I make no secret of my belief that the SNES Final Fantasy III is the best Final Fantasy in the series. There is no way to preface discussion of a game that I feel is almost perfect without openly declaring its beauty. Thus I feel I must open with the negative aspects of Final Fantasy III, for its imperfections are as important to its identity as its superb aspects.
There are two glaring flaws in this game. The first is the infamous "Relm Sketch" bug that is loved and loathed alike by Final Fantasy aficionados. I come down on the loath side as I experienced it once by accident. I did not receive the reward -- as some gamers did -- of an inventory full of Dirks. Instead my game froze during the last leg of traversing Phoenix Cave to find Locke. From that moment on, I grew scared at the thought of using Relm without the Fake Mustache Relic, for all I could remember that using the Sketch command made my game go haywire. In fact, it took me a long time just to get used to the idea of using Relm, period.
In addition to this technical flaw is one musical one. Of all the moving and wonderful tracks in this game, there is one tune that I simply dislike. The regular battle music in my opinion is simply awful. Boss battles and special battles have wonderful music, but when encountering a random enemy, I am simply astounded at how this synth horn melody, using a repetitive bass line and driven by the faux SNES guitars. It has energy, but the tune itself is lackluster, emotionless, and clashes strongly with the rest of the game. Even other Final Fantasies with lackluster battle tunes seem to fit into a grander orchestral or emotional theme.
With this negative out of the way, I feel I can no longer ignore the reasons why I feel this game is easily the best pure RPG, let alone one of the best games of all time. It is easy to begin with the obvious, that of the graphics. While the Super NES Final Fantasy II made a 16-bit version of Final Fantasy, no one in their right mind would admit that it ever challenged the boundaries of the system. It was, after all, an early Super NES game. The very fact that it borrowed so many visual elements from the NES Final Fantasy also reveals Final Fantasy II's critical weakness -- it is in essence too strongly tied with the Final Fantasies in the past. By keeping the Battle Sprite/Overworld sprite dynamic, one encounters a problem in Final Fantasy II that ironically has increased in later Final Fantasies. The question is, "How does one want to tell the story?" With battle sprites that are large and detailed but limited in their movement, or with smaller overworld sprites that have freedom of movement but limited expression. Final Fantasy III solved its dilemma with a unique solution for the series but one so blatantly obvious in retrospect. Make the sprites the same for battle and for the overworld.
Needless to say I was at first a bit surprised when I realized this, as I did not truly notice at first. The only thing that seemed amiss was that battle sprites seemed to be a bit small in this game. But once I saw the automated sequence that is triggered when Terra first casts magic with Locke and Edgar in the party, it jarred me out of a passive mode of thinking. I had assumed that Final Fantasy III would be simply an improvement over Final Fantasy II. This sequence's visuals alone made me reject that assumption, and were necessary for me to not only enjoy the story, but become wrapped into it to the point where I could not --and to this day cannot -- see how this sense of immersion could be exceeded.
There is also another benefit of using battle sprites as overworld sprites and vice-versa. This brings non-playable characters on a more even playing field with playable characters, since both use the sprites of the same proportions. Though there is a clear distinction between the old man in the town and Sabin, the player is visually permanently reminded that these non-playable characters are no lower than the people they are controlling. There is no "hyper-manga" mode, battle scenario, or full motion video sequence in which "our heroes" are showcased as being different through their visuals. The heroes are people like the people they save, and this visual detail adds an additional human element to the story. The amount of detail these sprites are capable of only strengthens the sense of empathy with these characters.
Sprites and their interaction are not the only areas in which the graphics made a significant impact on gameplay and story. The backgrounds used in battle were far more realistic than those of Final Fantasy II, gorgeous backdrops that matched their non-battle surroundings and fleshed out their presence. Spell and special attack animations did more than amaze me with their presence but were absolutely mind blowing in their quality. I loved fighting Doom Gaze just to get an excuse to cast Fire 3 over and over again. More striking than all of these technical elements, though, are the way they all melded together to help provide a cohesive and complete experience.
Of course one could always cry that there are some things about Final Fantasy III's graphics that should be used against calling it the best Final Fantasy of all time. Enemies, for instance, are mostly static. But there seemed to be an increased presence about them simply in how they were translated into pixels. Every enemy, from the Leafer to the Pug, looked as though it belonged on the battlefield, and not a moving creature ambling in place for no reason. Moreover, during the thick of the battle, when one is issuing commands left and right, the enemy's stillness is actually scarier than movement. After all, with later role-playing games, a player has several visual cues that the enemy is planning to attack. On the other hand with an older RPG, the players has to guess (or figure out from enemy stats) when the enemy will strike. That is not to say that enemies should have remained non-animated for all time, but in the atmosphere of Final Fantasy III seeing the enemy sprite "blink" brings me more chills than if they had physically traveled across the screen and attacked my party. (In some of the later Final Fantasies this effect is pretty cheesy as it makes me wonder how normal human characters survive what seem to be mortal blows.) Imagination can be more powerful than any visual effect.
To talk any more about the graphics would be overkill, for any true Final Fantasy III fan knows that while the graphics told an excellent story superbly, it is the music that manipulates the emotions as readily as the player controls the characters. Despite my criticism of the battle theme this Final Fantasy stands as the strongest Final Fantasy music to date. From the first time I heard Locke's theme, I was ready for action, brought into the frame of mind appropriate for the scene. But little did I know how to what heights and depths that tune alone would carry me. It carries over and evolves in "Forever Rachel" to a sad, melancholic piece, an almost complete reversal of the heroic fanfare of before, at the end in a wonderful meshing of story, visuals, and music, Locke's theme mixes with Celes theme to create a wonderful blending of melodies.
However, to truly understand the emotional impact from even a purely musical impact, one must examine Celes' theme. It is not only important that her theme is beautifully arranged but it is more important in how it is introduced. Unlike most of the characters, her theme is not thrust upon us in her introduction, nor is it drilled into the psyche as the overworld theme. Instead Celes, as a character, must work for her theme. She remains in the party for some time, earning the player's trust, and all this culminates at the one of the highest points of the game -- the opera house scene. It is ironic that her theme, the only one in the game that actually occurs in story for the other characters to hear, was never written for her. Yet it fits so perfectly, from the lyrics, to the notes. It is a song of love, but not of self-absorbed romantic nonsense but of its strength and patience. She delivers her own song, making it her own, yet at the same time it is never completely autonomous. For as the interruption of the opera scene leads to Setzer's introduction, so too does her theme work alongside those of her teammates.
Of course, all this pales in comparison to the overriding musical theme of Final Fantasy III. Terra's theme simply dominates, in which the overworld rendition is so simple, powerful, bittersweet, and comforting that the tune had me staring at the menu screen with tears in my eyes. This melody tells her story more simply than any bio or anything short of playing the game itself. Her theme stands as a stark contrast to Kefka's theme. With Kefka's theme you can hear the whimsical madness, but as you hear the music again and again, the madcap fancy grows into something more dangerous. Both tracks are powerful on their own, but in context with each other, they actually enhance each other rather than compete for attention. Though some later Final Fantasies boast stronger individual tracks, none of them have a complete soundtrack that can match the power of Final Fantasy III.
But I have addressed merely the icing of this delicious cake of Final Fantasy III. There are two layers -- story and gameplay -- that support each other and coexist to the point it is impossible to address one without the other. In no RPG I had played to this point has there been an attempt to mesh the two. Even in Final Fantasy II, a game with a story I simply adore, there is a sense of alienation between the gameplay and the workings of this world. Characters have rigidly defined roles in combat in contrast to their layered roles in the story. The amount of control you have over their actual battle role is limited. Rosa will always be a healer, Kain always the physical Dragoon, and Rydia will always be a Caller. Like the original Final Fantasy these characters are rigidly defined by their class, but unlike the original Final Fantasy the freedom to choose your own party is limited not only by story, but by the battle schematics. As a result, prior to Final Fantasy III there seemed to be a split personality when it came to the gameplay and the story. While at times there was overlap, for the most part they were essentially unrelated.
Enter Final Fantasy III, a game that plays on these expectations like a fiddle. During the first ten to twenty hours of playing (that is, of course, if you are as slow at playing these games as I am) you will think that there is an evolution of gameplay but not a complete revolution. This is not to downplay the idea of controlling three separate parties at points and the chronicling of the group of adventurers that has been broken into three groups then reunited. No, I could analyze the first few segments of the game and show how its brilliance is evident even before its critical turning points. However, as much as the game departed from the unusual, it left me with a semblance of the familiar. One still had magic users and fighters -- the latter whose individualized styles were influenced by everything from prior RPGs to Street Fighter -- and characters' roles matched up nicely with their story. This was a familiar dynamic, and it is when after reaching the top of Zozo, the city of liars and thieves, this dynamic is shaken forever through the aftermath, when you gain the ability to have any character learn any spell.
At that moment, I stared at my screen in disbelief, as though the game that had come before this moment was an utter lie spun by one of those eye-patched thieves themselves. The wall between spell casters and sword swinger did not crumble -- it vanished as it had never existed. This ties into one of the themes of the game, that those who use magic and those who did not were not inherently different (and it makes its point far more subtly and effectively than Chrono Trigger), but this is made more evident by allowing the non-magic using party members access to the same power as those who had it innately. This always has been and always will be the defining moment of Final Fantasy III for me -- when the player could truly choose the party member's destiny as far as statistical and skill development is concerned. At that time, I was dumbfounded by the implications. Now, I am simply amazed as to why I did not see it before.
Of course, this moment also marked a crossroads in Final Fantasy history in more terms of customization. To the American RPG fan, Final Fantasy III was the first game to offer a degree of freedom when building characters within the rigid narrative of a video game RPG. Up until then the pattern of "level up and pay not attention to any of those numbers except for HP" worked out well as development was determined solely by experience. Now the door is flung wide open. Locke can be a talented magician skilled in healing magic, while Terra and Celes can choose to learn no more spells other than their natural abilities permit. But at the same time, these characters still retain their special skills. So how far does one go? Should the next model for character development be more open or less open, and in what ways? It is Final Fantasy III's model's that is the ideal, allowing character freedom through magicite while at the same time allowing them to retain unique ownership of the skills they both initially come with.
Yet the ability to equip and learn spells from magicite would have never remained such a strong memory unless magic had been stressed in the game as an ancient ability that once ravaged the world. The player can appreciate the ability to cast spells as more than an earth-shattering technical achievement. In the world of the player, magic such as casting fire and curative spells is not known to exist. One can easily imagine Locke and Edger's reactions playing out in the "real" world. At the same time, one obvious tenor represented by magic is atomic weaponry, and a similar anxiety is felt in the world of the player and the world of Final Fantasy III. This anxiety is cocooned in the familiar world of gameplay mechanics, and a moment that is simply stunning on a gameplay level resonates on a narrative level as well.
It is in details like these that the story achieves the epic quality so many later stories have lacked. The overriding plot is wonderful, with twists and turns that keep the narrative flowing without making the player feel the story is one giant cheat. Yet it is the smaller touches that put this story at the piccacle of video game plots. How Edgar's flirtatious ways mask the pain he feels about his separation from his brother. The contrast of Gau's father abandoning him on the Veldt to fend for himself with Relm's father abandoning her in Thamasa, leaving her with those she knows to take care of her. The idea that Kefka was driven mad by the very power thrust onto him.
Still, despite all this there is one factor that has made Final Fantasy III my personal favorite. It is the fact that despite the game featuring an ensemble cast full of developed characters, there are two women who can be argued as the lead, both of whom are strong, fully developed characters who are anything but soft, pretty healers or frail magic users. Needless to say Terra is one of the greatest leads of all time, simply because unlike nearly every other lead in the Final Fantasy series and most other RPGs, her search for identity and love does not end as the love interest of a specific partner. No, her love is multi-faceted: love for parents she never was able to know, love for her friends who risked their lives to save her, and love for the children she has chosen to care for. As Terra learns, love does not mean one runs away from pain or to hide one's abilities, but to use one's gifts and do all one can to make the world shine with hope for the future.
Before I close, I cannot help but imagine the rebuttals I will face. There is so much I can write about Final Fantasy III that I may have overlooked some of the essential aspects that made it great. But these elements would have to be covered in their own rants. There are several who despise the open-ended nature of the second half of the game and who prefer linearity and structure. I cannot dismiss this charge outright as it is a matter of taste, although I will argue that the free roaming nature of the second half is necessary from both a plot and gameplay perspective. Yet there is the charge of nostalgia clouding one's judgment. I must disagree with this, as it is not nostalgia but the Internet itself which has affected my opinions on games. As Final Fantasy III was released before I had access with to the World Wide Web, it is the last Final Fantasy I played in complete isolation. With no one to talk to about the matter, I came to the independent conclusion that Final Fantasy III is an awesome game. However, that same independence also filled me with a false sense of hope once upon a time. In fact, the knowledge that Final Fantasy III is the best Final Fantasy ever comes at a very high cost -- the belief that no other sequel will live up to this game's pedigree is a true spiral of despair.