Well, it’s currently 10:15 PM on the eve of XV’s release, and me and my good friend Darryl were told (when going to finalize payments on our reserves) that due to the store using extra hours to deal with the holiday rush, the midnight release for XV was effectively canceled. One thing I’d like to make note of is that when a store plans for a midnight release, Square tends to send T-shirts and other collectibles to raffle off during the wait, and when I asked about these items, the game advisor said he was “unsure of what will happen to them”, which is too-low-on-the-ladder for “eBay resale”, which really pisses me off. This cancellation has left me with a random excess of time and awakeness (or perhaps not, given that word) that I figured I’d use to churn out another little musing. I decided to continue the story I’d started earlier today and describe how Final Fantasy I affected my young, rapidly shaping mind.
I remember bracing myself for a huge graphical letdown as I slid the cartridge into the “Old Nintendo”, as it had come to be called since the SNES entered our household. I had just recently gone back to the NES in an attempt to try my hand at the original Zelda game after playing lengthy amounts of Link To The Past and Mystic Quest on the SNES, so I had an idea of what to expect. Surprisingly the drop from Mystic Quest was subtle; at the time I didn’t know it, but outside of the SNES’s increased color count and a few small Mode 7 visual tricks, MQ was an extremely primitively-made game.
When I first turned the game on and pressed New Game, I was given 4 characters to name. I wasn’t immediately aware that I could change what classes my fighters were, having gained the RPGer’s habit of rapidly tapping “A” to advance what was most likely molasses-slow text. I remember upon realizing that each character’s name could only be 4 character’s long that I had to spend almost an entire evening deciding. In my Mystic Quest and Zelda playthroughs, I had opted to keep the original default names, but FF1 offered none on NES. I named the Fighter “Link”, the Red Mage “Zeph” (for Zephyr, the name of a ship in a short story I had read), the Thief “Moe” (for a childhood friend, Moses Madrigal), and the Black Belt “John” (for my now full bully-mode older brother). The jolt I got from the first second I was on the world map was near-indescribable. The level of detail Square achieved on the landscape and with the character sprites took my breath away, and being thrown right onto the map instead of into a scripted battle really made me feel like it was up to me how the story went, even though only two areas were currently accessible. In MQ, there were only random battles in very specific areas, and while my older brother found them annoying I found the opportunity to level up without necessarily knowing what you were going to encounter to be exciting and cathartic. I detested the areas where the enemies were depicted as tiny two-framed sprites on the map in MQ for 2 reasons: 1. When you’re trying to rush through a part, seeing how many enemies stood in your way served to demotivate you and 2. Once the enemies in these areas were gone, they wouldn’t respawn, so if you needed to gain some levels to push forward, you’d have to travel back to an area where enemies spawned randomly. FF1 showed me that the system MQ possessed wasn’t in fact the status quo but instead a gimmick for that specific game. And like a kid in a candy store with a golden-freakin’-ticket, I gorged myself. I remember thinking to myself “Ok, just five more levels...” each of the three individual times, subjecting myself to insane and meaningless amounts of IMPS.
I was level 15 before I entered Corneria Castle for the first time, and what small equipment and spell upgrades were available were long since purchased. The freedom of the game’s opening which allowed me to level all I wanted was a source of great joy, but I realized I was probably overleveled for the beginning and decided to continue with the story. The feeling of being granted an audience before a king to begin the journey instead of being called upon by a princess or an old wise man had a less personal and yet somehow more regal feel, and everyone in town’s readiness to help (offering chests instead of merely being oblivious to your having taken it) gave the feeling that the heroes might be appreciated in this game instead of just overlooked, as though one in every 10 people has a great destiny. With the king’s request and the town’s approval, I was off and on my way to the first dungeon, the Temple of Fiends. I scavenged what treasures I could and entered the middle room last; a habit gained organically from multiple LttP and MQ playthroughs. In the middle room stood Garland, the game’s first boss. His dialogue gripped me the way Ganon’s did, and in battle his spritework, even on NES, was awe-inspiring. FF1 was quickly shaping up to everything I wanted it to be.
After rescuing the princess, I was treated to a grandiose opening scene that further cemented this portion of the game in my mind. I remember thinking “Yeah, this is right,” comparing MQ and 1 in my mind. I could tell, even in the order that I experienced them, that MQ was diluted FROM this and that this was more than that, even if limited by the system it was released on.
I began keeping notebooks of all the numbers the game presented to me; I had one marble journal with a page dedicated to each new piece of equipment I found, another with each piece of story-related text I’d encounter in case I forgot my way, and a 3 subject Five Star notebook that I did what I didn’t realize was algebra at the time. In my quest to maximize my attacks in order to breeze through the game, I became determined to “figure out the numbers”, and did everything from subtract my character’s levels from their strength to add half of the stats then subtract another arbitrary half to try to reliably recreate the damage situations the game was showing. I finally got to the point where in school, after completing my classwork, I’d be sitting there with a page of goblin battle scenarios trying to figure out the math. It was when a teacher saw me writing something along the lines of “123 + ? = 652" that she began to take interest.
Ms. McKenna was stereotypically what you imagine you’d find if you Googled “1st Grade Teacher Stock Photo”; she was in her 40's or 50's, slim, and wore unbuttoned button-up sweaters and long skirts. I remember the first time I imagine she took personal interest in me being when I was reading a short essay we had to write about what we did over the summer, and I described studying English in order to better understand the video games I was playing. She brought it up in a later teacher-parent conference with my uncle, much to my horror. He wasn’t happy about the mention when he got home. When she saw me there struggling with that math, though, I knew instantly that whatever I was attempting to do was well beyond me. In kindergarten I was often separated from the class during mundane activities like coloring and learning scissors in order to do timed math because my teacher, Mrs. Lazarre, thought I was gifted, but from that day forward I’d be treated differently almost daily. During any math classwork, Ms. McKenna would pull me off to the side and help me with my understanding of FF1, teaching me algebraic principals like the associative property to help me figure it out. Two particular days that came to mind was realizing every enemy had different defense points and accounting for a random “dice roll” to account for the difference in damage that can occur randomly. The numbers were making sense, and my grades were perfect. That semester, through my uncle’s deal, I got Mystic Quest for myself, my first game new and in the package. I’d also complete my first ISTEP test, which placed me above the 95th percentile for the state in English, and the 99th percentile for mathematics. With FF1 figured out and Mystic Quest’s inner workings less important to me since I knew the game like the back of my hand, I finished the year working at the pace the rest of the class was working at, learning true and sincere boredom with math for the first time of my life. I had far surpassed their simple additions, subtractions and multiplication tables by now.
The day I finally took on Chaos was a somber one for me. All of my characters were max level, and at this point figuring out the math was near-pointless since I knew he’d be dead before I’d record too much data. I wasn’t expecting the plot twist at the end, even having had the “lite” treatment of it in MQ. The idea of a character creating an infinite time loop that we were a part of blew my 6 year-old mind apart. Time travel was a gag in cartoons for me at this point, something out of the Sci-Fi movies and shows I wouldn’t appreciate for 10-20 years. Between LttP’s alternate dimension, MQ’s false god’s self-fulfilling prophecy and FF1's time paradox, playing with friends took up new creative levels. Hilariously, the story ideas and plots I’d make up easily adapted to my peer’s love of Power Rangers, something that I’d never learn to appreciate due to a missed window involving instilled homophobia (perhaps I’ll explain another time?). Attempts to play “Zelda” or “Final Fantasy” outside with friends instead of “Power Rangers” normally incited the same sort of homophobia, ironically, with the idea frequently being referred to as “gay” since “elf stuff is gay”. This in combination with my older brother John’s Christmas gift of a weight set (the boy was 10!) made me hide my love of these games at my uncle’s, where I was always under his gaming-negative view, in spite of my continued academic prowess. I ended the year with another report card full of straight “A’s” and earned another game, which was Zelda II: The Adventures of Link. I absolutely haaaaaaaaaaated AoL, and didn’t even get past the 3rd dungeon until I graduated high school. At the time, it was a wasted game choice. The next Final Fantasy game I would receive would be Final Fantasy Adventure that summer. You’ll have to wait for the next article to hear how that story went.