Soapbox: Obstinate and Addictive – Final Fantasy first play in 2023

You can buy the first six Final Fantasy games in one Pixel Remaster bundle, or cash them in individually; I chose the latter, just to try out the first match and see where it all began.

As someone who has never played Final Fantasy before, here are my main observations.

Memory line

It struck me how familiar Final Fantasy felt – a turn-based JRPG set in a classic fantasy universe, released in 1987, long before I was born. I had a similar experience playing BioShock (2007) a few years ago, and discovered that, as basic a game as I knew it, I’d already played more contemporary games that drew on similar mechanics, meaning there’s nothing entirely new, though. Less hindrance to pick up controls.

I played a few early Dragon Quest games, a franchise that started around the same time as Final Fantasy, and there was an obvious similarity. A cast of heroes vanquish evil, turn-based combat, swords and sorcery, merchants who supply you and churches that revive you – even the incremental upgrade of boats and planes to allow for advanced travel across the map.

But the biggest similarity I felt was Dungeons and Dragons. Final Fantasy’s spell mechanics are taken straight from the tabletop role-playing game, with enchanting characters gradually gaining access to higher-level spells for greater damage, buff, or benefit. As they level up, they also gain the ability to cast lower-level spells more often, and spells go up eight levels—although you have to choose spells individually, and buy them from local merchants in Final Fantasy settlements.

Final Fantasy Pixel Remaster
Photo: Nintendo Life/Square Enix

This concept of magic is based on the same system as the Vankian (from Jack Vance Dying Earth novels) used in D&D, which depict magic as a fixed, finite resource that is prepared, used, and then exhausted. I gather this has become a more fluid MP/Magic Points system in later games, but in Final Fantasy 1 it meant I felt surprisingly at home, with a good familiarity with the types of magic systems being deployed.

While the spell names are a bit disappointing compared to what I’m used to in Dragon Quest – less “Kacrackle!” And more Mario voice “venom-a” – I understood the purpose of the spells, despite some limited communication about their effect.

Find it out for yourself

Previous video games obviously had less room for tutorials or long descriptions – designers were working with limited hardware – and that limitation is still evident in this editor.

I realized how accustomed I was to the abundance of information you provided me with in modern games.

The spell descriptions are incredibly vague, sometimes with the same description of spells at different levels, leaving you guessing about how good the spell is, how the damage multipliers work, and whether the spell is worth using in a given situation. I repeatedly tried using the sleep spell, which never seemed to do anything, even when the game told me it was working.

The lack of communication also means that the class choices you make at the start of the game, when creating your party of four, offer not-so-obvious advantages and disadvantages. I’ve only discovered quite a few hours into the game that some spells like Teleport are restricted to the two magician classes I’ve chosen. I’ve come to realize how much I’ve benefited from the wealth of information you’ve given me in recent games, whether it’s when making major choices about party composition or just the potential for a certain spell effect to work. 80%? 10%? How do I strategize with this kind of guessing?

I found Final Fantasy a game that was content to let me figure things out on my own – with less hand-holding than I’m used to, but also a little stubborn silence at key points in the game, at least from a 2023-player perspective.

But the most important thing is how good this core gameplay loop actually is. The sequence of exploration and combat in landscapes, wading through layered dungeons in search of uncertain treasures, going through cities to upgrade spells and weapons before setting off again – I was very addictive, and loved the constant feeling of progression as I moved through the world. I’ve never been close to wiping out a party, but I felt challenged enough to pay attention to my resources.

Pixel Remaster does a great job of elevating a 35-year-old game, without feeling like it’s a modern interpretation; It looks better, and feels better, than the NES version, but it still delivers the original gameplay without too much intrusiveness. Being able to speed up battles with auto attacks is also a huge relief, saving me countless hours as I fight smaller battles, before I get slowed down to purposely engaging with spell and attack choices when bigger challenges await me.

Final Fantasy Pixel Remaster
Photo: Nintendo Life/Square Enix

Final Fantasy felt a lot like playing Dungeon Encounters (2021), Square Enix’s dungeon crawler, which shrugs off a lot of modern JRPG expectations to stick to the basics of traversal, combat, and upgrade. FF felt pleasantly fluid, focusing on its core mechanics without distraction, even if that meant the story was too light to be relevant at times. Although you have to step back geographically, the narrative is firmly linear, which was my primary disappointment here.

Streamlined, beautiful, by far – I’ve enjoyed my time with Final Fantasy more than I expected. If I have one regret, I wouldn’t buy the full remaster package to get started.

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