Final Fantasy III
I was a fairly large eleven year old. I suppose I hit puberty before most of my boyhood companions, as I reached the impressive height of 165 centimeters (that's 5'6” for those still desperately clinging to the English metric system) before even entering junior high. I was rather “chunky” as well. I had yet to discover the wonderful world of street hockey and long-distance running that would come to dominate my highschool life. I lacked any sense of fashion, even what was required of a sixth-grader. I remember proudly wearing my “Illusion of Gaia” t-shirt to school the day after acquiring it. I still preferred sweat pants to jeans (sweat pants, can you believe it?), though from the practical standpoint of a Chicago winter, I think I had a pretty good excuse. In many ways, I was your typical pre-teen role-playing game nerd.
And like any typical pre-teen role-playing game nerd, I was intensely loyal to a little-known company by the name of Squaresoft. Let's face it: in 1994, there was not much to choose from in the way of RPGs, and among what was available, there was even less of quality. Many of us were so desperate to escape the onslaught of platformers, football simulators, and Mortal Kombat wannabes, that we went so far as to buy the Sega CD just to play games like Lunar and Vay. Our peers laughed at us as we spent our hard-earned leaf-raking and snow-shoveling (or in my case, dog-walking) money on such a worthless system, but we knew it was worth every penny.
The coming of Final Fantasy III (yes we all know it's actually VI, but in 1994, the Internet was still relatively unheard of for most, and we still got our news from the month-old “big city” journals via the Pony Express) was bigger news than Jesus' Resurrection. We rushed to the store in droves to purchase the latest issues of Electronic Gaming Monthly and Nintendo Power to get the latest and greatest previews. Even through the eyes of a relatively unappreciative eleven year old, the artwork was astoundingly beautiful. The sleek curves and slender lines of Terra as she sat atop that giant machine; the cold, beautiful image of Celes leaning on her sword; the mockingly handsome grin of Locke; the aged and forlorn gaze of Cyan; the wild-eyed stare of Gau. These characters had personality, I thought to myself, even before I had been properly introduced.
The concept was relatively simple, or was it? It was not just the same old good versus evil. The story promised political intrigue, love that was not to be, deception and plot twists around every nook and cranny; and just at the age when all of these things started to interest me. It was to be an epic to end all epics, and best of all, I could be a part of it. I pointed the proverbial middle-finger at the worn VHS copy of Laurence of Arabia I received for my eighth birthday; sorry Mom, I had no need for this anymore. Final Fantasy III, even before it was released, had turned me into the most curmudgeonly snooty eleven year old the Chicago 'burbs had ever seen.
Finally, the release date was approaching. October 12, 1994, the day the Earth Stood Still. I had the game on reserve at the local Babbage's - yeah Babbage's, remember them? Of course you don't. Nevertheless, in the magical land of grunge rock and skateboards such a place did exist, and my reservation was on the books. I was not about to take any chances with the horde of nerdy fan boys I knew would be flocking to the game - I was above their smelly kind. October 12 was a Saturday. While convenient as far as school was concerned, it meant any grubby little kid could get his (girls did not play RPGs in 1994 - they were awarded that right in 1996 with the reelection of Bill) hands on it. So I scrounged up ten dollars and put my name on the list. Much to my chagrin, I was to learn some extraordinary news the night of Thursday, October 10, 1994, the Day the Earth Stood Still.
I came home from a grueling day of debookings and cooty-fights to discover a message on the answering machine. Babbage's had called, they had gotten Final Fantasy III in, and it was available for pickup starting Friday. “Holy Mother of God!” I shouted as I went to change my underwear. This was going to require some strategizing. I came up with a plan. I immediately deleted the message from the machine, so my parents would not hear of the news. The next day, I would play sick, and immediately after my mom and dad had left for work around 8:30, I would quickly get dressed, hop on the bike my parents bought me in a not-so-subtle attempt to tell me to exercise more, get to the store immediately as it was opening, and be back home before my mom would even think of calling to see how I was doing. After all, sick boys need their rest. The only problem: what if the store employee got all up in my face about why I wasn't in school? I figured I'd just tell him it was President's Day or something. Not like a Babbage's employee would know any better anyway.
The plan went off perfectly, and by ten o' clock Friday, October 11, 2004, the Day the Earth Stood Still, I had a freshly baked copy of Final Fantasy III in my hands. I took a moment to admire the packaging before tearing in. I quickly perused the instruction manual, but patience was not on my side, and after a minute I had the game loaded into the system. I was greeted to a highly cinematic opening unlike anything I had ever seen. I would not be as impressed until the day I first played Panzer Dragoon, which I still think is one of the greatest openings ever, but that's a whole other story.
I remember watching the mysterious green haired girl and her two companions marching through the winter night toward the dimly-lit city, watching the credits roll by. I was unaware I could simply press a button and move on, but I would not have wanted to anyway, as I was lost in the haunting music of Nobuo Uematsu. Upon arriving in the town with my three trusty companions, I was surprised to discover that I got to play the bad guy and beat the ever-living crap out of the poor, helpless town guards just trying to defend their wives, children, and glass chess sets. As I paraded through town with nothing but my newfound, unabashed instinct to rape and pillage guiding me, I eventually came across the deadly esper Tritoch, who quickly made mince meat of my poor companions. But what about this girl? This mysterious girl? Within twenty minutes, the mystery of this bizarre story had already sucked me in.
Of course, I could probably recount the entirety of my reactions in excruciatingly painful detail as I played for the first time, but eventually the point would be lost. The fact is that the game made a clear impression on my young mind. It was not a perfect game, as I would discover later in life. But for those of us who had no idea a video game could take us into such a richly detailed world with characters more alive then we often felt ourselves to be, the impression was all that mattered. The game had a way of changing people, sucking them in and not letting them escape. About half a year after the release, I forced my friend TJ to borrow the game. He had never played a RPG before, and he was adamantly opposed to the whole idea. But he said he would “give it a shot.” Not surprisingly, he was absent from school the next day. I immediately went to his apartment that night to see what had happened. I discovered, much to my amusement, that he was already on the Imperial Continent. “Why didn't you give this game to me earlier?” he said. And thus was born yet another die-hard RPG addict.
The game enjoyed only a modest success, however, and certainly attracted nowhere near the audience the next installment of the game would. Alas, as we would come to realize, Final Fantasy III was a somewhat flawed game. The game hardly took full advantage of the processing power of the Super Nintendo. Later on, a game called Chrono Trigger would truly test the limits of the graphical and audio capabilities of the RPG, and in many ways surpass Final Fantasy III. The game suffered from a somewhat awkward, albeit lovingly done, translation. With such bizarre phrases as “Sun of a Submariner!”, “If I were you, Ox, I'd grab grandpa, here, and run!” and “I want to know what love is,” among many others, the somewhat serious tone of the game seemed sacrificed for a bit of low-brow humor. Not that I'm opposed to a bit of comic relief, and there are certainly parts of the game meant to be funny, but often these strange lines, which I have come to call “Wollseyisms” after the name of translator Ted Woolsey, seemed forced and awkward. Of course, after experiencing the dry-as-the-Sahara translation of Final Fantasy VII, I think many of us looked back with a strange feeling of nostalgia for Wollsey's bizarre translation.
In many ways, the game has lost the magic it once held ten years ago. For those just experiencing the game now for the first time, I highly doubt they will experience anything close to the feeling of immersion those of us who played the game originally felt. This is not meant to be a statement of elitist nostalgia. It's a simple fact. There is no longer anything revolutionary about this game. The RPG has come a long way in the ten years since October 1994, as it should have. The graphics are now almost laughable; the story is simple and somewhat one-dimensional; the latter half of the game, a grand experiment in introducing an element of non-linearity to the Final Fantasy franchise, is often viewed as one of the greatest failures in the series; the game is pitifully easy, though I recall it seemed somewhat difficult at the time; many of the characters are left almost completely undeveloped. Of course, it easy to point out a game's flaws looking back on it like this.
But despite all this, the game still holds a strange place in our memory. The mere mention of it often brings forth a cavalcade of pleasant memories. Ten years after its release, the game has clearly earned its place in the history of the RPG. The fact remains that most of these flaws were only discovered retroactively. They are a list of criteria we apply to the vision of the game we know like the back of our hand, and the image we have in our minds becomes distorted. But when we truly remember the game and the way it appeared to us for the first time, the veil is often lifted, and we remember nothing but the impression it left on our young minds. And with the exception of the guy who accidentally got this game for Christmas instead of the latest Madden, that impression is one of the fondest we can remember.
Joshua Johnston a.k.a. zeppelin