Conversations about NES RPGs are often about the wrong things. Sure, there’s often too much grinding. The graphics are sometimes unpleasant. The story is almost always bare bones. All of that is true, but when I go back and play games from this era, the thing that strikes me is experimentation. Final Fantasy, of course, has always been known for experimentation, even as far back as Final Fantasy II.
Final Fantasy III is no exception. You can feel Hironobu Sakaguchi and the rest of the team having a blast playing around with their series. Although some of the experiments bog down the gameplay, overall, the many quality of life improvements — both small and large — in the Pixel Remaster version make it mostly a success and surprisingly fun to play.
The first area where you can feel the developers stretching their legs is the job system. While the first Final Fantasy game offered you some freedom in your jobs at the beginning of the game, Final Fantasy III is the first entry where you’re allowed to change them as the game goes on. Early in the game, you have access to a few classes, such as Fighter and White Mage. You unlock more, like Dragoon, as you progress as well as basic-class upgrades, like Knight and Sage. Unlike previous versions, you can change classes without having to expend any currency. Jobs level up separately from your character, and the higher the level, the more powerful they become. There are no cross-class skills, though your job impacts your stat growth while leveling.
Honestly, it’s all pretty rudimentary, even compared to the job system the game cribs from in Dragon Quest III. Square went on to hone a similar system to a fine sheen in Final Fantasy V and Final Fantasy Tactics. However, it’s still fun to play around with job combinations to find your best fit, even if some jobs are less useful than others. The only part of this system I found frustrating was moments in which the game essentially forced me to change my job composition to run through a dungeon or take on a boss. There were a ludicrous number of times I had to cast Mini on my party, rendering physical attacks useless, so I had to change their jobs to spell casters. I appreciated their efforts at coaxing you to experiment, but it just happened a few too many times.
Unless you want to grind for a long time, you have to play around with jobs anyway because Final Fantasy III is hard. Dungeons can be long and unforgiving. Some bosses will spam moves that take off more than ⅔ of your health every turn. Combat is your standard early Final Fantasy turn-based affair, but sometimes your ability to act before or after the boss will determine whether you live or die. In the original, this could be particularly troublesome since there were no save points in the long dungeons, which are chock full of hidden pathways and dead ends. Luckily, in the Pixel Remaster version, there are plenty of helpful quality of life improvements. First, there’s an autosave function that puts you at the start of any room you die in. Particularly in the very long final dungeon, this can be an absolute lifesaver, so you don’t have to run all the way through it again if you wipe. You can sprint in towns and dungeons as well. There’s also a mini-map in each dungeon (and on the world map) which shows where all the treasure chests are and helps you figure out which hidden path gets you through the room. It doesn’t make the game easier, necessarily, but it is less punishing than the original, and I am grateful for that.
Otherwise, Final Fantasy III’s gameplay is mostly what you’d expect from an NES RPG. To progress, there are some opaque event triggers. You have to talk to NPCs to figure out where you should go next. Final Fantasy III is slightly more linear than other games of the time, though; it might not be exactly clear where to go, but the game cleverly blocks off areas you aren’t meant to reach yet. It does this in part because you get not one but five different airships throughout the game. It’s almost like someone told the development team that one of the coolest parts of the first game was the moment you got the airship, so they came up with different ways to destroy your ship over and over again so you could get another one or a more souped-up version. It’s a little bit much, but the different ways the developers experimented with exploration throughout the game were fun. They were obviously having a great time playing with the form, which is a step up from previous games in the series.
Much to my surprise, Final Fantasy III’s story is a step up from its predecessors as well, and not just because it heavily inspired the fabulous story in Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers. You start as four young people who stumble upon a crystal that imbues you with unnatural combat abilities, and of course, you become the four Warriors of Light. Thus, you travel from your town and discover that the world is in peril. Sounds just like the first Final Fantasy, right? It kind of is, but there are many little things that distinguish the story here from other earlier RPGs. First, there are a plethora of excellent NPCs who help you along the way, and the town-to-town storytelling is pretty engaging. Once the plot to destroy the world is revealed, it’s nothing new, but there is more heart and humanity here than I was expecting. The fresh localization is a boon, too. Although the story might be a little simple, never reaching the anime-as-hell heights of Final Fantasy IV, I still found it engaging enough to keep me moving.
I’d be remiss if I closed without addressing the most controversial element of these remasters: the re-imagined look. I think Final Fantasy III is visually fantastic. The sprites, the backgrounds in battle, and especially the beautiful light effects throughout feel faithful to the original. Even the font didn’t bother me much since I played on PC and was close to the screen. The new look and style might not be for everyone, but I can’t imagine anyone being too upset with the updates to the NES sprites.
The music, on the other hand, shouldn’t be controversial to anyone. The original Final Fantasy III already had an all-time classic soundtrack, and the re-orchestration here is just incredible. I can’t tell you how much joy it gave me to listen to “Eternal Wind” every time I stepped out onto the overworld map, but the rest of the soundtrack delivers too. I’m listening to the original NES OST as I write this. While it is beautiful, the added orchestral flair brings this remaster to life while retaining everything that made the original soundtrack so memorable.
Ultimately, if I was going to recommend one NES-era Final Fantasy to anyone, it would be Final Fantasy III. You can feel the sheer genre-pushing joy on screen as you play. This version of Final Fantasy III removes many of the original’s frustrating elements, but it still feels like an RPG of its era, for good or ill. The job system might not be that complex, the story might not be that engaging, and the exploration might be frustrating. But without this game bridging the gap between the early era and the SNES, we wouldn’t have gotten to Square’s golden age. It’s worth playing for that reason alone.
Plus there’s that soundtrack. Go listen to it. Right now.