How Can I Play It?: The original Final Fantasy
Now you too can travel back in time 30 years in order to travel back in time 1,000 years in order to defeat Chaos. Wait, what?
The original Final Fantasy debuted in Japan 30 years ago this week. It may not have shipped in the U.S. until nearly three years later, but in absolute terms, the world's most popular role-playing franchise has just entered its fourth decade of existence.
I've begun working my way through the NES game in a Let's Play video series, with a party carefully crafted by social media selections to be as generic as possible:
...but doing is more fun than watching, right? If you're interested in checking out the game that kicked off the entire franchise, you have no shortage of options…
Final Fantasy (NES)
Nintendo published Final Fantasy for NES in the U.S. in 1990, and they had huge hopes for the game. That means they produced a ton of carts for it… some of which were still lingering in Toys 'R' Us a decade later for less than $20. You should be able to find bare carts of Final Fantasy these days for around that price, and thanks to the invincible technology Nintendo used in its chips, the save batteries will probably still work.
Recommended version: Final Fantasy Origins (PlayStation)
For my money, the absolute best way to approach Final Fantasy is to play the PlayStation remake. It hits the ideal balance between old-school fidelity and new-school quality-of-life design. The Origins version keeps details like spell charges and, you know, actually challenging enemy encounters; but at the same time, it patches up annoying NES details like the need to buy 99 potions one at a time. Also, all the buff and debuff spells work correctly here, finally. You can hunt down the PS1 disc, which will work on a PS2 and PS3 as well and should cost practically nothing, or download it from PlayStation Network to play on PS3, PSP, or Vita for a mere $5.99 (and it includes Final Fantasy II, if you don't mind a little pain).
Final Fantasy I & II: Dawn of Souls (GBA)
The Game Boy Advance remake of Final Fantasy I & II brought some new things to the table, but it also made some sweeping, fundamental changes to the original Final Fantasy's basic design. Spell charges became a standard mana pool, removing much of the need for planning and party management. Enemy encounters were rebalanced to be far easier as well. On the other hand, this version does add a lot of new material. It's not great new material, but it's there, and novel enough that a seasoned player might want to check it out.
20th Anniversary Edition (PSP/Mobile)
The PlayStation Portable remake brought an even more radical visual overhaul to the game. It doesn't look amazing, but the huge enemy sprites are nice. This version was based more or less on the GBA adaptation in terms of content, but it made a few small tweaks and added one more bonus dungeon, for whatever that's worth. This version exists on UMD, on PSN (Europe only, I'm afraid), and also on mobile platforms.
Virtual Console (Wii)
Square Enix has published Final Fantasy on Virtual Console for the U.S. exactly once: On Wii. Of course, this version also can be played on Wii U through backward compatibility mode. But hurry, the Wii eShop dies soon.
Classic NES Edition
If you can find one, the Classic NES Edition mini-console also includes the original Final Fantasy. It's the NES game, but with save states.
Bonus: 3DS (Japan only)
And finally, for you import-loving types, Squaresoft and Square Enix have produced a lot more Final Fantasy for the Japanese market than for the Americas through the years. Final Fantasy showed up on MSX, and then in a compilation cart with its sequel for Famicom. There was also the WonderSwan Color conversion of the game, which served as the basis for the GBA adaptation. Most recently, they've ported the PSP edition of Final Fantasy to 3DS with an added stereoscopic 3D effect. It's a novelty, but probably not worth hunting down unless you just really need to experience Final Fantasy in all its permutations.