Even Yet More Thoughts on Final Fantasy

Monday we covered both Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy VIII, as part of our ongoing discussion about the history of the franchise itself.  Today we’re going to look at another pair of games; one that meant so much, that was so much appreciation Square-Enix had for the fans, and the other one of the first games made without any real input by Sakaguchi.  Today, we’ve going to cover Final Fantasy IX and Final Fantasy X.

Squaresoft couldn’t have been in a more secure position.  While Final Fantasy VIII didn’t do quite as well as its predecessor, it was still received well enough to, it must be assumed, let them feel incredibly confident about releasing the next in the series—and it ended up being better-received than either of the two before it.

Now, while Hironobu Sakaguchi was able to give some input, it really could only have boiled down to an idea here and a suggestion there, as most of his attention was taken up with Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, and we all remember how that turned out, so we’ll leave it for another time.

Final Fantasy IX has an interesting history.  Though developed concurrently with VIII, if by a different development team, no one was quite sure what to do with it.  One idea was to make it a “spin-off”, not really a part of the main “numbered” franchise (a concept which eventually became Dissidia Final Fantasy for the P.S.P.).  Yet someone, somewhere in the company seemed to realize just what they had on their hands.

It had the graphical refinement of VIII, the memorable characters of VII, and—well, it had a little bit of everything from every game before it.  And that was before they really went to work on it.  It was going to be the last Final Fantasy on the PlayStation (development on Final Fantasy X was starting around the same time VIII was getting close to finishing up, and it was known from the get-go that the series from X on would be at least on the PlayStation 2), so they wanted to give a proper send-off, as it were, and they eventually came out to what is essentially a giant Valentine’s card to fans.

The game hit the ground running and never broke-stride.  Graphically, it was even more refined than VIII, and though they went back to almost a chibi style for the characters, it served them well as the proportions weren’t so far out of whack as to be jarring, and they matched their full-motion video counterparts.  The story was a throw-back to earlier titles, with princesses that need rescuing, kingdoms that need fighting, a planet that needs saving.

The story of its protagonist, Zidane Tribal, was reminiscent of the story of Cloud Strife.  A young man trying to figure out who and what he is, trying to reconcile a past he doesn’t remember.  Contrasting their similar histories, their personalities couldn’t be more different.  Where Cloud started off as a rather taciturn young man, Zidane was jubilant, always ready with a quip.  That difference made the game interesting to play through.

Above all else, as mentioned in yesterday’s Tuesday Top Ten, were the allusions.  Every game had nods to the others, especially in certain core concepts—a man named Cid, ostrich-chicken-things called chocobos, the use of airships, and a good few others, Final Fantasy IX contained so many as to be nearly unreal.  The only other game to come even close to that is the list for Final Fantasy XIII, but as you can see that list isn’t anywhere near as extensive.

It was, once again, a love-letter to the fans—but more than that, it was an attempt to create something truly grand, in tone, story, and spirit, the likes of which, some may argue, hadn’t been seen in the series for a good while.  Interestingly, Hironobu Sakaguchi himself said that IX was his favorite to date.  It’s not hard to see why; it had the grand feel that was attempted in earlier titles, along with a rich high fantasy setting that, due to the power of the PlayStation and the skill of the software coders felt so much more impressive than such a setting had before.

Another interesting mechanic is the Active Time Event, or A.T.E.  It was an interesting mechanic, one that let the player see what else was going on at that moment.  The only real downside to it was that they were so numerous.  Sometimes it felt like you couldn’t take two steps without two A.T.E.s popping up.  Also, sometimes they wouldn’t appear until you watched others, so you could be sitting there watching a good few in a row.  It was a good idea, but it could have been implemented a little better.

Still, that was a small, if not tiny, complaint compared to the rest of the game.  The story was coherent, the characters distinct and interesting, and as a whole it was a very worthy entry in the series.  As comes as no surprise, then, it was received well, and opened the door for the next title—Final Fantasy X.

It debuted in Japan less than a week after Spirits Within hit theaters, and the timing just couldn’t have been much better.  Even after the generally abysmal reception the film received, X was snapped up incredibly fast and generally well-received.

It also marked an interesting difference from its predecessors, in a staggering number of ways.  For one thing, since the last handful of games were published, fans were more or less divided on setting.  Some liked the more steampunk-y setting of some of the games, while others liked the more “high fantasy” setting of the others.

Yoshinori Kitase chose door number three.  He decided that he wanted a world without a large dependence on technology, but he didn’t want to just rehash what had been done before, either.  As such, the team’s designers were tasked to draw on Asian inspirations and blend them with original creations, to create a world rather unlike anything that had been seen before.

Leveling was also revamped.  Instead of a set progression of A to B to C as characters grew more powerful, the Sphere Grid was introduced, which was an attempt at a more “free-flowing” sort of upgrade system.  It wasn’t perfect, as there were still only a handful of things players would generally want, but it was a large step in a different direction.

Another step was the change to combat.  Gone was the Active Time Battle system, and in its place was the Conditional Turn-Based Battle system.  The change essentially meant that a character’s speed, as well as the speed of the action to be taken, affected the order of which character took their action first.  A normal strike would be done before a large magic spell, for example, reminiscent of titles like Final Fantasy Tactics.  It was a noticeable difference, but like most of the others not really a bad one.

One of the more controversial changes was to make the game more linear.  It wasn’t a strict A to B progression, but it was closer to that than the series had yet seen.  On the one hand, it made it easier to tell the story the developers wanted to tell, but on the other hand it made the game feel a bit more constricting than gamers had expected.

The largest change, however, was one that doesn’t seem as large at first glance.  The addition of voice acting to the game was the one most discussed by fans.  On the one hand, it lent a certain verisimilitude to the story, as players could hear the emotion in the voice of the actors (though how well that was achieved is open for debate).

On the other hand, the very nature of voice-acting limits possibilities.  Voice clips take up much more space than text, so it’s more difficult to get a character react to anything the player might do.  In a text-based speech system, anything the player might pick up or do—or miss—can be commented on naturally.  It’s not really the same, even now, when you have live voice acting.

While it didn’t really push the PlayStation 2’s capabilities, no matter what else may have been thought of the game there was a certain feel of developmental exploration.  They were seeing just what they could do with the console, just how far they could push things and still make a game fans would like. It can be argued that that sense of exploration was starting to be lost soon after—which we’ll take a look at tomorrow.

At this point, we’ve covered the rise of the financial giant that is the Final Fantasy franchise, and starting tomorrow we’ll start to wrap this article series up, as we start to look at sequels and tie-ins.

See you then!


2 Responses to “Even Yet More Thoughts on Final Fantasy

  1. Elisa Michelle Says:

    Well Final Fantasy X is what got me into the series. I really loved it, but I know a lot of people didn’t like the gameplay and thought the Sphere Grid was a joke. But again, I loved it.

    As usual, your posts are great!

    • And as usual, I thank you for your compliments.

      While I may not have been the biggest fan of Final Fantasy X, what it “meant” for the brand is something I still kind of like. Just because Sakaguchi was being edged out of the company, that didn’t mean they would start turning away from the innovation and such that made the brand so popular to begin with.

      That aside—as long as you, a fan, enjoyed it, they’ve done well. That’s about the best compliment I think any developer or producer could ask for, that something they made was enjoyed.

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