The first Final Fantasy was released in 1987 as an early contributor to the budding JRPG genre of the time. Later, it would be remastered for the Wonderswan in 2000, then for the Playstation in 2002, the Gameboy Advance in 2004, the Playstation Portable in 2007, and countless others until the most recent Pixel Remasters on PC and mobile phones. In each of these remasters, adjustments big and small were made to align the original game’s values with the contemporary state of the franchise and to update the games for modern technology. Yet as the Pixel Remaster makes the 15th iteration of the title over 34 years it brings to question how much has changed and how much has stayed the same. It has become the software of Theseus; if you remake a game so many times, does the original game still remain?
With any remake there are always a number of elements that are changed between titles. Yet with games that have been out for as long as the original Final Fantasy titles, they exist in the unique position of being remastered, reported, and remade for the everstretching future of hardware to come. They aren’t a single remaster, coming back years after fans have tirelessly done the work to maintain ways to play their game. Rather, they exist in constant states of flux. Final Fantasy’s place in culture isn’t fixed to the most recent version of Final Fantasy, but as an essence that emerges between each version. What is that essence?
When everyone debates about the best version of a game, what does it mean to be looking for the most “authentic” version? The first approach would be to desire to play games in the original form they released. This is similar to a desire to listen to music on a record or cassette or see a movie on 35 mm film. There is a desire to not only preserve the original form of the media, but preserve the feelings that the original form incited as well. Actually experiencing these games as they once were is impossible though, as we don’t live in the cultural and material conditions when these games were released. What it meant to create a videogame, purchase a videogame, have spare time to play videogames, and comprehend videogames can never be the same between two points in time. Yet there still remains a desire to understand what the culture surrounding these games once was and to at least preserve that understanding.
One of the ways this aspect has been debated is in the gap between CRT filtering pixel art and LCDs. The original games were created with the constraints of televisions of the time meaning they had a completely different creative approach to color, effects, and shapes. In the new Final Fantasy pixel remasters, the assets have been recreated for modern computers, consoles, and phones without any emulation of those older screens. The result is a fundamentally different aesthetic. The game’s old visual elements are lost.
This separates how people experience older games from how they experience older works in other mediums. Games commonly neglect the assets from older versions for the sake of creatively changing the original title into something more contemporarily appealing. Many times, older games don’t come back in an ideal preserved form; audio-visuals are recreated for modern hardware, gameplay that has lost appeal over time is streamlined, writing is changed or in drastic cases the game is entirely reimagined.
In fact, games may be one of the only mediums where remastering a title doesn’t require any of the source at all. Developer and publisher of the Final Fantasy series, Square Enix, has notoriously struggled to preserve the original source data on many of the games that it has remade. This doesn’t necessarily mean players can’t experience a recreation of the original game. From the player’s perspective the differences between preserved source data files and completely rebuilt ones aren’t easily noticeable. However, it is important to note that even if two versions of a game play the same, it won’t be the same as preserving the original.
Even outside of archaeological interest, there’s something deeper in the general search for the “best version” than preservation. These players came for Final Fantasy. If they wanted a good RPG game with modern design, they could have played any contemporary RPG on the market. Yet, they came to Final Fantasy. Once you are invested in a series you may want to play all of them. It’s also possible that the cultural canon has persuaded you to think that you should play the older Final Fantasy games.
So perhaps what they are looking for is the method that best accentuates what makes a Final Fantasy game a Final Fantasy game. That proposes another question, of just what is Final Fantasy? Looking between the ports and remakes that have been made over time, there have been additions of content, gameplay changes, and visual updates. However, there is always a base that remains the same. Looking between the games at what has stayed the same I think we can take away what may be considered the “essence.”
Looking at the original Final Fantasy alone there have been many different updated versions of the game over time—15, to be exact. Considering major remasters versus minor port changes, there have been five between the Famicom, WonderSwan, Game Boy Advance, mobile phone, and the current pixel remaster. The WonderSwan version is the first major upgrade to the original Final Fantasy as the graphics were redrawn from 8-bit for 16-bit hardware, all the backgrounds were redrawn, and the UI was changed to resemble modern games in the series. In this version additional text and small cutscenes were added for cohesion. Along with this, the player could choose to unlearn spells and items became available to the whole party. To be honest, there isn’t another version that makes such a drastic leap after the WonderSwan version, and from that game on most remakes have actually not been based on the original but the WonderSwan remake.
Later the Game Boy Advance saw a large amount of changes added to the game in the form of additional content and redesigned game systems. The first two Final Fantasy titles are infamously debated over having combat and leveling systems that are fairly unconventional compared to the rest of the series. In the first game, the magic system was based on the slot system designed in Dungeons & Dragons. Yet in the Game Boy Advance version, the combat was made to resemble the mana points management of the later games. This version also added an entire endgame with dungeons filled with bosses from the entire series.
The mobile phone port would be, perhaps, the least notable version out of this group if it wasn’t also the one that was poorly ported across platforms up until the most recent remaster. Many fans became upset with the quality of the game assets being the worst of all the remasters, and also many of the options being removed. This was also the title that infamously changed the font kerning and size, which fans have continued to meticulously keep an eye on even with the most recent remaster
Lastly the pixel remaster is the most recent of all the versions of Final Fantasy. What’s significant about this version is that many of the sprites have been redesigned or pulled from other titles to look more crisp. On top of this, the soundtrack has been completely re-orchestrated. The only thing that is a bit disappointing about the pixel remasters is that bonus content from the Game Boy Advance version of the game has been removed.
Across all these, a couple of things remain mostly the same. The story never really changes aside from some cutscene additions. While the battle mechanics change between games, the character classes and their abilities have remained the same. The design of the world and its inhabitants also remain the same. There are also some of the series motifs that have always been there since the beginning, such as the end of battle jingle. However, these conceptual elements alone are not the “essence” of Final Fantasy; it also includes the player’s relationship to those elements.
For players of the original title, Final Fantasy may be the beeping of the short overworld tune and the 8-backgrounds that flash into rainbows when an enemy is encountered. It could also be the difficulty of grinding through random encounters to get through a boss, or somehow understand the obtuse directions of the limited NPC text. For others who played a later version, such as the Dawn of Souls port on GBA, Final Fantasy may be a much more of a crunchy, grindy RPG with a limited story to play through, but a bunch of bonus content to grind through in the end. Others who play something like the most recent Pixel Remaster may just see Final Fantasy as a starting point of the series, one that has breezier combat than the future entries and fairly simple A to B questing.
There is a string that exists throughout each of the Final Fantasy versions that each player shares connections with. That string is tied around the aesthetic emotions that emerge from the arc of playing through all of the shared elements above and beyond them. While two players may come away from Final Fantasy with a completely different experience, they will also share a connection of understanding what Final Fantasy is to them with and without those differences. What creates the “essence” of Final Fantasy is their emotional journey through the game which emerges from its primary elements and the arc of play.
Considering this, the question stops being what game is the “best version,” but more so what game will resonate with your own tastes. You may be interested in what it may have been like to play the game with all of its original challenges and limitations. You may love the game so much that you want extra content to play through. You also may just want to experience a version of the game that is less tedious, shortened, and easier to take in. No matter what you decide, ultimately no one can objectively choose what is the “best” version of any Final Fantasy game. Only you can decide how you want to make the journey.
Waverly is a trans game artist and freelance writer. She has written at Uppercut, Into The Spine, and Fanbyte. You can find her on Twitter @hotelbones.