One of the biggest challenges of assessing classic game remasters is determining what lens to look at the game through. How much can we overlook dated gameplay mechanics given the historical context of the games? Often classic RPGs can only be recommended as history lessons rather than games that hold up well today. With that in mind, I was pleasantly surprised that the Pixel Remaster of Final Fantasy provides an experience that I would be happy to recommend to any fan of Japanese RPGs.
Final Fantasy tells a story as old as time; four heroes of light must save the world by recovering four elemental crystals, which are dispersed in castles, towers, and mountains. It’s up to you to guide their four heroes around the map, searching for the dungeons that house the crystals. You discover all sorts of diversions and people in need on the journey, from a town beset by vampires to an elderly witch missing her glass eye. Of all the elements of Final Fantasy, the story has aged the worst. It’s very simple and is essentially just an excuse to get the characters out and exploring.
Exploration is the key component that makes Final Fantasy a game worth experiencing. The game plops you into the world, tells you to find the crystals, and provides minimal direction beyond that. To figure out where to go, you can talk to NPCs who hint at nearby points of interest, or you can explore the wilderness around you on your own. While this may sound frustrating, the world design makes exploration fun and engaging. The map isn’t too big, and you don’t have access to all of it at the beginning of the game. It’s impossible to walk around the game’s towns and not find out where you are supposed to go or come across some other noteworthy location. If you get stuck, NPCs in nearby towns almost always have a helpful hint about the direction you should be heading in.
Sometimes this loop doesn’t give you enough information. On a couple of occasions, I spent thirty minutes to an hour figuring out exactly what I was supposed to be doing. Most of the time, though, I found the process of reaching a new area, learning about it from NPCs, and then exploring to be highly engaging. When I stumbled upon an unrelated dungeon with sweet treasure, it felt gratifying. You can even complete some of the mid-game dungeons in any order. All of these possibilities encourage you to experience the game your way. The Final Fantasy Pixel Remaster never makes you do any side dungeons or talk to NPCs, but it rewards you for doing either in a way that feels natural. The freedom the game gives you makes it feel like your adventure, rather than a set-in-stone story, in which you’re just along for the ride.
The feeling of adventure and player choice you get from Final Fantasy is also driven by the character creation process. Instead of having preset characters with defined personalities, you receive four characters to name and choose a job for. You can go with a classic RPG party like Warrior, Thief, Black Mage, and White Mage, but if you want to do something unusual or challenge yourself, you can also make more experimental parties, like four mages, or three Monks and a White Mage. I appreciate the game’s character creation, as it allows different experiences for different players and multiple playthroughs. The only downside of the character creation system in Final Fantasy is that, if you’re new to the game, you are missing information on how the classes work beyond their basic descriptions. One of the downsides of having multiple Red Mages, for example, is that it is an extremely expensive class to buy good gear and magic for, while Monks are very affordable to get equipment for. Unfortunately, you don’t know these details until after you start the game, and then it’s too late to change. Fortunately, any balanced party composition can make it through the game, but some require more grinding than others.
Character creation has a significant effect on how you approach Final Fantasy’s combat. The combat is a traditional turn-based system, but your party composition determines how much access you have to things like single-target damage, area of effect attacks, and buffs. For a simple-to-understand combat system, there is more depth than I’d have expected. I’m already thinking about what party compositions I might use for my next playthrough. Enemy design is a mixed bag in Final Fantasy’s pixel remaster. Most regular enemies are straightforward, performing only single-target attacks and one or two spells. However, as you get into the mid-game, more enemies start using status effects or area-of-effect spells. Regular encounters feel like fodder designed to lower your resources before the bosses, which are the game’s real challenge.
In Final Fantasy, bosses pack a major punch, with the ability to one-shot party members or deal massive damage to the whole team. For the most part, though, bosses are equally vulnerable to your character’s strongest attacks. Until you get to the last few dungeons, most boss fights are slugfests that last under five turns. Either you kill them fast, or they kill you fast. Unfortunately, this means most boss fights until the last few dungeons aren’t very strategically interesting. Either you have enough healing and damage to beat them, or you don’t. There are only a few bosses where inflicting a status condition or casting multiple buffs is worthwhile. The simplicity of the boss fights shifts in the late game, though, when bosses have more hit points and more versatile move sets. For most late-game bosses, particularly the final boss, buffs and strong healing spells are necessities, and you have to think more strategically about how to take them down. The last few bosses of Final Fantasy include both the most interesting and the most frustrating battles because of their higher health pools and more extensive attack options.
It’s a combat system that’s good enough to support Final Fantasy’s broader theme of exploration. Most battles don’t require much strategy individually, but they drain you of resources, so to get through a big dungeon, you have to plan carefully. How many spells you use before getting to the boss and how many healing items you bring with you are important decisions that make or break your dungeon runs.
With any remaster, there’s more to talk about than just the gameplay. There’s also the updated presentation. Final Fantasy (Pixel Remaster) includes brand new sprites for characters, monsters, and the world they inhabit. The game is mainly faithful to the original. The player character sprites look like more modern versions of the original NES game, at times to the remaster’s detriment. I can’t help but feel a new take on the game’s promoted classes would have been beneficial. Most jobs look great when you start the game, but when warriors turn to knights and mages turn to wizards, many of them look worse for the transition (I don’t know if I’ll ever get over the black wizard losing his hat). Two of the most positive aspects of the remaster are the combat backgrounds and the music. Every area has a detailed combat background, all of which are visually pleasing. Whenever I got to a new location, I was excited to see what the backdrops would look like in the first battle. The best part of the game’s presentation is by far the music. Almost every song is a beautiful reimagining of the original, and I looked forward to the soundtrack every time I started up the game. Also included is a sound room that I spent a fair amount of time in just relistening to the first dungeon’s theme. One other negative aspect of this remaster’s loyalty to the original game is that it is missing extra content from other versions of the game. The Pixel Remaster only includes content from the NES version of the game.
Overall, between the game’s story and gameplay, nothing sticks out as individually exceptional. Still, Final Fantasy comes together as an experience that is better than the sum of its parts. The Pixel Remaster does an excellent job of keeping the surprisingly well-aged gameplay that started the series intact while updating it with more modern pixel art and a beautiful soundtrack. Outside of a few confusing moments and poorly balanced bosses, Final Fantasy is a game I would readily recommend to modern RPG fans, and it’s a great introduction to the genre’s classics.