Yet Even More Thoughts on Final Fantasy

We’re still in the middle of our discussion on Final Fantasy and the effect the series had on gamers.  Yesterday we discussed the departure of Hironobu Sakaguchi from Squaresoft, and touched on its merge with Enix Corporation.  Today, we’re going to start to discuss the video games that led him to want to try his hand at movies in the first place.

By the time Final Fantasy IV was released in Japan, Squaresoft had come to dominate the market, and when it was ported to the rest of the world (as Final Fantasy II) it fared no worse.  It helped cement Squaresoft’s position as leader of the R.P.G. market.

As technology progressed and Squaresoft explored just what could be done with the medium, Final Fantasy V and Final Fantasy VI swept through gamers.  The latter would eventually be released as Final Fantasy III outside of Japan, and both caught gamers’ attention like little else did.  There was a good reason for that, too—the stories were incredibly deep and complex (even by Final Fantasy standards), the worlds large and expansive, and the characters complicated.  To this day you can still get fans of the series to fight over which of the two was better.

The bigger fight, however, comes when you mention the next game in the series: Final Fantasy VII.

Before we get into that debate, let us say that it’s hard to underestimate just how much V and VI impacted the series.  From VI onward, though he stayed to help develop the stories and such, Sakaguchi turned directorial control over to Yoshinori Kitase and Hiroyuki Itou, and you might remember the former from yesterday’s jump forward in the time line as eventually taking over Sakaguchi’s position at Squaresoft.  Kitase and Itou started taking the series away from the medieval feel of the earlier titles, instilling more of a steampunk-y feel that had some gamers wondering just how much of a Final Fantasy title it really was.  While the series wasn’t exactly known for consistency, quite a few staples of setting were left by the wayside with VI.

Their most hotly-debated entry in the series would have to be Final Fantasy VII.  Now, remember that at this time the franchise was almost synonymous with Nintendo, at least amongst fans.  It had only ever been on a Nintendo-brand system, both in Japan and elsewhere.  However, Hironobu Sakaguchi and company had begun to feel that cartridges were too constraining, that the limits imposed on data storage were too much of a hindrance.

Also at this time, Sony was looking to get into the video game market and was in discussion with Nintendo about building a disc-based peripheral for the S.N.E.S. called the Super Disc.  Talks fell through, Sony took their system and went home (eventually retooling a little and turning it into the PlayStation), and Nintendo began working on the N64.  As ideas coalesced into what would become VII, it was decided that cartridges were simply too limiting for what they wanted to do, so they made the controversial move of leaving Nintendo and heading over to Sony.

Some Final Fantasy fans aren’t exactly enamored with VII, so while gaming nerds aren’t exactly known for our physical prowess, if you want to see one start a fist-fight, tell one in the anti-VII camp that it was a great game, perhaps one of the best of the series.  You’ll see flailing like you’ve never seen it before.

Joking aside, even now you’ll find anti-VII gamers, and it’s easy to understand why.  Story-wise, it wasn’t exactly revolutionary; it had, like the others, taken elements of games that came before and crafted a story of hope and hopelessness, finding joy amidst sorrow, pulling triumph from devastation.  Story-wise, it was just as deep as its immediate predecessors, though where it exactly falls is open to debate.

Where the anti-VII stance starts to falter, however, is that no matter what can be said about the story, it had arguably the largest impact on gaming in general, and certainly on the series.  Up until then, full-motion videos (F.M.V.s), as resource-taxing as they are, were kept for introductory and ending sequences by and large, with perhaps a few in the middle covering incredibly special events.  VII not only had those, but they had ones that were hidden and dealt with special characters who weren’t easy to get into the party in the first place.  That alone was almost if not unheard of before then.

That point is more than just the ability to pepper F.M.V.s throughout a game and have gamers enjoy them.  It made other developers and publishers re-think things some.  It didn’t revolutionize game development, but it did shake things up.

Further, you have an event in the game that, in and of itself, was nowhere near new to gaming in general or the franchise in particular, but how it came about was, well, shocking.  We are, of course, talking about the death of Aeris Gainsborough (and before anyone offers a debate on the “Aeris” versus “Aerith” thing, it doesn’t matter.  While the full etymology is beyond the scope of this article [and would take a few articles of its own to cover], suffice it to say that both are correct translations of the original concept, and though “Aerith” is considered canon since it’s been used in every appearance since, we’re using her VII spelling here since that’s the game we’re talking about).

It was such a powerful moment that people are still creating artwork about it almost a decade and a half later (though be warned; some of the linked art is graphic).

What made it so powerful?  After all, it’s not like character deaths were really a new concept the the series, or gaming in general.  At this point in gaming history, our games were starting to mature, to start working past the stigma of being glorified kids’ toys.

What made it so powerful is that it came out of nowhere.  For one thing, Sakaguchi and company had felt that killing a character and resurrecting them would cheapen the impact of the death.  For another thing, they wanted it to be like real life, where sometimes death sneaks up, without warning.  One moment someone’s alive and the next they’re gone, it happens that fast and with as little foreshadowing.

Now, Aeris was also built up as the ultimate “good girl”; she was calm, pleasant, smarter than she gave herself credit for, and always helped someone in need without even thinking of the personal cost it might entail.  Whether the individual gamer wanted her to be “with” Cloud or not, hardly anyone thought badly of her.  That was combined with the fact that there were no hints of her impending doom.  You could still find weapons for her, obtain her Limit Breaks, and so on.

In other games of that era—and most since—the player could figure out what was going to happen, even if the characters they controlled couldn’t.  There would be no more weapons for them, there’d be talk about “I wonder what happens after we die”, or whatever else.  There was almost always something to at least prick the player’s Gamer Sense and alert them that it was likely this or that character wasn’t going to be around much longer.

Here, she just went off to try and conjure magic powerful enough to stop Sephiroth; nothing more indicative of her looming death was offered. That is just how the Kitase, Sakaguchi, et al. wanted it.  Sometimes, again, death is random, unforeseeable, coming out of nowhere.  Also as said before, most loved her as a character, so when she died, well—watching it again, even all these years later, can bring tears to the eyes of more than a few gamers, let me tell you.

Interestingly, it had another effect: For one of the first times, gamers genuinely hated the antagonist of a video game, in this case Sephiroth.  Until (and perhaps since) then, the antagonists were disliked, sure, but they didn’t really garner this level of a reaction from so many people before.  I’ve known plenty of gamers who held marathon sessions after Aeris’ death, just so they could get Cloud’s hands around Sephiroth’s neck.  Her death made us so much more invested with the story that Kitase, Sakaguchi, and everyone else had crafted.

All of the above said and put aside—additional F.M.V.s and Aeris’ death alike—VII was responsible for arguably the most important point of the series’ history: It brought the series to a much wider audience.

Now, to be fair, it wasn’t like the game slowly descended from the gaming heavens amidst an angelic chorus, enshrouded in bright yet warm light or anything.  Squaresoft’s marketing campaign got it out into the public awareness.  They cranked up the marketing to then-unheard-of levels; they gave demos away like they were candy, had the protagonists’ faces on pretty much every magazine they could (non-R.P.G. gamers may have made fun of this spiky-haired guy with a sword almost as big as he was, but by cracky they knew who he was), gave interviews like they were movie stars, paid for television commercials (yes, plural, and remember this was a time when that was rather uncommon; you can see three of the commercials here, here, and here), and more.  They dumped a lot of money into making sure every gamer—and people only tangentially aware of gaming—knew what Final Fantasy VII was and when it was coming out.

Without that intense campaign, it’s nearly impossible to believe that the game—and thus the franchise as a whole—would have become as crazy-popular as it still is.

It’s fair to say that such a campaign could have (and some might say should have) been launched for VI; after all, it was no less “deep” of a game, with no less complexity in mechanics or characters alike.  There was one major difference, however, between them, one that some gamers have a hard time reconciling.  The difference is that VII was simply better-looking.

That’s not to say VI was ugly or anything; not by far.  Heck, the official artwork holds up to this very day as what proves that Yoshitaka Amano is far beyond being simply “talented”.  His artwork even from back then remains downright inspirational.

The problem is that the game itself was still sprite-based, artistically-speaking.  Yes, the sprite-based world still looked fantastic for sprites, but that they were sprites in the first place were, as some would lament, a hindrance.  No matter how good-looking they were, it was difficult for non-R.P.G. gamers to really see a huge difference between Final Fantasy VI and—pretty much any other sprite-based R.P.G. out there, so it didn’t really get much attention.

Final Fantasy VII‘s official artwork was no less appealing than its predecessor, but the difference was the look of the game itself.  Fully three-dimensional polygonal structures for the characters instead of sprites.  A world that looked more real, and thus felt more real.  That look and feel was one of the aspects hyped up by the marketing machine, as they understood gamers all too well.

It’s been said plenty of times—by myself as well as others—that these days games sometimes seem more about pretty graphics first and everything else second.  The thing of it is that that’s not strictly true; games have been at the least going this way almost since the hobby first started.  We as a species are attracted to interesting visuals; that’s how we operate, and gamers are no exception.  Games that grab the visual part of our brain and refuse to let go are ones we generally purchase.

Final Fantasy VII had everything going for it—luck and talent behind letting it come out at a time when similar games didn’t really exist, money for an incredible marketing campaign, and soon the rapt attention of far more gamers than the series had yet seen.  It was a no-brainer that there was going to be another entry, but this time—things were going to be different.

Tune in next time to see just how different.  See you then!


4 Responses to “Yet Even More Thoughts on Final Fantasy

  1. Elisa Michelle Says:

    Interesting. I never knew the Final Fantasy series was primarily on the Nintendo before VII. I always assumed they’d been on the Playstation since the dawn of time (haha).

    • Hee, no kidding. I also find the Super Disc an interesting note, since without it, it’s possible that Final Fantasy would never have been able to make the jump to being disc-based, and thus have more space for data, and thus allow for large stories that were also visually appealing.

      • Elisa Michelle Says:

        True. Technology is amazing, and I’m impressed by how far it’s come in just the past ten years (which is around how long I’ve been gaming).

      • No kidding. It’s astounding how far it’s come, how much developers can do with the technology they have. I’ve been gaming a good bit longer, but I can definitely agree with feeling impressed.

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