Release Date: 1987

Original System: Nintendo Famicom/Nintendo Entertainment System

This is the first in a series of blog essays examining the games in the Final Fantasy Series. We’ll be considering plot, mechanics, design and other aspects of each game, and how they work together as an experience. As a far bit of warning, these essays are going to be chock full of spoilers.

This is the one that started it all, and it did something cool right out of the gate. At first glance, Final Fantasy doesn’t have much of a story or plot. A slowly crawling text screen, almost an 8-bit equivalent of the “Star Wars” opening text crawl reveals that the world is ending, and only four brave youths, each carrying an orb, aim to stop it. Next, you choose the names and jobs of your characters, making them fighters or mages. This is the only game in the series where you choose your characters’ jobs at the beginning and have to stick with your decision. Once you’ve picked out your favorite team of Fighters and Mages, the game unceremoniously deposits your party on the map screen, in a forest ringing a huge castle town.

“Final Fantasy” and the other well known Japanese RPG of the era “Dragon Quest” both stick very close to the mold of computerized Dungeons and Dragons clones. Although there are some interesting twists in the first installment, and later games create more of an identity for themselves. The first game was chock full of giants, hordes of D & D style undead, and even beholders! And much like the style of tabletop RPGs at the time, Final Fantasy did not hold your hand or give much in the way of hints, aside from pointing you in the direction of evil and demanding that you ‘Rekindle the Orbs.’

At the start of the game, the major problem is that Garland, a formerly gallant knight, has kidnapped Princess Sara and is hiding out in the creepy ruined shrine to the north. No one in the kingdom is a match for him, so it’s up to you to go knock him down. So your characters march through the goblin-haunted forest, fighting monsters and hopefully leveling up a bit before meeting your heroic destiny and saving the princess. At the time, of course, saving the princess or other damsel in distress was so common that just about every game (except for Metroid, Samus Aran is a self-rescuing princess.) featured an end goal of freeing some captive lady from a dastardly villain who set a few hours of obstacles in your path and waited patiently on the last screen. But here’s where “Final Fantasy” does things a little differently.

Slaying Garland and rescuing Sara isn’t the end goal of your long and perilous quest. It’s just your first step on a much wider and grander adventure. This may not seem like much today, but from the mindset of 1987, it was huge. Final Fantasy didn’t just present a challenge, it creates an arc.

This is a common literary device, and I wish games used it more often. Like the opening sequence to a summer blockbuster, the audience is given a compact introduction based on action rather than exposition. In the 8-bit era, the story for a game was something often left for the instruction booklet. Final Fantasy embraces a more literary aspect, while at the same time creating a ‘newbie area’ for the player to learn the gameplay without wandering into a fight they aren’t ready for.

The reason this really works is that the player doesn’t even know this until they return the princess, collect their reward, a lute that seems to be important, but has no known purpose, and leaves town.

When the player reaches the new bridge, filled with a new purpose to discover what is ill in the world, something very different happens. Credits roll. Final Fantasy might be the first game to include credits at the front of the game, much like a film.

Things get more difficult for the player on the other side of that bridge, but the game has a pretty balanced difficulty curve. Final Fantasy is essentially a huge map, and the player is invited to explore more and more of it as he overcomes challenges. These are not merely physical challenges in terms of having stronger enemies in new areas, either. The narrative functions extremely well here. As with the bridge at the beginning of the game, new methods of exploration become available and obstacles are removed from your path as you complete the story. In some cases this could feel artificial or illogical, but Final Fantasy is rather elegant about it.

The player helps a blind seer recover her crystal ball, and receives vital information about the quest. The player frees a harbor town from invading pirates, and takes their boat as a reward. The player feeds a hungry monster and opens the path it blocked. This not only progresses the story and keeps the player invested, but it gives the player a sense of agency in the game world.

Focusing on challenge and exploration does come at a cost, however. While NPC’s are are interactive and change to some degree as the story goes on, the player is piloting a barber shop quartet of tabula-rasas across the game. The Light Warriors themselves don’t have any personality at all, and their accomplishments nest very simply on the shoulders of the player. The game is much more a power fantasy than an epic.

The plot still has the ability to surprise the player, however. Late in the game, after saving the world from three arch-fiends, and firmly entrenching the world of swords and magic, the plot throws a spanner in the works.

Late in the game, something falls to earth and is buried in a cave. The player explores the cave full of monsters and discovers… a robot. It seems the last archfiend has hidden herself in the last remnants of an advanced civilization’s technology, and you’ll have to go up into space to fight her. This isn’t a medieval fantasy, it’s a post-apocalyptic one. This is a really cool twist, and one of the mainstays of the series. It is reinforced in the final dungeon, when all four now lit orbs are brought back to the Chaos Shrine from the start of the game. The real plot of the game’s villains is to use the orbs to create a time-loop which makes them immortal, at the expense of the rest of the world, and the agent responsible is of course the original princess-kidnapping knight, Garland.

Final Fantasy’s plot is bare bones, but it presents the player as an agent of change, and the antagonists as bringers of a terrible status quo. This is a refreshing standout in a medium where heroes usually served as Princess retrieval services. Final Fantasy is a game about breaking out of damaging patterns and changing the world for the better, and it certainly changed the face of electronic entertainment.

Next up: Final Fantasy II, the black sheep of the family.