Perhaps it was a reaction to how bad Final Fantasy II was, but characterisation in the NES version of FFIII has gone back to the way it was in FFI: that is, nonexistent. The party consists of four characters who all look exactly the same; their default sprites are simply palette swaps of each other: two red ones, one blue and one green. They’re referred to as “boys” in the game’s introductory text, so at least you know they’re all male. You can name them yourself, and that’s about all the differentiation you get. My guys ended up being called Arthur, Jalal, Gareth and Esgurd, for no particular reason. I’m guessing the first character you name is considered as the leader by default, but it’s difficult to know for sure. Still, despite this apparent step backwards, the team actually chats quite a lot and also interacts more naturally with NPCs than the team in FFII did. No need for those weird keywords anymore.
The main setup of the party never changes, understandably enough, because it would be pointless to train a character in a certain job, only to have them leave later on. Instead, the new faces come in the form of temporary characters. Seven of the NPCs the party meets join for variable amounts of time during the quest: Princess Sara, Cid, Des(c)h, Elia/Aria, Prince Al(l)us, Do(r)ga and Unne/Unei. They don’t fight, they can’t get attacked, they just walk behind the party on the world map, and in towns and dungeons. However, your characters can talk to them at any time to get various bits of information and dialogue, which is another positive point in the interaction department.
All this is very different in the DS version. Not only does each of the four party members now have a distinct identity (including one girl, for at least a bit of gender diversity), but the temporary characters will also intervene in combat, randomly appearing to launch one of two attacks at the beginning of a fight. All in all, a very positive evolution.
Luneth: The hero of the game is a curious, upbeat kid with silver hair in a ponytail and purple eyes. Purple is also his trademark colour, as his various job outfits have a purple palette. He’s an orphan, raised by Elder Topapa of Ur, and decides to go poking around the Altar Cave after the earthquake. This leads him to fall down a hole and eventually find the crystal of Wind, which informs him of the alarming state of the world. Never one to turn down an adventure, he accepts to help set things right, and his determination and positive attitude establish him as the de facto leader of the group, once it forms. According to Doga and Unei, he represents courage. Since all characters have the same baseline stats, what you want to train Luneth as is entirely up to you. The introductory cinematic depicts him as a Warrior, but don’t take that as a prescription. If you want him to be a mage, feel free. In fact, I train him as a Black Mage, Summoner or Geomancer. Personality-wise, Luneth’s positive outlook is counterbalanced by his impulsiveness, which sometimes leads to Refia telling him off. The introductory video also shows him arguing with Ingus, suggesting disagreements between the two, even if that particular episode never comes up during the game.
Arc: Luneth’s childhood friend is a shy, withdrawn brown-haired boy with hazel eyes. His trademark job outfit colour is green. He likes to read and study, which designates him as the resident nerd and makes him prone to other children’s jokes. When Luneth returns from his expedition into the Altar Cave, he finds Arc being mocked for refusing to believe that there are ghosts in the nearby village of Kazus. He decides he’s had enough of the taunts and runs off to check it out for himself. Once he gets there, he realises that everyone in village has in fact been turned into a ghost, so when a concerned Luneth arrives, he asks to accompany him, afraid to investigate on his own. Later, he also befriends Alus, because he empathises with his feelings of rejection. According to Doga and Unei, he represents kindness. The introductory video depicts him as a Black Mage, and his default look does have a distinctly mage-y feel to it. I usually train him as a White Mage or Devout, but feel free to make him a Monk if you prefer. Would certainly be ironic.
Refia: Hailing from Kazus, this pretty red-eyed redhead is the adoptive daughter and apprentice of the local blacksmith, Takka. Blue is her trademark job outfit colour. When Luneth and Arc arrive in Kazus, they quickly find out that the only way to lift the curse is to use a Mythril Ring on Djinn (the origin of the curse). Takka has also been cursed, and thus can’t make a ring, but Refia hasn’t, due to running away from home because she doesn’t really want to become a smith. The boys set out to look for her and find her hiding on Cid’s airship, where she decides to accompany them (hey, it’s more exciting than forging swords all day). Refia is energetic, sassy and outspoken, and seems to take on a somewhat motherly role in the party (in the sense of bossing the others around), despite being the same age as them. Doga and Unei determine that she represents affection, but I think that’s a bit of a stereotypical cop-out, as it suggests someone a lot more wishy-washy than she actually is. She becomes good friends with Des(c)h, and while he’s with the party, keeps prompting him to rejoin his girlfriend. She also seems to have a marked dislike for toads. The introductory video depicts her as a White Mage, which really belabours the “female healer” cliché, so I always make a point of giving her melee jobs instead. She’s a smith’s apprentice, for crying out loud! That doesn’t say “mage” to me.
Ingus: This blonde and blue-eyed young man is a guard at Castle Sasune, and red is his signature colour. Just as Refia, he has avoided Djinn’s curse, which has also affected Castle Sasune, due to being out on patrol/duty. The party journeys to the castle after Refia tells them that King Sasune has a Mythril Ring and encounters Ingus on the way in, joining forces to be more effective. The King informs them that Princess Sara has gone to lift the curse on her own, and they therefore set off to find her, especially since Ingus and the princess seem to have the hots for each other. Ingus is serious, dutiful and honourable, and while he’s initially displeased by Luneth’s lack of manners, he joins forces with the party, realising that there’s a greater task to be achieved than simply rescuing Sasune. He doesn’t look older than the others, but he has a more mature behaviour and refers to them as “youngsters” at least once. Besides, I find it highly improbable that he could be a full-fledged soldier at 14, even accounting for the outrageous age conventions of JRPGs. Anyway, according to Doga and Unei, he represents determination. The introductory video depicts him as a Red Mage, and the outfit happens to look very good on him. But since he is, after all, a soldier (and since Red Mage, sucks, unfortunately), I assign him melee jobs, such as Warrior, Dark Knight or Dragoon.
A few words about the temporary characters, since they do have a noticeable part in the storyline and actually contribute in combat in the DS version.
Sara: Adding to the other similarities FFIII shares with FFI, Princess Sara is the first temporary character to join the party. Her Amano art (N.B. Yoshitaka Amano, one of the main artists of the FF series) and DS sprite have long light brown/blonde hair, blue eyes and a rather revealing blue dress–especially considering that Mother Nature has been very good to her–while her NES sprite has a red outfit with a white cape and red hair. She somehow manages to escape Djinn’s curse and decides to go banish him herself, using the Sasune’s family Mythril Ring. On King Sasune’s instructions, the party finds her in Djinn’s cave, whereupon she joins them. After breaking the curse, she goes back to the castle to take care of her father, even though she probably would have liked to tag along, due to her crush on the party leader (or Ingus in the DS version), and especially since she seems to be able to handle herself in combat just fine (she does traverse Djinn’s cave on her own with no problems). While the NES Sara doesn’t actually participate in fights, the DS one is a White Mage and may cast Cure or Aero at the beginning of a battle.
Cid: While his stint as a temporary character is the briefest of the lot, Cid has quite a bit of relevance to the storyline. Hailing from the village of Canaan, this pudgy, jolly old fella in a greenish-brown Tyrolean outfit (blue on his sprite) got stuck in Kazus after the earthquake, because a landslide blocked his only way home through the mountains. On top of that, he got caught in Djinn’s curse. He lends the party his airship to help them find Djinn, and once the curse is lifted, has it reinforced to break through the landslide (because it would’ve been too easy to just fly over it, I presume…), asking them to accompany him back to Canaan. This is probably the earliest a party ever obtains an airship in an FF game (barring X-2 and Revenant Wings), even though they don’t get to keep it for long. Cid stays in Canaan, but provides the team with some very valuable information and assistance later in the story. In the DS version, he may intervene in battle by either smacking an enemy with his hammer or casting Fire.
Des(c)h: As opposed to Cid, Des(c)h is the temporary character the party gets to keep the longest. Fortunately, he’s an entertaining addition, with a surprising backstory to boot. He looks like a ninja: his Amano art depicts him with a purple outfit and brown hair, while his NES sprite is dressed in green and has red hair. His DS incarnation retains the purple outfit, but his hair is now dark blue. While in Canaan, the party meets his disconsolate, bedridden girlfriend, Sarina/Salina. Des(c)h has apparently left on a journey and hasn’t come back, so, being nice people, the team opts to try to find him. He hasn’t gone far…except that he’s stuck in Bahamut’s nest. On top of that, he also appears to have a serious case of amnesia: he knows that there’s something he must accomplish, but he’s not sure what it is, so he decides to accompany the party to try to figure it out. And Sarina/Salina be damned. Refia notably berates him on this subject more than once. In the DS version, he will either attack with his sword or cast Thundara at the beginning of battle.
Elia/Aria: A pretty blue-eyed girl with very long blonde hair and a white dress, although her NES sprite has a green dress and red hair. Once the party reaches the surface world, they realise it’s a big mess: the entire place is flooded, and below the waters, people have been put into stasis. However, there are three tiny islands scattered over the huge ocean, and a wrecked ship near one of them. In there, the party finds an old man and a sick girl, who, upon being cured, decides to tag along. How either of them got there or managed to escape being put into stasis remains a mystery. Elia/Aria is a priestess from the Temple of Water and offers to accompany the party to restore the light of the Water Crystal, which will apparently return the world to its normal state. She doesn’t stay long, but something about her presence is soothing and peaceful. Some people compare her to Aeris/Aerith, and her name in the DS version certainly serves to uphold the comparison. All I can say about that is that Elia/Aria fits the angelic role a lot better than Aeris/Aerith does. Anyway, in the DS version, Aria is a White Mage and may cast either Protect or Cura at the beginning of a battle. She also gets the distinction of being the only temporary character to appear in the introductory video.
Al(l)us: Starting the long trend of mandatory kid characters in the FF series, Al(l)us is a little white-haired boy in a purple outfit and red cape; his NES sprite has red clothes, red hair and an incongruously large crown, probably so you don’t forget his status. He’s the prince of Salonia/Saronia, a huge–and I mean huge, it’s like the Midgar of the NES generation–kingdom on the surface world. Problem is, as soon as the water recedes and time begins to flow normally again, Salonia/Saronia becomes mired in civil war. Al(l)us’ father, King Gorn, who has fallen under the evil influence of Chancellor Gigameth, has his son kicked out of the castle, presumably for insubordination. So when the party reaches Salonia/Saronia (in a rather dramatic way), Al(l)us joins them to try to pacify the situation. He’s not exactly entertaining or interesting, just a boy, confused and saddened by his father’s rejection, but still determined to resist. In the DS version, he befriends Arc, due to their similar personalities and experiences, but that doesn’t really flesh out his character. He may cast Confuse or Aero at the beginning of battle.
Do(r)ga: This powerful, benevolent (don’t let his Amano art fool you) old wizard in a red cloak lives on a small island in a secluded manor surrounded by mountains and strong winds. His household is comprised entirely of moogles, who, somewhat bizarrely have a shop going in the main hall of the building. If you live in almost complete isolation, why do you need a shop? Anyway, when the party reaches his place, Do(r)ga basically explains the entire backstory of the game. He also asks them to accompany him on a trip through a cave. Once down there, he makes their airship amphibious to help them find Unne/Unei, then warps away to look for a way to access the Forbidden Land Eureka (yes, it’s really called that), an alternate dimension where powerful weapons have been sealed away. In the DS version, he is, unsurprisingly, a Black Mage, and can cast Firaga or Flare at the beginning of battle.
Unne/Unei: Unne/Unei is Do(r)ga’s fellow mage and guardian of the dreamworld, a funny old lady in a grey dress and bell-shaped brown hat. The party finds her snoozing in a small cave, with her parrot watching over her. Once Do(r)ga teaches them how to wake her up, she’ll jump out of bed, do a little gym routine and team up. I usually dislike the “benevolent old man/woman” character type almost as much as the kiddy type, but Unne/Unei is funny and dynamic. She helps the party through the Ancient Ruins to retrieve the final airship in the game, the Invincible. She then rejoins Do(r)ga, and the two of them collaborate to help the team access the Forbidden Land Eureka. And I’ll just say that their way of doing that is definitely…extreme. In the DS version, Unei is yet another White Mage and will help by casting Haste or Holy at the beginning of battle.