Friday, January 10, 2014

Ode to Final Fantasy

I've been playing quite a bit of the demo for the upcoming Bravely Default game, which is essentially a new Final Fantasy game, and it got me thinking back on my history with the series. It's one that is near and dear to me, as I grew up on Tolkien and the wonderful Dragonlance series and the fantasy settings of the early games are probably some of my most favorite settings of any sort of fiction.

Growing up we had a Commodore 64 as our first computer and also gaming system. The C64 was probably used more for gaming in our house than typing letters and the like, and we had quite the assortment of games. Probably my most favorite though were the Ultima games that we had. I loved creating my hero and then seeing how far I could get in the world before ultimately biting the big one thanks to some lowly skeleton (I was 7 or 8, give me a break). Once the NES came out I had more and more friends that had them and I loved the games on it, especially Legend of Zelda. However, we were over at some friends of the family and the oldest son had a game called Final Fantasy, and he had a big map open of the game world and was sludging his way through it. I watched him play for a bit and I was hooked. When we finally got our NES, Final Fantasy was the first game that I had wanted for it.

I played FFI quite a lot actually, and enjoyed how I could fine-tune my party and especially thought that the magic in it was amazing. I played that game so much, that even when we went away to our cousins I would bring it with me so I could play it there while on holidays. I loved the epic battles with Kraken and Tiamat, though I am still ashamed to admit that I could never beat Chaos. It is probably the thing in gaming I am most ashamed of, though I always swear that I will go back and beat it.

While I never did finish FFI, FFII on the Super Nintendo was one that I ate up and did not stop playing until I finished it. I remember borrowing it from my friend Jason and sinking hour upon hour into it, and thinking that Kain was one of the coolest characters in a videogame ever. FFI was definitely light on story, but I loved FFII for it's epic tale, it's wonderful characters, it's heart-rending tragedies and of course, the summon spells. FFII was one of the first games that I played and played until I beat it, but it is FFIII that is far more important to me.

When I first heard that there would be a new Final Fantasy coming out for the SNES I was overwhelmed with a ton of emotions. At this point thanks to some gaming magazines I was aware of the Japanese numbering and knew that FFII was actually FFIV and that FFV had been released in Japan, but not in North America. That was a total downer for me, but when FFVI started to show up in magazines and there started to be articles for FFIII, I couldn't wait; I wanted that game.

I read everything that I could in preparation for FFIII and was already entranced by the world and the characters. I loved the cast of FFII but I knew that Terra, Sabin, Locke and the rest would become my new best friends. The day the game came out I had it reserved at Movie Madness, which was the videostore that I rented from, and went there on my lunch break from school. After I got home from school I remember making a sandwich and then retreating to my room and put the cartridge in my SNES and started the game.

Man was it ever epic.

I remember playing it and skipping dinner the first day, and playing until after midnight, then finally going to bed. Got up the next day, went to school, and then came home, ate, and started playing again. I am pretty sure I made it to the World of Ruin before I had to return the game. I hated that I didn't get to beat it, but thankfully for Christmas that year, just a couple months later, my parents got me the game. Pretty sure it was the only present I got that year, as cartridges were super expensive, but it didn't matter. I played that game excessively, searched out every little nook and cranny, and was caught up in the characters that lived in this realm. I still remember after I beat it for the first time, how blown away I was by the ending, where most games at the time had pretty short ending scenes, this one wrapped up everything for every character and at once seemed to last a lifetime but also was over too fast. FFIII is still my all-time favorite game and it probably always will be, and that is a fact.

You see, at this point in my life I was pretty depressed. Sure most teenagers are depressed but this was actual, clinical depression. I was pretty overweight and had never been quite active and didn't like to do too much. I had really good friends, but I was generally content to stay in quite often. Plus, living in the prairies, winters in general are pretty brutal. But I had always loved great stories and liked getting caught up in them, and FFIII was a form of escapist literature that I had control over, that I was a part of, and I loved it. It made my day and even when I was sad after beating it, I had always hoped they would do some sort of sequel or additional content. I even wrote scenarios and created new areas for a secondary part to FFIII, that even though they would never get used, it still brought some joy to me in creating something like that. Again, it was a pretty rough time in my life but as long as I had some great adventures to take part in, I was all right.

Following the SNES, I had gotten myself a PlayStation as it seemed that there was going to be a lot of RPG's on the system, and once they announced FFVII I knew I made the right choice. I remember the first time seeing screenshots for the game and getting insanely excited for it. I even got the horrible Tobal No. 1 just so I could get the demo for FFVII, but I definitely played that thing enough to warrant the purchase. When it finally came out I picked it up in the city, and then came home and played it, and played it, and played it some more. In total I think I put about 27 hours straight into my first sitting of FFVII. I just couldn't get over how amazing the graphics were, the cut scenes, the story, everything. After finally sleeping and then going to work though, I came home to play and found out that my 3rd party memory card was corrupted, and all my saves were gone. That was pretty much the worst, so after buying an official Sony memory card (which I still have) I started back up again.

I played FFVII quite a bit, but it wasn't until I had moved into the city that I finally beat it. It was kind of a rough point in my life, but I was glad to have Cloud and the gang with me to keep me company. I did so much grinding in that game, but after the 10 plus hours with chocobos and getting Knights of the Round, and beating the weapons, it was worth it. After beating that though anoter Final Fantasy came out, which was Tactics, and while not being a traditional game I knew I needed to play it. You see, for the Genesis the only games I really liked were the Shining Force games, so I liked turn-based strategy games. Well, this game had it in spades. I think to this day Final Fantasy Tactics is the game that I have played the most, having beaten it 6 times and putting hundreds upon hundreds of hours into it over the years.

Tactics I should note came out at a rough time in my life, where I was living in my first little apartment in the big city and didn't really know too many people yet. I was pretty new and dealing with a lot of craziness in my life, but it was always nice to settle down with a battle or two in Tactics, and often I would come up with ideal party combinations and see which ended up being best for battles. Other than FFIII I don't think I have spent as much time just writing down with pen and paper ideas for a game or strategies for it. Tactics consumed a lot of my time and I miss having a quality game that would enable me to do that.

While I played a lot of FF Tactics, FFVIII had come out and it has always been the one in the series that I really didn't like. It just never jelled with me. I kind of liked the battle system in it, and how you get spells, but the characters just never won me over, and it always seemed too much like a soap opera for me. Hence, I played it and beat it, but I remember nothing of that one. Perhaps when I can stream things on Playstation Now I may give it another go. FFIX however, that is a different story.

I remember being excited for that one as it looked like it was going back to more traditional fantasy roots and I desperately wanted to give it a go. I remember at that time money was really tight and I wondered if I could justify the purchase, but I went to a Zellers to pick it up, and they had entered it in wrong, and had priced it as a greatest hits title. Perfect! Brand new Final Fantasy for half the price, I was ecstatic and quickly went home and jumped into the colorful new world that Square Enix had whipped up. While the characters weren't as "realistic" as the ones in FFXIII I found them to be far more enjoyable, tender, tragic and altogether have so much more depth than the characters in FFXIII. In fact, I would still say that FFIX is my second-favorite Final Fantasy after FFIII.

When the PlayStation 2 was coming out I was going back and forth a lot between it and the GameCube. I love Nintendo, but it seemed like once again the best RPG's were going to be on the PS2, and once word of FFX started to leak out, I knew that I needed a PS2. When I first picked up FFX I was overjoyed with how crisp everything looked, but more so the inclusion of voice acting. I have always enjoyed the stories, but with the phenomenal voice acting that was utilized there was definitely a greater connection with the characters and the story. Although, this has led to one of the most infamous scenes in games it seems, the Tidus and Yuna laughing scene. It's so incredibly awkward now, and maybe a bit when I first saw it, but it still adds a great deal of human touch to the characters. I enjoyed FFX and although I have always wanted sequels to the Final Fantasy games, when FFX-2 came out, well I wasn't completely sold. Again, I played through it but something seemed to be missing. With some of these other sequels though I have enjoyed them though a lot more.

Most recently I have enjoyed the FFXIII games, although I think I like XIII-2 more than the first and that is just because I enjoyed the combat system a great deal better. My complaint for the first part was similar to most peoples, where it was too linear and that by the time you got to where you could adventure more you were almost done the game. That being said I did love the characters and following the saga of Lightning, her sister and company through XIII-2 was great, and like I said the combat system and the almost Pokemon style of catching monsters and training them and building up their stats. With Lightning Returns almost out, it's looking like I may have to pull the Xbox out of storage and give that one a go, and I really can't wait till XV comes out, whenever that may be.

It's been about 25 years since I first played FFI and if you couldn't tell by now, I really love the Final Fantasy series. The characters and stories have been some of my all-time favorites in gaming, or any entertainment form for that matter, and whether it be Kain, Terra, Cloud or Vivi, these characters and stories will probably stick with me for a very long time. I always loved reading things like The Hobbit as I mentioned before, but these games have given me the chance to actively participate in the story that was being told and that is what I love and respect about the Final Fantasy games. While there have been some lows, there have been plenty of highs, and while the Mass Effect series has occupied more of my gameplay time in recent years, I look forward to Bravely Default, FFXV and beyond, because really, there will probably be no actual Final, Final Fantasy, and I am ok with that.
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