Final Fantasy: The Berserkers

So I was looking for something to do on the weekend right before Realms Beyond Civilization Epic 15 closed and another game opened. Something had led me to read over Sullla's site in the past week, and I thoroughly enjoyed his reports on the NES game Final Fantasy. (I'd read them before but they were enjoyable all over again.) The seminal RPG of the 8-bit console generation, it boasts endless replayability in different party configurations and variants. I've played through it countless times, including several of the more common variants, like a solo Fighter, solo Red Mage, and a low-level challenge. (By the way, go read Sullla's adventures before you continue here.)

Now, Sullla's tomes leave a bit of a cliffhanger on his last proposed variant. Seems that our friend never got around to playing his Berserkers team. Aha, says I, I can do that. OK, I can't write quite as entertainingly as Sullla does, but I can give plenty of technical detail just as Realms Beyond fans would expect. :)

First, let's clarify our rules. To recap, here's Sullla's one and only variant rule:

1) No character can ever equip any armor of any kind. That simple rule will completely change the nature of the game, much like the simple rule of the Always War variant in Civ3 results in a hugely different experience. The Zerks are going to ignore defense completely and try to win through massive, overbearing, ridiculously overkill damage output from the four warriors.

I'll take that rule exactly as written, meaning that characters may carry and use armor such as the Zeus Gauntlet as items in battle, as long as they don't equip it. In general, this bolsters the spirit of the variant, adding to the characters' offense but not their defense. There's one item that casts a defensive spell when used, INV2 from the White Shirt. That'll be an option if the party just gets stuck somewhere and I can't win otherwise, but I don't expect to make it a routine part of gameplay.

The next rules question is whether to allow Class Change. Sullla doesn't say on his page, and many of his other variants (solo White Mage, solo Black Mage, four Black Belts) omit it. But I think it's meant to be in play for this team -- why would anyone name a Black Mage "Nuke" when he could never cast the spell? Also, Sullla's comparison of Fighter and Black Belt offense includes Xcalber, which is available only to Knights.

Now, to Sullla's original proposal, I'm going to add another rule:

2) No level grinding.

This may sound bizarre, but it's typically the way I play Final Fantasy.

Several of Sullla's variants involved leveling the characters to 50 long before attempting the tougher dungeons in the game. I have absolutely no patience for that. :) Also, running this variant with the party at level 50 (or even anything above 42 when the Black Belts get to 10x hits) carries no suspense or challenge at all. If a solo BB can beat the game at level 50, surely a full four-man team with two BBs will slaughter everything.

So, there will be no fighting solely for the purpose of accumulating experience. Every fight undertaken will be while making some kind of progress in the game. I can make side trips into dungeons to retrieve treasure (examples: north wing of Marsh Cave, level two of Gurgu Volcano) and exit and heal, as long as there's a definite purpose.

The upshot is that the characters will run the final stages of the game somewhere around levels 25 to 30. The physical characters will have HP in the 700 range and damage around 400, rather than maxed at 999 and 1000. If that isn't sufficient, then the answer is better strategy, not more leveling.

Now, cash farming is distinct from level grinding, and is unique to Marsh Cave. The dungeon doesn't pack any particularly deadly enemy encounters with instant kills or powerful damaging spells. But the aggregate toll of all the fights always consumes several dozen HEAL and PURE potions, which can only be acquired by farming cash for them. I'll minimize this, but don't expect to avoid it completely.

Beyond Marsh Cave, I'll certainly have no money problems - this party is cheap to supply with only one spellcaster. Black Belts buy nothing, of course, and the Fighter is also cheap to equip.

Yes, he is. I need to poke in the eyeballs every single FF strategy writer who's wrongly parroted that meme of "Fighters require expensive weapons and armor!" from the original FF instruction book and Nintendo Power guide. Folks, Fighters are dirt cheap. They FIND everything. The last weapon you ever buy for a fighter is a Silver Sword for 4000 gold. The last armor they buy is Chain, at level 1 in Coneria, for 80 gold. Iron Armor is free in Marsh Cave. Steel Armor at 45000 gold is a sucker's purchase. It lasts only for Earth Cave, then he gets either the Ice or Flame armors in Ice Cave or Gurgu with the same 34 absorb. And nothing in Earth Cave is nearly dangerous enough that 10 points of absorb will make the difference in surviving. Spend 6000 gold on heal potions instead and you'll be fine. (A solo fighter can and should buy the Steel Armor, but it's trivial in a full party.)

Finally, let's discuss our party. I'll use the same team as Sullla's proposal, Fighter - Black Belt - Black Belt - Black Mage, despite some reasons to choose otherwise.

I might consider taking a second Fighter over the second Black Belt. Without grinding levels, the Fighter will deliver superior offense for all but the very end of the game (the crossover point for BBs is level 32 and their 8 Hits.) And the Fighter has more hit points, but the Black Belt does get his natural absorb. In the end, this call is close enough that I'll just stick with Sullla's original plan.

However, I believe that the party would be stronger with a Red Mage over the Black Mage. Honestly, the Black Wizard isn't that great. Sullla's enamored with the spell NUKE, but I'm consistently underwhelmed by it. It deals 100-400 non-elemental damage to all enemies, which sounds great. But the situations where you need that are actually surprisingly uncommon. About half of all enemies have at least one elemental weakness, where FIR3 or LIT3 or ICE3 are just as good. Another half of all encounters involve three monsters or fewer, which will get splattered by the physical attackers. Finally, NUKE falls by the wayside against bosses, where FAST on the brawlers will generate more damage.

NUKE and the cool sprite design are the only assets the Black sorcerer has to offer over his Red counterpart. All the other Black Wizard exclusive spells comprise about twelve hundred ways to not insta-kill enemies because they're all immune. Reddie boasts much better hit points and physical capabilities. He can get all the other Black damage spells up to ICE3, plus FAST. And most importantly, the Red Mage has access to a long list of key utility White spells: CURx, ALIT, AFIR, AICE, MUTE, FOG2, LIFE, and EXIT. The elemental resistance spells and FOG2 would be particularly attractive for a party that can't get resistance or absorb from armor. (BTW, PURE spell is a sucker's purchase too. For 4000 gold you can buy 53 potions instead. You won't get poisoned 53 times, and potions don't occupy a spell slot or charges.)

But I guess even that limited defensive capability would seriously push this variant away from its original intent. And at least WARP for the Black Wizard can save some on backtracking in the absence of EXIT.

Incidentally, my preferred emulator is NNNesterJ 0.23. I like it because it can assign utility functions (screenshot, high-speed) onto gamepad buttons, so the player can recline back and ignore the keyboard entirely. :) Also, it takes screenshots in the lossless and extremely compact PNG format, at only 4 KB per image.

So here we go.

The Berserkers!