Video Games

Final Fantasy Retrospective Part 4: Final Fantasy IV

And thus we enter the Golden Age…

Let’s get this out of the way first:  not only did the game come out in the US as Final Fantasy II (and really, in the dark primordial age before the Internet, most of us who weren’t able to read Japanese or didn’t have subscriptions to trade magazines thought it really was Final Fantasy II), but Square sent us the “Easytype” version of the game.  Back in the day, Square had a low opinion of American RPG players – perhaps with reason – so they gave us a version that not only was made easier, but had less combat options for the characters, because apparently having a main protagonist with a special attack that depletes his Health Points would melt our delicate brains.

Despite all that, Final Fantasy IV was a revelation.  For the first time (okay, fine, extremely arguably*), we had an RPG that was as much a work of fiction as it was a game.  It had a wide cast of characters with diverse personalities, motives, and backgrounds;  multiple plot twists; dramatic dialogue that expressed *gasp* feelings; and villains who, while mostly rather cliched (with the notable exception of Rubicante, who was portrayed as the classic “honorable bad guy”), had motives and goals beyond just “Destroy the world!”  True, for the sake of gameplay the plot had to make some rather bizarre turns, like the various random tragedies that befall your party just to explain why you never have more than five people in your party and the engineer Cid committing one of the most unnecessary (apparent) suicides in history,  but it still felt like a cohesive story just as sophisticated as one you could find in a novel or a film.  I was enthralled and it’s no exaggeration to say that I played the hell out of the game throughout my teenage years.  It got to the point where I was even remembering characters’ dialogue.

From the very start players saw just how much the series had evolved.  Instead of starting out with a group of warriors who pop up out of nowhere or a bunch of orphans, we begin with Cecil, who has a very well-established past as the airship admiral for the Kingdom of Baron (he even starts off at a much higher level than 1, which is a really clever touch).   By the time the game starts, Cecil is worried about Baron using military force to steal the elemental crystals from other cities and kingdoms, but for the time being his loyalty to his monarch outweighs his ethics.  This changes when Cecil and his friend, the dragoon Kain, is sent to deliver a package to the tribe of summoners in the valley of Mist, but the whole thing turns out to be an elaborate pretext for genocide against the summoners.  However, trying to trick his two best commanders into wiping  out an entire tribe is the proverbial straw, but in the chaos Kain ends up missing and Cecil is stuck with Rydia, a young woman who justifiably blames him for the death of her mother.  Riddled with guilt, Cecil sets out to somehow stop the Kingdom of Baron – and the man who is apparently pulling the strings, the sorcerer Golbez.

The game has gone through various re-releases, many adding new elements to the gameplay and new sidequests.  It even got a direct sequel, Final Fantasy IV: The After Years (see, Square Enix, doesn’t using a subtitle to designate a direct sequel make more sense than just calling it Final Fantasy IV-2?).  But in my opinion the original still holds up extremely well.  Even the “Easytype” version is worth playing, although admittedly it does take quite a bit of the fun out of the game.  The game is just beautiful simplicity, using the “new” graphic technology of the Super Nintendo to create detailed character portraits, unearthly multi-layered towns populated with monsters, dungeons with a bizarre quasi-organic look, and a truly monstrous and grotesque final boss.  I’m sure some tech snobs would complain that the gameplay really hadn’t changed much from the 8-bit years, but Final Fantasy IV still stands as proof that, while change is good, you don’t have to completely revolutionize gameplay for every installment in your megapopular video game franchise (hint, hint).  Anyway, I don’t want to end on a negative note, but, yes, this game is an indisputable classic and is still worth playing, even if it’s the watered-down American SNES version.  Sadly, though, even though Final Fantasy IV was both a commercial and critical smash when it first appeared in the United States, Square kept writing off their American fan base, so we wouldn’t see another real Final Fantasy sequel for another three years and instead we got…well, that’s for next time.

*That was mostly for you, Phantasy Star fans.

Video Games

Final Fantasy Retrospective 3: Final Fantasy III

The second of the “lost” 8-bit Nintendo Final Fantasys (and the last to be programmed by original series programmer Nasir Gebelli), this one would probably have been the easier one for American audiences to embrace.  It’s so much a return to the gameplay and the spirit of the very first game that in some ways it’s almost a remake.  There is one catch, though.  This installment in the series, to quote the Angry Video Game Nerd, “doesn’t fuck around.” Like II, I played this one as a fan translation, and I still remember just poking around in the very first town, looking for healing potions and other freebies, and then suddenly my party is being brutally slaughtered by a pack of werewolves.  Who knew there were freakin’ werewolves hiding in a patch of tall grass?  Let it be a warning about the value of keeping up with lawn maintenance.

Despite or partially because of the challenge, I honestly think it’s without question the strongest game out of the entire series’ 8-bit trilogy.  There’s a lot more exploring and discovery of hidden treasures pretty much everywhere to be done, more strategy thanks to the new “jobs” system that lets party members change their abilities during the game, and even if the story isn’t as dramatic (and horrifically bleak!) as II it’s still at least a bit more in-depth than most of the RPGs of its generation.  Now to be honest  the story isn’t really all that memorable – in fact, in terms of plot II feels more like a modern Final Fantasy game than III does – and if you boil it down it actually is the stock 8-bit RPG plot of “Evil wizard seeks to summon a big bad demonic force that will destroy the world.”  Your protagonists don’t even have the really vague personalities the party in II did.  Instead they’re a group of orphans known as the “Onion Knights” (pictured via cos player above) on a floating continent, who during an earthquake stumble across one of the Crystals of the Elements, which bestows them with the power of dead heroes from the past and sends them on a quest to reach the surface world, which has been mysteriously flooded and frozen in time, and save everything from being consumed by a void of darkness. Despite all that, your party does meet and interact with and more than occasionally kill a wide range of characters, from the already recurring airplane engineer Cid to the Goldfinger-esque billionaire villain named – of course – Goldor.

There are a couple of things that really makes this game a classic.  First, and this is probably painfully obvious, it really plays up the fantasy portion.  Yes, the first two games had some pretty diverse environments like a space station and a “dungeon” that was inside a tornado, but for the most part they just featured the usual “fire” and “ice” levels and ancient ruin and Hell dungeons as well as a fairly standard world map.  With III, not only do you have a party where you can turn anyone from a White Mage to a Viking warrior to a monster Summoner, but you get to explore a floating continent, an entire new world (once it’s de-biblical flooded) and contend with dungeons where you have to make do with being smaller than rats and with having severely reduced powers.  It’s not a total revolution in gameplay options, but it does feel like there’s more experimenting with making creative environments and challenges than in the last two games.

The second thing is the music.  Now I don’t mean to knock the scores of the last two games (and especially not the classic original theme composed by Nobuo Uematsu), but…well, I think this is the first time the series offered a soundtrack you really nerd it up with:

(As always, I’m talking about the original versions of these games, but let me throw out there that the remake for the DS is really good…if challenging as hell).

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Final Fantasy Retrospective 2: The Evil Empire

In this picture above from the Playstation re-release of Final Fantasy II, we see Square retroactively beginning their policy of putting weirdly effeminate or androgynous, David Bowie-esque villains into the “Final Fantasy” series.

Final Fantasy II is the odd duck in the series, and not just because I only got to first experience it as a fan translation released in 2001 (an official translation eventually hit the North American market, but not for another two years), more than a decade after it first came out. Because it was designed by Akitoshi Kawazu, the same person who would go on to do the SaGa series, FF II has a gameplay system radically different from anything else in the series. Instead of gaining levels, you develop your strength and your magic and even your weapons via your actions in fighting, which sounds more interesting than old-fashioned level building until you realize that it means you’re expected to, say, do the same action 100 times just to make them “go up” (and even then, if you do another action or fail to do a certain action, you can actually go down). I don’t know anyone who played the game that didn’t exploit a certain famous bug that allowed you to just input the same action in the battle, cancel it, and repeat to make it “count.” In fact, it’s telling that, when Square “updated” the game for release on the Playstation, they didn’t “fix” the bug at all. It’s like having the company tell you, “Yes, we know this is tedious as all hell.”

In spite of this heretical gameplay, in other ways this kind of is the first real Final Fantasy. Besides the first appearances of chocobos, a guy involved with airplanes named Cid, and a bunch of character classes like (spoony) bards and dark knights, there’s the matter that is the first installment to be truly plot-heavy. While the first Final Fantasy complicated the usual swords-and-magic plotline with an out-of-left-field twist, the second threw in a story that featured a much larger and involved cast and a kind of changing, organic storyline that at the time seemed much more suited for anything other than a video game. Yes, the story was pretty much stock – four orphans go out on their own to fight a power-mad emperor who is working with demons – and you knew in the end that you would fight the Emperor much like you knew you’d have to fight the Four Fiends of the Elements in the original, but you didn’t know you’d end up pulling a Jonah and getting swallowed by a whale (or in this case a “Leviathan”), that your good amnesiac friend who was conscripted into the Empire would eventually join the side of the angels (well, okay, a blind man in Tokyo could have seen that happening all the way in San Francisco), and that most of the people you meet will end up dying horribly. No, this game doesn’t fuck around; most of your friends and allies are going to die and many of the towns and cities you visit are going to be utterly obliterated. When they re-released this game with optional bonus quests, they added a part where you get to play as most of the game’s supporting cast in the afterlife. It makes it even more of a shame that this game didn’t get a US release right away. I can’t speak for other kids in my generation, but we could have all used the valuable moral lesson that, while maybe you and your closest pals could against all odds overthrow a corrupt, demon-fueled nation that has taken over most of the planet, but almost everyone you’ve ever cared about and has ever shown you any kindness will be butchered, so stop crying!

Video Games

Final Fantasy Retrospective 1B: Final Fantasy Adventure

Also known as The Final Fantasy of Zelda.  

Unlike the SaGa/Final Fantasy Legend games, Final Fantasy Adventure, originally known in Japan by the poetic title Holy Sword Legend: Final Fantasy Supplementary Story, actually was originally intended to be a spin-off from the Final Fantasy series.  It was only later that Square decided to make the Mana franchise out of it.  Simple enough, except for the fact that in Europe this game is known as Mystic Quest, which later became the title of another Final Fantasy spin-off.  It’s still not quite as confusing as, say, the history of many competing Zombi sequels, but it can be close.

At the time I actually did like this game more than the original Legend of Zelda, since it combined the early action RPG elements of Zelda with the (for the time) elaborate storytelling of Final Fantasy.  It wasn’t until later that I learned to appreciate that a RPG can have a simple story – so much had Final Fantasy influenced my expectations even as a kid – and today I’d probably pick the first Zelda out over this game, just because in the long haul Zelda was the better game.  I don’t know why, really.  Final Fantasy Adventure had a more varied world, a wider variety of weapons and more options for battle, and, hey, you didn’t have to commit suicide every time you wanted to save the game.  Yet Zelda just still seems more fun in retrospect.

Not to say that this was a bad game by any stretch;  on the contrary, it’s definitely a classic, with strong and simple gameplay (despite a few bugs that, depending on how reckless you are about where you save, could leave you stuck in an unwinnable state) and an emotional score by the rightfully celebrated Kenji Ito.  The story itself is quite good, too, starting out like a traditional Nintendo game of the era (the first antagonist is even named the “Dark Lord,” which makes you wonder how he approaches PR issues) but then you escape from slavery, fall in love with a woman doomed by destiny and duty, find yourself caught up with a once powerful but all extinct order of heroic knights, watch as one of your friends slowly turns into a monster and is unable to end her own suffering, and finally stand by helplessly as the one person you were fighting to save is condemned to a strange, solitary existence in order to ensure a bright future for the world.  That’s pretty heavy stuff for a Game Boy game.  And I dare you to at least not get a little depressed by the ending, although even that was pretty cheerful compared to the storyline in the real Final Fantasy sequel no American fan got to play for years to come…

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Final Fantasy Retrospective 1A

“Final Fantasy” fans who got hooked in the ’00s don’t know how lucky they were. Being an old-school fan, who was literally with the franchise from the start, was a weird ordeal for anyone living outside Japan and wasn’t enough of a hardcore gamer to own a genuine Famicon and have the ability to fluently read Japanese. The majority of the games in the series were simply not available to people unwilling to learn Japanese until the advent of the Internet, emulators, and fan-translations, and even if you did know enough Japanese to play the games it was still a hassle and an expense to actually order the games and a Famicon or Super Famicon to play them.  To twist the knife, Square made the decision to title the real “Final Fantasy IV” as Final Fantasy II, which eventually created a huge (and now proverbial among console RPG fans) amount of confusion when saps like me finally got wise to the fact that all of North America was deemed unworthy to receive the series in full (I suppose it’s a good thing they ended the policy before “Final Fantasy VII” became “Final Fantasy IV.”) To make matters even more confusing, Square, despite the international success of the Final Fantasy franchise, decided that RPGs were unprofitable in the North American market and that the only RPGs that had any chance of selling had to be under the Final Fantasy brand name. So, when they did decide to release two other RPG franchises to North America, they released them as Final Fantasy Adventure and Final Fantasy Legend, despite the two series having almost nothing in common, even in gameplay, with any of the Final Fantasy games that did make it to North America and Europe. I never played “Final Fantasy Adventure” until fairly recently, but I did get to experience “Final Fantasy Legend,” albeit years after the series was first released on Game Boy.

The truth is that the Final Fantasy Legend games were really the first installments in a series called SaGa (yes, the “G” is capitalized for some reason). The games did not start being released in English under their real name until the Playstation era and even then a sizable chunk of the series, the Romancing SaGa trilogy released on the Super Famicon, never saw an official English translation. While I forever curse Square for never releasing the FF series in full (especially for releasing the severely watered-down and just plain boring Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest instead of FF V), I can understand why they never brought over the 16-bit SaGa games, even though the Final Fantasy Legend trilogy was a smash hit. Whereas from pretty much the beginning the Final Fantasy series values story over gameplay, SaGa games take exactly the opposite approach. Instead of the near-universal system of gaining experience levels, SaGa always encourages obsessive tinkering with how your characters act in battle or with certain choices made post-battle, making for a much more demanding but vastly more flexible (or, depending on your point of view, more infuriatingly random) system of character development. The worlds were often at least abstractly defined and at most downright surreal. And again the plots never aimed to be operatic; if anything, they never ventured far past their basic premises. Even though I think the SaGa games generally were made more to scratch the cultural preferences of Japanese gamers than anything else, I’ve actually grown to have a fondness for SaGa, and in fact I’m probably one of eight Americans who actually enjoyed the sort of infamous SaGa Frontier, if only because it’s the game where you can play a lesbian vampire, a superhero, a wandering minstrel, a robot, and a supermodel-turned-hitwoman all in the same game!

Anyway, case in point: Saga I or Final Fantasy Legend has the really barebones premise that your party is climbing a tower that leads to different worlds and ultimately to Paradise. There really isn’t that much more to the story than that, except for a glorious part where you end up in a post-apocalyptic cityscape that manages to feel like a “Mad Max”-“Akira” combo and where all the secondary characters you befriend die horribly. After that, you fight the Devil and kill him. Then you meet God and kill him too.  Even better, there’s a glitch in the game where you can kill him in one hit with a chainsaw. I just can’t get past that Nintendo at the time kept their games from displaying churches and crosses in order to not offend anybody’s religious sensibilities, but a game with a climax where you literally go and butcher God with a chainsaw was perfectly acceptable. Speaking of which, has anyone noticed a trend in Japanese games where you fight, if not kill, God? Dragon Quest VII, Shin Megami Tensei I and II, Shadow Hearts…there’s a trend there.

Anyway, you get to kill gods again in FFL II, but this time they’re pagan gods from “our” world. It turns out the “gods” are really just people who have collected enough Magi, pieces of a magical statue that grants their holder special powers. Of course, it turns out that most of the “gods” are dicks. Deicide aside, the real fun of the game was the sheer randomness of the entire game’s universe. While in the first game you could and did have an arsenal that included swords, guns, and chainsaws, t’s here that the SaGa series put down its potential for surrealism, because you get to have in your party robots, monsters, and “Mystics” (who were translated as “Mutants” in the first English port of the game, but from what I understand they’re actually more like vampires). And in the course of the game you go to a dragon-racing world, Valhalla, a city where unattractive people are exiled, a Japanese world (where in probably one of the most famous examples of Nintendo’s watering-down translation policy all mentions of “opium” are turned into “bananas”, which caused many a kid in my generation to wonder why there was this Shogun hellbent on outlawing bananas), and at one point you get involved in a Fantastic Voyage-esque adventure. Still, though, I don’t think I ever finished the game, because I became much too frustrated at the fact that most of your weapons run out, which was a factor in the first game too but somehow it’s even worse here. Even when you buy, say, Broadswords, there’s a number next to them like “70” and it goes down by one each time you use it. I think instead of you literally buying 70 Broadswords and using them one by one, in the logic of the game it’s supposed to mark how your weapons slowly wear out, which I guess makes sense, but why the hell would they pick that point to display realism?!  (And having played Silent Hill: Origins for the first time recently, the game where your steel pipe can break after using it four times at most, I have to say that my attitude toward this kind of “realism” has not changed).

Luckily they dropped that in the third game, and threw in the old-fashioned RPG system of levels. Unfortunately, you also couldn’t make a party of robots and monsters anymore, but at least you could turn your human party members into monsters (by eating monsters’ meat, which is a little disturbing when you think about it) and cyborgs. But FFL 3 honestly had one of the best premises I’d seen in a RPG; these evil gods from another dimension are slowly flooding the world and your party has to travel between three time eras to be able to get into said dimension. Admittedly, though, the time travel part of the story doesn’t lead to as much madcap exploring as there was in the second game.  There are only three time zones, and except for the futuristic…well, future there isn’t much difference between them.  Also, once the time travel part of the plot is dispensed with, you end up in the eeee-vil dimension where the game enters standard issue RPG territory, although there is one last fun part where you can buy weapons and armor in a shopping mall complete with escalators.

Oh, and you kill God…again. To be fair, it turns out that God has been corrupted by the evil gods and is turning into a monster, but still! Oh, Japan.

Video Games

Final Fantasy Retrospective Part 1

Inspired by a retrospective one of the bloggers I follow is doing on the classic Ultima series, I figured I would do something similar with the one RPG series I followed from the beginning, at least as much as an American of the ’90s could have, Final Fantasy.

I was actually fortunate enough to receive “Final Fantasy” as a Christmas gift a year or so after it was released, although I can’t remember if I specifically asked for it or not. If I didn’t, then I am impressed that I got such an 8-bit classic from the family whose unprompted video game gifts tended to fall more on the “Back to the Future” side of the spectrum of quality than the “Legend of Zelda” side. However I got it, I was instantly taken in by the packaging’s art work:

They don’t make them like that anymore. I still wish I kept the box, along with the map and all the other little extras, but now I’d have to sell them on eBay or something.

The funny thing is that I hadn’t read – hell, I was barely aware of – “Lord of the Rings” and I had never played Dungeons & Dragons, so basically without realizing it I was playing a copy of a copy. I wonder how many other kids had that experience with any cultural phenomenon. Anyway, yes, “Final Fantasy” is basically “Lord of the Rings” via D&D and filtered through a Japanese interpretation of medieval Western Europe, the sort of artifact that seems weirdly postmodern and can only exist in our era of endless cultural regurgitation. Now to be fair, unlike its onetime rival series “Dragon Warrior Quest,” “Final Fantasy” from the very beginning was throwing in odd sci-fi elements. Alongside your warriors armed with swords and axes and chain mail, you had robots, the airship that would pretty much become one of the series’ mascots, and even a space station. “Final Fantasy” does pretty much a more seamless job of bringing in futuristic things into the otherwise medieval setting unlike “Ultima I,” where at the local merchant’s you have your choice of either a horse, a flying car, or a space shuttle, but it did bother me even as a kid that you were able to fight laser-shooting mechanical soldiers with a sword, a hammer, and fists.

Oh, speaking of fists, when you get to pick your party members in the beginning, you do get to pick a martial artist. And the funny thing is that, in a world where you also get to choose sword and axe-wielding knights and black mages who casually toss around god-like, apocalyptic powers, including a spell that recreates the impact of a nuclear bomb, the martial artist will, once he starts getting fairly high in levels, be your most powerful fighter. Ogres, snakes, spiders, ghosts, primordial Babylonian goddesses…he can just punch all of them into oblivion. I mean, damn, the average martial artist in the “Final Fantasy” world must be able to casually tear off Superman’s arm and beat him to death with it! Even Steven Seagal in his early ’90s prime wouldn’t last five seconds in a fist fight against one of them.

Except for that, the intrusion of robots and outer space, and the fact that your thief can get promoted into a ninja (if you give a dragon a rat’s tail…just roll with it), the gameplay really does come across as a D&D campaign. However, for the 8-bit era and for an early RPG, the story is surprisingly complex. It starts out fairly simple, with even a classic “rescue the kidnapped princess” mission, yet it turns out to be a little more than just “bad guy(s) out there, find special item(s) and/or weapon(s), kill bad guys,” which alone starts out the “Final Fantasy” tradition of an emphasis on story. Now if the story has any flaws, it’s because it’s a little too ambitious. See, when the game gets going your overall quest is to kill the Fiends, these four demons, each one representing a different classical Greek element, who are slowly wiping out the planet in the manner of BP or “Captain Planet” villains (same difference). As it turns out, Garland, the knight your party effortlessly slaughtered while saving the requisite captive princess at the beginning, is really the mastermind behind it all. In what probably is the most convoluted scheme for achieving immorality ever (with the debatable exception of what Dante is up to over in Fullmetal Alchemist), Garland is sent 2,000 years in the past from which he sent the Fiends into the game’s present, creating a time loop that somehow results in the end of the world and insures Garland’s immortality. So how does Garland last 2,000 years, why does he kidnap the princess in the present, and what about the little fact that you do kind of kill him at some point? And why does he turn into a hellspawn at the end? Yeah, you just have to poke at the storyline for it to fall apart, but how many early RPGs tried to incorporate time travel into their plots? Maybe the cliche that “Final Fantasy” hasn’t “aged well” is true to an extent, even though in my opinion it holds up better than the first “Dragon Quest” which, let’s face it, was just 95 percent level grinding, but the slight weirdness of the story alone still stands out and justifies the existence of the mega-franchise to come.