Here is ESTNN's Lahftel philosophically waxing over the legacy and importance of Final Fantasy.
It's probably no secret that I'm an avid fan of Final Fantasy. I probably wouldn't have this gig if it wasn't for my tragic addiction to Final Fantasy XIV; which was fueled by an addiction to Final Fantasy XI. And having been brought into gaming by what was the golden age of Japanese video games in the early and mid 2000's.
How did we get here anyways?
These days you'll probably hear me complain often enough that games kind of forgot how to be fun. How the medium evolved from being an outlet for creatives into a gigantic industry with plug and play formula's that are now all the age.
So is it not weird that Final Fantasy was the franchise that pretty much defined the term ‘triple A blockbuster', only to be swept away and had what many would call a fall from grace?
I think so, but I can also admit that the industry and the audience for games has drastically changed and grown massively since I got into video games.
And the topic of Japanese games being ‘weebshit', or whatever the current term being thrown around is, is probably a discussion in and of itself. One that we'll hopefully get to at some point. But whenever someone insults the love of my life or Kingdom Hearts my blood begins to boil. How dare you speak ill of that thing I really like? But like, I get it, if I got into gaming with something like the mature AAA blockbusters of today, I would also think that a kid fighting shadow creatures with a giant key might be a little weird. That doesn't mean I can't sit down and enjoy it.
The Legacy of the Crystals
But we are talking about Final Fantasy here, one of gaming's big prestige franchises today, having been around for almost 35 years at this point. A franchise that never stopped asking itself what it could be. You could say that the need to evolve is deeply ingrained into the DNA of the series. Every new entry is a new adventure, a new world to discover and new people to meet. And these games can be anything from a top down adventure all the way to cutting edge action RPG.
The fact that Final Fantasy can be whatever it wants to be has always been the series biggest strength. Do you want a classic fantasy adventure? Want a dystopian sci fi epic? What about a road trip? Or maybe you want to get wrapped up in a complex war between two kingdoms? I'm gonna borrow this phrase; but if you're not against the very idea of Final Fantasy, chances are that there is one out there for you.
And I don't think the series ever had that ‘fall from grace' people keep accusing it of. Because that would imply, that at some point, the people working on these games at Square Enix stopped trying. Yes, there is a Final Fantasy third-person shooter out there. It's okay, not really good to be honest. But that one did at least try to be a Final Fantasy third-person shooter and not a third-person shooter with the Final Fantasy brand slapped on top of it to boost sales.
You understand what I'm getting at here? Final Fantasy and Square Enix are important to the gaming industry. And by the end of this, I really hope you'll give at least one of these games a try. Final Fantasy XVI will probably be really, really good. But lets wind back a little. I want to explain in great detail why Final Fantasy is still important today and why it deserves better than being an afterthought in the grand scale of things.
You could either call the first Final Fantasy a happy accident or just a response to the success of Dragon Quest. But I think what defined Final Fantasy and the ‘formula' that this franchise apparently has was the collaboration of three men. Director Hironobu Sakaguchi, composer Nobuo Uematsu and artist Yoshitaka Amano. It is the influence of those three that you would still feel 30 years later in new entries of the franchise.
Because most people who work at Square Enix today, especially on the Final Fantasy titles have either been protegees of these three. Or grew up admiring their work. And that's something we don't really get to see in this industry anymore. There are not many big franchises out there in which you can trace the lineage of their development teams like you can with Final Fantasy.
But we should probably try to investigate what makes a Final Fantasy, even though this is a series of video games. Final Fantasy is more like, how the immaculate Tim Rogers once phrased it ‘a fashion brand'. This comes all from Sakaguchi never intending Final Fantasy to be a series. And after finding success with the first game, they decided to go against making a sequel. Final Fantasy II was a new world, new characters and a new story while learning from the experiences gathered from the first one.
From there on, it started out as a fairly consistent series of games, that tried to be different spins on the same idea. Hero's saving the world from evil, with more and more focus on narrative and characters as the franchise developed. While also experimenting with the core combat and gameplay scenarios. Because you have to keep in mind a console RPG in the early 90's was still very experimental.
Final Fantasy VI ended up as being revolutionary in its own right. Featuring a gigantic cast of characters, all of them having their own stories that were often intertwined with another. And that would then lead into what was probably the final form of RPG on the Super Nintendo when Chrono Trigger was released in 1995. Which was at that point, probably the most ambitious crossover in gaming. The creator of Final Fantasy cooperating with the creator of Dragon Quest to make possibly one of the best games of that era.
And while Chrono Trigger is now a classic beloved my millions. None of those RPGs ever really found success in the west. That would all change when, then Square (SquareSoft to its US based fans) decided to develop a new Final Fantasy for the Sony PlayStation in 1997. A game that would influence the industry significantly, but also put Square in a very difficult situation.
On That Day, 25 Years Ago… Final Fantasy VII Changed Everything
Retrospectively, it's very easy to trace a lot of current trends in gaming back to Final Fantasy VII. And I will get into why that is in the future. But lets just stick to what Final Fantasy VII did to deserve the acclaim it holds today and why that might've been bad for Square in the long run.
Not only did Final Fantasy VII redefine an entire genre, it pretty much revolutionized the entire medium. Especially when we look at it from a mainstream perspective. Because before, video games were those silly little toys that you could only play with a computer or console. No one had ever expected them to be able to not only rival their closest medium of film, but also succeed it. Not only did Final Fantasy VII introduce a large audience to the anime aesthetic, it also proved that video games could tell stories in a way a movie never could by dragging the player into their worlds.
But if Final Fantasy VII was only a good roleplaying game, with great writing it wouldn't have shaken up the industry as it did. It was this weird experiment, of a team exploring the possibilities of new technology. While also wondering how far they could push medium. Which would later influence even further what Final Fantasy as a series could be.
Even today, the story of a misfit group of eco terrorists going up against an evil cooperation to save their world with magic sounds outlandish. But back then, very few games would explore themes like climate change, cooperate greed and ultimately what it means to value life. And later on, Square would explore those and other themes even further in subsequent entries to their franchise. So if you ever see the phrase ‘the citizen Kane of video games' thrown around, Final Fantasy VII definitely deserves to be part of that conversation.
In Search of the Next Big Thing
But that also caused much grief for Square going forward, because what can you do after making something like Final Fantasy VII? Especially when the whole world wanted more of it specifically? Series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi wanted to push technology further, leading to Square producing a movie while continuing to innovate their and evolve their formulae even more. That movie ended up being a financial disaster for Square, arguably a little too ahead of its time (It was a photo realistically rendered 3D movie with motion capture in 2001) and well, a Video Game movie that had nothing to do with Final Fantasy.
And while the games that followed were just as ambitious in themes and pushing technology forward. None of them managed to recreate the magic that Final Fantasy VII had captured. And especially in that time frame at the turn of the millennium, technology evolved so fast that many fans of Final Fantasy could only wonder what VII would look like had it received a modern treatment. That was and to some degree is something that haunts this series to this day, even with the Final Fantasy VII Remake project being in full swing.
Defiers of Fate and Gazing into the Sky That Night
This demand did not stop Square, soon to be Square Enix from experimenting further. Even with Sakaguchi's departure from the company after the failure of the Spirits Within movie. And it's pretty obvious that departure left its mark on the company. It was followed soon after by what could be considered a dark age for Final Fantasy and Japanese video games at large. But again, a jumping off point for another time. Just know that the era when gaming got big with the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 was not kind to either of them.
Games took a lot longer to be produced on HD consoles. Handcrafted graphics and models were slowly replaced by photo-scans, motion capture and cutting-edge engines. And there was no way the old workflow would ever be able to compete with yearly blockbuster games like Call of Duty. Say what you want about Final Fantasy XIII, even if its lasting legacy is as a disappointment to many die hard fans. But that doesn't mean it didn't try. Didn't try to innovate, didn't try to be different. And to this day I think it is an experience worth your time, if you give it another chance with a fresh eye.
Then Final Fantasy XV came out of a long, troubled development cycle and as response to the critique against Final Fantasy XIII. A complicated story connected with long, pretty hallways gave way to a small cast of likeable characters on an open world road trip. But it wasn't the kind of open world we had gotten used to, it was an experimental approach that ended up being just fine, but never quite satisfying for an audience that still yearned for that by then announced Final Fantasy VII remake.
But there has been a resurgence since. I don't know exactly what changed in Square Enix or the industry in these past years. Certainly my one true love Final Fantasy XIV is probably not that innocent in that regard either. Final Fantasy XIV's development was a nightmare, leading to one of the most catastrophic launches of all time. Only to be followed by a miraculous turn around that catapulted Final Fantasy XIV into being one of the most popular MMORPGs on the market today.
Yes, I will take the position that Final Fantasy XIV's success is probably the reason why Square Enix has put such vigor back into their franchise. Maybe it is just me, but since then Final Fantasy as a brand has stopped chasing trends. Instead they relied more on their instincts, which is something we can see throughout most of the Japanese gaming industry as of late. And I think its only a matter of time till one of those games can hit with the same impact like Final Fantasy VII did in 1997.
The Journey will Never End
Now that we've clarified what Final Fantasy is, what it meant once and the struggles the series and its makers went through, you probably wonder what is the point. I think there is currently a very large audience that kinda knows what Final Fantasy is, but never really touched it. And yes, Final Fantasy enlarge is probably the McDonalds of Japanese video games. And I write that with the best intentions.
Square Enix is currently in that spot, where they have a franchise who's defining feature was always that it reinvents itself. While also having the budget, talent and reputation to really shake up an industry that has been growing stale for the past 10 years. At least in the space of big AAA titles. And I know, the current audience for video games only really cares about the next big thing to gobble up. But it has been a while since we had an outstanding landmark title that will shift the entire industry and I'm certainly positive Final Fantasy can be that title if all the right pieces click into place.
The next year will be big for Final Fantasy, not only did the MMORPG Final Fantasy XIV soar to never seen heights last year. Taking on the final boss of all online games, World of WarCraft in an even match up. Next year we get to see the release of Final Fantasy XVI, from the team behind that MMORPG — and a number of protegees that have cut their teeth on some of the best titles Japanese gaming has to offer. We'll also get the second part of the Final Fantasy VII Remake project, which is probably the most interesting game in development right now. At least for weirdo's like me who care about it.
A spirit no other game can replicate
But where does this leave you? I'm sure if you're still reading this you're either a fan of the franchise, a fellow Final Fantasy XIV addict or this just popped into your google tends. My goal is to get as many people into the door of what is still one of gaming's few long-running prestige franchises. These games mean a lot to me and I don't think I'm alone with this either. Final Fantasy is not some anime game with big swords and funny haircuts. Its that nostalgic, familiar feeling when the crystal prelude starts playing on the title screen. It's that unique spirit of discovery, adventure and hardship that no other game can replicate.
So, if you are mildly interested in the series, or have fallen out of touch with it. I want you to go out and play some of these games, they still hold up today and if you've never played any of them I'm certain there is a Final Fantasy for you out there. And don't worry, in the near future we're gonna talk about some of them at length here. And please, for the love of all that is holy play Final Fantasy XII.
You can find more of Lahftel's nonsense rambling, as well as the latest gaming and esports news, here on ESTNN.