I've had three months since finishing this game to form a solid opinion on it, yet my estimation continues to waffle between reverence and disgust. My playthrough took around 17 hours, and I think I enjoyed four of those; the remaining thirteen were a mix of frustration, exasperation, and outright anger as time and again I found myself being slaughtered by random packs of enemies, or finding half an hour of dungeon exploration stymied by a sudden dead end. I’m very tempted to shit all over the progenitor of one of the longest running and most venerated series in gaming history, but I can't. Despite all that frustration, I'm held back by the raw promise bursting out of Final Fantasy's every pore.
The problems here are manifold, but they all feed into one core issue with the experience: tedium. Every little design aspect leads to a game in which your greatest challenge is mustering the enthusiasm to continue on. Each floor of every dungeon is sprawling and labyrinthine, and threatens to deplete your resources before you can even find your way to the next level. Enemies attack in packs as large as nine, and fighting them feels like filling out insurance paperwork rather than an act of heroism. Random encounters are truly random: there is neither a minimum nor a maximum number of steps you can take following a battle before you can expect your next encounter to begin. It's not uncommon to slog through a half-dozen encounters in as many steps. You are ground down one square at a time, and the sight of a hallway is more daunting than that of a boss.
The further you progress in FF, the more you will come to appreciate the many quality of life improvements subsequent entries in the series and the genre at large have given us. It sure is nice being able to save in a dungeon, isn't it? You can rest up before a boss, or at least minimize the amount of progress lost to a single bad encounter. Back in 1987 they hadn't thought of that: you can only save when resting at an inn, or when using a sleeping bag, tent or cabin in the overworld. Yes, even on the overworld you can't save freely, and are forced to expend an item which, at the beginning of the game, proves prohibitively expensive.
Want to heal? There's only one healing item in the game, the ubiquitous Potion, and it only ever restores a scant (and variable!) amount of health. You had best stock up on 99 of them before each dungeon, because you'll want to reserve your White Mage's few allotted casts for the boss. Want to revive a character? I hope it isn't that same White Mage in need of resurrection, or else you'll need to trek all the way back to town to bring them back. Want to buy new spells and equipment, so that you at least have a chance against the next set of challenges? Well get fucked, because the pricing curve in no way reflects your income curve.
The tedium of playing Final Fantasy could be alleviated with a simple adjustment to the numbers across the board. If every value were adjusted up or down just a little bit, the entire experience would prove much more engaging. If dungeons had fewer floors, enemies attacked in smaller packs, enemy encounters were more spaced out, and leveling didn’t take as long, your journey wouldn’t feel like a penance. If healing wasn’t so stingy, your spells had a greater number of charges, experience and gil were a bit higher in the early game, and your party had just a bit more durability, then those encounters would be most rewarding. As it stands the game can feel like it actively disrespects your time.
In the 80's there was a concern among developers that players would beat their games too quickly and return them for a full refund. I've heard numerous stories of gamers older than myself doing exactly that with many of the also-ran platformers on the NES. In my more cynical moments I have a hard time believing that Final Fantasy wasn't designed specifically to take as long as possible to complete, thereby preventing players from returning it within whatever timeframe their retailer allowed. The Any% speedrun record is three hours and six minutes, but there's no telling what the average playtime was back in 1987, when players were tucking into FF for the first time. Fifty hours spread out over the course of weeks or months doesn't seem a stretch, at which point your retailer would probably laugh you out of the store if you asked for a refund.
I don't believe that Square's intent though. Everything I’ve just criticized is relevant and you should certainly take it into account before attempting a playthrough, but I don't believe the many flaws I've just discussed are the result of anything more notorious than rookie mistakes. Final Fantasy came out in 1987, and didn’t have thirty years of predecessors and hundreds of contemporaries from which to draw inspiration. An open-ended game of this scope should have been trash, and very possibly could have succeeded even if it was trash. Instead, playing FF is like watching a famous director's student films: awkward and unpolished, but the promise of what will come is clearly present. That's why my opinion vacillates between two poles: to rag on the game for lacking modern polish is essentially criticizing the producers for lacking time travel.
Even the game’s tedium, when viewed from a particular angle, translates into a harrowing sense of adventure. Your characters are venturing into a hostile, dying world whose very elements have been corrupted by ancient evils. They have no allies besides one another, and no resources but what they can scrounge from the monsters they slay and the dungeons they delve. Finally conquering those dungeons brings with it a sense of relief and accomplishment which wouldn’t be present without the very difficulty I’ve derided here! This is what diving into a monster-filled labyrinth should feel like: it ought to be rife with anxiety and uncertainty as you wonder what lies ahead, manage your dwindling inventory, and suppress any anxieties about what may wait at the end of your journey.
Perhaps that was the intent, and the designers wanted to create a harrowing world in which you are only ever scraping by. So much of this game was inspired by Dungeons & Dragons that I wouldn’t be surprised if the developers set out to craft an experience that would leave the player feeling spread thin and beaten down at the end of every play session. Perhaps they would be nodding along to my critique, wondering what my actual problems are as I confirm one successful design choice after another. I suspect the truth lies somewhere in the middle: the game was meant to be difficult, but the execution was marred by inexperience. Neither broken nor sloppy, Final Fantasy suffers for being the first out the gate, and damn it, it's hard to be mad at that enthusiasm.
Final Fantasy is an oftentimes tedious and painful experience which nonetheless provides a grand sense of adventure through a dying world. Its shortcomings can be overlooked with a bit of perspective.