Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: NES, GBA
Even to this day, more than twenty-five years after its release, I enjoy playing through Final Fantasy. What I do not like is having to blow in the cartridge to make an old NES game work, so I went ahead and procured myself Final Fantasy I and II: Dawn of Souls for the Game Boy Advance. I know games are often upgraded, and sometimes dumbed down, when they are rereleased for a new console, but what ports don’t do is collect dust on their circuits.
The story of the original Final Fantasy is pretty straight forward, which really hasn’t turned out par for the course in this franchise. Controlled by evil fiends, the four elements are wreaking havoc all over the land, and it’s up to you and the four light warriors you command to set everything right. Then there’s some nonsense about a time loop that could have been omitted, given that the plot twist is revealed mere seconds before the final boss fight.
Your objective in Final Fantasy is to destroy each of the fiends, which again is pretty straight forward. The path you take to achieve this, on the other hand, is anything but. As you make your way through the game, you’ll team up with elves, dwarves, dragons, mermaids, and even robots. Each will suck you into one of countless subplots about a sleeping prince, a seeing crystal, a ruby-eating titan, a language-teaching slab, a floater (not what you think), or a rat tail, just to name a few.
In addition to all these action-packed adventures, Dawn of Souls features four special dungeons that unlock when you defeat an elemental fiend. Unfortunately, these extra stages feel tedious and offer little reward. Unrelated to the main quest, they bear no consequence on the plot, and you have to run them multiple times to get the smallest of upgrade to your gear. A better use of your time, in my opinion, would be to complete Final Fantasy without bothering with the perfunctory bonus and then start the game anew.
With the choice of four warriors from six different classes (repeats allowed), every play-through of Final Fantasy can deliver a unique experience. The party you put together sets the difficulty level. Will you go for an easy romp with powerful fighters and black belts in your group, for a medium challenge with useless thieves and red mages slowing you down, or for a near suicidal mission with no white mage to heal you when the chips are down?
On the subject of unnecessary challenge, the inventory space is probably your biggest foe in the original Final Fantasy. Each character only gets four slots to carry weapons and another four for armour. It’s simply not enough, especially late in the game when you can pick up magical items that cast spells or protect you from status ailments. That means you have to either leave two slots empty at all times (one for weaponry and one for armour) or dump some gear every time you open a chest on the off chance an upgrade lies inside. As such, the giant inventory screen in Dawn of Souls comes as a godsend, even though it does make items somewhat harder to access in combat.
The fighting system in the original Final Fantasy also left room for improvement. Before each round, you give instructions to all four of your characters, who then execute your orders in between enemy strikes. Unfortunately, if an adversary dies before one of your characters gets his shot, the latter will swing wildly at the air, wasting his turn. One could argue this quirk adds another level of strategy to the game, but I feel it’s mostly tedious, especially when taking on much weaker enemies. Dawn of Souls addresses this problem by assigning a new random target for your character, allowing you to simply button mash “fight” during easy encounters.
Magic is a huge disappointment in Final Fantasy, which probably explains why most of my teams are made of melee fighters. The game uses the Dungeons and Dragons approach of assigning a specific number of times a spell can be cast at any given level. Even as you near the end of the game, you’ll feel like you don’t have enough magic reserves to properly explore a dungeon. As a result, you’ll find yourself drinking lots of healing potions between fights to save your healing spells. You’ll also reserve all your black magic spells for boss fights because you never know how much damage you’ll need to inflict. Dawn of Souls tries to remedy the situation with a more traditional mana point system, but a full meter still won’t get you through the tougher areas without moderation.
By the way, I don’t understand why Square Enix decided to change the name of the spells in this rerelease. I know the new monikers in Dawn of Souls are more in keeping with the Japanese names, but they feel so non-descript. For example, the original Final Fantasy featured the following healing spells: Cure, Cur2, Cur3 and Cur4. These aren’t particularly poetic, but they make the progression obvious. In contrast, can you tell which of these spells will heal your characters the most: Curaja, Cura, Curaga, or Cure?
I’m nitpicking, I know. If you’re a fan of role-playing games, odds are you’ve already taken on at least one entry in the Final Fantasy series. You might even have played the original. If not, you should definitely give it a shot. I’d recommend the Dawn of Souls version, owing to its smoother gameplay. In fact, even if you’re a diehard fan of the original Final Fantasy, you should check out this Game Boy Advance rerelease. You know there’s a four-character combo with which you’ve always wanted to finish the game, and here’s your chance. As a bonus, you’ll get to try out Final Fantasy II, which I’ll discuss next time.