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The 35-Year-Old (Final Fantasy) Virgin

Can you believe it? I write for an RPG site, and I've never reached the end of a regular series Final Fantasy game before. Oh, I've finished the FF Tactics games, and I beat at least one Kingdom Hearts game, but I think most gamers would agree that those don't really count. I started FF VIII, and I got pretty far into FF VII, but that's it. It sounds strange, I know, but my focus has always been on a different kind of game. I love hacking and slashing. It's blasphemous to say so, but I didn't even care when FF XIII came out recently, and I'm completely excited about Diablo III, even though I know full well that it's likely to be little more than a pretty version of Diablo II.

I have passed on the opportunity to play Final Fantasy games many times, but FF I was released on the iPhone OS a few months ago, just before I was to leave on vacation, and I couldn't pass up the opportunity again. I've always felt a little guilty about the FF-sized hole in my gaming resumé, and the two most logical games to fill the hole seem to be either the original or FF VII. In addition to having played some FF VII, I almost finished Crisis Core, so I've got some motivation to continue down that road. In the end, I knew that FF I was available to me in a portable format, and I didn't realize that I could get VII on PSN, so that decided it. Obviously, I've learned since then that VII was out there to be had, but I still think I made the right call. Maybe I'll snag VII before I head out on my next vacation.

While I'm on the subject, I've got to admit that using my iPod for gaming has been really convenient for me over the six months that I've had it. It's always with me for my music, so playing games on it means that I don't have to cart around my PSP or DS and their respective chargers. Games are cheaper for it as well, and I can't pretend that doesn't matter. The downside, of course, is that there are a lot of great games on the PSP and DS, and although there are certainly a lot of games on the iPod, the "crap to awesome" ratio is quite a bit worse. Still, we're talking Final Fantasy here. Even though there are a lot of lousy games on the iPhone OS, I had a hunch that this one wouldn't disappoint me.

I started with the party the game offered me by default: a Warrior (originally known as a Fighter), a Thief, a White Mage, and a Black Mage. I took them up to level 19 and decided that I was going too "white bread," so I started over. I wouldn't normally do that &ndash I had invested quite a while in those guys, and I was enjoying them, but they felt very predictable. I've played a lot of RPGs, and I know what a Black Mage is going to cast, I know how a White Mage is going to heal the party, and I know that a Warrior is going to equip heavy weapons and hit things with them. Of course, the whole reason I know these things is because they've been copied forward from this source, so I can hardly criticize FF I for matching the standard pattern.

The second time around, I made a party of a Warrior, a Monk (once called a Black Belt), a White Mage, and a Red Mage, named Krug, Taco, Zippy, and Jacque respectively (a fact I mention only because I am proud of their randomness). If I had played the other FF games, I might have known what to expect with the Monk and Red Mage, but since I hadn't, they were new to me, and that made them attractive. I kept the Warrior and White Mage, though. After all, you always need a healer and someone to equip heavy weapons and hit things with them!

With my new party, I fought the forces of earth, fire, water, and air for the 800th time in my life. I wandered around a world map and fought yet another billion randomly-encountered enemies. Of course, I also struggled with the fact that when I finished an objective, I frequently had no idea what to do next. I could talk to NPCs, but that didn't always help. If I hadn't already stumbled across the Western Keep, knowing that Matoya needed her crystal eye didn't mean a dang thing to me. Later on, knowing that I needed to find the caravan to get the fairy back was useless if I relied on the fact that every other location in the game thus far was visible on the world map. I was reminded of something I heard recently in relation to Demon's Souls, where the developer of an old game said that it was a return to the kind of "social gaming" he and his colleagues used to make: games where players had to interact with each other outside the game in order to succeed.

I really am 35, so the first console I ever had was an Atari 2600. I think that lasted a few months. After that, my parents decided that video games were a leading cause of sleepless nights (for my dad, not me), and the next video game machine to appear at my house was a Game Boy I bought about ten years later in high school. (Ah, Game Boy Tetris &ndash still one of the greatest games ever.) Because of that gaming gap, I missed out on a lot of that social aspect of games as a kid.

That being said, I think that I got a taste of it with Final Fantasy I anyway. The aforementioned vacation was a cruise, which means no Internet access, even on my cell phone. Every time I hit a dead end, I had to find the answer myself, as though I was a kid again, and the first guy on the block to have the new game. When we hit a port, I sometimes got a few minutes to search the web for the solutions to any problems I hadn't been able to resolve. It was like finding another kid who was a little farther in the game than I was. Some of this was self-imposed, of course. I could have downloaded a complete walkthrough at any time, but that's not how I wanted to play this game. It seemed... disrespectful.

And you know what? As I played, sometimes I screwed up. I got lost. I bought things I was about to get for free in a treasure chest. And honestly, I don't think that I picked a very good party. A Black Mage would have been a lot more useful than my Red, Jacque. Still, through it all, I had a good time, and I learned a lot about the history of the games I love. True, I didn't get the unvarnished experience I would have gotten on the NES, but knowing the fixes that have been made between then and now, I'm willing to live with it.

If you haven't played Final Fantasy I before, you should do so. Don't miss out on the chance like I did for so long, because it's like reading The Lord of the Rings or listening to Elvis. Sure, much of what you will experience may have been done a million times by now, but without the foundation, it never would have been done at all.

P.S.: If you love The Lord of the Rings, you should really try reading a series called the Ramayana. It's from India, and its original form comes from about the 4th century BCE. There's an outstanding translation/version written by an author named Ashok Banker within the last 10 years, and you'll be amazed at the things in that series that show up in later fantasy such as LotR. In a way, the Ramayana is to fantasy books as Final Fantasy I is to role-playing video games.

- John Tucker



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