Review – Final Fantasy III Pixel Remaster (Switch)
The NES was my first system, and it’s one that I hold with absolute fondness and stubborn denial over shortcomings. All of the “quirks” of the system – cartridges not reading correctly, uncomfortable controllers, a Power Pad that only worked for the one game I had – I dismiss over the overall joy that came from having video games at home. To date, thinks like Kabuki Quantum Fighter and The Simpsons: Bart vs The World are titles that are probably complete trash, but they sit, gilded, in my memory halls, like a first kiss or the time I won fifty dollars from bananas.
Thankfully, time has made fools of us all, because, as it turns out, some of the best RPGs were just kept behind lock and key over in Japan. Sure, we were able to get Dragon Warrior III back during the 8-bit heyday, but we didn’t get the first Mother until a shadow drop on the WiiU VC helped get official versions into the hands of fans. And this isn’t the first time Final Fantasy III has come to English speaking players: an interesting 3D version was released on the DS back in 2006, with an attempt to make the game more robust in terms of storytelling and character development. Ultimately, if you’re interested in such a thing, it’s worth seeking out a copy, but I wouldn’t put it in the same sort of grouping as the title that we have here, in our hands, now.
Final Fantasy III has finally landed on the Nintendo Switch, putting the original version (for the most part) back into the hands of fans who championed the series for the first third of its lifespan. The key storyline, the one that Final Fantasy hung its hat on for years, is still here: four Warriors of Light need to save four elemental crystals and beat back the darkness. Along the way, they’ll encounter NPCs of the friendly and aggressive variety, all influenced in some way by the crystals and the encroaching darkness., and you’ll be the good guys who make things return to the correct balance. You control the fates of these four orphans who just love hanging out together, and how you finally get to saving the world is a path all your own.
There’s a purity in Final Fantasy III that I’ve been longing for in an RPG for years and years. You get these four characters, you’re given pretty standard instructions from a crystal you found while screwing around in a cave (“Go save the world”) and everyone just goes along with you on the ride. Village elders? No problem, take the money in my basement and head out. Random dude in the next town over? Sure thing, just help me find my wife and then you can take my airship. Princess who was inconvenienced by some baddie? She will wait for you until the end of time, you stallion of a hero. It’s so straightforward it might as well be a yardstick, and yet it’s brilliantly effective. You go, you slay monsters, you get cash, you buy gear, slay more monsters, eventually slay a boss, and move the hell on.
However, this simple surface formula might be why Nintendo of America saw fit to pass over this game initially for localization, and that was a massive folly (and also proves they didn’t play the game). Anyone who’s even glanced at a Final Fantasy title, past or future, can see that Final Fantasy III is actively taking the piss out of its own storyline every step of the way without becoming a full parody, and it makes it positively delightful.
Players get an airship about five minutes into the game, can fly around a tiny section of the world, and then promptly crash it, exploding it into unsalvageable bits in a matter of seconds. I just blinked and laughed aloud: it was such a fantastic bait and switch that I can’t believe it came from a time before Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. I use Keanu Reeves movies as time frame references, what’s your quantifier?
As the game progresses, you get more and more moments like this. You rescue a dude who lost his memory, return him to his ill and possibly dying wife, and he tells her “hold that thought, I gotta go do something” and, through a series of events, never returns. You find tiny holes that you can only enter if you cast mini on yourself, ponds where you can only progress if you cast frog on yourself, and even encounter a quartet of fools who think that THEY’RE the Warriors of Light and want to show you up by promptly getting themselves in life threatening danger that you need to save them from.
There’s these banana moments that work so well because they’re in this oldschool medium that, frankly, is impressive to handle such a diverse set of feelings and ideas. It’s even better because it creates ideas that I would later see in Final Fantasy IV, which arguably led to a 16-bit RPG renaissance.
Final Fantasy III is the beginning of the job system, something that would become a hallmark of Final Fantasy V, but took its first tottering steps on the NES. The job system is a brilliant bit of roleplaying mechanic that has a clear beginning and ending, but leaves so much up to choice and chance inbetween. Your first party layout will probably emulate what you had in the original Final Fantasy: two bruisers and two magicians in any number of hats. You’ll buy spells of limited use from the different towns and, through leveling up, get access to more uses and more levels of magic. Your fighting characters (probably warrior and monk) will get stronger and, over time, stupidly overpowered.
Then the tides turn and more crystals give you more jobs. Suddenly you’re looking at a Black Belt, a Knight, a Scholar and others. Things just keep increasing, and the ideas pile up. You’ve got this boss coming who can change his weakness at the drop of a hat: might need a Scholar to read his body and report to the Black Mage what to throw at him. You’ve got a boss who constantly does full room attacks, and if only there was a character class where you jump up in the air and then strike a full turn later?
Keep in mind, none of these jobs are requirements, just choices. If you want to brute force through everything as the original Onion Knight you started as, it’s a possibility: a dumb one, but still a possibility. Oh sure, I have the option to be a berserk Viking who dual wields axes and can absorb hits like a sponge, but maybe I’ll just stick to the same job I had as a cave dwelling orphan.
Naturally, the jobs do come to a head with the final crystal, and this is just a little bit of a fumble on the game’s part where I say that all previous jobs get totally overwritten with the introduction of Ninja and Sage. If you’re intrepid enough to explore the very last side dungeon, you get introduced to these two jobs, and they’re bloody overpowered. Sage casts any magic, and I do mean any.
Want a character who knows Curaja, Meteor AND can summon Leviathan? Sure thing, why the hell not! And the Ninja equips ANY weapon. Those Blood Lances from the Dragoons are pretty tight, but I feel like maybe also holding the Masamune might give me a serious advantage. Wait, I can do that, AND I can throw Shuriken for world-ending damage? Why didn’t you say so, I’ll take two! Thankfully, since the Pixel Remaster puts those a bit behind lock and key, you still need to prove your mettle in order to access them, but, once you do, the rest of the game (what little is left) is a cake walk.
The biggest surprises for me were the sheer size and expansion of Final Fantasy III. While you figured the game would be bigger than the previous two because the technology and coding had improved, I had no idea how much of the game lay before me as I set out to finish this quest from front to back. The dungeons, while not particularly big until much later, have hidden pathways and treasures strewn about from the drop and, thankfully, none of them are missable (Square Enix was gracious in not sealing off too many things).
Plus, once you get your second airship, you come to understand that the land you’re on is literally called the Floating Continent and there are more worlds out there. You just have to stare, amazed, as the lens keeps pulling back revealing more and more of the game the further on you progress. By the time you finally have to face the final big bad and all that goes into it, you’ve touched upon so many lands and, if you’re not careful, may have missed several exclusively hidden dungeons.
Yes, secret areas that are totally optional. Were you excited that this new Summoner job exists (first Final Fantasy with summons!) but you don’t have anything to summon other than a goddamn Chocobo? Strap on your SCUBA tank, Sammy, you gotta go diving if you want Odin and Bahamut. That glorious idea is alive and well in Final Fantasy III and so worth the exploration.
Another reason this game may have been passed upon the first time around is the difficulty scale, and that is somewhat reasonable. Final Fantasy III asks a lot of the players in terms of leveling up, saving money, being on point for versatility and endurance, and it could have been exhausting. There are dungeons where you, again, are stuck as a mini and either need to have everyone as a mage to fling limited magic until you run out OR you need to run constantly, screaming for daylight as your potions wear out.
The final dungeon is a labyrinthian nightmare of big bosses, one after another, with some spots to heal but nowhere to buy additional supplies or, worse, save. Picturing this game as I would have played it as a child would have meant days without sleep or proper nutrition because I simply couldn’t turn it off. That’s a scary idea, and one that, thankfully, isn’t present in the Switch version.
Thanks to the Pixel Remaster treatment, Final Fantasy III is more than a gorgeous looking nod to the roots of JRPGs. The boost system is a boon that players should absolutely consider using if they want to maintain a fun atmosphere over the course of the game. Increasing the XP and money dropped from encounters might feel a little cheap, but those can be altered on the fly and, hey, I didn’t hate being able to get severely over leveled in a matter of moments.
But, more importantly, the ability to turn off encounters at the drop of a hat was the very real difference between life and death more than once. Why on earth would you make the game more grueling for yourself when, as someone who just wanted to find the exit, you could simply deny enemies from running into you? Yes, it’s cheap as hell, but I loved it and it made me happy.
Also in the Pixel Remaster stable: the brand new arrangement soundtrack. Being able to swap from the classic chiptune music to the gorgeously remastered, orchestral version was such a treat. I really got to love the songs of Final Fantasy IIII thanks to my time with Theatrhythm, and being able to hear them in different ways was pure aural candy (“Let Me Know the Truth” is a beautiful piece of art) and I took extra time everywhere I went to swap between the soundtracks and appreciate both. My only note is that I wish I had a single hot button to hit and change the music, much like the ability to toggle between graphics for The Secret of Monkey Island.
What seals the deal is that feeling you get when you play Final Fantasy III. I love and appreciate the homages and attempts to capture the nostalgia of games gone by, and plenty of folk have done incredible jobs. Yet there is nothing quite like playing something old for the first time, especially when that aged item has been carefully preserved, modified and improved without throwing out the baby with the bath water. This is the original Final Fantasy III with a tweaked script and some sick boosters just beneath the surface.
Final Fantasy III is a unicorn in the 8-bit pantheon. This is the RPG that I missed out on because I wasn’t able to import games or read Japanese back in the 80s. This feels like a game that I can and will keep in my memories as an incredible experience, and I urge fans of the series to give it a play. Whether you have only touched upon the Playstation 4 and later titles or dabbled in mobile game hijinks; if you’ve owned every Nintendo title since inception and still have four Gameboy Advance adapters for your Gamecube; if there’s even a shred of you that remembers brute forcing through the original with a party of four Fighters, then I have to let you know: this game is for you.
Unbelievably gorgeous handling of the original artwork with time and effort put into maintaining and preservation while updating for modern consoles. Took my breath away, left me absolutely thrilled. Also, Shadow Master might be one of my favorite FF monsters to date.
As Final Fantasy as it gets. Boosts prevented gameplay grind loop from getting boring, ample selection of dungeons both necessary and optional, tons of jobs to sort through and experiment with and a real sense of accomplishment for every turn based battle that I encountered.
Do you want chiptune? You got it. Do you want flowing orchestral arrangements? Also got it. Do you want both whenever you change your mind, you greedy little pig? YOU GOT IT.
Fun Factor: 10
It’s been years since an RPG made me feel like a kid and, as it turns out, I just needed a game from my childhood to seal the deal. This was a delight and a treasure and I encourage every RPG fan to give it a go.
Final Verdict: 10
Final Fantasy III Pixel Remaster is available now on PS4, PS5, PC and Switch.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.