At the beginning of the game, you have your choice of six classes for each of your four characters. In the two or three times I'd played the game previously, it was always Fighter, Red Mage, White Mage, Black Mage, which covered all the bases: strong offense, strong defense, every spell and virtually every piece of equipment in the game available to me, and one character (the Red Mage) who could serve as a backup for any of the others. Switching one of them out for a Thief or a Black Belt would've been manageable, but swapping out two of them for both? I was at a loss.
The Fighter was a must-have. Not knowing how capable the Thief and Black Belt were at holding their own in a fight, I needed somebody who could reliably dish out the hurt as much as he could take it. However, that put me at a disadvantage in terms of magic—up until the optional class change halfway through the game, at least three of my characters would have to rely on nothing but brute force for their victories. Obviously my fourth character had to be a magic-user...but how does one decide between the powerful offenses of black magic and the vital restorations of white magic?
I compromised with a Red Mage, knowing full well that he'd become largely obsolete later on in the game when all the best magic and equipment would be off-limits to him. I reasoned that my party lineup only needed to be effective for as long it took to start collecting items such as the Heal Helmet and Thor Hammer, which would allow any of my party members to cast limitless mid-level magic of both colors. I tend to use magic sparingly in RPGs anyhow, saving it for boss battles or general post-battle recovery, so it made sense to favor versatility over the kind of White/Black Mage specialization that I'd only take advantage of a handful of times throughout the game. I was completely fine with my Red Mage (and, after the class change, Red Wizard) spending the second half of the game throwing up a Heal Staff every turn for lack of anything more useful to do.
Red Mage ended up being a very good choice for the start of the game. It turns out the Thief is useless at offense, passable at staying alive, and only skilled at running away, which I've learned to never bother with because (a) you miss out on all the experience points and gold; and (b) it never works anyhow. I patted the Thief on the head, stuck him in the corner, and let him have his fun poking Imps to death while the rest of the party took down anything vaguely threatening. As for the Black Belt, his damage was almost on par with the Fighter's...when he landed a hit. I've never seen a character whiff so much in an RPG, except perhaps that one time when I equipped the capricious Casey Bat in EarthBound. For a good long while, I relied on the Fighter and Red Mage to carry the party through every battle, with the Black Belt occasionally speeding up the process.
Then, around the time I started making my first couple trips into the Marsh Cave, the Black Belt started hitting things. Often. And when I unequipped the Wooden Nunchucks, his damage got even better—like the Dungeons & Dragons Monk class, there's a certain point when equipment becomes a hindrance rather than a boon to the martial artist. By the end of the game, my Black Belt—upgraded to Grand Master—was all all but single-handedly taking down WarMECH in two or three turns. You know, WarMECH? The fearsome party-killer that's second in scariness only to the final boss, and is so dangerous that there's only one hallway in the entire game where you might find it if you walk back and forth excessively? Yeah, my Grand Master has two notches for WarMECH on his black belt.
What made this playthrough particularly fun was the sequence-breaking. Like the Metroid games, the original Final Fantasy is linear, but not rigidly so—meaning you're only encouraged to do things in a certain order. Once the princess was rescued and the bridge to the new continent was built, the game began to open up. Yes, I could go beat up Bikke the Pirate and take his ship to go sailing across the sea to Elfland...but I wanted to explore the far reaches of the continent beyond Pravoka and become strong enough to truly put Bikke to shame.
Did you know that the very tip of the continent is technically in another quadrant of the overworld map, belonging to a different continent altogether, which has far more dangerous (and lucrative) random encounters? Instead of spending hours grinding for money and experience points from Ogres and Arachnids, I made surgical strikes into the edge of the continent, gearing up for them like I would for a boss battle, and took out a pair of Zombie Bulls or a pack of Frost Wolves before racing back to town to heal up for the next strike. Just one of these encounters was as profitable as five or ten battles with the monsters I should've been fighting at the time, and unquestionably more fun.
By the time I got around to confronting Bikke, I believe it only took a single round to wipe out his pirate friends. Interestingly, almost no monsters attacked me on my first outing in my newly acquired ship. I guess word gets around.
Once I reached Elfland, I discovered I was short on cash, what with all the tantalizing new spells and equipment to buy. Now, the normal thing to do would've been to march out into the field and kick some Asp (and some Arachnid, and some GrOgre) until I had enough money to satisfy my heroically motivated greed, but I had my little corner of the other continent to farm. Back across the sea, up to the land of Tyros and Trolls, and then back to Elfland after one or two battles. Repeat. As my party grew stronger and better prepared thanks to the merchants of Elfland, the battles with these inappropriate-for-my-level monsters went faster and became less dangerous; I started sticking around for two or three at a clip before retreating to the inn. It took about three expeditions to clear out everything in the Marsh Cave by the time I got there, as opposed to my usual four or five or six (interspersed with expeditions back to town to revive at least one of my party members who hadn't yet mastered the art of living).
Following the grand trading sequence where the CROWN you pick up in the Marsh Cave ultimately leads to you getting a KEY, which unlocks all those doors you forgot were locked in all the other places you have no reason to go back to, I interrupted my forward momentum to go back and clean out the Coneria treasury, the deepest parts of the Marsh Cave, the Northwest Castle, and the Dwarf Cave. I had forgotten that most of these hidden treasures are utter junk to you by the time you can finally access them. Part of the problem, I've realized, is that the game's buggy programming deprives some of the equipment you find from being as awesome as it's supposed to be—for example, a werewolf-killing sword that doesn't actually kill werewolves. (Well, it does, but it's not any better qualified than any other weapon of its attack power.) Still, the useless items sold for a pretty penny, and there were a few worthwhile additions ("Ooh! A new Tent!").
One round of TNT and a new canal later, I was off to the ocean. My first stop was a visit to Melmond for supplies, and then a delve into the Earth Cave to scoop up all the items on the top floor and gauge how close I was to having a reasonable shot at making it through the lower levels in suitable condition to fight the boss. As I returned to Melmond to pick up more of what I couldn't afford the first time in town, it occurred to me that I didn't have to be here yet. Crescent Lake was accessible by boat, and though the monsters between the town and the port were a bit stronger than what I'd been facing, they weren't unmanageable. I could save up a little bit and clean out the shops of both Melmond and Crescent Lake before trekking any further into the Earth Cave. Done deal.
I think Lich lasted two, maybe three turns. My LIGHT WARRIORS were not to be trifled with now. I wasn't even trying to become overpowered; by exercising the freedom I was given, and by fighting all the battles between me and my chosen destinations, I had all the benefits of endless grinding without having to suffer through all the tedium. This was shaping up to be the most fun I'd ever had playing the original Final Fantasy, despite even my awkward party lineup.
Yet...not so awkward now. The Fighter and Black Belt had become equally valuable—the former was better at soaking up damage, but the latter got hit less and dealt slightly more damage on average. The Red Mage touted some mighty powerful spells and could still hold his own in direct combat. The Thief...well, I still patted him on the head and stuck him in the corner. But his chance to shine would come soon enough.
Following the defeat of Lich, the Earth Fiend, one of the sages at Crescent Lake gives you a CANOE, spelled in all caps like that, so you can go exploring the waterways of the world. What you're supposed to do with the canoe is go meander around the center of the continent until you find the miserable Gurgu Volcano, where enemies like to set your whole party on fire, if not kill individual members in an instant, assuming everybody isn't already mostly dead from the lava floors that drain health with every step. Seriously, this place is not appropriate for anyone of the supposedly appropriate level. The Sunken Shrine should be next, then the Ice Cave, then the Gurgu Volcano—and just shuffle around enemy stats and treasure chests so it's a fair challenge. I was really not looking forward to this part of the game, particularly without anyone in my party who could cast the LIFE spell yet.
So I skipped it altogether.
I had a ship and I had a canoe. Did you know that you can dock your ship at the mouth of any river, and then proceed to paddle down the river in your canoe? It's true! And did you know that, although the entire rest of the northern hemisphere can only be accessed via airship, there is a single river at which you can dock your regular ol' seafaring ship? Well, I thought I'd pull an encore of my Pravoka-area shenanigans and skirmish with some stronger monsters up in the northern hemisphere for some quick experience. No sense grinding in or near the miserable volcano, right?
Much to my surprise, the enemies up north weren't any more of a threat than anything in the volcano. I took out a pack of Catmen (Catmans?) with relative ease, and the river monsters were the same as anywhere else. Well, the river I docked at was within eyeshot of the Castle of Ordeals, a confusing labyrinth filled with nasty creatures that have claimed the lives of countless adventurers more qualified than my party.
What the heck, I thought. I'll save, run inside, and see how far I get before being totally annihilated. I remembered there being some good treasure in there that I definitely was not supposed to have yet, so that might give me the edge I wanted to make the volcano more bearable. That was a better plan plan: Run in, grab some treasure, run out. Heal, save, repeat until finished.
So apparently once you enter the Castle of Ordeals, the only way back out is to complete the whole dungeon. Unless you have a spellcaster with an EXIT spell, which I most certainly did not. Oops. Fortunately for me, enemy encounters were few and far between as I systematically probed the pillars that teleported me all about the castle. With a full compliment of 99 HEAL potions and a Red Mage with a bunch of CURE and CUR2 spells at his disposal, I might just last long enough to find the exit.
Then I discovered that Mancats can cast FIR2. When Mancats come in groups of seven and surprise your party, things get unpleasant very quickly. Ah, the irony: I delayed going to the volcano to avoid having everyone set on fire. It wasn't long before Mancats were about the only things I fought, and I quickly realized that I wasn't going to survive much longer if I kept blowing so much of my limited magic and so many of my healing potions on these ill-advised battles.
Hey...didn't I have a Thief in the party who's supposed to be good at running away?
For hours upon hours of gameplay, the Thief had waited for his golden moment, and at last it had arrived. The rest of my time in the Castle of Ordeals was spent fleeing from everything I couldn't kill in two rounds, and that was a good enough strategy to get me to the good treasure chests at the end of the dungeon—the ones with the Ice Sword and Zeus Gauntlets and Heal Staff in them, not to mention more gold than I'd be able to spend for quite some time. At last, I was where I'd longed to be all game: in possession of some items that anyone could use to cast unlimited magic. I upped my Fighter's damage with the Ice Sword and gave the other two weapons to the Thief, who forever gave up a life of poking things to death in exchange for a life of using LIT2 to do something for a change, as well as a freebie HEAL spell to keep the party's HP topped off. Life was good. And thankfully, life didn't end two battles later when my party confronted the Zombie Dragon that guarded the primary treasure of the Castle of Ordeals, the grody rat tail that was to eventually be shown to the dragon Bahamut as proof of our courage.
So I cleared the Castle of Ordeals in a single go. Before raising the airship. Before setting foot in the Ice Cave. Before even attempting to bother with the Gurgu Volcano. Yeah, this was officially the most fun I'd ever had playing Final Fantasy.
Well, heck, if I could do that, then the Ice Cave shouldn't be too much trouble, right? The volcano would still be there when I got back. So I took my canoe to the lair of the sinister Eye to pick up more treasure I wasn't supposed to have yet, including the fabled FLOATER.
This time, things did not go so well. Says the guy who was nearly incinerated five times over my Mancats in the last dungeon. Oh, sure, I was holding my own against the various villains of the Ice Cave, but all it takes is one bad round against a quartet of Mages or an ambush by a colorful assembly of Frost Wolves and their companions to slay one of your key party members. What began as a leisurely quest for treasure became a frantic race for the exit—I'd come back later for whatever I missed when I was stronger. Still, I was strong enough to defeat the dreaded Eye without complications, and I found myself back outside with the FLOATER just as things were starting to look grim.
Well, no sense navigating the rivers to the volcano now. Might as well raise the airship and fly directly there instead. So I retrieved the airship from the desert and flew to Gaia to buy better equipment. And then to Onrac to buy even more equipment. And then to the desert caravan to buy a fairy in a bottle. And then to the waterfall cave to pick up the CUBE that would let me enter the Sky Tower. Oh, but first, I headed to the Cardia Islands to have Bahamut advance my party to Knight, Ninja, Grand Master, and Red Wizard.
Wait, wasn't there something else I was supposed to be doing...?
Oh, well. Let's go to the top level of the Sunken Shrine to get the SLAB that'll teach us how to speak Leifenish, and then let's go get the CHIME so we can enter the Mirage Tower and start working on the penultimate dungeon of the game. It took several forays into the tower to grab all the treasure and keep my party intact long enough to reach Tiamat—inevitably, my Red Wizard was always the first to die, and just after I'd taught him the LIFE spell, too. Who knew an Evilman could cast NUKE?
That's something I appreciate about the original Final Fantasy that gets lost in later games: the names of spells and enemies have so much character. NUKE instead of Flare; HARM instead of Dia; BONE instead of Skeleton; CREEP instead of Gigas Worm. The bluntness of the translation is so much more charming in my book.
I conquered Tiamat, then Kraken, and then, when I had exhausted every other avenue of avoidance, Kary. The Fiend of Fire had been sitting pretty in her volcano for far longer than is at all reasonable, and my grossly overpowered heroes made short work of the guardians within. Having two or three freebie healing items at this point was nice, too, as I didn't need to worry about a round of healing potions every couple steps when I got to the lava floors. Heck, I even had fun in the volcano, and that's never happened before. But I was playing the game on my own terms, and the game allowed me that freedom.
Kary went down before one or two of my other party members had a chance to attack. It was kind of surreal, continuing to explore the bottom floor of the volcano after disposing of the boss like she was a random guardian of a treasure chest or something.
As I entered the final dungeon, I determined I must've missed a couple pieces of equipment along the line; I was missing a Ribbon for my Ninja, among other things. Regardless of how powerful I'd been for most of the rest of the game, the final dungeon was an honest-to-goodness challenge that had me licking my wounds on the way back to town more than once. I shuffled around equipment once or twice and had to rethink some of my strategies, which had worked spectacularly everywhere else. In the end, my Grand Master was the one who defeated Chaos and saved the world—my Ninja survived long enough to cast Fast on him before falling into a crack of doom; my Red Wizard stuck to his buffing and healing duties; and my Knight spent more time healing than he did swinging a sword. Ah, but it was a fine battle, and I'd forgotten how satisfying that final victory animation is as Chaos slowly disintegrates into nothingness.
Even after playing seven sequential sequels and two spinoffs, the original Final Fantasy remains my favorite in the series. It's a solid game in its own right, despite all the unfortunate bugs that rob the game of its full potential...but it's the little things that have kept the game close to my heart. The tension is palpable when you cross that bridge in the Sky Tower, gripped by the uncertainty of whether you'll have to face the near-unstoppable WarMECH. The monster designs are some of the most memorable out of any RPG I've ever played; it's the poses and the color palettes and the sheer variety, not to mention that some of the enemies look positively terrifying the first time you run into them (any variety of Eye and Worm, anyone?). The overworld and dungeons lend a great deal of atmosphere to the game, as does the music—each theme fits the situation wonderfully, and the diversity of environments and varied level design keeps things interesting and, at times, appropriately tense (like finding your way out of the Ice Cave, or that loooooong walk to see Bahamut). Final Fantasy is a rare RPGs that doesn't cover half the map in boring grassland, and practically every dungeon gets a little darker or undergoes some other type of visual change as you delve deeper.
During this most recent playthrough, I came to appreciate the learning curve as well. Coneria, the very first town of the game, is very small and well-planned, with a path leading to every shop, no nonessential buildings, and everything you need organized in a neat fashion. The first dungeon, the Temple of Fiends, has a clear and concise path directly to the main objective, but narrow hallways guide you to the far corners of the dungeon in case you'd like to explore. Then Pravoka, the second town, spreads out the buildings so that everything requires a little bit of exploration to locate and access, though nothing is really hidden. Little by little, on the overworld and inside the towns and dungeons, you're trained to explore a bit more. Each location is more complicated than the last in one way or another, but the game gradually acclimates you to that complexity.
Same deal with the monsters: Everything you fight in the beginning of the game can do nothing other than attack or run away. No magic, no special abilities, no nothing. Even the Ghoul, the one exception from the Temple of Fiends, only temporarily paralyzes its targets, and you'll only ever face one at a time there. You've got plenty of time to buy PURE potions and get a feel for normal combat before you need to start dealing with status ailments on a regular basis. And when monsters start using spells and special abilities on you, it happens gradually, and each new town you visit always has the spells and items you'll need to stock up on to be properly prepared for the challenges ahead.
I love how the developers mess with you, too. I'm talking specifically about the treasure chests: some chests have a specific enemy who will always appear when you move into the adjacent space...but sometimes there's more than one way to get at a chest, and the more convoluted route is often unguarded. But then later in the game, once you're used to coming at chests from the side, there'll sometimes be a guardian there anyhow, just to throw you off balance. And then after lots of worthwhile treasure hunting, you'll come across a chest with a pathetic amount of gold in the single digits. Late in the game, when you're running out of space to pick up new equipment, you'll have to make a decision whether or not to chuck a piece of armor to make room for the mystery item in the chest. And after careful deliberation, you'll toss out your precious Heal Helmet to find that a Cloth, a worthless rag your party hasn't worn since the first hour of gameplay, is your reward. If I had a dungeon that was likely to be invaded by adventurers, I'd want to mess with them, too. Brilliantly devious.
Oh, and some of the one-liners are priceless; "You have legs!" being one of my favorite townsperson blurtings. Clicking on the description for the TAIL in the menu screen is pretty amusing, too. There are backward-talking brooms! And it's awesome that the random bats you find hanging around Garland's chamber at the beginning of the game are, in fact, spoiler alert, the five SKY WARRIORS from long ago, and you can talk to them for genuine information just before entering the final dungeon (though I still like the ominous "Kee...kee..." that the bats normally give you). I think the whole time-loop explanation needs some work, but frankly, it still makes more sense than the plot of Final Fantasy VII (which, for the record, is a close second for favorite game in the series).
And the replay value! Six different classes; four different characters; plenty of different spells and magical items; lots of land and sea to explore; ample opportunity to do things out of order...I might even be daring the next time I play and attempt the lone White Mage challenge, where you let your other party members get killed off in the first battle and leave the single weakest character to fend for himself for the rest of the game. Well, maybe not, but I could. 'Cuz that's the kind of game Final Fantasy is, and I never appreciated how much that meant to me until this time around.