A Whole Lot More Thoughts on Final Fantasy

Last Thursday, we covered the game that brought the Final Fantasy series to a wider audience and I think inarguably catapulted the series, rightly or wrongly, into the fame it enjoys even today—Final Fantasy VII.  Every gamer was waiting with bated breath to see what they would do—what they could do—to follow such a smash hit. One year later, in the fall of ‘Ninety-Eight, they showed the gaming world just what that would be—and some gamers were relieved, while others were perplexed.

Final Fantasy Tactics had been out in Japan a bit longer than Final Fantasy VII had been released to the rest of the world, and it was a hit.  When it went to the rest of the world, some gamers were confused.  It almost felt like a step backward; VII had fully three-dimensional characters, and now we were back to sprites.  To top it off, the map (and thus random battles) had been tweaked in ways that made them very different than the predecessors’.

The story was a bit more esoteric than gamers brought into the franchise by VII would have expected, especially since it hearkened back to the more medieval feel of earlier titles.  The story was as complex as could be expected from a Final Fantasy title; a nation torn by war and trying to rebuild, a young noble coming to terms with his place in the world and trying to figure out what things like “honor” and “duty” really mean.  Of course, the official artwork was stunning, and for a sprite-based game around midway through the PlayStation’s life-cycle, the game itself looked downright beautiful.

That said, it also suffered badly from translation issues when it was ported to the rest of the world.  From the get-go you went through engrish, from the tutorial onward.  Still, that wasn’t enough to keep most fans from loving it and snapping it up.  So beloved it still is, there’s a thriving modding community based on it.

It was a much more tactics-oriented game than fans may have been expecting; while it did, yes, have “Tactics” in the title, it also had “Final Fantasy“.  While it’s hard to deduce set numbers, it seems fair to say that Final Fantasy VII may have increased the fan-base by as much as double, so many new fans who had never really played an R.P.G. before VII may not have played a tactical R.P.G. before, either.

Still—while some gamers were confused, and some thought it was a graphical step backward, most snapped it right up.  It was received well enough to spawn two sequels, as well as an “updated version” of the original.

While we can, of course, only speculate, it seems likely that the group of developers behind the series at the time, led by Hironobu Sakaguchi, Yoshinori Kitase, and Hiroyuki Itou felt some sense of freedom.  Starting from the beginning, they explored what they could do in the video game medium, the kinds of stories they could tell, the worlds they could build.  As yet, gamers had seemed to enjoy everything the team did.

Final Fantasy VII had been yet another example of the tinkering the team had been doing with the series, and the fans seemed to love it.  They’d been playing with leveling systems versus “learning” systems, they’d been playing with magic, with visual effects, and everything else for most of the series’ history.  Final Fantasy Tactics had let them play around with game mechanics even more, injecting more of a turn-based, tactics-oriented system into the franchise, and proving that fans would love it.

Other developers tended to only tinker with their franchises; a little tweak here or there, keeping the over all formula intact.  That was never good enough for the team at Squaresoft, and their continued retooling resulted in the next game of the series, Final Fantasy VIII.

While it wasn’t really known to fans at the time, this was a period of great changes behind the scenes.  In order to get more titles out while the PlayStation was still in its prime, they created two development teams.  They toyed with this idea years before, but not really at this level.  Two entire teams of people worked on separate Final Fantasy games, one with an “ultra-modern” sort of feel that tried to take story-telling in a new and exciting direction, and one the ultimate love-letter to the fan-base that tried to be everything the franchise was, wrapped up into one title.

Meanwhile, Sakaguchi had more or less stepped back from involvement with the game titles to focus on Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, so while he provided a bit of input for VIII, these would be the first games without the full involvement of the series’ “father”.  We remember where Sakaguchi’s attempt in film-making would lead, of course, from a previous discussion, and we’ll talk about Final Fantasy IX at another time.

For Final Fantasy VIII, Tetsuya Nomura was once again character designer, as he’d been on many of the then-recent titles as well as a lot of other games, Kazushige Nojima returned to write the story, and Yoshinori Kitase resumed his directorial position.  Many of their team, like them, were returning to the series as well, so it was familiar territory.

The interesting thing is that, for whatever reason, they decided to really shake things up.  I’m sure it would have been quite interesting to be a fly on the wall for those meetings, since they redesigned everything from almost the ground up.  For the first time, characters were modeled realistically-proportioned in normal game-play, which lent an interesting “feel” to the game.  One of the more fundamental changes was to the leveling system—it was no longer the traditional “get insanely powerful and wipe out your enemies” sort of set-up.  As the characters progressed in level, so, too, did everything else—random enemies, bosses, everything.

One of the more in-depth changes was magic.  They dropped the point-based system in favor of a “draw” system, where the player could “draw” magic from “draw points”, enemies, and so on, used primarily for the biggest and most controversial change—the Junction System.  It was one of those things players either “got” or they didn’t.  There wasn’t a whole lot of middle ground, and if you were one who didn’t “get” it, no amount of booklet-reading or going through the Junction tutorial would help, so you’d more likely than not just start doing things randomly and hoping something useful would happen.  If you did “get” it, you had access to one of the most powerful parts of the game.

It—was a really, really odd system.  It worked for what it was, but—it was still odd as heck.  The linked article shows just how complex it really was.  It was one of those things that had to have looked spectacular on paper, but in execution—it was a mind-boggling nightmare.  It was so—tedious.  Too many battles were spent trying to just “draw” magic instead of anything else.  Tediousness in battles wasn’t exactly a new thing; trying to get that first chocobo in Final Fantasy VII could be positively mind-numbing—but it ended.  Sooner or later, you got your chocobo, and were able to continue.

Also, most of the games had “grinding”, where you fight battle after battle after battle for better stats and/or to gain higher levels, but that was a different sort of tediousness.  The new leveling mechanic meant grinding was actually generally a bad idea, but it dropped that tediousness in favor of drawing magic.

Fans were ambivalent.  They bought it right up, of course, but it was so different from earlier titles, especially for players brought into the series because of VII.  The most argued-about aspect of the game, though, isn’t a mechanic.  Yes, people still debate the Junction System, the retooled leveling, and all the rest, but one thing is still the source of debate amongst fans—the plot.

The series had been known for interesting and complex plots for quite a few titles by that point.  It’s almost a toss-up between V, VI, and VII for which had the most intriguing plot, but the earlier games were no slouches in that department, either.  VII‘s plot was—convoluted, yet at the same time simplistic.  It’s an odd contrast, but there it is.

The protagonist, Squall Leonhart, is a mute jerk, much like his predecessor, Cloud Strife.  The difference between them is that Squall never really becomes anything else.  Rinoa, the love-interest, spends more time whining than doing anything useful, and—it just goes downhill from there.  It seemed like the team were trying to recapture the Locke/Celes story in VI, but didn’t quite know how to go about it and retool it to make it fit their current game.  The rest of the characters were just as two-dimensional.

The worst part was the arc of the plot itself.  It started off great, but kind of petered out halfway through, to just sort of wander into a more traditional “save the world” sort of thing.  It left some players confused; so much so that a GameFAQs user by the name of Falsehead took it upon herself—after apparently a lot of requests—to write up a plot analysis.  It’s incredibly well-written, in-depth, and covers any question one could possibly have—but by her own admission it’s also a bit of guesswork.

In such a round-about way, that mess of a plot is what led to the success of the game we’ll talk about next time—Final Fantasy IX.  The gaming world was ready for a more traditional game even with whatever interesting tweaks the developers could come up with, and by cracky we got it—in spades.  As we’ll see next time, IX was, above all else, a giant love-letter to the fans that had made Squaresoft the gaming giant it had become.  Tune in next time!


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