With some hesitation I recently decided to jump into some old games. Final Fantasy VI and VII, Tactics, and the report comes back like this: What the hell happened?
I purchased a used PS3 to play Ni No Kuni a few months ago. On the machine were some old Squaresoft games, and feeling like 8 & 9 were probably not worth it I actually reinstalled 7 and purchased 6 to compare the two. Also it doesn’t hurt to switch to a game designed for the SNES after the eventual burnout Final Fantasy 7 gives you. Though these games share their namesake they couldn’t really be further apart. 6 has a sinister and evil villain in Kefka, though he is more like Mark Hamil’s Joker, evil but somewhat silly, while 7’s Sephiroth, yeah a khaballism tie-in, is more like Bane from Dark Knight Rises, worrying because he knows so much you don’t.
These villains are different but for the uninitiated Final Fantasy games really don’t have much in common with each other-this appears to be a problem the company that owns the franchise is trying to deal with now. They have Chocobos, Mogs, maybe a dozen or so summoned monsters that appear in each game, but these staples appear in vastly different worlds ranging from more high-fantasy to stem-punk/cyber-punk settings. While some games might have magic being core to the world others might have magic seen as evil, while some might have many people engaged in combat at once others have a pared down 3 or so controllable characters. And yeah they all share status ailments, curative items, and some other things that all seem to come back, but like all the games based on D&D these are constants. Even Demon’s Souls has Mind Flayers.
So aside from that these games have a very important element-story. Or they used to. Now the company that owns the franchise, SquareEnix(Enix took control of Square after the former head of Square created the film Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and the flop more or less tipped the balance into financial uncertainty-enter stage right Enix). The modern mood seems to be they create a world for a numbered Final Fantasy game and then continue creating in that massive world, using the branding as a spring board.
Having played Final Fantasy Tactics some the world of that game, Ivalice, has been brought back in actual numbered FF titles, possibly because of the positive player memories but Ivalice has seen better days like the rest of these worlds.
Final Fantasy 7 though is often cited as the death nail of the JRPG genre, it’s graphic fidelity leading to a sort of arms-race amongst developers where the studios that couldn’t compete(or lost money on expensive games underperforming) were pushed into a less crowded hand-heald market. Really the hardcore gamer in Japan is playing a hand-heald device now. But there was a time, before this devestation, this cataclysm which would release itself on their market leading to bad business practices in the long-run when the cycle of new games was continually topped by hits coming from Japan.
With Final Fantasy 7 Squaresoft learned that their localization efforts weren’t close to where they needed to be.
Like the link explains they the company didn’t really understand how important the money from foreigners could be. For many Final Fantasy 7 was the real introduction they had to the RPG genre, or at least their introduction to the Final Fantasy series. Set in stone apparently every game contained World Maps, means of travel like Air Ships, Turn-Based combat, and apparently some guy named Cid. Never the less these were really trappings, these games had grown to be more a huge story players were a part of driving and pushing it to go where they had to, but allowing players to do it their way. While the smartest move might be to methodically build up a balanced team that could use the strengths of each member to make up for weaknesses(mainly in the designated healer) and slowly build your party’s levels and weapons up to stay on par with the enemies standing between the player and that final screen. Generally there were a few accepted ways to get to the ending, either building your characters up to have a decent amount of survivability and then load up on healing items and have at it, get the best gear in the game and bring every party member to the level cap, or learn the toughest spell in the game on one character and try the odds.
One problem with these games was they didn’t allow you to go back, if you played long enough it’s not an option, your black mage will get an ultimate destruction spell, your white mage an ultimate holy spell, and whose not going to use those spell every chance they get? Looking at it from a modern perspective I can understand the changes from 6 to 7.
Final Fantasy 6 was sort of the “final” high fantasy touch of the series. Granted it had magitech mech robots shooting heat rays, and even crazier stuff, but it also had knights, castles and kings. It was about empire clashing against free nations, and people perverting and corrupting the will of these very machine like power structures. However, for all the headiness of it’s themes this game is imprisoned within a Super Nintendo cartridge. Though it strived for so much more it looks similar to all the others that came before it, so one might not be able to tell with a passing glance what was underneath.
And in many ways Final Fantasy 7 was similar. The first time a Final Fantasy game was encoded on a CD-ROM the team definitely wanted to “make an entrance” so to speak. While it reminded me of Oddworld: Abe’s Odyssey remarkably as I played it with my modern eyes this was something to behold in its time. It obviously was somewhat remarkable for it’s inclusion of graphically produced cut-scene animations every few story beats, but it reminded me an awful lot of a Lego game. Just not as well in the controls department.
And controls are something that stands out to me now. These games suffer in modern eyes. Instead of the 3rd person perspective seen in many RPGs now there is a fixed camera perspective for much of 7. 6, with it’s SNES graphical capabilities doesn’t quite suffer for this since the player is generally in the center of view, but 7 is definitely problematic. Often I would juggle between screens because the directional pad pushing away from one screen also pushed away on the next, right back to square one, which with the perfectly reproduced load times gets old fast. Controls are sticky on 7, and the use of the D-pad instead of the analog stick-not even an option-just doesn’t make sense and once you settle in and get used to it really messes with you when you turn on a modern game.
Which I did, I decided to try out my new copy of Fallout 3, immediately the perspective made sense, the analog stick again in full use(never thought I would miss an analog stick) but it’s not like these older developers knew what would become the norm. But like Resident Evil I think the fixed perspective cameras was a trick to get decent graphics with the memory they had. Final Fantasy games were known for being long, and a 3D world requires a lot of memory. First you have the objects-an engine has to create them in real time based on the cameras perspective at 30 frames per second, then you have light, again at 30 FPS, and if you really want to go nuts shadows, reflections on glass, and things like special effects-all at the constant of 30 FPS. Now it’s easy, a developer licenses an engine, hires a staff that understands how to work on that architecture and things sort of handle themselves. At the dawn of the Playstation era the consoles were in flux, what worked on cartridges wouldn’t work on PCs, what worked on PCs wasn’t where consoles were headed, and yet nobody knew where they were headed. But fixed camera angles made this stuff a lot cheaper in development so they could spend more time on new ideas.
Those new ideas were important in creating the dedicated fan base of Square. These weren’t people making a great game every so often these people created great series of games. Mana, Chrono, Final Fantasy, these guys were creating at a very prodigious level. Especially considering they would basically make an entire world for a Final Fantasy game and then throw it away and start from scratch. They didn’t carry over heroes, they didn’t all take place in the same world, what the fans were buying was an entirely new adventure each time, only better.
The big change to me was materia. I think that’s probably what many take away, besides the CG-ness, whereas before you got new gloves for your charaters, new helmets, new armor or robes, and weapons these were a thing of the past. Every character in Final Fantasy 7 could use magic because every type of armor had room for materia, the materia would level up like the characters-eventually the fire materia would also allow fire2 and fire3. Whereas previously you might have a black mage doing damage, a white mage healing everyone, and a fighter and thief taking care of their jobs(maybe a ninja thrown in the party, I wouldn’t want to be in a party without a ninja I know that much) materia meant you could really push what you wanted your party to do. This system is expressed symbolically in the mother of all spoilers, the death of Aeris.
Aeris, or Aerith as her name was supposed to be air and earth combined(damn it localization) was the only character really designed for one thing because she had a severe weakness to dealing damage. All of her weapons were low damage weapons, however her limit breaks(special powers activated by taking damage) were focused on her team mates getting health and she had high magic potential. Basically everyone playing Final Fantasy 7 will use Aeris until her death because her limit breaks are basically game-breaking and her inherent magic stats mean she can heal more than anyone else casting the same spells. However, before the end of the first disc, yeah they were so nuts this game came out on 3 discs, Sephiroth puts a katana through the young woman.
But this isn’t really a problem as previously stated anybody can do magic. The next choice the player makes(who to place in their party now) shows the change in this games mechanics. You really had a heavy amount of free will in this aspect of the game. Did you want to base this on limit breaks, how many materia slots their weapons have, or whether or not they could attack from far away? In the long run it just comes down to how cool everyone looks since the game is going to throw so many random fights at you you’ll get to the level cap before the middle of the third disc.
That is the bane of these older RPGs, the incessant random battles. After playing Cthulu saves the World I see some problems. CSTW has a battle cap in every area, 20 here, 30 the next, you can slog it out like old school games or go to your menu and choose battle. The enemies are as random as if the fight popped up organically, but the game gives you that option. You can push through, searching for a chest that contains the weapon that might give you the edge, or you can do a couple of fights wasting magic like nobody’s business, and duck back to the inn to recharge slowly taking care of the necessary battles.
Whats interesting is that those older games had the same idea, in so much as the chance of random incidents of battle was based around trying to level characters up to a level allowed them to take on the next boss. While you could escape from battles, generally this randomness worked the opposite, meaning by the time you got to that boss you were over-levelled. And if you spent some time killing enemies trying to get a specific item to drop you were probably viciously over-levelled.
I say this because the area I most recently finished in Final Fantasy 7 was the snow area. The idea for the area was, well, a snow area. But they also wanted to disorient you by using many of the same screens over and over again, hiding the few useful items, and not giving you many clues to where you should be heading. Oh, and every couple of minutes your character passes out and is “rescued” by some guy, waking up at a cabin. The cabin happens to be where you need to go, but it’s also a hassle to be one screen away from an item just to see your character fall to their knees and that next screen be the cabin. Not to mention every so often a random fight starts, and you’re pulled from the normal screen to a fight screen, and when you get back you forget what direction you were heading since they recycled SO many screens in this area.
I really felt like I had conquered antarctica when I started to know my way around that area, but what a bitch. Sorry, but that’s the truth, the only way to describe the glacier is a bitch. It didn’t have to be half that hard to get the idea across. But the found a way to save a couple of bucks in what was probably a bloated project and they took it. However this entire discussion is pulling away from the point of the topic.
When I plugged in to Fallout 3 I began to wonder what RPGs have lost, if anything, in the contemporary landscape. While Final Fantasy might have been a phenomena of a very specific gaming landscape, Japanese developers able to get away with stuff because of a “right place, right time” sensibility, that technological boom has been replaced by a much more paced out cyclical hum of where the consoles have left us. While the Playstation exploded onto the market, allowing for more money to be made if only projects could make it to the finish line, Microsoft’s jump into the marketplace has been decidedly one sided.
As Microsoft began developing their console the idea was to create a player base that was easily marketed to. Everything about the advertising was designed to create a frequency loop so that unlike the chaos of the 90s gaming budgets would actually pay off. They didn’t want a mega project to disappear seemingly over-night as they could in the 90s fading from the pages of gaming magazines; Microsoft leveraged televisions being in everyone’s house making sure games became a part of everyones media vocabulary. Then, when one actually owned the console they began priming the consoles to become the center of everyone’s media world, though not entirely successful on that point. Controlling every image that comes through an X-box 360, from Ads to what gets posted on that illustrious home screen the X-box, and to some extent the modern Playstation, are designed to keep gamers in the loop about what they want gamers to be in the loop about. The new Call of Duty, the new Halo? These are what they wanted to be in the center of every gamers vocabulary because they were controlled franchises, they were something that could be marketed and sold easily, iterations each better(slightly) than the last.
The Final Fantasy games are suffering in this world, as even a Call of Duty game can’t help but bring back the previous cast the reckless creativity of the series just won’t stand. So you have “Final Fantasy 13”, followed by “FF13:2”, followed by “13: Lighting something something something.” While gamers might not care about the series protagonist or world, the people at SquareEnix can’t let the work that went into the title go to waste. That just doesn’t work in this marketplace where developers have to spend massive amounts of money to make these HD experiences that not only rival movies but obviously can surpass them. While Microsoft might have played up that middle-child syndrome gaming felt not quite as popular as movies, TV, and books but possible, so possible they could reach that level, the gaming developers proved again and again games could hit those marks, but they also changed the fan base to gaming in a major way.
Honestly, it isn’t entirely Microsoft’s fault, or anyones. There is a generation divide happening now. While I will probably never understand how someone could look at Final Fantasy 7 and say it was an amazing game it is somewhat indicative of how much gaming, as an industry and form, have changed. Remember that R-rated dirty teen comedy? You enjoyed it, laughed about it with your friends for like a year, and then a couple of years later another big version of that type of movie came out? It didn’t really make sense to you how people could keep watching that movie over again, there was already a perfectly good version you saw when you were young. A couple of years later they did it again. Eventually there was a true generation gap, kids talked about some movie that you saw and knew wasn’t that good, but it was their first time seeing that movie and they didn’t know it was already played out. Gaming culture has hit that sort of generation gap. There are people who have been playing games their whole lives, and others who can remember the dawn of that possibility, still others only remember the take off of home consoles, others the PC…The people who enjoy this hobby have quickly out-paced any semblance of being unique. Gamer isn’t a term that describes anyone, merely a hobby for some, a job for others. But as a cultural entity video gaming has existed long enough it can be examined like film or literature and just as validly express itself, it can say as much as these other forms.
But what the hell happened to Square? From what I’ve heard they aren’t the type of place where advancement is possible. The way teams are put together and management works nobody is going to advance and become that new talent, and with most of their talent having left over the years they can’t really find people who have worked on the companies best achievements to work on their recent endeavors. There’s the story of the woman who only makes the cobblestone roads in their games. Yes, she does that well, but that’s her entire job at the company, cobbling digital roads until retirement. Recently the head of SquareEnix resigned, but amid EA’s head leaving much of the American gaming press didn’t seem to notice this departure, and with so much gaming press being digital they don’t really have the infrastructure, like most digital press, to do hard reporting about what’s happening in other countries let alone domestically.
I keep running into roadblocks on Final Fantasy 7, the game would want you to do some sort of minigame, or just the ancientness of the entire endeavor leading to having to put the thing down and move onto Persona 3 or Disgaea 4 or Fallout 3 and I feel like there is a link. Bioshock Infinite. There’s a serialization in modern gaming that’s quite fascinating. At the game store the other day I saw a man talking about his love of Morrowind and Skyrim, those were the type of games he really liked. I’m from the south so his accent was obviously pronounced if I noticed it. Really gamers have been taught to care about the developing studios of games, not so much star talent. Unlike, say, rock music, where if you care about performer A you could read a Rolling Stone and hear that they love performer B, C, and D, but hate E for sleeping with their wife, there doesn’t seem to be a huge push to get that sort of understanding of games in many gamers hands. That guy at the game store was in line ahead of another guy with the same situation, gamed as kids, quit and came back. The market was designed to get those guys back playing, but not for them to easily figure out what a quality product is. Even for those in the know quality products are debatable at this point.
There was a time when a huge fan base had sprung up for Bioware’s releases, but one too many games with the exact same plot and even that seems to be slimming. But Bioware was a company forged out of Final Fantasy 7. Their games have to have cut-scenes, have to have developed characters, even thrive or die based on their characters, yet have a problem with giving players a truly open world. Bethesda on the other hand seems to never be able to make truly difficult games because their players truly can go anywhere at any time, characters really designed as set pieces for stories they want to create. I couldn’t imagine Skyrim being more popular if you had to make a romantic choice between Lydia or Jarl Balgruf. I’m sworn to carry you’re burdens, indeed.
In some ways it’s almost like Square’s golden age didn’t even happen to many RPG developers. Maybe too much time has passed, or not enough. An article on Kotaku recently praised RPG minigames. I kept laughing reading it, like these games were so great. Final Fantasy 7 has a 6 minute long snowboard minigame. Plot-related of course so you have to do it. At the time I’m sure people loved the possibilities, Grand Theft Auto 3 hadn’t yet arrived and we were still brimming with adolescent fantasies about games within games within real worlds…needless to say no part of 7’s snowbarding minigame is nearly as good as actual snowboarding titles.
However with the random battles you couldn’t walk for a minute without getting hit with a battle, by the time an hour was through playing you’d be wishing for a CG scene since the only other option was a minigame breaking up the monotonous fighting. Playing a game like Skyrim or Fallout you get these atmospheric moments, the jagged mountains or cityscapes in the distance, the hum of the insects or radiation. The feelings only cut-scenes provided are actually expected in modern RPGs ALL THE TIME. I remember the first time I plugged the 360 up to my HD tv getting mezzed watching the infinitely exploding star behind the Illusive Man thinking gaming really had gone somewhere I always hoped it would as an adolescent. The only problem is what do do now?
Whatever the future holds it’s probably not SquareEnix. Seriously, what happened?
Someday there will be a great book about the saga behind the screen. Until then.