At the time of writing, Final Fantasy VII Remake has just released to widespread acclaim (and a bit of moaning, but that’s just the Internet doing its usual thing). But this is far from the first Final Fantasy to get the remake treatment!
Granted, the remakes that the first Final Fantasy has received over the years are somewhat less drastic than the ambitious multi-part Final Fantasy VII Remake project, but they’re noteworthy nonetheless. And they don’t come much better than the PSP “20th Anniversary” edition that released back in 2007.
So let’s take a closer look at what makes this version great.
The origin story of Final Fantasy has been regurgitated many times across the Internet to date (including as part of my Final Fantasy Marathon playthrough series that you can enjoy just above) so I won’t bore you with that for the umpteenth time. But it is worth looking at the trajectory this first game took to bring us to what — for me, anyway — is the definitive version of this classic.
The Famicom version released in 1987, to be followed by an MSX port in 1989. These versions were roughly equivalent, with a few minor tweaks for the latter version — most notably the Black Belt character class no longer being able to shine as a barehanded fighter after a certain experience level.
A more significant upgrade appeared in the form of late 2000’s WonderSwan Color version, which forms the basis for all subsequent ports. This featured considerably improved graphics — roughly on par with 16-bit home consoles such as the Super NES — plus some expansions to the game’s narrative component, as lightweight as it is, with some cutscenes to depict important moments such as the building of the bridge from Cornelia to the mainland. It also added the ability to “unlearn” spells if you made poor choices along the way (such as not taking Invisira or Temper), expanded text boxes, multiple save slots and various other gameplay tweaks.
This was followed up by Final Fantasy Origins for PlayStation in 2002. This was essentially a port of the WonderSwan Color version with higher resolution graphics, remastered music (intended to sound roughly on par with Final Fantasy IX’s soundtrack) and a new “easy” mode that made shop prices cheaper and experience points easier to come by. The English script was also rewritten to be much closer to the Japanese original.
Next came the Game Boy Advance version, known as Dawn of Souls. This was based on the “easy” mode of Origins in terms of overall difficulty and speed of progression, but also made some substantial adjustments to the game mechanics. Most notable among these was the abandonment of the original game’s Dungeons & Dragons-inspired “Vancian” magic system, where mages were able to cast a certain number of spells per “spell level” between periods of rest at an inn or in camp, and its replacement with the magic points system most subsequent Final Fantasy games have used ever since.
There was another important addition to the Game Boy Advance version: four brand-new dungeons, known collectively as “Soul of Chaos”. These unlock after you beat each of the Four Fiends, the game’s major story bosses, and are increasingly lengthy dungeons that present you with a series of challenges in a random order each time you confront them. Each dungeon features superbosses inspired by a different Final Fantasy game from III to VI, with the toughest in the game showing up in the 20-floor, Final Fantasy V-inspired Lifespring Grotto.
Then, finally, we come to the PSP version, which not only incorporates everything from the Game Boy Advance version, it also adds an additional new dungeon on top of all that. Known as The Labyrinth of Time, this unusual series of challenges features puzzles and tasks quite unlike anything else in the rest of the game, as well as one final superboss whose strength is determined by how many of these randomly selected challenges you successfully accomplished on your way through.
One thing you might think from looking at that complicated history is that Final Fantasy on the PSP is barely the same game as the Famicom original any more. And while that’s true to a certain extent — the difficulty levels and the change of magic system are the most notable differences — it still very much has the feel of the original.
Final Fantasy was always intended to be a Japanese take on Dungeons & Dragons. The game experience was heavily inspired by classic Western titles such as Ultima and Wizardry, and that aspect remains very much intact even in the more drastic remakes from over the years — in terms of the game’s overall structure, its relatively simplistic, easy to understand mechanics, and the sheer number of enemies that were simply lifted wholesale from D&D’s Monster Manual!
Unlike more modern narrative-centric role-playing games — particularly in the Final Fantasy series — the original Final Fantasy, in all its incarnations, is designed to feel like you and your party are exploring a vast world, seeking out adventures for yourself. You’ll rarely be given explicit instructions to “go here, do this”; instead, you’ll naturally progress through the world, overhear rumours from non-player characters in towns and have to make the effort to figure out what might be worth investigating, and how you might get there.
There’s a “best” path through the game that features the most gradual increase in enemy difficulty — plus certain parts are gated by the requirement to have the canoe, ship or airship vehicles to get to them — but there are numerous points where you can go off in several different directions and have to make a judgement on what your priorities should be. On top of that, you often have to deal with vague directions, making the whole thing feel much more like an “adventure” than simply following a linear plot.
Of course, there’s a bit of a price to pay for this, which primarily stems from how early an example of role-playing games the original Famicom version of Final Fantasy was: the plot is fairly weak, consisting primarily of a string of seemingly unrelated episodes that you just happen to stumble into by chance (and which just happen to end up relating to your stated overall quest) and concluding with a baffling, incoherent finale that feels like it was hastily scribbled down after one of the development team had a particularly weird dream following an evening of heavy drinking. On top of that, there are a lot of random encounters to deal with along the way; these are the main source of the game’s length.
It doesn’t really matter, though, because the joy of the original Final Fantasy is in exploring the world and its many dungeons, and in progressing your characters through both experience points and gear — this side of things remains very much intact in the later ports such as the PSP version. And the fact that you can select your lineup of character classes at the start of the game provides plenty of scope for replays with various self-imposed challenges, such as trying to clear the whole thing with just white mages, or just melee characters, or any other peculiar combination.
The game in its entirety is fairly short and not all that difficult — particularly if you pick the best buff spells for your casters, allowing you to decimate bosses with ease — but the new content for the Game Boy Advance and PSP versions adds considerable value and challenge.
The Soul of Chaos dungeons are a fun challenge, particularly with their randomised floor orders, though the random encounters are a little underwhelming in terms of difficulty. This can lead to you getting an unrealistic impression of whether or not you’ll be able to clear them at your current level. It’s perhaps best to think of the random encounters in these dungeons as a means of disorienting you in the more labyrinthine floors; they certainly don’t offer any particularly meaningful rewards, not even experience.
Meanwhile, the superbosses are so much tougher than everything else in the dungeon — and indeed the whole game — that it’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security by those random encounters, confidently feeling like you’re wrecking the whole dungeon before being absolutely eviscerated by its final challenge. Thankfully, if your party is wiped out in one of these dungeons, it’s not a Game Over; you just get sent back to the entrance.
The real highlight of the PSP version is the Labyrinth of Time, though. This features unique mechanics, including a time limit that can be extended by sacrificing certain abilities, with more “universal” abilities typically providing more bonus time. For example, if you proclaim you think you can clear a floor without your “Fight” command, you’ll be rewarded with more time than if you sacrifice a particular type of magic.
Each floor of the Labyrinth of Time features a puzzle inscribed on a stone tablet. Like the Soul of Chaos dungeons, these are randomly selected for each run, and you won’t see all of them on a single pass. Reading the tablet provides you with the instructions you need to clear the floor and immediately activates the puzzle. Successfully clearing it within the time limit unlocks a red portal and makes the final boss of the Labyrinth a bit tougher; failing to do so unlocks a blue seal and makes it a little easier.
These challenges are very varied, and pleasingly few of them are combat-based, though you will still hit random encounters while attempting to find the stone tablet in the first place — and an increased encounter rate once the time limit expires.. One floor challenges you to identify a specific fairy from a lineup based on her movement patterns; another tasks you with keeping step in a marching lineup; another still presents you with a logic puzzle where you have to identify the correct chest to open based on a series of clues, one of which is a lie.
The final confrontation in the Labyrinth features some spectacular enemy art, which becomes more elaborate and gorgeous the more challenges you successfully cleared along the way; while the fight itself isn’t too difficult — particularly if you successfully beat the Soul of Chaos superbosses beforehand — it’s a fun encounter that rounds off the additional content in the newer versions of Final Fantasy very nicely indeed.
Final Fantasy remains relevant as a series today because it has grown, changed and adapted over time. But even the more recent installments still look back on this first installment with fondness and awareness of where they originally came from. While certain aspects of its mechanics and structure — most notably the very high random encounter rate — will turn some modern players off, it’s still well worth experiencing this classic in one form or another, however you choose to do it.
Now, Square Enix, howsabout porting those lovely PSP versions to the Switch? I’d say we’re long overdue for a fresh port, and it’s not like you to pass up an opportunity like this…
If you enjoyed this post, please consider supporting the site via any of the services below! Your contributions help keep the lights on, the ads off and my shelves stocked up with things to write about!