June 4, 2012

Classic Gaming: Retrospective on the Final Fantasy Series


So, I am going to do something in this blog I haven’t done before, and it’s not about MMOs, it’s actually a retrospective on one of my former favorite franchises back when I was a young little pup; the Final Fantasy series. Now, I know that some people talk about Final Fantasy, and many remember that abomination on the PlayStation, Final Fantasy 7, as their all-time favorite game. I can’t fault them for that, many of them had never played a Final Fantasy game until that point, and the PlayStation introduced many people to the Final Fantasy series. Hell, I won’t even lie, I bought a PlayStation myself just so I could play Final Fantasy 7, but I am getting way ahead of myself on that point. Needless to say, this is mostly nostalgia talking, and will most likely piss people off as I say it, but I do personally consider any PlayStation era game of Final Fantasy an absolute betrayal (to quote Spoony) of the core franchise most basic fundamentals.

Way back sooner, in ye old NES days (talking 8 bit here) I was reading my Nintendo Power, and there was a blurb about a game called Final Fantasy in it. I was big into the whole Dungeons and Dragons thing, but was wary of actually bothering to get involved, because I had played Dragon Warrior, and promptly thought it sucked hard. But, I decided I would go ahead and give it another go, because generally speaking, Nintendo Power’s reviews were fair and well thought out. Not to mention you could actually pick the classes of your party members. Hell, I even entered a contest for Final Fantasy through that magazine and won a crystal ball from it, that I still have to this day with the classic Final Fantasy logo emblazoned on the bottom of it. It’s a glorified paper weight but I felt so happy.

Needless to say, I went out and bought myself a copy of Final Fantasy. When I got home and plugged it in, the first thing that grabbed me was the music. Primitive by today’s standards in all its 8-bit glory, mind you, but wow, was it good for setting the tone and mood of the game. And most fascinating of all, it had a prologue of text for people to read and actually get a sense of where this game was coming from. In short, a prophecy foretold a coming darkness, and 4 warriors would appear heralding in the light to battle the darkness; The Light Warriors. As clich├ęd and basic as any type of intro as you could get today, but it was far better than most other RPGs on the NES at the time. And the gameplay, way, way better than that crappy Dragon Warrior game I absolutely despised.

Now, this was back in the day when I was too young and dumb to realize that these games were coming out of Japan and there were actually other games in the franchise. So, it wasn’t until the Super NES came along that I found out about the American Final Fantasy 2. I saw the blurb in the back of Nintendo Power, talking about the coming game articles for next issue, and I really got excited. Because I loved the story of Final Fantasy, even as shallow as one might consider it, but the gameplay, made me love it. Then I got that next issue and I saw the leaps in mechanics the new game would make. Active Time Battle (ATB) was a big thing, as you had to think on the fly. I was hooked just reading the article.

Then I got the game, and wow did the bar get raised for me personally. The sound score, that Final Fantasy prelude I love, got the ante upped and it sounded orchestral and really moving. Then the game opens up with a flyby and you see the prelude to the fall of the main character and begin his quest to rise up to be a better person. The music was top notch and the story was moving at times, and heart wrenching in others. I kept going and going, and even got my characters to such lofty heights that even the toughest normal enemies were nearly being one shotted regularly by me. Then the American Final Fantasy 3 was announced and all bets were off.

This was the first RPG, that I recall, that had ever gotten an actual TV commercial in America. Maybe it was where I lived, but I remember that little moogle on screen interviewing the monsters and such, and that just blew my mind. I was sitting on the edge of my seat, waiting for the launch day. Hell, I just happen to get into a local Wal-Mart and asked if they had a copy of Final Fantasy 3, and low and behold the guy went and got me a copy and there it was, the magnificent purple black box with the moogle on it and the golden logo reminding me of Final Fantasy 2. And I was still enamored by Final Fantasy 2 and its rather epic ending mind you to.

And Final Fantasy 3, to me is the pinnacle of the Final Fantasy series, the absolute best of the best. They took the bar and raised it so high that they’ve literally tried to recopy it in almost every PlayStation Final Fantasy since. They left the fantasy feel in but added in slight variations of a steam punk atmosphere and oppressive regime. It was absolutely brilliant, and the bad guy, Kefka (who is probably the best villain ever in a Final Fantasy game), could probably be the Joker’s brother. He is absolutely bat-shit insane, but his antics make him quite memorable and one of those types of bad guys you just love to hate.

And the main character you start as, unlike the previous Final Fantasy, was not the main focus of Final Fantasy 3. Terra was some strange girl with even stranger powers, and amnesia, but the plot actually didn’t revolve around her. In fact the plot shifts between multiple characters fleshing out their stories in the most beautiful and poignant way. You actually felt what these characters felt, even in the limitations of their 16 bit world. And when you saw the Opera scene when you, as Celes, had to sing the opera song to Oh My Hero, the melody and music was powerful. This was a game that was beautifully designed and orchestrated, and the best part, just when you think it’s the end, it isn’t.

This is how the bar was raised in Final Fantasy 3 for me. I had gotten to the point where I was going to the floating island, and we were out to stop the Emperor. Battle was going well, and of course, I thought the end of the game was near, which to me was just baffling because that would make the game the shortest in the series. But, low and behold, Kefka’s douchery rears its ugly head, and he usurps the Emperor and takes command of the ultimate power. Not only did we fail to stop the true threat, the world ends up destroyed in the process. Holy crap, the world is destroyed and forever changed. Talk about raising the bar to maximum at this point, but oh, the game isn’t over.

You wake up as Celes, and now your goal is to go out in the world and find your friends. But you can also screw up just on the waking up part as Cid is also with you (a character that has been in Final Fantasy almost since the beginning) and if you don’t do things just right, Cid could die.

The world itself is an obliterated mess with monsters everywhere and you are left with a sense of what are we going to fight for, until you start finding survivors and townships that have been rebuilding in the aftermath and you see the reason to continue fighting and surviving. The ending is just beautiful with emotional attachments as you finally take down the big bad at the end, brought your companions back from the brink of despair and the end result is the destruction of all magic in the world to save it. In short, at this point there was no higher the game could have gone, but hell, I was still too young to think about that.

Now, before I continue, at this point I was pretty much a Final Fantasy Fanatic. Final Fantasy 3 had left me wanting more, and of course I dug into every morsel I could find. Nintendo Power was talking about the N64 at this time, and I saw a bit that Square was looking to make a 3d version of Final Fantasy on the N64. I was all hyped, but then, nothing more came out about this. I kept wondering asking people if they heard anything, then I heard whispers that the next Final Fantasy would be on the PlayStation.

I found a magazine article about it in a Wal-Mart, and it showed that it was called Final Fantasy 7, and of course, again having not previously personally known about all the other Final Fantasy’s at the time, I kept wondering what happened to 4, 5 and 6. It wasn’t until later that I was informed that Final Fantasy 2 was actually 4 and Final Fantasy 3 was actually 6. So I kept wondering why 2, 3, and 5 were never ported to America, and discovered in another article that they never felt they would have sold well and wasn’t worth the translation at the time. Bah, let me make up my own damn mind please.

Needless to say, as I said before in this blog, Final Fantasy 7 is the whole reason I bought a PlayStation. I was eager and hyped for it. I couldn’t wait to try it. After all, after the balls to the wall storytelling that was done with Final Fantasy 3 (or 6) they couldn’t possibly start slowing down now. I don’t think my anxiety could have been any higher than waiting for that god awful Sony PlayStation load up title screen to pass than I was when loading the Final Fantasy disc into the console at that time.

And then I heard the music and I thought to myself, yes, this is going to be a Final Fantasy. They were using the traditional prelude that always let me know this was a Final Fantasy game. Then, I started playing it. Now admittedly, it took some time for me, but I started catching things early on that this wasn’t actually a Final Fantasy game. First up, of course, was all the heavy techno crap in the game world. Barring crappy polygonal graphics of the time, I couldn’t help but notice that the world felt lifeless, something that even the 8 bit games at least tried to convey back with its limited color palette. And I understood by now that none of the Final Fantasy games were ever really connected to one another, and I expected that most of the character tracks would be gone, but this was the most god awful music I had ever heard in a Final Fantasy. It was making the 8 bit game sound absolutely orchestral.

And then the first slap of the betrayal came at me with a knife; the battle music. Now, to this day, the battle music of Final Fantasy has been pretty much similar, espousing more heroic themes and a feeling of fighting. You were playing heroes in a game, and the music matched that. But in Final Fantasy 7, it didn’t feel heroic as much as bland and this is going to be tedious. It didn’t inspire as much as make me want to turn down my volume, contrary to what I did in the previous titles which was keep myself from actually turning the volume up and upsetting my parents.

And then the slap in the face that really got me the moment I noticed it from the get go; the victory fanfare music. Oh my God, how did you screw that up? That is perhaps one of the most remembered things about the Final Fantasy games for any nerd who has actually been playing the games since the NES days. It went from this sounding heroic courageous thing to sounding bland, and like someone went, oh, yea, you won, here’s crap. Jees, really? And believe me when you actually sit down the entire mood of Final Fantasy 7 was just a cluster of fricken fail after another, I still can’t believe people actually consider this crapfest the pinnacle of Final Fantasy.

The characters themselves were all stock and not very memorable. Hell the only reason people even remember some of the characters even that remotely is that two of them had over sized swords. Then of course comes the ultimate insult, the death of Aeris (Aerith) that every nerdgasming fan boi will sit there and say is the saddest thing evar, and I still scratch my head as to why. Aeris was the blandest, stupidest and most boring character in a Final Fantasy, and there had been previous characters who had been killed off and were way more memorable and had way more impact than that useless air head. And what’s worse, the game tries to convey she was integral to the whole plot line when the game could have moved on and she would never have been missed, not once.

And that’s not even getting into how bad the plot was to begin with, and how much it was an attempt to copy Final Fantasy 3 and fail utterly at it. Basically, you try to stop the end of the world, a common theme mind you, but in this game, you actually fail, like in 3, but unlike there, that is the actual ending. The world is destroyed and the only survivors we are shown is Red XIII and his pups. Yea, they retconned that later on given the fan outcry and such, and I am not raging over the ballsy ending, in fact I applaud it, but what I was disappointed over was the sheer utter destruction of the franchise and the absolute betrayal of what made Final Fantasy. They pushed so hard on the graphics that the plot and storyline and characters were all lame and less than stock. Their most memorable qualities were oversized things from Cloud’s sword, to Cait Sith’s body, to Tifa’s boobs (and you can probably find a lot of fan drawings of Tifa and her giant jugs that are weapons unto themselves).

But, no, the final nail in the coffin for me was Final Fantasy 8. Whereas it took me a while, because I was still a Final Fantasy Fanatic at the time, to realize how shit 7 was, but 8 utterly devastated me. 8 was a middle finger to the fans, and completely removed everything that was Final Fantasy. The prelude song that had been a tradition for 7 games before it, was gone. It was a techno wannabe world with impossible gun blades and S&M teachers who wanted to bone the main character, who was an unrelatable douche bag metrosexually confused character, and tried to cram so many plot points it was just an utter cluster of fail.

And it basically retread all the same grounds as Final Fantasy 3, again, including world destruction and you fighting on after the end of the world. But unlike in 3, this one the world is magically fixed because of time flux or something, and the destruction of the world never happened, and it’s all just a baffling mess. This doesn’t even include the awful, awful gameplay mechanics that required endless hours of grinding, more than usual, using the draw system, and the utter requirement of attuning characters to Guardian spirits or the fact that gear and upgrades were completely removed and required convoluted wannabe crafting system to get working. Final Fantasy 8 destroyed my love of Final Fantasy.

At this point I didn’t care. I bought Final Fantasy 9, and the roots were there, but I was so, utterly and hopelessly spiteful towards the series because of Fianl Fantasy 7 and 8, which I only ever got as far as disc 2 in Final Fantasy 9. I never completed that game, despite how Final Fantasy 9 did return to form, somewhat. And it makes me sad, because from what I heard, 9 was a beautifully done game as far as plot and story are concerned.

I’ve never played 10, 11, 12 or 13. I probably never will because just looking at the cover of 10 sickens me, and hearing all the scathing reviews of 13 just makes me laugh. 12 flew under the radar I didn’t even know it was made until 13 was being talked about, and 14 was just bad for an MMO. Needless to say, Final Fantasy was a franchise I started out loving, but when the series reached the PlayStation, and got Sony’s mitts on it, I knew things weren’t going to turn out well from a fan perspective. Sony had an already bad reputation at this time for me, and it makes me sad that my fears were confirmed. I do miss the old series, but like in my MMO blog from last week, it is something I don’t expect to ever return to its true roots because the game was killed off in favor of shiny instead of substance.

Would I ever consider a new Final Fantasy if they tried to return to form? I don't know. I know a lot of fans make me gag because they want Final Fantasy 7 remade, but if I ever had to pick a Final Fantasy to be remade for the common era, I would vote 3 (aka 6) because that game had a true story, substance and was basically the pinnacle of what made Final Fantasy truly a Final Fantasy.