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