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Final Fantasy I – A Truly Timeless RPG

The original Final Fantasy is a testament to the simple brilliance of good game design. 

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What makes a classic “classic?” What is it that helps a video game like the original Final Fantasy — a simple RPG that should by all accounts be “outdated” — hold up so well 35 years after its Nintendo Entertainment System release? Beyond good game design, it’s the simple idea of making the most of what little you have. As technology advances and dev times only increase, more games are striving to be “bigger,” “better,” and more “complex” by any means necessary. This often means unnecessary skill trees or RPG elements under the illusion of “choice,” quality of life features that downplay a need for critical thought or strategy, filler-esque side quests to pad out game time, and the theme parkification of game design where players are directed across massive worlds like a guided tour instead of a proper journey. In comparison, Final Fantasy I is a simple RPG reflective of the genre’s infancy — and it’s frankly all the better for it. 

The original Final Fantasy is simplicity at its best: form a party, explore the world, kill some bad guys, and charge your crystals. It’s a pure adventure from top to bottom that places an emphasis on your experience above all else. There’s a respectable degree of choice at play. Not so much where you’re bogged down by options or can change how the story plays out, but enough where each playthrough has a distinct personality tied to you personally. The very first decision you make in Final Fantasy fundamentally impacts your playthrough: how do you build your party? You can’t change your party once they’re selected, so you have to make sure who you bring suits your play style and gameplay interests for the whole game. This adds an element of replayability to the experience. Different party compositions greatly shake up the core gameplay, offering specific advantages and disadvantages. 

Final Fantasy 1 Party - image courtesy of retrogamingcrew

Between four party slots and six classes to choose from, there are 126 possible parties to play with. Party composition can also be a way of managing Final Fantasy’s difficulty curve. The classic party (Fighter, Thief, Black Mage, White Mage) feels like the closest thing to an intended playthrough, offering a fair challenge that covers all your bases — a damage dealer, someone who can reliably escape battles, offensive magic, and curative magic. Any party with a Red Mage offers wide magic utility at the expense of being unable to learn the highest-tiered White and Black Magic. Since magic and equipment are expensive, a single Monk can help save money since they use minimal gear. Doubling up on Fighters makes for an easier early-game at the expense of much less combat variety. Playing with only Thieves or only Black Mages is a great way to jerry-rig a hard mode. 

Final Fantasy 1 Battle gif - image courtesy of Super Adventures in Gaming

No matter your party, gameplay is simple to keep track of. The gameplay loop boils down to a balance of three core tenets: battles, conversation, and exploration. Typical of older RPGs, combat is triggered through random encounters on the overworld and inside of dungeons. Battles themselves are turn-based. While you select your party’s actions in one go, there is no distinction between a player or enemy phase — just a single combat phase where everyone on the battlefield takes their turn. 

The battle system is where you start running into notable differences between versions of Final Fantasy I. Target selection is actually fairly important in earlier releases (NES, PSX). If all four party members target the same enemy and the first party member kills them right away, the remaining three party members will all miss. Since enemy parties can be as large as nine, it’s critical not to waste potential actions. Later releases (GBA, PSP, Pixel Remaster) will automatically redirect each party member’s hits to a random enemy instead. Although it may seem minor, the way target selection works has a tangible effect on FF’s in-battle flow.

Final Fantasy Garland fight Nintendo Power - image courtesy of final fantasy wiki

Auto-targeting is a quality of life feature that minimizes a need for strategy on even the most basic level. There’s an element of consequence to how target selection works in Final Fantasy I. Manual targeting demands greater engagement from the player at all times. It can be time-consuming to manually select a different enemy in each battle, but that’s also how the game gets you to connect with combat on a deeper level. Every individual battle carries more weight as a result. You cannot afford to stop thinking when a single ineffective hit is the difference between life and death. 

Not every encounter needs to be a deeply involved process, though. It also just makes sense that a party member would naturally redirect their hits rather than striking empty space once an enemy is dead. It’s a give-and-take. On one hand, the lack of auto-targeting demands that you treat every encounter like it could be your last. On the other hand, not every battle will have the same potential consequences. Are you really getting more out of the gameplay because you always need to manually target each goblin? Both approaches ultimately work depending on your play style. Manual targeting is better if you want an immersive playthrough with minimal grinding, while auto-targeting works better for casual pick up and play sessions. 

Vancian Magic FF1 - image courtesy of romhacking

Magic is also significantly different between versions. The NES release, PlayStation port, and Pixel Remaster all use a Vancian Magic system where each magic tier has a set amount of charges. Rather than casting Cure with MP and being able to restore it with Ethers, a Mage can only cast Cure (and other tier 1 spells) a fixed number of times. Charges can then only be restored by sleeping at Inns or by using a Cottage. The dichotomy between MP and Spell Charges lend battles and dungeon-crawling a very different rhythm depending on the release. 

MP removes the risk of casting magic from the equation. Under the Vancian system, magic is essentially a resource when you can only cast a certain amount of spells before needing to rest. You can and will run out of spells if you aren’t careful. Healing after every battle and using multi-target magic to quickly clear fights is simply not an option when your spells are best saved for bosses or the simply getting back to town in one piece. The GBA and PSP ports in particular suffer from easier difficulty curves directly stemming from the MP system. 

Final Fantasy 1 Shop - image courtesy of Super Adventures in Gaming

In general, resource management is meant to play a large role in Final Fantasy I. Spell Charges place greater emphasis on basic items. Even simple Potions never lose value when they save you a valuable Cure charge. Spell Charges also mean items that can cast spells are actually important. The Healing Staff can cast Heal without the need for a Charge. Simply using the Item in battle is enough. Similarly, the Mage’s Staff and Gauntlets cast Fira and Thundara respectively. Fleeing is likewise more beneficial when resources are limited and running out of magic or items can result in lost progress. With no Phoenix Downs or Ethers in earlier releases, Final Fantasy I challenges you to make the most of what you have and play intelligently. 

The last major difference to note regarding battles is that experience and money earned are determined by version. The GBA port onwards rewards a generous amount of EXP and Gil after battles. This does mean less grinding overall, but also makes it very easy to become overleveled if you enjoy exploring or lose your sense of direction at any point. The trade-off is a much harder final boss (and some bonus dungeons), but difficulty purists are better off sticking with the NES and PSX releases if they want a consistent challenge from start to finish. 

Final Fantasy I Town - image courtesy of Super Adventures in Gaming

Between manual targeting, Vancian Magic, and resource management, Towns in Final Fantasy I are supposed to be safe havens you return to periodically. In fact, the gameplay loop originally demanded that you make regular trips to town in order to save, as saving could only be done at Inns (or by using Tents) prior to the GBA port. Towns offer opportunities to catch your breath, restock on items, revive party members at chapels, and get important direction on where to go/what to do next. There are really only two ways to figure out your next course of action in Final Fantasy. You can either look at your Map (B+Select) and spot where you haven’t gone yet, or speak with NPCs to gain narrative context. Final Fantasy is more than happy to let the inattentive get lost. 

You have to pay attention to what NPCs say, and the natural roadblocks around you while exploring the world. The game doesn’t force-feed you directions. The story doesn’t stop to throw in a cutscene that reminds you to bring Nitro Powder to Mt. Duergar once you find it. It expects that you’re already invested and making note of anything suspicious or worth revisiting later. Final Fantasy expects you to behave like a proper adventurer: write down notes, draw out maps, and get to where you need to on your own merits. In this sense, the game’s pace is almost entirely player-driven. You’re left to your own devices for the most part. 

Final Fantasy 1 Airship - image courtesy of Shmuplations

All towns and dungeons are placed on an overworld that you initially explore on foot before unlocking other methods of transportation. Walking only gets you so far. The boat gives you free-range of the ocean, but can only dock at ports and not every landmass has a dock. Canoes let you paddle through shallow water to reach areas you can’t access on foot or by boat. The Airship grants full access to the overworld, albeit with some landing restrictions: you can only land on grassy plains. This means you still have to traverse late-game continents primarily on foot, keeping overworld exploration intact instead of removing it from the gameplay loop altogether. 

Final Fantasy does a good job at rewarding exploration and your curiosity. With the exception of Lich who must be defeated to get to the Airship, the remaining three Fiends can be fought in any order. The second half embraces the now age-old tradition of RPGs opening up considerably after the halfway point. Non-linearity helps keep each playthrough fresh while offering variety in how to approach progression. Do you go for the easier Crystals in Mt. Gulg and the Sunken Shrine first or challenge yourself by scaling Mirage Tower “early”? The Citadel of Ordeals is an optional dungeon you’ll only be privy to by speaking to NPCs and diligently exploring. Your reward for completing the Citadel is a measly rat tail that can be used to promote your party to their next class. 

Final Fantasy Mirage Tower - image courtesy of Final fantasy wiki

In terms of dungeon design, Final Fantasy sports some classic dungeon crawling: explore, fight monsters, find treasure, and survive to the best of your abilities. The game balances a healthy mix of caverns, castles, and keeps as dungeon set pieces. Mt. Gulg is a volcano overlooking a scenic lakeside town, the Sunken Shrine is an entire temple submerged underwater, and the Flying Fortress is stylized like a full-blown space station in the NES release. Each dungeon feels labyrinthine and abandoned — once significant locations now lost to time and the elements. 

Exploring a dungeon in the NES and PS1 releases is actually quite tense thanks to Vancian Magic and limited resources. It’s sometimes better to flee from fights altogether. Every battle is a matter of risk versus reward when the threat of a game over looms large. Dungeons in the GBA port onwards are more comfortably paced and reminiscent of modern dungeon design: get in, track down treasure/the next key item/the boss, and get out. This isn’t to say dungeons can’t be difficult in later versions, but MP and Phoenix Downs downplay your need to be strategic, disturbed only by your presence. 

Final Fantasy Nintendo Power dungeon - image courtesy of final fantasy wiki

Dungeons boast impressive scale for an NES RPG, though this comes as a double-edged sword. Multiple floors, large spaces, branching paths, the occasional dead end, and a high encounter rate make it easy to get turned around if you’re not paying enough attention. Traps range from appropriately dangerous to too frustrating for their own good. The Marsh Cave features an infamous hallway where every tile triggers a battle against Giants. Mt. Gulg is covered in lava tiles that deal damage every time you walk over one. The Cavern of Ice is littered in pit traps that drop you to lower floors, icicle spikes that damage you when you walked over, and a cruelly positioned staircase that abruptly warps you back to the World Map right before the end of the dungeon. The frustration is part of the fun, though. What’s a dungeon without the real threat of danger? 

Final Fantasy doesn’t share the same narrative scope or importance as its successors, but its story has a charmingly simple quality that makes it easy to appreciate. The beat-for-beat plot more or less plays out like a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. You visit new towns, do good unto others, and get insight into where evil lurks next. The setting itself feels rooted in traditional fantasy staples — elves, dwarves, and dragons — with a dash of sci-fi robots and prophetic time loops that lend the game a distinct personality. 

Even without a dense script or constant cutscenes, Final Fantasy manages to tell a poignantly simple story about the nature of fate and heroism. The Warriors of Light effectively give up their freedom to keep the world intact. It’s not sad or particularly emotional so much as it is thought-provoking. Here’s the party you created — likely with a character based on yourself — locked in an eternal struggle against humanity’s damnation. The story goes beyond “good guys save the day” and makes the player linger on heroism’s sacrifices, that not everyone gets their happy ending. Not even you. But the fact that good will always triumph over evil is itself a happy ending. No matter how much the world suffers, light will eventually cast out the darkness. It’s nothing profound by modern standards, but a universal message all the same that set the tone for Final Fantasy’s bittersweet brand of storytelling. 

Crystals - image courtesy of final fantasy wiki

Final Fantasy is not the most in-depth RPG nor is it without its irritations — the NES release in particular is notoriously bug-riddled — but the gameplay loop offers so much diversity in how to approach a given playthrough where its greatest flaws don’t necessarily take away from the fun. FFI doesn’t have much in the way of side content or narrative, but it has something better: gameplay that emphasizes your agency and trusts you to be an adventurer. In Dungeons & Dragons terms, it’s the difference between the DM telling you what your motivation is and actually letting you roleplay. The campaign’s end result will always be the same, but that layer of freedom makes a world of difference. If your game is compelling enough, waypoints, mini-maps, and overt direction are just distractions. The original Final Fantasy is a testament to the simple brilliance of good game design. 

A man with simultaneously too much spare time on his hands and no time at all, Renan loves nothing more than writing about video games. He's always thinking about what re(n)trospective he's going to write next, looking for new series to celebrate.

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