Greetings, old-school gamers, and welcome to Retro Rundown! Every other Friday, I pick a classic video game from my collection – I’m defining “classic” as “PS2 era and earlier” at this point (I know, it makes me feel old too) – and give it the Big Brother treatment, exploring the game’s history, themes, and legacy. I’ll even throw in a few personal memories with the game along the way, and see if I can touch on the shared experiences that make so many of us remember it fondly.
In case you stopped paying attention when the series stopped being good (we might have to fight about when that was), Final Fantasy XV is finally being released soon, for real this time! So for this edition of Retro Rundown, I’m delivering you a triple dose of all-the-way-back Final Fantasys! Fantasies? Fantasi. …Anyway, it’s Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy II, and Final Fantasy III!
The original Final Fantasy tells the story of the Four Warriors of Light – otherwise unnamed except by the player – as they seek to save the world from the non-specified evil darkness that threatens it in accordance with prophecy. Released in Japan in 1987 and the U.S. in 1990, the game was created by an “A-Team” of 7 individuals as a last-ditch effort by developer Square – itself a branch of a larger electric company – whose faltering sales meant that they’d likely close their doors after this release.
Square’s 25 year-old game designer and planning director Hironobu Sakaguchi – the hero of our story – had desired to create an RPG for some time, but it wasn’t until the commercial success of Dragon Quest (known as Dragon Warrior stateside) that his employer saw that as a viable option. The game’s original title was Fighting Fantasy, but this had to be changed due to copyright concerns; Sakaguchi came up with Final Fantasy because it followed the desired “FF” language pattern and because he believed it would be his last game, intending to return to school if Square shut down.
Instead, Final Fantasy turned into a surprise hit. The Famicom/NES release sold a total of 400,000 copies in Japan and an additional 700,000 in North America, where the football-inspired side-by-side combat resonated in the burgeoning home console market. The other main innovation that Final Fantasy introduced to mainstream gaming was a focus on the classical elements (wind, water, earth, and fire, with heart conspicuously missing), as borrowed from Dungeons & Dragons. This was integrated into both the story – the world is influenced by four Orbs, which the heroes seek to restore from their darkened state – and the gameplay – many monsters have an elemental affinity and are weak against certain spells, a fresh mechanic at the time. Final Fantasy was also one of the first RPGs to feature character specializations (classes), which would become a recurring aspect of the series; the iconic name and character look for some classes originated here.
Though the plot of Final Fantasy seems simplistic by today’s standards – a party of four heroes travel to various locations to defeat evil creatures and save the world – its length and depth were ground-breaking at the time. If Dragon Warrior was a short story, Final Fantasy was a novel, featuring a few twists (the first boss, Garland, surprisingly returns as the end boss via time travel), different races (including defunct ones like mermaids and robots), and memorable locations (the ruined Temple of Fiends and pirate ship among them). It also lived up to the reputation of “Nintendo Hard”, frustrating many a young gamer with its punishing difficulty.
Final Fantasy’s success in the United States, where Dragon Warrior couldn’t catch on to the same degree, brought Square back from the brink. The game’s place in video game history is unquestionable; in addition to spawning the series we’re focusing on here, it also helped vault the Role-Playing genre to mainstream notoriety. It’s no surprise, then, that Final Fantasy has been ported to several other systems with various tweaks, including the PlayStation (2003 as part of Final Fantasy Origins), Game Boy Advance (2004 as part of Final Fantasy I & II: Dawn of Souls), PSP (2007 with major graphical upgrades), and even mobile phones (2010). It’s also been available on almost every virtual store in the modern gaming era. In the end, while today’s gamers might not have the patience for Final Fantasy’s buggy, turn-based grinding, it paved the way for many of the industry standards we take for granted.
Final Fantasy II
After the surprise success of their first RPG, Square quickly followed up in 1988 with the Famicom release of Final Fantasy II. Hironobu Sakaguchi had no plans for continuing the story of Final Fantasy, so he made the critical decision to create a new setting, characters, and plot under the same franchise title. Final Fantasy II tells the story of four youths (Firion, Maria, Guy, and Leon) whose village is destroyed by the evil Palamecian Empire; three of them subsequently join the Resistance, while the fourth follows a path of darkness. Sakaguchi intentionally focused on richer characterization and a deeper story than in the first game, which had featured a more generic plot. Final Fantasy II introduced the permanent (plot-related) deaths of playable characters to the series, as well as a host of deeper themes – oppression, loss, coming of age, and the afterlife – that later games would revisit.
Final Fantasy II also featured notable gameplay departures from its predecessor. The turn-based combat remained, but the leveling and magic systems were totally renovated; characters grew based on how they were used in combat (a mechanic which would be reused in Final Fantasy Tactics) instead of earning experience points, and the spells themselves were leveled up from repeated use rather than the party acquiring higher-tier spells (a mechanic which is completely unique in the series); in the initial release, this led to a game-breaking bug that enabled the player to power up their stats via friendly fire. A dialogue system was introduced where the party would remember noteworthy phrases and use them to glean additional information from NPCs. Square was able to save time on development by reusing graphical assets from the first game (a move known these days as the Call of Duty).
Final Fantasy II was a success in Japan (800,000 units sold, doubling the domestic total of the original), but it was never released on the NES in the United States because the localization process – bogged down by the limited memory capacity of the hardware and the company prioritizing other projects – lasted well into the life of the Super Nintendo. Square ultimately decided against committing the resources to finish the English version, opting instead to jump two games ahead in the series to their first SNES release. While emulation made the game playable to resourceful fans, there was no official version of FF2 stateside until it was included in a bundle with FF1 on the PlayStation’s Final Fantasy Origins (2002). That combination of games appeared again on the Game Boy Advance with Final Fantasy I & II: Dawn of Souls (2004). Final Fantasy II didn’t receive a solo U.S. release until an updated version on the PSP in 2007 – nearly 30 years after its creation. As a result, this game (along with Final Fantasy III, for similar reasons) is one of the most obscure numbered FF titles among U.S. audiences.
Even so, Final Fantasy II introduced several recognizable features of the series, including chocobos, a character named Cid, a variable party, and perhaps most importantly, a new world for each game. Allowing playable characters to die in the story was unheard of at the time, and following this blueprint would later lead to some of the most memorable moments in gaming history (General Leo, Aerith – whoops, spoilers!). The game was a big step forward for Square; its success as a sequel ultimately convinced them to continue the series in perpetuity. It is still highly regarded in Japan, where the main villain, Emperor Mateus – who literally fights his way back from hell to enact revenge on the heroes – is among the most popular bad guys in the entire series (his key role in the ensemble strategy fighter Dissidia reflects this popularity). While the game itself is not easily recognized by American fans, Final Fantasy II’s legacy cannot be overstated.
Final Fantasy III
Now that the first two installments had established a successful franchise in Japan, Final Fantasy III gave Sakaguchi and Square the opportunity to expand the series further with a new world and some new ideas. Developed and released for the Famicom in 1990, Final Fantasy III starts with four orphaned children who turn out to be the prophesied Warriors of the Light. For the original release, the main characters are unnamed except by the player as in the first Final Fantasy – all four heroes start out simply as the eponymous Onion Knights and can be subsequently changed at the player’s behest. However, a later update retcons their names as Luneth, Arc, Refia, and Ingus, and gives them individual personalities and backgrounds to match the modern expectations of RPGs.
The plot of Final Fantasy III is similar in structure to that of the original Final Fantasy or a typical Dragon Quest game from the same era. Instead of an overarching, well-defined goal, the heroes travel from one town to the next, reacting to the situations they find themselves in. They seek various MacGuffins on behalf of locals and slowly learn more about their adversary, the immortality-seeking sorcerer Xande, who is in turn being manipulated by the evil Cloud of Darkness, a monstrous entity that wishes to reduce the world to oblivion. In stark contrast to most games of today (and most other titles in the series), the main antagonists only appear at the end of the game, as the focus is on the heroes’ journey rather than their destination. It makes sense, then, that the world is considerably larger than in most other games of the time, featuring four distinct overworld maps plus a “World of Darkness” where the climax takes place.
Final Fantasy III features substantially different gameplay from its predecessors. The biggest change is the addition of the malleable job system. After acquiring jobs during the plot, party members can be assigned them at will outside of combat, which affects fighting stats and options. This was the first game in the series to feature unique battle commands depending on which job was assigned. Various airships are essential to getting around, cementing the vehicle’s legacy in the series. Throughout the game, the party enlists plot-important support characters who help outside of battle, but are not proper PCs. The battle screen is considerably stripped of text compared to previous incarnations, creating a simpler interface for gamers but maintaining the difficulty that players were used to at the time. Final Fantasy III made small graphical updates to the series, pushing the 8-bit visuals as far as they could go, but it is still visually similar to the previous two games.
This game stands alone in the Final Fantasy series because of its unique development history. Even though it was a smashing success in Japan at 1.4 million units sold, Square never attempted to localize it for U.S. crowds due to their ongoing work with Final Fantasy II and the realization that the hardware couldn’t handle a simple port. Since the company would devote its full resources to staying up to date with each subsequent release, Final Fantasy III was the last classic entry to make its way to the United States. And even that was unorthodox: Instead of porting the game, Square decided to completely rebuild it for the Nintendo DS, overhauling the plot, characters, and gameplay, including a change to 3-D models. This new version was released in 2006 and later ported to mobile devices, finally giving English-speaking players a chance to experience the title (more or less), but there is still no true U.S. release of the original game. Considering the now-archaic gameplay and story, it’s unlikely we’ll see one anytime soon, either. In the end, between its inaccessibility and its lack of memorable heroes or villains, Final Fantasy III truly is the lost entry in the series.
That’s it for this issue of Retro Rundown! If you enjoyed it, please check out additional offerings from yours truly. If you have a strong opinion about other games I should revisit in this series, hit up the Dashing Nerds on Twitter or Facebook, or leave a comment below!