Stubborn and addictive – playing Final Fantasy for the first time in 2023

You can buy the first six Final Fantasy games in one Pixel Remaster Bundle or cash them in individually; I opted for the latter to experience the first game and see where it all began.

As someone who has never played a Final Fantasy game before, here are my key insights.

memory belt

It struck me how familiar Final Fantasy felt – a turn-based JRPG set in a classic fantasy world, released in 1987, long before I was born. I had a similar experience playing BioShock (2007) a few years ago, stating that while it was a groundbreaking game as I knew it, I had played more modern games that relied on similar mechanics before, and that didn’t mean that nothing felt wrong fresh, although there were fewer obstacles to raising control.

I played some of the early Dragon Quest games, a franchise that launched around the same time as Final Fantasy, and there were clear similarities. A group of heroes defeating evil, turn-based combat, swords and sorcery, merchants that bring you supplies and churches that revive you – even gradually upgrading boats and airships to allow for advanced map travel.

But the biggest similarity I sensed was with Dungeons and dragons. The spell mechanics in Final Fantasy are taken straight from the tabletop role-playing game, with mage characters gradually accessing higher-level spells for greater damage, buffs, or utility. As they level up, they also gain the ability to cast lower-tier spells more often, with spells reaching a total of eight levels – though you’ll need to select spells individually by purchasing them from local merchants in Final Fantasy settlements.

Final Fantasy Pixel Remake
Photo: Nintendo Life / Square Enix

This concept of magic is based on the same Vancian system (from Jack Vance’s system Dying Earth novels) used in D&D, which conceives of magic as a permanent, limited resource that is prepared, used, and then exhausted. I understand that in later games this becomes a more fluid MP/Magic Point system, but in Final Fantasy 1 it meant I felt surprisingly at home with a good understanding of the types of magic system involved.

Although the spell names are a little disappointing compared to what I’m used to in Dragon Quest – less so “Cacrackle!” and more of Mario’s voice “Poison-a” “I understood what the spells were for, despite limited communication about their effects.

I figured it out myself

Of course, earlier video games had less room for lengthy tutorials or descriptions – the designers worked with limited hardware – and that limitation is still evident in this remaster.

I realized how accustomed I was to the overload of information provided to me in modern games.

Spell descriptions are incredibly vague, sometimes containing the same spell description at different levels, leaving you to guess how much better the spell is, how the damage multipliers work, and whether it’s even worth using the spell in a particular situation. I tried using the Sleep spell multiple times and it never seemed to do anything, even when the game told me it worked.

The lack of communication also means that the class choices you make early in the game when creating a party of four have vague advantages and disadvantages. I only found out after playing for a few hours that some spells like Teleport were blocked for the two mage classes I had selected. I realized how accustomed I was to the overload of information provided to me in modern games, whether it’s when making key choices about team composition or simply the likelihood of a certain spell effect triggering. 80%? 10%? How can I develop a strategy with this kind of guesswork?

I believe Final Fantasy is a game that allowed me to come up with something on my own – with a bit less hand-holding than I was used to, but also with a bit of stubborn silence at key moments of gameplay, at least from the player’s perspective. Player of 2023.

What matters most, though, is how good this core gameplay loop is. The sequence of exploration and combat across the landscape, delving into multi-layered dungeons in search of uncertain treasures, making your way through towns to upgrade spells and weapons before hitting the road again – I was quite hooked and loved the constant sense of progression as I made my way through the world. I was never close to wiping out the team, but I felt challenged enough to draw attention to my resources.

Pixel Remaster does a wonderful job of bringing a 35-year-old game to life without feeling like a modern interpretation; it looks better and feels better than the NES version, but still showcases the original game without being too intrusive. Being able to speed up battles with auto attacks is also a huge relief, saving me countless hours as I go through smaller fights before slowing down to engage more purposefully in spell picks and attacks when bigger challenges await.

Final Fantasy Pixel Remake
Photo: Nintendo Life / Square Enix

Final Fantasy was a lot like playing Dungeon Encounters (2021), Square Enix’s simplistic dungeon-crawler that shrugs off a lot of modern JRPG expectations to stick to the basics of traversing, fighting, and upgrading. FF felt pleasantly streamlined, focusing on its core mechanics without distractions, even if it meant the story was so light as to be almost unimportant at times. Even though you have to go back geographically, the narrative is heavily linear, which was my main disappointment here.

Streamlined, nice, to the point – I spent more time with Final Fantasy than I expected. If there’s one thing I regret, it’s not buying the full remaster package to start with.

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