I hold a special place in my heart for Final Fantasy III. (Attention nerds! When I say Final Fantasy III, I mean the game that was released in America as Final Fantasy III, and released in Japan as Final Fantasy VI. For clarity’s sake, I will simply call it Final Fantasy III, because that’s what it says on the title screen, and I’m reviewing the original, Super Nintendo American version. So chill out, nerds, and go lecture someone about the correct meaning of the phrase “first Star Wards movie” or “first year of the millennium.”) I inevitably compare all other Final Fantasy games I play to FFIII, and when they come up short I sit back in my rocking chair, take a puff on my corn cob pipe, and declare “You know in MY day, when we played Final Fantasy III…”
Which is why I decided to replay it. Or rather, re-replay (I had played it a couple times as a kid, and once as a freshman in college. Remember: life is precious, and you must never waste a single second.) I wanted to know how much of the game still held up after all these years of “advances” in the Final Fantasy series (notice how I put advances in quotation marks, to imply that later games aren’t as good? I’m really fucking insufferable, ain’t I?), and how much of the game I was simply viewing through the hazy, rose-colored glasses of nostalgia.
The final verdict: half of the game is as good as I remember it, and the other half is much, much worse.
Let’s start right at the beginning, and one of the best parts of the game. In the introduction, you lead a small party made up of two empire soldiers (the FF/Star Wars staples Biggs and Wedge, although Biggs was mistranslated as “Vicks”) and a mysterious girl who is under the spell of some sort of mind control device. Your party rides around in suits of Magitek armor, which are basically Battlemechs, investigating a mine. In doing so you are naturally introduced to the basic game mechanics. The early battles are set up to show the various combat possibilities (formation, initiative, skills). The first boss battle guides you through the most essential skill for all Final Fantasy games: knowing what to attack, and what to attack it with.
The world you investigate is a world without magic. It is, to use a now-overused phrase, steampunk. Magic was given up long ago after a long war, and now mankind has technology alone. Here is what works best about this world: it feels like a Final Fantasy in the most literal sense. This is a world that is about to undergo a great, final war as magic reenters the world and ends an era.
It is also a Final Fantasy game in some of the worst ways possible. I had forgotten how completely dependent these games are on random encounters. Every 4-10 steps, another battle commences. The battles are rarely tough; instead, there are simply so many that after a while, your party is worn down either because you run out of healing spells/items or because you forget to heal your party as much as you should, because you have been lulled into a trance of walking, fighting, walking, fighting, walking, fighting. The random encounters are so constant, and so mindless, that you quickly start to loathe every possible detour, simply because it means taking more steps, with more meaningless combat.
Compounding this is the limited variety for each encounter. Each location has, on average, 2-4 different types of enemies. You will fight them in the same formations (for instance, a dungeon may cycle through the following possible enemies: 2 bats and a wolf, or 4 bats, or 2 wolves), over and over and over again. Sometimes, when returning to places you had already visited when your party was a much lower level, the combat is particularly tedious: clicking quickly through “Fight” over and over again as your Level 40 characters slaughter Level 2 bunnies (yes, bunnies) is not exactly exciting.
Combat is barely different from the combat of most Final Fantasy games, which is hardly a drawback. Each character has his or her own special abilities. Some of these are interesting (Edgar can use tools with different effects, Locke can steal items from enemies), some are nearly worthless without extensive investment of time (Gau, Mog, and Strago can all use special abilities which they learn from enemies they have fought), and some are obnoxious (Sabin’s Blitz attack requires certain sequences of button pushes, as in a fighting game, every time you want to use it). You will spend most of the game using a core group of 4 people. When the game forces you to use other, weaker, more annoying characters, you will curse the world. In addition to all that, some of the enemies’ attacks are just plain cruel: several bosses wait until the last possible second, when you have almost destroyed them, to cast Ultima, which delivers an ungodly amount of damage to the party. Have fun playing that battle all over again! It’s as if the game got pissed at you for beating the other monsters so easily, so it decided to just be blatantly unfair. Even worse are the attacks that some enemies make right after you kill them, which means you can conceivably kill all the monsters, just to have one of the monsters kill your last surviving party member after the last monster has already died. Have fun playing that dungeon all over again!
The most obvious drawback of the original SNES version of the game is that the localization sucks. Apparently they only had one guy translate the entire game from Japanese, and it shows. I’ve posted some of the choicer parts in the post English As She Is Spoke: Localization in Final Fantasy III/VI.
Along the way, there are some truly great scenes and ideas, such as The Opera House. It’s probably what most people, even a decade and a half later, remember most vividly about the game. It is, in many ways, as good as I remember. The music and setting are perfect, and it’s a simple, fun diversion from the usual hack-n-slash monotony. However, as an adult playing this game, let me tell you something that I failed to realize in my first several playthroughs, long ago: The whole god-damned thing makes no fucking sense.
WARNING: SPOILER INFO FOR A 16 YEAR-OLD-GAME FOLLOWS
Here’s what happens. In a town called Jidoor, you hear about an opera singer named Maria who sings in an opera house just south of the town. You find out that a gambler named Setzer, owner of the world’s only airship, is in love with Maria and so, naturally, has planned to kidnap her. So, to get access to the airship, you go to the opera house. But the impresario of the opera says that Maria is in hiding because of the kidnap plot by Setzer. The impresario, however, is unwilling to cancel the opera. Why? Because it’s the opera! Here one of your party members, Locke, comes up with a great plan. Another of your party, a former enemy-general-turned-good-gal named Celes, just happens to look exactly like Maria. Locke says that Celes should pretend to be Maria in the opera, and when Setzer tries to kidnap Celes/Maria, the whole party will follow Setzer to the airship. After some cajoling, Celes does 15 seconds of vocal warm-ups, and is magically an operatic singer. Celes then goes to the dressing room to learn her lines for the opera Maria and Draco. (Note: Apparently Maria the opera singer was playing a character named Maria in an opera named Maria and Draco, although both Marias have been replaced by Celes, who again just happens to look identical to Maria and has an operatic singing voice.)
Following so far? Too bad. It continues.
Ultros, a purple octopus whom you had previously fought in another battle, decides to pretend to be the kidnapper, Setzer. Ultros is angry at your party for his previous defeat, even though no one currently in your party was actually in your party for the previous battle with Ultros. Basically, Ultros picked another random group of 4 people and decided that this new group of 4 people must be functionally identical to the previous group of 4 people which had defeated him. Ultros throws a letter into the dressing room stating that he (as Setzer) will ruin the opera. Locke finds out about this, and runs to stop him. Ultros’ plan to ruin the opera is to push a giant weight (a la Wile E. Coyote), onto Celes’ head as she sings. Since Ultros is a giant purple octopus, pretending to be Setzer doesn’t actually change his plan in the least, and in fact his plan would have gone off without a snag had he not, for no comprehensible reason, warned the party that Setzer (actually Ultros) was going to ruin the opera.
Let me recap so far: A former-bad-guy-turned-good is pretending to be a singer named Maria who plays a character named Maria to lure a gambler (and possible kidnapper/rapist) named Setzer to the opera, although a purple octopus who has no connection any of the people in the opera house decides that he does, in fact, have a connection to the people in the opera house, and so he pretends to be Setzer for no particular reason and then spends exactly 5 minutes trying to push a giant weight onto Maria, who is actually Maria, who is actually Celes.
There are some fights, some more mixed identities, and, in short, the plan works. Even the opera itself is saved! After Celes is brought onto the airship, the rest of the party jumps on board (why was it necessary for Celes to be kidnapped, if they could just jump on board?), and Setzer decides to help the party because he is, after all, a gambler. He also decides to join your party. That’s right: the guy who was about to forcibly kidnap a woman and hold her hostage on his flying ship is now a playable character. (Final Rape Fantasy?) It’s a fun interlude in the game, but it simply doesn’t make sense.
END CONFUSED, RAMBLING SPOILERS
So the Opera House is super crazy. But overall, it still works as a level. This is Final Fantasy III’s greatest strength: varying up the gameplay. Rather than just sending you into a series of dungeons, you fight in dream worlds, other dimensions, falling through the sky, traveling through the ocean, riding a mine cart, and more. Although Final Fantasy III is not as amazing as I remember, it is still better than most of the recent Final Fantasy games because it took a simple concept and put it in interesting locales. The more recent games are rarely any different than Final Fantasy I, just with slightly more fleshed out characters and super fancy CG-animated androgynous spikey-haired characters: you still essentially just wander from town to town, then go into dungeons/forests and slaughter monsters for a while. I found that I remembered entire sequences from Final Fantasy III, which I had not played in nearly a decade, better than I remember all of Final Fantasy XII, which I played a couple years ago.
Final Fantasy III is not as good as I remember it, but it’s still worth playing. There are certainly portions that are a grind, but you never have to resort to wandering around dungeons just to fight battles for XP. The characters are interesting, although there are so many characters you won’t build as strong an emotional attachment as in games such as Final Fantasy II (aka Final Fantasy IV) or Final Fantasy VII. This is a game that really tried to use a concept that was, by then, getting old, and go to interesting new places with it. My disappointment with the newer games is no longer “I wish this was more like Final Fantasy III,” but rather “I wish this wasn’t just another Final Fantasy game.”