 pieces of armor. If you find a 17th piece of armor or weapon, the game will say that you can’t carry any more. Not as big of a deal for weapons as you only typically equip, at most, one weapon, but some characters can equip four pieces of armor (i.e. helmet, gauntlets, body armor, and accessory.). So, if all four slots are taken for equipped items, that character can’t even carry one piece of armor if the party finds one. Often, your magic users wind up doubling as armor mules because they can only equip so many pieces of armor.

The item system is only somewhat less painful. You can hold up to a whopping 99 items of the same kind (99 heals, 99 soft, 99 tent, etc.). This is the good part. The bad part is that you can only use 1 item at a time. For instance, if you have 5 heal in your inventory, you have to go into the item menu, select the heal item, then select the character you want to use the item. When done, you’ll be booted back to the item menu where you are forced to select that item again. No big deal, you can sort the items, right? Nope. The items are sorted by what you got first and just adds them as you go along. So, if you obtain special items and run out of heal potions, buying new heal potions will relegate this item to the bottom of the list. While this is no big deal at the beginning of the game, when you are dependent on using over a dozen heal potions later in the game, this gets exceedingly tedious. Just to add one last knock on the item system, all items have to be bought one at a time on top of it all. Ouch for later portions of the game.

If you enter town, you’ll easily see the various kinds of services available to you. The most obvious service is the inn. Here is where you can rest up your characters and allow them to recover all HP, magic points, and even allows you to save the game. The inn is denoted by the sign that says, well, “Inn”.

Another service found in town are the weapons and armor shop. The weapon shop is denoted by the sword and the armor shop is denoted by the shield. They sell pieces of weapon and armor to assist your adventure.

In addition is the magic shops. Magic, in this game, is split into white and black magic. The white magic is denoted by the white crystal icon and the black magic shop is denoted by the black crystal icon. A very important fact in your spell book is the fact that each level has three slots for your magic user. Each level, to my knowledge, usually has four spells available. This means that, unless you have a second spellcaster in your party capable of learning that fourth spell, you have to always ditch using one spell. You also cannot sell or delete the spell from your inventory as it will be stuck with your character for the rest of the game once you’ve learned it. If you attempt to learn a fourth spell on a particular level, you’ll be told that the spell level is full. So, choose wisely which spell you want to learn. An important note is that some spells are even bugged. The only way to know is to find a guide and read up on it ahead of time before you learn a spell that is useless or, even worse, counterproductive.

The final service offered in towns are the healing shrines. These shops are denoted by the heart shape. You go here if one of your fellow party member dies and needs to be resurrected. While there are powerful healing spells that allow you to resurrect fallen party members, no item will get them back from the dead.

A quick rundown of the items available in this game would be heal potions (restore about 30HP), pure (antidote that cures poison status), soft (cures stone status), tent (allows you to rest in the overworld and recover some HP and even allows you to save), cabin (recovers more HP in the overworld and allows you to save), and house (recovers hundreds, though not all, HP, recovers magic points, and allows you to save). There are special key items that you can obtain and some of them need to be used at certain portions of the game via the item inventory. Most, however, are activated automatically if you speak to the correct person.

The story starts off in a very typical way. You visit a castle and find out that a princess has been kidnapped. It is up to you to save the princess who is being held at the castle of fiends. It turns out, Garland is holding her hostage and you must defeat him to save her.

By the time you get to this castle, you’ll likely get random encounter battles. In this screen, you’ll have your characters on one side and enemies (probably imps) on the other side. You can encounter up to 12 enemies at a time in a 4 by 3 grid on the enemy side of the screen.

You have a list of commands on the battle screen. Fight allows you to execute a melee attack on the enemy. Magic opens up your spell book and allows you to cast a spell that is available to that character. Drink allows you to use an inventory item (namely a heal potion or a pure potion). Item opens up a screen that shows all of your armor and weapons. Some weapons will have special abilities like casting a spell when used as an item. Run gets your character to attempt to run from battle. No penalty, but enemies can take swipes at you in your attempt and it’s always possible that your character can fail to flee the fight. Each characters HP are also displayed on the far right hand side of the screen for reference.

The battles are turn-based, but who takes what turn first depends on a number of factors that kind of go beyond me.

If you manage to defeat all of your enemies, then you’ll be rewarded with gold and experience points. The gold is simply added to your total and experience points is added to a total number for each character. If a character falls, then the experience total is recalculated and re-distributed to the surviving party members. All characters seem to have the exact same experience points requirements, so if no one ever falls, all of your character level up at exactly the same time.

After several battles, your character may level up after they surpass a certain experience point threshold. Many things go up during a level up including, most importantly, your maximum HP, number of spell points (though not very well shown while levelling up), and various stats such as strength, intelligence, and luck. What intelligence actually does is unclear, but luck determines how likely you are able to run from battle at least.

When you get to the Castle of Fiends, you’ll find that different enemies will appear in random battles. Generally, they are more powerful as some have the ability to stun you in battle. There are a number of status ailments that you can get. Some automatically go away after battle (like stun or dark) while others stick with you until you heal yourself (such as poison or stone). This is something important to keep in mind for these.

You can encounter numerous treasure chests in a dungeon. Some carry certain amounts of gold while others carry items, weapons, or armor. You may also encounter bats that basically function as NPC characters.

In the Castle of Fiends, you’ll also encounter one type of boss: the boss that can be defeated once. You simply speak to this boss figure to initiate a battle. The other kind of boss found in this game are repeatable boss battles. The way they work is that a certain square automatically initiates a particular battle sequence. Often, these squares guard treasure chests. If you win this fight and step on this square again, you repeat the battle sequence. This goes on for as many times as you like. In some circumstances, you can exploit this for a huge boost to the experience points and gold. One more note about dungeons: there are damage squares that can be found. For every damage square you walk on, you lose a hit point. The upshot is that you can’t encounter enemies on these squares. So, this can be used strategically in some dungeons. Also, you can’t use items that allow you to sleep in dungeons.

After you defeat Garland, the princess will warp you back to the castle and give you a lute. From there, you find out that you are the warriors of light and your quest is to make the four orbs shine once again. This is done by defeating the four fiends that guard them. A bridge will appear on the world map and will allow you to venture forth out into the world to take on your quest.

This is one of those games that have strengths and weaknesses. The strengths are the layouts of towns, dungeons, and, for the first portion of the game, the overworld. They were quite nicely designed. I particularly liked the two layer dungeon layout where you have the regular dungeon and the inside room parts where the roof becomes transparent as you explore inside. The overworld on the later parts of the game gradually become more confusing – especially when it comes to finding certain things such as the airship location or the caravan. Because the overworld gradually becomes more confusing, a guide becomes increasingly important for your success. While a guide isn’t all that needed at first, but the time you are activating the orbs, you’ll be wanting to use it.

The balancing can be a bit touch and go for this game. At the beginning, things are a little over-priced. The enemies are manageable at the beginning. The difficulty does spike when you get to the ice cave (to the point where there are levels that are actually easier when it comes to enemy encounters after it). Towards the end, you’ll find yourself having more gold than you know what to do with (I ended up having over 3 million gold sometime just before the final dungeon, so gold will eventually lose its value because there’s hardly anything left to spend it on).

Another downside is that magic users are actually somewhat disadvantaged. It’s almost to the point where melee fighters have an advantage. This is mainly because the number of casts for a magic user is so limited. To make matters worse, no item (to my knowledge) exists where spell points can be replenished. The only two ways they can be replenished is through the Inn and using a house. I would have liked to have seen a regular item that restores spell points, but I never found it. Your ability to even heal your characters, outside of limited castings, are through heal potions. There’s only 1 heal potion type available. So, you can buy a maximum of 2,970HP in heal potions. While there are heal weapons and armor available, they don’t appear until much later in the game. I found these limitations annoying to the point that some dungeons practically require you to run away from as many fights as possible just for the sake of conserving your magic.

On the plus side, there are large sections of this game that seem to have a reasonable difficulty curve, so you can easily play through these sections without having to pull your hair out over the limitations.

Generally speaking, while there is actually a great game underneath all of these issues, there are plenty of factors holding it back. The bugged spells, the sometimes annoying menu system, the odd quirks in the balancing and game behavior (sometimes can work to your advantage, but more often works against you). I would have liked to see more useable items such as more powerful healing potions and items that can resurrect a character for instance.

Graphically, this game wasn’t bad. There are games out there by this time that had better graphics, but it was nice to see basic character animations in the battle sequence. I also liked seeing the sprite upgrade when you get promoted.

The audio had its strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, the variety of music found in dungeons was fantastic. On the other hand, the music found in battle music and the overworld can be quite repetitive. To put this into perspective, there is one fight song for every battle sequence. It doesn’t matter if you are later in the game or just starting, fighting a normal enemy or fighting the final boss. you will hear the exact same battle theme that will gradually get a bit annoying by the end of the game. The sound effects were decent, though.

Overall, this is a game that is great, but has many factors holding it back. The menu system, the bugs, the odd balancing at times, limited spellcasting abilities, limited inventory items, weapon and armor system, and expensive fees at the inn at the beginning all contributed to holding this game back. Still, there are things to enjoy with this game. There are plenty of vehicles you can use (such as a canoe, ship, and even an air ship), the dungeon layouts and system was nicely realized, and it was more than possible to find yourself surviving fights as required grinding seemingly only came in bursts (and there were grinding solutions to be had). The graphics were OK for a game of its time and the audio had its hits and misses. So, this is definitely a game to play if you are a fan of the series and want to see where this series truly began. You’ll definitely experience things that continue to take such a strong presence later on in the series (animated fight scene, victory fanfare, opening sequence, etc.). The game itself, however, was OK, but not a hugely amazing game.

Overall

Furthest point in game: All characters at level 30. Defeated Chaos (beat the game).

General gameplay: 16/25
Replay value: 7/10
Graphics: 6/10
Audio: 3/5

Overall rating: 64%

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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