A lot of the fun of Final Fantasy comes from picking your character classes. The designers were very clever in creating six classes, but only four characters to a party. Thus it is impossible to try all of the classes in a single play through, and the possible combinations are enormous. In addition, each class will receive an upgrade about 3/4 of the way through the game. This upgrade will change the abilities of that character, to varying degrees of significance. It is very helpful to be aware of these upgrades when choosing your initial class, so that you don't end up stuck in the mud after dumping 20 hours into a game. This happened to me recently- a result of making a hasty and uninformed decision when designing my party.
Be warned, you only get to choose your character classes once - at the beginning of the game. Similar to the first phase of Settlers of Catan; your choices during this phase will have a strong impact on how your playing experience will roll out. Also similar to Catan; you will likely be well into the game when hindsight kicks in and you realize which choices you would have made differently. You may then be confronted with the urge to start over again from the beginning. On my recent play through of Final Fantasy, I decided to experiment and go with an unorthodox: Fighter, Black Belt, Red Mage, Red Mage line.
My party set-up was fine for the first 9/10 of the game or so. I have very strong physical attacks, which allowed me to blaze through most of the dungeons in the early part of the game. In addition, being full of physical attackers means I don't have to think very strategically; I don't have to conserve spells, I only have to try and spread my attacks out among the groups of enemies. (This is because Final Fantasy has the obnoxious programming quirk of allowing players to attack enemies who were destroyed earlier in the round, and thus result in an 'ineffective' wasted attack.)
I first began to wonder if I had made a mistake when designing my party when I began to find my Red Mages simply can't learn certain spells. I had the idea that I would make one mage lean toward white magic and one mage lean toward black magic. It worked out pretty well until I found that I didn't know what most of the spells do, and their 4-letter names were not very good descriptors. In addition, a super-essential Level 5 spell - LIFE was not available to Red Mages. This was a problem. The Life spell is the only way in the game to bring a slain party member back while out in the field. Without that spell, I have to beat a given dungeon and boss without letting anyone die. This is extremely tough, but I got good at it by grinding out lots of levels and over-powering myself for each dungeon.
The wave of regret hit me much stronger in the later half of the game, when I upgraded my Red Mages to Red Wizards. As it turns out, Red Wizards can learn the LIFE spell, but by that time, I had maxed out my spell slots for that level for both Wizards! Fuck fuck, shit fuck fuck fuck.
But, you can't go back, only forward. My party hardily bashed its way through the water temple and the air temple, and now I've gotten to the final temple, but I just can't hang. I'm at level 28, which should be plenty to beat the dungeon, but I always sap my supply of healing spells, and I start to lose party members. I haven't even made it to the boss. I'm sure if I boosted my levels up to 32 or so, I could make it through, but I'm just tired of it by now.
So, I probably won't beat Final Fantasy this play through. And I'm too disgusted to start over again. And, really, I don't know what I would do differently. I liked this party, and I would be interested to try it again, just remembering to consult a walk-through beforehand. But I'm also tempted to try a new party combination, but I'm not sure what. If you're still interested, I'm going to walk through each character class and describe their advantages/disadvantages and contributions to the whole.
The Fighter is a Final Fantasy Icon. I also think he looks a little bit like a rooster. He's got the highest defense, hit points and can equip the strongest gear. He is the strongest attacker for the first half of the game, but he is eclipsed by the Black Belt/Master in attack power, and finishes up second. The hardiness and consistency of the Fighter makes him hard to leave out of any party. However, he's also a bit of a money-sink, since he requires all the top-notch gear. The upgrade to the Knight doesn't really do much, it adds white magic up to level 3, but by the time you get the upgrade, spells from those levels don't have much effect.
The Black Belt is my homeboy. I love this class. He starts out with medium-level attacks and hit points; lower than the fighter, but higher than the Red Mage. At a certain point, maybe level 15 or so, the Black Belt becomes stronger with his hands than he does with a weapon. From about this point on, he carries the torch as the strongest physical attacker, and does so through the end of the game. I love the fact that he requires basically no money, as he can equip very little, but still has the strongest attacks in the game. The upgrade to Master really doesn't do anything at all, but he's already awesome at this point. I have a really hard time not using the Black Belt whenever I play Final Fantasy.
Confession time: I've never used the Thief. At least, not for any game I've played for more than a couple hours. As far as I can tell, he's just a crappier fighter, who has weaker attacks, defense, lower hit points, and a different set of gear that I have to keep track of. No thanks. Of course the twist for the Thief is that he far-and-away receives the best upgrade when he becomes the Ninja. Ninjas can use four levels of spells, black and white, and have a strong attack. Plus, their Ninjas, which is awesome. When I play through FF again, I think I will have to use a Thief.
Red Mage is also my homegirl- I can't help but love the battle-mage class style. She is like a jack-of-all trades - medium all around. Access to some spells, but not all, some weapons and armor, but not all. Significantly stronger than the black and white mages, but still weaker than the Fighter or the Black Belt. If you play your cards right, a Red Mage can be a fighter, a healer, and occasionally run crowd control. But it's a delicate balance that can screw up your game in the later period when you can no longer learn new spells, but are still weaker than the fighting classes.
White mage is white mage is white mage. She is weak as hell, can't fight, can't defend, but does have a ton of magic. When you have a white mage in your party, she's both a boon and a liability. Having a dedicated healer can keep the big guys swinging, but when she's not healing, her physical attacks do a paltry amount of damage. Still, she can learn the Life spell on her first time through, and will have deep magic stores to support the rest of the party. The white wizard upgrade looks cool, but seems to mostly be a perfunctory upgrade that doesn't change much.
Equally iconic as the fighter, the Black Mage is the basis for Vivi of Final Fantasy IX, and strongly resembles Orco from He-Man. Very similar to the white mage; black mage is physically weak, and spends a lot of time being useless by conserving magic and making paltry attacks. However, when it's time to use the spells, he can really clean house. In addition, I should note, that the mage weapons often have multiple uses, which help to shore up some of their downtime. The Wizard upgrade proves that he does in fact have a head, but not much else.
So there they are, the character classes for Final Fantasy. The standard party, as I've always seen it, is Fighter, Thief, White Mage, Black Mage. This party is balanced, and will carry you through the game without any major bumps in the road. Great for first-plays, as I understand it. Fun fact: this is not how I first played through the game. In fact, when I first played Final Fantasy, it was on rental from Placer TV Video in Woodland, and my Dad and my Older Sister both got involved. Because of this parent-interest, we rented the game for 10 days straight, took turns playing and beat it. Our class choices were Fighter, Black Belt, Red Mage, White Mage. It worked out pretty well, I think.
As I recall, Nintendo Power had a few party ideas to keep things interesting. One was the strong-arm party: Fighter, Thief, Black Belt, Red Mage. This keeps up the variety, and should receive a boost after the Thief upgrades to Ninja, but the player must be very careful not to screw up with the Red Mage as I did. Keep a slot open for the LIFE spell, for the love of god! I am tempted to try this one. Possibly give red mage a rest in exchange for white mage.
Another combo was three fighters and a white mage. This would be extremely expensive to keep up, but very simple combat. I'm not sure how it would play out, but if the player was sure to grind heavily to get the gold necessary to equip each fighter, then I imagine they will breeze through the dungeons without any real trouble.
Thief, Red Mage, White Mage, Black Mage. The magic party. This would be expensive and tough, it's hard to imagine a Thief and Red Mage carrying the physical attack portion of the party. Absolutely necessary to research what spells do what when embarking on this tough quest.
Four Red Mages. Sure, why not?
Four White Mages. This must have been a joke. It would be either impossible or stupidly difficult to beat the game this way. I imagine you would have to spend hours and hours and hours grinding and over-leveling your characters just to survive.