There have been 15 numbered titles, it has sold 130 million copies worldwide, and it’s spawned countless spinoffs. On its 30th birthday, Sam Brooks reflects on Final Fantasy and what the series means to him.
The series that made me realise that video games were more than just a silly pastime was the Final Fantasy series. The graphics were mindblowing, the scope was huge, the stories were emotionally engrossing, and it was really, really fun. These games dragged me into another world, and I was ready for it.
The Final Fantasy series is the biggest RPG series of all time, give or take maybe some Western RPGs, and let’s not count those for the sake of my argument. These games had TV spots, these games were part of the cultural lexicon, these games spawned a crazy Disney crossover. If you say Final Fantasy to someone, even if they’re not super up-to-date with video games or remotely interested in it, they’ll recognise it as a gaming series.
Why the hell did this series become so big? And where has it gone since then?
The first time I saw or heard of a Final Fantasy game was in the Official Playstation Magazine, a monthly magazine which I bought every month for a crisp 15 dollars. I saw a half-page ad for Final Fantasy VIII, and someone about it engrossed me. For my birthday, I asked for a magazine subscription, which should tell you exactly how old I am. With each subscription, the magazine would send you a free game. I picked Final Fantasy VIII, obviously.
I would’ve been about eight when I did this, and honestly, I remember shaking as I put the game disc in. The introductory FMV (full motion video, for those of you not born in the 90s) blew my mind. You can see it below. Imagine watching that when you’re eight and what you thought of video games were like, Sonic and other 2D beauties. You would lose your goddamned mind. Your face would melt as though you opened the Ark of the Covenant.
And then the game started. Without getting into the intricacies, and it’s here that I will reveal that Final Fantasy VIII is my favourite Final Fantasy game which will make many of the diehard fans of this series disregard anything I have to say about anything for the rest of time, Final Fantasy VIII follows a bunch of military school cadets as they get embroiled in a big ol’ magic sorceress plot and, spoiler alert: have to save the world.
I’d encountered this kind of plot in books before, in television and in movies. I’d never encountered it in a video game. I’d never played a game that asked me to be emotionally invested, or as much as you can be emotionally invested as an eight year old, in a group of characters and follow their story for about 50 hours. Because these games are 50 hours long.
There are moments in Final Fantasy VIII that stick with me still, and will stick with me forever. The first time you summon a GF. Running away from a giant CG spider. The Sorceress’ Parade sequence, which is still one of Squaresoft’s (now Square-Enix) design peaks. Spending three hours pixel hunting and trying to find the hatch after said sequence. The orphanage scene (oh, the orphanage scene).
It’s not that other games didn’t have this kind of scope, or I’ve not had these moments in a video game since. It’s that it was the first time I realised games could be like this. It was the video game equivalent of Kate Winslet tipping her hat upwards and seeing the Titanic HMS for the first time.
It hooked me.
A few years later, Final Fantasy X came out. It was 2002, The Hours was about to not-quite-sweep the Oscars, Britney Spears had a mild flop with Overprotected, and Final Fantasy had reached its peak cultural saturation. The Final Fantasy film had just quietly burned out at the box office, the aforementioned Disney crossover was about to come out, and Final Fantasy X could be seen all over your damn TVs, back when people watched ads on TV.
For me, Final Fantasy X is the peak of the series. It’s not my favourite; that still remains the bizarrely divisive VIII. But it’s the game where what I feel Squaresoft, and the devoted team of regular collaborators that make up the Final Fantasy series (Sakaguchi, Uematsu, Nojima, Kitase) achieved what they had set out to do with the first game: make a world you could get lost in.
The plot has a lot to do with it, and it’s one of the darker plots in the series: A boy gets transported to a new world he doesn’t understand. A girl with the weight of the world on her shoulders has to undergo a pilgrimage, with her best friends by her side. The entire world is relying on her to save them. It sounds like boilerplate stuff, and in retrospect I suppose it is, but the game sets up the stakes very carefully and believably, and then fucks a lot with those stakes by introducing vibrant, flawed and dark characters into the mix.
It’s not the strongest plot or the strongest cast of characters in the series, but until 2002 we never had the graphical capabilities or the disk space to give them things like voices or emotional expressions, and having those brings the plot, the world and the characters closer to our reality, it makes them more engaging. It makes them more real. I remember some parts of Final Fantasy X more vividly than my own memories, which is bizarre.
There’s individual moments, good and bad, that I remember from that game. The infamous laughing scene, the devastating reveal about what the journey is about, the frustrating mini-games. But what I remember most is the world. Final Fantasy X is set in Spira, a world caught in a literal spiral (these games are not subtle) of destruction and constantly under the threat of an apocalypse.
As a 12 year old, I didn’t get it but I was immersed in it. It was the first game in the series to dispense of an overworld, so wherever you are in the game you’re just literally there. Whether it’s the Hawaii-esque chill Besaid, the overcrowded metropolis of Luca or the towering mountains of Gagazet, I remember being immersed in this world and the overwhelming feeling of despair.
The Final Fantasy series has always had that unique presence among video games. They weren’t always the best, or the most glitch-free (this guy are sick is one of the most notorious typos in gaming for a reason), but the games had these big worlds and these overwhelming feelings that swept you up in them. Whether it’s the cyberpunk-y world of VII, or the throwback medieval/steampunk one of IX or even the low fantasy of V, these games created completely realised and thought-through worlds better than any other game.
The love, the craft, and the artistry that goes into these games doesn’t necessarily eclipse those other games, or even RPGs (god knows, the Suikoden and Shadow Hearts series has all three in spades) but the fact that these were triple-A titles, these were bestsellers is what made them special. These games were doing all those while breaking through graphical and gameplay boundaries in video gaming – they were leaders in their medium.
And then Final Fantasy XV.
It’s hard not to be disappointed by XV. It’s been ten years coming, have been revamped from a spinoff into a main series game. It’s not that it isn’t a good game, it’s incredibly fun and fairly engrossing. The graphics are some of the best on any system, anywhere, at any point in our history. The world is well-built. The best moments are truly great – there are few memories from the last year in gaming that top the heartstring pluck of four friends pushing a dead car while Florence Welch croons ‘Stand By Me.’
But it doesn’t feel like a Final Fantasy game. Not really.
Part of this is because it feels like a compromised piece of art. You can feel where the story jumps around (the time jump), you can feel where notes have been given at the eleventh hour (Lunafreya) and you can definitely feel where the developers are bowing to trends (open world). I have no doubt that what came out was what Square-Enix wanted, and needed after a ten year development period, to come out, and the company is doing a lot to keep people invested in the game and series as a whole, but it doesn’t feel like the Final Fantasy games of old.
And I’m not sure if, in today’s climate, anything could. We live in a world of talented indie developers, addictive mobile games, and a world where our triple-A games are strangled by DLC requirements, lootboxes and the philosophy that a game is a long-term financial investment rather than a one-off deal. The age where we can sit down for 60 hours and be taken away by a story, at least the kind of anime/folklore-influence story that Square-Enix tends to tell, is gone. We used to have dozens of these kinds of game a year. Now we’re lucky if we get one a year.
Time moves on.
The game industry moves on. Japanese RPGs became a cultural movement and mainstay of gaming because of Final Fantasy, but the amount of money and time investment that goes into making a sixty hour narrative and world experience is huge, and the companies and audiences willing to do that investment is decreasing.
The audience moves on. When I was 12 I had nothing to do on the weekends and I could play these games. Now I’m 27 and I’ve got to watch The Crown season two. I can barely boot up Pokemon Ultra Sun and get a few hours in.
And honestly, the series has to move on. If you released Final Fantasy VII now (although they’re remaking it for 2018 so… maybe I’m wrong), it wouldn’t be the hit. To keep relevant, the series has to change. And I might not love the thing its changing into, a thing that it has to change into to keep surviving, but its still going. It is still a triple-A series 30 years after it came out. That’s a huge achievement, and one that can’t be disregarded.
The first boss in the first Final Fantasy game famously says, “I, Garland, will knock you all down.” It’s a poorly translated line, but memorable nonetheless.
There’s going to be a Final Fantasy XVI at some point. It might be another ten years, or it might be next year (it won’t be next year). It might not be as great as VII, X, or even as VII (it probably won’t be).
And whatever Final Fantasy XVI ends up being, it’s not going to be the Final Fantasy that I loved back when I was eight, twelve or even a more appropriate age to be emotionally engaged with a video game. The world has changed, the game industry has changed, and the parameters that made games like Final Fantasy VIII and Final Fantasy X possible simply don’t exist. J-RPGs are no longer juggernaut blockbusters, they’re curios. It’s sad, but that’s the reality.
But regardless of when or what the game is, I know it’ll have at least moment that will, yes, knock me all down. And after 30 years strong, that’s kind of all I need from a Final Fantasy game. That one moment that makes me realise what gaming can do, and what this series, at one point, could do.
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