After FF2’s dramatic departures, Final Fantasy III is a return and refinement to the style of the original Final Fantasy. While there is a bit of hand waving to establish the four unnamed children of destiny as orphans living in a remote village, We’re pretty much back to the non-character party of Final Fantasy. Later remakes worked a bit harder at this, but for the NES era, we have four tabula rasa, which actually fits the premise well. This time, you they aren’t stuck in the same job for the whole game. This is the game where Square introduced the popular Job change mechanic.

How it works is players receive Job Points as they progress through the game along with experience and gold. As the game progresses, the story unlocks more available jobs to change into, allowing new classes for the characters. This gives the player a chance to experiment with different abilities without being corralled by the game.

Although it was originally released in Japan in 1990, the rest of the world didn’t get to (legally) play Final Fantasy III until 2006. The game was a late addition to the Nintendo Famicom library, and Square chose to release its 16-bit successor in the US as Final Fantasy II instead. For being released so late in the console’s life, the game takes better advantage of the hardware than the two previous entries. The game’s palette is brighter, the sprites are more detailed, and the game world is larger and more complex. Many of the games textures and sprites would be upcycled and reused in the Super Nintendo release of Final Fantasy IV.

The basic plot of Final Fantasy III combines the mechanics and exploration based gameplay of the first game with the more dramatic elements of the second. The player characters are four orphans in silly helmets who fall into a cavern after an earthquake. There, they discover a magical crystal, and are charged with solving the mystery of what caused the elemental macguffin to be sealed away in the first place, along with the other three, of course. The crystal gives them the ability to have and switch between a variety of different jobs. Each one has its own strengths and weaknesses, and gives the characters benefits when they level up. Fighters use swords and give more HP when leveling up, White Mages use magic and give better Magic Defense. As with the other entries in the series, These are old hat ideas now, but were excitingly innovative at the time.

As the game progresses, and the player explores more and more of the game world, each new crystal discovered grants new jobs. A colorful cast of NPCs provide the plot, and drive the story forward. This is where Final Fantasy III shines, expanding on the job-based gameplay from FF I and the drama-laden narrative from FF II.

This drama comes in the form of NPC characters who join up with the Light Warriors as they traverse the fields, forests, caves and ruins of the world. The party’s driving goal at any one time is determined by the needs of the tag-along characters, even if they don’t ride shotgun in battle the way they did in FF II. The party helps Cid get home safely, rescues the Prince of a war-torn kingdom from his possessed father, and more. Each of these episodic diversions feels like more than a simple side quest. They breathe life into the game world, and provide a welcome break from the 8-bit formula of now go to this dungeon and get the next crystal formula. And at the climax of the game, it is the good the player did in the world that proves more powerful than the arcane jewelry they spent the last 20 hours focusing on.

Final Fantasy III is the height of RPG craft in the NES era, and it is a shame that fans never got to play it in the days of its 8-bit glory. The game doesn’t hold up so well today, even with graphics and story updates. Much like the Disney film version of “John Carter of Mars,” this is something we’ve seen expanded and perfected in the years since it was originally devised. Going back to it is a fun history lesson, but only the hard-core need apply. Also, avoid the mobile versions. The control scheme is unworkably terrible.