Thursday, November 19, 2009

Exfanding Review: Final Fantasy I

The original Final Fantasy for the NES is an RPG classic. Don't try to argue with me on this one; it introduced ideas that were rarely or never seen in video games of its day, it spawned an outrageously popular video game series, it's been highly influential in geek culture, and there are scads of people who consider it to be a good game, if not a great one.

Therefore, it's a classic. Q.E.D.

Final Fantasy I remake title screenAs I discussed in my recent post about movie and video game remakes, it is especially difficult to thorougly please both longtime fans and neophytes with a remake of a classic game. As a guy who likes the original game but isn't rabidly fanboyish about it, I felt I'd be pretty objective about the quality of the remake of the game presented in Final Fantasy I & II: Dawn of Souls for the Game Boy Advance.

Overall, I'll say I liked it. Not perfect, but definitely a worthy remake.

The premise of both games is the same: The world is falling into chaos, and a quartet of heroes known as the Light Warriors or Warriors of Light set off on a quest to restore the elements of earth, fire, water, and wind to their normal states and then beat up the Evil Bad Guy who's responsible for all this.

First you pick out a party of adventurers, which can consist of any combination of six classes, which include a combat-ready warrior, a nimble thief who never actually steals anything, a powerful martial artist, a mage who can cast healing and protective spells, a mage who can cast offensive spells (they do smell pretty bad), and a mage who can fight and cast spells, but not as well as anybody else.

Original Final Fantasy character selection screenThen, after picking out your party, you get to name them. This may very well be the most difficult part of the game.

Once the game begins, you talk to the likes of kings and commoners, witches and dwarves; you buy equipment and magic and goods from shops; you travel from place to place by land, sea, and air; you explore dark caverns and hot volcanoes and mystical towers; you eventually have the option to advance your characters to even more powerful classes; and you stop every 3 to 5 seconds to fight an assortment of diverse monsters, where everyone politely takes turns beating the stuffing out of each other.

...But you knew that already.

Though the remake is fundamentally identical to the original--story progression is the same; dungeon layouts are unchanged; monsters appear in the same locations; etc.--there are several subtle differences along with a number of changes so obvious that you'd have to lose your crystal eye to miss them.

Original Final Fantasy overworld screenshotOn the surface, the graphics have been given a significant facelift and the audio has been remixed to look and sound more like Final Fantasy IV, V, and VI, which incidentally have also been re-released on the GBA, albeit with far fewer alterations. The graphical changes are almost entirely favorable, and the sound effects sound great, but the music is really hit-or-miss, just like my Lv. 1 White Mage and his wimpy wooden hammer.

Side note: I maintain that many of the classes, including the White Mage/White Wizard, can be male or female. Don't let 8-Bit Theater fool you into thinking that the White Mage must be a girl! Long hair is totally hip for fantasy guys to have. Here's a name for you: Legolas. Look her up.


Final Fantasy I remake overworld screenshotThe graphics stayed remarkably true to the original--put almost any building, townsperson, or enemy from both versions side-by-side and you'll notice that they look identical or tolerably close in the remake, except they're prettier. Well, except for the bosses. They just got fatter. I mean, uh, bigger.

Something that surprised me is that a few of the enemies that looked pretty frightening in the original game didn't look quite as scary in 16-bit. Creepy spiders? Not so creepy. Chew-your-face-off-in-your-nightmares Eye? Now a cheap Halloween decoration from Party City. Crush-your-bones-with-his-tentacles-and-make-you-disappear-at-the-bottom-of-the-ocean Kraken? Now made of plastic, with an uninspired paint job reminiscent of some recent D&D Miniatures (Troglodyte Bonecrusher comes to mind).

Final Fantasy original and remake monster comparisonOn the other hand, the coolness factor of many enemies increased. Big bad bosses Lich and Kary really benefit from all those extra colors. The chimeras no longer look like the lion head is eating the dragon head. The half-man half-cat enemies are now possibly frothing at the mouth, and it's creeping me out.

Maybe it's because music is more important to me than graphics, and maybe it's because so much of the Final Fantasy soundtrack is absolutely iconic, but a lot of the remixed music disappointed me. The basic melodies are intact, but the tempo of one or two themes isn't quite as perfect as the original, and the instruments used for a few of the songs are surprisingly lackluster, cheesy, and/or full of bagpipes.

The battle theme, of all songs, is probably the worst offender, if for no other reason than that it became generic filler when it used to be something tense and menacing. I noticed this with the battle music in FFV and FFVI for the GBA as well; whatever instruments they're using just don't give battles the oomph they need.

Final Fantasy I remake battle screenshotThere are a few musical triumphs, however: the town theme now sounds like it's being played on acoustic guitar by a live performer; the non-bagpipey cave music is pleasantly catchy; and the music for the Sky Tower is no longer weird and obnoxious. There's nothing outright bad about the music, but having heard the original songs, I sometimes long for the "inferior" 8-bit tunes.

Perhaps the most striking change is how quickly I was able to progress through the game. It took me exactly 4 hours to get to the town of Melmond, whereas in the original game it would have taken me the same amount of time to, I dunno, beat up the pirates in Pravoka in order to get a ship that could take me across the ocean so I could grind for gold to go shopping so I can survive the Marsh Cave and bring back the Crown to the castle and fight Astos and get the thing that you give to Matoya so that she gives me the other thing that wakes up the guy on the other continent so he can give me the key that unlocks a bunch of places on different continents so I can find something to blow up the piece of land that's keeping my ship from reaching Melmond.

Translation: Game is easy. Now, I could have just spontaneously become AWESOMER at this game, but I'm positive they give you more money to start with, reduced the price of just about everything, and made you level up faster.

Final Fantasy I remake magic shop screenshotFurthermore, they've now thrown in Phoenix Downs, which can bring your slain party members baaaack from the deeaaaaad at any time, even during battles--a significant change over needing to use high-level magic outside of battle to bring someone back, or worse yet, dragging their corpse through slimy bogs and abrasive deserts to a town where some voodoo man could charge you to resurrect your disgustingly defunct ally.

Furtherly furthermore, your party members automatically target a new enemy in battle if the one they are assigned to attack somehow gets killed off prematurely. In the original version, if all four party members targeted Mad Pony #1 and your fighter defeats it right off the bat, the remaining three party members will worthlessly attack the space where Mad Pony #1 used to be instead of attacking Mad Pony #2. Talk about beating a dead horse.

Anyrapier, between this and the fact that the battle animations have all been sped up a bit, the game moves noticeably faster, which is part of how I could get to Melmond in 4 hours. On top of that, they graciously added a Run button so that you can backtrack through towns and dungeons at a more bearable speed.

Whoa, I'm getting pretty longwinded, so let me conciseify this up a bit.

The dialogue and even the names of everything have been completely overhauled, presumably to be more accurate to the original Japanese and to create a little more continuity with the rest of the Final Fantasy series. Also, to bug the purists.

Final Fantasy I remake dialogue with Garland screenshotJust to give you a small sampling: About a third of the monsters have been renamed to something out of Dungeons & Dragons (there are Mind Flayers and Purple Worms, and Kary is now Marilith); pointless townsfolk dialogue like, "Welcome to Coneria. I like swords." has been reduced by around 40%; weapons and armor now have more descriptive names (and actual descriptions so you know exactly what they do); Elfland has been renamed to something porcine like Elfham; and Nuke, the most awesome-sounding spell anyone has ever heard of, is now boring ol' Flare.

C'mon, one of the joys of being a Black Wizard is that you could, literally, NUKE EVERYTHING. Now your magical powers just flare up a little.

Players of the remake get treated to little cutscenes every now and again, which means a little more movement and a little more dialogue to break up the usually fun repetition of talking to people, shopping, and bashing enemies. Of course, they don't usually explain anything in any more depth, so the plot of Final Fantasy starts sounding a little silly with the cutscenes. "Wait, you guys have these random crystal shards! We don't know how you got them or why you're traveling together, but this means you have to rescue my daughter now!"

Final Fantasy I remake cutscene with Cornelia's king screenshotYeah, did I mention the elemental orbs of earth, fire, water, and wind are now crystals? I'm all about crystals, but for this game, orbs were so much cooler. But I guess it just isn't a Final Fantasy game without some nonsense about crystals.

To that end, they threw in a line of dialogue about how this great guy named Cid designed the airship. I don't recall that being in the original, but then again, I don't recall any bonus dungeons, either.

Yes, that's the single most significant change in the remake: There are four bonus dungeons scattered across the world, and each time you defeat one of the elemental Fiends, one of the bonus dungeons opens up. The dungeons consist of 10, 20, 30, and 40 floors, respectively, and they're semi-randomized for the sake of replay value.

Final Fantasy I remake earth bonus dungeon screenshotTreasure chests may be in different locations or contain different treasure each time, and many of the floors come up in a different order each time. You might go through an endless desert, then into a dark forest, then into a small cave, but the next time you might go through the forest first, then into a different cave, and then into the desert. There's some nice treasure that can't be found anywhere else in the game, and there are some truly creative floors (like the one where townspeople keep getting in your way, forcing you to sometimes detour through piles of enemies), but a lot of it is just a variation on places you've already been.

Final Fantasy I remake Abyss WormThe bonus dungeons offer more powerful versions of the enemies you know, but with new names and different color schemes. That's right! A fresh coat of paint and you're a whole new kind of terrifying sand worm.

::shudder:: Sand worms.

Here's what's problematic about the bonus dungeons: Most of the enemies are not remarkably more powerful than anything else you've been fighting. I went through the entire first bonus dungeon without breaking a sweat. On the last floor of the dungeon was not just one, but four different bosses for me to fight. I saved my game (because you can now save anywhere--did I mention that?) and walked up to a random boss.

After many brutal rounds of pulling out all the stops, my entire party was wiped out. The boss attacked with spells that could instantly kill one or all of my party members, and when he wasn't doing that, he was dealing enough damage to almost instant-kill my party members anyhow.

Final Fantasy I remake Echidna bossI'm sorry, but there was no indication the boss would be so ridiculously powerful. Worse yet, once you enter the bonus dungeons you can't backtrack your way out without high-level magic, so if I wouldn't have saved in a different slot than usual, I would have been severely out of luck.

So I tried another boss. The first few rounds were quite reasonable, but then he also started pulling out all that instant-kill magic and started healing himself. Not cool.

Oh, it gets better. Once you defeat one boss, you have no option to teleport out of the dungeon. To fight the other bosses, you need to go back through the whole dungeon all over again. That's not so bad with the first dungeon, but it gets old really quickly with the later dungeons. Fortunately, the last bonus dungeon has only one boss at the end, which is why I have any time at all to write this post.

At least the bosses in the bonus dungeons are borrowed from Final Fantasy III-VI, so if you've played those games and remember what the bosses were like, you'll be better prepared to take them on. As was the case with Final Fantasy V (at least the way I played it), the bosses are the only truly challenging part of the bonus dungeons (aside from finding your way through the various labyrinths), so even at level 99 I found myself having a few battles that weren't complete pushovers.

The bonus dungeons could certainly use a little polish, but they're by no means a bad addition, and you don't need to bother with them at all if you don't want to. I'd say they're worth checking out, though I'd do so after you're a powerhouse team to be reckoned with.

Final Fantasy I remake intro cutscene screenshotDespite the bumps along the way, I like the GBA remake of Final Fantasy. I still enjoy the challenge of the original, and there's something charming about the 8-bit graphics and sound, but I also like how the remake looks quite nice and generally requires less time and effort to play. I'm just as likely to replay one as I am the other, though, so they both come recommended--though I would be sure to play the original at some point, as it is a classic.

[Credit to blue99, Polar Koala, and Dixet for enemy sprites from]

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