After a few failed attempts at defeating the final boss, I finally managed to complete Final Fantasy III yesterday. Other than a frustrating lack of save points and a few truly annoying enemies (things as powerful as the Red Dragons should not just sneak up on you at random), the final part of that game was quite a bit of fun and I enjoyed the game as a whole. Now that I am done with the game, I want to write a bit about the game's defining element: the Job System.
The Job System is one of the greatest systems to ever emerge from the Final Fantasy series. It allows characters to change their abilities around in a highly customizable fashion, so even a small, unchanging central cast of characters can be as versatile as an army of characters, which helps greatly in enabling variety in the gameplay while keeping the main cast steady (which can really help the plot). And, unlike many of Square's later game systems that also aim for that same goal (like the FF7 Materia system or FF8 Junction system), it presents character options in manageable chunks, so the player doesn't have to get bogged down with micromanaging a large number of small, independent elements. To put it plainly, it is much easier and more meaningful to make the choice between making a character a Knight or a Black Mage than it is to choose between assigning Firaga spells to a character's Strength or assigning them to his Hit Points. When a Job System is implemented well, it can provide a very good gameplay experience.
In the particular case of Final Fantasy III, though, I am not sure if the Job System really is implemented well or not. Certainly, later games such as Final Fantasy V and Final Fantasy Tactics made radical improvements to the framework established in Final Fantasy III, and as a result the earlier game suffers from the comparison. At the very least, there were many times throughout my playthrough of Final Fantasy III that I wished I could change the equipped abilities of a Job like I could in Final Fantasy V (it would certainly have made some endgame choices a bit easier). At the same time, Final Fantasy III does have a number of unique elements that could not be replicated in later versions of the Job System that work well in this game, such as the distinct tradeoff between lasting power and flexibility seen in the Magus/Devout vs. Sage comparison. Since I can't really say whether the system as a whole works well or not, I guess all I can do is ramble on about some of the smaller details...
1) I don't like the transition period characters undergo after changing Jobs, in which they have reduced stats for a set number of battles while they "learn" the new Job. Because it doesn't really accomplish anything that isn't already controlled by other factors (switching in and out of mage Jobs is limited by the way it affects current MP, etc), and it can be completely bypassed through careful planning and high Job Levels, all it does is get in the player's way and impose some arbitrary connections between certain Jobs.
2) While I prefer some of the ways this is implemented in later games, I do like the simple fact that you get better with a Job the more you use it (the higher your Job Level rises). It creates a reason for a character to stick to a Job for a long period of time, so Jobs become long-term investments rather than a temporary state designed to defeat a single boss with a particular strategy. Without this, there would be no reason for a player to always turn to the same character whenever he needs a White Mage. Of course, it would have been better if the mechanics of raising Job Level and benefits for doing so were laid out more explicitly.
3) I don't like the fact that spending a large amount of time raising Job Levels in one Job becomes meaningless once that character switches to a different class, particularly in the case of "upgrade" Job pairs like the White Mage/Devout pair or Monk/Black Belt pair. When the Black Belt Job become available, the Monk Job becomes obsolete, so any levels dedicated to that class (and thus all of the time the player spent raising those levels) completely go to waste. There should be some sort of global benefit linked to raising a Job's Level high, even if the Job itself doesn't have any more use.
4) I like the way that you never really need any one Job for any given situation, so you always have choices. Every Job performs various roles in a unique way, so there are an incredible variety of viable teams. Certainly, some Jobs are just better than others (I can't imagine a use for the Scholar, and the Red Mage might outclass every other starting Job), so there are balance issues, but this is a game where I was able to effectively use both a Ninja/Summoner/Sage/Black Belt team and a Knight/Devout/Bard/Black Belt team in various attempts at beating the final boss (the former was close but the latter succeeded), so the game clearly allows for a variety of styles and strategies, an essential quality for a fun game.
5) I think you just get Jobs too late into the game. You are stuck with a very limited set of Jobs for the first fourth of the game, and by the time you get the final set of Jobs you are already at the entrance to the final dungeon. I think it would have just been more fun to be able to play around with some of these classes for longer periods of time. After all, I did like the fact that, in Final Fantasy V, you get all but one Job by the end of the first third of the game. Even better is the Final Fantasy Tactics approach, where the player can essentially determine for himself how quickly he unlocks most of the jobs.
6) I like the amount of detail the designers put into making each character look unique for each Job. This works better with some Jobs than others (earlier Jobs like the White Mage tend to have greater variation for each character than later Jobs like the Dark Knight), but it is a nice touch.
I really don't think I have much left to say. Overall, once you begin to understand the system the game holds up surprisingly well for an NES-era RPG, and I am glad I played through the game.