final fantasy

Final Fantasy Hides its Own Horrors in the Marsh Cave

While I love horror, I also have a soft spot for Final Fantasy and RPGs. Especially turn-based ones. Being able to attack monsters at a slow, thoughtful pace was a tremendous help when I was learning to play games as a kid. While I’ve had some pulse-pounding encounters with many RPG bosses, there’s been very few instances where I felt anything like fear while playing an RPG. That said, there was a place I was afraid of while playing my very first RPG. Marsh Cave, the poison-drenched death trap from Final Fantasy still makes me hesitate every time I try to play that game again.

While nowhere near as ruthless as Dragon Quest / Dragon Warrior, this game was pretty hard for its time. One minute, you’re doing great. You’re steamrolling through Imps and no one is giving you trouble. Then, suddenly, you step into a slightly different kind of terrain and get kicked to death by a horse (well, MadPony). It was the kind of game where stepping into a patch of forest or marshy plains meant a complete shift in enemies and difficulty level. The only solace is that the towns aren’t very far apart. You can always head back someplace safe, heal up, and then fight again.

You’re relatively safe during the first few hours of Final Fantasy . You spend most of it wandering from town to town, meeting new people and battling monsters in the field. There are some hard monsters out there, sure, but again, a town is rarely far away. You can also make use of items that heal your party like tents and cabins. These work anywhere in the field. If you’re above ground, you can safely take care of most of your wounds. It’s always relaxing to go camping after fighting ghouls in the woods. The items are a bit expensive so it’s better to limp to town, but at least you have the option to decide what to do.

Eventually, though, you need to head underground. The game is littered with an array of dungeons that will take you far from the safety of town. The first one, the Chaos Shrine, is only a few rooms. You’ll go for a brief walk, smack a boss, and then you’re out of there. It’s so straightforward and small that it gives you this false sense of security for a little bit. I mean, here was this looming, crumbling castle. It seemed like it would be filled with all manner of dangers, but it’s a bit of a cakewalk. Makes you think you’re tough enough to handle everything that’s to come. So, when you need to enter a dark hole south of Elfheim a few hours later, you wonder how bad it could be.

This is the Marsh Cave. Any thoughts you had of Final Fantasy being easy go out the window once you enter. For starters, the entire place looks sickly. There’s a bright green tinge to every surface in the cave. This makes total sense, as a vast majority of the enemies in the cave will poison you with their basic attacks if you’re unlucky. So, the whole place seems to be dripping with toxic fluids. Not that most of these monsters even need to poison you, as Gargoyles will happily beat you down with vicious melee attacks. Zombies and Crawls will paralyze you, leaving you helpless to avoid getting demolished by stronger foes.

If you’re thinking you can heal your way through this, you’d be mistaken. While the items that cure health and poison aren’t expensive, they are costly at this point in the early game. Getting a good stockpile of healing and purifying potions takes hours of fighting enemies outside of town at this stage. That can be fine if you’re prepared and not afraid to be bored for about eight hours, but if you’re not, the game will just maul your poor party. Spellcasting isn’t a great solution, either, as you can only carry a handful of spells into the dungeon. You’ll easily run out of spells to deal with your dwindling health and constant poisonings before you go down a few floors. And don’t expect to pitch a tent and go to sleep. Camping in monster-infested woods is fine. Doing it in a cave or castle is now.

The Marsh Cave is also the most massive location in Final Fantasy up to this point. It is several floors deep and filled with sprawling rooms. It will take you a while to figure out where you even need to go, and all the while, the monsters will keep whittling you down. They’ll be chewing through your resources as you keep wondering how far this cave goes. You’ll also need to plan to have enough items to survive the trip back. This is one of the few dungeons in the game where you have to walk all the way back out. So, even if you survive its dangers, it’s entirely possible you won’t have enough items to make the return journey.

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On top of this, if you make it to the Crown, the item you came here for, you’ll battle a number of Wizards. The game tosses a random amount of these creatures at you. Could be one of two, or could be far more. And while you’re expecting the spells to fly, these enemies just beat you senseless. They hit like trucks, and are more than capable of killing your flimsy mages in a hit or two at this point in the game. Good luck affording the reviving items at this point, too. They’re a terrifying boss that can end your whole trip in a turn or two. And even if you survive, you still have to walk back to the surface.

The poison, vicious enemies, and sprawling environment of the Marsh Cave make for a genuinely frightening experience. While Final Fantasy wasn’t trying for horror, I always feel uneasy and scared going into that cave. As your characters get stronger and your finances improve, you can afford more items and better equipment, making later dungeons less frightening. Here, when you’re weak and poorly stocked, the game is a little scary. Death feels likes it’s pretty close. It’s the closest the series has gotten to being scary, and I feel a little shiver every time I play the game when I know this dungeon is coming.