It is a complete, utter crime that the only official way to play Final Fantasy III in English is in its 2006 DS release.
Don't get me wrong: the DS release is pretty much masterful, combining gorgeous graphics and a fantastically reimagined soundtrack, all while keeping the basics of the original Famicom version's aesthetics in place, albeit much more modernized. And Square Enix, while baffling a great number of buyers and critics who put Final Fantasy III into their DSes expecting a polished, grand adventure in the vein of Final Fantasy VII (which people seemed to expect because of the game's reminiscent-of-PSX graphics), did a great thing: they released Final Fantasy III with its gameplay fully in tact, idiosyncracies and all.
So what is there to complain about? Basically, FFIII is in the unique position of being torn apart by its different time periods. Its looks and sound scream "2006!" while its gameplay is stridently 1990. And it's that dichotomy that proves, once and for all, that Final Fantasy is not the unchanging monolith that people assume it is – things have changed, and they've changed drastically, and it would have been nice if at some point, Squaresoft or Square Enix could get it together enough to give us the original.
Enough blathering. Final Fantasy III is basically the greatest NES-era RPG while doing nothing particularly drastically different from its forebears. After the left-turn into Akitosha Kawazu's-influenced Final Fantasy II (and its skill-based, and frankly broken progression system) and that game's heavily political storyline, Final Fantasy III is a return to the fertile ground of the original, only expanded upon and made far more enjoyable.
None of this is to say that Final Fantasy III doesn't hold its own mysterious gameplay designs. Indeed, Final Fantasy III has one of the strangest magic systems employed in the series, especially considering that its immediate successor, Final Fantasy IV, would essentially codify the entire series's structures moving forward. Here, magic users have a set number of times they can use a spell at a certain level. Once you use up those points, you're done casting them until you can get out of a dungeon and rest. And rather than accessing a pool of magic points (MP) for all of your spells, the spell levels themselves have their own pool of points, meaning that even if you run out of level 1 spells (like Cure), you could still cast level 3 spells like Cura. It's really strange, but oddly enough, it ends up being inordinately compelling.
That's because moreso than any other Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy III treats its myriad dungeons as discrete levels rather than continuing elements of the overworld. You can only save outside the dungeon on the world map, meaning that dungeons are a straight-shot, get in and try to get out alive kind of affair. It makes dungeon crawling intensely challenging, as you know that if you mess up, you're getting kicked out to the start menu to do it all again. It demands perfection, and achieving perfection in Final Fantasy III is something that the game actually encourages you to do.
It's these sorts of challenging touches that the series has gotten away from, relying moreso (in FFXII and FFXIII, at least) upon reflexes rather than skill. And to be fair, Final Fantasy III's "skill" lies in masochistic trial and error, or in the complete and utter reliance on a guide, but at least the battles make some sense from a tactical point of view. It's very much in the Dragon Warrior vein, of course – turn order in battles had yet to be something that Squaresoft would see fit to let the player know – but it just works.
The "rule" of the Nintendo Final Fantasy games was that even-numbered entries in the series were story-based, and odd-numbered entries were gameplay-based, and that truism pretty much holds up here. It's nothing mind-blowing: four orphans are chosen as the "Warriors of Light," and have to travel around the world fixing all sorts of small and large problems, restoring balance to the world, and kicking the shit out of that fucker Xande – but at least in the DS version, the characters are given names, and the situations have a pleasingly proto-Dragon Quest IX feel to them. It's nowhere nearly as well-written as that, but coming to a new place and solving the problems of the townsfolk is enjoyable nonetheless.
It's interesting to me that Final Fantasy III is seen as a "lost" chapter for North American fans – indeed, this game, despite its little weirdnesses, is in large part a precursor to many, many elements later seen in the series. For one, the way in which you can progress is made far more open due to the job system. It's nowhere near as complex as later installments, even Final Fantasy V's, but that's I think what makes it more enjoyable: it's streamlined and fun. It's incredibly satisfying to be able to see the changes to your characters instantly and to try out variable combinations of approaches. Indeed, every single guide that I looked at proscribed a different formation, and that means that Final Fantasy III feels far more personal than most of the other games in the series from that era.
It's a game with a shallow storyline to be sure, and that's ultimately what holds it back from the heights achieved by later installments; but that shallowness seems like a return to non-pretension now. And in 1990, Final Fantasy III would have been mindblowing. It's unfortunate that the original context couldn't be viewed from a modern perspective (it would have been incredibly cool to include the original on the cart too, Square Enix), but there's enough here in this 2006 release to extrapolate it out. After extensive research, I've discovered that context, and it's that Final Fantasy III is one of the most enjoyable, straightforward and hardworking of the Final Fantasies. This is a blue-collar Final Fantasy, through and through.