Let's Light These Crystals Up!
When it came to kickstarting franchises, the legacy of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) is certainly strong. There were systems before the NES, to be sure, but it's hard to come up with a list of long-running, multi-iteration franchises from any of those systems that can rival the games coming out of the NES era. Sure, the Atari 2600 had releases of Asteroids, Pitfall, Space Invaders, and the like, but how many of those games have had the number of sequels and related materials to rival the likes of Mario, Mega Man, or Castlevania. The NES stands in a class by itself for all the epic games launched during it's era.
One of those games, as the story goes, also helped to save a company from completely folding. Final Fantasy came out in 1988 (1987 in Japan), and was the last ditch effort of Squaresoft to put out one winning game. The "Final" in Final Fantasy wasn't meant to be ironic (despite how many sequels and spin-offs have launched from this "final" title) -- originally this was the last game for the company, their "final" release before they expected to go belly up. And then it broke out huge and powered the company forward to be the powerhouse they are now. I bet they wish they'd named it something else, though.
The thing is, going back to the game... it really kind of sucks. I mean that with modern eyes, of course, as it's hard to see anyone that hasn't played the game before going in and thinking it's a winner. Sure, there have been iterations that have improved the original title over time -- the PlayStation had a release as part of the Final Fantasy Origins compilation that fixed some errors and improved the graphics and music, while both the Game Boy Dawn of Souls release and the later PlayStation Portable version rebalanced the game play and difficulty as well -- but the original NES edition is kind of a dog.
To elaborate, let's first take the graphics and sound out of the equation. For the era, the game looks and plays just about as you'd expect. The music is pretty good, what few tracks the game has, with a few catchy songs to power you through the dungeons, while the graphics are nice and clean. None of it super special viewed from even the end of the NES era -- certainly sequels Final Fantasy II and Final Fantasy III pushed the hardware harder to get better bang for the cartridges buck. As a first release in the series, though, the game looks and sounds quite nice.
No, the real problem comes from the game play Specifically, the game has a brutal difficulty to it. It starts pretty reasonably, setting your four heroes down in a fairly limited section of the world map (a tiny slice that opens up, little by little, as you unlock new forms of travel) and give them one quest to complete. Finish that and a little more of the map opens, populated by harder enemies. Push through that and you gain access to a whole sea filled with enemies to fight and a new dungeon to explore. And that's where the first big hurdle lies, and it's a hurdle even experienced, professional speed games have issues with: the Marsh Cave.
Marsh Cave (often called "Ambush Cave" by speed gamers), is a brutal slog to get through. First, you have to know to go there, which means exploring around the sea (with your stolen pirate ship) to find clues that it even exists. Then you have to take a long trek across the continent, conserving as many resources as you can along the way (because there's no way to get any magical spells you cast back before entering and completing the cave). Then you have to actually make it through the dungeon, which is populated by a ton of creatures that will have a high ambush rate (hence the nickname), and many of these can instant kill your party members (via the Stone status effect). This includes the enemies guarding the treasure you need, the Crown, by the way.
And then, once you make it out, you still have to slog your way back to a town for an inn (if you want your magic back), all to do it again to drop off the crown and then fight another brutal, instant-killing boss, just to end the quest. Not that the quest it really over, as there's still four more fetch quest steps along the way to earn your right out of the sea just to take care of the real quest the game gave you before you even started a new game.
It's a tough opening act to make it through, one that expects you to grind your heroes up to a significant level before even tackling the quest. But then, grinding takes forever in this game as the amount of experience (relative to what you need to level up) is jacked way down (one of the many things each of the remakes improves). If you're like me, you'll spend hours grinding in the sea, on and on, just to get to a point where you might be able to brave the Marsh Cave and make it further into the game.
Much of the game is like this, too. Take one step forward, and then grind for hours. Move further, and then grind again. By the mid point of the game you essentially know everything you need to do to complete the game, but the casual play will still have hours and hours of grinding ahead of them if they want to actually finish the game.
This might be part of the reason why speed runners have figured out the right path to take through the game, one that takes all the random encounters and other issues out of the equation by knowing exactly what steps to take, what enemies you'll fight on those steps, and what their whole path will end up being. Sure, a speed runner can finish the game in about five hours or less, but the average, casual player won't have that knowledge, or a written step route, or anything else to guide them. And that means they're in for a slog.
I did that slog once, spending a good two weeks playing the game and finishing out over half of the main quest. Then my NES died with the game inside it, and when I had it fixed I found that the system had wiped my save file. Needless to say that was the last time I played the NES version of the game. I'd invested enough in the game that I felt like I'd see what needed to be seen. When I go back to enjoy the game, I do it on one of the remakes instead.
I fully understand this is a classic title, and games from that era are all pretty hard (there's a reason they call classic games "Nintendo Hard"). The original Final Fantasy fits that bill. That's not to say it's without it's charms, and a few hours spent in the game can be enjoyable on their own. At a certain point, though, you have to decide it the slog is worth it -- are you in for the long haul to finish it, or would you rather play a faster, easier, more enjoyable version. For me, it's the latter, but that's a choice each gamer is going to have to make for themselves.