WARNING: This article contains story spoilers.
The 1980s were an interesting time in computer RPGs. They were still in their infancy and developers puzzled over how to bring them to PCs and consoles, with such games having up until that point dwelled in the realm of pen and paper. The results were varied as were the means of getting there. How would the world be portrayed? From an overhead third person perspective? Or would first person be better? What kind of adventures would the player go on? How many people would even be needed to make the game?
During this period, a couple of games in particular began to gain a lot of traction in CRPG circles: Ultima and Wizardry. They took vastly different approaches to the genre, and became hugely influential in the direction that such games would go, with many of their mechanics slowly appearing in other titles.
This is where Squaresoft comes into the picture. The company had been around for a few years already, putting together various adventure, action, and shooting games. Unfortunately, their games just weren’t catching on and the studio was facing financial difficulty. If they didn’t produce a hit soon, they would have to close their doors.
So, during a meeting, Hironobu Sakaguchi brought up how he didn’t feel up to the task creating another action game. He felt that telling a story, making a game with a strong narrative focus, would be something much more inline with his abilities. Given his involvement with Squaresoft’s first two games, The Death Drap and Will: The Death Trap II, both adventure games, this line of reasoning certainly makes sense. With that he convinced the company that their next game should be an RPG, a genre that was quickly becoming popular, and where Sakaguchi could focus far more on story. So, just as the often told story goes, production on Final Fantasy began, a game that, if it were to fail, would spell the end of Squaresoft.
Taking a bird’s eye view of the game, in many ways it didn’t do anything all that original. From a gameplay perspective, it was a mish mash of ideas that had already appeared in RPGs before. The game had an overhead perspective similar to the likes of Ultima and Dragon Quest and the battle system was a simple, menu-driven, turn-based affair. Meanwhile, magic was a carbon copy of Wizardry’s tier and charge based approach to the arcane (mercifully with far easier to remember spell names than what Sir Tech threw at players).
These big numbers didn’t stop with bad guys either. There were tons of weapons and armor to discover as well. It added an additional level of excitement while trudging around a dungeon, opening treasure chests and coming across something like a dragon sword or zeus gauntlets. Were they any good? Who knows! But they sure sounded exciting! Then there were the spells. Final Fantasy had over 60 of them. Compared to the competition, that was an outlandishly large number. In a lot of RPGs of that time, players were lucky to have 20, but here we were with a game sporting three times that. Even in comparison to a lot of RPGs coming out today, that’s a lot of spells. So, right off that bat Squaresoft was trying to hit players with sensory overload, giving them tons of places to go and things to do. The company was aiming very high in that regard, and it’s a methodology that we would see them apply again and again in the series as the years wore on.
The second thing that the game had which helped it to stand out and was a much more fleshed out story than many had seen in a game before. Most video games had little to no narrative in them during the 80s. At best, a player would be asked to save a princess, maybe kill a crazy wizard, or go look for a long-lost magical relic. Simple, to the point, and not exactly engaging.
Final Fantasy completely did away with this by creating this large world with bustling cities, all with their own problems, as well as ancient evils running amuck. There was a sense of history to the world. Players encountered people who would tell them how things were hundreds of years in the past and that it was a lot better back then. Ruins and forgotten towns were peppered throughout the land that hint at a fallen civilization. Then there were the stories that the Circle of Sages told about the coming of the four fiends and how they rained destruction on the land. It was some pretty heavy stuff to cram into an RPG for the NES. The concept of world building is commonplace these days, but it was virtually non-existent in the realm of computer RPGs during the 1980s.
The whole point of the game was for four young adventures, each holding an orb, to fulfill their destiny as the Warriors of Light by defeating the fiends, restoring the orbs, and bringing peace to the land. These four had their work cut out for them, and players knew it.
It wasn’t just the large main quest that the game had going for it, either, as every town that the player visited had its own personality. Right from the start of the game, Final Fantasy cheekily throws one of the most cliched stories in video games at the player: rescue the princess. Marching into the closest castle available in search of quests, as was often the case in RPGs of this era, players were asked by the King of Cornelia to rescue his daughter who had been kidnapped by one of his former knights, Garland. What’s the king’s name? How about his daughter? Who cares! None of that is important, just like the quest itself. Players could pretty much run north right from the get go to rescue her if they were so inclined. It wasn’t very hard. The whole thing felt like the developers were just trying to get the quest out of the way with a wink and a nod before sending players into the great big world ahead of them.
With that, it’s impressive that the game was able to accomplish this given just how brief most conversations are in Final Fantasy. This is a game that isn’t exactly known for robust exposition. Chatting with NPCs, most of them say what’s on their mind in no more than a sentence or two, either sharing a bit about themselves or the town, or giving vague advice on what to do next usually with one word conveniently all in caps to emphasize that it’s a very important item that players should try and find.
The ending itself was a shocker. Players eventually have to travel back in time to stop the fiends, which is all very exciting when one remembers that they’re going to the period when this ancient civilization that’s been hinted at for much of the game still thrived (though at the same time a bit gauling that it wasn’t actually possible to explore it as players were hurried along to the last castle of the game for their final battle). Fighting through hordes of particularly nasty enemies and having to re-fight the fiends was challenge enough, but then the game dropped a bomb on players when it turned out that Garland was the last boss of the game. That the guy we beat in that trite little Save the Princess quest at the very start of the game was actually the final boss was quite the surprise for a lot of people. Nowadays, something like this would likely be viewed more as a slightly annoying deus ex machina moment, but gamers hadn’t been beaten over the head by this sort of thing yet so it was rather unexpected at the time.
The whole journey from saving the princess to saving the world was quite the challenge too. Final Fantasy wasn’t a game to hold players hands. As was mentioned earlier, many NPCs would give cryptic hints about important places to visit and key items to search for. This resulted in players needing to systematically talk to each and every person in each and every town just to make sure that they’d gathered enough information to piece together what they’d need to do in order to complete the game. It usually wasn’t much to go on, but this was vital for progressing in a timely manner. Moreover, some NPCs would change what they had to say after players completed certain tasks, so it was important to talk with them fairly regular in case they had any further nuggets of wisdom to share. It was a laborious process, and often not very much to go on, but does help to illustrate how players had to figure things out on their own while playing.
Once players unlock the airship, the game busts the doors wide open when it comes to exploration. First of all, airships were something that just didn’t happen in RPGs at this time. The notion of taking to the skies to visit new lands, namely the isolated northern continents of the game, was very appealing. There wasn’t much to go on here either in terms of where to visit first. The peoples of the south hadn’t really been in contact with these towns for centuries, so didn’t have much advice on whom to visit, leaving players to fly around, trying to find a place to safely land their airship, and trek overland to this or that village they happened to spot nestled in a cops of trees, often learning the hard way that the creatures of these new lands were significantly more powerful than anything that they had fought up till now.
It wasn’t just the overworld that was big and mysterious either. Final Fantasy’s dungeons were sprawling, labyrinthine affairs with long meandering corridors, dead ends, and very dangerous enemies. Nonetheless, players explored every nook and cranny of these places in search of powerful weapons and important items, all while steeling themselves for the inevitable boss fight that would ensue in their deepest levels.
It’s also worth noting that the game was quite a looker for the time. Development on the NES was always about making the most out of very limited hardware. There were only so many colors and so much detail that could be smattered on the screen at once. Squaresoft did a fantastic job with Final Fantasy. Enemies were varied and detailed, party members had nice little touches like swinging their weapons when it was their turn to fight, and the variety of tiles adding life to the levels was impressive. The game’s aesthetic also leaned far more towards fantasy than latter games in the series which often blended this with liberal portions of sci-fi, steampunk, and whatever else the developers felt like tossing in. This game was far more about imps, dragons, giants and the like, with only the occasional hint of science fiction thanks to robotic enemies like Warmech. These all may look incredibly simplistic in today's terms, but for the time, these visuals were amazing. The same can be said for the soundtrack, which sported countless memorable melodies, some of which have become staples of the series like its prelude and victory fanfare.
However, there’s a lot of stuff that is synonymous with the series that hadn’t been established yet. There were no chocobos, no moogles, and no sign of Cid, with him only being mentioned briefly in the later remakes of the game as the inventor of the airship that the warriors of light would use. A number of the touchstones that have become part and parcel with Final Fantasy had still not been dreamt up when the first game in the series came along.
The characters that players controlled also weren’t predetermined. There were no Clouds, Zidanes, Tiduses, or Squalls. No Terras, Cecils, or Balthiers. Nothing of the sort. Instead, players created their party of four adventurers from scratch, choosing which of the six jobs each of them would have, then proceeding to name them. They never spoke a word, simply doing their best to defeat the fiends and restore their orbs. As such, it was much easier for players to project a bit of themselves into these characters rather than them being far more strictly defined.
Meanwhile, combat was very rudimentary, very much a product of the RPGs that preceded Final Fantasy with its simple menu system where players selected between Fight, Magic, Items, Drinking a Potion, or running away. For all intents and purpose, it was quite functional, but a far cry from the more involved systems that the series would eventually see with its active time battles, limit breaks, and the like. There wasn’t even the ability to summon beings to fight alongside the party yet. On top of this, the game had the infuriating quirk of not defaulting to the next available enemy when one was defeated. So, if you had two characters attacking the same monster, and the first one killed it, the second would just attack an empty space instead of looking for another enemy to go after. Combat was very barebones with its saving grace being the size of the encounters players could find themselves embroiled in. Suddenly being set upon by nine cocktrices was guaranteed to be a nerve wracking affair.
With that, not only did Final Fantasy save Squaresoft from oblivion, but it also lit a fire under every other RPG developer out there as they quickly realized that this title had changed everything, and they would really have to up their game if they wanted to compete. Since its original release, we’ve seen the game get a makeover and appear on both the GBA and PSP sporting improved visuals more akin to what one may expect to find in an SNES title (such as detailed sprite work, scaling, enhanced music, and the like). The game also received a number of quality of life improvements. For one, mana points replaced the tiered and charge-based magic system of the original. Bugged spells like Temper were fixed so that they actually worked. Also, prices were reduced on a number of items and enemy strength scaling was massaged to reduce the need to grind in the remakes. As a result, the game was brought more in-line with more contemporary expectations of the genre.
So, as the years passed, Square continued to put out new games in the series as it became the juggernaut that it is today. The company continues to build upon the foundation set by the first Final Fantasy, but one thing remains the same today just like back in 1987, the series developers still aim high and are extremely ambitious with these games as they try their best to provide an involving story set in a vibrant world for players to explore.