Week One: Personal Experiences
SPOILER ALERT!! This feature by its very nature contains spoilers for every Final Fantasy game. If you don’t want your cherry popped, make sure to skip the bits about games you haven’t played yet.
For the next thirteen weeks, I’ll be using my Sunday updates to take an in-depth look at the thirteen numbered titles of the Final Fantasy series. Each week will have its own topic or theme, my goal being to explore how each of the games handles that particular topic. One of my favorite aspects of this series is, while they are not connected in any traditional way, they are very strongly linked by theme, mythos, and tradition. Folks have complained about practically every single entry in this series, sometimes lobbing the accusation that this one or that is “not a real Final Fantasy”. But it’s not true! They are all thirteen of them very much Final Fantasy games, from the big-headed weirdos of the Famicom days to the grainy LEGO people of the PS1 to the belt-laden bubblegum girls of FFX-2 and beyond.
Not all FF games are created equal, and so neither is my pool of knowledge of them. I’m far closer to some games in the series than others, though I have spent considerable time with all of them. Since my personal experiences with these games is going to color the rest of the series, I thought I’d start by talking a little about my personal history with each one and how much I actually know about them. We’ll start with the games with which I’m least knowledgeable and move upwards to the ones where I’m a crack genius superstar
Final Fantasy XI: “I wish I was playing World of Warcraft.”
I’m glad I’m not at all very knowledgable about this game. I’ve had the misfortune of crossing paths with the kinds of people who know every curve, fold and nuance of their MMORPG of choice and they are as frightening as they are unpleasant. For instance, I knew this guy years before he started playing FF11, and he was considerably less grumpy then.
My primary experience with the game came from my tarutaru white mage Gladys who, despite getting hundreds of hours of playtime, never saw L30. FF11 was my very first MMO, and looking back on it with the benefit of years of experience with City of Heroes and World of Warcraft I almost cannot believe people put up with it the way they do. Accomplishing anything, absolutely anything in this game demands hours of grinding as you painstakingly line up a series of hoops to jump through.
The game mechanics are a labyrinthine scramble of hidden statistics, superfluous menus and arcane interactions. Gape in wonder at the sheer complexity of the eight days in a Vana’diel week. The current in-game day has an effect on everything from the strength of your spells to the success rate of your crafting skills — er, we think. After seven years, players still aren’t exactly sure.
I’m assured the game has a wonderful story, but it’s locked up behind months of grinding and petty MMO drama, so I’ll never experience it. Within the first thirty levels it doesn’t develop much past “you are an adventurer in a world full of evil turnips, crabs and giraffes.”
In short, about all I really know for sure about FF11 is that I absolutely should not be playing it.
Final Fantasy II: “Quit hittin’ yerself. Quit hittin’ yerself. Quit hittin’ yerself.”
FF2 had a plot before console RPGs were supposed to have plots, and it had an innovative magic/weapon/stat leveling system before console RPGs were supposed to have innovative magic/weapon/stat leveling systems. Which is to say the story was as boring as the game systems were irritating. I played the first half of the Famicom version (on an emulator with a translation patch, of course) before getting fed up and quitting. A few years later I played the first half again on the Final Fantasy Origins remake. It wasn’t until the GBA’s Dawn of Souls that I actually saw the ending, and even that involved playing directly off GameFAQs and hours of unpleasant slog.
I am scouring my memory banks in search of a single fond memory I have of this game, but I keep tredging up garbage like commanding my party to punch themselves stupid to raise their HP, spells and items costing thousands more gil than any reasonable party could ever hope to have, and grinding for hours so my magic spells wouldn’t go obsolete. At the apex of this hill of bullshit are endless, ugly dungeons full of “monster closets”. Imagine a hallway with five doors. One of these doors takes you further into the dungeon; the other four take you to an empty, featureless room with a guaranteed encounter consisting of the same annoying monsters you’ve been fighting every six steps as it is. So you either trudge through the row of closets (or, if you’re smarter than I was, abuse savestates to find the right door) and continue on to… the next floor of the dungeon, which is a hallway with five doors.
Oh, and absolutely every party member you meet has a tragic, heroic death. Which might mean something if any of them had a personality or any endearing qualities at all… which they don’t, so who cares.
Final Fantasy III: “I think this airship is broken.”
I’ve played FF3 twice: once with an NES rom and a translation patch, and again years later after it was released on the DS. My vague recollections tell me the same thing about both experiences: totally fun oldschool RPG grind, but bitch hard to the point where downloading a FAQ was a requirement. This is a game I honestly wish I had when I was ten.
This game has a job system, though it’s very rigid and static compared to other job systems in the series. Which… actually works, to be honest, when the game starts designing challenges specifically to be tackled by certain jobs. There’s a dungeon which must be completed while tiny, for example. Since your attack and defense stats are completely pointless, only a team of mages can succeed in battle there. Later you fight a boss that will devastate any party member except a dragoon who has jumped into the air. Fortunately for you there’s a dungeon nearby with two or three complete sets of dragoon equipment. How convenient!
This is about the point in the series when I can recall specific instances about things that annoyed me. In both versions of the game there is a penalty for switching jobs, which limits your ability to experiment with them. Furthermore, about half of the jobs in the NES version are worthless or worse. The DS version is better about this, but you don’t really see the true strength of a job until you sink some levels into it, so it’s entirely possible to conclude a given job is awful because you didn’t grind it up for a few hours first. tl;dr: Experimenting with jobs is tedious in both versions of the game.
What’s interesting about FF3 is that when I think about going back to playing it, it’s in the context of “I should finish maxing out my jobs in my old save game” and not “I should replay it from the beginning”. Usually when I look back on an FF game I’ve played I either decide I want to replay it or never touch it again.
Final Fantasy XII: “Here’s sixteen more monsters for you to kill, kupo!”
This game was looooooooooooooooooong.
The perfect length for an RPG is 30/60 hours. By which I mean, when I reach the 30 hour mark I want to have the endgame in sight. It’s fine if I’m still a ways off, but after sinking that much time into a game I like to be able to look at the horizon and approximate where the story is about to end. If I can see I’m getting close, I might content myself with setting about all the optional grind-y rigamarole that comes hand-in-hand with the RPG experience… up to about the 60 hour mark. So, 30 hours of game, plus another 30 of end/post-game. If I ever get bored with it, see, I can just quit and go win.
Not with FF12, though. This game is massive. There is optional rigamarole to subject yourself to at every single point in the story, all the way through, beginning to end. By the time I logged my 30 hours I had probably put in two minutes of exploring and/or subquesting for every one minute of actual progress. By 50 hours I was starting to get burned out, and bought the strategy guide. When I saw that I wasn’t even two-thirds of the way through the story, it was too much. The game had to go on the shelf for a while.
I did finish it, though. A few months later my guide and I invested a long weekend into clearing the game. And I enjoyed the game! Whereas I couldn’t find anything nice to recall about my time with FF2, I’m having difficulty remembering anything particularly bad or irritating about FF12. Indeed, my hour-long hard-fought victory over Gilgamesh still ranks as one of my fondest memories of overcoming a challenge in a video game. I deserved to win that fight, even though I was six levels under where the book said I should be. Even though I didn’t have the correct equipment. Even though I had to abuse the quickening and party-swap mechanics to make it work.
I don’t remember the plot very well, except it was more reserved and political than FF plots tend to be. I think Cid ended up being the bad guy? Or the misunderstood good guy who did bad things for noble reasons? I need to replay this one. Maybe this year.
Final Fantasy VIII: “…whatever.”
When it was new, FF8 was an extremely polarizing game. This may not be true anymore, but in 1999 there was nary a soul who thought FF8 was “just okay”. You either loved it, or you hated it. I, for my part, absolutely loved it… but I played the whole thing without ever really learning how to play it. In terms of sheer numbers FF8 is probably the second-most complex game in the series behind FF11. I pretty much got through it by sticking to my three favorite characters, using the Auto-Junction feature and hoping for the best.
I’ve replayed this game only once… hmm. When was that? I remember — it was right after I bought FF10. I didn’t own a PS2, see, but I ordered the game from Amazon anyway. When it arrived I must have decided to scratch the itch with FF8 instead, at least until I could figure out where to get my hands on a $300 console. This time I used a guide to help explore some of the more esoteric of FF8’s game systems. I farmed the rare drops to upgrade my weapons. I abused the heck out of Card Mod, a feature I had completely ignored my first time through. I made myself learn what things like “St-Att-J” meant. And I enjoyed it! But virtually none of it made it into my working memory, so when I inevitably go back for another look (probably on my PSP) I’ll be doing so with my strategy guide within easy reach.
FF8 is also the first FF game I played start to finish but wasn’t able to make immediate sense of. Back then RPGs were essentially straight lines. Stories were driven by simple cause-and-effect, followed a single linear timeline, and anyone who was absolutely crucial to the plot was either on your menu screen or in a boss fight somewhere. FF8, with its parallel plotlines and inner monologues and intricate backstory and gobs of sorceress mumbo-jumbo to slog through, was a different beast entirely. That’s one of the reasons I’d like to replay it, actually; I want to see if it really is the murky tangle I remember it being, or if it’s something I could actually make sense of now that I’m a bit older and wiser.
Final Fantasy XIII: “Can anyone else learn Haste yet?”
Having just completed this game a week ago, it’s still pretty fresh in my memory. Chances are it will slip further and further away from me as time goes on. I could, right now, tell you it takes 36 organics to max out a weapon’s modifier, at which point you switch to synthetics to take advantage of their larger EXP scores. I know the difference between a fal’Cie and a l’Cie and a Cie’th, the properties of each, and their relationships in the game’s lore. Heck, right now, at this very moment, I could tell you the name of the evil Quistis/Beatrix clone who has exactly two scenes in the entire game.
Jihl. Her name is Jihl Nabaat.
My point is that a year from now I probably won’t remember any of that. There was a time I could have quoted you the optimal Gambit slot-out for taking on flying undead enemies in FF12, too. I might have even known Ashe’s full name at one point.
Right now though, as I’m writing this, FF13 is as clear as glass. I know the names and priorities of the Paradigms for both of my favorite parties. I know what abilities lay at the top of each character’s off-role Crystariums. I know how many Cie’th stone missions I haven’t completed, and their exact locations, should I choose to go and finish them.
There’s a lot about the game I don’t know, of course. There are lots of weapons I haven’t experimented with, lots of accessories I haven’t leveled up, an entire tier of the Crystarium I haven’t gotten to and two characters I have not used since gaining the ability to form my own teams. I’m also incredibly weary of the game and not likely to go back and learn any of that; see “30/60 hours” above.
In fact, this entire “13 Weeks of Final Fantasy” nonsense is a result of the disparity between the amount of brainpower currently being allotted to FF13 and the actual will to continue playing it. If I don’t talk at great lengths about anything and everything related to Final Fantasy I might very well explode.
Final Fantasy X: “HA. HA. HA. HA. HA.”
Of the thirteen games in the series, I only came away disliking two. The first was FF2. And the second, despite all the kvetching I did about FF11 at the outset of my post, was FF10. Kind of a downer considering how much goddamn time I’ve actually sunk into the game. My first playthrough was on my friend’s PS2, as I had no PS2 of my own at the time. I made it about to the Calm Lands before losing my save, being forced to start over from the beginning when I bought my own PS2 a year or so later. A painful enough experience considering I had already began hating the game by that point, but I couldn’t just leave it sitting there unfinished.
I had a similar response to FF2, you’ll recall.
Actually, my experience with FF10 was even stranger than that. See, I continued purchasing PS2 games for myself without having a console to play them on, possibly due to gross financial irresponsibility. My fifth or sixth such purchase happened to be Final Fantasy X-2, and that was the point I had had enough and just bought a damn console to go with it. So my first complete playthrough of FF10 was actually done side by side with its sequel.
All the little stupid things that annoyed me about FF10’s story, combat and game systems were compounded by the fact that they were all done differently (read: better) in FF10-2. The boring Sphere Grid was replaced with the more malleable Dresspheres. The plodding swap-centric fights were replaced with a brisk ATB system. The cutscenes, which were just as stupid as ever, were skippable. And FF10-2 just didn’t take itself so damned seriously.
And let’s not forget our heroine, the much-maligned Yuna. I actually liked Yuna, God help me. Her 10-2 instance, I mean. Perky, confident, cheerful, and determined. A little too bubblegum for my taste, but okay, I’ll take it. Even her voice acting was better the second time around. You can imagine, then, how difficult it was for me to go back and forth between that Yuna (which, I’ll remind you, has a gun you shot by pulling R1) and her weepy, unsure, fake-laugh, boring-white-mage previous self. Gah. Gah.
As a result of playing both games together, though, and immediately replaying FF10-2 afterwards, the setting of Spira is very vivid in my mind. Not a great setting when considered alongside the deeper and more robust Ivalice or breathtaking Vana’diel… but it’s there, in all its colorful silly glory.
Final Fantasy V: “How come all my pets keep dying?”
1998 must have been a strange year for me, because that’s the year I stopped replaying RPGs. FF5 is the first game in the series I did not play twice within my first few months with it. This was partly due to it only being available as a notoriously poor rom translation (to be followed within a couple years with a notoriously poor official translation). But most of it was just a shift in the amount of time I was able to devote to any given RPG. Up until now new RPGs were rare beasts, coming along maybe once a year in the form of an SNES cartridge $10 more expensive than anything else on the rack. They were meant to be savored. FF7 was the last of that breed, though, since once it sold its 80 trillionth copy everybody and their brother started publishing them. I barely had time to finish one forgettable PS1-era RPG before another was slated to come out.
Somewhere in the torrent was FF5.
I couldn’t play the rom, actually; my computer couldn’t handle the transparency effects required to get through the sunken ship dungeon. My response was to import the shiny new Japanese PS1 port and play it with a translation guide. This made the game excruciatingly difficult, of course, and though I did complete it, it left a sour taste in my mouth. When the game came out for-reals as part of Final Fantasy Anthology I was determined to just push through it as quickly as possible, not taking the time to explore some of the wackier jobs or tackle any of the sidequests.
So my first real, honest attempt to play and enjoy FF5 came on the GBA remake, after having already completed the game twice. The result, I found, was a pleasant mix of “Oh! I remember this! This was cool!” and “Huh? I don’t remember this! This is cool!” I took the time to max out all the jobs, and only quit playing due to burnout in the post-game superdungeon. My latest replay is about half-done, being handled in short spurts here and there as the months wear on. I’m surprised by how much of the game I can play on autopilot, given my early history with it was so tumultuous.
Final Fantasy VII: “OMG SO REALISTIC”
And here we depart the realm of FF games I’ve played once or twice, and enter the realm of FF games I’ve all but committed to memory. As I’ve said, FF7 is the final game from an era of RPGs where it was common practice for me to watch the end credits, then immeditely hit the RESET button for another go-round. In FF7’s case I had actually played it more than that, since I had gotten all the way through the end of Disc One on my buddy’s PS1 before the save got wiped and I had to start over.
FF7’s story was spoiled for me, and I don’t mean in the sense that someone told me what happened before playing it. I mean, I would have enjoyed the story, except I had a mental block in place that wouldn’t allow me to do so. See, back when I was playing (and re-playing, and re-re-playing) FF7 I was in the prime of my fanfic-writin’ years. So were a lot of people, it seems, since 98% of all fanfics everywhere on the internet were for FF7. I dabbled a bit myself, sure, but there were so many FF7 fanfics (as opposed to, say, Wild ARMs or Breath of Fire III or whatever the other hotsauce RPGs were at the time) that I began to actively hate on them for no clearly defined reason. I was so disgusted with the game during my third or fourth playthrough that I gave all my characters embarrassing names like FAG-BOY and HICKBALLS.
The irony of dedicating a third and fourth playthrough to a game that was undeserving of my praise, while letting other, unfairly underrated RPGs languish on the shelf was, naturally, entirely lost on me.
I forget how many times I went through this game. Four or five, at least. It’s worth noting that all of those playthroughs happened before FF8 came out… except one. I went back to it after clearing FF10 and FF10-2, determined to get a full set of materia and three maxed Enemy Skill lists. I did all that and more; I learned Limit Breaks I’d never seen, I played with Morph and Steal, I poured my heart and soul into defense of Fort Condor. I even fell in love with a rascally ninja girl I’d never have been caught dead with in the 90s. I made my peace with FF7, and we’re now on speaking terms.
Final Fantasy IX: “Couldn’t steal. Couldn’t steal. Couldn’t steal. Stole Tent! Doesn’t have anything.”
I’m trying to think of a good way to articulate this. FF9 is not the best game in the series. It’s not the prettiest or the most well-written. It is not the most innovative, the most challenging or the most well-balanced. Nor, I should be clear, is it my favorite. But I am more fond of it than I am of any other entry. If I were to think of FF games as people, FF9 would be the old friend I only see once in a while. We meet up, have a nice lunch, reminisce, have a few laughs… then part ways saying “It was good to see you. We should do this more often. Keep in touch.”
(FF10, in this analogy, would be the abusive step-father. And FF2 would be the drunken uncle we keep locked out back in the shed.)
I know FF9 very well. Well, that’s obvious, since it’s this high up on the list. But it’s not because of how often I’ve played it (only three times in the ten years it’s been out, plus once vicariously through my fianceé). No, it’s because when compared to its brothers FF9 is a relatively simple game. Every aspect of the game is linear; each character has a set class they cannot deviate from, the plot is on a very tight leash for the first three discs, and you’ll have logged damn near twenty hours before you even get the opportunity to build a party. The endgame is exactly that: the end of the game… not an invitation to find broken weapons and fight insane uberbosses that can only be killed with endless streams of 9s.
FF9 was a trainspotter’s dream, filled with references and callbacks to every previous game. In some ways it was very much a swan song… the last traditional Final Fantasy game. The very tail-end of the old school. As a very fervid fan of the old school it’s easy for me to look back on FF9 a smile warmly. Sure, the game has its faults. But it also has Zidane and Vivi, so they’re easy to forgive.
Final Fantasy VI: “Choose a scenario! Kupo!”
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve played this game over the years. There was a period during the 90s where I switched off between this and Chrono Trigger, over and over again. I didn’t own either game, but I had a friend who did. I would borrow one, finish it over the course of a few weeks, then take it back and borrow the other. I want to say I broke it up with Breath of Fire II or Secret of Mana but, honestly, I don’t know if I did. Why play the B-list when the A-list is available, you know?
My knowledge of FF6 goes deeper than having mastered its game mechanics, broken all of its rules and completed some of its crazier challenges. Now we’re getting into the territory of being able to quote not just individual lines of dialogue but entire scenes. There’s a reason I was so dumbfounded when I learned there was a cutscene in FF6 I had never seen before. Playing FF6 Advance the first time caused me to wince in a few places because, no, that’s not right.
Did you notice the endgame medley in the PSX and GBA versions doesn’t sync up properly with the character vignettes being displayed on-screen? Because I did, and it drives me bananas.
This game is so firmly ingrained in my muscle memory that I know you shouldn’t equip Ramuh onto Celes when you first acquire his magicite. If you do you 1) can’t summon him in the battle with Ultros and 2) you’ll be just far enough behind in learning spells that only one person will know Bolt 2 by the time you hit the Mag Roaders. And if you’re thinking about posting a comment along the lines of “Hey Brickroad, it’s Orthos and Thundara,” then I fear you’re missing the entire point.
Final Fantasy IV: “One to be born / From a dragon…”
In many ways FF4 is my Platonic ideal of RPGs. Every modern RPG can be distilled into FF4. This is as far as you can boil down the essence of console RPGs without getting into the grind-y slog of 8-bit pre-history. So while this is not my earliest RPG, or even my earliest FF game, it’s still very much my first. Before FF4 I was playing some other, more archaic form of RPG.
I have absolutely no qualms with admitting that this game is my Lord of the Rings. My father had hobbits marching a ring into Mordor, I had a plucky pair of twins turning themselves into statues. Both of us built our lifelong adoration of genre fantasy from there.
Similar to FF9, FF4 is an extremely simple game. Simpler even than its predecessors, actually; FF4 doesn’t even give you the option to build your party or switch your jobs. Every scene in the game gives you a predetermined party, and every dungeon and challenge is tailored to be met with the abilities that party has access to. Someone who knows FF4 “well” could tell you who happens to be in your party and when. Forget that; I can tell you which slot they’re most likely to occupy. If your party doesn’t take on a pleasing <-shape when Rydia steps forward to cast a spell, you done screwed something up.
If you don’t stop to grind, Palom and Porom will learn their most useful spells (Lit-2/Thundara and Cure2/Cura, respectively) at the precise moment they leave your party. Tellah’s HPs will be in the 300s when you first see him, and just over 500 when he dies. Mathematically speaking, Yang’s Kick command is only worth using if you’re playing a version of the game where he can pair it with Cecil’s Darkness command. Rydia will start learning her third-tier elemental spells in the Sealed Cave. If you’re lowballing, forget getting past the Calcabrina fight unless you picked up the Ice2/Blizzara-casting item from a treasure box in Agart.
I have played this game, in some form or fashion, at least once a year since it was brand new. Jesus, that’s almost twenty years now. I have lived more of my life with FF4 than I have without it. I’ll have to remember to set a place for it next Thanksgiving. In fact, there’s only one reason it doesn’t hold the top spot on this list…
Final Fantasy I: “…but in fact it is just an ordinary well.”
…I’m not intimately familiar with its programming. Sure, we can talk plot and gameplay all day. I can tell you the best tactics to use to succeed in any given challenge in FF4 or 6 or 9. When it comes to FF1, I can tell you why. I know why the Peninsula of Power works. I know why the WarMECh is so rare. I know how to win the game without ever having to heal. I know which weapons are bugged and which ones cast spells… and I know which spells are bugged. I know why you always follow up using a HOUSE by using a TENT. I know all the reasons why promoting early is a bad idea… then I do it anyway because it’s tradition.
There are only two video games I have had the inclination to break apart at the seams so I could get inside and explore their guts: Super Metroid and the original NES version of Final Fantasy.
Forget any talk about RPGs in particular — FF1 taught me how to love video games in general. This game took me months to solve, and that was with the instruction manual (which included a walkthrough for the first half of the game) and the dedication of my little brother and my best friend to the cause. We would roll up a party, play for weeks, then think of some better party and start over. We would buy every spell and try to eke out every advantage. I can vividly recall two separate fistfights over who would get stuck with the chore of painstakingly buying HEAL potions one at a time.
When the topic of FF1 comes up nowadays, and some whippersnapper who is playing it for the first time says they’re stuck, I don’t feel the need to tell them where to go. Instead, I can tell them where to find the clue that tells them where to go. I had to decipher all those clues myself, once. I had pages of graph paper filled up with whatever maps weren’t on the pack-in that came with the game. Of course I don’t need the maps anymore; nowadays I can navigate all the dungeons without wasting a single square.
I’ve done the lowball runs, the no-magic runs, the speed runs and the solo runs. All on the original cart, thanks for asking, without savestates or fast-forward. I lost $5 to a friend because I didn’t believe it when he told me there was a slider puzzle minigame… then won it back by solving it before he could. (A moot point anyway, since neither of us had $5.) I wore my battery dead, obtained a new copy, wore that one dead, and obtained a third. About that time the remakes started coming out, so I set to work doing insane things like killing all the superdungeon uberbosses with a party of unpromoted Thieves.
I’ve LPed the game twice (1, 2) and have a third one scheduled to begin next week because I’m just… not… done with it… yet. I booted it up for a test-run, actually, just to make sure the emulator and the screenshot gizmo were all in order… and before I knew what was going on I had killed LICH. Good-bye Thursday afternoon. Oh well.
As you can (hopefully) see, I’ve got a pretty in-depth and storied history with this series and each entry in it. This will also give you a good taste of how wordy this series is going to be, which means you are at this point either salivating for next week’s entry or preparing to swear off my stupid blog entirely.
Have a topic you’d like to see me cover? You’ve got twelve weeks to convince me! Leave a comment saying what you’d like me to take a look at, or just to let me know how mean it was to rename Aeris “HICKBALLS”.