Some of the best Final Fantasies are not called Final Fantasy

Has the (main) Final Fantasy series had some problems in development, mechanics, feel, game-y feeling? Yes it has, but the big , capital-T Trouble is twofold

That’s the truth, sorry, I don’t make the rules.

Has the (main) Final Fantasy series had some problems in development, mechanics, feel, game-y feeling? Yes it has, but the big , capital-T Trouble is twofold:

  1. The gaming media tends to oversee the bad way more than it sees the good, and
  2. Some of the best Final Fantasies of the last decade have not had the title “Final Fantasy” and have not been on consoles.

Here’s an old joke running in some circles. If you ask “What is your favorite Final Fantasy game?” the only correct answer is, of course, «Chrono Trigger». And lots of people would say, that’s funny because it’s true.

Seriously, look at it. Many of the best ideas of JRPGs of the time went to Chrono Trigger and not to FF VI (the one released in North America as Final Fantasy III). The time travel, the music, the design, the characters, the many nooks and crannies that are invisible unless you go look for them, the multiple endings… I’m not saying Final Fantasy VI is a bad game—it has a killer story and interesting cast—but I’m saying that the best video game ideas went to Chrono Trigger instead. Why?

Today, over 20 years after its release, its universally hailed as one of the best RPGs of all the time, and it’s often spoken about having a Dream Team of composers, designers and programmers. But also, when I look at it I’m tempted to wonder if such a concentration of talent and ideas went to it and not a mainline FF title because Squaresoft was afraid to experiment so boldly in its flagship title. Was it the case that Squaresoft didn’t want to mar its golden boy series with strange ideas unless they had been proven to be liked by the public?

I don’t know the answer.

But if we accept this narrative1 we can see this pattern repeating in later releases by Square Enix.

Take the Nintendo DS. You might remember this game called «The World Ends With You» and it’s a fantastic game. Without spoiling too much, the game features interesting questions about the self and and the relationship of one with the rest of the world, the values of we hold dear, the existential questions posed by a modern unified experience of life… pair that with gameplay that truly made use of the DS technical features (namely: having two screens, having wireless communication with other DSs, a pressure-sensitive touchscreen, an internal real-life clock…) and you get an experience so great that surpasses its clunky and sometimes difficult gameplay. Again, it’s one of the best RPGs of its generation and its system, but it’s not a Final Fantasy game

What about “the reboot”? There was «FF: the Four Heroes of Light» which promised to be a soft reboot, a “return to the roots” kind of game and in many ways it worked! It’s a simple story and a simple system, while the general elements are still very Final Fantasy-esque, the overall feeling was back to its roots of exploring, of figuring out the best combinations of jobs and of thinking less on super complicated mechanics. A good success, if you ask me, and it’s not a main series Final Fantasy game.

Then comes one of the best JRPGs of the Nintendo 3DS, a game called «Bravely Default». While it lost some of the “gimmicks” of TWEWY, it gained a lot on mechanics and story. Without spoiling too much, Bravely Default brings back a solid job system, paired with a turn-manipulating mechanic2 and the story is… well, it brings back some of the ideas of Chrono Trigger wile adding some good twists of its own.3 While this all is happening, the theme also strangely returns to Final Fantasy’s first, original “Dungeons-&-Dragons-esque” setting of four heroes out to save the world. Overall a solid game, solid story, interesting new ideas and mechanics. And it’s not a main series Final Fantasy. See where I’m going with this?

This is why I don’t want to say I’m a big fan of Final Fantasy without the superscript asterisk * and a footnote saying what I mean by that. I know that the FF series suffers from lots of bloat and innovation in the latest games has come sadly a bit too late. Why not incorporate these fantastic experimental features in the mainline series? Why must these interesting experiments come only to the handheld and later to the untarnished main series?

Oh, right: the fans.

The ones who correctly complained that FF XIII was a story corridor, but also missed the boat on the fantastic idea that is changing your party strategy on the fly, during combat. It’s the fans that demand good games but nothing that strays too far from the “true FF experience”. The ones that demand less micromanaging but complain about gambits in FF XII. The ones that demand better storylines but complain that FF X-2 is merely a dress-up game and miss the hard existential questions it poses. The fans that demand innovation and also push the company to beat the zombie horse that is FF VII because of its edgelord protagonist and its edgelord villain and its multiple suitors that like the hero despite him being a doormat to them at best and an asshole at worst. The fans that will buy anything labeled FF VII, even a re-re-release of the game, coming in parts and with Sephiroth hacked in to avoid a collective lawsuit from the fans who would complain about their middle school handle namesake not being in the game.

Yes, Square Enix has botched many things about its series, but innovation in game design has fortunately not left the company despite the decades. The problem is that some of the best ideas are not in the main series and I believe we the fans are partly responsible for it. Yes, it’s the developers who make these games but they respond to the higher ups who in turn respond to whatever sells.

And bright, new, exciting ideas in a game titled “Final Fantasy” don’t seem to sell as well as they should. They are relegated to “minor titles” and spinoffs. I’ve used only a few examples, but the trend seems to hold across console generations, across systems, across years. Then and only then are they reused in the golden idol that we collectively call “Mainline Final Fantasy Title”.

It’s time to stop that, but I don’t hold high hopes.

Originally published at Everything2

  1. And mind you, this is a “narrative” and not a real account of the events.↩︎

  2. Generally speaking: you can “Brave” and take up to three extra turns, with the caveat that you’ll spend the next round(s) recovering. Alternatively, you can “Default” and save this action for a later turn. Lots of the game mechanics revolve around this idea of taking turns early or saving them for later.↩︎

  3. mind you, it has some of the ideas of CT, but it’s not the same overall plot. I cannot say more without risking spoiling the plot.↩︎

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