Solo Black Belt: The Power of Bare Fists

Well, once again I took it upon myself to run through a game of Final Fantasy with another variant challenge in mind. When making my run with four white mages, I had consistently lacked offensive power while having plenty of defensive spells and curative power. As a complete and utter contrast to this, I thought it would be fun to try out a solo black belt for my next run through the game. After taking a couple of weeks off from Final Fantasy, I started up a new game to try out the variant.

First, a couple of things I should point out about black belts in the original Final Fantasy. The ethos of the black belt is that of the monk in training, a warrior who uses no weapons and very little armor but instead fights only with his bare fists. As I said, a black belt will never need to equip any weapons whatsoever; his offensive power goes up solely as a function of his level, with no relation to what you happen to be doing in terms of the game's storyline whatsoever. This is a completely different philosophy from the fighter class, which is utterly dependent on equipping strong weapons and armor to dish out and absorb damage. The way I think of it is the black belt getting stronger from training; worldly possessions mean nothing to him, training for the fight is everything. In this way you could almost think of the black belt as the eastern counterpart to the materialistic western fighter (though I'm definitely getting too far off track now at this point.) Of all the classes in Final Fantasy, the black belt gains the most from leveling up; he is without a doubt the worst class to start the game and equally without a doubt the most powerful class when maxed out at level 50. Since I'll be leveling up at a ridiculously fast pace with only one character instead of four to split experience, taking a "late bloomer" like the black belt seemed like a very good idea.

Sadly, the black belt is the target of a lot of bashing in the Final Fantasy community. Without a doubt, it's the least played of the six different classes; black belt even gets the short shrift in 8-bit Theatre compared to the other classes. Almost every guide I've ever seen for Final Fantasy ranks the black belt as the worst or next-to-worst class of the six to play. Allow me to indulge myself here and reprint a quote from one of the largest and most influential Final Fantasy sites on the web, Final Fantasy Classic (this is taken from a description of a party of four black belts, which the author rates at -43/10):

"If you like Black Belts I guess this is an OK party. It is cheap, I give it that. You'll need that money for the thousands of gallons of heal potions you'll go through during this game. Also plan to become a regular at the local Clinic. You'll be able to fight OK though, once you get to Elfland and you can start using your fists; before then, you just have to pray. But for the whole game, the BBs' defense sucks, big time. BBs have no magic, so they can't heal themselves, and they also can't use magic to kill large groups of enemies, and they can't run as well as thieves; in other words, you get to stand around and look dumb while monsters use your party for target practice. So be prepared to drag a couple corpses around with you 90% of the game. If by some chance you manage to make it to class change with this party, well, you get a huge reward of NOTHING, because BBs don't get anything from class change. But on the bright side, your sprite becomes uglier. Wait... sorry, that's not a bright side. There is no bright side to this party. You'll probably find that you depsperately need the magic-casting items you get later in the game, but those don't make up for the pitiful lack of magic in this party. I think I'd rather take a party of four elderly groundhogs than take a party of four BB's, to be honest."

That's pretty harsh. Actually, that goes way too far and even distorts the facts in favor of discrediting black belts. There are certainly some valid criticisms of black belts, but as a whole the character class is really quite strong in many different respects. First of all, let's look at the damage output from black belts versus fighters. Since I spend waaaay too much time thinking about stuff like this, I've created a table comparing the damage that black belts versus fighters are likely to do in the course of the game. To take a look at it, just click here. I had to post it in a separate window because html does nasty, nasty things to neatly formated text (and putting that info into an html table would have been... unpleasant). The only number you really need to look at is the right-hand total damage column (someone like T-Hawk can number-crunch the other columns but it's hardly casual reading); fighter damage is always listed first followed by black belt.

Now a couple of interesting things come out of this table. It's often claimed that the damage black belts do doesn't surpass fighters until very late in the game, like level 40+, but this is simply not true. The fighter will simply own the black belt in damage in the early game, until the black belt hits level 9 and starts getting 4 hits instead of 2. At that point, the black belt will be doing at least the same amount of damage as the fighter, possibly more if you do a lot of leveling up. Even when the fighter gets a third attack at level 14, the black belt is still holding even with him in terms of damage. Sometime around level 17 or so the fighter will get the Defense Sword and will jump out in front of the black belt again, but when the black belt hits level 21 and gets six hits he will explode in damage. After hitting level 22, a black belt will do damage equal or greater than a fighter with Xcalber, the best weapon in the game (except the Masmune, of course). Even getting a fifth hit at level 29 can't pull the fighter past the black belt, and when the black belt hits level 32 and gets his eight hits, he simply (to use crude netspeak) "pwns evry1 wit his l33t skillz". I've included the level 50 stats just for fun, and to show that a maxed-out black belt can do almost twice as much damage as a level 50 fighter.

For most of the game, the black belt is at least equal to the fighter in damage. After level 21 (which is by no means ridiculously late in the game, unless you're just flying through it) the black belt is as good or better than a fighter with Xcalber. Now think about what that means: black belts after that level fight as well as a fighter with the BEST sword he can equip. Remember, there's only one Xcalber in the game too, so a fighter/black belt combo will do MUCH more damage than a two fighter setup. And if you plan on fighting after level 32 at all (which is admitted pretty much after the game is over), the black belt will simply destroy the fighter in every respect, doing half again as much damage. The criticism of black belts shouldn't be "they don't attack as well as fighters", it should be "the obscene damage they do compared to fighters is simply overkill."

Black belts don't have any magic, of course, and their defense admittedly sucks. But I would argue that their literally insane offensive production once they hit level 21, and especially after level 32, more than make up for this. The black belt really doesn't shine until late in the game, true... but the same could be said for the black mage. I mean, red mages can do everything black mages can do for 90% of the game, only do more other things as well. Black mages don't shine until they hit level 25 and get the spell NUKE, and don't really stand out until they can cast it 3 or 4 times starting at level 30. So why all the love for black mage and none for black belt? They both follow the same path of development and are definitely late bloomers. Maybe it's because black mage has better PR and by far the coolest-looking sprite design, heh. In any case, black belts are really a lot of fun to play; the discontent with them seems to result from players trying to treat them as fighters and use them in the same way (you can't tank with black belts like you can with fighters). So while black belts are not "better" than fighters, they aren't "worse" than them either; both serve different functions and have their place. Playing around with both and seeing where their strengths and weaknesses lie is where the fun of the game comes in.

Whew! Enough text. It's time to meet the hero of our adventure, the black belt Solo:

(Notice that I have also solved the problem of getting reasonably-sized photos compared to my last Final Fantasy report.) Yeah, that's Solo at level 1; he's about as unimpressive as it gets. Since my goal for this game was to play through it without ever equipping any weapons or armor, Solo was going to be stuck doing a maximum of one damage per hit until he reached level 2. Combine that with his 0 absorb (even equipping a Cloth gives you 1 absorb!) and you've got a walking punching bag here. As it turned out, Solo was too weak to kill even the easiest random encounter in the game, a party of three imps. Fighting by himself with no weapons or armor, Solo was simply not strong enough to take down the weakest of foes in FF. Here's a picture of the fun-ness which was a level 1 black belt devoid of all equipment:

Each attack of Solo's can only do a max of 1 damage; if he hits with both attacks, that puts him up to 2 damage. Wow, that's definitely not very scary! Imps have 8hp each; keep in mind that Solo takes about 4-8 damage himself from each attack. That makes for a very dead Solo in short order. In fact, I quickly realized that it was impossible to win a battle against even the weakest foes in the game with this setup. After dying about 5 times without ever winning a battle, I decided that I would have to make one very minor adjustment to my game. Solo was simply dying too fast with no armor, so I would buy him the Wooden Armor (absorb 4) and equip it until I reached level 4, then never use any armor again. I resolved not to use any weapon or get any help from the other three warriors (none of them ever got even 1 experience point). The armor was just a compromise I had to make to play out the first couple levels without dying.

Even with the wooden armor, the first couple battles were an amazing struggle. I had to use a healing potion just to win against three imps and get 18 experience! Then it was a trip to the inn to restore hp, and I had to use another healing potion to win a second battle against 4 imps and get 24 experience. Time for another trip to the inn, and I'm almost out of money here! After a couple more deaths, I get lucky and encounted one GrImp by himself, where a lucky critical hit did an amazing 5 damage (!) and I was able to win. This put me over the line and Solo made it to level two! :dance: Now going from level 1 to level 2 ordinarily doesn't mean much, but for Solo it was everything. His damage doubled from a max of 2 to 4, allowing him to kill Imps in 2-3 rounds instead of 4-6. If that wasn't enough, his hit points doubled from 30 to about 55, greatly increasingly his survivability. Now Solo could actually live through a single battle without dying!

Solo of course had to go back to the inn after each fight, but he was oh so much stronger at level 2 than he had been at level 1. When he hit level three, Solo was able to do about 7-8 damage per attack and could start killing imps in one go. Now I could actually fight a whole two battles before going back to the inn, and actually start running in the black in terms of gold. By the time he hit level 4, Solo was killing imps with every attack, and at level 5 he could kill wolves and GrImps with impunity. His growth was literally the definition of "exponential"; unlike the fairly linear growth of a fighter, Solo was leaping up in gigantic steps with each level up here in the early game. That pattern would remain fairly true throughout the game, as Solo went from abysmally weak to start to ridiculously overpowered as the game progressed. It was all great fun though; some of my later screenshots are the very definition of "payback" (you'll see...)

When I hit level 4, I ditched the Wooden Armor for good and never put on anything else again. (The black belt has a natural absorb equal to his level, which is pretty darn low compared to what the fighter can get.) By the time Solo had reached level 6, he was strong enough to take on Garland and complete the first quest:

Even for a solo black belt, Garland wasn't very hard to defeat. Solo took evil princess Sarah back to Coneria and then headed east to Pravoka. As a side note, I don't know why everyone always makes the trip to Pravoka such a big deal; I never seem to have any problems with it (just run if you're going to die...) I got there and prepared to face the pirates. Only problem was that the normally weak pirates were able to kick Solo's behind since they could focus all nine of their attacks on him instead of splitting them across 4 different characters. After dying a couple of times, I realized I had to level up some more. Solo kicked around some more enemies and even took out an Ogre or two until he was level 8. At that time I had enough hit points to win; it hadn't been a case of damage but rather not enough life to survive before. Once I got the ship, I did a lot of fighting in the sea to build up my levels (Sharks were very good opponents in terms of ease and experience). At first I could only fight one battle at a time; after a few more levels I could stay out there for longer, and finally at level 12 Sahags started running from me. I should also mention that when Solo got to four hits at level 9 his damage literally doubled; he went from doing 30ish damage to the 70ish range. Suddenly I could laugh at Creeps and take out Ogres in two blows; by level 13 I could kill anything around Elfland in one attack.

I didn't jot down exactly when I went into the Marsh Cave to get the crown, but I think it was about level 14 or 15. Unlike my trip through the cave with my white mages, fighting the wizards was easy - it was the ordinary monsters in the cave which were hard! In particular, the undead which my white mages had laughed at presented major problems since they could paralyze Solo and then kill him very slowly with pinprick attacks. All in all, it was a great contrast to what I had seen in my last game, and devising different strategies to deal with the enemies was highly entertaining. That brought me to Astos, who had been such a horrible opponent for my white mages:

Solo was of course killed immediately by RUB on my first couple tries against Astos, but eventually he missed with his instant-death attack and I could take the picture you see above. Interestingly, the spell SLO2 which Astos used right after RUB was devastatingly strong against Solo, cutting him down to one hit and reducing his attack power by 2/3. I won the battle on about the tenth try when SLO2 failed to affect Solo. Oops, sorry about that Astos; I killed him in just a couple more rounds (Astos only has 168hp). The next part of the game was quite easy; I decided to hold off on completing the Earth Cave after I passed the magic level 21 barrier and broke through to six hits. I leveled up by fighting the Giants in the Earth Cave; they gave out massive experience and gold when they were killed, and by this point Solo was able to dish out plenty of damage. Upon hitting level 21, his power increased phenomenally; remember, Solo was now doing as much damage as a fighter equipped with Xcalber. And I was still in the Earth Cave? Can you say "overkill"? The Vampire went down in one hit; I didn't even get a picture, I was so floored that he was dead that fast. Never even touched Solo since he got to attack first. Lich didn't fare much better:

Keep in mind that Lich has 400hp, and yes I just did more than half of that in the first attack. Solo attacked him again in the next round and the first fiend was dead just like that. Err, what happened to the challenge in this game? Once Solo got to six hits, it simply went away and literally just about everything died in one attack. The only real difficulty remaining was the Ice Cave, which proved as always to be one of the hardest obstacles to overcome in the game. The difficulty with the Ice Cave wasn't the amount of hit points the enemies had; by this time, Solo could kill anything he was likely to encounter in one hit, or at the very worst two. No, the problem was that a lot of the enemies in the Ice Cave had the ability to paralyze Solo or use instant death attacks against my poor solitary black belt. The Mages on the second basement level loved to rub Solo out of existence, for example. Any one of the Images, Specters, or Ghasts could paralyze him as well, at which his future death would become all but inevitable. And then there were the Wizards. They wouldn't seem to be a threat, but you cannot run from Wizards in Final Fantasy (since they appear as a boss in the Marsh Cave) and here in the Ice Cave they appeared in big packs. Solo simply didn't have enough hit points to survive an encounter with seven wizards, and since he couldn't run from them...

Now I could have gone to the Castle of Ordeal and grabbed the Zeus Gauntlet to help myself out, but... I had decided that I would rely exclusively on Solo's fists to do damage in this game. None of that wimpy "using items" to dish out spell effects for my black belt! Solo would have the use of defensive and healing items in battle, but all damage would have to come from his fists and only his fists. I held to this rule throughout the game, never equipping a weapon and never doing damage in any other fashion than attacking. Back in the Ice Cave, I eventually rolled good numbers on the random combat luck and made my way through the dungeon. The Eye was easy; he died in one hit to Solo every single time. It was surviving those tricky random encounters which was the hard part. With the Floater in hand, I could now raise the airship and complete the rest of the game at my leisure.

I ran the Castle of Ordeal next and grabbed a Heal Helmet, the only important item in there for me. I picked up the Tail, but again saw no reason to class change; the black belt gains nothing from changing into a Master, and I liked the dorky-looking sprite that the black belt uses in this game. I grabbed the Zeus Gauntlet and for the first time ever DROPPED it immediately. Ha, I bet I'll never do that again! Solo had no use for such a thing, and there was no reason to let it clog up his inventory. The next area I ran through was Gurgu Volcano to defeat the second fiend; I think I was about level 25 at the time. As such, the enemies were no challenge for me. I went out of my way to fight the Red Dragon on the bottom dungeon level, killing it in one hit three different time before the dragon went first and got an attack in on me. Then Solo killed it again in one hit. Kary had more hit points and higher defense, but didn't fare much better:

In two more rounds, Kary was down for the count permanently, Solo suffering only a few very minor burns for his efforts. I think I ran the Waterfall next, not that it really mattered too much which order I did the areas in. Unlike a fighter (or any other class, for that matter), Solo was completely independent of equipment, his strength being a function only of his level. I was continuing to level up at an incredibly fast pace, since I had only character and thus no need to split the experience four ways like usual. Running the Sea Shrine was a breeze, since there were no enemies there with nasty paralyzing skills or instant death attacks. The only concern I had was running out of heal potions, but by now I could also keep my hp up by using the Defense in battle followed by using the Heal Staff/Helmet repeatedly. Getting to Kraken was not very difficult:

Killing him, however, proved to be harder than I had expected. Oh, I could dish out plenty of damage (as you can see in the picture above), but so could Kraken. His 8 hits were devastatingly strong against my weak armor, doing 200-300 points of damage with each round. I shockingly died the first time I fought the big guy when he smashed me for some 800 damage before I could hit him three times and kill him. Of course, the second time I fought him, Kraken chose to use "Ink" rather than attacking me (silly AI), and the battle was an easy win. By the time I cleared out the Sea Shrine, I was over level 30 and very close to getting up to the 8-hit plateau.

Now if you actually read all of that text up at the top of this page when I was comparing the black belt and fighter classes, you'll know at level 32 the black belt gets an extra two hits and begins to do some ridiculously large amounts of damage. If you didn't read that stuff, here's all you need to know: Solo got really, really strong once he reached level 32. We're talking well-nigh "kill anything in the game in one hit" strong here. To test out his new abilities, Solo went back to his old stomping grounds and decided to share his newfound powers with his old imp buddies. The results were... messy.

That's the definition of "payback" right there. Of course aside from bosses, no enemies in this game have more than 500hp, so Solo was doing massive overkill damage to everything he faced at this point. That was ok with me though, as it was fun to see his damage begin to top 1000hp with every single attack. I now turned to the final areas of the game, running the Mirage Tower/Sky Palace to clear out the few treasures I needed. I dumped useless junk like the Thor Hammer, Black Shirt, Bane Sword, and so on; but every now and then I would get something good I could use, like the Heal Helmet or the Power Gauntlet. I was quite the treasure hunter! (yes, that was supposed to be a sarcastic passage) One thing that was fun to do was fight the Blue Dragon over and over again for experience. I could always kill it in one hit, and it gave good experience too. See, here's a typical battle as I try to go from level 32 to the next threshhold of power at level 42:

This was highly amusing to me, since the Blue Dragon had nearly wiped out my party of white mages when I was trying to get out of the Sky Palace with my hands full of treasure in the previous game. And here I was killed it over and over again, barely even being scratched with each fight, laughing in the face of that game with my solo black belt. Oh yes, don't make light of the skills of a black belt once he gets close to the end of the game! Once I reached level 42 and got my 10th hit, the damage only went up by that much more. It was... scary to see how much damage Solo was pumping out, and how easily he could navigate the challenges of the game at high levels. Take my "battle" with Timat for example:

Here's the play by play. Solo goes first, attacks, and does 1081 damage. Tiamat, having only 1000 hit point, expires immediately. Battle won. And this from what is supposed to be the second-most difficult foe in the game?! What happened to the challenge in this variant? The game started out very difficult, but the longer I played the easier it got. This was almost too easy to be fun. No, scratch that; it was in fact a lot of fun. :)

For the last few levels to get to the max at level 50, I sought out the most difficult foe in the game next to the final boss. The elusive Warmech only has a small chance of encountering your party in the Sky Palace, but a random battle with this foe almost always results in death. Why not test Solo against the strongest opponent I could find next to Chaos himself? Eventually I managed to get lucky and track down the big machine himself. The results were a bit disappointing, to say the least. I killed Warmech in one hit just as easily as everything else:

But hey, the big guy gives some pretty good experience for winning with only one character!

When Solo finally reached level 50, I snapped a picture and prepared to take on the final dungeon. There would be no return from the Temple of Fiends Revisited, since I had no character to cast the EXIT spell, and I wanted Solo to be at his best when he took on the game's final boss. Here are his character stats at the end of the game when fully maxed out (compared to the shot at level 1 to see some of Solo's massive growth):

The final dungeon proved to be pretty easy. I killed the enemies I encoutered in one hit every time, and ran from large packs of monsters. Where I could, I would use the Defense/Heal Staff combo to restore my hit points, but mostly I stuck with heal potions. Although 99 wasn't nearly as many as it sounds, it was enough to get Solo to the bottom of the temple. The Fiends Revisited all fell in one hit to Solo's mighty fists, most of them not even getting the chance to attack Solo in turn. The scariest foes were the insta-kill sorcerers on Tiamat's floor, and I ran from the one encounter I had with them. I ignored the Masmune completely. (Swords? We don't need no stinkin' swords!) Now the battle with Chaos was the only task remaining to be completed.

Who do you think is stronger, a level 50 black belt or the evil force of Chaos himself? I had barely managed to beat the final boss with my white mages after trying numerous times and praying that he wouldn't move through his spell progression to CUR4 too fast. Solo simply ignored anything that complex and beat the living daylights out of the final boss. The play by play: Solo goes first and does about 1100 damage to Chaos. He responds with the special ability "Crack", an instant-death attack which failed. In the second round Solo again goes first, dealing out 1218 damage and killing Chaos. Solo wins without taking a single point of damage. Now THAT'S domination!

Some final thoughts. This variant was much easier than I expected it to be, incredibly easy after playing through the four white mages variant. The lack of armor generally wasn't a big liability for Solo, as he could kill just about anything before it could do enough damage to kill him. Solo also was extremely good at running away when I needed him to in battle; I only failed to get a "close call" twice in the entire game. This was a lot of fun, but almost too easy at the end; I hope that those black belt bashers could see how dominant Solo was in this game, and not just when at ridiculously high levels. I guess I'll have to run a solo white mage sooner or later just to take the game as far as it can go... Until then though, I bid you farewell.