Review: Final Fantasy Origins (FF1)

April 30, 2003 11:59 PM PST


Final Fantasy Origins (FF1) (PSX/Square)
by tim rogers
04302003

The only video rental shop on Fort Meade, Maryland happened to be run by the US Military. I think the US Military must have had something out for the Super Nintendo, because they didn't start carrying Super Nintendo games until nearly six months after the system's release. So it went that bored-with-Super Mario World, I turned back to my NES and played through the original Final Fantasy some five hundred times before I was able to rent Final Fantasy II.

Outside of holidays during our grandparents' natural lives, average American eleven-year-old kids don't have seventy bucks to drop on a new game, no matter how red and shiny its box is, no matter how stuffed with instruction manual and map we can feel it must be. So it was that the Fort Meade, Maryland Post eXchange sold out of all two copies of Final Fantasy II before I could scrape together more than enough money for the latest issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly.

We were bored back then, me and my friend Carl. If we weren't playing in the woods, we were at my house or his, playing my or his copy of Final Fantasy on my or his NES. Carl, a current "adult" and devoted fan of this very website, took a little longer to get the game than I did. My big brother's friend Brandon (no relation to insert credit's Brandon Sheffield) had received the game as a gift from some relative, played it for a half an hour, and decided it wasn't his "thing." He was thirteen years old, and grown-up enough to obsess exclusively over baseball cards. So it was I that got my copy of Final Fantasy, kept in impeccable shape -- in-box, with instruction manual and map -- for $14. No tax. There is no tax on a US Military installation. Even between children.

When Carl finally got a copy for his birthday, I remember being jealous. His copy was sealed. It still had the plastic hanger on it. Whenever I got a game bought fresh off the shelves of the Fort Meade, Maryland PX, I peeled off the plastic hanger, and used its edge to cut the plastic at the top of the box. I then peeled back the plastic and opened the box and took the game out. This preserved the plastic covering on the box. My brother's friend Brandon had done the same thing to his-turned-my copy of Final Fantasy.

Whether Carl did the same thing or not, I couldn't tell you. I can tell you, though, that his copy of Final Fantasy had a price tag on it: $50. I almost envied his having had a copy bought for him at full price. I couldn't tell you why.

I'm going to make a confession right here: sometimes, I used to put my copy of the game back in its plastic sleeve, and into its box. Then, I'd slide in the instruction manual, and fold up the map, and slide it in, too. Then I'd close the box, and fold over the plastic.

The original Final Fantasy box was an opal color of black. The "Final Fantasy" logo was a deep magenta. All full of its goods, it weighed close to a pound. After I refilled the box, I squeezed it, and it was pleasant. I liked feeling like the game was brand new again.

I usually did the above ritual before starting up a new quest. It was always a big decision to start up a new quest of Final Fantasy. The cartridge only allowed saving of one quest -- starting a new one meant abandoning the old one. The incentives to start over were plenty: for one thing, you'd get to try out a new party selection. For another thing, you'd get to relive the . . . dungeons again. And you'd get to fight all the bosses again!

I spent approximately a year and seven months of my three years at Fort Meade, Maryland playing Final Fantasy. For the first several months of that time, Carl didn't have any "RPG" other than Hydlide, so I took pity on the kid and invited him over. We'd have a fighter named Carl and a red mage named Tim, and sometimes a white mage named Rose. Once, we beat the game with four fighters, and once with four black belts. I don't even want to get into what happened with our four white mage quest.

At any rate, American kids, and neighbors, that we were, we preferred the game's party system to the lone-hero setup of Dragon Warrior, and we enjoyed it best in groups of two during sleepover parties. Sometimes my brother joined in, and we named a character in our quest after him.

When one copy of Final Fantasy II found our resident video shop at last, we rejoiced. We rejoiced even harder when we were finally able to rent it, and rent it we did. For one rainy spring weekend, we played and beat (the hell out of) Final Fantasy II for SNES. When we returned the game, all we had were our copies of Final Fantasy, each one in the middle of a particularly challenging quest.

I remember the day Carl broke it to me. It was a heartrending day. Carl said, "Listen, dude." We were fighting Chaos, the final boss.

"Yeah?"

"Dude, they totally play the same music when you fight Chaos as they do when you're, like, fighting imps or something."

"Dude," I said. "You're right."

I put my copy of Final Fantasy to rest one day in 1992. I saved my quest of level-fifty characters outside the Temple of Fiends, with 99 of each item and 999,999 GP. When I turned the game off, I understood that it was to put it away in its box and never play it again.

One day in winter of 1998, my college-student self found a stack of boxed copies of Final Fantasy at a Kay-Bee toy store in Bloomington, Indiana. They were $4.99 each. I bought two, and have opened neither to this day. They're in a box in the basement of my parents' house in Indianapolis, Indiana. As late as 2001, I'd visit that basement, sometimes to find games to lend to friends, and every time, I picked up one of those unopened copies of Final Fantasy, and squeezed it.

To me, that is Final Fantasy: a stuffed, heavy, shiny, plastic-coated jet-black package in my parents' basement.

Final Fantasy Origins's slick little PSOne jewel case was the first sign that the monsters lined up in groups of nine on either side of Memory Lane weren't just out for a walk.

**

On Friday, April 11th, 2003, my friend Doug and I entered a Funcoland in Indianapolis and put down $30 for a copy of Final Fantasy Origins. The sixteen-year-old kid behind the counter was busy talking to a friend about Splinter Cell, which is totally out for PlayStation2 already:

"Dude, you can so be all, up, like, hanging on the ceiling and shit, and jump down like, bwaaa!"

In the car, Doug handed me the game so he could see about important tasks like starting the ignition. I turned it over, and read Squaresoft's description of their two oldest RPGs. Doug had his Saab lined up and ready to attack 86th Street toward his house, where we would perform a ritual one-sitting beating of the game, when he issued the order:

"Go ahead, dude, open it."

"Right on."

And I opened it. Right there, in the car, I tore the plastic off the CD case. The game was opened without ritual.

Hours of play later (see our feature for the full story), and I was convinced the game had been factory-sealed without ritual as well.

It took us thirteen hours to beat that hellish game, and it amounted to what might have been the thirteen most heart-tearing hours of gaming I've ever endured. At one point, I lamented: "Now I understand why we stopped playing this game when I finally got Final Fantasy II>"

In its 2003 incarnation, Final Fantasy sports graphics identical in quality to those of Final Fantasy IV. The battle system has been streamlined, and battles move quickly and with special effects that impressed us on Final Fantasy II from the pages of Nintendo Power circa 1991. No longer do players have to endure buying potions and other curative items one at a time: like in any other RPG released post-1987, it's now possible to select quantities of items. Like in any RPG released post-1997, there's a computer-animated intro involving an ambiguously girly male warrior and a big red dragon.

On the one hand, many of these changes are welcome -- dearly welcome -- because they fix glaring errors and omissions in the original version. Not being able to buy more than one potion at a time when dungeons blatantly require the use of 99 potions was a glaring oversight, and I'm sure someone at Squaresoft got done execution-style for letting such a thing happen. The clunky battle system was problematic in a way that required solution as well -- in the original edition, if two characters targeted one enemy, and the first character killed the enemy, the second character ended up hitting air. "Ineffective," the game would tell you. The Final Fantasy Origins update -- "Remastering," according to the box -- blesses the player with the courtesy shown RPGers since the original Famicom Final Fantasy II: in the case of an enemy's being defeated before a character's attack phase, attacks default over to the next enemy.

It's nice to have this feature, really. If I'm fighting nine sahagins, and my red mage and fighter are targeting the same one, and the fighter kills it, it's nice that the red mage will automatically target the next one in the line. Years of replaying Final Fantasy IV and VI have taught me to expect such treatment.

On the other hand, I didn't expect that treatment when I originally played Final Fantasy -- and it didn't bother me one bit. In fact, Carl and I must have thought pretty highly of ourselves for devising strategies.

"No, make me attack that one -- I'm stronger than you. Your one is almost dead."

"No, I'm stronger than you."

"According to the Nintendo Power guidebook, this guy only has 40 HP left, and you only get thirty damage a hit -- let me take him. And I've got the Coral Sword! It's effective against water enemies!"

And my mother would come in, and ask if we wanted a Coke. Ahh, Coke.

"What are you kids talking about?"

"It's Final Fantasy."

Instilling confidence in eleven-year-olds is something Final Fantasy did, and I thank it for that.

Inciting self-loathing screams of "I wish I was [sic] dead!" in a twenty-three-year-old is what the Final Fantasy Origins remake does, and it puzzles me.

For one thing, I can turn off the thank-God-they-don't-hate-us-that-much press-the-O-button-and-you-dash feature and the in-battle auto-targeting. I can make my character walk as slowly as he did in the NES original; I can re-clunkify the battle system. If I want to.

For another thing, I don't want to.

Yeah, and I could buy my potions one at a time, if I wanted to. I could break out a fighting stick with a turbo feature, and set a book on one of the big, round buttons, and pretend it was an NES Advantage, and me and Carl were about to use our twenty-minute break to get some "Heal Potion" of our own out of the refrigerator. In the dining room, we'd share a bowl of pretzels and discuss our plan of attack for the next dungeon.

Post-Final Fantasy VII me doesn't have time for that sort of thing anymore. In dungeons during my first playthrough of this remake, my finger was glued to the O button; my red mage (and eventually, red wizard) avatar was running as fast as his pixel feet could carry him; the real me, cowering in a kind-of butterfly chair in Doug's room, yelped every time, every three steps, a random battle flew up before my eyes. As I jammed the X button with gritted teeth, as a group of nine snakes poisoned every member of my party twice, as I ran out of potions halfway through a dungeon again, I started to wonder what had drawn me to the game so many years ago. And we were playing it on the more-generous "easy mode."

The "easy mode" is quite a blessing. Potions are 40 GP -- I mean, "gil" -- as opposed to the 60 of the "original mode." Enemies can't always kill your mages in one hit. Level-ups are more generous: expect a fighter -- I mean, "warrior" -- to gain 30 maximum hit points when he reaches level two . . .

. . . or, well, scratch that. Even in "original mode," he earns this many more HP. Oh, oh, and what's this? The maximum HP is no longer 750! My level 50 Master has 999 HP as I type this. Puzzling.

It makes me think of the day Carl showed me an issue of Nintendo Power, and said, "Dude, look at this -- Cecil in Final Fantasy II starts the game with 200 hit points!"

I looked at the picture, and screamed: "Whoa!"

Today, seeing my "warrior" go from 30HP to 60HP with one level-up just makes me shrug, and say, "Huh."

The bottom line is that, no matter how you slice it, Final Fantasy has not aged well. It hasn't aged well as a Final Fantasy, as an RPG, as a videogame, or as a piece of entertainment. If anything, Squaresoft's attempts to modernize the game and fix its surface flaws only make the deeper, almost-spiritually-cursed flaws glow like tartar when the dentist uses that special light bulb.

For example, the game's fresh, polished translation, in making clean Chaos' taunting pre-final-battle words, absolutely dashes the story's credibility with a sledgehammer. To wit:

"2000 years into the future, you killed me. . . . Now, in 2000 years, I will lose all memory of the past. . . . So I will be born as . . . something else!"

None of this makes any sense whatsoever.

I can still play the original Dragon Warrior even today. A few of the reasons for this are the nature of the game: one guy setting out on a quest to kill a dragon and rescue a princess. I don't have to worry about other party members. I don't have to worry about picking classes. All I have to worry about is playing, and fighting, and building my levels. I can play the game like a kind of performance art. I enjoy it, much as I enjoy playing the original Super Mario Bros. every once in a while. If I want class-selecting Final Fantasy monster-killing action, I'll probably just plug in Final Fantasy V for my Super Famicom, even if the PSX update of the Wonderswan Color port of the Famicom Final Fantasy I might now have better music.

The addition of new music tracks for the bosses is appreciated (and the tunes themselves are quite good, classy, and Final-Fantasy-bassline endowed Nobuo Uematsu compositions), yet this new combination of enthusiastic fanfare and revamped, blowed-up sprites, to me, draws attention to the mindless I hack, he hacks, I hack, he hacks, I heal, he hacks, I hack, he dies affairs the battles were all along. Though the rearranged music throughout the game brings back something of a pleasant nostalgic feeling, something about 32-bit music over 16-bit graphics on an 8-bit game leaves a bad, mixed taste in my mouth.

That I hear this rearranged music during every battle has awakened me to the weakness of the battle system. There's really not much interesting going on. It's turn-based. Spells are bought and usable a number of times determined by the spellcaster's level. You hit enemies, and they die. Certainly nothing deep or exciting enough to be done every three damned steps.

As for the methods by which you can hit enemies, resulting in their death, you have a few options. The main draw to this game -- and what differentiated it from Dragon Quest back in Japan of 1987 -- was the choice of character classes. This is the game's way of injecting "depth" into the formula of walk-fight-hit-kill-gain experience laid out in Dragon Quest. The problem is that this depth lies only in the player's choice of character classes. A more modern RPG (positive example: Final Fantasy X; negative example: Dark Cloud 2) would start the game simple, and gradually introduce nifty little things for you to do/fight/use as you progress. In Final Fantasy, the most difficult and crucial decision is the one you make immediately after pressing start, and you don't ever get the chance to undo it.

Warriors can equip heavy weapons and armor, yet use no magic. Monks can use pretty much no armor or weapons, yet boast ridiculous attack power in their punches -- and boast the single best sound-effect in the game: their punches hit enemies with the sound of an electric knife going through a frozen ham. Black mages can use black magic and die very easily. White mages can use white magic and die very easily. Red mages, in addition to being sexier than your big sister, can use a little bit of black magic, a little bit of white magic, and equip a little bit of heavy armor and weapons. Thieves . . . are good for nothing. Really. Hell, they don't even have a "steal" command.

Thieves can equip light weapons and light armor. They supposedly have high agility, yet, in my most recent quest, I find my warrior and monk getting the first hits in battle. When the thief becomes a ninja, he earns the ability to use three or four magic spells the enemies outgrew half the game ago. Other than that, the ninja boasts nothing extraordinary outside the ability to equip the Sasuke sword (called "katana" in the NES version).

This is wrong-intentioned game design. The ninja class of Final Fantasy V is unique because it endows a character with the ability to throw bladed weapons. In Final Fantasy Tactics, a ninja can equip two swords. In these two cases, the developers were thinking, "Which class would be able to throw bladed weapons?" or "Which class should be able to use two swords at once?" and the answer was clear: "The ninja." Final Fantasy, however, seems to include ninjas only because the developers thought there should be ninjas.

I'm writing this in a Mexican restaurant in southern Indianapolis, Indiana. Doug and I just finished browsing videogames at the closest Funcoland. He bought a copy of Final Fantasy II for SNES for $25. I looked over the spines of all the visibly-Tengen games in the NES rack, hoping for a Rolling Thunder and coming up only with Super Sprint and RBI Baseball. Along the way, I was slightly impressed by how many NES games featured ninjas: Kid Ninja, Ninja Gaiden, Shinobi (also released by Tengen), Ninja Gaiden 2, Little Ninja Brothers, Legend of Kage . . .

Much as I hate to contradict the doctrine of Real Ultimate Power, I have to say it: ninjas for ninjas' sake do not a quality game make.

It's no secret that Final Fantasy get its title from the situation its near-bankrupt developers at Squaresoft found themselves in: this was their last-ditch effort to develop a hit game. The four-member party system was enough of a draw to players who had conquered Dragon Quest and were looking for something more, and sure enough, the game was better than all other shallow Dragon Quest imitators -- like Hydlide and its Saturn sequel Virtual Hydlide (there's a joke in there somewhere) -- so it sold enough to fund a sequel. And another sequel. And a third sequel, which finally showed some serious innovation on the part of the developers.

The truth is, Final Fantasy IV would have never existed without Final Fantasy, and for more than semantic reasons. It was through making useless ninjas that Squaresoft gained the ability to make useful ninjas with charisma. It was through paying dues in fetch quests -- sending our nameless heroes to get a crystal eye for a witch so she can make a potion to wake the elf so he can give us a key to open the door and find the TNT to give to the dwarf to blow open the sea-road west -- that the event planners dreamt up Final Fantasy VI's beloved "Opera House" scene. It was only after putting all twelve of Final Fantasy's twelve wise men in one town that Squaresoft saw the light, and was able to slowly build up suspense in the relationship between Cloud and Sephiroth in Final Fantasy VII. All things have to start somewhere, and the taut, focused, brilliant plot of Final Fantasy X began with the ambiguous muddle of Final Fantasy.

And my infatuation with Final Fantasy began with holding and squeezing that thick and heavy box. The passing of years has left me without the solid, secure feel of a dark and brooding NES box, and holding a thin, white, PlayStation jewel case adorned with art by Yoshitaka Amano of a character who appears in a full-motion-video intro, yet not in the game itself. And a picture of Cecil from Final Fantasy IV fighting a Behemoth in the background.

I've heard it said that old games were able to draw us in as children because of their darkness and mysteriousness. I've remarked myself, many times, that Gradius and Life Force made me nervous less because of their respective challenges and more because of the blackness of their backgrounds. The Legend of Zelda, from the beginning, pushes upon the player this deep feeling of helplessness: Link, unequipped and unprepared to rescue even the least carefully-hidden princess, finds one friendly old man in a cave, and he's willing to offer a sword. Yet, what's this? The old man offering the sword stands in the middle of a field of blackness, roaring fires on each side. That the friendly areas of The Legend of Zelda are so dark and mysterious drew me in as a child; it continues to draw me in today.

The battles of Final Fantasy on NES were a dance of colored sprites on a black background. Each battle was a mysterious little challenge, regardless of the simplicity (and sometimes boredom or frustration) of the gameplay. Adding 16-bit backgrounds to the battles, as Squaresoft has done in Final Fantasy Origins, sucks the mystery out of them, and bores me into tapping the confirm button in frustration. It makes me wonder: what did I ever see in this game?

It is the cardinal theory of pre-1990 game analysis that sequels are, more often than not, better than their predecessors. As Final Fantasy II is better than Final Fantasy I, and Final Fantasy III is better than Final Fantasy II, so Final Fantasy IV is better than them all. That groups of fans of Japanese RPGs can get into heated arguments about which Final Fantasy is the best between IV, V, and VI says something about the evolution of the series. That all of them would agree every Final Fantasy with a number in its title is better than the original says something about the humility of the series' roots.

As I have said before, Final Fantasy has not aged well. It is slow. The story makes no sense. It is frustrating. Random battles occur every three steps, on the average. The cosmetic changes do little more than expose how little of value really resides beneath the surface. If you're an old-school gamer looking to relive some old memories, you might shake your head at the former self who enjoyed this game as much as you thought you did.

Unless you enjoy cutting yourself with razorblades, newcomers to RPGs looking to discover the roots of this series are encouraged to pick up Final Fantasy Chronicles and Final Fantasy Anthology. Once you've beaten Final Fantasy IV, V, and VI, you might just be "hardcore" enough to enjoy ripping through Final Fantasy. Or, hell, you might as well just play Final Fantasy V again. It's pretty much a replacement for Final Fantasy, anyway -- and a damned good one. I would point to Final Fantasy V as the "root" of the systematic Final Fantasy game any day. I would point to Final Fantasy as . . . "The first game in the series."

The cold truth: for the future of videogames, and the future of videogaming, there are things it's better not to look back on. I'd rate the original Final Fantasy as one of those things, right up there with Soul Edge, Sonic Spinball, and Trip Hawkins. Acquainting yourself with RPGs by starting with Final Fantasy is like my father showing my ex-girlfriend a hideous baby picture he found in a box in the basement when there was a perfectly well-groomed fourth-grader me smiling, and wearing a tie, in a picture frame right on top of the piano in the dining room. Maybe, if she'd seen that other photo first, she wouldn't have tried to kill me right away. Or maybe the baby picture would have horrified her even more if she'd seen it second?

Save a life or two, and try this one with caution, even if you already know what you're getting into. Just writing about the experience has chilled me. I should cleanse myself with some Soul Calibur II.

tim rogers itches to see something explode.


 

Developer
Squaresoft

Publisher
SquareEnix

Release Date
April 9, 2003