Final Fantasy: What Went Wrong (Part One of Three)
Part One – “The Golden Age”
“Final Fantasy” is an RPG (Role Playing Game) series originating from Japanese game developers SquareSoft. It is one of the oldest franchises in gaming history despite the name “Final Fantasy” coming from SquareSoft fearing that the first game in the series would also be the last… irony is pretty funny sometimes!
Like many gamers the Final Fantasy series constituted a hefty portion of my gaming experience throughout my teenage and adolescent years. The series still has a place in my heart but like many other like-minded gamers I feel that the series has lost its’ way and I’m here to try discern where exactly things started going wrong. This is a series that has been going strong for decades and only recently has started running into problems from both fans and the community in general. Truth be told there is not a whole lot wrong with some of the more vilified titles bearing the series name that have come out recently but the trends that are now blatantly developing are cause for alarm not just amongst the fans of the series but for the entire genre at large. I figured that the best place to start is with Final Fantasy VI which came out in 1994 on the SNES, the start of the self-confessed “Golden Age” of the franchise.
Final Fantasy VI (1994) – SNES
I should admit this right now: This is not where I started with the series. I took a step back at some point and played this game on a SNES Emulator on a PC rather than on the SNES when it was first released. Immediately I could see why some fans consider this (like Star Wars, everyone has their favorite title) their personal best of the series. VI sported an incredibly engaging storyline set in the background of a ‘steam-punk’ world somewhere between the medieval world and the modern world with a healthy dose of magic and the supernatural thrown in for good measure. The in-game mechanics met the series standard and delivered without really experimenting a whole lot, then again I feel that the developers intended for this game to be a graceful exit for the series from the 16-bit era and it certainly delivered a memorable story and experience to do so.
To this day, if I were to suggest to Hollywood any Final Fantasy game to be adapted for a live-action movie it would be this one. While this entry has not been classified as a part of the ‘Golden Age’ many gamers, myself included consider it to be the catalyst for what followed which should merit its place in the hall of fame.
Final Fantasy VII (1997) – Sony PlayStation
Even if you aren’t a fan of this series, or even a gamer for that matter, odds are you have still heard the name “Final Fantasy VII”. Like countless others this is where I started with the series and again like so many others this is the game that compelled me to go through the subsequent and even earlier titles. The effect that this game had on both the genre and the PlayStation was nothing short of ground breaking; Gran Turismo aside this is the highest selling game on the platform – dwarfing the likes of Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil, Tomb Raider, and generating enough income to buy a small country (seriously). It was a game so revolutionary it spurred millions of gamers to purchase the PlayStation to experience it for themselves and as a result became the main force behind the proliferation of the platform in a market which had previously been dominated by Nintendo. The story of Final Fantasy VII and it’s cast of characters live on in the memories of gamers worldwide – it was a mature story that dealt with themes of spiritualism, corporate control of society, environmentalism, terrorism, and the prospect of a looming apocalypse.
This was a game so good it didn’t merely raise the bar for the genre; it threw it into the stratosphere and is a standard SquareSoft by their own admission have yet to best.
Is it my personal favorite of the series? No, it isn’t. That’s still to come.
Final Fantasy VIII (1999) – Sony PlayStation
The problem with creating something revolutionary is that when you do audiences expect the same of you from there-on, anything else just feels like a let down. Because of the unprecedented success of Final Fantasy VII gamers purchased the next installment in their droves expecting the bar to be raised yet again, this was not to be however. Final Fantasy VIII truly is the ‘marmite’ of the series; you either loved it or you hated it – there was no middle ground and there still isn’t one today. Climbing down from the fast paced and riveting plot of VII this title featured a plot with the focus being between the blossoming love story between its’ two main leads. Most gamers were not accustomed this angle of storytelling and therefore the reaction was rather polarized, the slightly confounded in-game mechanics felt like a climb down from not just the previous installment but from the series way before that and did nothing to help win over sceptical players. Final Fantasy VIII still sold well with just under 8 million copies shipping worldwide, enough to merit the series progressing further.
Regardless of the great divide in reception I picked this one up and remember enjoying it thoroughly, it was only in hindsight a few years later that I began to notice the inherent flaws in the plot and the characters.
Not one of my favorites by a long shot but still, there have been worse slip-ups which we will get to in due course.
Final Fantasy IX (2000) – Sony PlayStation
SquareSoft obviously took the polarized reception of Final Fantasy VIII to heart because what followed the year after was essentially a giant tribute to the entire series thus far in the form of Final Fantasy IX. IX featured a return to the series before the advent of the PlayStation era; ‘steam-punk’ and medieval settings, a return to emphasis on ‘fantasy’ over ‘modernity’, ‘class’ & ‘job’ systems, and a moving story with an engaging cast. This installment felt a lot like Final Fantasy VI must have done at the time of its’ release – a game that was a graceful bow out of an era. The PlayStation 2 was on the horizon so SquareSoft must have felt obligated to show their fans that they had not lost sight of what their empire had been built on before advancing to the next stage of gaming.
IX is looked upon warmly amongst the older fans of the series because of its’ flawless ability to incorporate elements, references, and ideas from titles dating all the way back to the first game in the franchise whilst not losing its’ own identity in the process. If I were to list off all of the aforementioned I would be here for ages but little things like the main character seeing the signature weapon of VII’s protagonist hanging on a wall and him saying “Hmm… I used to know a guy who used a weapon like this…” just made me smile. Still, this game created another divide in reception between the older gamers, likely to have been with the series since day one and thus understood what SquareSoft were trying to convey, and the younger gamers who likely picked up the series with VII and simply did not get what was going on. By this point I had gone back through the series before VI and was able to get more out of IX than most.
Final Fantasy IX is my personal favourite of the series so far, a view shared by the father of the series Hironobu Sakaguchi who claimed that IX is “What ‘Final Fantasy’ should be”.
Final Fantasy X (2001) – Sony PlayStation 2
The amount of hype surrounding this game was unreal, the last time SquareSoft broke into a new platform they released Final Fantasy VII and gamers might have been expecting a title of similar caliber to announce the series arrival in the next generation of consoles. When it landed Final Fantasy X was lauded by critics and fans alike for its’ staggering visual aesthetics, its’ deeply moving story, and for its’ streamlined and easy-to-learn-hard-to-master combat system. Thanks to the capabilities of the PlayStation 2 it was also the first installment in the series to feature voice acting which added more envelopment to the proceedings.
However, something felt off about the whole experience, it never pulled me in as much as VII and IX did – why was that? For the longest time I was not sure, I knew it was a good game but something was still sorely missing, and again it is in hindsight much further ahead in time that I finally realize what it was.
It felt linear, not to such an extreme as certain titles in the series would later become, but it was a sign of things to come. One of the core elements of RPG’s is exploration as the experience of immersing yourself in world and by an extension the story becomes much easier when you have the liberty to travel freely. Much of the story of X was linear up until the last 2-3 hours of the game where everything opened up with the traditional ‘World Map’, and while it made sense in the context of the story it wasn’t all that engaging. This is an argument I will return to in the near future when I get around to writing about a certain future installment in the series so I’d best not dwell on it too much. Overall, it was slightly linear but not to an extent where it potentially ruined the entire game.
I’d best address the controversy surrounding Square’s decision to create a sequel for this game, the ending of X was a downer for a lot of people and since no Final Fantasy game is complete without some sort of polarization I should really cover it. The ending of the game saw the death of the main character, a bold move to say the least, after he had developed a touching relationship another character. Suffice to say fans felt wronged and let down by the way things turned out and their voice reached such a volume that Square was practically pushed into releasing a direct sequel “Final Fantasy X-2” to facilitate those who felt wronged.
Where do I stand on this issue? I think Square should have stood their ground and made the disenfranchised fans realize that the truth about life is that it is harsh and unfair at times, seldom is there a happy ending and more often than not tragedy strikes at the worst possible moments. Square taking such a bold move to write a sombre ending shows that they were trying to push the envelope as video game storytelling is concerned and they should have been praised for it, still they were forced out of fear of losing fans to hastily write a follow-up to change an outcome they should not have had to.
Thankfully I am not alone in my opinion as the follow-up title, which I will get to in the next post, resulted in an even greater schism in the fan base – between those who adored it and those that said it was unnecessary.
This brings us to the end of “The Golden Age”, the games that are widely accepted as being textbook examples of excellent in RPG gaming. However… it has been downhill from here and I will be covering what went wrong and why it went wrong, and if things went wrong at all in the next installment.
Signing off until then,