Final Fantasy: She still floats


[Editor's note: unangbangkay takes a deep hard look at the Final Fantasy series and talks about whether the series should change the formula or keep things as they are. -- CTZ]

In a sentence, I think Final Fantasy is a brand that still floats. She may not ride as high on the waves of innovation as we might want, but that's no reason to sink her.

The Escapist recently posted an article entitled "The Battleship Final Fantasy". In it, Ray Huling likens the beloved franchise to the World War II super-battleship Yamato.

The Yamato was the pride of the Japanese navy, a triumph of battleship design. She mounted guns with a twenty-five mile range, firing man-sized shells from barrels with more than a foot wide. And yet, she was arguably obsolete from the day her keel was laid. Both the Yamato and her sister ship Musashi were sunk in combat with carrier air groups, never making it to gunnery range. The age of the battleship as the core of a naval fleet essentially ended with World War II.

Final Fantasy, Huling asserts, is the battleship of jRPG design. Final Fantasy games grow ever larger, ever more spectacular, ever more complex, but never really change, settling to deliver the same sorts of bad plotlines and labyrinthine mechanics as twenty years ago.

“The problem with the Final Fantasy series is that it uses ever bigger guns to deliver the same small pleasures...these little joys come at great cost to both the developers and the player. Final Fantasy today offers the exact same rewards as Final Fantasy yesterday, only it takes more effort to get them,” Huling writes.

Simply put, Final Fantasy no longer deserves a place on modern consoles. Expensive HD beasts like the PS3 and Xbox 360 do not need a game as archaic and obsolete as Final Fantasy XIII will undoubtedly be. Such rusty drek should be tossed onto the DS, where weaker technology justifies such idiotic plot and formulaic stagnation. “You can chortle to yourself: ‘Ha! This is how Grandpa used to play!’”, he quips.

Huling regards Final Fantasy IV as the best of the series, but not in the ways you might think. To him, praise of Final Fantasy IV was misdirected towards its narrative instead than the gameplay variation that narrative imposed. The plot, overflowing with with betrayals, deaths and alliances, was little more than a veneer to justify forced rotations in the party roster. Because someone had died, we had use a Paladin and a Wizard instead of a Dark Knight and a Dragoon. Gameplay was integrated with story, something that hadn't happened before or since.

Unfortunately, that misguided love led Square to think people actually WANTED plots as twisted as a Macross missile swarm or combat as complex as M-Theory. Who in their right mind would want that?! The only reason the idiotic, infantile stories of Final Fantasy were good for anyway were as excuses for the game to happen. Without that, they were trash.

Things reached a head, he says, with Final Fantasy XII, a game whose mechanics and sidequests had grown “huge, elaborate and entirely without purpose - a battleship if [he] ever saw one.”

Similar questions were addressed in RetroForce GO! #70, and though no solid declarations were made, the cast seemed to feel that, in the choice words of Topher Cantler, the “extraneous bullshit” had gotten out of hand.

The lovely Colette Bennett, however, noted that there people that (gasp!) liked that kind of thing. True enough, what other reason could there be to explain the existence of such ridiculously complex games as Gran Turismo, Operation Flashpoint, and nearly every game created by Nippon Ichi?

Every gamer, she said, has a different “recipe” for the perfect RPG.

And there's the rub. My initial reaction to Huling's assertion and be summed up in one sentence:

"Says who?"

I do agree with him on some points. Final Fantasy and jRPGs in general trade in pedestrian pabulum, fare worthy of the average Dungeons & Dragons novel or Saturday (Sunday in Japan) anime series, but the question at the core of this observation is this: does trading in such lowbrow fiction make Final Fantasy's formula somehow "unworthy" of a place in the title lineup of current-generation platforms? I say it does not.

Gears of War 2, with "ten shitloads" of enemy Locust roundly deserves its place among the princes of the 360 game stable. Then again, the quality of its writing and dialog is just as cringe-inducing (perhaps moreso) as the worst expressions of amnesiac angst from Cloud Strife or Squall Leonhart.

So why NOT Final Fantasy, then? How is a badly written action game characterized by amazing production values and exciting, nuanced gameplay, more deserving of continued existence than a badly written jRPG characterized by amazing production values and exciting, nuanced gameplay?

Is it that flawed battleship metaphor?* Does Final Fantasy's antiquated gameplay no longer justify the resources spent producing it? Consider this: what one calls "obsolete" and "antiquated", some regard as "classic" and "venerable". As Colette mentioned, there are people who like that, and some of those people buy Final Fantasy. And apparently, there have been enough of them so far that it's been worth the pandering.

And what about the small-but-significant changes that emerge with every new release?

The Junction system, Materia, Gambits, Jobs, Active Time Battle, even Dress-spheres, all were innovations to battle mechanics from one game to another, some changes more dramatic than others. License boards, Sphere Grids, Magicite, Equipment Skills, all altered the way Final Fantasy player developed their characters, in ways large and small.

It happens in Final Fantasy's lore and setting, too. From Midgar to Ivalice, Spira to Vana'diel, Aeons to Espers; all the Final Fantasy titles have seen substantial change in "lore", even if on an arguably superficial level.

Sure, as Huling says, we still end up picking “Fight”, “Item” or “Magic” (Magick?) from a menu for the purpose of killing shit, but are the above, the smaller-scale changes, are they so irrelevant? In Gears of War 2, we still end up shooting shit and turning shit into bloody chunks of meat, all the while voicing crude assumptions about our opponents' sexual orientation and ethnicity**. It's just like Gears of War, except this time the shotgun's been nerfed. Should Gears be relegated to the DS (much to the delight of DS users waiting for more mature games)?

Every new Final Fantasy brings even more beautiful CG cutscenes, and every new battle system is as deep or deeper than the one that came before. As I remember it, Final Fantasy's always been on the technological edge. Final Fantasy VI used the Super FX chip (something the later GBA remake never managed), and had that sweet semi-3D airship! XII has such expert localization that I doubt the Japanese version comes across as well, even to native speakers. Greater production, every time, as always.

In the end, is a focus on small changes rather than sweeping revolutions what it takes to resign a franchise to the trash heap of history which, by Huling’s logic, is the Nintendo DS?

"Evolutionary rather than revolutionary". If I were still in high school, I'd have spit on that concept and call it "The EA Way." Then I'd laugh and rhyme "way" with "gay." But what if all that money from big, popular brands, actually fueled new ideas? Surplus cash can lay a "safety net" to encourage risk-taking. We're seeing some of the ripples from that strategy today, even. I doubt EA could have published Dead Space or Mirror's Edge without the MAD BANK they make from Madden.

Need a new basic design? Create a new IP with the money you're making selling old IP. Square Enix seems to see that, and with them it's not even as bad as the whole Madden stigma. Legendary brands are safe harbor for when you go exploring. The World Ends With You, Last Remnant, Kingdom Hearts, Radiata Stories, and every OTHER game under Final Fantasy XIII's umbrella project, Fabula Nova Crystalis. Those and more that I can't even remember, all work in new ways, on new concepts. Some worked out, some failed hard, but green-lighting them was backed up with the green generated by old stalwarts like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest.

Hell, new IPs that work out can be milked and get turned into stalwarts themselves! On a long shot, nearly every Final Fantasy core game can also be considered a "new IP", if you think the changes are significant enough. I do.

Don't burst the hull when you just want to rock the boat. The ocean's a big place, there's space for everyone to catch a wave.

Also, naval metaphors are hard to make serious.

*A hundred thousand other factors contributed to the Yamato’s destruction, from previous damage to cloud cover, tactical ineptitude to escort vessels, even down to her suicide mission, to beach herself on the shores of Okinawa and fire on approaching allied landing craft. It took over a thousand planes and six aircraft carriers four hours to sink the Yamato. The US navy maintains four vintage Iowa-class battleships to provide ship-to-shore artillery. New destroyer designs are also reemphasizing the need for gunfire in a key role, adapting to the age of asymmetrical warfare.

**Before you scream “apples and oranges” over Gears, I’ll clarify that this is essentially a discussion of design philosophy rather than an any specific series (though FF is the obvious principal), and as such spans all games of every genre.

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Josh Tolentino
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When not posting about Japanese games or Star Trek, Josh serves as Managing Editor for Japanator, Dtoid's sister site for the best in anime, manga, and cool news from Glorious Nippon. Disclosure... more + disclosures


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