Although suffering from quite a few execution issues regarding its central gameplay mechanics, Final Fantasy II nonetheless proved to be another success for the once-struggling Squaresoft. Series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi and his team took a then-unusual approach to this project wherein they conceived the story first then programmed an actual game around it. The result outsold the domestic sales of its predecessor, and it became evident that the Final Fantasy franchise wasn’t going anywhere. To keep this success going, development of a sequel began almost immediately.
As was the case with the previous titles, an Iranian-American expat by the name of Nasir Gebelli served as the game’s primary programmer. However, roughly halfway through the game’s development, Mr. Gebelli’s work visa expired, forcing him to return to Sacramento, California. Undeterred, the rest of the team followed him to the United States with the necessary materials and equipment, concluding development of the project there. Named Final Fantasy III, the completed game was the company’s most ambitious tile to date, being published on a 512 kilobyte cartridge filled to its absolute capacity. Once again, Squaresoft’s effort was lauded by both critics and fans alike. It moved 1.4 million copies in Japan, and a panel of four reviewers working for Famitsu magazine each awarded it a high score, achieving a similar level of praise in 1990 as Chunsoft’s Dragon Quest IV and Nintendo’s F-Zero. Such was the lasting appeal of Final Fantasy III that readers of Famitsu magazine voted it the eighth best game of all time when polled in 2006.
Similar to the fate that befell its direct predecessor, Final Fantasy III in its original incarnation failed leave Japan. Squaresoft was working to catch up to the new technology afforded to them courtesy of Nintendo’s newest console at the time, the Super Famicom, and they lacked the personnel to work on an English version. An old promotional poster included cover art for a hypothetical English release of Final Fantasy III, but it wasn’t to be. In fact, because the final product filled the cartridge’s storage capacity to its brim, even the newer platforms that would emerge in the coming years lacked the space required to handle an updated version with new graphics, sounds, and other content. This effectively prevented any realistic chance of the game being remade for the longest time. Though a game named Final Fantasy III emerged in the West for the Super NES, the international equivalent of the Super Famicom, it was, in reality, the sixth installment renamed. Both were the final installments on their respective platforms. Did Squaresoft help end the third console generation on a high note?
Analyzing the Experience
Just like Final Fantasy II before it, Final Fantasy III doesn’t waste any time throwing you into the thick of things. You don’t have to worry about getting slaughtered in an unwinnable battle, however. Instead, once you’ve named your characters, the game instantly places them in the first dungeon. An earthquake opened a fissure north of the village of Ur, and four of its youths have ventured into it. Unfortunately for them, the chasm ended up being deeper than they thought, and they must find another way out.
It is here that you’re introduced to the game’s basic exploratory mechanics. As is standard for the series thus far, dungeons are mazelike, often only having a single path that leads to the destination. Treasure chests abound that may house a useful item for our heroes, so it often pays to search every inch of a dungeon. There might be other objects worth examining that can open up secret passageways or otherwise allow access to new areas. Whether you’re searching a specific set piece or opening a chest, all it takes is a single press of the “A” button to execute these actions. As the cavern the protagonists have found themselves is considered a hostile region, every step they take has a chance of spawning a random encounter with a group of monsters.
If you have been following the series up to this point, you know what to expect when made to do battle. Combat functions on a turn-based, round-by-round basis. That is, you input an action for each of your characters, and a round of combat is subsequently played out. As before, your characters can be placed in either the front or back rows. Combatants in the back row take less damage from physical attacks, but their own are rendered less potent. Attacks conducted with bows, boomerangs, or magic are unaffected by this rule. It’s best to exercise caution, as enemies can now sneak up on your characters. When this happens, the perspective is flipped, inverting the positions you assigned each character. Once all combatants on either side are incapacitated or gone from the battlefield, the fight is concluded.
Once you reach the end of the dungeon, you will face the game’s first boss. After vanquishing the powerful monster, you will find the Crystal of Wind. It tells the four youths that a disaster will strike if nothing is done. It was prophesized by a group of blind seers known as the Gulgans that four Warriors of Light will be appointed to stop a flood of encroaching darkness threatening to envelop the land. The four warriors are the youths who dropped into the cavern, and the crystal instructs them to venture forth and restore balance to the world. To aid them on their perilous journey, it then grants them a portion of its power.
The crystal’s power manifests in the mechanic a majority of the game revolves around: the job system. Once you’ve gained access to it, you can assign a job to each character. Jobs take the form of the familiar classes introduced in the first Final Fantasy. From the onset, you have the fighter, monk, white mage, black mage, and red mage classes. However, you may find that you cannot change classes whenever you want. Strictly speaking, the option is always available, but doing so takes a certain number of capacity points (CP). CP is awarded to the player upon achieving victory in battle alongside experience points and gil, which functions as the world’s currency.
As the presence of experience points suggests, Final Fantasy III brings back the familiar leveling system established in the original. It’s as straightforward in that game as it is here; gain enough of it, and your characters will advance to a higher level, improving their overall combat prowess. Which stats improve and to what degree are based on the jobs they master. As one would expect, combat-heavy classes gain more HP and strength while mages tend to favor intelligence and spirit.
Another aspect from Final Fantasy revived for this installment is the concept of MP charges. Rather than measuring MP in a similar fashion as HP, each character has eight tiers of magic available to them. How many times a character is allowed to use a spell in a given tier depends on their level and assigned job. Specialized mages tend to have more charges per tier than the ones who can use both schools of magic, and characters who favor physical combat usually have none at all.
The job system has been commonly cited among Final Fantasy fans as one of the greatest developments in the series’ history. It’s easy to see why; the ability to change a character’s class at any time is an improvement over the original wherein you had to stick with the choices you made at the beginning of the game. Dragon Quest III featured a similar system wherein you could change the classes of your characters, but they needed to reach level twenty first. While there is a limitation in this game, it’s far more manageable, as characters gain their own levels independent from their progression in the class they’ve currently been assigned. In practice, it means you will generally have to worry less about whether or not you’ve chosen the right classes, allowing for more opportunities to experiment.
Final Fantasy III also marks a return to form of sorts after the second installment. One could argue its direct predecessor was far more avant-garde in how it excised character levels in favor of a system in which stats improved through actions taken in battle. In the end, the idea was a failure that made progression for the uninformed a virtual impossibility. For those who knew how to exploit the system, it still proved to be a tedious ordeal that, once completed, rendered the rest of the game trivial. The job system creates a good balance in that it’s reasonably innovative while not compromising the player’s ability to comprehend it.
If it’s one facet about Final Fantasy III I appreciate, it would be the superior world map design. It is far more sensible than the supercontinent featured in Final Fantasy II. Here, you don’t need to fear the possibility of going in the wrong direction and getting killed by a horde of powerful monsters nearly as often. It helps that this game introduces the world at a far better pace than Final Fantasy II. There are still cases where you’re made to journey across large regions, but you’re almost never punished too much for deviating from the path.
In certain forests, you can find large flightless birds known as chocobos. If you capture one, you can ride it on the overworld. The twofold advantage to doing this is that it’s much faster than traveling on foot and you will not trigger any random encounters. Once you dismount, the bird will return to its forest. If you search a certain spot in a forest where they dwell, you will be informed that the party is picking up on a strange scent. By using a certain vegetable, you can summon a fat chocobo. This bird will graciously store items for you, significantly increasing your overall carrying capacity. Considering half of your inventory screen in Final Fantasy II became filled with useless items by the endgame, this is a great solution.
My favorite idea Final Fantasy III brings to the table aside from the obvious is its ability to summon entities. It works similarly to other magic types in that there are eight beings you can summon – each occupying a tier on the magic chart. You need a charge on the corresponding tier to perform a summon whereupon the monster uses a single ability. The first job available to you that can utilize these monsters is the evoker class. However, the exact effect it will have depends on the luck of the draw, for it can potentially execute two different actions. As an analogue to the two basic varieties of magic, what the monsters do will either benefit your party or hinder the enemy. Nearing the end of the game, you will have access to the summoner class. Mages in this profession will make these monsters perform a third attack, which is invariably much more powerful than their default offensive effect. Though it amounts to an elaborate spell, the ability to summon monsters adds to the experience, becoming one of the series’ hallmarks.
Although Final Fantasy III has quite a lot of ambition behind it that denotes a level of focus the developers lacked when creating Final Fantasy II, I still can’t say it has aged well. One reason I say this is because the interface is rather unwieldly from a modern standpoint. In order to switch jobs, you need to remove every piece of equipment on a character. It’s understandable because all jobs limit the equipment a character can use, but it’s annoying that it doesn’t occur automatically.
A reoccurring problem throughout the game is that there are a few areas in which you have to purposely inflict a certain status condition on your characters in order to advance. The earliest instance of this occurs when you need to visit a village inhabited by gnomes. The community and its inhabitants are tiny, so the only way to enter is to use the spell, “Mini” to shrink the party. Wasting a spell charge on its own is irritating because this game is not generous on the subject of MP restoration. The only way to restore it is to rest at an inn or use an elixir, which is a rarity. The real issue is that the mini status condition significantly reduces a character’s strength and defense. As there are a handful of dungeons that can only be traversed in a miniaturized state, this forces them to rely on magical attacks whenever a random encounter occurs in these areas. For the best results, you would need to assign mage classes to all of the characters. This means fighting battles until you have enough CP to convert each party member, buying spells for all of them, and expending more CP to change them back.
This leads to another one of the game’s persistent issues. There are a few bosses that require at least one character to be in a specific class to reliably defeat. One boss relatively early on changes its weaknesses. As it just so happens, by visiting the Crystal of Fire, you gain access to the job required to pass this obstacle: the scholar class. Characters in this class can discern the weaknesses of an enemy, but have middling strength and agility compared to those in other physically active jobs. Though they wield spellbooks in battle, they can’t actually use magic, making the class practically useless in any other situation. Once you’ve vanquished this boss, there’s no reason to ever use it again.
Both of these problems lead into what is perhaps the game’s biggest issue: the job system, though innovative, is not well-thought-out. This is because some classes are clearly better than others, and the only way you could know which ones are worthwhile outside of reading about them in a guide is through trail-and-error. For that matter, it’s clear the jobs obtained from the last two crystals utterly dominate the ones granted by the first two in every conceivable way. For instance, the white mage and black mage jobs you unlock at the beginning of the game specialize in defensive and offensive magic respectively. A later crystal allows access to the devout and magus classes, which are effectively promoted versions of the same classes. At the end of the game, your characters can change into the ninja and sage classes, which are unequivocally the best professions in physical and magical combat available. This retroactively makes the effort your characters put into mastering the older ones feel redundant.
Anyone fresh off of Final Fantasy II will doubtlessly be taken aback by the premise of this installment. The sullen, gritty tone of the series’ second entry is gone, and in its place is an idealistic fantasy involving four kids who are prophesized to save the world. Their town isn’t even destroyed by antagonistic forces at any point; the reason they leave is solely at the behest of a sentient, mystical artifact. As a result the story could be construed as rather simplistic and less ambitious than that of Final Fantasy II. Anyone vaguely familiar with 8-bit JRPGs can accurately predict where the plot is going, and if you’re hoping that Squaresoft put some unique spins on the genre, I can assure you there aren’t many to be found. They did pitch a few interesting ideas, but what you see is pretty much what you get. It doesn’t help that unlike Final Fantasy II, the four leads in this game do not have distinct personalities, making them largely interchangeable.
That said, there is one thing I can appreciate about this game’s story. The original borrowed several elements from Dungeons & Dragons to the extent where it could be considered an unlicensed adaptation. Though Final Fantasy II established many of the series’ mainstays such as chocobos, an antagonist with a strong, personal connection to a lead, and a character named Cid, they didn’t quite meld together to create something greater than the sum of its parts. I felt it wasn’t really until after they took those elements and combined them with the extensive job system that Final Fantasy III allowed the series to form its own distinct identity at last.
Though Final Fantasy III isn’t exactly memorable these days, if it’s one thing everyone who has played this game will never forget, it’s the endgame. It’s not that the story suddenly becomes amazing, but rather because anyone who makes it to the final dungeon will have to fight tooth and nail just to watch the credits roll. To begin with, reaching the first endgame boss requires a trek through two long, tedious dungeons. Once you’ve defeated him, you are transported to another dimension where the final battle takes place. In a unique twist, there’s nothing stopping you from marching to the final boss straight away. Doing so is inadvisable, as they will wipe out your party with little effort. What you should do is fight four different monsters surrounding the final boss. Triumphing over them will make the last encounter far more manageable, but if you’re defeated at any point, you must travel through the dungeon again and watch a somewhat lengthy cutscene just to reach the other realm.
Each attempt takes hour or two, and there are no chances to save at any point. This is an entirely unreasonable challenge compared to everything thus far. Considering many of the bosses require very specific strategies, it’s unlikely that most players would win on their first or second attempt. Many guides suggest grinding until the characters reach level sixty. Assuming the player did not engage in the activity earlier, the characters will, at best, likely hover around the late forties by the time they initially reach the final dungeon. Needless to say, this brings the pacing to a screeching halt, which is frustrating when the end is in sight. Even a persistent player would be unlikely to do this – especially because they still have realistic chance of losing, thus negating an hour’s worth of progress. I can sympathize with wanting to make players earn the ending, but in what is this game’s fatal flaw, I steadfastly believe the developers went too far.
Drawing a Conclusion
Final Fantasy III, perhaps to an even greater degree than its predecessors, is an extremely tough recommendation. I have little doubt that it’s a slight improvement over Final Fantasy II in terms of mechanics or overall design, but whereas the remakes of the earlier entries addressed many of their worst issues, the same can’t be said of the one for this game. In 2006, Square remade the game for Nintendo’s then-newest console, the DS. In addition to featuring a 3D presentation, it expanded the story, giving the protagonists defined backgrounds and personalities among other things. Its localization marked the first time the game would be released in the West. Square could have used this opportunity to add the ability to save anywhere or at least rebalance its endgame. Instead, they wound up exacerbating these grievances by weakening the two best jobs in the game while making the already difficult final boss even stronger with not a single save point to be found. As it also featured a new, arguably worse system regulating job changes, this is a rare instance where the original could claim to be superior to its expanded remake.
Consequently, I feel the only people who would realistically get anything meaningful from this experience are JRPG fans who grew up on pioneering, 8-bit titles such as the original Final Fantasy. Final Fantasy III deserves credit for introducing the ability to change jobs while returning to a more familiar leveling system after the failed experiment that was Final Fantasy II. Unfortunately for Final Fantasy III, later games that featured the job system tremendously improved upon it, thus making its first implementation feel like a half-formed prototype. Coupled with a largely forgettable story that didn’t challenge the status quo in any meaningful way in 1990 let alone in 2006 when Western fans finally got ahold of it, you could do much worse than choosing to pass this game up.
Final Score: 4/10