The second of the “lost” 8-bit Nintendo Final Fantasys (and the last to be programmed by original series programmer Nasir Gebelli), this one would probably have been the easier one for American audiences to embrace. It’s so much a return to the gameplay and the spirit of the very first game that in some ways it’s almost a remake. There is one catch, though. This installment in the series, to quote the Angry Video Game Nerd, “doesn’t fuck around.” Like II, I played this one as a fan translation, and I still remember just poking around in the very first town, looking for healing potions and other freebies, and then suddenly my party is being brutally slaughtered by a pack of werewolves. Who knew there were freakin’ werewolves hiding in a patch of tall grass? Let it be a warning about the value of keeping up with lawn maintenance.
Despite or partially because of the challenge, I honestly think it’s without question the strongest game out of the entire series’ 8-bit trilogy. There’s a lot more exploring and discovery of hidden treasures pretty much everywhere to be done, more strategy thanks to the new “jobs” system that lets party members change their abilities during the game, and even if the story isn’t as dramatic (and horrifically bleak!) as II it’s still at least a bit more in-depth than most of the RPGs of its generation. Now to be honest the story isn’t really all that memorable – in fact, in terms of plot II feels more like a modern Final Fantasy game than III does – and if you boil it down it actually is the stock 8-bit RPG plot of “Evil wizard seeks to summon a big bad demonic force that will destroy the world.” Your protagonists don’t even have the really vague personalities the party in II did. Instead they’re a group of orphans known as the “Onion Knights” (pictured via cos player above) on a floating continent, who during an earthquake stumble across one of the Crystals of the Elements, which bestows them with the power of dead heroes from the past and sends them on a quest to reach the surface world, which has been mysteriously flooded and frozen in time, and save everything from being consumed by a void of darkness. Despite all that, your party does meet and interact with and more than occasionally kill a wide range of characters, from the already recurring airplane engineer Cid to the Goldfinger-esque billionaire villain named – of course – Goldor.
There are a couple of things that really makes this game a classic. First, and this is probably painfully obvious, it really plays up the fantasy portion. Yes, the first two games had some pretty diverse environments like a space station and a “dungeon” that was inside a tornado, but for the most part they just featured the usual “fire” and “ice” levels and ancient ruin and Hell dungeons as well as a fairly standard world map. With III, not only do you have a party where you can turn anyone from a White Mage to a Viking warrior to a monster Summoner, but you get to explore a floating continent, an entire new world (once it’s de-biblical flooded) and contend with dungeons where you have to make do with being smaller than rats and with having severely reduced powers. It’s not a total revolution in gameplay options, but it does feel like there’s more experimenting with making creative environments and challenges than in the last two games.
The second thing is the music. Now I don’t mean to knock the scores of the last two games (and especially not the classic original theme composed by Nobuo Uematsu), but…well, I think this is the first time the series offered a soundtrack you really nerd it up with:
(As always, I’m talking about the original versions of these games, but let me throw out there that the remake for the DS is really good…if challenging as hell).