Final Fantasy Pixel Remaster
Image: Nintendo Life / Square Enix

Soapbox features enable our individual writers and contributors to voice their opinions on hot topics and random stuff they've been chewing over. Today, Henry experiences his very first Fantasy...

I admit it – I’ve never played Final Fantasy. It wasn’t on my radar as a kid, and by the time I was paying attention, it had jumped to Final Fantasy XIV! Fourteen! A number that high was intimidating, proof that I would never catch up on the many entries' worth of lore in such a long-running franchise.

So when the original Final Fantasy came to Switch in April, I very much paid attention. This revamped version is essentially the same game, but with a few quality-of-life improvements – cleaner designs, autosaves, improved graphics, fast-forward mechanics to speed up combat, helpful mini-maps, remixed music, and the like. (While you can turn on a CRT TV effect, I wouldn’t particularly recommend it, even for nostalgia’s sake.) These versions were released first on mobile and Steam, but have only now come to the Nintendo Switch eShop, where I usually lie in wait for new games and remasters.

You can buy the first six Final Fantasy games in a single Pixel Remaster bundle, or cash them in individually; I opted for the latter, just to experience the first game and see where it all started.

As someone who’s never played a Final Fantasy game before, here are my key observations.

Memory lane

I was struck by just how familiar Final Fantasy felt – a turn-based JRPG in a classic fantasy world, and one that was released in 1987, well before I was born. I had a similar experience playing BioShock (2007) a few years back, finding that, as seminal a game as I knew it was, I’d already played more contemporary games that riffed on similar mechanics, and it meant nothing quite felt fresh, though there was less of a barrier to picking up the controls.

I’d played a few of the early Dragon Quest games, a franchise that kicked off around the same time as Final Fantasy, and there were clear parallels. A group of heroes vanquishing evil, turn-based combat, swords and sorcery, merchants that supply you and churches that revive you – even the gradual upgrade to boats and airships to allow for advanced travel across the map.

But the biggest similarity I felt was with Dungeons & Dragons. Final Fantasy’s spell mechanics are taken right out of the tabletop role-playing game, with mage characters that gradually gain access to higher-level spells for greater damage, buffs, or utility. As they level up, they also gain the ability to cast lower-level spells more often, and spells go up to a total of eight levels – though you have to choose spells individually, buying them from local merchants in Final Fantasy’s settlements.

Final Fantasy Pixel Remaster
Image: Nintendo Life / Square Enix

This concept of magic is based on the same Vancian system (from Jack Vance’s Dying Earth novels) used in D&D, which conceives of magic as a fixed, limited resource that is prepared, used, and then depleted. I gather this becomes a more fluid MP / Magic Points system in later games, but in Final Fantasy 1 it meant I felt surprisingly at home, with a good familiarity with the kinds of magic system being deployed.

While the spell names are a little disappointing compared to what I’m used to in Dragon Quest – less ‘Kacrackle!’ and more of Mario-voiced ‘Poison-a’ – I understood what the spells were for, despite some limited communication around their effects.

Figure it out yourself

Obviously, earlier video games had less space for lengthy tutorials or descriptions – designers were working with limited hardware – and that limitation is still apparent in this remaster.

I realized just how used I was to the glut of information supplied to me in modern games.

Spell descriptions are incredibly vague, sometimes with the same description for spells at different levels, leaving you to guess how much better a spell is, how damage multipliers work, and whether a spell is even worth using in a particular situation. I repeatedly tried using a Sleep spell, which never quite seemed to do anything, even when the game told me it worked.

The lack of communication also means that the class choices you make at the start of the game, when creating your party of four, offer unclear pros and cons. I only found out a good number of hours into the game that certain spells like Teleport were walled off for the two mage classes I had chosen. I realized just how used I was to the glut of information supplied to me in modern games, whether that’s when making key choices around party composition or just the likelihood of a certain spell effect even working. 80%? 10%? How can I strategize with this kind of guesswork?

I found Final Fantasy a game that was content to let me figure things out myself – with a little less hand-holding than I was used to, but also a slightly obstinate silence at key points in the gameplay, at least from the perspective of a 2023 gamer.

The most important thing, though, is how good that core gameplay loop actually is. The sequence of exploration and battling in the landscape, delving into multi-layered dungeons for uncertain treasures, passing through towns to upgrade spells and weapons before setting off again – I was pretty hooked, and loved the constant feeling of progression as I moved through the world. I was never close to a party wipeout, but felt just enough challenge to pay attention to my resources.

The Pixel Remaster does a wonderful job of sprucing up a 35-year-old game, without it feeling like a modern interpretation; it looks better, and feels better, than the NES version would, but still presents the original game without too much interference. The ability to speed up battles with auto-attacks is a huge relief, too, saving me countless hours as I churn through smaller fights, before slowing down to more intentionally engage with spell choices and attacks when bigger challenges await me.

Final Fantasy Pixel Remaster
Image: Nintendo Life / Square Enix

Final Fantasy felt a lot like playing Dungeon Encounters (2021), Square Enix’s pared-down dungeon-crawler, which shrugs off a lot of modern JRPG expectations to stick with the basics of traversal, battling, and upgrading. FF felt pleasingly streamlined, focusing on its core mechanics without distraction, even if that meant the story was so light as to be almost irrelevant at times. Even though you have to backtrack geographically, the narrative is firmly linear, which was my primary disappointment here.

Streamlined, pretty, to the point – I enjoyed my time with Final Fantasy more than I expected. If I have one regret, it’s not buying the full remaster package to start.