The Final Fantasy series has developed as one of the most popular and stylized franchises in videogames. Beloved by millions, the Final Fantasy games have managed to develop an almost baroque formalism in terms of both mechanics and narrative. There have been many milestones in the history of the series, but none that have been so momentous and yet nearly forgotten as the first two entries. Recently Square oversaw a graphical and structural retooling of the first 2 Final Fantasy games, allowing modern gamers to experience these games in a new form, either as an act of nostalgia or a belated discovery of the roots of the series.
In Final Fantasy Origins, both the original games have been improved from their NES counterparts and it may come as a surprise as to how these improvements are implemented. First of all, both the graphics and the sound have been updated so that they appear and sound like the SNES Final Fantasies, which is pretty much a good thing, as the original style of both the music and the graphics has been retained, but the additional fidelity makes the games much more pleasing, both visually and aurally.
The surprising aspect is not only the addition of a few full-motion video cutscenes, but additional cutscenes done in the 'original' graphic style. These 'retro' cutscenes are similar to the special editions of the Star Wars movies that were released a while back, not only because they add new content, but because they add content intended to make the original games more consistent with the games that would follow them. For instance, when the bridge is built from the original town in Final Fantasy, there is a 'humorous' cutscene that has been added to depict soldiers from the castle hurriedly building the bridge. The scene fits into the whimsical humor that is a trademark of the Final Fantasy series, but it also is quite different from the minimalist narrative ethos that typified the first Final Fantasy.
The end result is one that is pleasant graphically, but disturbing as a more complete experience. By changing the actual structure of the game and adding cutscenes, one could argue that Square is attempting to ease the brutal minimalism of the earlier games for a modern audience. Certainly those who played through the originals remember the tedium that the play mechanics often led to, and these new sequences could serve to somewhat soften the blow. But doing so seems to be a bit of a lost cause, as even with the new additions the games are still very basic compared to today's titles. In a situation where changing the games arguably does not significantly alter the experience of the game from a tedium standpoint, it becomes less of an issue of comfort and more an issue of revisionism.
The gameplay of both titles is typical of their era, with the games centering on a party of characters traversing an overworld between cities and other points of interest, battling monsters along the way. These battles are done in a completely turn-based system, with no sense of urgency imparted to the experience. Driven by a menu-based system, these games are lacking many of the later bells and whistles that have made modern RPGs a more complex and sometimes less frustrating experience.
Both games represent important origin points for not only the modern Final Fantasies, but modern role-playing games (RPGs) in general. But rather than being variations on a single theme, both games have decidedly different aspects that helped define the games that were to follow. Indeed, the first two Final Fantasies are in many ways more different than they are alike, and this is part of why Final Fantasy Origins is such a compelling package.
Final Fantasy I, like its precursor Dragon Warrior, is heavily indebted to the Western table-top RPG Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). Characters have 'classes' that define what skills they are best at, as well as numbers that serve as abstractions of varying 'abilities' in categories like 'strength' and 'intelligence'. In order to gain more power, characters achieve 'levels' that are granted after collecting enough 'experience', derived entirely in Final Fantasy I from killing roving bands of monsters. Final Fantasy I boils down to calculations infused with a small amount of randomness in order to determine the results of encounters, which make up the vast majority of the time spent with the game.
The minimalism of the non-mechanical sections of Final Fantasy I is arguably its defining feature. The design of Final Fantasy I is practically transparent. Go to this town, get this item for this person, and continue doing so until the characters are powerful enough to save the world. There's very little extraneous narrative detail, and literally no motivation provided for the characters. This contrasts very starkly with today's emotionally charged RPGs and makes for a tough experience for those not familiar with the origins of the genre. In order to enjoy Final Fantasy I, one must either be fairly nostalgic or be resigned to enjoying the details of the piece, as the revisiting of the classic artwork and music is very well done.
Final Fantasy II is the title that is most intriguing to Americans, as it's never appeared in an official version on this side of the Pacific. In addition to the novelty of having never been released here, the game is an incredible one in terms of its differences from both Final Fantasy I and the Final Fantasies that followed it. Final Fantasy II represents a significant evolution for the form of the RPG, both in terms of successful innovations and in design that was left by the wayside.
Perhaps the most interesting aspects of Final Fantasy II are the design decisions that never really caught on. The most obvious would be the class system, or rather the complete lack of a class system. Unlike nearly every other Final Fantasy, there are no 'classes' or 'jobs' for the characters to specialize in. Instead, attributes and skills go up as the characters engage in those activities. For example, you get better at magic bycasting magic. You gain hit points bygetting hit. This allows the player to pick a path for each of their characters as well as decide how specialized each of them is going to be. This system would later be utilized by standout RPG titles such as Shadowrun and the Elder Scrolls series.
While Final Fantasy I concentrates almost entirely on the mechanics of the game, Final Fantasy II represents the first time that the Final Fantasy series contains significant narrative content. In stark contrast to Final Fantasy I, the game presents the player with a fairly detailed backstory, not only giving the characters names, but motivations for their actions. These motivations are ones that would become staples in Final Fantasies to come, in particular the themes of war, rebellion and the scattering of friends across great distances.
The other notable aspect of how Final Fantasy II treats the narrative is particularly intriguing. This aspect is the addition of a memorization system, where the player can select several different words or phrases that the characters can 'memorize'. Once memorized, these world or phrases can be 'said' to Non-Player Characters (NPCs) in order to trigger additional dialogue or events. Although interaction with NPCs is essentially an illusion of actual interactivity, this design allows the illusion a greater sense of depth and thus a greater sense of realism to the game. Although many of the NPCs remain endlessly repeating their one line, the player now has the option of poking and prodding the more important NPCs for pertinent information, or even just backstory. It's a remarkably effective feature, and it's a real mystery as to why it was not implemented in later titles in the series.
It is because Final Fantasy II is so unique that makes Final Fantasy Origins worthwhile. Although the remake of the original Final Fantasy is lovingly done and a historical treat, the game itself does not hold up very well when placed next to contemporary RPGs. Final Fantasy II, on the other hand, makes a case for itself as one of the great 8-bit RPGs and certainly one of the more notable RPGs in terms of innovative design. By itself, it practically justifies the existence of Origins.
Like Final Fantasy Anthology and Chronicles, Final Fantasy Origins offers a look at two older 16-bit RPGs, with a twist, as Origins is actually a collection of two 8-bit RPGs revamped to look and sound 16-bit. The fact that the games still play at an 8-bit level is hardly a condemnation of the quality of Origins, but it does remain inescapable that the experience of playing Origins cannot s be so easily separated from the NES as the graphics and music were. However, even as retro as the experience is, the view back towards the origins of the RPG genre is a worthwhile one, especially considering the unearthed gem that is Final Fantasy II.