So this is where it all started. Well, not exactly. JRPGs had already been introduced, and Final Fantasy definitely took some cues from Dragon Quest (Dragon Warrior for North America), which had come out a year prior. A lot of Square's early efforts were just knock-offs of games that already existed. Rad Racer, 3-D WorldRunner, and Mystery Quest were already games made by somebody else with a Square costume on. Final Fantasy wasn't any different. For as much as people tout the eternal legacy of the Final Fantasy series, if Enix's Dragon Quest hadn't been introduced first, Square wouldn't have had anything to copy off of. Luckily, both companies have since merged and laughed all that off, I'm sure.
The difference is that since Dragon Quest came out first, Hironobu Sakaguchi (the driving force behind Final Fantasy) had a blueprint to work from. Since he wasn't working totally from scratch, he was able to focus more time on not solely creating, but also improving. The battle system, storyline, character system, music, and world are all more developed (and better) than in Dragon Quest.
Right from the start, you are assigned four characters to name and select a class. The classes are Fighter, Thief, Black Belt, Red Mage, White Mage, and Black Mage. Each class has their own advantages and disadvantages. Pretty much what you would expect: White Mages can use White Magic (e.g. Cure) but have low defense, Fighters have high attack power but can't use much magic, and so on and so forth. Your characters can also be upgraded at a certain point in the game, giving them additional abilities. As commonplace as it seems today, it was a big step for back then. Being able to customize how you would be playing the game was a big deal. Sakaguchi was aiming to immerse the player in the game. The characters also don't ever speak because they are a manifestation of you. You are controlling who they are, what they're called, and how they go about saving the world.
The story is simple enough. Upon turning on the game, this text greets you:
Not the most complicated set-up in the world, but I'll take it. So your party (The Light Warriors) walks up to a castle where the king tells you to rescue his daughter from Garland, and everything just continues from there. No lengthy tutorials, no five-minute cutscenes, no character introductions, just grab and go.
Since this was 1987 (the year the game came out in Japan), space was extremely limited for games, so there wasn't really a lot of room for this stuff in the game itself anyway. This is why manuals came in handy. The manual has an extensive amount of information, not to mention an in-depth walkthrough for the entire first half of the game. It provides tips, strategies, good/bad examples of battle plans, character backgrounds, detailed maps, menu explanations, who can equip what, a list of magic spells and their effects, and more. When the vast majority of these games are picked up/bought from used game stores and private owners, they almost always only include the cartridge itself. This can be frustrating to someone who really wants to play the game, but is repeatedly confused by tiny aspects, such as, "If I pay for this weapon, will it be stronger than they one I already have? And can the person I want to have it actually equip it anyway?" or, "I can logically determine what the spells FIRE, SLEP, and QAKE do, but what about BANE, SABR, and ARUB?" Things such as "showing the stat increase/decrease while the cursor is on a weapon" are things we take for granted (and should be there anyway) today. And yes, re-releases of these older games are able to include them, but for the source material, it's not there.
Is it possible that the 1987 version of this game could have included some of those things? I would say yes, but keep in mind that it is really just an improved Dragon Quest. Square's practice at the time wasn't to make something entirely new and different, just to make something a little bit better than what was already there. I also imagine that having only one programmer working on the entire game had something to do with it as well.
The rest of the story isn't too bad for it being a basic "save the world" scenario. I did immensely enjoy the aspect of the main antagonist. After you defeat Garland early on, he has the Four Fiends (main bosses of the game) send him 2,000 years into the past, where he transforms into Chaos (basically a demon monster). As Chaos, he sends the Four Fiends into the future so they can send him (as defeated Garland) into the past so that he may become Chaos, therefore infinitely recreating the same time loop and living forever. After the four heroes defeat the Four Fiends, they are allowed to pass back through time to stop Chaos and end the destructive loop. But when they do so, they erase their odyssey from the chronicles of history. This Twilight Zone-esque ending is probably my favorite part of the entire game. The rest of the story is built around a lot of "get this" in order to "do that" events, but with interesting-enough characters and locations, it's not a totally braindead endeavor.
The battle system is fairly simple. Your characters on the right, enemies on the left, turn-based battle system. One of my biggest frustrations with this game is the lack of an auto-targeting system (which wasn't introduced until Final Fantasy III). Example:
1. I tell my Fighter to attack the Imp in the top left. I tell my Thief to do the same. I tell my White Mage to attack the Imp below, and my Black Mage to finish off that top left Imp with a Fire spell. The action then unfolds.
2. My Fighter attacks and deals some damage. Awesome!
3. My Thief goes next. He kills that Imp! Yes!
4. One of the Imps gets to attack! Hold on, Light Warriors, we'll make it!
5. My White Mage attacks the enemy! Darn, I missed! But I'll get you next time around, you can count on it!
6. Another Imp gets to attack! Oh man, they're teaming up on one guy! Hold tight, Black Mage!
7. Now it's time for some black magic revenge! Oh yeah! He gears up and casts the spell on...empty space...and it doesn't do anything. Oh...well, that's not really what I wanted to happen. Damn, that was a wasted spell. Well, no big deal.
It's kind of a win-lose situation. I like that you really have to think several steps ahead in each battle. This is especially important when battles start to get more difficult and have different types of enemies. You kind of have to roll with the punches. However, I dislike it at times for the same reason. Early on in the game, it's not a huge deal to have your characters attack empty space because you didn't anticipate certain actions. But later on, sometimes you want to put your foot through the TV.
Imagine going through an intense, multi-floored dungeon. You're on the final floor, walking towards the boss. It's taken a lot of work to get this far and still be ready to fight that boss. As you're walking towards him, you get pulled into a random battle. Crap! Well, you can probably make it through. What's one more battle, right?
1. You order both Fighters to attack the top Mage. Not taking any chances on letting them attack your party more than they already will. White Mage ordered to cast MUTE on the middle Mage. If it can't perform magic, then it can't attack you. Black Mage ordered to cast LIT2 on the bottom mage. FIGHT!
2. Right off the bat, Mage 1 attacks your White Mage! Crap! I kind of need them!
3. Your first Fighter retaliates by attacking Mage 1. Critical hit! He's down for the count!
4. Your Black Mage casts LIT2 on Mage 3. Almost killed him! Next time, you brute!
5. Mage 2 attacks your White Mage! But they're holding in there!
6. White Mage successfully casts MUTE on Mage 2. Could have used that two seconds ago, but better late than never!
7. Your second Fighter attacks nothing! Wait, what? Dammit, I forgot both Fighters were going to take out that top Mage, but the first one got lucky! Well, hopefully that last Mage won't...
8. Attack and kill your White Mage! AHHHHHHHHHHHHNOOOOOOWHYYYYYYYY!! My stupid Fighter could have killed that Mage if I had known my first Fighter would take out his enemy all on his own! Now my White Mage is dead! ARRRGH!!
Now you have to a) try and backtrack all the way out of that dungeon, b) try and beat that boss without a healing party member, relying solely on items (which takes up a turn for other characters), or c) scream how unfair life is until your throat is bleeding, then start again from the last save and go through the entire dungeon again. And trust me, 'a' and 'b' aren't going to happen. Did you lose your White Mage because you didn't plan well enough, or because the game screwed you over? Answers will vary. There are always other choices you "could have made," but once you lock it in, that's that. Fate decides as it will. But I will say that the "DRINK" command becomes more and more applicable to real life.
The whole battle system is a double-edged sword. It's fantastic to be heavily invested in battles, where you're pitting your wits against the game's maniacal nature. But on the other hand, sometimes random chance screws you beyond sanity.
Magic works differently in this installment too. Instead of the standard "use MP to cast spells," each spell falls into a "Level". You have a certain amount of uses in a Level before it needs to be recharged.
Additional example: You're trying to make it to the next town on your quest. You just beat a dungeon, but you're weak. You need a tent to save on the World Map, but you don't have one. You can see the town off in the distance, salvation is near, just a few more steps...DAMN! You just got pulled into a battle with four pretty strong enemies. You only have a few spell casts left, your non-magic party members aren't looking too good, and you used all your recovery items in that dungeon. What to do?
1. You decide to have your White Mage cast their last CUR2 on your Fighter, who will be vital to surviving this conflict. Other selections are made, then the action starts.
2. Enemy 1 attacks your Black Mage. Crap, he falls! Well, you think you can still win this one without him.
3. Your Fighter attacks Enemy 1. He's down, all right!
4. Your Black Belt attacks Enemy 2. Doesn't kill him, but at least he's still alive!
5. Your Red Mage attacks Enemy 2 as well. Bingo! Down for the count! Just two left!
6. Enemy 3 attacks your Black Belt! Critical hit! Ah, he's down! Things aren't looking good, but you still have your powerhouse of a Fighter!
7. Until Enemy 4 attacks him! NO! He's dead! CRAAAAAAAP!
8. Your White Mage uses their last Level 3 spell to cast CUR2 on your Fighter's corpse! It's ineffective...
9. Your White Mage is now useless, and your Red Mage cannot make up the difference of three essentially downed party members. You get your head handed to you. Game over. Have fun starting at that last save before you even walked into that dungeon.
Now if this person had prepared more, this scenario could have been averted. They could have bought an additional Tent in the last town, or had more healing items to use in the field. Or used that last CUR2 before the battle even started, just in case. This is another factor of the game I enjoy. You are constantly thinking ahead and pre-strategizing for the whole game. "Well, if I run into (A), then I'll definitely need (B). But if run into (C), I should have some (D) on hand. I can only afford either (B) or (D), but not both without doing a lot more grinding for funds. Well, I'll go with (B) and hope for the best." It's really just a matter of how much time you're willing to spend preparing (and pre-preparing).
Graphically, the game doesn't look too bad for it's time. I actually like the fact that the battle screen and the walking around view are different. Though later games in the series would bring both together for a more seamless performance, I prefer a separate screen. The layouts of town are pretty good, with everything clearly labeled and accessible. The NPC AI is not as frustrating as it could be. If you keep walking into somebody, they'll quickly try to move to an empty square if it's available. Later games (and re-releases of this one) include a "dash" function, but I don't play the NES version lamenting the fact I don't have one. It's also a nice feature that whoever you have as your party leader is the character sprite that you see walking around on the map.
The world map is rather extensive too. The design was better than I expected upon playing it the first time. You have the ability to see the world map by pressing a combination of buttons (that's hidden in a secret message for some reason, they can't just come out and say it). All of the major locations are little blinking dots, but unfortunately they aren't labeled. So unless you remember all town names and where they're located, you might do some backtracking later on in the game. Another reason why having that manual would be helpful. Although with the internet, it's not the end of the world to look it up. I just prefer being able to lay out that map in front of me on the ground while I'm playing. You also get a variety of vehicles (including the famous airship) to travel around in throughout your adventure, which makes globe-trotting a little more speedy.
Grinding isn't really something you can avoid in this game. It's not considered ridiculous either. At the time, that's just the way RPGs were. You can expect to spend the majority of the game grinding for cash and EXP. But the way the battles work out, it's not entirely mindless. But I will say I sat down for play periods with the sole objective of grinding for an hour, in order to make the next play period more eventful and without as much hassle.
If one was really interested in trying it out, but didn't need the actual source material, the PlayStation version is bundled with Final Fantasy II (as Final Fantasy Origins) and gives the game a huge graphical and sound overhaul, not to mention an "Easy" difficulty. "Easy" really meaning "Modern." This version also included the ability to use Magic in the standard MP sense instead of the weird Levels system. It is currently available on the PlayStation Network. For the absolute best experience to date though, I'd recommend the PSP version.
The whole game (original version) isn't great, and hasn't really stood up to the test of time well. But as a relic of early JRPG construction, it's worth at least checking out. And Sakaguchi now had his own blueprint to work from, and for years the series continued to improve (sans the immediate sequel).