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Who ravaged Final Fantasy while it played innocently by a stream?
by Greg Mengel

Many years ago a young, naïve American boy walked into a pawn shop looking for a new game. Armed with his trusty Game Boy Color, he scanned the used cartridges with keen eyes, scrutinizing titles and cover art in search of something as exciting as Link's Awakening and as addicting as Pokemon Red. His gaze lingered on the options before him... Kirby's Dream Land, Paperboy II, Bart Simpson's Escape from Camp Deadly. No winners. Just before giving up hope he caught a glimpse of an old game box attracting dust in a corner behind the register.

"What's that one?" he inquired of the bearded, tattooed storeclerk, whose aviators and tattered Detroit Lions tee-shirt were smudged and well-worn. The clerk put down an old carburetor he was puttering with.

"Oh, that? Final Fantasy Legend. Some kind of role-playing Japanese nerd crap. We don't get many calls for it around he-"


"I'll take it." The boy's flat palm pinned fifteen dollars onto the counter, a wild arrangement of nickels, quarters, and crumpled bills.

The grizzled clerk chuckled, collecting the boy's motley currency with what resembled a five-fingered paw. "Huh. Exact change." After wiping a layer of dust off of the game box, he tossed it over.

"Have fun, kid." The cyclopean figure waved before turning back to his carburetor. After examining his prize more closely, the boy stashed it in the pocket of his parka and left the store, excited for the long hours to come.

...That was then. Twelve years later, the magic of Final Fantasy is dead by Square Enix's own hand.


The Final Fantasy series that we once knew - one filled with reliable gameplay, memorable characters, and engaging tales - has been replaced. Outrageous storylines, papier-mâché character development and a grind-heavy battle system have commandeered their way to the helm of the HMS Final Fantasy and are steering it at top speeds into the iceberg of mediocrity.

Let's look at what went wrong, and where.

The turning point for Final Fantasy has to be Final Fantasy X, where classic Final Fantasy style fused with the advanced graphics and chiselled animé aesthetics that hallmark the later series. It had a little bit of everything: familiar menu-style gameplay, a technicolour dreamcoat of characters both dynamic and stale (including an unbearably annoying protagonist), a memorable soundtrack, a challenging arrangement of bosses climaxing with a ridiculously easy final villain, and a plot that - while not Shakespeare - still left you wanting to discover what would happen next.

Final Fantasy X's graphical improvement over previous titles marked the beginning of the end for the series. From Final Fantasy Classic to Final Fantasy IX - when sprite and small-bit graphics were all Square had to work with - everything looked somewhat... foggy. Instead of knowing a character's exact appearance, one was forced to imagine it. Comic artist Scott McCloud discusses this phenomenon in his work Understanding Comics, in which he claims that people tend to invest themselves more fully in simplistic animation than in high definition or detail. He would argue that gamers have an easier time empathizing with Cloud 'A'...

Oh Aeris! I'll never love another woman.

...than Cloud B.

Oh Tifa! I'll never love anothe- ...wait...

If McCloud is correct, then 'Joe Bloggs' will likely empathise more with Cloud 'A' than Cloud 'B', simply because Cloud B's near-photographic look highlights his differences with the appearances of those viewing him. Cloud A, on the other hand, is a generic assembly of shapes that we can only discern is both spiky and probably human. While playing Final Fantasy VII we, the players, will have an easier time putting ourselves in the shoes of a graphically indiscernible Cloud A than with a Cloud B so visibly different - and damned perfect - from ourselves.

Examine both images, and ask yourself which Cloud looks more like you. You may choose Cloud B. I understand, it's a naturally emotive shot. But if like me you chose Cloud A, then you may understand why many people feel that the jawdropping graphics of newer Final Fantasies, culminating (thusfar) in FFXIII, are less personally fulfilling than their ancestors.

Great graphics alone do not ruin characters. Great graphics without great character development, however, does. If a player is not subconsciously connecting with a character based on his (or her) appearance, then they need to like him based on his personality; how he responds to the scenarios in which he finds himself. Maybe I just don't understand Japanese culture, but I have trouble empathising with a lot of Final Fantasy's new characters, like Final Fantasy XIII's chic, hipster protagonist, Snow.

If you can see yourself in this character then you probably know more about rohypnol than you should.

With generic, unrelatable characters like Snow on my team, I often find myself routing for the antagonists.

More music.

The emotional disconnection caused by terrific graphics symbolises my biggest problem with the series today: it leaves nothing to the imagination.

This disconnection starts with graphics and character development, but it doesn't end there. Instead, it spills like a witch's brew over the cauldron, soaking the plot, gameplay, and even Nobuo Uematsu's famous musical scores with predictable, emotionally bland digital bogwater.

A common complaint with post-Final Fantasy X games is that their plots are about as sturdy as that popsicle stick bridge you made when you were nine. Not only are they riddled with holes and dramatic inconsistency, but they sport dialogue and character interaction that plays like a corny B-movie horror flick. I'd like to grab twenty Final Fantasy fans and ask them to describe the plots of pre- and post-X titles. My guess is that they will have a much easier time describing team 'pre'.

Final Fantasy VI? It's about a ragtag group of outcasts who bind together to fight a malicious empire harvesting the power of Espers, magical beings from an ancient time. Before they fulfil their quest the empire falls from within, leaving the world in ruin. With their original purpose lost, the protagonists disband, only to find each other again and unite with a new goal in mind: to defeat the evil Kefka and restore balance to their ravaged planet.

Final Fantasy X-2? Umm... Three sexy girls team up to save one of their boyfriends, who has been captured by common thugs despite the fact that he was strong enough to destroy the world-eater known as Sin just a few months before. On the way: karaoke, ice-cream, dancing, slumber parties and hugs. I'm not sure how it ends; I stopped playing halfway through.

Over the last decade I've tried repeatedly to get into the post-X games. I've really tried. I want to love them, or even like them. For hundreds of hours I've sat on the couch diligently, controller in hand, waiting for the plot of a new Final Fantasy to reel me in and fly me to story paradise. It has never come close to happening.

I've also become soured on new Final Fantasies because of their crazy, newfangled twists on gameplay. Sometimes the new systems offered by the series work. Final Fantasy XIII, for example, had a gameplay system with huge amounts of potential, but Square squashed it beneath its steely clods by making battles far too long, far too frequent, and far too repetitive. The reason they made it so tedious is obvious: they wanted to be able to advertise a 60-hour game rather than a 35-hour one. Over fifty hours of gameplay is great, so long as it doesn't feel stagnant after ten.

When it comes to music, I actually think Nobuo-sama and his protégés still know their way around an orchestral hall. My only complaint with their work would be that because new Final Fantasy titles like XIII make you jump through tedious and needless battles like hoops at a terrifically-orchestrated dog show, the player is forced to hear the same basic fight ballad just over a kabillagillion times. Certain melodies will never stop haunting you.

Keep doing what you do, Nobuo, old friend. Also, you look like the Japanese Mario.

The Final Fantasy series has been set on a slow, painful decline for nearly the last ten years. Its aesthetics and narratives, once deep and moving, now seem cheap and contrived. Better graphics and narrow gameplay have spoon-fed gamers an experience rather than letting them explore one. An obsession with Japanese otaku culture has coloured every aspect of the series, limiting its once universal appeal.

Why does this feel more exciting than this? How can a fight with this technology be more exciting than this battle with futuristic tech? I'm at a loss here.

It's like Square Enix planted the seed of a wonder-tree that could thrive in cold weather, grow enough fruit to end poverty, and grow steadily without human care, and then watered it with Gatorade.

In short, the Final Fantasy of today is in no way the Final Fantasy bought by an excited young boy spending fifteen dollars in a California pawn shop a dozen years ago. That series died in 2001, with Final Fantasy X. Until Square Enix drastically changes its ways, the Final Fantasy we came to know and love as young adults and children will remain but a memory, and an overpriced unopened cartridge on eBay. We can only hope it will show up again when we least expect it.

Until then? Damn you, Square Enix. Damn you to Tartarus.

Closing music.

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- Greg Mengel

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