If you were to ask a Final Fantasy fan to describe the iconic Square series, they might rattle off a series of terms: crystals, classes, chocobos. Flying airships. Summoned monsters with mythological titles like Ifrit and Shiva. Somebody named Cid.
Illustration by Angelica Alzona
In other words, Final Fantasy III.
The third Final Fantasy, originally released for the NES in 1990, expanded on the design of its predecessors to introduce many of the ideas we associate with the series today. Although it wouldn't come to the west until 16 years later, Final Fantasy III was the quintessential JRPG, a perfect encapsulation of all the genre's tropes and cliches.
There's level grinding, Light Warriors, and a parade of cities and dungeons to explore. This is the game that introduced the world to Moogles and many of the class-based battle commands that would appear in many Final Fantasy games to follow, like Jump and Throw.
Western gamers didn't get to see Final Fantasy III until 2006, when Square Enix released a 3D remake for the DS that modernised the combat and made everything far more user-friendly. It left a good first impression. The DS version of FFIII was challenging yet accessible, with some ideas that still feel fresh today.
For example: several dungeons require your party to cast the Mini spell on themselves, shrinking down to the size of pellets so they can crawl through tunnels and temple walls. While miniaturised, you have to switch to magic-heavy classes to do real damage. Even the tiniest of rats pose a serious threat. It's an interesting idea that adds some diversity to dungeon-crawling.
It's not a masterpiece by any means, but it holds up pretty well. At least until you get to the final dungeon. But we'll get to that.
The story: Our four heroes, who are anonymous on the NES but have been granted names and mild personalities on the DS, accidentally fall into a cave one day. There they discover the wind crystal along with a directive to go out and save the world, restore balance to the elements, and so forth. You know the drill.
Like in Final Fantasy II, the real story is in the little adventures you have along the way: the dragoon who lost his memories; the tree that was abducted and turned into a castle; the sorcerers who need you to kill them so they can help you save the world. There are lots of emotional arcs that have nothing to do with the evil warlock who, as usual, wants to destroy everything.
Your four heroes turn out to be the chosen Warriors of Light -- a concept returning from the original game -- and they have to travel across two continents, three different vehicles and a horrendous final dungeon as they try to defeat said warlock, whose name is Xande and who is a nasty piece of work. With Xande, Final Fantasy III introduced a series tradition that has become rather polarising over the years.
As it turns out, he's being controlled by something even more evil. The real final boss is actually a big cloud of darkness called the Cloud of Darkness. She sucks.
The gimmick: Remember the job system from the first Final Fantasy? It's back, but way better this time. Instead of picking from a handful of permanent classes at the beginning of the game, your characters can choose from 23 jobs and switch them around whenever you want. Some of these jobs, like Scholar and Viking, would be phased out after this game; others, like Ninja and Dragoon, became core parts of future class-heavy Final Fantasys.
Some of these classes are very clearly better than others, but you can't just stick with one combination for the entire game; often, the game will come up with obstacles that require experimentation.
The best class: Devout, a high-level white mage that also happens to wear cat ears.
The worst class: Bard. Screw bards.
What makes it "feel" like Final Fantasy: Heroes, crystals, castles, etc. Great music. Combat menus that are now blue instead of black. Lots of new locations to explore and airships to ride. Bahamut. Boss gauntlets and general weirdness.
The biggest problem: There are no save points. You can only save your progress on the world map. Like most NES games, Final Fantasy III goes for "screw you" levels of difficulty, so if you die to a tough boss or unlucky encounter, you'll get sent way back the last time you saved. If you happen to be at the end of a dungeon when you die, you'll have to replay it all again.
Usually, this is a mild inconvenience that might lead to 10 or 20 minutes of retracing your progress. But the final dungeon, which comprises several dungeons including an optional area filled with hidden bosses and treasures, can take 2-3 hours to complete.
At the end of this dungeon you have to fight five different bosses. If you lose to any of these bosses -- which can happen pretty easily if you get hit by an unlucky critical strike or a series of bad rolls -- you have to start from the beginning.
When I played through Final Fantasy III for the first time, on DS, I lost to one of these final bosses and turned the game off forever. That's the approach I'd recommend.
It's too bad: I'm all for RPGs that present real consequences when you get a game over, but Final Fantasy III takes it too far, especially for a game that generally wants you to experiment with party combinations and try new things with classes.
Fun fact: You probably know that all the Final Fantasy games have been ported to various platforms, and FFIII is no exception. In fact, this has the rare distinction of being the only Final Fantasy game you can get on… wait for it... Ouya. Remember Ouya? RIP. Gone too soon, just like Harambe.
Quirky Cid: While Final Fantasy II's Cid was a Han Solo-esque pirate, FFIII presents a more familiar trope: a quirky, wizened engineer with two pairs of glasses, a beard, and a weird hat.
The best character: These four dudes who think they're the REAL Warriors of Light but are actually just weird and old.
The best piece of music: Eternal Wind aka Overworld Theme.
Another fun fact: This FFIII castle theme sounds sort of like Rufus's welcoming ceremony theme in FFVII, doesn't it? Kotaku music expert Kirk Hamilton says they follow entirely different chord progressions, but series composer Nobuo Uematsu is well-known for reusing and iterating on motifs, so I think there's at least some similarity there.
Does the game still hold up? For the most part, yes. I'd recommend playing the DS version (also available on Steam and mobile), and stopping just before the last dungeon.
Actually: Final Fantasy V is essentially a better version of Final Fantasy III, so maybe you should just go with that? FFIII is not an essential game by any means.
One last thing you should know: We're done with the NES era, which means we can finally start getting into the good stuff. Next up: the Final Fantasy game that changed everything.