If you're a longtime Final Fantasy player, then the first thing that probably comes to mind when you think of Final Fantasy III is the classic 1994 role-playing game for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. However, it's now widely known that this was, in fact, the sixth game in the series; it was published at a time when developer Square was muddling up the numbering conventions between Japan and North America, since several Final Fantasy chapters that came out in Japan never made it stateside. Now there's finally a proper English-language version of the real Final Fantasy III, which was originally published for the Famicom in 1990, the very same year that the very first Final Fantasy game arrived in North America for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Of course, this is hardly just a straight port of the original game, thanks to a completely overhauled presentation. With its attractive new look, Final Fantasy III feels like a whole new game. Its gameplay and storyline may seem conventional by today's standards, but in another sense, a game like this goes to show how little role-playing games have evolved over the past 15 years or so.
Those who've followed the Final Fantasy series will instantly recognize that this game's distinctive character design is a spitting image of 1999's excellent Final Fantasy Tactics, with the difference being that this game is fully 3D. The doll-like player characters of Final Fantasy III are terribly cute and sharply contrasted by the relatively realistic-looking variety of monsters they'll frequently encounter. This visual style, while very different from the pixelated 2D sprites from the 8-bit Nintendo days, still is faithful to the spirit of the early games in the series, which also pitted cute little warriors and magic users against nasty-looking enemies several times their size. More importantly, the game looks and sounds impressive on the Nintendo DS, between its detailed 3D graphics and its unmistakably Final Fantasy musical score.
The presentation does have a couple of minor downsides, unfortunately. The game doesn't move as smoothly as its 2D counterparts, which hampers the pacing of combat as well as simple acts like bringing up the character menu screen. And Final Fantasy III all but completely neglects the DS's top screen, which is blank most of the time during play. You get a map while exploring the overworld, but you're on your own in the game's various dungeons. This isn't that big of a deal, but it seems awfully strange that you don't get so much as a pretty picture to look at up there.
The Final Fantasy series is known for featuring completely new worlds, storylines, and characters from one installment to the next, with certain overarching themes and gameplay elements tying every game together. Final Fantasy III shows a lot of these common themes in their purest form. The plot is simple: An orphaned boy named Luneth discovers a magical crystal, which informs him that he's got an important, save-the-world type of job to do. Early on, he's joined by a shy friend named Arc, a spunky blacksmith's daughter named Refia, and a guardsman named Ingus. Together, they set off to discover the secrets of the four elemental crystals hidden around the world, and in so doing, they learn a few surprises about the world itself. They'll meet and travel with some supporting characters along the way. One of the differences between this version of Final Fantasy III and the original is that the main characters now have clearly defined personalities, and they're a likable lot. The game's dialogue is written well enough, and the simple story works to compel you to brave tougher and tougher challenges.
Remember when role-playing games were all about random monster encounters, leveling up, finding new loot, and exploring different towns and dungeons? Oh, wait. In any case, Final Fantasy III originally helped make the mold in the first place. However, Final Fantasy fans will note a few key differences in this game's combat system. This is true turn-based combat, not the "active time battle" system of later Final Fantasies. So at the beginning of a battle, you get to give orders to each of your party members and then watch as those orders are resolved; statistics determine the order in which your characters and their opponents act. A combination of weapon attacks, damaging black magic spells, and restorative white magic spells, plus some items and special abilities, are the keys to success. Some foes will use status-altering effects to throw you off, or they may be particularly vulnerable to certain types of damage.