Prophecy of the
Light Warriors

   Some have called it the hardest Final Fantasy. Some have called it the most boring. But no matter what you may think of it, you have to admit that we'd never have seen the others without the one that started it all, Final Fantasy I for the NES. (Makes sense, doesn't it?)

   For many a long-time gamer, when you think back fondly on the first Final Fantasy, the earliest memory is not of playing the game itself, but the excitement with which Nintendo Power surrounded it. The three month feature. The contest where four lucky winners received a crystal orb. The fold out poster (which I still proudly display by my computer). It seems that even before Cid, chocobos, and moogles, Final Fantasy had one tradition already set -- hype.

 Beginning your journey
Beginning your journey

   Other than that, you won't see many similarities between FFI and the others that American gamers received. For one thing, graphics were typical NES RPG fare. Mostly, that is -- at the time, the title screen you got while crossing the bridge was nearly breathtaking, and the backgrounds sometimes showed great detail. But for the most part, graphics consisted of simple, squat sprites with two frames of animation as they walked. Simple sprites designed by Amano, yes, but simple sprites nonetheless.

   Similarly, the NES couldn't handle the fully orchestrated and carefully arranged music we find in later Final Fantasies. Even so, long-time Square composer Nobuo Uematsu's FFI score was far better than standard RPG fare. It was here we first heard such recurring classics as the "Prelude" and the "Bridge-Crossing Theme," and Uematsu's talents showed through in "Matoya's Cave" and "Chaos's Temple" despite the limitations of 8 bit sound.

   When I played the game again recently, several things stuck out as being incredibly different from modern RPGs. For one thing, there's the minimalist plot (four warriors appear to fulfill a prophecy, each holding a darkened crystal orb -- Light Warriors, make the orbs shine again by defeating the four elemental fiends!) and the aforementioned graphics and sound, but a lot of the things I noticed were tiny details I wouldn't have paid attention to before. One of the most easily discovered was how big a difference the various kinds of armor made. In modern RPGs, the norm seems to be that the steps in armor class don't make a huge difference, since enemy attacks are calculated in so many different ways. In FFI, if the same enemy hits a character with chain armor and a character with cloth armor, there's a huge difference in the damage the two receive. The same kind of thing goes for weapons; to stay ahead of your enemies, when you find new weapons and spells -- buy them.

Magic shop
A magic shop

   This leads to another observation: Items are very expensive, comparatively speaking. And yes -- this means you sometimes have to spend more time than you'd like to wandering around the woods, fighting those imps and ogres. Yeah, seeking out random encounters is not fun. But at least it serves more than one purpose -- as often as not, you need to level up a bit to beat the next boss anyway. One thing will probably stick out in every gamer's mind as a perfect example: the Marsh Cave. (A low groan of agony comes from the collective gaming community.)

   So you might be wondering, why was this game so popular despite the flaws named above? Simple -- there was more to it than met the eye.

Those pesky imps!

   Sure, battles look like simple enough "hit the enemy till he falls down" affairs, but little things like weapons that could also be used as items made it more interesting. How much damage can a Black Wizard do when he's out of spells? Plenty, if you've given him the Mage Staff. You can't be lazy and just hit the attack button repeatedly in random battles, either; once you've chosen which enemy your characters will attack, they won't attack a different enemy, even if their target is dispatched before their own turn comes up. It really forces the player to pay attention to how much damage each character is doing per round, to avoid multiple "ineffective" attacks.

   Roughly halfway through the game, another new idea comes through -- class change. Okay, so at first you won't notice all that much difference. Your magic-users can now learn more of the spells, and your short, squat sprites became taller, skinnier sprites. Still, this was pretty cool for an RPG of that era. Most of the time, you chose your characters at the start of the game, and that's how they remained for the rest of it. The class change system was a nice touch.

   And yes, the plot is quite typical and simple. But if you pay close attention, you begin to realize there are more things going on behind the scenes that the designers had thought out well. I realized by accident that the lairs of the fiends formed a huge square on the world map, but for awhile, I didn't stop to consider what was at the center of that square... And the ending of the game reveals a back story that was pretty cosmic for the time.

Garland's infamous threat

   Then there are the things that were good enough to go on to become classic parts of the sequels -- the airship, the elemental crystal theme, the somewhat quirky NPCs ("Everybody knows me. What!? You've never heard of Dr. Unne?"), even the awkward translation. "You spoony bard!" was quite possibly the direct descendant of Garland's "I will knock you all down!" line.

   Also first seen in this game is the clashing of a seemingly medieval world with a long-vanished, high-tech society. The airship is evidence of this, as are the robots in Tiamat's floating castle. Speaking of that, another thing to take note of is WarMech, a random battle that can bring you more experience points than anything else. It's a little added bonus, if you want to try your luck. (Of course, if you're unlucky, you sometimes find him when you aren't looking...) To those who complain about the "sudden" change towards high technology in the Final Fantasy series, one thing you have to admit -- it started here.

   If FFI were to be released now, certainly it wouldn't make any waves; in fact, it would probably be laughed at. But stop to consider this: in eight years, there have been six sequels released in Japan, and the eighth and ninth FFs are on their way. In North America, no less than ten games have been published bearing the name Final Fantasy -- four of which were originally parts of different series and only were published under the Final Fantasy name because Square knew it was a name that fans would recognize. The waves that started with this simple game back in 1990 have swelled into a tsunami.

Retrospective by Andrea Hartmann.
Final Fantasy
Developer Square
Publisher Nintendo
Genre Traditional RPG
Medium Cartridge
Platform NES
Released 1990
Walkthrough and a monster chart
18 screen shots
21 pieces of various company artwork
Packaging and promotional artwork