Remakes and rehashes are more or less a given these days -- if you make a good game, you can rest assured that 10 years down the line, someone will dump it onto a collection at worst, totally recreate it at best. Ah, if only we could force publishers to maintain a level of quality on par with Final Fantasy III for the DS. Then all these trips to the retro-gaming well would feel less like crass opportunism and more like enshrinement of the classics.
FFIII is no mere pile of throwaway shovelware; it's a total re-creation of an 8-bit game, largely faithful to the source material but thoughtfully retooled in places to play better. And look better, too -- this is easily the best-looking 3D you've ever seen on the DS. It probably helps that the director of the original game, who clearly wanted the new version to be the definitive version of his baby, supervised the DS remake. And for the most part, his efforts have paid off.
FFIII, of course, has never made it to the U.S. before. (The game most Americans know as "Final Fantasy III" was actually Final Fantasy VI, which will be making its way to the Game Boy Advance in due time.) Aside from brave importers and certain emulation aficionados, American gamers will find this remake to be, in effect, a brand-new Final Fantasy title.
It is, however, a decidedly early Final Fantasy title, even with its pretty 3D graphics and soaring remixed soundtrack. Back in the day, the even-numbered FF installments were daring experiments in storytelling and character development, while the odd-numbered chapters emphasized combat and skill-building. FFIII falls very much into that mold, which means that certain elements may seem somewhat dated for those weaned on the post-FFVII games. Combat is turn-based, the plot is almost an afterthought, there are no extravagant FMVs during the course of the game, magic skills are strictly regimented. And mid-dungeon save points? Not a chance.
This is an RPG for dedicated RPG enthusiasts. Many gamers will give up after being annihilated by random encounters in an out-of-the-way corner of the second village; others will despair at being wiped out by powerful bosses after 30 minutes of dungeon exploration and no opportunity to save. Even those who make it to the end may be put off by the enormity (and difficulty) of the final dungeon, where more than a dozen insanely powerful bosses highlight constant encounters with random enemies that are nearly as tough. There's not much story to reveal; the four party members have been given names, backgrounds, and inklings of personality, but there's not much more to the whole thing than a steady march to the final boss.
FFIII's real carrot-and-stick device is the Job system, which players may recognize from such games as Final Fantasy V and Tactics. In effect, characters can be freely reassigned a different character class at any time; these range from the basics (Warrior, Monk, White Mage) to more esoteric roles (Geomancer, Scholar, Evoker). This is the Job system's primordial form, lacking the mix-and-match options of the later games and rewarding consistency rather than experimentation. The more you use a job, the more powerful it becomes -- but even by the end of the game, you probably won't have maxed out a single one. Additionally, there's a penalty for swapping jobs; moving into a new job halves most of your stats for a few battles. The system has been tweaked and improved over the version that appeared in the original game, but it still feels limiting at times.
Maybe FFIII's greatest disadvantage is really just a matter of timing: It's bringing up the tail end of this fall's Final Fantasy blitz, which means it arrives within two weeks of FFXII and FFV Advance -- both of which, unfortunately for FFIII, are better games, with far more depth in story and gameplay alike. It feel particularly limp coming so soon after FFV, which essentially perfected the Job system while sporting a significantly more developed plot.
But it's important to appreciate FFIII for what it is -- a slice of history and a missing piece of a blockbuster series. Hardcore RPG players may enjoy it more than modern Final Fantasy titles, thanks to its emphasis on skill development and combat. Casual players may find themselves surprised by how addictive simple level-grinding and monster-slaying can be. There's a certain satisfaction in seeing your juiced-up Monk land 28 hits in a single round, and FFIII delivers that thrill in spades -- and there's enough challenge to make it a necessity rather than overkill. The result is one of the best portable RPGs to date, and a fine example of how to remake a classic.