Friday, June 27, 2008

Finally Over Final Fantasy

When it comes to video games, my most favored genre has always been that of the Japanese role-playing game, or JRPG. All of my fondest memories as a child are from these games, and I have easily sunk thousands of hours of my life into plumbing their depths. Some of my readers (as if I have any left at this point) who aren't familiar with the genre and my history might think that to be an exaggerated number, but it is absolutely not-- my play-times for Star Ocean 2, Final Fantasy X, and Final Fantasy Tactics alone add up to over five hundred hours (and likely more, since Tactics' clock stops at 99:99). I have always been, first and foremost, an RPG gamer. However, like so many things in my life, that seems to be changing.

I still remember the first time I ever saw an RPG. I was at my older cousin Shane's house in Chipman, and he was playing Phantasy Star on the Sega Master System. I had an Atari at that point, and I had played many games on it, but I was too young (read: stupid) to be able to play something as complicated as an RPG with any degree of success. I didn't care, though-- I would watch him play it for hours, entranced, and subsequent visits to Chipman would always see me running up to his room and literally dragging him out of bed so that I could watch him play. Never before had anything, let alone a game, so completely swept me away, immersing me in an imaginary world populated by flying eyes, giant spiders, and talking cats. I would sit in class or on the bus and dream of being in that world-- I had encountered interactive fantasy (or "Phantasy", as the case may be) for the first time, and I was never to be the same.

I often credit Shane with making me the man I am today (well, not to his face, but privately), having followed in his footsteps in several ways. He was certainly a formative influence on me, and I did idolize him as a child, but I often wonder if I give him too much credit (or, for that matter, give my other older cousin Ryan, who first exposed me to Dungeons & Dragons, too little). More than any one person ever did, video games had a hold on me unlike anything else, from the moment I first laid eyes on them, and much of my life from then on revolved around them, whether it be reading about them (I credit Nintendo Power with teaching me how to read above my age-level), thinking about them (I was often chastised in class for day-dreaming), or spending every spare moment I could find playing them. Hell, I even enrolled in Computer Science because I wasn't ambitious enough to apply to Digipen and figured that UNB CS was my best chance at maybe one day working with video games that didn't involve moving to the other side of the continent. It often feels like every important life decision I ever made started with that one video game that took me to the Algol star system, never to fully return to Earth. I didn't have the knowledge or the experience to measure its quality back then, but it didn't hurt that Phantasy Star happened to be an excellent game, years ahead of its peers in many ways.

Phantasy Star may have been the first game to grab hold of me like this and refuse to let go, but it was far from the last. For the rest of my childhood, I moved from one RPG to the next, losing months of my time at a stretch, and loving every minute of it. I could dedicate an entire blog post to each of those games (and I think I may have already in one or two cases-- I couldn't be bothered to search, and my memory is, as always, poor). First, I got my own SMS and copy of Phantasy Star from my parents. Despite my love and the time invested, it was just too much for me, and my unwillingness/inability to chart dungeon maps on graph paper doomed me to be forever unable to navigate the hazardous dungeons of the ice planet Dezoris. I wouldn't finally beat it until many years later (miraculously, I still have a working SMS and copy of Phantasy Star in my closet, and last time I had it out the battery on the cartridge used to store saved games was still working fine). After giving up on Phantasy Star, my cousin John and I spent a while dicking around with wireframe rats in the Ultima games on his Commodore 64 (we pretty much always made a beeline for the nearest shop and tried to steal ourselves some great equipment, usually getting killed for our trouble) before moving on to the next big RPG in my life-- Dragon Warrior.

Dragon Warrior was inferior to Phantasy Star in almost every way (worse graphics, not as good music, fewer options, paper-thin narrative, only one player character, etc.), but it was, for me, the right game at the right time. Now here was a game I could actually play. I bought it from another older kid for $5, and I don't think I've ever spent $5 better since then. I spent hours playing it, and hours watching John play it, and even my cousin Ann-Marie played it (her first and last RPG, I believe). I had some odd ideas about what constituted good strategy that makes me shake my head now, but I had fun, and I powered through it over the course of several months. However, even though I had fun, it didn't have the same magic as Phantasy Star. The nameless hero of Dragon Warrior (well, he'll always be "JOHNG" to me, but that's beside the point) had nothing on Phantasy Star's brave Alis and her talking cat.

No, it wasn't until the 16-bit generation that I finally found an equal to Phantasy Star, a game that swept me up every bit as thoroughly as it once did, and then proceeded to make me forget all about Alis and her silly cat. Phantasy Star may have been my first love, but it wasn't until Final Fantasy IV (which I then knew as Final Fantasy II) for the Super Nintendo that I knew what real love was. In hindsight, the plot is rather predictable and clich├ęd, and some of the biggest dramatic moments turn out to be cop-outs, but at the time, I was enthralled, hanging on every word, blown away by every twist of the plot, crying when things were bad (Palom and Porom destroyed my childhood), and laughing when things were light-hearted (oh Edge, she's just not interested). The Dark Knight Cecil's quest for redemption seemed very real to me, and its influence on me cannot be understated. Or John, for that matter-- he still plays a Paladin in pretty much every game where anything close to one is available.

I've played lots of RPGs since then, but trying to talk about them all would be a fool's errand, and, as per usual, I feel like I've diverged significantly from my intended topic, so a Final Fantasy game is a good one to stop on. Suffice it to say, Chrono Trigger soon rocked my world, the Playstation became a JRPG haven, and I was in heaven. For a time.

In that long list of RPGs that I've played to death, you can find every Final Fantasy game (except XI, which doesn't count, and should never have been granted a numeral). Yes, even the first one, which I tracked down at a flea market and went back and played after discovering the series with IV/II. They vary in quality, but they are all excellent for their time, and I love each of them, from my favorite, IV, to the well-loved VII and its poorly-aging CG. And so, it is because of this long beloved history that I have with the series that I recently began playing through Final Fantasy XII, and loving every minute of it.

However, it's the first RPG I've played on a home console in months. Years, maybe? I'm sure someone will correct me if I'm wrong. You see, my gaming habits have been changing a lot as of late. It all started back when the N64 came out. It was supposed to be the RPG system, with screenshots of Earthbound 64 and a new Final Fantasy game, but neither of those games ever materialized, and I was forced to expand my tastes a little. Hundreds of hours of Goldeneye 64 deathmatches later, and I was a changed man. Or so I thought.

Mere months after finally buying a Playstation, I was back to my old habits, playing only RPGs, and that's pretty much how things stayed up until only a year or two ago. And then, one night, while I was complaining to Nathan that I had only one 360 game, and wanted nice stuff to look at on my shiny new TV besides the quickly souring Oblivion, he suggested that I buy Gears of War, because it was supposedly pretty nice-looking and pretty fun. I loved it. He then suggested I go back and try the original Halo, because it's pretty fun too. Three Halo games and a half-dozen other first-person-shooters later and all of a sudden, I have a new favorite genre. The value in being able to finish a game in a weekend instead of over the course of one hundred hours was immeasurable, with my leisure time being only a shadow of what it once was.

Things got even stranger after that. I moved in with Veronica, and she finally convinced me to give World of Warcraft a try, as Aiden, and to a lesser extent, Nathan, had been trying to do for years. I became instantly obsessed, and lost myself in it for months, playing it to the exclusion of all else. Then my decade-old computer finally died, and she got me to try Civilization IV on her PC, and I became an instant fan. Suddenly, I found myself playing not one but two PC games. I hadn't played a PC game seriously since the original Starcraft. However, old habits die hard, and I soon found myself getting that same old craving.

So, I finished up a play-through of Half-Life 2 for 360 that had been stalled for months and then promptly opened up the still shrink-wrapped year-old copy of Final Fantasy XII and booted it up. That nostalgic crystal theme greeted me immediately, and I was lost. It was good to be home. It differs from previous Final Fantasies pretty fundamentally in a number of ways, but not as much as people claim-- it's still Final Fantasy. There are things I like about the new system, and things I don't, but on the whole, I think it works quite well. The narrative is engaging, and I've really enjoyed my time with it thus far.

However, a couple of nights ago I defeated a very tough optional boss, and he revealed a secret passage that led to... nothing. Well, almost nothing, at any rate, with one well-guarded chest containing pocket change. Something was up, so I hit up GameFAQs to have a look. I was not prepared. It turns out that most of the optional side and end-game content that the Final Fantasy series is known for, that I spent much of my youth exhaustively conquering (and being proud of it), had been changed, and not for the better. The design ethic could best be described thusly: complete... arbitrary... BULLSHIT.

The chest I was looking for after finally defeating the optional boss had only a 25% chance to actually contain the sweet loot I was expecting, and, furthermore, had a 20% of possibly not spawning AT ALL. Turns out most of the games best items are like this, but things only get worse from here. Let me give you an example. The most powerful weapon in the game, the Zodiac Spear, can be found in a chest half-way through the game-- a chest that spawns only under very specific conditions. Those conditions? COMPLETELY ARBITRARY. There are four precise chests, found at random points earlier in the game, including the first city (containing a trivial item, like a potion or pocket change), that must not be opened, or the spear chest will not appear later in the game. There is no narrative justification for this, and nowhere in the game is this hinted at. The only way to know is to buy the strategy guide or check the internet. According to the good folks at Square-Enix, this was an intentional design decision to encourage people to play through the game a second time. Hey, Square: FUCK YOU. That's not replayability, it's punishment.

That's it. I've had it. I did my time, I dodged my 200 lighting bolts. I'm done. I just don't care anymore. I'm not going to sit with a walkthrough in my lap so that I can make sure to not open four arbitrary chests for a game-breaking reward. My tolerance for stupid bullshit from video games is very low these days, and the post-game content of FFXII is apparently a big steaming pile of it. I'm going to finish the main narrative, which I'm really enjoying, and then I'm going to try a bit of the post-game stuff, maybe a super-hard boss or two, but the first time it asks me to kill 30 of a certain enemy in a row and then stand in an arbitrary spot for 10 minutes with nothing in-game hinting at any of it, I'm done (BTW, not a made-up example). All Square apparently wants to do is fuck their fans over and make their game an endless, arbitrary, FAQ-mandatory grind, so they can go fuck themselves. I'm just going to have an enjoyable, FAQ-less play-through of the main quest, doing any side-quests I stumble upon along the way, and then move on to the next game, one not designed to frustrate the player. It's working great so far.

This doesn't mean that I won't keep playing Final Fantasy game, or JRPGs. Far from it. I eagerly await the next installment of the former, and have a shelf-full of the latter still waiting to be played. I just won't be obsessed with conquering them utterly anymore. I'll see what can be seen with a moderate amount of effort, and then move on to the next game. I have better ways to spend my time, and nostalgia for older Final Fantasies isn't going to make me forget that. That being said, Final Fantasy IV has always been, and remains, my favorite game of all time, and nothing Square-Enix can do to me will tarnish that. And believe me, they're TRYING.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You should post.


Tuesday, July 21, 2009 1:26:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

>implying The After Years is bad

oh you silly purist fanboys

Wednesday, October 05, 2011 12:38:00 PM  

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