Final Fantasy III is a very important game in the Final Fantasy canon. It was a course correction after the experimental shenanigans of the second installment. It introduced the iconic job-change system, iterating on the original game’s character classes and allowing players to customize their party freely. It’s the first game in the series to feature the magnificent Moogle mascots (kupo!). And, of course, it serves as the basis for Final Fantasy XIV’s Crystal Tower series of raids, as well as the fan-favorite Shadowbringers expansion pack. Despite these highlights, the Pixel Remaster series marks the first time gamers outside of Japan have had the chance to experience this title in its original, non-3D remake incarnation. So, how does Final Fantasy III hold up in the year of our lord 2023?
Eh. It’s a’ight.
Final Fantasy III, like the original game, stars four nameless protagonists who remain with you for the entire game. This time around, our quartet of would-be heroes are orphaned youths from the remote village of Ur, which is situated on a floating continent drifting over an endless sea. When a powerful earthquake rips across the land, the youths find themselves in an underground cavern, where they encounter a magic crystal: one of four which governs the natural elements of fire, earth, wind, and water. With the crystal’s blessing, the four set out on a journey to restore balance to the world and fend off the encroaching darkness, eventually leaving behind the floating continent and encountering a threat from beyond the void itself.
Honestly, the story in Final Fantasy III is serviceable by the standards of 1990, but it’s not much to write home about compared to more modern RPGs. It’s a classic tale of good versus evil, light versus dark, with little else in the way of plotting or characterization. The characters travel to a location, learn about whatever problem the locals are suffering from, travel to a dungeon and beat up a boss, then pocket whatever MacGuffin is necessary to proceed to the next location. Along the way, you occasionally pick up a guest character, but they won’t do anything except follow you and provide the most rudimentary of observations about the situation you’re in. While I appreciate the Pixel Remaster’s commitment to replicating the Famicom original, part of me would have liked to see the one-dimensional personalities and names given to the party in the DS remake. After all, one dimension is better than none. Your party members do have dialogue, unlike in Final Fantasy I, but strangely, there’s no indicator of which of your party members is speaking at any given time, even though they are all given names at the start of the game. NPCs do have their names listed on their dialogue boxes, so the omission of them for your party is very strange.
Final Fantasy III doesn’t stray from the template set by Squaresoft’s genre-defining adventure. Your party travels from town to town, first on foot, then by sea, and eventually by air, all the while engaging in turn-based battles and leveling up. You acquire quite a few vehicles over the course of your journey: a canoe that lets you traverse shallow bodies of water, then your initial airship, a really fast airship that doubles as a submarine, and finally a much slower airship that can jump over mountains. As you progress, more of the world opens up to you, although there’s little in the way of side content in this particular Final Fantasy. Not that there aren’t areas off the beaten path that aren’t worth exploring or revisiting, but for the most part, by the time you reach the end of the game, you’ll have seen everything it has to offer.
Combat works more or less exactly as it did the first time around, with party members and enemies trading blows in an order based on their stats and other factors. There’s no MP in the Pixel Remaster version of Final Fantasy III. Instead, you have a certain number of spell charges for each tier of magic, and you purchase new magic spells from a shop. There are no tents or ethers in Final Fantasy III, so in order to recover your spell charges, you need to sleep at an inn or choke down a rare Elixir, which can be frustrating during longer forays.
What sets III apart from its predecessors is its introduction of the job system. Every time the party encounters one of the crystals, they’re blessed with a new batch of jobs, and players can freely switch between these whenever they wish. This really frees up your ability to customize your party… in theory. In practice, this early version of the job system feels more like an elaborate series of locks and keys instead of a vessel for player experimentation.
Take the Scholar, for example. There is precisely one instance in the game where having a Scholar in your party is strongly encouraged, if not required, by a boss that regularly changes its elemental affinities, making the Scholar’s singular ability to read an enemy’s weakness really handy. After that, though, it’s back into the bin. The same goes for the Dark Knight, a somewhat middling damage dealer whose ability to attack multiple targets at once is useful for precisely two dungeons in the game. Or, rather, it would be, except for one of those dungeons, you won’t have any weapons for Dark Knights, because you can’t reach the town that sells them until you get a different airship. Dragoons? Required for one boss fight, but quickly outstripped in damage output by the Ninja. Speaking of which, if you’re not using a party of Ninjas and Sages during the endgame, you’re doing it wrong, as they outclass the other jobs so dramatically that there’s no excuse not to use them. At the very least, the Pixel Remaster dispels with the weird “job sickness” from the 3D remake, so you aren’t being actively punished for engaging with the game’s systems. Still, jobs feel oddly restrictive in Final Fantasy III, and it wouldn’t be until later down the road that Square really perfected these mechanics.
Oh, and I hope you like grinding. Final Fantasy III has a fairly even difficulty curve for the most part, but that all comes to an end during the game’s brutally difficult final dungeon gauntlet. The Crystal Tower is actually three dungeons in one (four if you count the Ancient Maze), with only one spot to save right at the beginning. Odds are, unless you’re taking advantage of the experience boosters added in the console versions of the Pixel Remasters, you’ll be drastically underleveled by the time you reach the Crystal Tower, which is where both fun and game balance go to die. Thankfully, the Pixel Remaster makes a few concessions in the player’s favor: you can heal in between bosses, auto and quick saves are a godsend, and once again, you can utilize the experience and gil boosters to cut down on time wasted. (And before anyone gets on my case, the 3D version of Final Fantasy III was the first Final Fantasy I ever beat. I did this legit once, and never again!) I’m sure that there’s a specific breed of RPG player who will relish the challenge of the Crystal Tower, but it couldn’t be me.
I don’t have enough good things to say about the game’s presentation, however. The Pixel Remasters are simply gorgeous, recreating the feel of the original sprites while making the rest of the game pop with vibrant color and detail that the Famicom could only dream of. New to the console versions is a new font option, which looks way better than the oft-maligned default font. It does a lot to bring the experience together into a cohesive celebration of retro aesthetics. You also have the option to listen to the original music by Nobuo Uematsu, although the remastered tracks are excellent, especially the final boss theme. I also appreciate that you can take a look at all of the promotional materials and artwork for the game from the main menu. It’s a wonderful trip down memory lane, looking at Yoshitaka Amano’s striking artwork and seeing how it was realized in digital form.
Alas, Final Fantasy III will likely never be anyone’s favorite Final Fantasy. While it is a significant entry in the series, other games do what it does better. Final Fantasy V has a better job system, Final Fantasy I better captures the sense of four randos going on an adventure, Final Fantasy XIV takes the Crystal Tower and absolutely runs with it… I could go on. I can’t say that I had a bad experience playing the Pixel Remaster, but unless you’re a completionist who simply must play every Final Fantasy, I can’t in good conscience recommend it, either. Still, there’s value in learning about your roots, if only for the lessons to be gleaned from them.