Article by Mightyblue | November 28, 2007
After twenty years of releases, ports, and collections, thereís just not a whole lot to say about the original Final Fantasy. Everything about the game has been said elsewhere, and extensively, and it's shown up on so many system it's starting to give off an impression not unlike an aging lady of the night. The one who's been around the "block" a few times and talk in that scratchy throat cancer voice. And maybe has a suspiciously large adam's apple, too.
From left: NES, GBA, PlayStation.
If that image inspires a certain feeling of disgust within -- or bemused humor -- you're certainly not alone. Itís the same feeling I had when I reached into my wallet to buy the last port of the original Final Fantasy I will ever buy, Dawn of Souls for GBA. And I'm a Final Fantasy loyalist, so I can only imagine how less dedicated fans feel. But my nostalgia has been pillaged by an endless procession of ports and collections, and Iím done with it. I laughed when it was ported to cell phones a few years back -- to date itís the only wholly digitally-distributed Final Fantasy title -- and I shouted with joy at the mostly-excellent PlayStation version, whose only failing was its load times.
Unfortunately, that was probably the pinnacle for the game, and it's all been downhill from there. The version in the Dawn of Souls portollection enticed me against my better judgment with its new dungeons and new items... and I nearly cried to see how much they had changed (read: ruined) the basic gameplay.
At this point, no less than eight different versions of Final Fantasy exist, each flawed in its own unique way and not getting particularly better with age. Thatís a lotta FF, and the gameís gone through a lot of changes in the visuals, sound, content and gameplay areas over the years. Let's all take a moment to bask in the light from the piles of filthy lucre S-E has amassed through their retreads.
From the left: WSC, PSP, Mobile
The first version, grandaddy of Ďem all, was of course the original NES version. Sporting the finest in 1987-vintage 8-bit video and sound, this final prayer of a company that had pretty much killed itself with an onslaught of crap thrust the player into the boots of four heroes (heroines? It's hard to say with the White Mage) on a magical quest to charge up four magical MacGuffins and save the world. Aaaand thatís pretty much it for the plot. By 1987ís standards that was actually pretty wordy, though admittedly clichéd -- yeah, even back then.
It's possibly even harder than the original Dragon Quest?, which made it an instant classic amongst the masochistic crowd. That was basically everyone back then, as we hadnít yet learned that dying every few steps isnít actually all that entertaining, especially with something as time intensive as an RPG.
Amusingly, Square got to work porting the game to another system before it even arrived in America; the Famicom version hit the NES in 1990, but Final Fantasy showed up on the MSX console in 1989. The MSX version is also exceedingly rare and nearly impossible to find media and information about.
For good measure, Square went ahead and re-released the Famicom version as a double-pack with its sequel in 1994, presumably to destroy all goodwill for the game by tainting it through association. No, you arenít seeing things as the Super NES (well, Super Famicom) had hit Japan in 1991, three years earlier, yet Square decided to release an unmodified compilation of its 8-bit RPGs on a platform that plummeting toward obsolescence. This is the same sort of business savvy that would result in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.
For a few years, the company let the game lay fallow as they worked on their PlayStation pyrotechnics, but the incipient release of the Game Boy Advance prompted them to activate put horrible business acumen to work again. The result: 2000's WonderSwan Color port. At the time, Square was going out of its way to disassociate itself with Nintendo, and support for Bandai's lame-duck portable over anything from the Game Boy family was their way of thumbing their nose at, well, pretty much everyone. Including the bottom line, since Game Boy turned out to be a festival of fat loot and WonderSwan limped into obscurity after a rapid succession of not-quite-good-enough hardware tweaks. As for this version of Final Fantasy, received a visual upgrade and an audio downgrade, the former of which served as a basis for the PlayStation and GBA ports.
The PS1 port is arguably the one truly enhanced port of the bunch, being both true and enhanced. It represents a sort of balancing point between the original Final Fantasy and its later remakes. In addition to some choice better-than-16-bit graphics, lush music and, uh, irritating load times, The PS1 port also offered players a choice between the original gameís punishing rule set and a nice and easy one that let you revive and destone characters in battle, gave you bigger buffs at level up and did away with the "magic levels" format in favor of giving each character a single mana pool. It was, in other words, an attempt at modernizing a 15-year-old game that was pretty much selling on nostalgia and series loyalty more than anything else by now, as calling the original "basic" by late PlayStation era standards would be almost euphemistically kind. And clearly that nostalgia helped it sell well enough to justify another portable port or two.
Some of the US boxart. From left: NES, PS1, GBA, PSP.
And then the series jumped right over the proverbial shark with Dawn of Souls. While not strictly a bad game by any means, it hardly qualifies as Final Fantasy anymore. Prior to its release, one of its listed improvements -- besides the bonus content, which isn't quite the "improvement" one might hope -- was a refinement of the battle system and difficulty balance. In the parlance of ports and remakes, this translates to "making a mess of things" as far as fidelity to the original game experience goes. Dawn of Souls was more or less a romp through a field of daises compared to the blasted wasteland filled with baleful monsters that the original game had been. Things looked the same, if perhaps a bit uglier and a lot tinnier than they had been on PlayStation, but the heart was gone. Granted, the game's heart was a vicious, sadomasochistic ball of hatred, but even so. The two extra dungeons and assorted new loot and foes were essentially shoehorned in as an afterthought to appease long-time fans and keep the torch-and-pitchfork crew at bay. Of course, message boards raved and railed about the compromises for a day or two... and then things went back to normal, as always.
The game's most recent incarnation -- the 2007 PSP? version -- is the "twenty years later" shot of a beautiful celebrity whoís been a bit too aggressive with the facelifts and nosejobs over the past decade. The "before" shot might have been a bit rough around the edges, but you knew that she was damn beautiful in her day. The "after" shot, however, has is more like a plastic effigy than the original knockout -- and thatís ignoring the substance lost to the years. Final Fantasy Anniversary Edition feels even more phoned-in than the GBA one, with a tacky fourth coat of paint doing nothing to disguise the damage done to an aged, poorly-rebuilt structure. And the addition of yet another gimmicky dungeon and the worst font seen in a video game in years certainly doesn't help.
And now the Japanese boxart. From left: NES, PS1, GBA, PSP.
There's an old truism about the Final Fantasy series: the odd-numbered entries tend to be evolutionary in design rather than revolutionary, while the even numbered entries tend to be the opposite. Even Final Fantasy XI?, the black sheep of the family, is more or less a studied take on Korean type MMOs; meanwhile, Final Fantasy XII has redefined the genre -- or it should have, anyway. And they're all building on this game's template -- the original Final Fantasy, trotted out to remind us that, hey, even the most offbeat chapters of the series still have some common DNA with the rest. Without the original, weíd never have the almost wholly plagiarized bestiary, nor the Job system, nor all of XII's inventions.
That being said, now would be a good time to put a stake in the game's heart.
As for the future? Past experience tells us the game will survive in one form or another so long as Square Enix does. Presumably getting a fresh (and perpetually ten-years-dated) paint job each time.... even as the underlying game slowly rusts away.