The Backlog (5): D&D, but worse
A brief review of the first Final Fantasy game
Square released first Final Fantasy came out in 1987, the same year TSR, Inc. began development of the second edition of Dungeons and Dragons. This is a coincidence.
For context, I’m a huge D&D nerd. I listen to podcasts, watch streams and videos on running games, and am in the middle of a campaign that’s lasted three years. It’s one of my favourite pastimes, partly because of the fantasyland setting, partly because of the social aspect, and partly because telling shared stories is really cool. Playing the first Final Fantasy game, in its re-release on Virtual Console for Wii, was like playing D&D but less fun.
I never played earlier editions of the “worlds greatest roleplaying game,” as back then D&D was further on the outskirts of nerd culture and, by some metrics, less accessible of any experience. As such, I’m not the most qualified person to compare whether Final Fantasy bears any resemblance to the experience of playing D&D as it existed in the late 80s, before the second edition of ‘Advanced Dungeons & Dragons’ was released. But if it was anything like Final Fantasy, it’s definitely a throwback I want to avoid.
The hallmarks of D&D-style character creation (classes), stats (luck, vitality, strength), and magic systems (spell slots) are all over Final Fantasy, and are part of the fabric of RPGs as they were then and now. It’s got a grand swords-and-sorcery story, with elves, magic MacGuffins (crystals), and chosen-one tropes all over the place. The storytelling is the peak of NES-era style, in that I had to Google it to know what was going on, because I don’t have the instruction manual in my hands. It probably didn’t help that I was picking up from my original attempt three years ago, since Virtual Console has an unfortunate habit of making it hard to impossible to overwrite saves of NES games. I think I was on Chapter 3 when I left off; I’m still there.
Part of the problem, above many things, is the grind. You die easily, and level slow, so after a couple hours I was still under the recommended level to head into the dungeon. The random encounters are frequent and often tedious; the limits of magic result in frequent backtracking to rejuvenate spell slots, or the purchase of highly expensive equipment. The backtracking then results in more random encounters, and yet more time spent healing and resting. I just want to get to the dungeon without feeling like I need to have twice the number of items as I can afford, because I will probably be poisoned on the way and need to be fully healed before entering.
The thing is, D&D has the same thing; battles are long, and sometimes end up feeling exhausting because of it. Healing is limited, and resting is vital in particular nerve-wracking areas. A turn takes way longer than the six seconds it’s apparently supposed to last. But they’re not random, at least not in the algorithmic sense; they’re under the all-powerful control of your benevolent dungeon master. There is a person, and often a person you like and respect, pulling the strings; they can adjust difficulty, pacing, and respond to the real-time interactions of the people at the table. Obviously, Final Fantasy isn’t trying to be just be D&D; but the similarities, especially having played a lot more D&D since I last played the game, I end up drawing really clear connections between the two experiences.
The problems I describe are the same problems I had with my first attempt at playing it, and I hoped maybe my increased patience would help. It did; instead of getting immediately frustrated, I just got bored, then frustrated when the game seemed to keep getting in my way as I actually set out to go enjoy myself and explore a dungeon. This is very much a case of “NES games were way harder and I don’t like it,” and that’s okay by me. Maybe I’ll revisit it one day when I’m feeling particularly masochistic, or maybe I’ll try to pick up a copy of the reworked GBA version. At least then it’d be more colourful. But for now, I know that if I made a list of the series’ games from best to worst, this would be the final Final Fantasy on it.
I may have written this whole post just for that joke.