Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Review: Final Fantasy

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ff1_nes_boxartConsole: NES
Released: 1990
Developer: Square
Publisher: Square
Difficulty: Moderate
Price: $13.49 (used, cart only), $48.50 (used, complete), $288.00 (new)
Additional Releases: MSX2 (Japan only), Wonderswan Color (Japan only), Playstation (Final Fantasy Origins, updated graphics), Gameboy Advance (Dawn of Souls, upgraded with additional dungeons, new translation), PSP (original title, includes Dawn of Souls content with updated visuals and soundtrack)
Digital Release? Wii Virtual Console (NES version, $5), PSOne PSN (Playstation version, $10), PSN (PSP version, $10), iOS/Android/Windows Phone (PSP version, $7)
Similar Titles: Dragon Quest (Warrior) franchise, Phantasy Star franchise, Vay, Ys I & II

ff1_nes_1If you ask most Americans what the first true console RPG was probably one of the most common responses would be Final Fantasy.  Not only is Square’s epic tale of four warriors taking on a timeless being that plans to destroy the world memorable, but it stood well above the competition of the time.  The Legend of Zelda may have taken around 10 hours to complete, a size and scope only possible with the ability to save that was unheard of prior, but it was nothing compared to the massive world and 30-50 hours you may spend conquering Final Fantasy.  Aside from that, the 1986 Famicom title Dragon Quest (changed to Dragon Warrior in the US for its earlier iterations) had just received a slight upgrade and released to North America in 1989, less than a year before Final Fantasy.  It was great but couldn’t compete with a game that was made three years later with the lack of classes, a party system, and various other differences.  It should be noted that in Japan Dragon Quest II had already released and Dragon Quest III came out in February 1988, a mere two months after Final Fantasy, which had slowly built up most of the game’s staples such as a party system, exploration, turn based battle system, and both games had similar class systems.  That doesn’t mean that Final Fantasy doesn’t have its own identity, it’s far superior in terms of graphics, nothing like the airship showed in the first three Dragon Quest games, and instead of sending you back to town when you die like Dragon Quest you would instead get a game over and go back to where you last saved.  Final Fantasy also shipped with a map and huge manual that got players more invested in exploring and completing the campaign, not to mention a cheap and huge Nintendo Power strategy guide that released shortly after.  For me, it was the near perfect conversion of the Dungeons & Dragons universe – some of the characters are literally stripped from the Monstrous Manual  – and converted it into a single player experience.


Final Fantasy drops you into a vast world with multiple continents and terrain to explore with four warriors.  Each of these warriors are named and given a class from the start.  This allows a single player to control the party and do their favorite balance of brute force, tactical strategy and magic.  You could have any combination you like, including having all four characters being one class.  It really rings significant to me with heavy hitters like Borderlands and Diablo still being based on a class system.  The game is riddled with random encounters that are invisible, so the key is to be prepared for everything because at any time you can die.  Saving is possible anywhere on the overworld map but once you enter a dungeon, the true challenge of the game, you cannot save and must complete it before getting back to the surface to save.  That’s why two taxing activities are a must: grinding and losing progress.  You will die in the middle of a crazy ramped difficulty boss battle at some point and be forced to reload a save that you made (hopefully) just before entering and re-do an entire 1-2 hour dungeon only to try again to beat it.  If you want to prevent a game of chance, you can opt to grind – beating countless random enemies to get to a high enough level that you no longer have a challenge in said dungeon or against said boss – which may waste hours of mindless gameplay but is often your only hope at progressing.  This staple of Final Fantasy titles, and JRPGs as a whole, is why some players never even attempt to pick up the genre.  If you can stomach it, the reward is significant.  Not only do you progress on an epic journey that is a mixture of a decent story but also your personal achievements on the battlefield, all to feel like you truly saved the world.  It took me 40 hours to complete this title with nothing more than a map and free time, but conquering Chaos at the end is still one of my favorite and proudest moments in gaming.


Final Score: 5 out of 5  (GH101 review policy and definitions can be found here)


In the 8-bit era the game was available to Americans only on the NES, but in Japan it was on the MSX2 microcomputer with some glitches, the Wonderswan Color (Gameboy Color competitor) with mild graphical upgrades, and a re-release on the Famicom with the sequel updated with re-drawn sprites.

A Playstation port of the first two games, entitled Final Fantasy Origins, would update the graphics to high detail and some re-drawn looks, a remixed soundtrack, animated sequences, and an art gallery.  This same collection would move to the Gameboy Advance as Dawn of Souls: Final Fantasy I & II with four new dungeons, an updated bestiary, and new script.  The somewhat recognized definitive version of the game was released first on the PSP that retained the original title, contained all content of Dawn of Souls and updated the visuals again to high resolution 2D graphics as well as updated cutscenes and soundtrack.

An in-between port that was similar to a 16-bit look, but with none of the tweaks beyond the NES version, released on mobile phones in 2004 in Japan and eventually in 2010 in the United States.  Shortly after that the PSP version was ported first to iOS and eventually to Android and Windows phone.

Title Controversy

There are two stories that are traded off as the reason for the game’s title.  The first is that Square was nearing bankruptcy and most of the staff went into the project thinking it would be a swan song for the developer.  This was widely regarded as unsubstantiated rumor given the large amount of successful titles developed by Square on the Famicom/NES in addition to no one substantiating the claim.  In July 2009, Wired’s Chris Kohler – a well known gaming historian and co-host on the widely popular retro gaming podcast Retronautsinterviewed Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu and he claimed that this story is, in fact, true.

On the other hand, director Hironobu Sakaguchi has consistently claimed in interviews that the game title is due to the fact that he was set to return to university in the event it was a commercial failure.  Obviously the game’s initial 400,000 unit sales (huge at the time) and eventual more than 2 million units sold worldwide by 2003 prevented such events and started a long lasting franchise that still remains today.

While Uematsu stated in the interview that these claims are true, he remains firm that the title’s origins are with the potential Square bankruptcy.  Sakaguchi has never claimed the title to mean anything more than his fear of leaving the game industry if Final Fantasy was a failure.  The truth will most likely never be known for no better reason than the memories of the individuals involved have already been clouded by the passage of time.

Written by Fred Rojas

September 13, 2013 at 4:55 pm

One Response

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  1. The PS1 version has the lovely sound of the birds flapping, added to the opening cutscene.

    Also, you mentioned that you either risk dying to a hard boss or waste many hours grinding. Yet, you ignored that as a non-issue, and gave the game a perfect 5, instead of a 4 (or at least 4.5).


    February 1, 2017 at 8:41 pm

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