Inspired by a retrospective one of the bloggers I follow is doing on the classic Ultima series, I figured I would do something similar with the one RPG series I followed from the beginning, at least as much as an American of the ’90s could have, Final Fantasy.
I was actually fortunate enough to receive “Final Fantasy” as a Christmas gift a year or so after it was released, although I can’t remember if I specifically asked for it or not. If I didn’t, then I am impressed that I got such an 8-bit classic from the family whose unprompted video game gifts tended to fall more on the “Back to the Future” side of the spectrum of quality than the “Legend of Zelda” side. However I got it, I was instantly taken in by the packaging’s art work:
They don’t make them like that anymore. I still wish I kept the box, along with the map and all the other little extras, but now I’d have to sell them on eBay or something.
The funny thing is that I hadn’t read – hell, I was barely aware of – “Lord of the Rings” and I had never played Dungeons & Dragons, so basically without realizing it I was playing a copy of a copy. I wonder how many other kids had that experience with any cultural phenomenon. Anyway, yes, “Final Fantasy” is basically “Lord of the Rings” via D&D and filtered through a Japanese interpretation of medieval Western Europe, the sort of artifact that seems weirdly postmodern and can only exist in our era of endless cultural regurgitation. Now to be fair, unlike its onetime rival series “Dragon
Warrior Quest,” “Final Fantasy” from the very beginning was throwing in odd sci-fi elements. Alongside your warriors armed with swords and axes and chain mail, you had robots, the airship that would pretty much become one of the series’ mascots, and even a space station. “Final Fantasy” does pretty much a more seamless job of bringing in futuristic things into the otherwise medieval setting unlike “Ultima I,” where at the local merchant’s you have your choice of either a horse, a flying car, or a space shuttle, but it did bother me even as a kid that you were able to fight laser-shooting mechanical soldiers with a sword, a hammer, and fists.
Oh, speaking of fists, when you get to pick your party members in the beginning, you do get to pick a martial artist. And the funny thing is that, in a world where you also get to choose sword and axe-wielding knights and black mages who casually toss around god-like, apocalyptic powers, including a spell that recreates the impact of a nuclear bomb, the martial artist will, once he starts getting fairly high in levels, be your most powerful fighter. Ogres, snakes, spiders, ghosts, primordial Babylonian goddesses…he can just punch all of them into oblivion. I mean, damn, the average martial artist in the “Final Fantasy” world must be able to casually tear off Superman’s arm and beat him to death with it! Even Steven Seagal in his early ’90s prime wouldn’t last five seconds in a fist fight against one of them.
Except for that, the intrusion of robots and outer space, and the fact that your thief can get promoted into a ninja (if you give a dragon a rat’s tail…just roll with it), the gameplay really does come across as a D&D campaign. However, for the 8-bit era and for an early RPG, the story is surprisingly complex. It starts out fairly simple, with even a classic “rescue the kidnapped princess” mission, yet it turns out to be a little more than just “bad guy(s) out there, find special item(s) and/or weapon(s), kill bad guys,” which alone starts out the “Final Fantasy” tradition of an emphasis on story. Now if the story has any flaws, it’s because it’s a little too ambitious. See, when the game gets going your overall quest is to kill the Fiends, these four demons, each one representing a different classical Greek element, who are slowly wiping out the planet in the manner of BP or “Captain Planet” villains (same difference). As it turns out, Garland, the knight your party effortlessly slaughtered while saving the requisite captive princess at the beginning, is really the mastermind behind it all. In what probably is the most convoluted scheme for achieving immorality ever (with the debatable exception of what Dante is up to over in Fullmetal Alchemist), Garland is sent 2,000 years in the past from which he sent the Fiends into the game’s present, creating a time loop that somehow results in the end of the world and insures Garland’s immortality. So how does Garland last 2,000 years, why does he kidnap the princess in the present, and what about the little fact that you do kind of kill him at some point? And why does he turn into a hellspawn at the end? Yeah, you just have to poke at the storyline for it to fall apart, but how many early RPGs tried to incorporate time travel into their plots? Maybe the cliche that “Final Fantasy” hasn’t “aged well” is true to an extent, even though in my opinion it holds up better than the first “Dragon Quest” which, let’s face it, was just 95 percent level grinding, but the slight weirdness of the story alone still stands out and justifies the existence of the mega-franchise to come.