Dragon Warrior may not have worked out the way Nintendo had hoped, but even as they prepared to offload countless unwanted copies of the game through Nintendo Power, the NES propaganda rag was being primed to sell American gamers on the merits of the company’s next big RPG push: Final Fantasy. This time, though, Nintendo was leaving nothing to chance. Final Fantasy was given the single biggest push the magazine had ever seen, a promotion that -- The Wizard notwithstanding -- eclipsed even the promotional efforts afforded Super Mario Bros. 3. Final Fantasy loomed large. And this time, the hype paid off.
To be sure, Final Fantasy was a far easier sell than Dragon Warrior. Having been released in Japan on the near side of the 1986/87 divide, it was considerably less archaic than its predecessor. In fact, given the unambitious visual design of NES RPGs in general, Final Fantasy stood as the most graphically impressive take on the genre on the system even in 1990.
The credit, of course, was due primarily the detailed artwork of artist Yoshitaka Amano. Where Dragon Quest’s illustrator Akira Toriyama went for colorful, friendly designs straight out of boys’ comics, Amano was a fine artist with a penchant for baroque stylings, ethereal characters, elaborate patterns of color, and tons of superfluous detail. These were translated with surprising effectiveness to the NES as static artwork presented against stark black backdrops; while Final Fantasy’s world was made of cramped tiles, and its heroes were your typical big-headed videogame midgets, its was the bestiary that caught the eye. Trolls clutched their heads, shrieking; slimes were drawn as foul ooze dripping from the shadows of the ceiling rather than as happy little blobs of primary color; bosses seemed to fill the screen.
Many of the game’s foes bore a suspicious resemblance to Dungeons & Dragons mainstays, chief among them mind flayers and beholders... but that was a key to Final Fantasy’s appeal. Unlike Dragon Quest, which simplified the RPG concept to a reductive sketch of the genre, Final Fantasy was firmly rooted in the likes of Ultima and D&D. Though certainly more streamlined than Pools of Radiance or even Ultima III, eschewing battlefield positioning altogether, Square’s first in-house RPG offered a full-fledged rendition of the genre. Granted, it toed the line between homage and rip-off, and there wasn’t much space for actual role-playing. Nevertheless, Final Fantasy was very much an American-friendly RPG, with only the slightest hint of a Japanese anime influence visible in the character sprites.
The game was also considerably more story-driven than Dragon Quest. The two quests began on almost exactly the same note -- the heroes were enlisted to rescue an abducted princess at the behest of the king in the starting town -- but Final Fantasy made short work of that particular plot point. One merely needed to walk due north from Corneria to find Garland’s castle, resist his efforts to knock the party all down, and save the princess. Total time: Somewhere shy of 15 minutes. With the king’s daughter rescued, he repaired a bridge to the mainland, where the party sought out a boat, which in turn led them to new lands... and anywhere that couldn’t be reached by sea was eventually unlocked by airship.
Final Fantasy’s world was huge, and while it could be tough to determine exactly what was to be done next to advance the story, the overall quest structure set the tone for a decade of RPGs. It was open enough to feel like a grand adventure, yet linear enough that it kept the player from wandering too far off the path and out of their depth. (For those who chafed at such restrictions, the sequel offered an incisive demonstration of Square’s inability to handle a more open game design, making Final Fantasy III’s return to point-by-point progress a welcome return to form.)
Though it wasn’t quite as sharp-looking as the Master System’s Phantasy Star (to say nothing of Phantasy Star II and III for Genesis, which ending up being its direct competitors thanks to Nintendo’s three-year lag in localization), Final Fantasy didn’t feel particularly archaic.
The simple but sturdy localization helped, and the memorably tense soundtrack played its part as well. Above all, though, Nintendo did a bang-up job of enticing gamers to give the game a try. Its box art was bold and classy, working in the same “abstraction equals epic” vein that Nintendo also employed for The Legend of Zelda and Faxanadu, and Nintendo Power’s huge promotional contest was every bit as compelling as the massive, packed-in instruction manual-cum-strategy guide.
Where Dragon Warrior was Nintendo’s first tentative step toward bringing the RPG to America, Final Fantasy was its mature sophomore follow-up. Everything that Dragon Warrior had going against it was a non-issue here, and (crystal ball giveaways aside) Nintendo’s handling of Final Fantasy set the standard for the company’s subsequent RPG localization efforts, which survived well into the Super NES era with releases like Illusion of Gaia and EarthBound.
Final Fantasy notoriously earned its name out of a sense of desperation, yet it ended up launching a series that continues to run strong. But it served the same purpose for Nintendo, washing away the bitter defeat of Dragon Warrior and keeping Nintendo’s flame for RPGs burning bright... at least until EarthBound’s failure snuffed it out. But that’s a story for another time.