The glory of turn-based combat at its most basic. Your team of four faces a group of enemies, up to as many as nine (!). You input commands for each of the characters, then watch as they execute them in order. If the enemy is faster than one of your characters, however, they may get a turn in between your characters’ turns. The commands include Fight, Magic, Item and Run, which are pretty self-explanatory, but also Drink, which allows one character to use a potion, to restore their HP, for example. Why this couldn’t be included under the Item command will forever be a mystery to me, but there you have it.
When I call this system “basic”, I really do mean basic: being a hero and having a brain seem to be mutually exclusive. If two of your characters are targeting the same enemy, and the first one happens to kill said enemy, the second character will still take a swing or cast a spell. In thin air. Automatic targeting won’t be implemented until FFIII, so please, if you’re playing the NES version, do try to gauge the enemies’ resistance. If you think one hit could potentially take them down, do make your next character in line target something else. For your time and sanity’s sake.
There are no front or back rows yet, but characters will take hits according to their order in the party, which amounts pretty much to the same thing. This means that the party leader will take most of the hits, and the fourth member will hopefully stay relatively unhurt. This effectively limits you to keeping the same leader throughout the game, but better safe than dead, as I always say. If your leader should kick the bucket, they will automatically be moved to fourth position, and the runner-up’s sprite will appear instead. This means that you need to reshuffle your party order when someone dies, which is somewhat annoying.
There aren’t any MP yet either. Instead, mages have eight tiers of spells (tier 1 being the weakest spells, and 8 the strongest) and a certain amount of charges per tier (with a maximum of nine for any given tier), decreasing as the tier gets higher. This means that mages are extremely limited in their spellcasting abilities, because the only way to recover spell charges is either to use a Cabin/Cottage to rest on the world map or to visit a town and rest at an inn for a fee. So don’t make your mages cast unless it’s absolutely necessary, because dungeons can be long, and you really don’t want your party to be caught on the deepest floor of some dark cave with no spell charges left.
There are two spell schools: White, which mostly covers curative and otherwise beneficial spells, and Black, which mostly covers damage-dealing and debilitating spells. Each school has four spells available per spell tier, but mages only have three spell slots, meaning you have to pick which spells you want them to learn. Or buy, since that’s how they’re acquired. While it’s not overly difficult for a White or a Black Mage/Wizard, since some spells are distinctly better than others, it’s more problematic for a Red Mage/Red Wizard, since they’ll effectively have eight spells per level to pick from. Whatever you choose, though, buy as many A-spells as you can (Aice, Afir, Alit…yes, naming limitations rock), as they raise the characters’ elemental resistance, and elemental monsters abound. Some pieces of equipment can also cast spells when used as items in battle. This is a nifty plus for non-mages, especially since these items can be reused ad infinitum. It does, however, mean lugging extra equipment around.
To conclude, an oddity in the weapon department: any character can equip the almighty ultimate weapon that is the Masamune, including the mages. I’d say it makes more sense to give it to a Knight to dramatically beef up his combat potential, but it could also be a way to make a mage save their spell charges, while still participating in combat.