The phone rings. Oh god. It's her again, isn't it? She'll want to talk for hours, wittering on about how great this was, remember when we did that, how we should do it again sometime. Better not answer. But...what if it's important? What if one of my parents has died? Or I've won the lottery? Or a talent agency saw me in the street and wants me to be the face of Persil or something? Crap. I'd better answer...
"Hey, you. Watcha doin'? Watcha thinkin' about?"
Oh no. It's her. It's Final Fantasy.
Man, she seemed so hot when I didn't know her. I just admired her from afar, convinced she was unknowable, unhaveable beauty. And then we hooked up, and it was amazing. She seemed too rare a creature to tie herself down, so we only got together infrequently - maybe once a year. Lately though, she wants to meet more and more, and now she's calling all the damned time. She's cute'n'all, but Christ, she can be boring. Can't we just go back to how it was?
So, remake number four of the first Final Fantasy and, even if it's not an anecdote you've heard before (most likely on PlayStation 1 or GBA), you'll certainly feel like you have. While Anniversary is tight, cute and well-suited to PSP, its place at the head of the RPG veteran's table means it's teetering on the very fine line between retro charm and archaic tedium. Everything in it is familiar to even a fair-weather role-player; there's a definite comfort in that, and a certain rare polish still shines, but its obvious crudity must be looked in the eye.
Still, it's an awful lot more instantly accessible than any recent FF - its RPG mechanics reduced to the bare nuts and bolts of experience points, successively more expensive weapons and enemies with ever-increasing hit points. The story-telling largely lacks the high pomposity of FFX or XII - it's a simple, Zeldaian tale of a magic kingdom under threat from great evil, and as such only interrupts to tell itself on occasion. That said, the ten minutes of scrolling text at the end of the game is a laughably overblown and uninteresting way of saying "you kill all the monsters and go home". Usually though, you're pleasingly free to roam a large if samey world of both land and sea, though most of the dungeons are essentially inaccessible until you reach the right moment in the plot. There's not an ounce of character development, your four-man party being essentially faceless. The game feels a little hollow because of this, but to not have pages and pages of talk of destiny and whatnot forced upon you is something of a relief.
Combat, of course, is cheerfully basic, the quintessential FF turn-based choice of attack, magic-'em-up or use item, again ideal for the bus ride time-killing the PSP is designed for. The random encounter battles, abandoned at last in the most recent FF, won't fail to grate upon even the most ardent Square devotee, however. Though losing or altering their frequency would mean FF1 departs from its original nature, this late in the day they're a serious obstacle to enjoyment. Whatever Square's algorithm for judging when you're attacked out of the blue is, it's broken. If buying a new abacus means changing history, so be it. Ambushes often happen within two or three steps of each other, and to walk for more than ten seconds before another strikes is high fortune indeed. Fine if your current raison d'ętre is purely to smack some monsters about, but not if you've trying to arduously traverse five minutes' worth of continent to reach the next dungeon or town. You're even attacked whilst out on your boat, for heaven's sake. Let's be honest, if your party is getting raided by pirates every 30 seconds, realistically speaking they're just not accomplished enough seamen to be out on the ocean blue at all.
Switching from my own griping to that of others, there's been some complaint by PSP owners that FFA is 2D, whereas the DS remake of FF3 came with a brand new 3D overhaul. Sure, it's a bit of gyp, but truthfully, graphics ability equals high here, and a move to the third dimension wouldn't have changed the game's nature in the slightest. Despite being only a slight improvement - predominantly in pixel count - over the GBA version, it's really pretty, and the hand-drawn SNES-with-knobs-on look is still utterly charming, with subtle semi-3D effects adding occasional light shows or gently warping backgrounds. Unfortunately, the monsters entirely lack animation - even the endgame boss is a floating, static sprite - which only adds to the Pokémon feel of it all. (Random interjection - Microsoft Word 2007 has 'Pokémon' in its dictionary, even correcting me on the accent. Oh, the decline of modern standards, etc.)
Speaking of the GBA version ('Dawn of Souls'), that included a remake of Final Fantasy II as well as I, conspicuous by its absence here and in fact due to have its own separate Anniversary edition on PSP. Again, all but the most laughably rabid Square apologist can't fight the money for old rope argument here. The slim graphical and play improvements on PSP are too token to make this a worthwhile additional buy - picking up the GBA version instead (should you have a GBA or DS) makes inestimably more sense than this.
Just take a look at the sheer number of Square games covered on Eurogamer in the last month or two, and it's clear the developer's in a mass-production mode quality control can't possibly keep up with. The way things are going, it won't be long until 'Final Fantasy' is muttered in the same scathing breath as 'Army Men'. What was once the one of the defining titles of whatever platform it chose to grace (not that that was ever true of Army Men) is now everywhere, bewildering in its weight of similarly-named numbers, constantly demanding your attention and money; a beautiful girl who turned out to be a colossal nag.
In this case specifically though, FFA is much more of an insult than an actual failure. With the RPG situation on PSP as overwhelmingly dire as it currently is, Anniversary stands out as one of the more enjoyable, its simplicity and charm forever keeping it gently compelling, in spite of the irritating throwbacks inherent to its age. Really though, buying this is like only eating vanilla ice cream because the sole other available flavours are stinging nettle, tripe and gravel. Until someone finally comes up with a nice raspberry ripple or chocolate fudge, perhaps you should just go and eat something else altogether.