The plot of the comic is based on that of the video game Final Fantasy I, following the four Light Warriors in their quest to vanquish the King of Demons, Chaos. The comic is not, however, a serious epic; much of the humor displayed in 8-Bit Theater is derived from the blunderings and misadventures of the protagonists and their foes. 8-Bit Theater's humor is based on exaggerated RPG stereotypes and includes a range of comedic devices, such as droll humor, running gags, word play, and slapstick. A significant portion of the humor is character driven—often the comic creates reader anticipation for dramatic moments which fail to come. (Example) Clevinger has stated that "[his] favorite comics are the ones where the joke is on the reader. 8-Bit Theater was originally intended to parody a variety of classic 8-bit video games. The popularity of the Final Fantasy comic convinced Clevinger to abandon this idea, although 8-Bit Theater does make occasional references to other video games as well as pop culture phenomena such as comic book superheroes, TV shows and movies. For example, there are parodies of superheroes, such as Arachna-Dude or The Sulk.
In addition to the comic, 8 Bit Theater's website featured two columns which claimed to be written by characters in the comic. The first of them is written by Ryan Sosa as Red Mage and is entitled Twinkin' Out. It deals mainly with role-playing games and fictional battles, pitting superheroes against other superheroes or villains. A famous running gag in the column involved Febreze and its ability to solve every conceivable problem if applied properly (generally, sprayed in the Dungeon Master's eyes as a prelude to a stomach punch). The joke even gained enough popularity that Clevinger used it in the main comic. The second column was Ask EPS or Ask Evil Princess Sara. Clevinger's girlfriend Lydia Tyree, posing as Evil Princess Sara, would give (usually scathing) advice about relationships and life in general.
The plot of 8-Bit Theater is based (somewhat loosely) on that of the video game Final Fantasy I. Four adventurers, the Light Warriors, must save the world by relighting four magical orbs that are tied to the four elements and, finally, defeat the personification of evil, Chaos. However, while many of the original plot points and characters are present, the way they come about is often radically different. The Light Warriors themselves tend to cause more harm than good on their travels and mostly have to be blackmailed, bribed, or threatened into accepting quests.
The overall plotline of the comic (thus far) can be broken in to several arcs, some corresponding to the game plot, and others original.
The shortest and first (original) arc is the Giant's Forest plot. Originally a self-contained storyline for a class project, this plotline introduced Black Mage, Fighter, and Thief. Fighter drags Black Mage into the middle of Giant's Forest in search of the Armor of Invincibility. When the eponymous giant appears, Black Mage uses his signature power, the Hadoken, to obliterate the forest and destroy the giant.
The second arc, Survivor 8-bit Style, is a direct prequel to the events of Final Fantasy I, and tells how the adventuring party forms. Upon returning to their home city of Corneria and seeing a "help wanted" sign for the four Light Warriors, Fighter badgers Black Mage into agreeing to try for the job. While Black Mage goes off to beat up the old man who swindled Fighter into searching for the Armor of Invincibility, Fighter begins interviewing candidates for the other two heroes. Thief tricks his way onto the team, leaving White Mage and Red Mage to compete for the last spot. The fourth position is finally filled by Red Mage, though White Mage continues as a major character.
The basic plot of the next storyline, Saving the Princess is based directly of the first mission of the game. The Light Warriors set off to rescue the oft-abducted Princess Sara, who's being held captive by Garland in the Temple of Fiends. Ironically, Garland is so inept at evil that Princess Sara actually takes over her own kidnapping, to the point that she actually intends to torture Garland for failing to execute her orders properly. After the Light Warriors 'rescue' Princess Sara, King Steve of Corneria 'rewards' them by building "King Steve's Kick Ass Bridge." After this arc, Princess Sara and King Steve sometimes appear in single episode arcs, sometimes supplementing the current plot.
The Poison arc (covering several in-game events) starts when the Light Warriors visit the witch Matoya. After treating them to poisoned cookies, the poison inflicting horrific nightmares, she blackmails them, via the antidote, into recovering her stolen crystal. The search for the crystal takes them to Elfland, where the King (Thief's father) has also been poisoned, apparently by the same person who stole Matoya's crystal.
Upon his recovery, the Elf King sends the Light Warriors off on the Earth Orb quest, to save his kingdom from rotting. After several acts of genocide committed against the dwarven people by Thief and Black Mage, the Light Warriors face off against Vilbert von Vampire and his father, Lich, for possession of the Earth Orb. They succeed, although Lich becomes King of Hell.
White Mage then sends the Light Warriors to Sarda the Sage, who proceeds to draft them into several quests, sending them after the Fire, Water, and Air Orbs, as well as various quests in between.
During the Fire Orb quest the Light Warriors travel to Gurgu Volcano to retrieve the Fire Orb. There they encounter a fire dragon that swallows Red Mage, only to be frozen from the inside with an ice spell, and Kary, the Fiend of Fire, who kills Black Belt. They manage to defeat Kary sealing her in a bag of holding and casting Ice-9, an Ice spell so powerful it freezes everything in the universe (the interior of the bag). Meanwhile, the Dark Warriors come together as a group.
Refusing to resurrect Black Belt, Sarda instead forces the Light Warriors into the Ice Cave quest (approximating the quest for the Levistone), beginning with a ride on a pirate ship staffed by the Dark Warriors, meeting the squid-like Doom Cultists, a temporary rift in space time (resulting in infinite copies of the Light Warriors), and ending with the slaughter of the Cultists by the Light Warriors and Sarda's anger at their failure to deliver his cold-fusion reactor.
The Class Change arc involves meeting the dragon god-king Bahamut and their mission to obtain a rat tail from the Castle of Ordeals. There, the Light Warrior each face their own internal demons: Fighter and Sloth, Red Mage and Pride, Black Mage and the most evil thing available, himself, and Thief misses Greed due to Black Mage dispatching it by accident. The final ordeal of a zombie dragon is solved when Thief steals its vertebrae. The Light Warriors present the rat tail to Bahamut, only to find that it is an ingredient in a virility soup his girlfriend (Matoya) makes for him. Red Mage becomes a Mime, Fighter becomes a Knight, Thief becomes a Ninja, and Black Mage becomes a Blue Mage with some help from a Dark God. Finally, Chocobos are introduced as the warriors search for a way off the Cardia Islands.
The Water Orb comes next. After a prolonged series of stops in Gaia and Onrac, the Light Warriors use a submarine provided by Sarda, and after dealing with aquatic creatures, enter the Sea Shrine to find the Doom Cultists. After dispatching them for a second time, they accidentally summon the third Fiend, Ur (known in the game as Kraken), who is killed by Red Mage from the inside after being eaten. It also results in Onrac being flooded after White Mage rebuilds the town, which will become a running gag.
To get the Air Orb, the Light Warriors then travel to Lefein. After running afoul of language difficulties, the group spends some time wrestling with stereotypical RPG sidequests, including a run-in with the local mafia. After Sarda berates them for wasting time, he returns them to the ruins of Onrac, where the party meets Dragoon, the last Dragon Knight, and his pet "parrot" Muffin. Muffin is actually an evil dragon and the fourth Fiend, who guards the Orb of Air. During a battle in Muffin's Sky Castle she is killed by Dragoon. The Sky Castle itself explodes after Fighter and Black Mage remove the Air Orb from its place.
Upon presenting Sarda with the final orb, he dismissively orders the Light Warriors to return to the Temple of Fiends.
Clevinger also introduces an original subplot involving a rivalry between gods and their respective protégés, two of the Light Warriors. He has also stated that the comic will not include the element of time travel featured towards the end of the game's story.
Original artwork is created by Lydia Tyree and Kevin Sigmund, who contribute hand drawn art and custom sprites respectively. Sigmund (Sky Warrior Bob) has a guide to sprite creation on the Nuklear Power Forums.
The events in 8-Bit Theater revolve around four central characters, the Light Warriors, and a number of minor ones. Many of these characters are exaggerated versions of RPG stereotypes.
A Flash version of 8-bit Theater, created by TLF and Meddros, is available on Newgrounds and UGOPlayer. So far, five episodes have been made. As of 8 Bit Theater 5, the series covers an average of 5.4 comics per episode. A song was produced for the credits after the first episode, called "NES Christmas 2000" by Tacoriffic and CotMM The license / copyright information for this song is unknown, as is what has become of its creator(s). Meddros also helped make the flash for the 2004 Christmas special "Staff Chucks for Christmas Again?"