Hironobu Sakaguchi was a student at Yokohama National University. He studied electrical engineering, but dropped out mid-semester in 1983 along with his colleague, Hiromichi Tanaka. Upon leaving school, they joined a company named Square as part-time employees. It was founded the same year by recent Waseda graduate Masafumi Miyamoto as a software development division of Den-Yu-Sha, a power line construction company owned by his father. Mr. Miyamoto held a belief that ran counter to how games were developed at the time wherein a single person conceived and developed a project entirely on their own. He believed that graphic designers, programmers, and professional writers working together could create something greater than any of them were capable of producing individually. In 1986, Square became a standalone company, and Mr. Sakaguchi was made a full-time employee as the Director of Planning and Development.
The next few years proved to be unrewarding for Mr. Sakaguchi and Square. They had created numerous titles for Nintendo’s Famicom platform such as The 3-D Battles of WorldRunner and Rad Racer, but all of them largely failed to become major hits – even when ported to North America. Mr. Sakaguchi then began questioning if he chose the right career path and if he was qualified to be a game writer. He had intended to make an RPG shortly after receiving a full-time position, but the executives refused on the grounds that such a product would not sell well.
This changed when a game named Dragon Quest was released. This collaboration by programmers Yuji Horii and Koichi Nakamura and popular manga artist Akira Toriyama introduced the RPG to Japanese gaming fans. Taking note of the millions of units Dragon Quest moved, Square reconsidered their stance and allowed Mr. Sakaguchi to bring his vision into reality. It was originally to be called Fighting Fantasy, but the staff changed it when they learned of a tabletop RPG that already bore the name. Mr. Sakaguchi wanted his work to have the initials FF so that the title could be abbreviated in the Roman alphabet and pronounced in four syllables in the Japanese language. After some consideration, Mr. Sakaguchi at last came up with a definitive title. According to the man who would go on to produce the game’s score, Nobuo Uematsu, this name was chosen for a twofold reason. The first part concerned Mr. Sakaguchi’s personal situation; had the game failed to become a hit, he felt it would be appropriate to quit the industry and return to his college studies. The second had to do with Square’s situation; the game’s failure would have all but ensured the company’s demise, for they were on the precipice of bankruptcy. Knowing this project could have been their last, they saw it fit to name their game Final Fantasy.
Analyzing the Experience
The world of Final Fantasy has relied on the power of four crystals representing earth, fire, wind, and water. Over the past centuries, one by one, the crystals began to darken, plunging the world into chaos. Now, the wind has died, wild storms have plagued the oceans, and the earth is beginning to rot. It is said in a prophecy that when the world is shrouded in darkness, four Light Warriors will appear. One day, a group of four adventures appear before the king of Cornelia, each of them bearing a darkened crystal.
Final Fantasy is one of the first examples of a Japanese role-playing game (JRPG). When exploring the world, the game is played from a top-down perspective. Movements are tile-based, so tapping a direction on the control pad will cause your characters to advance one space in that direction. Final Fantasy foregoes the field command menu popularized by Dragon Quest, and instead features a contextual action button.
Whether you intend to talk with a townsperson or extract an item from a treasure chest, all you need to do is press the action button once to achieve the intended result. As the game is driven by its plot, it’s necessary to engage with NPCs. What they have to say can be pivotal to advance the story, though other times, they’re just there to provide humor.
With every step you take in a hostile region, whether you’re roaming the overworld or spelunking, you have a chance of triggering an encounter with a horde of monsters. Combat in Final Fantasy is turn-based. You input a command for each of your characters, and a round is played out. How much damage is done with physical attacks depends on the number of hits landed in a single attack, which is in turn determined by the accuracy stat. The game utilizes a system of magic which functions similarly to the classic tabletop RPG, Dungeons & Dragons. Spells are sorted by levels, of which there are eight. A mage is capable of learning three spells per level, and there is a finite amount of times they can use them though they will gain more charges later. As one would expect, higher leveled spells are more effective and therefore can’t be used as frequently as those on lower tiers.
Your characters’ likelihood of being attacked depends on the order in which they’re placed. The character in the topmost spot will receive half of the enemy’s attacks. The character after them has a one in four chance of being targeted. Finally, those in the two bottommost places have a one in eight chance of receiving the brunt of the monster’s assault. With this in mind, it’s best to put hardier characters such as warriors in the first position while securing your mages, who are more fragile, in the last two.
When fighting multiple enemies, be mindful of how strong your characters are relative to the monsters they’re fighting. This is because your characters will continue to target a monster even after it has been defeated, thus wasting their attack. In other words, it’s best to divvy your character’s actions in a way that maximizes their efficiency. Normally, you can’t have them all target the same monster and expect to make progress.
Once all participants on a side of the conflict have left the field, the battle is concluded. Upon winning, conscious party members will be awarded with experience points (EXP) and money. Once a character has gained enough EXP, their level will be increased, improving their overall combat performance with permanent bonuses to their stats. Money can be exchanged for weapons, armor, magic and other useful items. Each character can carry four weapons and four pieces of armor, but healing items such as potions and antidotes are communal, allowing any of them to access them during a fight without needing to trade beforehand. It’s important to keep your wits about you in battle, for should your characters fall, the game is over, and everything you accomplished between that moment and the most recent time you saved is forfeit.
With so few console RPGs to speak of in this point in gaming history, comparisons to Yuji Horii’s Dragon Quest series are inevitable. However, while Dragon Quest deserves credit for inventing the JRPG as a genre, Final Fantasy deserves credit for helping to prove it was here to stay. How were Mr. Sakaguchi and his team able to accomplish this? It’s simple: there is far more ambition to be found in Final Fantasy than in Dragon Quest or its first sequel.
Both creators took many cues from Western RPGs with their overall style. However, the second you choose to start a new game in Final Fantasy, it becomes clear that Mr. Sakaguchi went a step further. To wit, before you can start the game proper, you must create your characters. The Light Warriors can choose one of six classes, which will determine their stats and abilities in combat. They can be warriors, thieves, monks, white mages, black mages, or red mages. Warriors can equip heavy armor and weapons, but are somewhat slow. Thieves pride themselves in their speed, yet they don’t have as many equipment choices as warriors. Monks start off weak, but as they gain more levels, they can deal progressively heavier damage with their bare hands
Throughout the game, you can purchase spells from certain shops. White magic deals with restoration and defensive spells. Meanwhile, black magic comprises offensive spells. As implied by their names, white and black mages specialize in their respective schools of magic. Red mages take a middle path between all of the classes. They have better equipment choices than their fellow spellcasters and can dabble in both white and black magic. However, as a tradeoff, they can’t use the more advanced spells of either magic school, and the best equipment is generally forbidden to them.
While the protagonist of Dragon Quest had stats that varied based on the name you gave him, all permutations were cast in the same mold. He would always gain spells at the same levels every time, and by the end, he had no major weaknesses. In Final Fantasy, every class has a specialized role, meaning that your first decision will affect your party’s dynamics. For a newcomer, it’s best to create a party in a way that every niche is filled. Then again, there’s nothing stopping you from assigning the same class to multiple characters, so you could try to beat the game without any magic users if you so choose. Particularly audacious enthusiasts could even attempt to win using nothing but a team of white mages, a team that would almost certainly lack significant damage output.
This is probably where Final Fantasy truly shines; in addition to providing replay value in an era when such a concept was rarely considered, it succeeded in spurring players into what amounts to creating their own game using Mr. Sakaguchi’s work as a base. The developers probably didn’t anticipate how far a dedicated portion of their audience would go, but intentionally or not, there’s a real possibility we have Final Fantasy to thank for popularizing the concept of a self-imposed challenge. This would prove to be a strong foundation for the medium’s community wherein people share information about the game, trade stories of their own unique trials, invent new strategies – whatever it takes to help each other achieve victory.
The plot is standard fare for the time – the world is in peril; you must save it. However, Final Fantasy stands out from its peers in how it manages to present this basic story. There were innumerable fantasy titles which involved a knight in shining armor saving a princess from a powerful monster. This game begins in a similar fashion, but there is one key difference: rescuing the princess is the very first task you accomplish. Upon departing from the first kingdom, you’re treated to a screen bearing the game’s title along with a list of credits. It’s difficult to appreciate these days, but back in 1987, the idea of using a premise that would encompass the entire experience as a mere prologue to the real story was practically unheard of. It signposted to the players of its day the sheer scope their journey would entail with the bare minimum of context.
Along those lines, another touch I’m fond of concerns a sidequest that can be completed around the halfway point. Upon retrieving an important artifact and bringing it to a certain NPC, your characters’ classes will change. For example, the fighter will become a knight, which not only has better equipment options, but also the ability to use low-level white magic. This development has a twofold effect on the experience; it gives the characters more versatility in combat while also hinting towards a character arc without having them utter a single line of dialogue.
Now, with all that can be said about the game, some reading this may wonder if these touches have allowed Final Fantasy to stand the test of time better than its contemporaries. Unfortunately, I would have to argue that they don’t. To begin with, the level grinding gets tedious very quickly. There are several instances where you will probably be killed by monsters in a new area, forcing you to return to an older one so that you may accumulate EXP. In fact, this is what comprises a greater portion of playing Final Fantasy. To be fair, combat is integral to any RPG, but grinding levels is only tolerable when it’s a means to an end. When it’s the primary focus, it makes it feel as though the game lacks substance. Indeed, if this wasn’t required, a savvy enthusiast could complete the game in less than two hours.
Moreover, the game isn’t particularly good at giving directions. It’s not so bad at the beginning when there’s usually only one place to go, but when it opens up, there will be quite a lot of aimless wandering unless you happen to have a map handy. To Square’s credit, there is an in-game map which can be accessed by pressing the “B” and “select” buttons at the same time. It’s also a step ahead of Dragon Quest in that most of the key items are usually in the open, albeit guarded by a boss. Having said that, traveling the world is tedious – especially when you are frequently interrupted with random encounters.
A lot of this stems from the fact that the story isn’t particularly compelling. Anyone who is the least bit familiar with the genre will know how most of the plot threads will resolve as soon as they’re introduced. Final Fantasy deserves praise for contributing the occasional out-of-the-box idea as well as having a good presentation for its time, but it’s still uninteresting more often than not. It doesn’t help that the translation, though not bad for its time, is decidedly stilted. Many of these instances can be attributed to technical limitations, but it’s still jarring how character names and magic spells are no more than four letters. The latter is especially egregious because many of the spells are rendered as abbreviations, lending an amateurish feeling to the work.
Speaking of which, another criticism I have concerns the magic system. To backpedal slightly, I will admit that there are many great things I can say about it. For one, there are far more spells available for budding mages than their counterparts in Dragon Quest; the original featured nine, its sequel thirteen. How many are in Final Fantasy? The answer is sixty-four. This is impressive on paper, and almost equally so in practice. With this wide of an array at your disposal, you will often have to judge which ones best fit the situation. For instance, offensive magic comes in three separate elements: fire, thunder, and ice. There are several monsters, including bosses, that are weak to these elements. Should you discover their weakness, you will inflict bonus damage.
White magic is similar in its eclectic nature because in addition to healing, white mages can reduce damage taken from certain elements, cure poison, and severely damage undead foes. Practitioners will typically have low damage output, but as with everyone else, you will carefully consider their course of action to match your situation rather than mindlessly making them heal every turn.
With this out of the way, I have to say that while the team avoided the pitfall of choosing quantity over quality when they invented their own magic system, there is one thing they overlooked. Specifically, they failed to make sure some of the spells actually worked as intended. The spells Temper, Saber, Dispel, Focus, and Focara, which are meant to increase an ally’s attack stat, the user’s attack stat, eliminate the enemy’s status boons, decrease an enemy’s evasion, and decrease the evasion of every enemy respectively do nothing at all. Actually, that’s slightly inaccurate; the Focara spell increases the enemy’s evasiveness by twenty percent rather than decreasing it. There’s also a spell that’s supposed to provide protection against silence, a status ailment which prevents characters from using magic. Because so few enemies in the game can inflict this, chances are you’ll never use it once. Naturally, this means purchasing any of these spells is a waste of money, and you wouldn’t know this until long after it’s too late.
This ties into what is arguably the game’s biggest failing; it’s not programmed very well. I in no way wish to insinuate that it’s a broken mess, and considering the technology available to Square at the time, it’s actually something of a miracle it turned out as well as it did. Unfortunately, if one were to make a list of the game’s bugs, there’s a good chance it would surpass a list of the functional features. Some weapons deal elemental damage when used. In theory, this is meant to encourage players to be mindful of these traits when they consider selling older equipment. After all, the ice sword may not possess as much raw power as the newer one you’re keeping an eye on, but if you’re exploring a dungeon swarming with fire-based monsters, holding onto it would be a good idea. However, most of the weapons that claim to inflict bonus damage against certain monsters do nothing of the sort.
Moreover, every weapon is meant to have a chance to score a critical hit. Due to a programming error, the game loads the item’s index number rather than correct value. Notably, this quirk was retained in remakes, though it’s a bit questionable if it adds anything to the experience. This wasn’t the only instance either; one tiny area loads significantly stronger monsters than what is normal for that region. Dubbed the Peninsula of Power by fans, it became a popular place to gain levels, and this oddity was kept in future versions. Although it’s interesting how some of the programming mistakes were embraced by the development team upon discovery, most of them actively detract from the experience, and it in the grand scheme of things, it feels unpolished as a result.
Drawing a Conclusion
Using their newly established North American branch, Square took a gamble by having Final Fantasy localized for an English audience. To their amazement, their game became a hit, surpassing the 600,000 copies sold in Japan. When it comes to the question of whether it’s worth playing these days, however, I find my answer is less than clear-cut. I cannot recommend the original because, for all of its ambition, its poor programming creates an unnecessary challenge for the player in which they will have to determine what does and doesn’t work whether it’s through trial-and-error or looking up the information online. In practice, it makes the game more annoying than rewarding to get through. The newer versions improve upon most of the flawed aspects present in the original, but even with that going for them, it’s still a JRPG with a basic story and boring level design. Even with that in mind, there is undeniably some appeal in playing this game, and if you are at all interested in delving into the series, starting with a good remake of the debut installment isn’t too bad of an idea.
What can’t be contested is that Final Fantasy succeeded where Dragon Quest failed in the West. By appearing in the form of a console title, countless people were introduced to the role-playing game – a hitherto new experience for many of them. Looking at their catalog before the release of this game, it’s remarkable how much Mr. Sakaguchi and the rest of Square improved in such a short time. The company created an abysmal shoot-em-up only to codify the JRPG as a genre in the West a mere four years later. Even if it’s rough around the edges, they can be proud of their work, as it deserves its place in history.
Final Score: 5/10