Final Fantasy III has a fairly extensive remake. The original game had 4 nameless characters. The remake gave them names and switched around the starting areas to introduce them. Job classes in the game were changed so that the original first job class (Onion Knight) was only available through a quest using online messages to friends. Graphically, the game went from 2D NES sprite work to 3D DS graphics. Gameplay systems were tweaked as well. Before, you earned CP points that you would spend on changing jobs. Now you gained levels in each job class, and had a certain number of battles where your new job class acted like a lower level one when you changed classes. Companion characters helped out in battle as well in the remake and would occasionally cast magic or heal.
While the remake obviously tried to change the balance of the game and modernized the graphics, that does not mean the game is automatically better. The translation gave Refia, for example, a surly blacksmith. However, there’s no real resolution of her conflicts with him. Since it was a remake, the hour long final dungeon was not heavily changed (though you a can make quicksaves that allow you to stop for a while.) Also, as a remake, the game still forces you to cycle through job classes to handle specific areas, although it does feel a bit more telegraphed which job classes you would need. Certain high level healing items are still very rare. I think the DS version is definitely more playable, but I suspect some people would find just as much fun trying to muddle through the NES version.
Tales of Phantasia is a curious case for a ported game. The original game has a complex and troubled development history. People from Wolfteam (a part of Telenet,) decided to make a RPG with Namco as the publisher. Yoshiharu Gotanda, the game’s programmer, had an unpublished novel called Tale Phantasia. The game was to be based off this novel. However, Namco, the publisher, wanted to change the plot, the look of the characters, and otherwise try to make the game more marketable. After the game was published, Gotanda and others left Wolfteam to found Tri Ace studios. Namco kept the Tales copyright, and formed Namco Tales Studio.
However, Namco didn’t think it would sell well in the US, and it wasn’t until 2006 that the GBA port was brought to the US. The remake has slightly ‘off’ graphics and the music suffers a little due to the small GBA speakers. The translation has different names and a winceworthy typo in there (Ragnorak is apparently a Kangeroo.) There is also a fan translation of the SNES version available.
To my taste, however, the GBA port is the “better” one. Why? Well, it reinserts the original character designs for the characters. While the SNES ones aren’t terrible, it is nice to have the menu sprites match the in-game sprites and Klarth’s design is kind of neat. I also prefer the translation. The SNES translation tries to make the script more exciting. For example, while watching a sleeping Arche, a character says something like “That Arche – I bet she’s a firey character,” in the Japanese translation. In the SNES translation, Arche is declared to “f*** like a tiger.” Since the game has a fairy-tale like feeling to the plot and music, the more crude language feels jarring against the pastel graphics and the music.
All in all, Final Fantasy III and Tales of Phantasia are very different remakes. In the case of Final Fantasy III, you have a great deal of new dialogue and characterization and an entirely new graphical portrayal of the world. In the case of Tales of Phantasia, you have very similar graphics to the SNES version, and changed sprites.
Final Fantasy III DS feels like a game modernized and expanded for a more modern audience. Tales of Phantasia feels like a game that’s trying to make a more cohesive version of the original game. It’s not that surprising, then, that I think that both of them are perfectly acceptable introductions to what the game is like. While you cannot see the graphical changes from Final Fantasy II to Final Fantasy III, you still can see the job class system, the plot, and the gameplay. While the GBA port of Tales of Phantasia is not the most attractive version of the game, it lacks the polarizing fan translation and it has cohesion between various character artwork.