20 December 2009

Square Rises to the Top

First up, a few quick updates. Substantial progress has been made on Episode 26. If next week were a normal week, I'd say it would be up in a few days. But with both my birthday and Thanksgiving coming up, finding time is going to be tough. But I hope to have that episode ready very soon.

One cool thing I've noticed is that occasional Chrontendo commenter Frank Cifaldi has posting on 1UP's excellent Retronauts blog. There's some great stuff covered, like the super obscure Homey D. Clown computer game, and one of those crazy Air Raid 2600 cartridges hitting EBay (current bid: $1999.99). And of course, 1UP's RPG blog is recommended as well.

But back to Episode 26. Aside from Mega Man (and Karnov!), Episode 26's main attraction is Final Fantasy, a game which I assume many of you have heard of. Heck, I'd say that along with Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros, FF is about the biggest game we've covered so far (though FF's fame was, of course, achieved retroactively.) Maybe I'm not the right guy to be discussing Final Fantasy in depth. True confession time: I've never finished FF VII. I guess that automatically disqualifies me from being an expert on these games.

However, I do love the 2D Final Fantasy games, and when playing the first one again for Chrontendo, I found myself enjoying it quite a bit in spots. One thing I had forgotten - the game is tough. Even more so than Dragon Quest II, FF loves to throw horrible status effects at you. Having three or four party members get poisoned is not that uncommon. And almost anything can poison you in this game: spiders, snakes, mucks, wolves and even... lobsters. Really now? Lobsters?! And of course, there's blindness, paralysis, silence and worst of all, being turned to stone. I suppose "death" could also count as a common status ailment. Keep in mind that Phoenix Downs have not yet been introduced, and while your White Wizard can eventually learn a revival spell, it cannot be used in battle.

Dungeons and caves are little more than enormous deathtraps, baited with special armor and weapons, treasure chests of gold and quest items. A common scenario is getting to the second floor of a dungeon, having a series run-ins with unusually tough monsters, using all your healing magic in an attempt to get your party's hit points back up to a reasonable level, then realizing you better head back up to the surface, rest, and then start again. Or alternately, a party member or two gets turned to stone or killed, leaving you to fight your way back out of the dungeon and into town. This element of danger lends a real tension to the game; you're only one "monsters strike first" away from total disaster at any given time.

There's much more to Final Fantasy than just its punitive difficulty. Every element from Dragon Quest is here, in enhanced and expanded form. Like magic spells? FF has tons of them, 64 to be exact. For weapons, we've got daggers, hammers, swords, nunchucks, staffs, Excalibur, Musamune - about 40 implements of destruction. In the defensive department we'll find armor, shields, gauntlets, helmets, rings, capes, and the ever popular ribbon. The world is populated not just with the standard kings and villagers, but also with dwarfs, elves, pirates, friendly dragons, confused robots, a cranky witch and talking broomsticks. The turn based combat is made substantially complex and involving. Character customization is added, giving Final Fantasy sort of a de facto difficulty slider. DQ's solitary ship is replaced with a ship, canoe and an airship. There is an in game map! And Nobuo Uematsu's score is freakin' fantastic.

Granted there are a few things that modern RPG fans will not cotton to. For example, if the monster targeted by a party member is killed before that party member moves, another monster will not be targeted. The party member will simply swing at the empty air, essentially losing a turn. Yes, it sucks when that happens, but that just means you need to chose your targets carefully. Despite such issues, in the context of 1987, Final Fantasy feels like a breath of fresh air. By rethinking or simply refining so many elements of the post Dragon Quest JRPG, Square manages to leap to the head of pack.

Final Fantasy's success apparently altered Square's business model entirely. 1988 will see them kill off DOG completely and greatly slow down the frequency of their releases. A few freestanding games will come out over the next few years, but Square will devote itself almost entirely to FF for the rest of the Famicom's lifespan.

One of these days, I'll get around to finishing Final Fantasy VII. Presumably Cloud will finally catch up to what's-his-name with the white hair?


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