In Japan, the Final Fantasy games are a series of titles gradually moving forward. While they may not be direct “story” sequels, they are sequels all the same, with characters and key events carried forward like an ever-growing tumbleweed.
In America? Final Fantasy is an ouroboros, a snake eating its own tail, with no beginning and no end.
Okay, that’s not completely true, as Final Fantasy has the same starting point in both regions. Final Fantasy was released in 1987 in Japan and 1990, but they were almost exactly the same game. The differences? Barely worth mentioning, like a giant eyeball getting repurposed by the legal department. And there may have been a few spell names modified for less holy audiences, but that shouldn’t be a problem, right? Fire 3 and Firaga are the same thing! Nothing complicated!
But then it gets all too complicated.
The same year that America saw Final Fantasy 1, Japan already had Final Fantasy 3. And, if videogames were like any other medium in history, that would not have been a big deal. Give it another three years, and we’d see our own Final Fantasy 3 with wizards casting NUKE on legions of skeletons. However, consoles wait for no man, and the Super Nintendo was on Western shores by the following year. While the “good old days” weren’t quite as bad as the modern belief that a system should stop releasing new games six months before the release of its successor (hi, WiiU!), it still seemed unlikely that a new franchise/genre would see slow NES releases well after we all experienced the joy of riding a dinosaur. So their Final Fantasy 4 became our Final Fantasy 2, and, riding the high of the newly released SNES, we experienced our first Final Fantasy sequel.
And, honestly? There was never any reason to believe we missed anything.
Final Fantasy is about restoring four crystals, Final Fantasy “2” is about collecting a total of eight (give or take). Final Fantasy had its four fiends, the sequel had Golbez’s four generals. Class changing your party is just like class changing a dark knight. Garland : Chaos :: Golbez : Zeromus. Final Fantasy “2” was a clear sequel to the original Final Fantasy we all knew and loved, and there wasn’t a single bit of the title seemed to indicate we had missed something. Summoners gonna summon, and dragoons gonna jump, nothing more to it.
We likely would have had a similar reaction to Final Fantasy 5… if it ever made it to our shores. But, instead, we received Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, and that “job system” would have to continue to be a mystery for another few years (assuming you never played Dragon Warrior 3). Then we were graced with Final Fantasy 6 aka Final Fantasy 3. And that was kind of a miracle, as we saw the release a mere four months after its Japanese debut. And it was good! It was even great! And… it barely had anything to do with the previous Final Fantasy games! No crystals! No sky fortresses! “White” is “Pearl” for some reason! If we didn’t have a few chocobos running around, we wouldn’t even know this was the same franchise! At least Mystic Quest had a four elementals-based world! What the hell is an Esper even supposed to be!?
But, as confusing as Final Fantasy “3” was, it kicked off the golden age of actually seeing every Final Fantasy game. Final Fantasy 7 was next, and, for the first time, it was actually Final Fantasy 7 on both shores. And then came Final Fantasy 8! And neither of these games had anything to do with each other from a “world” perspective, but there were some patterns emerging. The summons seemed fairly consistent (give or take poor Rumah), and… did these people have reliable vocations? Knights are JRPG staples, but it seems like we keep winding up with a random character that can use monster attacks. Lore? Blue Magic? Whatever, it sounds cool. And there are a few recurring characters and motifs, so, yeah, there’s more continuity here than we thought… right?
So a funny thing happened in 1999. After fighting our way through five separate Final Fantasies, Square decided to capitalize on Final Fantasy mania and release Final Fantasy 5. In English! And now Final Fantasy Tactics made so much more sense! This whole “job system” thing finally hit America in a “real”, numbered Final Fantasy title, and it was good! … Okay, it was a bit of a letdown for anyone expecting another Final Fantasy with a deep and adult story like what we saw in that game with the talking dog, but at least we know the name of that guy that killed Odin now. Final Fantasy 5 was certainly more Final Fantasy 4 (2) than Final Fantasy 6 (3), but, more importantly, it was another data point on the “what is Final Fantasy” bulletin board. Those dots are starting to connect!
And then, in November of 2000, Final Fantasy 9 blew up the whole damn chart.
Final Fantasy 9, according to various issues of EGM and Gamepro, was the first Final Fantasy game to really look at its past. It was a “return to the old days”, which meant black mages (not really) and crystals (certainly not) were back in business. And, if you were a Final Fantasyologist, the game was just ripe with items and callbacks that celebrated the long and storied history of Final Fantasy. … Except, it was rather impossible for any Americans to get half of those references, as many of the early games referenced were never released here, and, even if they were, current localizations did not match up with Woolseyisms from a generation prior. Final Fantasy 9’s “continuity”, like every other Final Fantasy continuity for Americans, was confusing as hell.
Then, in November of 2006, months after the release of Final Fantasy 12, we finally filled in the last gap with Final Fantasy 3 for the Nintendo DS.
And it all made so much more sense! Final Fantasy 3 is the clear prequel to our beloved Final Fantasy 4 (2)! In fact, in some places, Final Fantasy 3 makes its world more interesting than what you’d find in its descendant. Final Fantasy 4 has multiple airships, but Final Fantasy 3 has multiple airships that really matter. The overworld/underworld dichotomy of Final Fantasy 4 is neat ‘an all, but it’s nothing compared to a floating island and the time-locked hellscape down below. And, while Final Fantasy 4 inarguably has the better Cid, Princess Sara is a much better damsel/fighter than Rosa. I don’t care if you put a ring on an archer on the moon, Cecil, your fiancée is basic. Oh, and I guess there are a number of recurring monsters between the two games, too. Playing Final Fantasy 3 for three seconds is deeply reminiscent of Final Fantasy 4, and that’s obvious from practically the first moment.
But Final Fantasy 3 doesn’t just impact Final Fantasy 4, it’s also the origin point of a lot of series staples. The Summoner job got its start here, and, with it, the myriad of summons that have been skulking around the franchise for decades. And it’s not just cosmetic! Bahamut is rightfully venerated as the lord of all summons for the first time, and Odin is hiding in a castle basement. Even Leviathan gets his own magical lake. This is also the first place we found a fat chocobo and the slam-dancing teddy bear race of moogles. First Final Fantasy with a playable piano! First Final Fantasy with thieves that can actually steal (or be useful at all)! First “bonus treasure dungeon” in the franchise! It all started here!
Or… did it?
If you want to play Final Fantasy 3 in America (legally), you must play Final Fantasy 3 on the Nintendo DS (or the PSP/Mobile port of the same version of the game). This is important, as Final Fantasy 3 is obviously not its NES ancestor. The graphics have been upgraded, the “anonymous” heroes of FF3NES have all been upgraded to have their own personalities and motives, and the iconic Onion Knight job of the original release has been relegated to an impossible sidequest. Even if you know next to nothing about the original Final Fantasy 3, you can immediately see the difference between the two titles.
That creates… doubt. The Final Fantasy series loves its references! Final Fantasy 9 wasn’t the start of that nonsense, you could argue that the series was drowning in callbacks as early as, well, Final Fantasy 3. But it’s impossible to “trust” this Final Fantasy 3, because, without Final Fantasy 3 NES handy, how are we supposed to know if a reference was added before or after the remake itself? Ricard of Final Fantasy 2 (J) has the same last name as Kain of Final Fantasy 4 (J) and Cid of Final Fantasy 7! Which came first? It’s not the one you think! So who inspired who? Where did it all start? I know time flows like a river, but usually you can find a starting tributary somewhere.
And this is how American Final Fantasy became twisted up like a pretzel. We didn’t see Final Fantasy 2 until after Final Fantasy 7, and Final Fantasy 3 came after Final Fantasy 12. Thanks to inconsistent translations and a pile of internet hearsay, it’s nearly impossible to know where a name or character got their start. Final Fantasy is a snake with no beginning and no end, and we’ll never be able to measure its scales.
But, hey, the games are all pretty fun, so don’t worry about it.
FGC #401 Final Fantasy 3 (DS)
- System: Nintendo DS, technically, and a port of that version for PSP and mobile devices, too. The original Final Fantasy 3 is theoretically sealed in the NES (or Famicom), but it did see a rerelease on the Japanese Wii Virtual Console, so I don’t trust Square at all.
- Number of players: One Onion Knight to rule them all.
- Maybe actually talk about the game for a second: Kind of talked about every Final Fantasy game except this one, eh? Final Fantasy 3 is a good “prototype” game, but I feel like everything that makes this game good is done better in Final Fantasy 5. And, yes, I’m predominantly talking about the job system. Final Fantasy 3 can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be a Metroid (wherein new skills/jobs must be used to unlock new areas) or a Mega Man (all cool abilities are completely optional, and may be used whenever you want). What’s important is that I never want to see a mini cave again, and I can’t believe they produced a remake of Final Fantasy 3 without further improving the equipment/equipping system.
- Just Play the Gig, Man: Final Fantasy 3 does seem to have the best music on the NES (or of the NES titles, if we want to get technical). Unfortunately, since it wasn’t a part of my childhood, I don’t give a damn. Sorry!
- Favorite Character: In this case, it’s “characters”. The Old Men are just trying their best, and should be lauded for attempting to save the world despite having absolutely no skills and a comprehensive inability to leave their home town. They’re trying!
- Monster Rancher: Anyone notice that the monsters of this Final Fantasy are overwhelmingly Grecian, but you barely see such a thing in other Final Fantasy titles? Okay, maybe Medusa winds up in every videogame ever, but she’s actually featured here, along with Cerberus, Scylla, and Echidna. Uh… not Knuckles.
- Future of Fantasies: It’s also bitingly obvious that this is where the Bravely Default team got their start, as Final Fantasy 3 DS is the clear origin point of about 90% of that gameplay (and maybe some of the graphics). This is rather amusing, as a single franchise entry that was nearly forgotten somehow started its own mini franchise. Way to go, underdog!
- Did you know? “Luneth” is not the returning Final Fantasy 3 rep for Dissidia, as that honor goes to the original Onion Knight. This is an unusual bit of Square ignoring its more accessible “franchise” for a version that will never be seen again, and seems to confirm that SE doesn’t give a damn about this entry in the greater Final Fantasy pantheon.
- Would I play again: Nope! Final Fantasy games are long enough without all the little kludges that keep FF3 going. This is an interesting title to help us all learn of the mysteries of the franchise, but it is right up there with Final Fantasy 2 (J) for “never make me play this again”.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Metal Head for the 32X! That… that was a Ninja Turtle, right? Uh, please look forward to it?
What am I even looking at?