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Thursday, March 21, 2013

Just When Did The Final Fantasy Series Go South?

No, this isn't some How-to-Fix-the-Final-Fantasy-Series article. It's a simple question, but one that I don't think has a simple answer. This series has long been defined by it's intricate plots, developed characters and moving musical scores. But the series also managed to distinguish itself from other RPGs by doing things differently in each game. A franchise that does that on a regular basis is bound to cause a major stir up in it's fanbase. But just where things started to go down varies greatly depending on whom you ask. Below is a brief rundown of a few Final Fantasy titles, each one doing something that didn't sit too well with the Final Fantasy audience.

Final Fantasy II

Final Fantasy II, the very first sequel set the trend for doing things differently did so in a very big way. For starters, Final Fantasy II was a sequel in name only. The Light Warriors from the original game where no where to be seen. You no longer selected your character classes and your party members were quite the talkative bunch. But the biggest alteration from the original was the complete removal of gaining levels. Instead, your characters statistical attributes increased based on your actions during battle. Use a lot of magic? Your characters will be on their way to being great mages. Prefer combat with weapons? Their physical attacks will deal out plenty of damage. Want to raise their HP? Let them get smacked around by the enemy a lot or target your own characters. Sounds simple enough, right? This radically different change didn't go over too well in Japan when Final Fantasy II was originally released in 1988 or when the game first came to American in 2003 in the compilation release of Final Fantasy Origins.

I personally don't think Final Fantasy II is a bad game. It reminds me a bit of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. It made big changes to an infant franchise. But with Zelda II, it's far more common to find people that really liked that game. When people mention their reasons for disliking Final Fantasy II, the stat system is the primary reason. If you don't know how to manage your stats, trying to make it through a dungeon can be a nightmare. Having high HP is essential for survival but at the same time, your party needs to be able to deal out big damage. It's a constant balancing act, one that can quickly grow tiresome. For this reason, Final Fantasy II is generally viewed as one of the low points in the series.

Final Fantasy V

Jobs. Jobs, Jobs, Jobs. With Final Fantasy V, it is all about the Job System. Final Fantasy III may have been the first to introduce this system to the series, but Final Fantasy V is the game that really blew the doors off, making the Job System more complex and rewarding. If you're looking for a Final Fantasy title with some of the deepest gameplay system round, Final Fantasy V has it in spades. So why am I even mentioning it as a possible down point in the series? Final Fantasy V catches a lot of criticism for having a lackluster plot and some bland characters, though I'd never call Galuf, the coolest old guy in the entire series bland and I rather liked Bartz, and the gals. Heck, I enjoyed every time Exdeath was on the scene and he's got to be one of the most cliche villains in all of RPGs.

Final Fantasy V is listed here because it's one a very under appreciated game. Another reason it gets flack is for being one of the less serious Final Fantasy games. Oh sure, there are plenty of serious moments in the game, but some people have gone so far as to call Final Fantasy V a parody. It's a more lighthearted game, sure, but parody? That's a bit much. And really, what's wrong with a Final Fantasy game being more comical? Sometimes I think one of the biggest problems in games and the industry itself is that it gets so caught up in serious business that it forgets that games are about fun. The Sonic games were getting too serious for their own good with the plots. Sonic Colors had a story that didn't take itself seriously and it was one of the reasons the game was so good. I adore Final Fantasy V for being a game that isn't as serious or heavy as the other games in the series.

Final Fantasy VII

The game that brought JRPGs into the mainstream and made both Sony and Square a stupid amount of money. For lots of Final Fantasy fans that played Final Fantasy I-VI, Final Fantasy VII is seen as the true start of the decent for this series. And why is that? Because with this game, the series truly morphed into a juggernaut franchise. Suddenly, Final Fantasy was more popular than ever before and that made Final Fantasy VII and by extension, the series a sucky one. See, if more people are playing the Final Fantasy series, even more changes would have to be made to make the series more accessible to the wider audience. In this game, the number of party members was reduced to three and the slots for weapons and armor was greatly decreased as well, making management and understanding of weapons and armor far more simple. I honestly didn't mind this as it meant less stuff to buy. The new magic system came in the form of Materia, which could be equipped to any character and  allowed for plenty of broken combinations.

Along with the stunning pre-rendered backgrounds came what is possibly the most memorable spikey-haired  protagonist in RPGs and arguably video games as a whole, Cloud Strife. Cloud was packing a sword that was a huge as he was but suffered from an even bigger identity crisis than Terra Bradford from Final Fantasy VI. Cloud's mind was a freaking train wreck and even he wasn't sure why. We learn later that Cloud's broken mind stems from events that occurred before the game began and these events carried heavy ties to Sepiroth, the game's main antagonist and probably one of the most overrated characters in a video game. Sepirtoh starts out as a pretty haired mama's boy but for unexplained reasons when he comes back, he wants to hurt the planet and become a god. Why? It's never explained. Yeah, the dude's motivations are as clear as a tar pit. Yet, he's worshiped as the best villain of the the series and his only claim to fame is burning a town to the ground, killing nearly everyone in said town, killing Aerith and playing mind games with Cloud. I'll give Sephy props for looking cool but a good appearance alone does not make for a compelling foe, especially when compared to other big bads in this series.

Cloud sorted out his memories and was able to become himself again and was a much better character in the game after that. But subsequent appearances in sequels and spinoffs have made Cloud a brooding, load bearing hero that gets the emo label. Apparently  Square Enix didn't think we'd recognize Cloud unless he was always being weighed down some some emotional trauma. And Sepiroth can't seem to stay dead and is oh so great because his sword is ridiculously long. The Final Fantasy series has been milked like a farm full of cows but Square Enix milked Final Fantasy VII more than any other game and poor Betsy is screaming that she can't take anymore.

Final Fantasy VII, was initially praised upon it's release but these days it's frowned upon for moving away from it's fantasy roots and having a vastly overrated bad guy. While I do think Final Fantasy VII is overrated, it certainly isn't a game I hate by any means and isn't the destroyer of the franchise that some fans would lead you to believe.

Final Fantasy VIII

Two words: Junction System. This is one of the biggest, if not the biggest beefs anyone that has played Final Fantasy VIII has. You can draw spells from enemies to junction them to your characters stats, increasing whatever stat you junctioned that group of spells to. Problem is, the Junction System is very complicated. That long explanation that Qustis gives the player early in the game was so much to take in and only made players scratch their heads even more. Because most players don't know how to use the Junction System, most fights are spent summoning the GFs, which just makes battles drag on and on. Junction the right spells to your characters and you won't even need to summon GFs during battles.

Squall Lionheart = emo. This term gets thrown around so much when discussing Final Fantasy VIII's main star. He's aloof, a loner and has trusts no one because he was abandon as a child. Rinoa, his love interest makes a better man out of him later in the game, but Squall is always remembered for being the king of angst.

Final Fantasy VIII certainly wasn't a flawless game. The Junction System can be hard to grasp and lots of people disliked Squall because he was the opposite of the protagonist in the next game. But it certainly isn't the awful game that so many claim it is. And speaking of Final Fantasy IX...

Final Fantasy IX

I'm sure more than a few fans are puzzled to see this game being mentioned here. After all, Final Fantasy IX was a return to the series fantasy roots. The modern day, futuristic settings of the last two games were 86'd in favor of a world that favored the first six games. Four member parties returned and for the first time since Final Fantasy VI, character classes actually mattered. For a number of fans, this is seen as "the last good Final Fantasy." But for all of these throwbacks, that isn't a belief I can really get behind. In fact, I think the thing that holds Final Fantasy IX back is that it's trying way too hard to be like past games.

When it was announced that Mega Man 9 was in development in the summer of 2008 and that it would be like the NES games, the fandom rejoiced. As more and more news of the game came down the pipeline, it was revealed that Mega Man 9 would be a lot like Mega Man 2, removing Mega Man's slide and charged Mega Buster shot. My main gripe with Mega Man 9 outside of going out of it's way to kill the player with too many spikes, was that it felt like it was trying too hard to be another Mega Man 2, right down to using many of said game's jingles. A lot of fans were happy to see the return of 8-bit Mega Man, but there were many that felt this was stifling the growth of Classic Mega Man.

Having said that, I enjoyed Final Fantasy IX, but not on the same levels that I did VII and VIII. Those games propelled the series forward. IX was a good game but it still felt like it was two giant steps backwards. It tread so much familiar territory that instead of taking risks like each successive game did, IX felt like it was playing it safe.

"But, but! It's setting was just like the NES and SNES games!"

And? If setting alone made for the greatest Final Fantasy ever, than no one would be bothered by II's controversial stat system.

Had Final Fantasy IX been developed as a spin-off game as originally intended, it probably would be better remembered. Granted, it isn't remembered badly because again, it's a good game. It's just a game that's remembered for being a Final Fantasy game that's like the earlier ones and that's actually the biggest strike against it.

Final Fantasy X

The first Final Fantasy game for the PS2 and the first to use voice acting. Whether you think the addition of voice work was a wise decision or not, it did help characters like Auron seem a lot cooler and it gave us one of the most awkward laughing scenes in the history of video games.

In changing things up once more, Final Fantasy X ditched the ATBS (Active Time Battle System) that was present from IV-IX. You had all the time in the world to plan your attacks without worry of be slapped from the enemies in front of you. You can even switch out your party members in the middle of battle. Nice. The Sphere Grid let you decide just how you wanted to level up your characters. A change on this grand a scale hadn't been implemented since Final Fantasy II. Pretty ballsy, Square.

Along with some dubbing issues, Final Fantasy X gets a lot of flack for being so incredibly liner. A world map? It doesn't exist in Final Fantasy X. Want to go to another town? Simply move the cursor to the desired location and presto, you're there. I really wasn't bothered too much by this, since it did cut down on the random battles but it irked more than a few players.

Hironobu Sakaguchi & Nobuo Uematsu's Depature

These two men have been very important figures to the legacy that is Final Fantasy. What was once thought to be a final game, saved Square from financial ruin and kept Sakaguchi from quitting game development and going back to college. The last Final Fantasy that had any development involvement from Sakaguchi was Final Fantasy XI and some have sighted his absence as one of the factor's to the series going down the toilet. But since there are plenty of fans that don't care for numerous Final Fantasy titles where he was involved, Sakaguchi's presents by no means gauntness a smashing success.

Nobuo Uematsu has composed music for the series with the first eleven games. Final Fantasy XII was the first game in the series to have a soundtrack where Uematsu was not involved. Final Fantasy XII gets a lot of hate, but much like Final Fantasy XIII, you don't find too many fans saying bad things about the soundtrack. Hitoshi Sakimoto was the lead composer for Final Fantasy XII's soundtrack while Masahi Hamauzu wrote the music for Final Fantasy XIII. Yet as great as these soundtracks are, I've heard outlandish claims that the Final Fantasy series fell off because Uematsu hasn't been there to compose the music. I'm a big fan of Uematsu's work, but many of my favorite tracks from Final Fantasy X are tracks that were written by Hamauzu and Junya Nakano. Would the music for XII and XIII have been amazing had Uematsu wrote it? Probably, but even without him, those games had outstanding music. Besides, if Hamauzu weren't there for XIII, we never would have gotten Blinded By Light, what I personally feel is the best normal battle theme of the entire series.


As I said earlier, I don't think there's any distinct point for when the Final Fantasy Series went south. Plenty of entries did things to alienate players like an oddball stat system, hokey love stories, pretty boy villains with unclear motivations and so forth. I didn't mention Final Fantasy XII and XIII because I've never played those but they get way more negative attention than any other game I've mentioned here. Just when this series went down the tubes is anyone's guess but plenty of games before XII and XIII are far from spotless.


Chalgyr Vokel said...

I think you really hit the crux of it in your final paragraph. For different people, the series 'went south' probably at different times, depending on what they liked (or disliked) about a particular release. I'm in the minority it seems, that still enjoys the Final Fantasy games. I enjoyed XIII & XIII-2 and X was probably my favorite in the series, though I played the older ones too and enjoyed them also over the years.

Reggie White Jr. said...

Thanks Chalgyr.

I really do want to give XII XIII and XIII-2 a try. I only played about 20+ hours of X but I really dug it.