Review: Final Fantasy Pixel Remasters (Final Fantasy I-III)

4 Aug 2021

So, the first of the Final Fantasy Pixel Remasters are out. And it is impossible to review the whole product just yet, because the whole product isn’t available right now. We haven’t yet played the Final Fantasy IV through Final Fantasy VI remasters. They’re simply not available to be experienced yet.

At the same time, the first three titles of this project were always going to be interesting as a statement of goals as well as a general sense of what this project was going to strive to be. We have seen a lot of remakes of these games over the years. For a long time, the only way to play Final Fantasy III was via the remake that added extra characters and story beats and… well, was generally my less preferred way of playing the game if you had to count it against emulation and translation patches.

So what are these remasters like? How solid do they stack up? What can be said about these games that have had so much of an impact on gaming and on this writer in particular? And really, is there anything as wonderful as really playing a very much remastered form of the first game again years later feeling at once familiar and more beautiful?

Oh dear, I believe I’ve given away the game.

The first three titles in the pixel remaster series were released on July 28th on Steam and mobile; the Steam versions were played for this review.

Pixel Tale

There’s very little to say about these particular stories that hasn’t already been said over the years. Final Fantasy and Final Fantasy III are both stories about a small group of unlikely destined warriors being chosen to go forth into the world in order to save it from a vague elemental calamity that is unfolding before their very eyes. Final Fantasy II, meanwhile, is the archetypical “group of youngsters fighting against an evil empire” story that would later serve as the foundation for a lot of Final Fantasy stories. The first three games are all remakes of NES games, and as such they’re presented rather simply.

I feel of mixed emotions about the fact that the simplicity is retained in this particular version, especially when it comes to Final Fantasy II. One of the big problems of that particular game is that it’s hard to build up much feeling or resonance for these characters because, well… we never get much sense of who they are. There’s no sense of who these young people are beyond a handful of dialogue boxes, and it would have been welcome to expand their characterization a little bit. On the other hand… this is also supposed to be a remaster, not an expansion, and some of the charm and design was always meant to be seeing these games in their original story context.

That’s not to say everything is perfectly as it was in the original. For example, the games have a couple of little added cutscenes here and there, like the building of the bridge in Final Fantasy or the capture of the airship in Final Fantasy II. There’s also a little more preamble before each game to set the stage, rather than just dropping you in cold as was the case for the original games. This doesn’t substantially change the plots of the games or their presentation, but it does help take a nod toward the overall goal of these remasters.

Specifically, these are remasters attempting to preserve the original games as much as possible while also seeking to be the most definitive version of these games. Added stuff is fine provided it doesn’t really change the game. But with the fairly simple stories limited by the nature of the original platforms, a lot of time has to be given over to… well, the actual gameplay.

Pixel Scan

For FFI and FFII, the best comparison to the gameplay is probably the now-ancient Final Fantasy Origins collection released for the original PlayStation. That pair of ports feels similar in that neither one of them substantially altered the overall game balance, but both of them fixed errors, tweaked some egregious balance issues, and made sure that everything was working the way it was meant to in the original version even if it actually didn’t. So we’re still dealing with spell slots instead of MP in FFI, by way of comparison.

The games are also devoid of the added content that has been added over the years. Gone are the bonus dungeons from FFI with powerful equipment that was never intended to be in the base game; gone, too, are the extensive added dungeons and modes for FFII. It’s just a straightforward port of the original games, and for some people, this is going to be a bit of an issue because… well, it’s less content, right? These are new titles with less stuff than older releases! That’s bad, isn’t it?

The answer is… maybe. But maybe not, too.

See, as alluded to above, neither of these original games were designed with this added content in mind. It was all retrofitted in later to justify selling the games again. As a result, they sat in a dubiously optional place wherein these added bits of content were not, strictly speaking, meant to be a part of the game… but the game had to be re-tuned to account for the fact that there was a new place to get all of the most powerful equipment. It disrupted the core experience, and I’m not actually all that sad to see what amounts to “more places to grind for better gear” getting removed in favor of a more straightforward remake.

I’m also surprised that FFI actually corrects a long-standing issue wherein a certain part of its map contained far more powerful enemies, making it an ideal grinding spot to powerlevel. This is the first version that’s actually fixed that!

Meanwhile, the FFIII remake is the first time players worldwide have actually gotten a straight remake of the original game, warts and all. The 3D remake is the one that had been passed around for quite some time, and while that version was better than no version, it also made some pretty substantial changes to balance and how the overall game worked in the name of making jobs more viable and such. Here, though… now you have all the useless jobs in their useless glory. This is the game as it was meant to be played: kind of messy, kind of broken, and yet indisputably fun.

Pixel Scaling

Visually, the games are gorgeous. The graphics are not a recreation of the style of graphics used in Final Fantasy VI, but they’re closer to that style than anything else; however, the increased color depth shows through, as does the enhanced amount of detail available. The result are games that look better than they’ve ever looked before, completely redrawn and in many cases adjusted away from the simpler tiles of earlier versions to give them more visual character. Absolutely beautiful if you love this style of graphics, which I do.

The sound effects seem only slightly changed, but the music has all been remastered and redone in a way that is clearly respectful and attentive to the original tunes. Frankly, the new versions are equally gorgeous and just as iconic as the original, with no odd instrument choices; the energy of some reminded me of Final Fantasy XIV re-arranging classic tracks sometimes. These aren’t that straightforward, but they’re very good just the same.

About the only thing that I found somewhat annoying was that re-opening the games sometimes required me to hit alt-enter to force the game back into borderless windowed mode, which was annoying but hardly a dealbreaker. That was seriously the biggest technical issue I had…

Of course, what everyone else wants to talk about is the font. The font used for the text is a bit smaller and squished than perhaps some people were expecting for the game, and I guess what you’re supposed to say here is that it’s bad and looks bad and it’s the one thing marring an otherwise good port and blah blah I never cared. Seriously, the font isn’t just the least of the issues, it stopped bothering me about five minutes in. I cannot say that the font seriously bothered me even before then when I was waiting for it to.

That having been said? Some people really dislike the font. There are fixes out there if you’re among those people.

Pixel Perfect

The biggest impediment to recommending these games to others is just the fact that, well… in many ways they are slight things. None of these games are terribly long if you know what you’re doing, nor are they tremendously difficult. The stories are not super compelling on their own. They are little games in a way, and they are definitely aged.

But if you loved these games before, these remasters are perfect for what they’re trying to do. They’re charming. They feel like a sudden rush of nostalgia not because they’re exactly the games you remember, but the rare form of remaster that does add some stuff on top while still preserving all of the spirit and intent perfectly. And if you’ve never played these games but want to understand why people loved them so much, these are the perfect way to try them out.

These remasters aim to be the definitive versions of the games, and they succeed. Now, let’s see what the next three look like…

~ Final Score: 9/10 ~

Game copies purchased by reviewer for PC. All screenshots courtesy of Square Enix