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At a time when entries into the Final Fantasy series are leaving fans disappointed, frustrated, or just apathetic, now might be the time to look back to the series’ roots, to the games that were able to build a 20+ year empire of Japanese RPGs in the first place.
Everyone has their opinions about VII, VIII, and IX, and most gamers out there are familiar with them. However, I-VI are games that you might not have played in a long time, if ever. With recent re-releases for modern platforms, such as the Nintendo DS and the iPhone, it might be time to rediscover where this series came from, and what made it great in the first place.
The game that saved Square. ‘Final Fantasy’ was the last hope of a floundering Japanese software company who left it up to their producer, Sakaguchi Hironobu, to save them from bankruptcy. This is the game that did the trick and made Square a powerhouse of JRPGs.
This first entry into the series founded the video game concept of a vast world, protected by a group of rag-tag adventurers, with noticeable use of elements from Dungeons & Dragons. Final Fantasy’s main rival at the time, Dragon Quest, on the other hand, featured a single hero and a less intuitive user interface, which might have led to FF’s initial superior popularity. This title is currently available on the Wii Virtual Console and for iOS.
Final Fantasy II
The second title in the series was never originally released outside of Japan until 2002 for the Playstation and is now available on the Playstation Network and iOS. This one comes highly recommended for its unique leveling system, which is based on how often a certain trait is used–if you use a sword most, your sword skills will go up; if you take a lot of damage, your health goes up.
Sound familiar? The wildly popular RPG Skyrim uses a similar system, and it adds a certain amount of personal customization to the leveling of your character. Final Fantasy II has a great story and is the first game in the series to feature Chocobos and the recurring character, Cid.
Final Fantasy III
First released outside of Japan in 2006 on the Nintendo DS, the original Famicon version is available through the Wii Virtual Console, and a port of the DS version is available with improved graphics for iOS. These first three games all feel like an intentional improvement on their predecessors, with a focus on character customization and control.
FFIII introduces the Job System, allowing players to customize their team of four Onion Knights with 23 different jobs, allowing 279,841 different party configurations to play through the game with. FFIII is a sort of archetypical Final Fantasy game, a touchstone for what “is” Final Fantasy.
Final Fantasy IV
A considerably modified and censored version known as Final Fantasy II was released for the SNES in North America in 1991, and various versions are now available for the Nintendo DS, the Wii Virtual Console, and the PSP. Final Fantasy IV is a dramatic tale with twists and turns, a few weird moments, superb music, and a rotating, but memorable cast of characters with predetermined Jobs.
This is the first FF where story is more important than character customization, but the sense of exploration is maintained, as is the series’ notorious level of difficulty and level grinding, except in the American ‘EasyType’ version. In fact, this is the title that arguably pioneered story-driven RPGs on any console, so for fans of strong plots in games, this is a must-play.
Final Fantasy V
Customization makes an improved return in Final Fantasy V with the Job system, and the Active Time Battle system carries over from FFIV, with an additional visible gauge allowing players to see when their next opportunity for attack is coming up. In this sense, FFV is a good example of a Final Fantasy game taking the best elements of its predecessors and building on them.
Only in November of last year did FFV become available on the Playstation Network in North America, and there are no other current generation systems for which this title is available, unfortunately. The favorite game of series creator Sakaguchi Hironobu until FFIX, this is a rare gem worth playing if you can get your hands on it.
Final Fantasy VI
The grand poobah of retro Final Fantasy games and considered one of the best video games of all time, this game was originally known as Final Fantasy III in North America. Final Fantasy VI is in some ways a proto-Final Fantasy VII, in that players can swap out characters from a large cast to form a party and equip “magicite” and “relics” to teach and customize abilities, similar to materia in VII.
This game is also the origin of Biggs and Wedge (who, similar to FFVII, die early on), a Limit Break system of sorts, Ultima Weapons, and others. FFVI was just released on the Playstation Network in North America in December 2011, and on the Wii Virtual Console in June 2011.
Judging from these old games, it seems that it was only recently that Square forgot how to use all the best elements of previous FF games to make a new one. I-VI paved the way for the series’ popularity. Yet, in recent entries to the main series, the keystones that made these games great seem to be all, but absent.
The next Final Fantasy should respect its roots beyond just sticking a Chocobo in one of the characters’ hair. Free exploration of a huge world map, fully customizable characters, a deep and gripping plot, and bits of the best gameplay elements from each game–that’s what the next FF should look like if Squeenix wants to put its main series back on track.
Hopefully, the awesome Final Fantasy Type-0 for PSP will get a release outside of Japan, and the next console entry will look something like it as well.