Inside Pulse 12

Final Fantasy: Then and Now (Part 1)

While it may seem cliché to be another individual wanting to take a look back at all of the Final Fantasy titles in the main series after the big release of Final Fantasy XIII, the franchise has such a rich history and nostalgic value to it that it’s hard to resist reminiscing about 20+ years of RPG goodness. I was one of the fortunate few that got to experience the entire series in numerical order, which was no easy feat if you didn’t live in Japan. Granted, this required (at least for me) not being able to play each title at launch, but it was gratifying to see the series evolve in the way that it was meant to.

The great thing about this series is that with each iteration, you really have no idea what you are going to get in regards to the gameplay. Each game is fundamentally different, with only a few themes and characters that get carried over from title to title. You will often find Final Fantasy fans that will favor one game or another, or one generation of games entirely (Nintendo Era vs. Sony Era anybody?). It’s a franchise that likes to take chances, and I think that’s what makes it so appealing. Final Fantasy VII is either the best or the worst game in the series depending on who you ask, and Final Fantasy XI and XII have caused so much internet drama that the stir caused by the Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker reveal looks tame by comparison. And you know what? I’ve loved every step of the journey.

Wow, all this rambling and I haven’t even started talking about the first game yet. The way I’m going break this down is to give a brief rundown of each game, what my personal experiences were the first time I played through it, and what I feel about each game now. So without further ado, let us begin our trip down video game memory lane.

Final Fantasy I

Brief History

You may have heard the stories before. Facing financial ruin, the Japanese developer Square decides to put all of their eggs in one basket and creates a role-playing game modeled after the successful Dragon Quest franchise. The game’s title refers to the fact that this may be the last title that they ever release. And wouldn’t you know it, the game is a success.

Originally released for the Japanese Nintendo Famicom in 1987, the game didn’t hit American shores until 1990… which also happened to be the same year that Final Fantasy III was released in Japan. While the game wasn’t a runaway hit in North America, it was still successful enough to merit releasing one of its SNES sequels a couple of years later.

What I Thought Then

I’m truly reaching into the far recesses of my mind trying to recall the first time I’ve ever played this game, but I do remember that I was in elementary school at the time. I had no idea what an RPG was, and all I really knew is that I was looking for a game to rent and Final Fantasy had a sword AND an axe on the cover. “Wow!” I thought while looking at the back. “This must be like Zelda, but with FOUR people!”

Then I actually played it.

“What the hell IS this?!?” I exclaimed, trying to figure out why my characters didn’t attack the moment I selected the attack command. My little elementary school mind took a long time to grasp the concept of taking turns with the enemy. But I rented this game and I’ll be damned if I don’t enjoy it!

So I pressed on, finally completing the short segment involving Garland and rescuing Princess Sara. And my adventure was only beginning! Good thing the huge manual that came with it gave you a mini walkthrough of sorts in order to give you some direction in an otherwise confusing set of storylines and fetch quests. The fold out maps were a major help too. But alas, all good things must come to an end and I had to return the game. I had actually grown attached to it and adjusted to the turn based concept as well as the idea of choosing your own set of character classes and leveling them up. This wasn’t Super Mario Bros. or Contra where you are of the same strength every time you attempt the game. No, your characters actually got more powerful!

When I was around 10 or 11, I happened to be in a mall where the only store to sell video games besides Target happened to be a now defunct toy store called KB Toys. What was significant about this was that this was during the 16-bit era, so NES games were becoming scarce in your typical retail stores. However, on this particular day, KB Toys had an entire bin of NES games on sale. They were all $15 dollars each and they had such gems as Super Mario Bros. 3, Mega Man 6, and you guessed it, Final Fantasy. Craving the opportunity to go adventuring once again, I gave the clerk $15 in quarters and went home a happy boy.

With the help of my friend’s Nintendo Power strategy guide, I went on to complete this game dozens of times, each with different class combinations. The possibilities were endless, I couldn’t believe how much replay value there was in a NES game. I was determined to play through the game with every class combination possible and although this never happened, it still became a game I could come back to for many years and it would still hold its appeal.

What I Think Now

The original Final Fantasy has been ported and remade for just about every console under the sun it seems. I was stoked when it was announced that this game would be bundled with its sequel in a neat little package on the Playstation that would not only clean up the graphics to make them more 16-bit in quality, but also throw in some added cutscenes, a cleaned up translation, and a quick save function as well. The instant I fired up Final Fantasy Origins I felt like I was transported back in time with a set of beer goggles on. However, unlike other ports and remakes where once the nostalgia wears off you realize the game does not stand the test of time, this experience was legit. Sure the mechanics were a bit out of date, but that didn’t prevent me from having every bit as much fun as I did when I had to blow on a NES cartridge on a daily basis.

Since then, the game has been released on the GBA, the PSP, and even more recently, the iPhone/iPod Touch. The GBA version is basically a straight port of the one released on the Playstation, except they added some additional dungeons that feature bosses from later FF titles. The PSP and iPhone versions feature those dungeons, plus one additional dungeon and another graphical upgrade. With each update the basic game gets easier and easier it would seem, but the core experience is still fun as hell. If you prefer its purest form, you can also find Final Fantasy on the Virtual Console.

Final Fantasy II

Brief History

With the success of the original Final Fantasy, it was now time for a follow-up. Since Square never planned on there being a sequel (after all, why else would they put “final” in the title?), they decided to take the second game in a whole new direction. There are no characters or locales in Final Fantasy II that were carried over from the first title, and the entire level up system went through a major overhaul. It’s important to note that this is not the same FFII that was released on the SNES in America. That is actually Final Fantasy IV in Japan. FFII & III never saw an English release until many years later when they were remade on other platforms. Final Fantasy II was originally released on the Famicom in 1988.

What I Thought Then

For a person that was so avidly fond of the original Final Fantasy, I picked all of the wrong systems over the years that I could’ve gotten in order to keep following the series. Instead of the SNES, I bought a Genesis. Instead of a Playstation, I ended up with a Nintendo 64. It wouldn’t be until about five years after I first fell in love with the first title that I would have the opportunity to play the second..

Graphically, Final Fantasy II looked as though it had pulled all of its graphics from the original game, so it was very easy for me to overcome the graphical hurdle. I was also pleasantly surprised at how much they decided to focus on storyline this time around, as the convoluted time travel plot from the original still hurts my head trying to comprehend. The level up system is probably my least favorite out of all of the games because of how broken it feels. Basically, the intent was to level up stats as you used them, but mostly this just degenerated into beating your own characters up until they were powerful enough to take on the next dungeon. It was easily exploitable, yes. But extremely tedious to work with.

What I Think Now

Final Fantasy II, along with the original, are typically either sold together or at least within a close release window of each other. You can find it on PS1, GBA, PSP, and just recently, the iPhone. It makes sense, considering the two titles compliment each other well. The first title is more gameplay focused, while the second has its roots in its story. I also have a theory that without the nostalgia backing it like the first game, many people would forget Final Fantasy II even exists or would even care to play it again. Many of my friends and family have tried to play through the FF series from beginning to end and FFII is a huge roadblock to them. That’s unfortunate, because even though it’s one of my least favorite in the series, it’s still a solid game and worth a look if only to see the origins of such series staples as Cid and chocobos.

Final Fantasy III

Brief History

For those that didn’t see the disclaimer in the Final Fantasy II section, this is not the same Final Fantasy III that was originally released on the SNES. That was actually Final Fantasy VI (we missed out on a lot of RPG action over the years if you haven’t noticed). The true FFIII was another Famicom installment that released in 1990 and was thought to push the limits of the console. It returned to the roots of the original and brought back the job class system and the four crystals plotline.

What I Thought Then

Have you ever noticed that with every successful franchise, the second entry always tries something completely radical and alienates a number of fans? And then on the third entry, the developers go back to doing things the way they did in the first game? Anybody who has played through the Super Mario Bros. series, Legend of Zelda series, and even the Metal Gear Solid series can attest to this. As much as I liked Final Fantasy II, playing FFIII truly was the ultimate follow up to the original.

Upon FFII‘s completion, I immediately started a new game on Final Fantasy III. The graphics were slightly updated from its predecessor, but it was the gameplay that was an eye opener for me. This title brought back the job classes from the original, but instead of being locked into the ones you chose at the beginning of the game, you can swap between them as the situation calls for it. Not only that, but there were more of them. Also, each job had commands that were unique to them such as the Dragoon’s Jump and the Ninja’s Throw. For awhile, I honestly thought there was no way they could possibly improve this franchise any further.

What I Think Now

I had hoped at one point that all of the FF‘s could either be ported or remade on the Playstation consoles so I can consolidate the entire numbered series to one system. Unfortunately, because of this entry, that could never come to fruition. You see, Final Fantasy III was originally slated to be remade on the Wonderswan Color. The development on that fell through, due to the limitations of the system and the amount of manpower required to redo everything. If the remake would’ve materialized it would likely have been paired with FFI and FFII on the Final Fantasy Origins disk. But alas, it was not to be. It just goes to show what a large game FFIII was for its time.

No one would see an official English release of Final Fantasy III for a whopping sixteen years when it was finally remade on the Nintendo DS in 2006. The game was completely redone in 3D, and had some new plotlines and sidequests thrown in as well as some rebalancing in the gameplay. It was a total overhaul, and it was worth the wait. Even today, it stands out as one of my favorite Nintendo DS RPG’s on the market.

Final Fantasy IV

Brief History

With the release of the Super Famicom, Square began to switch focus on the new generation of hardware. However, since the original Famicom was still in production, they didn’t want to leave the old hardware behind either. So they began working on Final Fantasy IV and V simultaneously, one would release on the Famicom and the other on the Super Famicom. Eventually, plans for the Final Fantasy IV on the Famicom were dropped, and the only things that materialized from its existence were a few screenshots that were printed in an issue of Japanese magazine, Famitsu. What was originally intended to be the fifth entry was now the fourth and what became Final Fantasy IV for the Super Famicom in 1991. When it was translated into English, it was released in America under the name Final Fantasy II in order to maintain continuity. Confused yet?

What I Thought Then

When I was in elementary school during my obsession with the original Final Fantasy, a friend of mine tore out a bunch of pages from a Nintendo Power magazine that had complete coverage on Final Fantasy II on the SNES. I was in complete awe. The game looked gorgeous and I read those torn pages every day hoping someday I could play the game. Unfortunately, I had already purchased a Sega Genesis at that point with my measly allowance, so I knew that it would be a miracle if I’d ever get a chance to play it.

The English port of FFIV was actually based on what was known as Final Fantasy IV Easytype in Japan. It was essentially an easier, more watered down version of the original game that was designed to ease in newcomers to the RPG genre. So upon my completion of FFIII, I acquired the English release version so I could play the same game that that I had been reading about over and over for years. And despite the iffy translation (spoony bard anyone?), I was absolutely floored.

The graphics were a huge upgrade from its predecessor and the soundtrack was simply amazing. The storyline is still one of the best I’ve seen in an RPG. At this point in time, I had never seen a game, an RPG or otherwise, basically start you off as a villain and work your way through a road to redemption. You were not a hero to the people of this game’s world. They feared you and they hated you, and you had to bust your ass to earn back their trust. This was truly a landmark in video game storytelling.

What I Think Now

Next to FFI, this had become one of the most ported entries in the series. The Playstation version was paired with Chrono Trigger (yet another amazing title) and released as Final Fantasy Chronicles. This, along with the GBA version, restored the game to its original form by adding a new translation as well as retaining all the dialogue, items, and attacks that were cut from the original English release. The game was then remade in full 3D on the Nintendo DS by the same team that did the remake for Final Fantasy III. By this time, I thought I would have been tired of this game, but I was dead wrong. FFIV for the DS feels like a completely new experience, and if you haven’t played any other form of this game, I recommend you try it. Like its predecessor, it’s easily one of my favorite RPG’s on the DS. The game also has a sequel that released on WiiWare this past year titled Final Fantasy IV: The After Years.

Final Fantasy V

Brief History

Final Fantasy V released on the Super Famicom in 1992 and brought back the Job system that was so prevalent in the first and third entries of the series. Since the game was considered by Square to be too much for American audiences to handle, this never saw an English release on the SNES. What we were given that year instead was a game called Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest, which was developed by the same team that brought us Secret of Evermore and a game I will discuss in more detail another time.

What I Thought Then
I will admit that the storyline to Final Fantasy V was not very captivating to me, especially compared to the fourth entry in the series. That, and it was very difficult to identify with a character whose Japanese name is Butz. Despite how it looks, it’s pronounced “boots”, though I can only imagine the amount of ridicule he must’ve faced as a child. In the English version his name was changed to Bartz.

The real draw to this game was the completely revamped job system. Much like III, you can still swap jobs on the fly to prepare for whatever the situation calls for, but it comes with a twist. In addition to experience points, you would acquire ability points, also referred to as “AP”, for whatever job you have equipped at the time. Earning enough of these points would allow you to learn certain skills innate to that particular job so that you can use them in conjunction with other jobs. For example, earning enough AP in the white mage class would allow one to learn white magic. You could then switch jobs to a knight and continue to use that white magic. This allowed for complete party customization and eventually paved the way for future titles such as Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy XI.

What I Think Now

Final Fantasy V was eventually given an official release in America by bundling it with FFVI in the Playstation release of Final Fantasy Anthology, and then it was later ported again to the GBA. It’s my own personal theory that this title is next in line for a complete DS makeover, and when it does happen, just remember that you heard it here first!

Despite the fact that later editions of this title haven’t made any significant changes to the core gameplay, it has the addiction level of a good MMO. There are dozens of jobs present in the game and all of them had unique skills that could be mixed and matched to create an incredibly diverse party of characters suitable for any situation. There’s a ton of replay value in just mastering different jobs and seeing if you can use them to combat some of the more challenging battles such as Omega.

I also had an opportunity to see this game’s anime sequel. Many people have the false impression that Final Fantasy VII was the first to have a followup story, but it was actually FFV. The name of the series was Final Fantasy: Legend of the Crystals and it was a four episode OVA that took place 200 years after the conclusion of the game. While not the best series in the world, it’s a mildly entertaining bit of anime that FF fans should see at least once if they still have a VCR in their household.

Final Fantasy VI

Brief History

Final Fantasy VI has quite a legacy behind it. Released in 1994 for the Super Famicom, it was what many fans consider the swan song of the Nintendo era and is rivaled in popularity only by its Playstation followup, Final Fantasy VII. The game was epic in scope, and told an intricate tale populated by a cast of 14 playable characters. FFVI would go on to sell almost 4 million copies worldwide.

What I Thought Then

For someone that just came off of FFV, playing Final Fantasy VI really had that “wow” factor. As I stated above, the storyline was amazing to me and every character in it had an incredible amount of development to them. At several points in the story, the path you are to take splits, forcing you to either change up the order in which to tackle the narrative or even divide up your available party members and send multiple groups through the same dungeon. So while the characters themselves were mostly predefined archetypes, you could organize them into specific parties where they may be better suited to to tackle a particular part of a dungeon or even a certain story path.

The amount of freedom given to the player in terms of story progression was unrivaled to me at the time. With several of VI‘s predecessors I had said that there was no way that Final Fantasy could get any better as a franchise. While this may have been where the series begins to peak, it would not be the last time that I was blown away by these games.

What I Think Now

Final Fantasy VI was ported to the Playstation as well as the GBA and nothing has been done with this particular entry since. Despite this, FFVI truly stands on its own without having any sort of remake or update done as its formula is rather timeless. Other games have attempted to integrate large casts of characters into their gameplay and while those games are enjoyable in their own right, the level of development in all of the personalities seemed lacking to me by comparison. FFVI truly nailed a perfect number, though even the FF series hasn’t tried this again since. This title remains as one of my favorites and if they were to do a DS remake, I would be one of the first in line to play it.

Six incredible games and that’s only covering half of the main series. There are also a ton of sequels and spinoffs that have been released over the course of this franchise’s history that in some cases are equally as good (and sometimes not). Join me next time as I cover Final Fantasy VII through XII and some of my thoughts going into XIII.

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