Final Fantasy Isn’t Dying, You’re Just Getting Old

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Everybody has their favorite Final Fantasy game, the one that totally clicks with you. It’s the one that caused you to burn out the power supply on your original Playstation, the game where you maxed out the in-game clock on three separate occasions. Final Fantasy just has this power to inspire righteous devotion in those who choose to follow it. It’s the series that you’ll go to your death defending, no matter how badly the odds are stacked against you. It’s why talking about your favorite entry is up there with god and politics as an example of impolite dinner conversation. Everybody has one and fuck you if it’s not the same as mine.

So it’s no surprise that, as more titles are added to the ever growing pile, some fans find themselves getting left behind. Those of us who grew up with the NES or SNES generation of games are adults now, our quests now about paying mortgages and raising children instead of finding TNT or battling pirate hordes. So detached from the current games, it can seem like our favorite title in the series is a lone beacon in a sea of absolute drivel.

It’s almost as if the whole franchise has been dying a slow death, Square-Enix slowly tightening the rope with each title in the series. They’re killing the game that you love and all you can do is watch. Which game is up there swinging in the wind is up to you.

For me, it’s Final Fantasy V. I grew up without a Super Nintendo, so after the original Final Fantasy for the NES my experience with the series was limited to staring at demo units in game store windows and obsessively reading Nintendo Power magazines. I actually owned the guides for both Final Fantasy II/IV and III/VI, simply so I could fantasize about playing them. The closest I came was a copy of Mystic Quest that my buddy down the street owned which I played practically into dust, no matter how bizarre it was.

Then I discovered emulation. From age 14 to 16 all I did was play SNES games that I had missed out on during my youth. Breath of Fire, Earthbound, and, most important of all, Final Fantasy II and III. When I discovered that there was a rogue title that had never made it to American shores I knew my quest. I invested the entirety of my existence into cobbling together the various translations patches into something as near as possible to the real experience. You might call him Bartz, but to me he’ll forever proudly be Butz, the name given to him by the first set of pro bono translators. Unable to emulate audio for the game, I tracked down a copy of the CD soundtrack at an anime convention and played it through my stereo while I quested, frantically changing tracks based entirely on a crudely formatted text file I had found somewhere online. Despite a bevy of missing ability names and a plot that was in English about 30% of the time, I persevered. I grinded out the ninja job on all four of my party members, learned all the blue magic spells, and fell in love with a series I had only lusted after before.

To this day, despite having played every single game in the series, I still consider it to be my runaway favorite.

Since then, the series has grown up, adding expansive cinematics and going through more combat systems than a game of Warioware. The job system became the Materia system which became the Guardian Forces system which morphed into the Sphere Grid which became the whatever the hell it is they’re doing now. The characters have gone from mute sprites to fully voiced 3D models that sound, as my wife loves to remind me, as if they’re constantly having an orgasm. The soundtracks, once little more than ambitious chiptunes, have become orchestral arrangements that would make John Williams blush. They have, in every sense of the word, evolved.

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Yet still, FF5 remains my favorite. Why? Because it’s my Final Fantasy game.

It’s the game that comes to mind whenever I think about the warm fuzzy feeling that a night spent grinding experience gives. The bleeps and boops of that soundtrack make my heart skip a beat in a way no other game can. Hearing Galuf’s theme song still gets me misty eyed to this day. Don’t even get me started on the ending theme.

But Aerith’s theme? Unmoved. How much more anti-feminist can you get than to have a character who exists solely to die and motivate the main male character. Whatever.

I bet you’re freaking out right now. How can this asshole not understand Final Fantasy VII, the best game in the series? If this were dinner, you’d have winged a drumstick my way.

Guess what? FF7 is your Final Fantasy game.

Over the years I’ve seen the shift happen. Five years ago, when I started teaching, Final Fantasy X was the game. Those kids, who are now in their early 20s, are the latest generation of fans who are pushing hard for the canonization of their game as the best in the series. My students now? They speak of Final Fantasy XII (and Tactics Advance oddly enough) in hushed tones, the only game in the series I haven’t actually beaten, not because it was terrible but simply because I was too busy to care at the time.

It’s the brilliance of the series, that consistent tone that seems to just click with teenagers. It’s part of what keeps us playing them despite our endless professions that the series is crap now. It mirrors the trials and tribulations of youth in such a primal way that it’s nearly impossible to not relate to it on some level, even if you’re an adult. The universal story of growing up, the strangeness of puberty and the sense of isolation that comes from finding your place in the world. It’s as timeless as the sun in the sky. The archetype can be traced all the way back to the earliest recorded stories of Beowulf and Gilgamesh, whose genes can be found in The Hobbit and Harry Potter. It’s everywhere and everybody loves everything because of it.

In this sense, every Final Fantasy title is the exact same. They’re all stories about people finding their identity in a new and strange world. They’re all about the power of friendship and learning to lean on others when you need help. Sure the dressing may be different, the battle system might be batshit insane (see Final Fantasy VIII) or there might just be a random giant mech (Final Fantasy), but the basic underpinnings are always the same. Personal growth and human relationships are up there with chocobos and Cid as series staples, no matter which game you play.

When your friends and allies come to your aid in the final battle against Zeromus in FF4, it’s there. When you find yourself racing against the clock to find Shadow as the world falls into ruin around you in FF6 because no man gets left behind god dammit, it’s there. It’s even there in the fact that everybody has Squall’s back in FF8 no matter how whiny he gets. You’re never alone in Final Fantasy, no matter how solitary your life might seem.

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So, when people start throwing around claims that the series is dying, I can’t help but think about how my students “don’t get” the original trilogy of Star Wars, despite loving the new films. Or how they find The Hobbit boring, but love The Hunger Games. For a while I tried to explain it to them, to reason away their perceived poor taste, but then I realized it was pointless. They had missed the boat on Final Fantasy V, having never owned a Super Nintendo, but they had a Playstation 3 and a copy of Final Fantasy XIII. They had Hope, Lightning, and Snow to share in their struggles with instead of Butz, Faris, and Lenna. I might find those characters impossible to relate to, but that’s because I’m old and settled, the wounds of youth long since scabbed over.

It’s true, my Final Fantasy is dead. It died when I grew up, got a job, and moved out of my parent’s house. The Final Fantasy V I fell in love with exists only in my blissful memories of entire weekends spent clearing out smog monsters in the steamboat while maxing out my ninja job, the desperate climb to the final boss, or the first (of many) times I would best Gilgamesh atop that fateful bridge. That Final Fantasy is long gone.

But its legacy lives on in the joy that the series brings to every generation after mine. The kids who feel the same way about the theme song of Final Fantasy XIII as I do about Lenna’s theme. It’s those kids who are keeping the whole thing alive, even if it’s practically unrecognizable to us. It’s part of growing up, right? Handing off everything you love to the next generation, trusting them to at least appreciate it as much as you do, even if they completely fuck it up. I’m sure my father felt the same way when he handed me his old school Dungeons and Dragons books and dice, then saw me roll my first character: a bard.

I guess this is what getting old feels like.

So next time you play a Final Fantasy game, whether it’s Lightning Returns or Final Fantasy All The Bravest, don’t approach it with the mindset of the kid who sat crosslegged on your living room floor, desperately breeding chocobos in pursuit of that elusive golden sheen. Play it in the same way that you watch with joy as your kid opens presents on Christmas morning. The magic might be gone for you, but it’ll live on in the glint of joy in their eyes, the freshness of a world being experienced for the first time.

Maybe that’s why the name has stuck. For each of us, it’s our final Final Fantasy, the one that we pass on to those that come after us.

As long as teenagers struggle to discover who they are in the strange and scary world of adolescence, Final Fantasy will never die.

  • Kamille

    to be honest. I don’t know a single person young 16 or old 34 that have liked FF13. I can only find those specimens on the internets, the only place where you can find people that likes the shittiest and weirdest things that you wouldn’t believe (like people unhealthily obsessed with the Manson Family). Objectively speaking from a pure sense of game design FF13 is a bad game, especially compared to the western RPG offerings that we been getting like Mass Effect, Skyrim or Dragon Age.

    The opinion about the FF franchise being dead it’s pretty much anonymous regardless of age. And is not just FF, Resident Evil is on that same boat too… Many of these oldschool franchises simply didn’t resonate well with today’s technology and got lost in the transition due to huge budgets and dangerous decisions for the sake of expansion and capitalism.

    sorry for the bad English though, not my first language.

    • Jason Rice

      There’s a surprising amount of love for FF13, especially among the younger set. Lightning, the protagonist, was voted the top female Final Fantasy character by Japanese fans. It isn’t the best metric ever, but it’s something – http://www.novacrystallis.com/?p=4139

      • labwarrior

        It is the beggining of the end of gaming, for sure
        And it is the companies that lower the gamers standards, kids will play what you give them and what is hyped in the media, it is all on the developers shoulder to keep quality high and not serve the new generation with garbage, just because Hollywood increased their effects budget and is the norm to have silly mindless action than true movies

  • FF13sucks

    Yes, everyone just aged rapidly between 12 and 13, that’s why nobody liked it. Perfect explanation.

  • Matt

    It’s way too late for me to compose the type of response you deserve, but I couldn’t leave without thanking you for an absolutely wonderful article; one that strikes a chord and really resonates within this 30-something gamer, nostalgia junkie, and lifelong fan of the franchise.

    • Jason Rice

      Thanks!

  • labwarrior

    Sure, taste of your children is terrible
    We agree there, but that does not make the crappy FF13 series any better, they are just bad games and would be bad at any age and time

  • http://twitter.com/RPGFan2k Stealth

    no its still dying

  • val

    FFVII is my favourite because it is objectively the best. You are the biased one, not me. FFVII is exponentially more complex than VI. In every single way except maybe musically, it is inarguably superior. It’s comparing a 3mb game with a 1.4gb one. A $35m budget game to a $1m budget one.

    No other entry in the series has anything like the Gold Saucer. I’m also a big sci-fi fan and VII is the only entry that feels like proper sci-fi (viii & xii have a little too). Every town and every plot point is memorable. Whether it’s finding the truth of Nanaki’s father at Cosmo Canyon or seeing Cid’s dream of going into space. FFVII is the only entry in the series that is relatably human in terms of civilization and technology. The villains are the only good ones in the series. Shinra, Hojo and Sephiroth all have different motivations and are interesting. Kefka gets a lot of praise but he’s a childish clown. Ever since VII the villains have been nonsensical fantasy bullshit with the exception of XII which was political and boring.

    Since VII they have been dumbing down the series with every entry. VIII had far less minigames and was rushed out after the success of VII which had been given proper development time. X took away the small narrative choices (because of voice acting) and did away with the world map and pre-rendered backgrounds which made the worlds feel blocked off and small. You used to be able to have a whole world to explore, now you have less than 1% of it and you look off the edge of the level and see this huge world that is hidden from you.

    XII lost minigames completely. XIII lost a bunch of small things like limit breaks, stealing and armor but the main loss was towns which is just incredible. It would be like Skyrim having no towns and just having dungeons. Every single one of these decisions is due to lack of development expertise rather than an artistic choice. It was easier to design 2d towns and write for a game with no voice acting. There’s a reason that the director of XIII said a 3d remake of FFVII would take at least 10 years to develop. It’s a really deep game. But Fallout New Vegas can manage to make a complex 3d world on a low budget with less than 2 years dev time, so why can’t SE? The whole Japanese industry is dying outside of mobile and kids games and has not kept up with the technology of the current gen. The time it took to develop XIII is the same as the time between the release of FFVII and X. That was the golden era. This generation we have been starved of good jrpgs.

    VII had 30+ minigames, 54 locations and 50+ characters. XIII had 19 characters, a dozen locations and 0 minigames. You can’t tell me it’s just that I’m getting old. It’s objective fact that XIII discarded almost everything that I enjoyed in Final Fantasy. The battle system was slower than ever, and had almost no strategy whatsoever. I loved FFXII and considered it one of my favourite games because it had a great innovative battle system that sped up repetitive inputs while stile retaining intelligent strategy with the gambit system. FFXIII’s paradigms are exponentially less complex than Gambits and you only need to use a few different sets the whole game. XII still had a social aspect to it, the world had some depth like puzzle areas and good level design, and a couple of the characters were interesting. Each character had their own home town which you got to explore. XIII has nothing but an awful battle system, walking straight lines and watching uninteresting cutscenes.

    What I used to get from the Final Fantasy series is completely satisfied now by other games like the Yakuza series as well as Western RPGs and even sandbox games like GTAIV. I even really loved Lost Odyssey which was the real current generation Final Fantasy experience because it was full of towns and had an engaging story. It would take too long to detail the ways in which the FFXIII story was bad. I have not grown out of games that are engaging adventures with social aspects and varied interactivity. Final Fantasy has grown into an action game with cutscenes and that is pretty much a waste of my time because the battle system and writing sucks.

    I’ll leave you with a great quote from the creator of the series from the FFVII bonus disc (you can see it on youtube) that explains precisely 2 of the reasons the series is dying:

    “Without changing the basic gameplay the visual and sound effects have been significantly enhanced. Further drawing the players emotions into the game. One way rpgs force too many images and too much sound on the players robbing them of the feel of control. In order to avoid those responses we did extensive research during Final Fantasy 5 and 6 on how to make the players feel interactively involved in the game while upgrading the visual and sound effects. The results of this research are reflected in Final Fantasy 7.

    When we were creating FFVI my mother passed away and ever since I have been thinking about the theme of life. Life exists in many things and I was curious about what would happen if I attempted to analyse life in a mathematical and logical way. Maybe this was my approach in overcoming the grief I was experiencing. This was the first time in the series that this particular theme actually appears in the game itself.

    The stories and characters change each time. This is because stories tend to limit a world and I think by changing these aspects and creating new material for each title, we try to show our full potential.” – Sakaguchi

    So there is the creator right back in the 90s talking about how important varied interactions are, and not to overly rely on just visual and audio for the story “robbing” gamers “of the feeling of control”. Is that not the perfect description of XIII? Then he talks about bringing a new world each time. Instead SE are exploiting the VII and XIII worlds rather than going on to something new.

    • Jason Rice

      Before I begin, I want to thank you for taking the time to come up with a well-reasoned and researched response to my article. That said, wall of text INC.

      I generally agree with you regarding FF7. It’s one of the best games in the series mechanically, especially compared to the absolute crapfest that was FF8. The story is generally one of the more serviceable ones and definintely on my shortlist of best games to bear the title. Sephiroth, for all the crap surrounding him, is at least an interesting villain I agree.

      At the same time, I do agree that FF13 is one of the weaker entries in the series (the title for weakest has to go to FF10-2, yeech). The dark alleyway of gameplay design that they dragged that poor game down doesn’t bode well for the series, but I think they’ve taken that to heart with the major shift of FF13-2 and what Versus promises to be. Trust me, this wasn’t written as some sort of apologist piece for FF13.

      Mechanics aren’t what I’m talking about though. As evidenced by the generation of kids who hug Jar-Jar dolls at night or who prefer Twilight to pretty much anything else, actual quality doesn’t mean shit these days. Those of us who grew up playing amazing FF games have rightfully shifted our love to series like Dragon Quest and Persona, which capture those time honored mechanics and expansive storylines that we fell in love with.

      That said, people still love FF13. In a few years, I have no doubt that there will be a whole generation of fans who take to the internet in droves to defend it with a passion that even makes FF7 fans recoil in doubt and fear. Lightning recently topped an official Japanese poll about “favorite Final Fantasy women”, which says a lot about the fanbase’s preferences.

      Just think about all the stuff you have that is unabashedly fucking awful, but that you love with a passion. Count yourself among the legion of Evil Dead fans? Hate to break it to you, the but the original movie is TERRIBLE. It does a few interesting things, but they’re buried in a pile of low-grade crap. Do we still love it? Fuck yes we do. That’s the power of emotional connection.

      I think it’s that emotional connection forged in the white hot flames of adolescence that gives the series its power. Flames that are fanned by the themes of friendship and interdependence that the games all lean heavily on. That was where I got to in trying to figure out how somebody could love FF13 as much as people do. It’s the same place I had to get to about the new Star Wars movies.

      tl;dr – I agree, FF13 had shit mechanics, but there’s no accounting for taste when it comes to teenagers.

      PS – Keep fighting the good fight with well thought out comments on the internet.

  • Aiddon

    no, it’s definitely dwindling. It might be FINANCIALLY successful, but it’s absolutely soulless and boring now. If a game series is only entertaining when you’re an adolescent than it can’t possibly be a good series.

    • Jason Rice

      I think the entire genre of Young Adult literature is predicated on the idea of only being entertaining for adolescents. I mean sure, there’s a whole subset of people who love reading YA books, but the primary audience is kids. I think Final Fantasy might just be the same.

      Also, FF is very much a Japanese cultural phenomenon. As Western gamers are becoming more refined in our tastes with games like Skyrim and Dragon Age (which do shit for sales in Japan it seems) we’re no longer shackled to antiquated mechanics because they’re the only game in town. The grass is only greener when there’s other grass to compare it to.

      • Aiddon

        …seriously? You’re going there? Ugh, just because something is lumped into a demographic doesn’t mean it is only entertaining to that demographic. For example, the cartoon series The Last Airbender and its sequel were aimed at children but have a MASSIVE fanbase of people far older than its Y7 rating. Disney and Pixar films are safe and entertaining for kids, but they also have an undercurrent of humor and writing that adults can relate to as well. Freaking NINTENDO has made a bloody empire out of iconic figures that can be fun for ANY age. So, thank you for just reinforcing my point. Something that is only enjoyable to ONE audience is not something you can call good. FF used to be able to hit an audience regardless of age due to great writing, characters, and mechanics. Now it’s just a milquetoast shadow of itself due to hacks being at the helm.

        And what the hell does the West have to do with anything? How are Skyrim and Dragon Age more “refined” than Xenogears, Vagrant Story, Tactics Ogre, Fire Emblem, The Last Story, Breath of Fire, Suikoden, Star Ocean, Pokemon, Parasite Eve, Front Mission, Persona, Valkyrie Profie, or Odin Sphere? Western RPGs are just more stuck up their ass, serving as power fantasies to the player while ripping off George R.R. Martin and relying on the same Tolkien toolset they have been for the last 30 years.

  • sajinokami

    I enjoyed 7, 10, 12, and 13-2. I enjoyed the earlier as well.. I think the wait times are getting too long though. Year 7 of waiting for Verses, I was in a different demographic when I started waiting.

    • Jason Rice

      Very true. I’m finding that with every year the prospect of another massive JRPG gets harder to stomach. They were discussing it on the Giantbomb podcast the other day, referring specifically to Ni no Kuni, and how it’s hard to carve out the time to fully experience a 60 hour JRPG as an adult. It might have just been me and everyone I knew, but we all played them in massive binges over summer breaks and weekends, clearing through games like FF7 and DQ7 in a couple sleepless weeks.

      Something gets lost in the transition to plinking away at a game over the course of a few months between date nights and work outings. The emotional investment isn’t quite there in the same hazy sleep-deprived way.

  • http://www.facebook.com/CronoDAS Douglas Scheinberg

    Funny… my favorite FF games are 6 and 10. I also thought 13 was very good (although I completely understand why everyone else hates it), but I couldn’t stand 7 and still can’t figure out what everyone else sees in it.

    • Jason Rice

      Not to entirely diminish the emotional impact of earlier games in the series, but I think we’ve really been spoiled by the increased production values of the newer games. Tiny little sprites just can’t hold a candle to the human faces and expressions of full 3D models, we’re biologically hardwired to respond to faces with empathy and emotion.

      I remember the first time I played Skies of Arcadia, which was the first game I ever saw that featured actual faces that blinked and smiled. It blew my mind. Sure, the story wasn’t the best and the characters weren’t the deepest, but the addition of those wonderful details made me connect to those characters in a way that I never had before. Maybe that’s why 10 gets so much love, it featured the new facial animation technology alongside expansive voice-acting.

  • Conner Hobson

    Great job on this article; you really hit the nail on the head. I’m so tired of seeing all of these articles proclaiming “the death of final fantasy” when its all about perspective and timing.

  • marianne

    I must be lucky – while I haven’t even gotten around to finishing FF7 and 8 (let alone even playing anything later in the main series), I’ve managed to get that sense of newness, and childlike joy, from the recent Final Fantasy Dimensions. Granted, it’s graphically much like the 16 bit Final Fantasy games (albeit in a higher resolution), and the job system is almost identical to FF5 (I think that’s my favourite, as well), but it still feels all shiny and new to me. Not that I’m averse to 3D presentation either, I loved the 3D remakes of FF3 and 4, and SaGa 2 on DS, and when I finally get around to playing FF7 to FF425, I’ll try and approach them with an open mind!

  • LightningCanSuckIt

    No. The series is dying. Take it from a guy that played ONLY FF 13 & 13-2. I’d rather buy a Playstation 1 or SNES just to experience the better games and justify my hatred of 13. When I look at FF mechanics, not the story or the characters, all I see is pressing one button to win. Auto Attack should not be a thing.