Earlier this year I decided to make a conscious effort to chip away at my ridiculously huge backlog of video games, and while digging around in one of my drawers for a terabyte hard drive to store 900 episodes of One Piece on, I stumbled upon my old Gameboy Advance SP, along with an EZ Flash Omega flash cart that I purchased a couple of years ago.
So being in the mood for some classic, Gameboy Advance nostalgia, I decided to ditch looking for the hard drive and instead fired up the trusty little handheld, with the flash cart, to see what I had stored on it. And it’s probably no surprise to anyone that a whole bunch of JRPG’s that I’d never even touched, let alone finished, were contained on the thing.
I figured that stumbling upon this old handheld was no coincidence, and that the universe was practically screaming at me to fulfil my promise to myself and start lowering the seemingly endless HP gauge of my backlog.
And given that 90% of the games I had stored were JRPG’s, and being in the mood for some good old fashioned, handheld, JRPG action, what better place to start than the original Final Fantasy?
So I guess it’s time for some backstory. Unlike most fans of the series from my generation, I never really grew up with Final Fantasy. I played a bit of VII and VIII on an emulator in my teens, but my first real introduction to the series was on the PS2 with… Final Fantasy X-2… Yeah… That was a really weird place to start… I had no fucking idea what was going on. At all. I liked the tits and ass though. Especially Rikku’s. I blame that game for awakening my then repressed horniness for video game waifus.
I later played the original Final Fantasy X and fell in love with it, and was hooked on the series since. I went back and played IX and loved it a lot. I played XII, XIII, XIII-2 and XV when they were released and enjoyed them all. And I even recently purchased the Nintendo Switch port of the legendary Final Fantasy VII, although I haven’t quite set aside the time to finish it yet. We’ll get to that some day… I promise.
But despite becoming a fan of the series through the more modern titles, I’d never made the effort to go back and play any of the 2D entries. I’d heard good things about most of them, most notably Final Fantasy VI, which has been on my backlog for years, but for some reason I just… Never bothered. Probably because I’m Lethargic Ramblings, or something.
But I’m going to bother now. I’m going to try really hard to play all 6 of the 2D Final Fantasy games, back to back. And I’ll be taking an in depth look at each of them. From the perspective of someone who’s never played any of them before.
So here we are with the original Final Fantasy. The game that started it all. Now obviously, this game was originally released on the NES, but seeing as I don’t own that console and given that the original game is horrendously outdated both graphically and mechanically, I opted to play the Gameboy Advance remake of the game included on Final Fantasy I & II: Dawn of Souls. This is considered by many to be the definitive version of the game, due to enhanced graphics and sound, a massive amount of bug fixes, updated mechanics that make more sense, a better localisation and script and brand new content not found in the original, among many, many other changes. There’s also a PSP version, which is supposedly even more of an improvement with even more new content, but I don’t have a PSP (that isn’t broken) and I hate emulation so… We’re sticking with the Gameboy Advance version. And we will be for every subsequent game, barring Final Fantasy III because that got a remake on the DS instead. For some reason…
I haven’t played the original NES version at all, outside of briefly giving it a spin for a few minutes after beating the GBA version, just to see how it looks and how it plays, so I won’t really be comparing the two at all. The original NES game was definitely ambitious and groundbreaking for its time, but it’s since been outclassed by this remake in almost every aspect that there’s no real reason to go back to it, outside of the novelty of playing an 8-bit, 1980’s, D&D inspired JRPG with hilarious bugs that should never have gotten through QA testing.
So where do we even begin? How do I start talking about the game that kickstarted the most successful and recognisable JRPG franchise in gaming history? I guess by talking about its development. Final Fantasy was the brainchild of Hironobu Sakaguchi, who’d dreamed of creating a roleplaying video game for many years, but who was regularly denied by his employer, Square, from doing so as they expected such a game to fail commercially. However, after rival company Enix managed to achieve a great deal of success with their own roleplaying video game Dragon Quest, the company decided to give Sakaguchi’s idea a shot, and allowed him to form a small team to develop the game. The final game was developed by a team of only 7 people, and said team were constantly motivated to give their all due to the higher ups of Square having a lack of faith in the project.
Originally titled Fighting Fantasy, the game was later renamed to Final Fantasy, due to the circumstances surrounding both Sakaguchi and Square at the time. Sakaguchi declared that if Final Fantasy was a commercial failure, he would quit the games industry and Square themselves were on the verge of financial ruin, making this game their last chance to succeed as a business. Their “final fantasy”, so to speak.
And as you all know, Final Fantasy is now a household name. It’s arguably the most successful roleplaying video game franchise alongside Dragon Quest and has grown into one of the most iconic series in video games as a whole. And this is the game that made it all happen. This is where it all began.
So how does it hold up over 30 years later?
Well, Final Fantasy definitely suffers a lot from “first game syndrome”, but that’s to be expected, given that it’s the very first entry in a long line of RPG’s that have been regularly released for over three decades. The mechanics are very basic, the dungeon design isn’t all that complicated, objectives aren’t always clearly communicated to the player and the story and setting are incredibly standard.
But don’t take any of that the wrong way. None of that is really negative criticism from me. In fact, outside of the sometimes poorly communicated objectives, I’d argue that all of the above actually add to the games charm and enhances the experience of playing it. I love my super complicated, deep, narrative-driven JRPG as much as the next guy, but there was something really refreshing about going back to the genres roots and playing something incredibly simplistic. Final Fantasy was groundbreaking for its time, and is definitely outdated by today’s standards, but sometimes it’s nice to just play a “no bullshit” RPG with a basic story, easy-to-learn mechanics, simple dungeons and a standard, but fun, fantasy setting. I don’t consider its datedness to be a flaw, rather just a long-term side effect of its age and its historical significance.
As said before, the story is a very standard fantasy fare, and is practically lifted straight out of a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. You play the role of the 4 Warriors of Light, who’s names and classes you all decide when you first start a new game, and you are tasked with saving the world that is overrun by fiends by taking the 4 elemental Crystals in your possession to their respective elemental shrines, defeating one of the Four Fiends that resides there and purifying the Crystals to restore the world back its natural, peaceful state. It’s basically your usual “save the world by going to these different locations” plot, and it doesn’t really stray from the expected path, outside of the very final dungeon which throws a curveball that’s… A little silly, but… Ambitious for the time I guess… We’ll get to it…
And this all takes place in a very standard, D&D inspired, fantasy setting. True to its name, Final Fantasy’s world is your typical fantasy world. There are three continents, and they’re inhabited by the usual races you’d expect to see in fantasy stories, with a few… Weird outliers as well. There are your usual humans, dwarves and elves, but then there are some more unorthodox choices like mermaids, dragons (that are friendly NPCs with walk cycles) and… Robots…? It’s a little jarring, but it’s pretty cool, and kinda funny to walk up to a dragon and be like “yo wassup homedragon?” …That was painful to write.
Each non-human race typically has their own town, which is pretty neat and makes exploring the different locales in the game really fun and interesting. Every time I’d arrive in a new town, I’d make sure to stop and chat to every NPC I stumbled upon to learn as much as I could about the town and its people. A lot of players tend to skip by most of this stuff, but it’s really neat what you can learn from taking your time to chat to the locals of each stop on your adventure. Thought was clearly put into this world and its inhabitants, and you’d be surprised at some of the little snippets of info you can learn about each town, or the world at large, simply by taking the time to chat to NPC’s. It’s all small details, but it makes the world of Final Fantasy feel more lived in.
Another cool little detail that makes the world feel this way is that you’ll often find members of other races in towns outside of their own. They aren’t just restricted to their own little corner of the world. You could be wandering around a human city, and stumble into the odd dwarf or elf. You could be going for a walk on the pier of a coastal town and encounter a mermaid by the water. Again, it’s an incredibly small detail, but it makes the world feel more alive and lived in, and makes the setting a lot more fun to explore and engage with, despite how standard it is on the surface.
Final Fantasy’s setting isn’t anything particularly groundbreaking, but it’s a world that’s bursting with charm, character and personality, and its ambition shines through even in its remake, and even today in 2020. Of course, if you rush through it all to get to the next goal, you’re going to miss out on much of what the world has to offer, but I can’t say that’s a fault on the game itself, rather it’s a fault on the player. If you take a step back, and really try to engage with the world and its locales, there’s a lot to enjoy here, even if it’s still, in the end, a very basic, fantasy setting.
Graphically, the game also looks really nice, even by today’s standards. The original NES version is obviously really dated, sporting minimal use of colour and really basic sprite work, animations and environments, but the Gameboy Advance remake completely overhauls the graphics, with more detailed sprites, more colour and more high quality animations and environments. And unlike the NES graphics, it’s a kind of pixel art that hasn’t aged a day, even in 2020. For a Gameboy Advance game, Final Fantasy looks incredible, and I can’t fault it at all. It’s what a remake of any old game should be and it manages to upgrade the graphics without losing the intended look and feel of the original game.
The music is also remastered, and while I love me some bangin’ NES tunes, I largely prefer this newer version of the soundtrack. Rather than 8-bit approximations of instruments, the remastered soundtrack sounds more instrumental (by GBA sound chip standards) and has quite a whimsical and medieval feel to it. It’s super catchy and really solid. My favourite track would by far have to be the Castle Theme, which is a really peaceful and melodic track that oddly feels… Nostalgic, despite the fact I’ve never played this game until this year. The battle theme is also great, but given how fucking often I had to hear it over the course of the game it… Does eventually get grating. I can’t listen to it any more… Fuck.
But the core of Final Fantasy lies in its gameplay, and it’s here where the game truly shines (for the most part). Gameplay is divided into 4 sections: an overworld, towns and dungeons, battle sequences and the main menu. If you’re at all familiar with JRPG’s, then all of this shit is fairly standard, but I’ll break it all down for the sake of being as thorough as possible.
The overworld is your usual, scaled-down version of the games larger world, and is essentially a big open map that your party travels across when heading to each of the games towns or dungeons. At first, you can only traverse the overworld on foot, but as you progress through the story other methods of travel become open to you, expanding how far, and fast, you can travel. These include a boat, which allows you to travel across the ocean between each of the three continents, a canoe which lets you to move through shallow water, such as small rivers or lakes and an airship that gives you the option to fly through the skies at high speeds and bypass impassable terrain, such as mountains.
And I guess here is where I bring up my first major issue with Final Fantasy. The fucking overworld design. Now, it isn’t necessarily bad. In fact, for the most part, it’s pretty good. Travelling between locations doesn’t take too long, even on foot, and you get the boat very early on too, but my biggest issue is the lack of direction. There are often times where you’ll complete an area or a section of the story and then you’ll just have… No fucking idea where to go. The game doesn’t always do the best job of telling you where to go next and if it does tell you, it doesn’t necessarily tell you where that place is. “Oh I’ve to go to Elfheim have I? Well… Where the fuck is that?” I didn’t find myself in this kind of situation too often, but there were one or two cases where I found myself aimlessly wandering the fucking overworld for up to an hour trying to figure out where the hell I was supposed to be going, stumbling into random battle after random battle every 10 steps and it was fucking infuriating. But, I can forgive it, given the games age and the remake attempting to be as 1:1 of a recreation as possible. Also, keep that “random battle” complaint in the back of your head, we’ll be going back to that soon.
Towns and dungeons are as you’d expect, and function similarly to the overworld. In towns you’ll find your usual NPC’s, as well as shops to buy consumable items, new equipment and magic spells. Each town also has an inn, where you can rest up to heal your party and a church where you can revive fallen party members. Dungeons on the other hand, are hazardous locations filled with enemy encounters and (usually) a boss encounter at the end. Completing dungeons progresses the story, as you’d expect. For the most part, the dungeon designs themselves are fairly linear, and aren’t all that complicated, especially compared to later entries in the series. There aren’t really any puzzles to speak of, and it’s not really hard to navigate your way through them, outside of the optional Soul of Chaos dungeons which… We’ll get to… However, there are often optional paths you can take, which more often than not, lead to treasure chests containing goodies, such as consumable items, better equipment or the games currency, gil. Some dungeons also have hazards, like fire and ice, that when walked through lower your party members HP.
It’s also worth noting that in towns and dungeons, holding down the B button allows you to sprint, making for faster travel. I’m not sure if this is exclusive to the Gameboy Advance version, or if it was also present in the original, but it’s a nice feature and makes travelling a lot more streamlined.
When travelling the overworld, and dungeons, you’ll often stumble into enemy encounters which, like most JRPG’s at the time, are completely random and cannot be avoided. In the overworld, random battles occur for all methods of travel, aside from the airship and its the same for dungeons as well, outside of boss battles which are pre-scripted encounters. When one of these battles is triggered, your party is taken to a battle screen, where combat is carried out. So y’know, the usual RPG fare.
Combat is menu-based, and is taken in turns, but unlike later entries in the series like Final Fantasy VII, there’s no ATB gauge. It’s just a standard turn-based battle system. Although, what’s rather interesting about it is that unlike most turn-based RPG’s, turn order is completely random and actually isn’t determined by stats at all, which makes the flow of each battle pretty unpredictable. This is actually really cool for the most part, although it can also lead to some minor headaches in later encounters or battles you want to escape from.
During a battle, each party member has the option to use a physical attack, cast magic, use a consumable item or attempt to flee from the fight. Upon winning a battle, your party will gain experience points, gil and the occasional dropped item or piece of equipment. When a party member gains enough experience, they level up and some of their stats increase, with different character classes favouring the increase of specific stats.
In terms of stats, its your standard JRPG set, with a few unique ones. HP is your health. MP is the points used to cast spells. Strength determines the damage you’ll deal when attacking. Agility affects your evasion rate. Intelligence determines the power of your spells. Vitality determines how much HP you’ll gain per level up. Luck affects how easy it is to escape a battle. Hit % determines your accuracy. Absorb is your resistance to physical attacks. Evade % is your chance to avoid physical attacks and Magic Defense is your resistance to magical attacks. This is all fairly basic and practically common knowledge, but I figured it was worth running through for those unfamiliar with any of this stuff. Apparently several of these stats, most notably, Intelligence and Luck, were also completely broken in the original, which is pretty fucking funny. I’m glad this was fixed in the remake.
I also mentioned classes earlier, and that at the beginning of a new game you’re required to choose one for each of your party members. Once you select a class for that character, they are locked into that class for the entire game, outside of an optional class upgrade you can obtain later on. It’s a system that allows you to tune your teams skill set to your own liking, rather than the story forcing each character into a predetermined role. This is pretty neat, as it allows you to take the adventure in the direction you want to. What’s especially cool is that if you want to, you can make all 4 characters the same class, which is fucking wild. I can’t imagine ever doing this myself, but it’s cool that such an option exists and I’m sure it’d make for some really interesting challenge runs.
The classes themselves are all fairly unique and each have their own advantages and disadvantages, meaning it’s important that you’re careful in your selection, as you can’t change them afterwards without starting a new game.
The Warrior is your typical physical fighter, with high HP, a heavy damage output and fairly high agility. They can’t cast any magic, but they more than make up for it with their powerful physical attacks and high defense. They can also equip specific weapons and armour unique to them, to further increase their already high stats. However, said equipment is costly to maintain as well, meaning if you want to take full advantage of the Warrior, you’ll need to grind a bit for spare cash.
The Thief is another physical fighter, that deals less damage than the Warrior, but who makes up for their lack of strength in speed and luck, allowing them to hit enemies multiple times and flee from battles easier. However, their HP is fairly low, and their magic defense is poor, making them an easy target for enemies and requiring regular healing in tougher battles (a problem I myself had multiple times during my playthrough).
The Monk is similar to the Warrior, dealing high damage, only he does not require expensive equipment, due to his stats increasing when not using any. However, this advantage comes at the cost of having significantly lower HP and magic defense.
The White Mage is primarily a support unit, focusing on healing spells to cure and revive party members and support spells that help boost the party’s defensive stats. They can also learn a few offensive spells, including Holy, which is one of the best spells in the entire game. However, they have fairly low HP and a weak defense, meaning they are an easy target for enemies, and their strength is also really low, meaning physical attacks don’t do much damage at all. And while they have some offensive spells, outside of the aforementioned Holy, they only work on undead enemies, such as zombies or vampires.
The Black Mage on the other hand, is your primary offensive spellcaster, focusing on elemental spells that can cause really high damage to multiple foes as well as having their own support spells to help boost the party’s offensive stats, allowing your physical fighters to cause even more damage. However, like the White Mage, their HP, defense and strength are all fairly low. They’re essentially your teams “glass cannon”.
And then there’s the Red Mage, who is basically a combination of the Black and White Mages, only they can’t learn all spells from either of their pools and their spellcasting is less effective overall. They can also do decent physical damage and equip some of the Warrior’s weapons too, making them decent physical attackers. However, they’re a Jack of All Trades, Master of None sort of class, which makes them a bit of a risky choice, at the cost of variety.
I personally went for a Warrior, Thief, White Mage and Black Mage, which seems to be the go-to setup for most people I’ve spoken to who have played the game. And while I do think that the opportunity to experiment and choose which classes to go with is pretty neat, I personally feel that the other two classes are kind of… Poor choices.
The Monk is a cool idea on paper, but I can’t really see why you’d ever choose him when you can have a Warrior, who’s more or less the same only with better stats overall and more equipment options. Sure, the Warrior is expensive to maintain, but this game throws gil at you like the kingdom is in a fucking recession that it never becomes too big of an issue, especially in the later parts of the game.
The Red Mage is again, a cool idea. A Jack of All Trades class is kinda neat, but he also can’t learn the best black magic or the best white magic, both of which are really useful in the end-game, and his magic power isn’t nearly as high as either Mage. And while he’s a decent physical fighter, he isn’t anywhere near as useful as the Warrior or even the Thief. I can’t really see a good reason to use him over the other two, unless you want a third Mage over a second physical fighter, but the Thief’s higher speed and luck just seems better to have in my opinion.
It’s a bit of a shame, because the class system is really cool and offers some customisation and choice in how tackle your adventure, but at the same time, there’s an optimal choice that players are more likely going to pick because… Why wouldn’t you?
Unlike the more modern Final Fantasy games, in this game spells aren’t learned from levelling up, but are instead purchased from a Magic Shop, one for Black Magic and one for White Magic, which can be found in each town. Each towns Magic Shops sell different spells, and each spell has a level, ranging from 1-8. For your Mage to learn the spell, they need to have the required level of that spell, which is increased as they level up. Each Mage can also only learn 3 spells in each level, meaning you need to be careful what spells you teach them. It’s a fairly simple magic system, and the levels of spells that you can acquire scales well with the progression of the main quest. You’re not going to find a Level 8 spell like Holy in the first town, for example. This simple system, and sensible progression is really appreciated, and makes learning magic far from cumbersome. I like it a lot.
What I don’t like however, is the frequency of random battles. I’m not a fan of random battles to begin with, because I feel that they’re an unforgivable form of padding and that players should be able to choose when they want to engage in a fight and with what. However, in a game as old as Final Fantasy, I can some what forgive that. What I can’t forgive is the frequency of these encounters. They occur far too often, both in and out of dungeons, to the point that you’ll find yourself thrown into a battle every 5 or 6 steps. And while I do enjoy this battle system a lot, and the battles themselves are fairly quick, I don’t want to be forced into it every 10 seconds, especially when I’m just trying to get somewhere. It isn’t quite Mother levels of bad (few games are), but it can be irritating, especially if you take a wrong turn in a dungeon or happen to find yourself lost in the overworld, trying to figure out where to go next to advance the story. You can flee of course, but fleeing doesn’t always work and due to the random nature of the games turn order, you’ll often find yourself being the victim of a few enemy attacks before you can escape. This unfortunately only adds to the time you spend on the battle screen, meaning that by the time you successfully escape, you’d have been better off just fighting the enemies anyway as it’d have taken just as long, but you’d have at least gained some experience and gil at the end of it all. I’m not sure if the encounter rate was worse in the original game, but if it was I shudder to think how irritating it’d have been, given that it’s frequent enough in the remake. And if it’s the same, I question why this wasn’t altered in the remake, because… There are just too many battles. In fact, by the end of the game, I fought so many random battles that I ended up maxing out the amount of gil you can carry. That’s 999,999 gil. That’s a lot of fucking money.
This is eventually eased a little once you get the airship but that doesn’t happen til three quarters of the way through the game and it doesn’t solve the problem in dungeons.
But thankfully the dungeons themselves, as mentioned before, aren’t super labyrinthine and are both very simple and well designed for the most part, which makes running into battles less of a chore because the likelihood of getting lost isn’t all that high. There are some optional routes you can take that stray away from the main path, but they normally lead to something useful like a piece of equipment, an item or gil, so it never feels like a wasted effort to go the “wrong” way and have to fight through hordes of enemies on the way. It always feels rewarding, and worth your time, and exploration is encouraged as a result. But unfortunately this doesn’t apply to the optional Soul of Chaos dungeons which again… We’ll get to…
Boss battles are a whole other beast however, and are probably the most fun you’ll have with the games battle system. They’re pretty challenging and require a lot more strategy than the normal hordes of enemies you’ll find yourself fighting throughout the game. You can’t just spam physical attacks and win, like you would with the majority of the games random encounters. You actually need to be pretty careful and plan ahead, otherwise you could find your party wiped out in the blink of an eye, even if you’ve been levelling up significantly. This is especially true for the Four Fiend boss battles in each of the main story dungeons, as well as the optional bosses in the Soul of Chaos dungeons which again, again… We’ll get to…
My go-to strategy for most bosses was to have my Warrior and Thief dish out as much damage as possible, with my White Mage increasing the party’s defense and evasion and focusing on healing and my Black Mage increasing my physical fighters speed and strength, while occasionally firing off the odd spell. It’s a strategy that worked for pretty much every boss, barring a few in the Soul of Chaos dungeons which again, again, again… We’ll get to…
It may sound a little mind numbing, using a similar strategy for most fights, but every time I pulled it off, it felt so damn good. Defeating these bosses is immensely satisfying and it feels good tearing them to shreds with your Warrior who’s had Haste cast on him and has also had his strength buffed 10 times during the fight. A lot of the battle systems mechanical satisfaction comes from moments like this, where you buff the shit out of your party and dish out as much damage as possible in a single set of turns, while also having your defensive stats buffed so high that nothing can fucking touch you. This is especially true in the later parts of the game where the bosses, and encounters in general, are tougher and more challenging and can’t be defeated simply by hammering the A button and selecting “Attack” every turn.
In terms of optional content, Final Fantasy doesn’t have all that much to offer. There aren’t really any sidequests to speak of, and the vast majority of the game is simply progressing through the main story. There are however, two major pieces of optional content: The Citadel of Trials and Soul of Chaos dungeons.
I’m a sucker for optional content in JRPGs. Because more often than not, they offer a challenging diversion from the main progression, with a satisfying reward for your efforts. And the Citadel of Trials is the perfect example of that.
It’s an optional dungeon with 3 floors, a cool set up, challenging enemy encounters and a less linear, more labyrinthine design that makes it stand out from the main game dungeons. And scattered throughout the Citadel are a whole bunch of chests, containing some of the best items and equipment in the game, making exploring every inch of this place worthwhile. That, and despite its complexity and challenge, the dungeon is fairly short, and the reward at the end is immensely satisfying: Your entire party gets class upgrades.
And these upgrades are more than just a new coat of paint. They allow each of your units access to new abilities, use new equipment and provides them with better stat increases per level up. For example, the Warrior becomes the Knight, and in addition to being able to dish out strong physical attacks and equip incredibly powerful weapons and armour, he can now cast lower level White Magic, turning him into a secondary healer and support unit, on top of being your best physical attacker. The White Mage on the other hand, becomes the White Wizard, and can now access the highest level of White Magic spells, such as Full-Life while also being a bit more competent as a physical fighter, and can now equip special weapons unique to her new class.
For completing a short, but challenging dungeon, obtaining these class upgrades is one of the best rewards in the entire game. You are rewarded with a whole new look and set of skills for each of your units for choosing to stray from the main story progression and tackle a more challenging and complex dungeon. And it feels fucking great.
So with the good out of the way, let’s talk about the Soul of Chaos dungeons. These. Fucking. Dungeons.
In contrast to the Citadel of Trials, the Soul of Chaos dungeons are… A mixed bag. To put it lightly.
There are 4 of these optional dungeons in the game, and you unlock one of them every time you purify one of the 4 Crystals during the main story. In theory, this means you can tackle the first Soul of Chaos dungeon as early as completing the games first major dungeon, which is pretty awesome. But given the nature of them and how challenging the bosses can be, it’s better you just tackle them before the final dungeon. Which kind of makes unlocking them early a little redundant but I digress.
Anyway, these dungeons aren’t your usual Final Fantasy bonus dungeons. Rather than being a really difficult beginning-to-end dungeon like in most games in the series, each of these dungeons is randomised to an extent. There are multiple floors, and each floors layout is chosen from a set of preset layouts. You’ll need to tackle every single one of these layouts anyway, but the order of said layouts is completely random. Some floors also have completely random spawn-in points, although the exit is the same each time.
Each Soul of Chaos dungeon also has a different number of floors, with the easiest having the least and the most difficult having the most. Earthgift Shrine has 5. Hellfire Chasm has 10. Lifespring Grotto has 20. And Whisperwind Cove has 40.
And each of these dungeons has a set of bosses, all of which easily make up the hardest battles in the entire game. Some of these bosses are a fair challenge and offer satisfying rewards, while others are either so challenging that it feels unfair or don’t offer anything worthwhile at all despite you trawling through a lot of floors, some of which are incredibly frustrating, to get to.
In concept, the structure of these dungeons is pretty cool, but unfortunately the execution leaves much to be desired, and much of my biggest problem with them stems from two things: How tedious some of the floors layouts can be and the fact that in order to experience all of the games optional content you need to complete some of these randomised dungeons multiple times.
Let’s start with the floor design. Now some of the floor selections are really cool. For example, one of them is a unique version of the games overworld map, where you start off on foot and need to progress towards finding the boat, and then use the boat to cross the water and make your way to a desert area to find an airship and then use the airship to get to the exit, which is on an isolated island. Of course, there are plenty of optional treasures scattered everywhere too, and that’s pretty awesome. There’s another cool one where you find yourself in a set caverns with a bunch of dwarf NPCs, and you essentially need to complete a long trading sequence to get a jewel that will let you bypass a golem that’s blocking the exit. Again, it’s a unique, interesting floor that spices up the gameplay a bit by offering a different kind of challenge from the usual “get from Point A to B while fighting random battles.”
But then there’s the opposite end of the spectrum, where you get a floor where the majority of the terrain is composed of lava that actively damages your party as you move around, with a maze-like design and tons of dead ends that lead nowhere, only furthering the damage to your party. And of course you’re getting random encounters every 5 steps because why the fuck not? Then there’s another frustrating one, where you’re tasked with finding a certain NPC among what feels like hundreds of NPC’s that all look nearly identical and are scattered throughout a town that requires you constantly pass through a series of doors to reach each area in a manner that just feels so randomised it feels like you’re exploring fucking Hell itself. I spent 30 minutes in this fucking place, looking for this blue-haired wee fuck.
It’s unfortunate, because a lot of the floors tend to be on the bad side of the spectrum than good. Most of them are either poorly designed labyrinths, with a high random encounter rate or are a frustratingly annoying “gimmick” floor that feels like a colossal waste of time. And this wouldn’t be that big of a deal if there were some optional treasures that were worthwhile, but most of the time, the chests on these floors contain fairly worthless consumable items that you’ll either never use or that you already have 99 of by this point in the game. Sometimes you’ll get a rare permanent stat boosting item, but these are few and far between.
As for the random encounters in these dungeons, they also suck because they feel like shameless padding rather than an added challenge. Despite these dungeons being the optional, end-game content, the random encounters are incredibly easy and most of them can be defeated in a single attack, offering very little experience or gil for your efforts, making them feel like both a huge pace breaker and a gigantic waste of time. No. I do not want to fight any more Black Goblins or Pythons. Fuck off.
But this would all be forgivable were it not for the fact that, aside from the final Soul of Chaos dungeon, Whisperwind Cove, you need to go through all of these floors multiple times if you’re wanting to experience all of the games superbosses and nab all of the optional rewards. Why do you need to do this, you ask?
Because at the end of each of these dungeons, there are multiple bosses waiting for you to fight, and you can only choose one of them. And no, after beating one, you can’t go back and fight the other. Oh no. You need to fucking leave the dungeon and go through the entire thing again just to fight the other bosses that you didn’t pick the first time.
Why? Why can’t I just go back through the door and fight the other boss? Why do I need to leave and do it all again? This is particularly an issue in Hellfire Chasm and Lifespring Grotto, both of which have also have bosses midway through each of them, which are pretty challenging in their own right, meaning you need to fight these mid-bosses multiple times as well. All for the sake of fighting a boss you already reached, but decided not to choose at the end.
And it’s a shame too, because the bosses themselves are pretty great and offer great rewards. …For the most part. As said there are a couple of bosses that are just flat out unfair and there are others that offer really shit rewards that aren’t worth it at all.
Let’s start with the shit rewards. Most of the Soul of Chaos bosses will give you a great reward, such as a top tier weapon or some really strong armour, but others give you… Consumable items… That you can find in chests… Oh wow. An X-Potion for beating a superboss? How exciting! Thankfully this is only really the case in the easier dungeons, with the last two offering more satisfying rewards.
And with that, let’s get to the two bosses that are just complete fucking bullshit. Omega and Shinryu. Fuck. These. Bosses.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love me a challenging superboss. But both of these bosses are just horribly broken to the point that any loss feels cheap.
Omega’s basic physical attack can almost one-hit kill a Knight with the best armour in the game and maxed out HP after Protect has been cast multiple times. If he chooses to physically attack one of your Mages? You’re fucked. Game over. Unless you’re lucky enough to revive them and heal them in the same turn, but due to the games unpredictable turn order, there’s no real way to put such a strategy into play without setting up the correct moves, closing your eyes and praying to fucking Yevon that it’ll all work out in your favour. Most of the time it will not. That’s not even getting into his move that devastates your entire party with a four-way attack and Earthquake which has the chance to immediately kill any of your party members, potentially all of them. Oh and the fucker has like 35,000 HP, so you’ll be exchanging blows with him for like half an hour. You’ll essentially be spending the entire fight getting attacks in with your physical fighters and casting Healaga and Full-Life with your White Mage every single turn. And if you run out of MP? Game over. Yer fucked m8. Unless you had a Megaelixir like I did, which is how I won in the end.
Shinryu on the other hand is similarly frustrating, with multiple spells that can hit your entire party, some of which you can’t actively protect against with Null spells, unless you use Null-All, which can only be used on a single unit and not the entire party. In order to survive this fight, you need to spend the first 5 turns setting up your party’s defenses, which is really hard to do when Shinryu is constantly spamming ridiculously powerful spells that can wipe out your entire team. Fuck. This. Boss.
But thankfully, despite all of my bitching, overcoming both of these is extremely satisfying and the rewards are worth it. Each of them drops a super powerful weapon, and you also get bragging rights that you managed to best the toughest bosses in the entire game.
But what’s weird about these two, is that they aren’t even in what should be the most difficult bonus dungeon. They’re in the third one. The fourth, and final, Soul of Chaos dungeon, is a lot more fair in its bosses and its structure, and is essentially the only one that does it all right.
Whisperwind Cove is what these dungeons should have been. Randomised floors, with a variety of different structures and unique challenges that help spice things up a bit, but also with the added bonus that you only have to complete it once. There are multiple bosses, but they’re spread throughout the different floors, rather than being a choice you have to make at the end, and there’s only one boss at the end, who is challenging, but not unfairly challenging like Omega or Shinryu. Sure, some of the floors still suck, and the random encounters remain annoying and pad out progression, but you only need to do it all once, and the bosses are really fun, all offering great rewards when beaten. Whisperwind Cove also has a couple of floors that serve as “rest areas” with an Inn you can heal up at and item shops you can purchase items from. Why none of the other Soul of Chaos dungeons didn’t have these rest areas, I do not know.
And for beating Whisperwind Cove, you get the best weapon in the entire game: The Ultima Weapon, which is an incredible reward and makes up for all of the effort you put in to get through these 40 floors. It’s a weapon that bases its strength off of the user HP stat, and given that my Knight had maxed out their HP… Fuck yeah. That motherfucker was unstoppable.
So… How about that end-game? I mentioned earlier that the final portion of the game throws a curveball that’s a little silly so… Let’s talk about that.
Spoilers for a 30+ year old game
When you reach the final dungeon, it turns out you need to go back 2000 years back in time to defeat Chaos the source of all of the modern worlds problems. Why? Because apparently there’s a time loop or something, that he set up to make himself live forever. It doesn’t really make sense, and it comes out of fucking nowhere with no foreshadowing or setup. It’s daft, but it tries, and the final dungeon itself is really fun, offering challenging encounters, a fun structure and a rematch with each of the games 4 main story bosses, only this time you get to tear them to shreds because you’ve gotten insanely stronger since your last encounter with each of them. It’s a nice indication of how far you’ve come in your journey, and I really like it.
The final boss himself, Chaos is also really awesome, with a cool design, epic music and offers a fair challenge, with some really impressive special moves befitting of a final fight. There’s not much else to say about him. He’s a fitting final boss.
End of spoilers
And that’s Final Fantasy in a nutshell. Playing through it was a wonderful and refreshing experience. I obviously have my fair share of complaints, namely the random encounters, the lack of direction at times and the optional dungeons, but those really don’t matter all that much when, for the most part, there’s so much good in here. Most of the games problems are things I can forgive, because the games best moments more than make up for them. For each moment of frustration and datedness, there’s two moments of ambition and satisfaction.
It isn’t perfect, but for the first ever game in a franchise that is now legendary, it did an excellent job setting up the foundation of the series, and its influence on the genre can still be felt to this day. It’s no wonder that the game single-handedly saved Square from bankruptcy.
Final Fantasy is a must-play classic and if, like me, you some how haven’t gotten around to it, then I highly recommend you do so. It’s a piece of gaming history, and it’s well worth experiencing. I had a smile on my face for vast majority of my 20 hour adventure, and hopefully you will too.
And now to start Final Fantasy II…