Join us as we review all the games on the SNES Classic Mini Edition in chronological order!
As I write this, pre-orders for the SNES Classic Edition have gone up a few times, and they've unfailingly been gobbled down in mere minutes. On one hand, I'm kind of cheesed. We're heading into another NES Classic Edition scenario, and nobody is going to walk away happy except the scalpers.
On the other hand, when I look back on the SNES Classic's menu of games, it's so easy to see why demand for this little console is through the roof. It's one thing to look at the line-up and say, "Wow, all hits, no filler!" but it's another to pick through the list game-by-game and dissect each one like I've been doing. These reviews have made me more appreciative than ever of Nintendo's selection. Super Mario World, Mega Man X, Secret of Mana, Street Fighter II Turbo – these games aren't merely good. They're 16-bit royalty. They either re-invented the genres they belong to, or they slid the bar up to lofty new heights.
Now we've arrived at one of the line-up's crown jewels: Final Fantasy III. Final Fantasy III for the SNES is canonically Final Fantasy VI, and it's rare to see the game still referred to as "III" in any context any more. Then again, the SNES Classic Edition is a nostalgia machine extraordinaire, and I suppose it'd do no good to confuse lapsed fans intent on giving the title another go.
If Final Fantasy IV and Secret of Mana are the games that taught me RPGs can tell cool stories about good versus evil, Final Fantasy III SNES is the game that taught me RPGs can tell epic stories about personal sacrifice and struggle. I'm not one to roll my eyes at the narrative in modern Final Fantasy games (well, not all of them), but Square-Enix has yet to weave another tale that has Final Fantasy III's power and emotion, and its maturity and clarity.
To be sure, Final Fantasy III shares some of the same tropes and clichés that still roost on JRPGs, but the story accounts for them. Yes, the bad guy has a god complex, but he's also a nihilistic jester turned advisor turned failed science experiment who wants to be god just long enough to burn everything into non-existence. Yes, the main character has green hair, but it's telling of her mystical heritage in a world of (mostly) average-looking people. Yes, the ninja character is a silent, brooding type, but you'd probably be tight-lipped if the gods decided to have a cosmic horselaugh by forcing you to fight alongside the daughter you abandoned in a fit of self-pity.
Final Fantasy III packs a lot of little lessons into its over-arching narrative about the literal end of the world. The importance of hope and persistence in the face of overwhelming odds is a major theme, but it's not simply spewed out during a big anime love-in towards the end of the game (though that happens, too). It's relayed through the characters' side-quests, and even through the NPCs' trials: Terra's determination to find her humanity, Celes' struggle with deep depression, villagers' efforts to reclaim poisoned water and soil, and two young teens coming to terms with a pregnancy in a world that no longer celebrates life.
("But how does the game play, Nadia?")
Final Fantasy III is laden with options. Unlike most JRPGs to this day, you're rarely bound to a single main character. There's no job system; each character is already gainfully employed in a traditional Final Fantasy vocation, or a combination of jobs. Edgar is a Machinist, Sabin is a Monk, Locke is a Thief (ahem, "treasure hunter"), Strago is a Blue Mage, Relm is a Pictomancer/Beast Master, Celes is a Rune Knight, and so on.
Despite its fixed classes, Final Fantasy III still lets you tinker with character builds. Early in the game, you gain access to "Espers" – The essence of plot-centric magical beings that slowly teach you spells as you win battles. Even the game's few natural magic-users benefit tremendously from equipping Espers, because they essentially let you teach any spell to any party member you want. Sure, spells are more powerful in the hands of characters with a high magic attack stat, but an "Ultima" spell cast by a meathead is still going to blow holes in the hide of the toughest dragon.
Now, wielding Final Fantasy III's most powerful magics isn't as easy as it sounds, as getting your hands on the game's best spells and weapons involves conquering tough side-quests. But it's still easy to wind up with a hilariously over-powered party if you half-ass your journey, because even the Espers you just find lying on the sidewalk offer bonus stat boosts when you level up.
Final Fantasy III's characters are practically built out of LEGO. You can shape them however you like, and even though it doesn't take much effort to assemble a party of tiny gods, it doesn't make your quest any less fun. Final Fantasy III hands you the reins early in the quest, and whether you build a sensible, well-balanced team or a party that can stun a brachiosaur with a finger-flick is up to you.
It needs to be mentioned that LEGO is versatile and brittle – and so is Final Fantasy III's coding. Though not as problem-pocked as Secret of Mana, it has some spectacular bugs and exploits. The most infamous of these, the "Sketch/Vanish bug" that occurs when Relm attempts to use her "Sketch" ability on an invisible enemy, can bomb your save file beyond repair. This is troubling, since unaware players can theoretically stumble on the bug during casual play.
Later prints of Final Fantasy III eliminated the bug, and it's probably been squashed on the SNES Classic version of the game, too. But Final Fantasy III has some other problems that aren't as easily remedied. The spare party members who hang out on your airship don't level up alongside your main crew, which becomes a big fat issue when you go up against dungeons and major fights that expect you to form three separate parties. And Shinryu help you if you accidentally wind up with a weak party somewhere far away from your airship, because you can't unequip Espers from idle party members until you haul ass back to home base.
Again, Final Fantasy III does a lot with its resources – more than any 16-bit game should be capable of, really – so its bugs, glitches, and balancing issues feel inevitable. Yeah, Final Fantasy III has a glitch that causes all the characters to abandon the game (and it still kills me every time I see it), but it also has a gripping story, a legendary translation, an opera, an apocalypse, a four-tiered final boss battle, and an ending theme that plays for 20 minutes without looping. Don't look a gift kirin in the mouth.
Final Fantasy III has issues with bugs and balance, but those problems can't even nick the hide of this JRPG behemoth. It's hard to articulate just how important this game is for long-time RPG fans. Final Fantasy III is a special experience, and its story and themes should be more relatable than ever to its now-adult audience.