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Final fantasy III feature image - image courtesy of final fantasy wiki Final fantasy III feature image - image courtesy of final fantasy wiki


Final Fantasy III – An 8-Bit Odyssey

Final Fantasy III is an adventure unlike any other, but one worth going back in time to experience. 



Final Fantasy 3 Concept art - image courtesy of Final Fantasy wiki

Final Fantasy III on the Famicom feels like an 8-bit odyssey. It’s longer, deadlier, and far more eventful than its predecessors. It’s more mechanically in-depth and atmospheric. It’s richer in its world’s scope and the level of personalization & customization players are afforded. It’s a journey that takes real time, effort, and dedication to complete.

It’s almost as if Square took every lesson they learned developing Final Fantasy I & II to heart and applied it to create the ultimate adventure. According to game designer Hiromichi Tanaka, “the volume of content in [Final Fantasy III] was so huge that the cartridge was completely full.” Tanaka’s words are as plain as day. Between the new gameplay mechanics, multi-layered overworlds, and wide tool kit that only gets more expansive as you play, Final Fantasy III is grand in almost every respect.

Agency is the name of the game when it comes to 8-bit Final Fantasy and III pays close attention to what came before. Final Fantasy I was designed around the player creating a party of four for themselves across six different classes. How you compose your team has a real effect on the difficulty curve, fundamentally changing how you approach different set pieces. Final Fantasy II gives you three blank slate characters you can build to your liking, every stat, spell, and weapon grindable with its own skill level. Anyone can be anything with enough effort, allowing you to rebuild your team whenever necessary. Meanwhile, Final Fantasy III takes character progression and classes to the next level through the introduction of the Job system. 

Final Fantasy III Jobs - image courtesy of Final Fantasy website

Jobs are III‘s middle ground between I’s classes and II’s character variety. You begin with a party of blank slates yet again, but completing the first dungeon unlocks the first set of Jobs. Any character can switch their Job anytime, so long as you have enough CP: Capacity Points earned by completing battles. The more CP you have, the more often you can shake up your party. Likewise, the more a character uses a specific Job, the less CP is required to switch to it. You’re encouraged to stick to Jobs and be strategic about party composition, amending your team depending on what each dungeon or boss calls for. A total of 22 Jobs offer an impressive amount of gameplay variety. 

The fact party members have to unequip everything they’re wearing to switch Jobs might strike modern players as busywork, but it’s III’s way of keeping resource management an important part of the gameplay loop. You have to actively consider how much space your inventory has, and regularly sell or store away items. Valuable gear and restorative items gain added value, as a result. Players who neglect their inventory might have to throw out equipment to make way for new loot or simply leave treasure behind. Inventory management is just one of FFIII’s many signs that proper preparation goes a long way. 

Final Fantasy III Inventory concept art - image courtesy of Final Fantasy website

When it comes down to it, the Job system is just as much a puzzle-solving tool as it is a means to give players more agency. Different dungeons and bosses will call for different party compositions. A few dungeons like Nepto Temple and the Magic Circle Cave are too small for the party at their regular size. Casting Mini to enter, however, severely nerfs all physical damage. Both dungeons require you to compose a team of spellcasters to get through safely, let alone survive. Hein regularly switches his elemental weakness, something you can only figure out by having a Scholar in your party. Garuda does massive damage that can only be avoided by jumping at the right time as a Dragoon. Geomancers do great damage underwater, Knights automatically protect party members from mortal blows, and Thieves unlock doors without keys. Jobs are designed to be cycled through. 

While each set of Jobs is usually better than the last, Job Levels guarantee that even lower tier Jobs can pull their weight late-game (even if they aren’t ideal). Every Job has its own level independent of a party member’s level. Leveling a job affects damage, how many hits you make in a single attack, magic’s potency, and the proficiency for Job-specific abilities. Job-specific actions reward more XP. For instance, a White Mage isn’t going to gain as much Job XP as a Warrior for attacking. Instead, they need to regularly use magic to level their Job. Job leveling ultimately feels like a less grindy, less demanding version of FFII’s skill leveling. The extra levels help, but they aren’t totally necessary so long as you know how to build your party accordingly and strategize around your limitations. 

Final Fantasy III Onion Knight Concept art - image courtesy of Final Fantasy website

Since Jobs are unlocked in a fixed order, they’re almost always suited for the next region you’ll explore. It’s no coincidence Geomancers are unlocked not long before you dive underwater. The Ninja and Sage Jobs are unlocked inside of the final dungeon, as if it’s the game’s way of telling you to use them. Job sprites also help lend the impression your party is growing. Each set looks older than the last. Onion Knights are children, Warriors look like teens, Knights are slightly older looking, and Vikings & Ninjas are straight up adults. It mirrors the class change from Final Fantasy I where everyone’s sprites look noticeably more mature after the fact. 

Final Fantasy III’s gameplay on a whole is deeper and more tactically inclined than either FFI or II. Vancian Magic returns from I, replacing II’s MP system. Charges are more generous than they were in FFI, but you still have to be considerate with your best spells. Dungeons are long, so you don’t want to waste charges early. At the same time, you don’t want to hold off for too long in case things go south. There’s a balancing act at play. 

Like in II, anyone can learn any spell, but characters can only learn three spells per tier like in I. To prevent players from locking themselves out of useful spells, it’s possible to trade magic between party members or outright unlearn them, placing the spell back in your inventory. Alongside White and Black magic, spellcasters can now Summoning magic. Summons are color-coded in gray and their effects are determined by your Job. Evoker summons are more supportive in nature, making use of buffs, debuffs, and status ailments to give you the advantage in battle. Summoner and Sage summons typically deal massive damage to every enemy on screen, allowing you to rip through random encounters and whittle down bosses. 

Final Fantasy III Summon concept art - image courtesy of Final Fantasy website

Melee attacks now redirect after killing an enemy, but the same luxury does not apply towards magic. This allows you to brute force your way through weaker enemies, while still demanding your attention during tougher encounters. Positioning matters more via the Row mechanic. Party members can be slotted into either the front or back row, with both formations offering different benefits. Characters in front deal more damage and have better physical accuracy, but are more likely to be targeted by enemies. Characters in back deal less damage, but are targeted less often and can cast spells from a safe distance. Ambushes will also occasionally flip everyone’s formation via back attacks, forcing you to either rearrange everyone’s rows or deal with the disadvantage. 

While more difficult than FFI or FFII, Final Fantasy III is more comfortable in some respects. Grinding isn’t really necessary if you prepare accordingly and are willing to change Jobs on the fly. There are a wide variety of weapons and magic to experiment with. New gameplay mechanics help give you an edge during most encounters. The Job system allows you to fully customize your party to handle any situation. Most gameplay challenges are ostensibly puzzles. You can grind and brute force your way through several set pieces, but there are solutions in place designed around what you have at your disposal. 

Final Fantasy III Knight Concept Art - image courtesy of final Fantasy website

Random encounters aren’t as aggressively frequent anymore, the most dangerous enemies are usually only found inside dungeons, and the overworld is segmented in a way where you’ll never accidentally stumble into late-game regions ala II. While a natural concern, III doesn’t suffer for its linearity. If anything, it offers the game more focus and grants III a grander sense of adventure. You may not be able to play the story out of order, but there are a surprising amount of optional dungeons that help pace out the game. You’re free to diverge off the critical path and explore to your heart’s content. The best part is that you’re often rewarded for exploration with new weapons, summons, or equipment. 

Final Fantasy 3 Floating Continent - image courtesy of LP Archive

How you engage with Final Fantasy III’s world is always evolving. Your journey starts on what appears to be any other overworld, only for it to be revealed that you’re on a floating continent sitting above a world submerged under the sea. It feels like you scroll endlessly before bumping into your first patch of land, but it’s not long before you raise the sunken earth so you can explore a larger and more elaborate overworld than the floating continent. As if that isn’t enough, you can even dive underwater to explore the world below. 

Airship progression plays a big role when it comes to navigation. You unlock your first airship relatively quickly and keep on upgrading over the course of the story. There are restrictions for each, though. Cid’s Airship can’t pass over mountains and is essentially landlocked until you progress the story. The Enterprise was built into an airship out of a boat, so it can only land in water. The Nautilus still can’t fly over mountains, but doubles as a submarine and travels at high speed, allowing you to break through wind barriers. Albeit slow, the Invincible can hover over mountains, functions as a home base, and fires a cannon attack at the start of each airborne battle. The Invincible is just as much a party member as it is an Inn, a shop, and an all-purpose storage center. 

Final Fantasy 3 NES Saronia - image courtesy of final fantasy wiki

Towns are bigger, denser, and all-around more interesting in FFIII. They’re always populated with a healthy amount of NPCs ready to offer hints and context about the game’s world & backstory. Secret, invisible chests are often tucked away in parts of town you wouldn’t ordinarily think to visit. Some towns even have mini-dungeons in them that you’ll need to trek through. The settings themselves are memorable and full of personality. Ur has a quaint, homey atmosphere that fits the start of the journey. Saronia is essentially a castle town made up of four large districts, all of which are explorable. Doga’s Village is hidden away in the mountains, can only be accessed through a secret underwater tunnel, and is populated entirely by mages who sell a variety of different spells. 

III’s dungeons are rarely as long as II‘s, but they’re never so short that they feel inconsequential. Branching paths now regularly lead to treasure instead of high encounter rate rooms. Dead ends are often connected to hidden paths telegraphed by cracks in their tiling. There are no damage tiles this time around, but dungeons use other traps and tricks to keep you on your toes. Switches hidden on walls unlock secret passageways when you’re seemingly stuck. Locked doors stop you in your tracks unless you have keys on-hand or a Thief in your party. 

FF3 Echo Herbs - image courtesy of final fantasy wiki

III’s dungeons reward preparation above all else. Since you can only save on the overworld, dying in a dungeon means losing substantial progress. Especially early on, you need to conserve magic and use basic items to heal in-between battles. Status effects and multi-target attacks pose a real threat to the party. There’s nothing worse than watching your party be petrified one by one just because you were too stingy to buy Gold Needles. Or no longer being able to heal for an upcoming boss because your mage is silenced and you don’t have any Echo Herbs. You also have to make sure your inventory has enough space for any treasure you might find. How comfortably you get through III’s dungeon-crawling will come down to your own resourcefulness.

The actual dungeon set pieces are creative and sport strong identities that help them stick out in the mind. Rather than starting on the overworld or in a battle, you’re immediately thrown into the first dungeon. Altar Cave is short, but the fact you’ve been caved in and need to fight & find your way out immediately sets the tone for the rest of your adventure. Nepto Temple is an entire dungeon tucked away inside of a dragon statue, so small you can only enter it by miniaturizing yourself. Instead of exploring Castle Hein like a regular dungeon, you get captured and need to fight your way out of the prison cells up to the throne room. Scholars have turned the Ancient Ruins into an excavation site by the time you get there, effectively building a town within the dungeon. Eureka is a dungeon inside the final dungeon full of valuable treasure, challenging bosses, and a secret shopping area at the very top that sells some of the best magic and items in the game. There’s no shortage of spectacle and variety when it comes to dungeons.

Cloud of Darkness - image courtesy of Final Fantasy wiki

The final set of dungeons are the natural culmination of Final Fantasy III’s design philosophies: a genuine final exam of all of the skills you’ve developed, how well you’ve prepared over the course of the game, just how much you understand the Job system, and your own endurance. Your only respite is a brief strip of overworld between the Ancient’s Labyrinth and the Crystal Tower where you can save for the last time. Altogether, you’re looking at over 20 floors of non-stop dungeon-crawling filled with the hardest enemies and bosses in the game. Go in with the right mindset, a good game plan, and a lot of patience, and it’s actually a fairly engaging experience. Random encounters are tense, the Dark Crystal battles in the Dark World are legitimately high stakes, and making it to the Cloud of Darkness in one piece — let alone defeating her — is one of the rewarding feelings in Final Fantasy. 

All the same, playing through what are essentially three dungeons back-to-back (four including Eureka) where the risk of losing upwards to an hour or more of progress is a very real threat is definitely baffling on a design level. The fact there isn’t a save point after the Crystal Tower at the very least feels like its own punishment. Xande already feels like a final boss, too, so that you still have to defeat the Cloud of Darkness and four Dark Crystal bosses to weaken her is borderline exhausting. It’s all very overwhelming and dense for something that’s expected to be done in one sitting. Final Fantasy III is almost a game you have to earn the right to beat, for better or worse. Some will find great reward in the ordeal, while others will likely call it a day at the base of the Crystal Tower. 

Prince Alus - image courtesy of Final Fantasy wiki

Final Fantasy III’s story isn’t as compelling as its gameplay, but it is charming in its own way. Guests regularly join the party for their own arcs and help direct the plot along. They don’t actually participate in combat, but you can speak with them at any time by pressing B. Some guests even have multiple lines of dialogue that change as you progress through the story. They help make exploration a little less lonely while still leaving you to your own devices. While there is an overarching narrative, guests adopt a Dragon Quest-esque framing where the plot is broken up by several different vignettes. Princess Sara is on a mission to stop a Djinn’s curse that turns people into ghosts. Desch is an amnesiac who needs to rediscover his destiny. Alus is a deposed prince who can’t make sense of his father’s sudden change of heart. It’s only when Doga and Unei enter the picture where the story starts setting up its final act. 

Even then, the narrative’s real strength comes from the world’s fantastical scope. The floating continent and sunken world below are simply inspired ideas for settings. You can quite literally walk along the edge of the world. The fact the game treats the floating continent’s existence as a secret makes the reveal all the more exciting. Just as you think you’ve seen everything the overworld has to offer, you find so much more. Doubly so when you raise the sunken lands back from under the waters. Between all the different dungeons, towns, and worlds you visit, it really does feel like you’re on this grand adventure to save the world.

FF3 Concept art -image courtesy of final fantasy wiki

It helps that Final Fantasy III has an excellent presentation for an 8-bit RPG. The rippling water in the world below lends the impression that the sea stretches endlessly. Towns & dungeons are rich in color and visually distinct enough to not come off samey. Every Job and weapon has a unique sprite, while just about every spell and summon has a unique animation. There are over 200 different monsters with their own models and two-dozen battle backgrounds tailored for the different areas you explore. The soundtrack is nothing short of brilliant.“Eternal Wind” is an uplifting, atmospheric melody you’ll never get tired of hearing. “Battle 1” is a catchy action track that only builds in intensity as the fight drags on. “The Dark Crystals” scores your final stretch of gameplay to a theme that’s as triumphant as it is foreboding. III‘s music and visuals work together to always suit the mood.

All things considered, Final Fantasy III is an amazing send-off to the series’ time on the Famicom. It’s an RPG reflective of its era in just about every sense. Often frustrating, at times tedious, and never easy. But it’s also immensely rewarding, endearingly creative, and designed around giving players as much control of their adventure as possible. FFIII fosters immersion by demanding your patience and always giving you the tools to succeed, even if success feels overwhelmingly out of reach. The world is large, but figuring out what to do next is organic and there’s always something to find, to the point where you never truly feel lost. Final Fantasy III is an odyssey where you explore new worlds, conquer arduous foes, and become increasingly more powerful — the very best of Square’s 8-bit efforts.

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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