Final Fantasy: A Quick Look Back
In a scant few hours I am going to be rushing off to the local GameStop in order to obtain my copy of the latest entry in Square’s long running Final Fantasy series. But before I do, let’s take a quick look back at the series. Especially it’s fandom.
As you know, I just wrote an article on the Sonic fandom and how they’re the worst one ever. The most common response I get to this is: “Wow! You mean they’re worse than the Final Fantasy fandom!?” Final Fantasy has perhaps the most well known broken fandom in the world. I often say that the topic of Final Fantasy is “Instant Flamewar! Just add Forum!”. It’s true too: mention Final Fantasy on any forum and no matter what you say, a small flamewar will erupt!
However, the very thing that makes Final Fantasy such a volatile topic is the same thing that keeps the fandom from complete stupidity: each one is different. This is an accepted fact. Every Final Fantasy does something new and is unrelated to the previous one. As such, once the dust settles, people are usually able to agree that it’s mostly just a difference of opinion. There are exceptions, of course. Younger or less mature fans might insist that one entry is superior to all others. However, for the most part, every Final Fantasy is of a high enough quality that you can see why someone out there would like it.
The big fandom wrecker was, of course, Final Fantasy VII. You see, prior to that, Final Fantasy and RPGs in general were a niche. Very few people really played them. So few, in fact, that Square actually made a game just for America to try and teach us how to play RPGs and get us addicted. This was, of course, the infamous Final Fantasy Mystic Quest. While most people today take this as a massive insult, it honestly made sense back in the SNES era. RPGs were that underplayed.
If anything, what defined the Final Fantasy series and set it apart from the rest was it’s storytelling. Even as far back as the first Final Fantasy, Square was throwing us more plot and twists than anyone else in the industry. It may not look it at first, but late in FF1 is a pretty creative (especially for it’s time) twist that turns the whole world upside-down!
With each entry, the writing improved. Despite it’s poor translation, Final Fantasy IV had more plot and better writing than any other game on the market in America! It began to show videogames as a viable storytelling medium and turned things on their heads. Of course, this was a different era long before titles like Heavy Rain made us wonder what the heck the point was. Back then, this was a radical new concept.
Final Fantasy VI was, of course, the big one. With a huge cast and incredible writing, it was on-par with or even superior to many movies. It was a huge cult hit and generated a lot more buzz for the genre.
Fast-forward a few years and Final Fantasy VII is the biggest news in gaming. By now, every serious gamer had played FFVI and was showing it to their friends while raving about how awesome FFVII would be. Every magazine was continually caked with multi-page articles on FFVII. As it was released, it even received full blown commercials, some even shown in theaters! Everyone who was into gaming knew about this supposedly legendary title and decided to give it a shot.
Mind you, Final Fantasy VII was also a huge gamble and many long time fans grew increasingly worried about it. It was a radical departure. It was the first FF on CD, the first one in 3D, the first with a blatantly futuristic world, and the first with character designs by Tetsuya Nomura. However, in the end, we enjoyed it. It was a radical departure, but it was still Final Fantasy. The old skool fans said “Great! That was a breath of fresh air! I can’t wait to see you guys do a more classic FF next!”
It’s here that we ran into the fandom shattering problem. Square had just acquired a slew of new fans who wanted more like Final Fantasy VII, but they also had the traditionalists. In the end they decided that FFVII’s departure from the traditions of the Final Fantasy series was what made it so great and decided to push it further. This, unfortunately, resulted in Final Fantasy VIII.
FFVIII is one of the most universally hated Final Fantasy games and it caused Square to lose a large chunk of their older fanbase. They tried to get them back with Final Fantasy IX, but it was too late. Many had either given up on the series or found FFIX to be too pandering to the point of being insulting.
However, the worst thing to happen to Final Fantasy was it’s movie: Spirits Within. Only a few years earlier, fans were dreaming of a Final Fantasy movie. With it’s fantastic settings and great writing, it seemed like a Final Fantasy movie would be a no brainer! Unfortunately, the theme of being as un-Final Fantasy as possible remained. The end result was a watchable, but shockingly generic sci-fi movie of all things! It’s still amazing to think that Squaresoft themselves produced this film and yet the end result was the least Final Fantasy thing possible! Even Uwe Boll films are more accurate! This has gone down in history as quite possibly Square’s biggest mistake.
Regardless, Final Fantasy X hit and was the most linear in the series (at the time) but also the most cinematic. While people had issues with it, those that played it generally enjoyed it. Sure older fans found it inferior to VI or even VII, but at least it wasn’t VIII!
Then, things got weird. Square decided that the next numeric Final Fantasy would be online with Final Fantasy XI. Then, strapped for cash, they quickly threw together a sequel to Final Fantasy X which would quickly become even more loathed than even Mystic Quest (though I personally have a soft spot for it)! The Enix merger made things even worse as by the time Final Fantasy X-2 had made it to America, the merger had been completed and many fans blamed it on “The Evil of Enix” (I wish I was making that up).
At this point, one chunk of the old Final Fantasy team left and formed the company Mist Walker. Meanwhile, the rest of the team was too busy with Kingdom Hearts II to make the next entry in the Final Fantasy series. The end result was that Final Fantasy XII would fall to the FF Tactics team.
There was a lot of pre-release hate for Final Fantasy XII. Every Final Fantasy comes under some criticism, but XII got it the worst. Announced hot on the heels of the controversial FFX-2, XII’s scantily clad protagonists made many fear for more of the same. Meanwhile, the fact that Tetsuya Nomura wasn’t doing the art had more people worried. Newer fans balked at the more Fantasy-like setting while older fans cringed at the high-tech air battles. Perhaps the mightiest blow came from, believe it or not, Penny Arcade. The infamous webcomic complained repeatedly about Final Fantasy XII’s new battle system for years prior to the game’s release. It seems silly, but an unfortunate chunk of the videogame community consists of people who just parrot the opinions of others rather than thinking for themselves. As such, this grew concerns about XII’s gameplay. Penny Arcade would later retract their statements post-release, but did so in a half-hearted and low key manner, unaware of the damage they caused to the game’s sales. It wasn’t their fault, they had no clue about the effect they would have.
When it was released, it received a perfect score from Famitsu which practically demanded hype backlash. It enjoyed a brief period of praise shortly after release, but this was cut tragically short. Normally it’s that period of wanton word of mouth praise that really helps sell a Final Fantasy. Everyone who thought they would be skipping it changes their mind as they hear about how good it is. FFXII did not have this luxury. Only a week or two after release and the majority of the fandom had turned on it, declaring it a “grind fest” that “played itself”. It’s sad because the designers actively tried to avoid this. They jacked up the monster difficulty to require player interaction, but this only caused players to grind until they could win on auto-pilot. So they made it so EXP gain from monsters quickly drops off, making grinding futile. This didn’t stop people from trying though and as such it turned into a “grind fest” to anyone not willing to actually play the game.
Long story short, Final Fantasy XII is one of the most skipped Final Fantasy titles of all time. A shame too as I considered it a wonderful return to form and the most Final Fantasy-esque title in the series since before VII! One could easily call it the second Final Fantasy IX!
You’ll have to excuse my extra opinionated rambling there, dear reader. As you might have guessed, I have a soft spot for Final Fantasy XII.
So now, here we are. Mere hours away from the US release of Final Fantasy XIII. The post-VI Final Fantasy team is back at the helm, it’s the first Final Fantasy of this console generation, and there’s plenty of anti-hype floating around. I definitely have my reservations, but this is the kind of thing you need to give a shot. While initial complaints about it’s linearity were disconcerning, further research shows that it seems a lot like Final Fantasy X. Indeed, FFX was also incredibly linear, but it wasn’t bad. Will FFXIII follow in it’s footsteps? Will it be a linear, yet enjoyable, cinematic thrill ride? Or will it be the second coming of Final Fantasy VIII? All shall be revealed soon.
If you would like a more thorough look back, I highly recommend this feature at Socks Make People Sexy.