On the whole, the NES version isn’t particularly difficult. The only tough spots I can think of are the couple of dungeons that require you to cast Mini on the party while in them. Since the only thing they can do while mini’ed is cast magic, this may prove hazardous. There are also a couple of dungeons with replicating enemies, as mentioned previously, but a Magic Knight/Dark Knight can take care of that. Overall, I’d say the game keeps a comfortable balance between storytelling and levelling.
The DS version, however, bumps the difficulty up a couple of notches, just to keep things challenging. So don’t worry if you find your team scraping through some battles by the skin of their teeth, it’s normal. It’s probably also meant to compensate for the fact that enemy parties are smaller on the DS.
The NES version doesn’t feature any optional superbosses like FFI’s Warmech/Death Machine, which is a bit of a pity. In compensation, the final boss is a very nasty piece of work. Her tactics are the very definition of straightforward: nearly all she does is spam one multi-target attack. But boy, does it hurt. Still, despite being the first female final boss in the series, she feels tacked on as an afterthought, and unfortunately, she’s also the first of several. She doesn’t even have a proper name. And Dark Cloud/Cloud of Darkness (CoD) is just a sorry excuse for a moniker. On top of that, the game barely bothers explaining how or why she’s there.
Sadly, the game’s other villain, Zande/Xande, who appears to be the main baddie up until the very end, doesn’t score much higher on the charisma scale. He does have a modicum of a backstory, which is more than Garland or Emperor Paramekia/Palamecia got, but personality-wise, he’s got that completely generic “I am pissed off, so I shall conquer/destroy the world!” thing going on. The fact that his only items of clothing are a pair of bright yellow trousers and a cape certainly do nothing to help his image. I’m also not entirely sure why he’s the only character in the game with pitch black skin.
The DS version of the game does nothing to help Zande/Xande, but makes Dark Cloud/CoD even harder by diversifying her attacks. On top of that, the major flaw of the final dungeon in the NES version remains in the DS version: the inability to save. Since there are no save points in the game and no means to return to the world map (the only place you can save) once you enter the Crystal Tower, you’d better not let your party fall during the endgame. At best, if you had the reflex to save after Eureka, you’ll only need to redo two dungeons. At worst…you’ll have to go through Eureka again as well. Apparently, there was a plan to add a save point while the NES version was being made, but it was scrapped so that the game wouldn’t be too easy…Um. Yeah. Thanks. Also thanks for keeping it that way for the DS version. Sheesh.
One good aspect of diversifying Dark Cloud/CoD’s arsenal of attacks is that it now redeems the Ribbons, pieces of equipment that protect the user from status ailments. In this game, they are only available right before facing Dark Cloud/CoD, which, in the NES version, meant that they were all but useless. The DS version clears that problem right up. Still, it does mean that status ailments remain an issue up until then.
In the NES version, the party’s inventory is limited, which can be handicapping. Especially when a character switches jobs, because it involves removing all of their equipment beforehand. While I understand why this is necessary (not all jobs can equip the same gear), it’s distinctly aggravating that it doesn’t happen automatically. Fortunately, the game does introduce a system to help with inventory woes: the Chubby Chocobo, which will become a mainstay of the series. As its name implies, it’s an overweight chocobo, which appears when the party uses a Carrot in specific spots. It then kindly offers to store their excess items…although where it stores them is a different question, and one I’m not sure I want answered. It also exists in the DS version as the Fat Chocobo, although you now call it using Gysahl Greens, but, since the party’s inventory is no longer limited, it becomes redundant.
Backpedalling on both its predecessors, FFIII decides to simply do away with Tents and Ethers, meaning that you no longer have any means of recovering your party’s magic other than visiting an Inn. On top of that Phoenix Downs, which allow you to revive fallen party members, are no longer buyable. You’ll find some in dungeons, but that’s it. Needless to say, you’ll want to treasure them like the apple of your eye and prioritise the Life/Raise spell over them whenever possible.
Transportation woes are also on the menu: the game features three airships, and the second one, the Nautilus, just happens to be amazing. It’s very fast and doubles up as a submarine. Its only drawback is that it can’t fly over high mountains. Which is why you need the large, lumbering Invincible. Sure, it’s enormous and has an onboard inn, shop and Chubby/Fat Chocobo, and yes, it can go over mountains, but, first of all, it’s excruciatingly slow, and secondly, it only flies over very small stretches of mountain. And to top it off, you can get attacked while flying in it.
Moving on to a different topic, this is the first FF to introduce proper sidequests. There are only a couple in the NES version, but they are there nonetheless: one short optional dungeon, which also serves as a useful levelling spot, and the possibility to tackle Odin, Leviathan and Bahamut to obtain them as summons.
The DS version introduces a few other sidequests: the Onion Knight job, the Legendary Smith, who will forge a special weapon for each job you take up to level 99, and the Iron Giant as an optional superboss. Unfortunately, they all require one heck of an annoying prerequisite: the Mognet system, a mail delivery network operated by moogles, which will be familiar if you’ve played FFIX before. Your party can use it to exchange mail with some of the NPCs they meet, and that’s part of the requirement to unlock the new sidequests. The other requirement entails sending messages to other DS players through the DS WiFi connection. It’s a pretty useless feature in and of itself, since you can only send one message per hour, but the game needs you to send ten of them to unlock the sidequests. Tweaking your DS’ internal clock to speed up the process is a must here. But it also begs the following question: what’s the point of adding so much bonus content if you make accessing it so needlessly annoying?
Some final remarks:
– In the NES version, the world map can be viewed by using an item called Midget Bread, rather than pressing B+Select, as in FFI and II. The DS version does away with any such fiddling, since the world map is always displayed on the top screen. Overall, the double screens do a wonderful job of uncluttering the game, since all menus can now safely be relegated to a different screen. Still, for being on a platform with a tactile screen as its distinguishing feature, the game doesn’t capitalise on it at all. I suppose you could use the stylus to navigate the menus or to walk around, but it’s just as easily done with the directional pad.
– The DS version introduces a zoom feature, triggered by either tapping the camera icon on the bottom screen with the stylus, or pressing the L button. Its only real use is to detect secret objects or switches. Some spots in the game will have little sparkles around them, signifying either hidden treasure or a secret passage nearby. These sparkles are only detectable by zooming in. It’s a bit of a hassle, but at least, you actually have a means of detecting them.
– Some inns feature pianos your characters can play for laughs. They even get better with practice. This will be reused for a sidequest in FFV.
– As any FF remake worth its salt, the DS version introduces a bestiary, although it takes an uncharacteristic amount of work to access. While previous remakes simply included the bestiary into the main menu, this one requires you to go talk to an old man in the town of Gysahl every time you need to check it. Yet another instance of the game making things unnecessarily complicated for the player.