“If it’s not new, it’s not Final Fantasy.”
According to World of Final Fantasy director Hiroki Chiba, speaking with Gamer Escape earlier this year, this is the attitude that Final Fantasy series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi strove to work by. And it’s a creed that the various teams around Square Enix responsible for the continued development of the brand have maintained to this day, right up to latest release Final Fantasy XV.
The result is one of gaming’s longest running, most successful series that has managed to move with the times across six generations of console hardware and changing gaming trends, plus jumps to handheld and mobile devices. Your feelings about individual installments may vary, but it’s impossible to accuse Final Fantasy of stagnation at any point in its long history.
Let’s delve into the history of the series and see just how it’s developed over time.
Note: This article spans five pages. Navigate between them using the buttons at the bottom of each page.
Final Fantasy I (1987)
The legend behind the Final Fantasy series as a whole — and its curious name — is that developer Square was facing bankruptcy in the late ’80s, and the original Final Fantasy was to be its last great hope for redemption. Fortunately for Square, it proved to be a massive success, and kickstarted the series that Square would become most closely associated with over the years.
Looking at it from a modern perspective, Final Fantasy I is fairly simplistic, and actually has a lot more in common with Western RPGs of the era such as Wizardry and Ultima than what we now typically regard as “JRPGs”. You have an entirely player-created party, drawn from a selection of available character classes, and said party is entirely mute, devoid of any characterisation or personality whatsoever. You have an open world map in which it’s alarmingly easy to accidentally wander into an area with monsters far too powerful to handle. And said monsters are heavily, heavily inspired by Dungeons and Dragons, being pretty much straight lifts of entries in the Monster Manual in many cases.
The game’s homage to Western RPG conventions wasn’t coincidental; it was entirely deliberate. Inspired by aspects of Western games such as monsters having elemental weaknesses, battle designer Akitoshi Kawazu incorporated these features into Final Fantasy, inadvertently setting the template for many a Japanese RPG to follow.
Final Fantasy III is typically credited as the game in the series that gave us the series’ famous Job system, though many of the game’s iconic Jobs were actually introduced in the very first game. Base Jobs that the player began the game with could later be promoted to a more advanced version, though the implementation was still fairly simplistic; there were no Job-specific commands as in later installments, with the only real special abilities available being White and Black magic spells, and some Jobs couldn’t use those at all, making them little more than attack machines.
In another nod to Dungeons and Dragons, spells were implemented not using the Magic Points system we saw in later games, but rather with a quasi-Vancian magic system in which characters had to prepare spells in advance across several different tiers by purchasing them from shops. Each tier, which was limited to three spells, could only be cast from a limited number from each tier per day — a “day” in Final Fantasy terms simply being the amount of time between the party resting at an inn or in a tent, since the game had no passage of time system.
Final Fantasy I is also noteworthy for another reason: it’s been revisited and revamped several times over the years, firstly as a straight remake with improved graphics and mechanics in the PlayStation release of Final Fantasy Origins, then with additional dungeons in the Game Boy Advance Dawn of Souls remake, then with an even more substantial, puzzle-centric dungeon in the PSP Anniversary edition, which also made it to mobile phones. The additional content in these versions was partly an attempt to incorporate conventions from later installments in the series — most notably very challenging “superbosses” — but also as a means to reward longtime fans of the series with a way to experience the game in a new way.
Is Final Fantasy I worth playing today? Yes, absolutely, as a means of seeing the series’ humble beginnings — though the clunky mechanics of the NES original are rather difficult to deal with from a modern perspective, so it’s best to seek out one of the later remakes that smooth out the rough edges. The PSP version represents the definitive version in this regard.
Final Fantasy II (1988)
With Final Fantasy II, we already saw a series unwilling to simply repackage the same game with a different map. Final Fantasy II brought two significant changes to the table: firstly, a greater emphasis on narrative than mechanics (which would become a pattern with even-numbered Final Fantasy games up until VI) and secondly, rather boldly, a complete abandoning of the traditional experience-and-levels progression system.
Final Fantasy II instead featured a system more akin to what we see in Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls series, in which various skills and stats improve the more you use them. Swing a sword lots and you’ll get better at using swords. Block damage with shields and you’ll get better at using shields. Take damage and you’ll get more HP. Use more spells and your spells will get better, but also cost more MP — but likewise, spend more MP on spells and you’ll get more MP.
It sounds fine in theory but in practice it was rather easy to exploit. You could actually beef your characters up to godlike levels in early versions of the game simply by causing your party members to attack one another rather than the enemies; not quite what the designers had in mind, I feel. Later versions lacked this exploit and also reduced the grind somewhat by increasing HP and other stats at regular intervals as well as through their use in battle.
But the mechanics weren’t the star of Final Fantasy II: it was the plot. In stark contrast to the mute protagonists of the first game, II had a cast of characters who, for the time, were fairly fleshed out, with pre-existing relationships and their own motivations. The storytelling was a little hamfisted and clunky in places — particularly towards the end of the game — but the ambition is clear, and, mechanics aside, Final Fantasy II is much more recognisable as a “modern” Final Fantasy than its predecessor.
Despite its original release on NES in 1988, we wouldn’t see Final Fantasy II officially in English until its release alongside its predecessor as part of the PlayStation remake compilation Final Fantasy Origins. Fan translations of the NES version existed prior to this, but this official English version gave us the canonical version of things like character names — most notably the protagonist being known as “Firion” rather than “Frionel” from the fan translation.
The NES version of Final Fantasy II is actually somewhat less clunky than its predecessor and is a lot more palatable from a modern perspective today. However, with superior versions for PlayStation, Game Boy Advance and PSP available — with the PSP version once again offering the definitive, most expanded experience over the original — it’s hard to recommend the NES original to anyone other than the most dedicated of retro purists.
Final Fantasy III (1990)
Final Fantasy III marked a return to mechanic-centric gameplay with its introduction of the Job system. This allowed the four party members in the game to switch their Job between battles, thus allowing for a wide variety of party lineups without needing a vast expanded cast of playable characters. The implementation of the Job system in Final Fantasy III was pretty simple compared to its more substantial revisit in Final Fantasy V some years later, but it allowed for an unprecedented degree of character and party customisation.
One of the most noteworthy additions to Final Fantasy III’s battle system were the Job-specific commands. Unlike Final Fantasy I, Final Fantasy III’s Jobs had more to distinguish them than stats and weapon proficiencies; now, each Job had a unique menu command, even if they were unable to cast magic. Final Fantasy III marked the first appearance of series mainstays such as the Dragoon’s Jump command as well as Summon magic; we also saw Jobs more geared to defending the party than attacking, Jobs that could use items more effectively and Jobs that were particularly suited to specific situations.
The Job system wasn’t just relevant in battle, either. Thieves could open certain passageways, for example, while magic-capable characters could cast spells such as Mini, which would sometimes be required to progress through dungeons by fitting through small gaps. These field mechanics made Final Fantasy III’s dungeons a lot more interesting than the simple “fight to the finish” structure of the previous games, though interestingly they wouldn’t make particularly frequent reappearances in subsequent installments.
Like Final Fantasy II, Final Fantasy III’s original NES incarnation didn’t get a Western release. Instead, our first contact with the series was Matrix Software’s Nintendo DS version in 2006, which featured considerable changes from the original and was far beyond the simple visual upgrade I and II received for Final Fantasy Origins on PlayStation. Final Fantasy III for DS was presented in full 3D rather than top-down 2D, and considerably fleshed out a lot of things about the game — most notably giving the four protagonists names, personalities and backstories.
The DS version also modified some of the mechanics in the game. While in the NES original, changing Jobs cost “Capacity Points”, awarded after battle much like experience and gil, the DS version instead introduced a period of adjustment for a character that had changed Job, placing them in a weakened state for a number of battles before they could fight to their full potential in their new role. Both approaches perform the same function — discouraging excessive Job-switching while encouraging players to stick with useful Jobs to level them up — but the DS version does so without requiring grinding to “pay” for a Job switch.
It’s interesting to compare the NES and DS versions of Final Fantasy III as they’re much more substantially different games than the first two installments in the series. Both are well worth playing, though do note that there has still been no official English release of Final Fantasy III on NES, so you’ll have to rely on fan translations if you want an authentically retro experience.