It's been over a year since I took Solo on his journey through Final Fantasy, pummeling everything in sight with nothing but his bare fists, and it seemed about time to go back and try something new. Solo's strong physical attacks and lack of defense and any kind of magic had been fun to play around with, but in the end proved to be stronger than I ever expected, making the final 2/3 of the game a complete breeze to play through. Well, what I need is a harder challenge! Apparently the Black Belt is actually a strong class to play as a solo character; only the Fighter and possibly the Red Mage would be stronger. I'd rather not go with the Thief; it would certainly be a challenge to play as that class, but the Thief is also a bit of a bland character that would not be too interesting. Solo White Mage is the ultimate challenge, but I'll come back to that another time. So that leaves me with... solo Black Mage!
Ahh yes, the Black Mage. This is almost certainly the most popular class in Final Fantasy, due no doubt to the nifty character sprite design, and nothing's better than having a black mage let loose with a devastating black magic spell that hits all enemies for massive damage. Yet for all that, it can't be overlooked that the Black Mage is an extremely weak character class in virtually every possible category other than casting attack magic. He ranks dead last out of the six classes in terms of hit point growth and vitality (NOT a good thing for a solo character!), dead last in strength, and tied for last with the white mage in terms of hit percentage. The weapon selection for black mages is beyond pathetic for the vast majority of the game. Armor... let's not even get into armor, ok? When the stuff you're wearing has names like "Cloth", "Cap", and "Gloves", you know they aren't providing much protection.
And even though the Black Mage is a virtual god of attack magic, even that isn't all it's cracked up to be. This very early RPG doesn't use a magic-points-based system of spells; rather, there are spell "levels", and the magic-using classes get a certain amount of spells of each level before having to rest. It's the Dungeons and Dragons system of magic, in other words, or at least the way that game used to do spells (have things changed in Third Edition? I confess I have no clue). So while the Black Mage may be able to drop fiery death upon one group of baddies, he can only do so a couple times before all of his spells are up and he's left with zippo offensive power. Don't forget too that the Black Mage has no defensive or healing magic at all, and the whole time he's fighting the enemies will be teeing off on his pitifully unshielded body. This quote I found in one online writeup sums up the Black Mage pretty well (though this is written about the Black Wizard, the same rules apply):
"Wow...for gaining such destructive abilities, he sure does stink otherwise! Imagine a White Wizard, only no healing abilities. All you can do is hope you can kill off the bad guys first, or else you're dead meat. Get the picture? That's what you've got with a Black Wizard."
Sound like fun? And yet, going through a game with a solo black mage is still cake compared to doing it with a white mage (who can't do any damage at all). Well, let's get started!
I named my character Blak; perhaps a bit unoriginal, but when you have only 4 characters to work with, it's hard to get too clever. These are the starting stats for a black mage; extremely low strength (attack), vitality (HP), damage, and absorb (armor). As it turns out, intelligence - the one stat that the black mage has in spades in this game - appears to have no effect on magic attack or defense whatsoever and does nothing at all. Hooray!
The first thing to do was to kill off all of the other three characters accompanying Blak. This is always a little bit trickey to do, since one has to ensure that the desired character survives and also that the 3 unwanted characters all die without getting any experience points. It turned out to be very amusing for this particular run through the game, as I managed to kill off all but one of the other characters and got him down to 1 hit point. And then... the Imps I was fighting just couldn't seem to kill this guy. One miss, two misses, three misses... They keep attacking and can't seem to hit. This one stupid white mage must be dancing and weaving all over the place, and I just want him to die already! Four misses, then five, all with my guy at 1 hit point. I start calling out at my computer screen, "Come on, finish the job. FINISH HIM! Come on... Oh, he missed again!" [laughter] All told, the imps missed the unlucky white mage SEVEN TIMES in a row when he had 1 hit point left. I was laughing so hard I could barely see straight. Finally they mercifully finished this charade, I went back to the inn to save, and could get started for real.
At Level 1, Blak only had two 1st-level spell charges. I bought him the spell FIRE (there was no point in picking up LIT as well, since they do the same thing at this point in the game), a shiny dagger that took his damage up from 1 to 6, and the best armor that money could buy: a cloth (absorb 1). Damage reduction from armor in Final Fantasy is straight subtraction (damage taken = monster attack - absorb), so Blak was really feeling the effects of poor armor in the beginning... err, ALL of the game. Let me talk a little more briefly about how the game's battle engine works because it will showcase some of Blak's early problems. Imps, the weakest enemies in the game and the ones I was fighting at the beginning, have an attack of 4-8. This means that when an Imp attacks, a random number will be generated between 4 and 8, then the character's absorb subtracted from that to get the damage done. Now for a Fighter who can start with the Chain Armor and it's 15 absorb, this means that no Imp attack can possibly do more than 1 damage (excepting critical hits; also note that all attacks that hit do at least 1 damage). For Blak and his pitiful 1 absorb, the attacks did 3-7 damage, which cut out a lot of his 25 life! (though fortunately a lot of attacks missed) Now, IF Blak could have equipped the Wooden Armor (absorb 4), the Imp damage would have gone down to (rand(4-8) - 4) = 1-4 damage. Hopefully you can see that this is an enormous difference; due to the subtractive nature of the way absorb works, increasing Blak's armor was the single most important thing I could do to help keep him alive longer. Not much I could do at this early stage of the game though.
As for the offensive side of things, Blak had use of the spell FIRE. Since essentially 99% of Blak's damage will be done by spells, let me go into how magic works a little bit. All of Blak's damage dealing spells always hit their targets (like a Magic Missile!) so there's no worrying about a miss. Each spell has a set range of damage (FIRE does 10-40, for example), and this damage is determined by a random number generator. When Blak cast FIRE on an Imp, the game would calculate a number between 10 and 40 randomly and do that damage to the sorry little creature. This is interesting because since spells have a minimum value, you can know with certainty that certain monsters will be killed by certain spells; since Imps only have 8 hit points, they will ALWAYS die to the spell FIRE, for example. The only other thing that affects spell damage is weakness/strength against an element; monsters that are weak against fire (undead) take 50% more damage and those that are strong against it (Fire Dragon) have the damage quartered. So to stick with the above example, a weak monster would take 15-60 damage from FIRE and a strong one would take 2.5-10 damage. But again, it's a straight random number generator, with an easy to calculate min and max value, so I would be using this knowledge all thoughout my quest with Blak.
At Level 1, even fighting Imps was extremely difficult for Blak. Each cast of the spell FIRE would mean instant death for one Imp, but he could only cast it twice. Since the smallest and weakest enemy group in the game consists of 3 Imps, you can see we already have a problem here. With his pitiful defense, Blak didn't stand a chance against a group of 5 Imps, was likely to die against 4 Imps, and things were still chancy with 3. But despite many deaths, Blak did manage to win a couple of battles against 3 Imps and level up to Level 2. Now Solo became exponentially more powerful when he reached Level 2 and kept getting more powerful with every increase in level, but Blak's gains were more modest. Most importantly at this first level up, Blak's hit points increased from 25 to 48, almost a 100% increase! Now he stood a much better chance of surviving battles. He also gained an additional spell charge, so that he could cast FIRE a full 3 times before going back to the inn. As sad asit sounds, this actually made Blak a much stronger character. Unlike Solo however, Blak gained virtually nothing from reaching Level 3; a full 1 extra hit point (wow, thanks!) and a 2nd-level magic charge that he couldn't use because he had no 2nd-level magic. (Just in case you're wondering, in Final Fantasy there are "strong" level ups, where you gain roughly 20 + Vitality/4 rounded up hit points, and "weak" level ups, where you gain only Vitality/4 rounded up hit points).
A chronic problem for Blak throughout the game was having spell charges that he couldn't use because he couldn't reach the proper area to buy the desired spells. This was also due to the fact, of course, that Blak always had to complete areas at a much higher-than-usual level since he was alone and so weak. I'd also like to point out here that Blak is by far the POOREST character I have ever played. Those robes aren't because he's a mage, it's because he's a beggar! Since Blak was utterly dependant on his magical spells, he had to go back to the inn after every single battle, and in this early part of the game he was actually slowly bleeding out money, not even making enough to cover his expenses. This was only a problem for Solo until he reached Level 3, but it continued long thereafter for Blak. I was seriously concerned for a long time that I was going to run out of money; I would have actually done so at one point if I had bought the LIT spell (fortunately I had held off on that unnecessary purchase). Finally, when he reached Level 4 and got up around 65-70 hit points, Blak was able to start running even on money, although he still wasn't gaining anything either. That wouldn't happen until he beat the Temple of Fiends and could start fighting harder monsters.
I'm spending an enormous amount of time here talking about the early stages of the game. Well, that's because this "easy" part of the game was monstrously difficult and consumed a huge amount of time to play through! Before getting the ship, Blak had already died more times than any other character I've ever played as. Yeoch. When he reached Level 4, Blak at least got another charge of FIRE, bringing him up to a grand total of 4. After topping Level 5, Blak was finally strong enough to go into the Temple of Fiends and grab the Cap, another piece of armor he could equip (I died many times before this trying to get it). With the Cap, Blak's absorb was now 2! Don't laugh; that's a 100% increase over what he had before, and it cut 1 point of damage off of every single enemy attack he took. Now Imps could only do 2-6 instead of 3-7 damage, which really was significant. Looking at what I just typed... wow, Blak really wasn't very strong, was he?
So finally Blak reached Level 6, where he got another "strong" hit point increase and brought his max up to about 90. By this point in time, he had tons of spell charges he wasn't using (even 3rd-level magic, to say nothing of 2nd!), but Garland would have to be fought with just FIRE. Garland only has 80 hit points, so it was relatively easy to beat him using four casts of FIRE (although the first time I fought him, four casts weren't enough and he quickly killed a black mage only able to do 1 damage with his dagger). Killing Garland (finally) gave me a significant grant of 250 gold and the construction of the bridge let me go east to Pravoka. I watched the little cinematic sequence (they weren't as impressive in 1987, kids!) and then headed east. Not to fight the pirates and get the ship - there was no way in the world that Blak could win that fight yet. No, Blak was going east to get something to greatly increase his overall strength:
Alright, a new weapon! The purchase of ICE finally let Blak use some of those 2nd-level spell charges that had been sitting around going to waste. At one stroke, Blak practically doubled the number of spells he could cast, from 4 to 7. What's more, ICE was twice as powerful as FIRE, doing 20-80 damage on one enemy. Now Blak could fight more powerful enemies like Ogres and have a potential chance to win. Once Blak got his hands on ICE, gold was not a substantial problem anymore; he still was not pulling in money at a fast rate, but at least his gold total was actually increasing. Also of interest at Pravoka was another piece of armor that Blak could use, the Gloves. Putting on this new 1-absorb armor meant that Blak was now up to a total of 3 (which was still a 50% increase over what he previously had been wearing).
For most parties, beating the pirates and getting the ship is a simple task to do, one of the easiest in the game. Each pirate only has 6 hit points, and although there are 9 of them, a party of 4 characters can take them down in short order. Things were significantly more difficult for Blak; in fact, the pirates were probably the single most difficult boss in the entire game. Blak could kill any pirate in one hit from his spells, but - he could only take out one at a time. That meant that it would take 9 rounds to kill all of the pirates, and they would get the opportunity to beat on him and his frail armor the entire time. The attack for each pirate is 8-16, which got reduced all the way down to 5-13 with my armor (hooray!) Fortunately they did miss a lot, but with the ability to concentrate all their attacks on one character, Blak simply had no chance to survive, other than praying for some crazy good luck on his evade rolls. Solo had experienced problems with the pirates as well, you might remember. Ironically, it's battles like this that the black mage is the strongest class for dealing with: lots of weak enemies in a group. But before getting his hands on FIR2, Blak could only attack one enemy at a time like Solo - and with much lower defense and hit points!
So what to do, what to do... The only solution was to build up Blak's level until he had enough hit points to survive the fight. Blak tried to fight them at Level 6, but after horribly dying many times and never getting more than half the pirates, I went for the leveling approach. Level 7, Level 8... Oh, a strong level up? Let's try again. Many more deaths later, it was back to leveling. Level 9, 10, 11... (This all took a very long period of time, but I'll avoid the boring details) Well, Level 11 was another strong level up, so I stood a better chance of winning with now almost 150 hit points. Of course, I had a ridiculous amount of unused spell levels by this point:
I'm barely using 50% of my total spell charges at this point. What I wouldn't have given for just one shot of FIR2 at this point! I've got to win this time, I'm so tired of having to level up with only FIRE and ICE as weapons. OK, Bikke, let's rumble again:
Blak is promptly killed. He tries again. Another death. "Grrr, I don't care how many times I get murdered by pirates, I'm going to do this!" (a quote you won't hear very often) Of course the law of averages says that if you roll the dice enough times, the pirates are going to hit snake eyes on their attack rolls sooner or later. On maybe the 5th or 6th battle against the pirates on this particular try, Blak got lucky:
That's a neat picture, actually taken as the last pirate is being wiped off the screen by the game. You can see how Blak still barely won even after all this leveling up; that last pirate could have attacked first and done 13 damage to kill him. But a victory is a victory, no matter how many times one must die in the process (that doesn't sound right...) For comparison: my party of 4 white mages beat the pirates at Level 4 (and each would have had about 700 experience). Solo beat them at Level 8 (he had about 5500 experience). And Blak didn't get it done until Level 11, when he had a whopping 15,000 experience points. Building those levels took a VERY long time! Fortunately, the game was now about to get a lot easier, now that Blak had access to the ship and could finally get his hands on some real spells. It might seem strange, but the very beginning of the game was the most difficult part for Blak, and it was about to get easier from this point on.
The very first thing that Blak does with the ship is to sail down to Elfland and purchase a shiny new spell:
FIR2! Finally! In one fell swoop, Blak's damage increased exponentially. FIR2 hits ALL enemies for 30-120 damage, and due to his high level, Blak could already cast it 4 times! With this spell in hand, roving bands of Ogres and Creeps were suddently easy prey, as the Creeps would be killed every time by the fire and Ogres either killed or severely weakened so that they were easy prey for ICE. The packs of Wolves and GrWolves that had irritated me constantly in my leveling up earlier were also now torched with ease using FIR2. Being able to hit all enemies at once was just such a massive increase in power, I can't overstate its importance. Furthermore, Blak also purchased an armor upgrade in Elfland, a shiny Copper Bracelet to replace his Cloth. The Copper Bracelet brought his absorb up to 6, which again was still extremely low, but a 100% increase again over the previous value. Now Imps could no longer damage Blak (1-2 damage from them, although I really wasn't fighting them anymore).
Blak had a lot to buy in Elfland, so he fought the enemies in the area to build up both gold and experience. As a character fighting by himself, the experience piled up very quickly and shot him to even higher levels. After Blak purchased ICE2 (40-160 damage), he only had that many more spell charges to fire off at the enemies. I had him fight enemies until he had bought LIT2, FAST, and 99 Heal Potions in preparation for the Marsh Cave, which sent Blak up quite a few levels until he was about Level 18 or so. He had more than enough spell charges, I can assure you. The Marsh Cave was actually quite easy; Blak ran away from anything he encountered and fortunately managed to avoid the undead that can cause paralyzation. The Wizards guarding the Crown were not all that difficult either; wow, did they ever pound Blak on damage (24-54 after adjusting for armor, yeoch!) but they went down just as fast to LIT2. There were no problems getting out of the Marsh Cave either, and with only about 15 Heal Potions used, that was that.
Blak went back to Elfland to save and re-stock his inventory, then headed up to Northwest Castle to deal with Astos. There was no need for further leveling; the Dark Elf is not a particularly difficult boss for a black mage. For the first time in ages, my character was not instantly killed by Astos' RUB attack (haven't seen that in a while; first fight with Astos almost always sees someone hit the floor). Therefore Blak could lay into him with his own spells:
It took a couple of rounds of ICE2, but Astos was killed pretty easily on the first try. I admit I was nervous when he cast FAST on himself (by my estimate, he would do 46-98 damage against my absorb when FASTed), but Astos stuck with spells and didn't attack again. Winning that battle got me the CRYSTAL, so of course I spent the next hour or so exchanging the special items around to wake up the prince and blow up the hole in the dwarf cave. I gained a decent amount of experience doing this and looting all the locked treasures from Elfland, Coneria, Temple of Fiends, Dwarf Cave, and Northwest Castle. Once the sea passage was open, Blak sailed to Melmond and immediately picked up FIR3. Hehe, an even better spell (50-200 damage) to play with. Perhaps even more importantly, I could buy Blak a Silver Bracelet in Melmond, which had a drastically increased absorb of 15. This brough his overall absorb up to 17 - which was almost a 200% increase over the former value! All of a sudden, Blak was able to stand up to a hit or two; he could go back to the monsters around Elfland and be practically immune to their attacks. Ogres do 18-36 damage, but with his new armor, that was down to 1-19. What a drastic difference: the previous MIN damage value was the same as the current MAX damage value! As soon as Blak had the money, he sailed further afield and visited Cresent Lake to pick up the spell LIT3, giving him even more destructive power. At 60-240 damage, LIT3 made Blak unassailable on the seas. After that, it was back to more leveling to get some more hit points and spell charges.
Level 22 was another strong level up, so it seemed like a good time to go into the Earth Cave once I reached it. Here's a picture of what Blak's spell levels and stats looked like at that point:
Notice that he has some 7th-level spell charges, but Blak wouldn't be getting those anytime soon, since he would need an airship to buy ICE3. Into the Earth Cave Blak went, and unlike the Marsh Cave, lots of random bad luck kept befalling him there. Blak kept getting killed on the 3rd dungeon floor by either enemies who could paralyze him (the ghoul monsters) or enemies who could stone him (cockatrices). Since these were random monster encounters, there was nothing to do but keep trying the dungeon and hoping for a good result on the random monster draws. After enough rolls of the dice, I was able to get through it without issue. The Vampire was a non-issue with FIR3:
Out of the Earth Cave, through the Titan's Tunnel (chomp, chomp), get the ROD from the old man, and then back down into the Earth Cave again. Things weren't as easy as they had been for Solo at this point, but with tons of spell charges of FIR2, ICE2, FIR3, and LIT3, it was relatively easy dealing with the monsters. At least for the moment, the damage that Blak could do was outstripping the damage that they could do to him in return (Blak wins all battles through fast offense; he can't possibly win a drawn-out defensive struggle). So it's down to the 5th dungeon level, time to fight Lich:
He was more resistant to fire than I remembered, or maybe I just had low rolls on the fire damage. In any case, it took four FIR3s to take him down (average damage should be 187 per cast against a fire-weak monster, and Lich only has 400 hit points, so that is decidedly odd). With the first orb now shining, it was time to head for Crescent Lake to get the Canoe. Once I had the airship, I could round out my collection of spells with ICE3 and buy myself a Gold Bracelet and ProRing for another big armor boost. But first I would have to get through the dreaded Ice Cave, never an easy task for any character.