magitek.jpgMy birthday was this past week, so in lieu of my usual $20 Game of the week and Lost Classics segments this week, I decided to give you a look at the the first half of one of the greatest console role playing game franchise of all time. That’s right, it’s my birthday, but I’m giving you the gift. See how cool I am? Well, onto our special feature.

After Dragon Quest (or Dragon Warrior as we knew it over here at the time), Final Fantasy was and still remains one of RPG gaming’s most prolific franchises. It introduced and refined several conventions that are seen in RPGs such as the turn-based battle system, character customization, ability progression, and story writing. Even so, it wasn’t until FFVII bought the series into 3-d that the series gained mainstream popularity. However, the first six games of the series still hold a special place in the hearts of many longtime FF fans.

finalfantasy.jpgIt all started here. Released in Japan in 1987, it wouldn’t arrive over here until Nintendo published it in 1990. You pick four heroes, give them names and classes, then send them on a quest to gather the four light crystals and save the world. The plot wasn’t much by today’s standards, but back then, it was miles above other games. It contained themes of time travel, technology, and the supernatural. It lacked the flash of the later games in the series, but you wouldn’t diss your favorite band or rapper because their first album isn’t as good as their most recent would you?

On a side note, the reason this game was called Final Fantasy was because at the time of it’s development, Square was floating towards bankruptcy. Series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi (who would go on to form Xbox 360 developer Mistwalker almost 2 decades later) declared that his final game would be a fantasy RPG, hence the name. Happily this would turn out not to be the case, as Final Fantasy earned Square some much needed income and became the second most popular RPG in Japan (the first being Dragon Quest). Unfortunately North America wouldn’t see another Final Fantasy game until Final Fantasy IV hit U.S. shores as a Super Nintendo launch title. However at the time we would know it as Final Fantasy II. This was pretty much the start of the Square’s nutty numbering of the U.S. Final Fantasy games. It made a bit of sense back then as FF IV was the second Final Fantasy title to be released in North America. Things became even more confusing as time went on.

finalfantasy2.jpgThe real Final Fantasy II was released a year after the original game for the Fanicom. Along with introducing the Chocobos (the flying birds seen throughout the Final Fantasy series), the game introduced a more complex plot than its predecessor, complete with characters that had their own names and personalities. As a group of four youths whose parents were killed by a fascist imperial regime, you join up with the local resistance group and seek justice. This game had a unique (even if problematic) way of increasing levels. Instead of gaining experience, players proficiency with a certain statistic or ability depended on how frequently they put it to use. For instance, using bow weapons would increase a character’s skill with a bow, and using a spell often would allow a character to learn a more powerful version of the spell. An unfortunate side effect was that overuse of a certain skill would lead to a character’s other stats suffering. To make things worse, MP and HP increasing was based on need, so this would lead to players abusing the system in various ways (such attacking their own players and finishing battles with just 1 HP remaining) to increase their HP and MP quickly. Even so, this was a unique approach to leveling up, and more refined versions of this system would show up in games such as the Elder Scrolls series. A U.S. release was planned, and a prototype cartridge was even created. However, the project was scrapped when the translations became problematic. We wouldn’t see this game over on our shores until Square included it as part of the Final Fantasy Origins PS1 compilation in 2003 and again in 2004 as part of the Game Boy Advance compilation Dawn of Souls. Both games contain Final Fantasy I and II with improved graphics, sound, and other new features. Dawn of Souls in particular contains bonus areas for Final Fantasy I and a new side quest for Final Fantasy II. Both of the games are also available on the PSP, however they are both separate packages.

ff3.jpgFinal Fantasy 3, the last Final Fantasy game released on the Fanicom, not only introduced Moggles (the adorable little furry creatures that also show up throughout the series), but it also introduced the job system that would appear again in various other Final Fantasy games. At the time of its release, it was one of the largest RPGs on the original NES. As a group of four orphans, you set out to fulfill an ancient prophecy and save the world. You start out as onion knights, but before long, you gain the power to change a character’s job class and abilities. It was the first Final Fantasy game to contain summoned creatures, as well as the first to have special commands tied to a character’s job class (such as the thief’s ‘steal’ command). Once again due to translation issues, we wouldn’t see this game on U.S. shores for several years. There were even plans to remake it for Bandai’s Wonderswan, but they fell through due to the premature death of the handheld system. Thus, the Nintendo DS remake which was released in 2006 remains the only version of Final Fantasy III which was released internationally. This remake contained polygon graphics, new job classes, new areas, and WiFi connectivity. Although most of the plot remains the same, the four orphans were replaced by a new cast of characters, complete with their own backgrounds and personalities. I’ll feature more on the remake in a future $20 GOTW. If you must play the original version, then I have it on good authority that a translated NES rom exists somewhere on the internet. Because I don’t want the lawyers coming down on us, that’s all I’ll say.

finalfantasy4.gifOnward to the next game. Final Fantasy IV bought the series into the 16-bit era. With an even more complex character-driven plot, a fully orchestral soundtrack (courtesy of Nobuo Uematsu), and the introduction of the ‘Active Time Battle System’ (in which players issues character commands in real time even though battles were still turn-based), Final Fantasy IV not only became a standout title on the Super NES, but it ranks among many players as one of the best RPGs of all time. Taking the role of dark knight Cecil, you join a host of other characters to discover the truth behind your heritage, and save the world from evil. While it eliminated FF III’s job system, it gave each character their own set of skills and abilities which made them unique. Rydiah could summon creatures, Kain had a powerful jump attack, and Tellah made use of powerful black magic. Unfortunately the ‘spoony bard’ Edward was also along for the ride, with utterly useless attacks and a whiny attitude. Even with him in the mix, the game was still enjoyable and filled with classic moments.

The game was packaged along with Chrono Trigger as part of Square’s Final Fantasy Chronicles compilation. Also, it was remade on Game Boy Advance a few years back. The GBA remake contains a reduced difficulty, new abilities, and a new area. A DS remake has recently been released in Japan as well. Similar to FFIII, this remake contains 3-D polygonal graphics. No plans have been announced to bring it over here, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it over here in the near future.

finalfantasy5.jpgFinal Fantasy V was a step back in the series in terms of the game’s storyline. It was full of cliches, and there were moments which contained some seriously god-awful writing (The main boss is called Exdeath for crying out loud). The music left much to be desired as well. However, the return of FFIII’s job system went a long way towards making up for the shortcomings. The job system was expanded and improved in a major way. Earning a separate set of EXP known ad ability points, characters can increase their job levels and earn secondary abilities. In spite of its shortcomings, this was a very sought after game by fans. Square intended to release it in 1993 on Super Nintendo as Final Fantasy III, but scrapped it after the translators felt that it wasn’t accessible to the average gamer. Instead, they bought FFVI over here the following year. Square flirted with the idea of releasing it in the U.S as Final Fantasy Extreme and even releasing it on Windows, but translation issues held them back. This was one of the first games to be translated by fans, so with the increase in internet usage, unauthorized English translations of FFV appeared on the internet. Between IV and VI, the only thing we would receive was Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, an attempt by Square to create an ‘beginner’s RPG’ for U.S. audiences. While the game wasn’t terrible, its linearity, simple game play mechanics, and sub-par graphics caused it to backfire. The first time we would see an official North American release of FFV would be in 1999, as part of Square’s Final Fantasy Anthology compilation, along with a remastered version of Final Fantasy VI. FFV and VI were also both individually re-released for Game Boy Advance a while back.

finalfantasy6.pngSpeaking of which, Final Fantasy VI (released over here as FFIII) is a pinnacle of 16-bit RPG gaming. It featured beautiful graphics and music, an epic storyline (which even features the end of the world among other things), and the largest cast of characters of any Final Fantasy game. One of the best features of this installment of the series is the diversity of each of the characters’ abilities. You don’t simply select commands from a list, many abilities have minigame elements to them. For instance, Sabin’s martial arts attacks make use of Street Fighter-style button combos, Cyan’s sword techniques are preformed with a charge meter, and Edgar makes use of special devices for his attacks. Mystical entities known as Espers, which are found throughout the game, grant your characters the ability to summon them for powerful attacks. More importantly, they allow your character to learn new magic spells. The game also contains some classic moments as well. Who can forget Sabin and Cyan’s jump across the phantom train, the opera scene with Celes, or the three-way split a quarter of the way into the game?

After VI, Square took the series in an all new direction with FF VII. With 3-D polygon graphics, CD-quality sound, a futuristic setting, and CGI cutscenes, FFVII became an instant classic among longtime series fans and new players alike. Even so, many Final Fantasy fans yearn for the good old days, and with the classic storylines, moments, and characters, it isn’t hard to see why.