Thursday, May 24, 2018

Each Holding An ORB: Final Fantasy 1

INTRODUCTION: All four elements in the air/cymbals crashing ev-er-ee-whe-hare...  Ahem.  Sorry, that's "Hong Kong Garden" by Siouxsie And The Banshees, not a synopsis of Final Fantasy.

Anyway, all four elements - Earth, Fire, Water and Wind (note how Heart is not one of those elements, so-called Captain Planet) - are out of whack, as the crystals that produce them grow dim, and as a result the world is slowly dying.  A prophecy speaks of Four Warriors of Light, who will appear when the world needs them most.

And hark!  What is this but four young adventurers appearing over yonder, answering the King of Cornelia's appeal to rescue his daughter Sara from the dread knight Garland - each holding an ORB...

RELEASE: 18 December 1987, Nintendo Famicom (JPN); May 1990, Nintendo Entertainment System (USA); 14 March 2003, Sony PlayStation (EU, remake)

MY FIRST PLAY: 2001, off sick from work via an NES emulator on my ancient PC.

Copyright Square Enix, via

REAL WORLD: Odd as it may be these days, with Square Enix firnly established as a staggeringly successful developer, back in 1987 Square were suffering.  Hironobu Sakaguchi envisiged this as his last shot at the videogame market - and so "Fighting Fantasy" became "Final Fantasy".  Although that probably has a fair bit to do with the popular Choose Your Own Adventure franchise of the former name as well!

He envisaged something along the lines of the early eighties' Ultima and Wizardry series of home computer RPGs, which was then given a battle system similar to Dungeons & Dragons.  Whilst Dragon Quest/Dragon Warrior's success was definitely instrumental in getting the project off the ground, the incorporation of western influences helped Final Fantasy to stand out - and the rest is history...

THE GAME: This sets the standard for the entire rest of the 8-bit era and beyond, so settle in, we've got a fair bit to cover.

The game begins with you creating four heroes, in the style of the tabletop RPGs of the time albeit with more limited options.  Each character will have one of six classes: Fighter (uses heavy weapons and armour), Black Belt (unarmed combatant), Thief (sort of between the two), White Mage (uses healing and beneficial magic), Black Mage (uses damaging and negative magic) and Red Mage (sort of between the two, but with a significantly cooler hat).

You control a person walking on what is essentially a big game board.  That board contains features such as towns, castles and caves, and when you move your person onto these, they open up into their own boards, a bit like you're zooming in.  You'll encounter a ton of non-player characters (NPCs) to chat to, of all different shapes and sizes - humans, dwarves, elves, gender non-specific merpeople (alright, alright, they're blatantly mermaids), dragons and robots, to name but a few.

Whilst walking in almost all areas, you will randomly encounter enemies - most of them have no physical presence on the board, and combat will happen according to internal calculations.  This takes you to a battle screen, where you assign actions to your team (attack, magic, item and so forth).

Enemies and your party members have a limited number of Hit Points (HP), which are decreased by attacks from the opposition and can be increased through White magic like Cure and Heal, and items like Potions.  When a combatant's HP is exhausted, they are killed.

Win the battle by killing all enemies, and your team gains experience points which "level up" your party, making them stronger, an amount of gil (the in-game currency) and sometimes other useful items, and off you go on your way.  Lose, by getting all your party members killed, and it's simply Game Over.

Fair use,
IT'S A KIND OF MAGIC: Spells can be used by Black, White and Red mages (and later, Ninjas, Wizards and Knights), and are split into White and Black magic, roughly along the lines of all beneficial magic being White and all combat magic being Black, with a few exceptions - White magic includes spells that damage undead creatures, for instance.

The spells themselves - I always pictured them as spellbooks - can be bought from shops in most towns, and are split into eight levels, roughly by power.  Magic users have a fixed number of spells per level they can use, and as they level up, they gain more uses.  Their magic uses can be regenerated, along with the party's HP, by resting at a town.

MUSIC: Nobuo Uematsu was the lead (and sometimes only) composer and musician for Final Fantasy's soundtracks throughout the years.  Despite the limitations of the NES chipset, he played an absolute blinder in creating not only two theme tunes for the series that would last basically the entire franchise, but also a dynamic overworld song, stirring battle themes and my particular favourite, "Matoya's Cave":

This has one of the most traditionally medieval fantasy-based setting in the series...  Until the robots turn up and you go to what is tantermount to a space station for a bit.  The Lefeinish might be aliens too, it's not 100% clear.

MEGABOSSES: WarMech (or Death Machine, in later translations) has a one in 64 chance of appearing in the final area of the floating castle.  A bipedal robot reminiscent of a Warhammer 40k Chaos Dreadnought, it is head and shoulders above anything you've encountered to this point and the final boss itself.  And here began the tradition of sticking a creature even more fearsome than the final boss in a part of the game (or lately, the post game).

Take it down and you get:  a sense of achievement.  Yay?  Remakes have added a possible drop of Genji Armour as an added incentive.  Ooh, and speaking of remakes...

REMAKES: There have been 18 separate releases of the original Final Fantasy game, so I'm clearly not going to look at all of them.  The standouts for me are "Final Fantasy Origins" for the PlayStation and "Final Fantasy I and II: Dawn of Souls" for the GameBoy Advance, the latter of which swaps in a Magic Point (MP) system that replaces the spell uses with an HP-like cost for casting, and adds four bonus dungeons containing bosses from Final Fantasy 2 to 6.

WORST BIT: Probably the sheer amount of "grinding" - seemingly endless fighting of random monsters to increase your levels, particularly around Elfland and the Ice Cavern.  Things get a bit better after you give Bahamut the Rat's Tail and your characters receive a pretty awesome boost, but until then it's a ballache.

BEST BIT: With great grinding comes great reward however. and there are a fair few moments where satisfaction matches effort - the secret at the heart of the Ice Cavern that busts the game wide open, the discovery of the visitor from the stars, Bahamut's class boost after completing the Castle of Ordeals, which I can tell you is appropriately named...

But the greatest fistpump momet comes right near the start, when the King of Corneria builds a bridge to the mainland to celebrate the return of his daughter, and the theme from Final Fantasy strikes up for the first time ever.

It may be the first, but it's hardly the worst - now join me on a journey, why not, through every non-online numbered entry in the series!  You'll laugh at spoony bards, you'll cry at the deaths of major characters and the linearity of FF13 (stay tuned), you'll learn a bit about why Snow is a twat, and if you're really lucky, I might trouble myself to do Chrono Trigger as well.

Off we go to adventure - each holding an ORB!!!

Join us next time for...  Well, Final Fantasy 2, obviously.  You big dummy.  But in general: chocobos, hell and a logical if flawed character growth system.

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