Final Fantasy Maps Through the Ages: The NES Era

We take a look back at the cartography of the Final Fantasy franchise, beginning with the 1987 NES release.

Final Fantasy for the NES helped to define video game maps, popularizing the idea of an abstracted overworld sprinkled with points of interest. More importantly, Final Fantasy gave the player a world big enough to make them rely heavily upon a digital map, recognizable landmarks, and a good working knowledge of the surrounding geography.

Later titles in the franchise would develop on this premise, adding complexity and graphical polish, but still maintaining the idea of exploring a vast world map. With the move to the PlayStation 2 and Final Fantasy X, the series would shift from abstracted overworlds to 3D environments, requiring a similar shift in mapping techniques.

We'll be focusing on the main-series (from I to XIII), single-player Final Fantasy games which saw original U.S. releases. That means we'll start with the 1987 game Final Fantasy for the NES. Let's take a look...

Final Fantasy (1987, NES)


The original Final Fantasy takes what we would now consider to be a basic approach to in-game cartography. There is a traversable overworld (seen in 1), which includes abstracted representations of landmarks. In a style that has since become commonplace, players travel long distances by traversing this overworld, stopping in at towns and other points of interest along the way.

For a full view of the world, a broom in Matoya's Cave (2) teaches the player a "magic spell" consisting of pressing B and SELECT simultaneously. This command brings up a true world map (3), which indicates the player's current location and gives them a sense for the geography of the playable area.

This map is typically the first chance the player has to truly appreciate the size of the world in which the game is set, something that can be a bit overwhelming at first. As the game progresses, players gain access to a boat, canoe, and airship which make navigation easier and increase the usefulness of the world map.

The Verdict

As a work of cartography, this map leaves a lot to be desired. While the land and sea are clearly differentiated, the land itself is a muddled tangle of green, light green, and tan, with no clear indication of what each color represents. Given the limited graphical capabilities of the NES (only 4 colors per sprite), this anemic color palette is understandable, but the map's effectiveness could have been improved by focusing more on major landmarks and less on a 1:1 representation of the geography.

One other obvious issue here is the relatively small amount of screen space taken up by the map itself. Instead of displaying a full-screen map, Final Fantasy devotes half of the available space to four large, repeated pieces of artwork which provide no useful information. This design reeks of technical limitations, perhaps something to do with the maximum sprite size allowed on the NES. The artwork adds flourish, but the key goal here should be readability of the map and usefulness of the information it presents.

Stay Tuned

Next time on Final Fantasy Maps Through the Ages, we'll take a look at a duo of SNES titles: Final Fantasy IV from 1991 and Final Fantasy VI from 1994, as we continue to work our way forward in time through the franchise.