05 Aug 2021 3:44 PM +00:00

Final Fantasy Pixel Remaster Review: Almost Pixel Perfect

There's been no shortage of ways to play the first three Final Fantasy games over the years, and you might write Square Enix's Pixel Remasters off as a pretty, but unnecessary, retread. That would be a mistake.

The Pixel Remasters might be missing some content added later, but Square Enix went beyond expectations in almost every other way. Enhanced visuals, great attention to detail, and a set of magnificent soundtracks make these almost the ideal way to experience these iconic RPGs.

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Final Fantasy Pixel Remaster Review | Final Fantasy

Final Fantasy I is the progenitor of the nearly-legendary RPG series, the game that gave life to RPG video game staples from magic to dark knights and everything in between (even though Dragon Quest did it first).

Over 30 years later, Square Enix’s last-ditch attempt to stay solvent holds up surprisingly well, even if it is a more humble experience than its younger siblings.

The adventure itself is fairly basic. Fight the embodiment of Chaos (no, Jack is not the hero, but you can name your hero Jack) and restore order by fiddling with the elemental crystals.

Image showing Cornelia in Final Fantasy Pixel Remaster
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+ 6

Whether it’s because Final Fantasy gives you easy-to-accomplish objectives with little filler in between, or the incredible orchestral soundtrack where the victory tune has never sounded better, the original Final Fantasy feels like just as much a grand adventure — if a bit simple — as it used to, despite its age.

The Pixel Remaster version of the original Final Fantasy turns the clock back on several changes made in later iterations, but keeps a few welcome improvements from over the years. The tiered magic charge system from the NES version is back, for example, but the difficulty level is nowhere near as brutal as it once was. No longer will pixel Final Fantasy murder you for daring to step outside Cornelia under level 10.

Barring any future 2D-HD versions, Pixel Remaster is the definitive way to experience the game from a visual perspective. Enhanced pixel art is the most noticeable improvement, obviously, but there’s a host of more nuanced changes that make this more than a simple glow up.

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Image showing the Chaos Shrine in Final Fantasy Pixel Remaster
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+ 6

Smaller features such as grass and stonework are rendered more dynamically, spells have unexpectedly good lighting effects, and the atmospheric details, such as mist in the Chaos Shrine, are tastefully done. Previous versions — especially the PlayStation Portable one — were a bit hamfisted in their detail delivery, so this is a welcome change.

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Yet Square Enix giveth and taketh away. It doesn’t have the bonus dungeon the Dawn of Souls version introduced — or any other bonus features, for that matter.

If that’s a dealbreaker, then you might want to wait until it goes on sale.

Final Fantasy Pixel Remaster Review | Final Fantasy 2

With Final Fantasy 2, Square Enix (technically just Square at the time) took a big narrative step forward — and landed in a design mud puddle. Final Fantasy 2’s plot adds high politics, betrayal, family bonds, and actual character motivation instead of paper-thin villains and blank heroes. Sure, it’s rudimentary, but it does a whole lot more than both its predecessor and successor.

It also benefits the most from the Pixel Remaster soundtrack. Final Fantasy 2’s original soundtrack is a mess of chip bleeps, and I never realized how much of a missed opportunity that was.

Image showing a shrine in Final Fantasy 2 Pixel Remaster
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Every track benefits, and Square Enix added some lovely flourishes where they weren’t expected — brief transition vocals and flutes for the Rebel Theme, for example, and restrained strings swelling into unexpected crescendos with brass accompaniments in the Overworld Theme.

The remastered version is sweeping and even moving, and I was surprised how much it made the adventure from 1988 feel more like an epic saga.

Or it would if it weren’t, y’know, Final Fantasy 2. Its defining quirk remains intact and unchanged: If you want to level up stats, you have to fight, fight, and fight some more using the corresponding weapon or abilities. Slipping into a grinding groove is easier than it sounds, but it would be nice to see a full, streamlined remake sometime in the future.

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Image showing Final Fantasy 2 magic and graphic enhancements
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This is the best looking version of Final Fantasy 2 so far. The GBA Dawn of Souls version suffers from low resolution. The PSP remake isn’t sure what style it wants and took some… liberties… with character portraits. It’s a shame FF 2 Pixel Remaster doesn’t have portraits on-screen during dialogue, but the expressive character depictions in the menu make up for that.

Like its forbear, Final Fantasy 2 Pixel Remaster doesn’t include bonus content added in later versions. The omission is more difficult to overlook with this one, since it included a bonus dungeon and even an epilogue-type chapter. Still, for just the base game, this is the best Final Fantasy 2 has ever been.

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Final Fantasy Pixel Remaster Review | Final Fantasy 3

Final Fantasy 2 might have a strange progression system, but Final Fantasy 3 is the outlier in the series’ NES era. It introduces a flexible job system for the first time, but it’s also the least sure what it wants to be.

Final Fantasy is another “save the crystals” story, blending a bit of FF2’s orphan hero setup in for good measure. There’s a greater emphasis on characters — you meet several quirky helpers and villains on the journey — and more evidence of what would become the series’ trademark offbeat sense of humor.

Image showing Princess Sara's room in Final Fantasy 3 Pixel Remaster
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Don't do it!

However, it also seems like a step back compared to Final Fantasy 2. This is very much more of the same, a refined Final Fantasy 1 instead of something fully new. That's not necessarily a bad thing. The refinements are appreciated and very good, though FF 3's older siblings overshadow the core experience somewhat.

The job system in particular feels a bit too basic, especially compared to its contemporary, Dragon Warrior 3, though adding summons to the mix is a nice touch. The soundtrack also inspires less, though only just.

It’s still a beautiful reimagining, but slightly less dynamic than Final Fantasy 2’s. The battle remix does stand out as an odd choice, though. It sounds as if Square Enix outsourced that piece to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, which is interesting on its own, but incongruous as part of the whole.

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Image showing one of the Final Fantasy 3 crystals
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+ 6

All that aside, there’s no denying Final Fantasy 3 Pixel Remaster looks lovely. The only version released outside Japan until now is the 3D version, which was fine when it was released on Nintendo DS in the mid-’00s — and only fine. Pixel art aged much more gracefully in this case, and the touched-up version is just lovely.

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The Verdict

So what we're left with is a slightly uneven collection. The core material is still brilliant, made exponentially more so with the stellar soundtracks and built-in music player, but you'll be a bit disappointed if you were hoping for anything other than the core material.

The remastered pixel art is beautiful and surprisingly dynamic, which makes the font — ever-present in a text-heavy, menu-based game — stand out even more (though several font mods already exist to fix that).

These might not be the absolute best way to experience the NES-era's Final Fantasy. Ultimately, even if Square Enix doesn't add bonus content in the future, the good outweighs the bad by far.

Score: 4/5

Reviewed on PC

Square Enix provided Final Fantasy Pixel Remaster, Final Fantasy 2 Pixel Remaster, and Final Fantasy 3 Pixel Remaster review codes for the purpose of this review.