20 Years Ago Final Fantasy Tactics Advance Introduced the Tactical RPG to Younger Players

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20 Years Ago Final Fantasy Tactics Advance Introduced the Tactical RPG to Younger Players

At this point Final Fantasy is its own small medium. There are almost as many varied takes on what a Final Fantasy game can be as there are people who’ve worked on the series in its three decades of history. And for many players, out of that beautiful spectrum, Final Fantasy Tactics and its successors reach the closest for perfection. The Game Boy Advance spinoff Final Fantasy Tactics Advance never achieved the cult favorite status enjoyed by its big brother, but for a game turning 20 this month it still boasts some smart changes to the formula that hold up better than Tactics.

Not everybody began with the original. I was able to get my hands on a copy of Advance and a GBA much earlier than the first Tactics, which debuted on the original PlayStation. It was only a few years later that Square made the first game more widely available so that it could burrow its way under my skin forever. But getting to Advance first meant that the spin-off itself would shape a lot of my tastes around strategy RPG’s going forward.

First things first, the Tactics mold is absolutely the best implementation of Final Fantasy’s job system to this day. It’s my favorite set of growth mechanics in any game anywhere. Every unit has a primary job that doles out stat growths and abilities accordingly. Once they switch jobs they carry their stats and active/passive abilities forward into their next one. This means with a little bit of planning and job blending, each unit of your army blooms into a satisfying exercise in player expression.

Starting a unit off as a monk to boost her physical attack before pivoting into a dual wielding ninja that punches guys to death twice as fast is glorious. Likewise, a samurai who’s spent time leveling as a black mage beforehand hits like a truck with their high magic stat and the magic boosting passive abilities they’ve learned. Not every job combination works, but even messing up a character in these games is more fun than it has any right to be. And some broken jobs from the original game like the Calculator are missing or replaced by jobs that don’t always live up to their old counterparts, but Advance’s inclusion of four non-human unit types including moogle knights is a cool wrinkle that wasn’t present in its predecessor, and that expands on the world’s unique fantasy setting. While I don’t love all of the changes and omissions made to the job list in Tactics Advance, I’m still fond of the other big swings the game took.

With this handheld entry the low fantasy adventure of Tactics gave way to a more friendly high fantasy story of neighborhood kids displaced in a strange world. Where Tactics takes cues from the cold logic of works like Game of Thrones and Berserk in its story and localization, Advance is warm like Narnia or The Neverending Story.

Tactics tells the story of the bastard son of a great house and his commoner best friend eager to prove themselves, while Advance is centered on a constantly bullied kid dealing with his parents’ divorce. The characterization and political intrigue just isn’t here like in Tactics proper, but the kid-oriented story it aims to tell is well executed until its conclusion. There was clearly an effort to simplify the game’s setting and story for what would ostensibly be a younger audience, but just as much attention was paid to loyally translating the strategic experience of the original game onto a smaller screen.


As a child the replayability of those tactical battles was a huge asset. Playing through the campaign restricting yourself to only using the story units or only using generic units built up from level one made it feel like an entirely different game. And managing a full team of heroes, changing their jobs and subclasses keeping in mind the combination of stat growths and active/passive abilities they’ll bring into their next job is some of the most fun you can have staring at menus.

Characters gradually learning new abilities from the weapons and armor they have equipped is another of Advance’s more maligned innovations, but it was a crucial decision that adds to the game’s strategy. This method changes the gameplay loop by putting a different emphasis on finding new equipment. The RPG trope of outfitting your party at a new shop or excitedly finding a rare weapon now includes another layer of decision making as you decide if that strong suit of armor should go to the unit who really needs an upgrade or another unit who’d make better use of the skill they’d learn from it. I understand why some folks found this tedious, but I’ve always loved how weighty it makes finding new gear. The feeling of finally getting my hands on the dagger I needed to learn that last Thief ability and unlock the Ninja job is still one of my favorite memories from any game. It’s one of the big swings Advance takes that just works for me personally.

The choice to use initiative based turns combined with instant magic casting are also plain better than Tactics. You’ll never be punished for casting a long spell by the target walking close to another friendly unit before it hits them.

Of course Advance didn’t improve on everything, and even lags behind in some ways. For most folks the original Tactics’ method of gathering and spending job points to buy new abilities didn’t need fixing, and I admittedly agree here. This is just one case where I lucked out by learning how fun the more tedious version is first.

The new judge system adding arbitrary rules onto matches was a misstep too. Advance isn’t a hard game by any means. And like its predecessor, it doesn’t take much effort to break the game’s more unbalanced systems wide open and breeze through. The judge system is a clear attempt to balance the game and stop the player from only using their team’s most powerful configuration in every encounter, but the system is too easily subverted or ignored.

With both games taking place in Ivalice, I loved that they carried the Judge character archetype into Final Fantasy 12 as a nod to Tactics Advance, but it’s telling that they’ve essentially been pared down to traditional bosses for that main entry in the series.

Once you know what you’re looking at, all three Tactics entries are generally easy games, but their robust party building systems mean they heartily lend themselves to being played over and over even after you know the story by heart. No matter how many times I’ve beaten them, there’s always another job combination or set of verbs that I haven’t deployed yet.

Yousif Kassab writes about games, music and manga on the internet. You can find him on Twitter at @Youuuusif (four U’s).

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