Week Four: Gameplay Wallbangers
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.
A Wallbanger is a plot element so mind-numbingly stupid it’s difficult to believe a mature, thinking human really thought he could get away with it. This typically happens when an author or director asks his audience to suspend its disbelief just a little too far. Like when James Bond gets an invisible car. Or the villain turns out to be evil killer psychic plants.
Well, video games have wallbangers too, and not just in their plots. Sometimes a gameplay element is so utterly baffling it’s hard to believe it exists in a real, finished, marketed game. (The FF series has a few wallbangers in its various storylines, too… I just don’t know if I have the energy to write a post that long.)
I’m such a nerd I actually thought long and hard about the direction in which to organize this post. The previous three weeks have very clearly gone from worst to best, or least to most, with the crowning example of the series taking the last spot. But what does “best” mean in this context? Should the coveted finale really go to the most egregious abuse of a player’s good faith the series has to offer? Certainly those will be the more interesting entries to read! But no. I’ve decided that each week should be consistent, with the most positive example coming last. Which means this week’s entry is going to start out with the horrible headache-inducing gameplay examples, which will get less overt (and therefore less interesting to discuss) as the list goes on.
I admit part of my decision to rank the games this way comes from my desire to see FF2 make the top, somewhere, somehow. I’ll get it up there, damn it, and I won’t cop out and do it ironically.
Anyway if this really bothers you, start at the bottom of the list and scroll up. Or find a less aggravating webpage. That’s what I’d do!
Final Fantasy I: Half the Game Doesn’t @#%$ing Work
Legend has it the original Final Fantasy was programmed by a single man over the course of six hours from an out-of-order bathroom stall on a Greyhound bus. Which is to be expected, considering the contract stipulated said programmer would be paid in paper clips and Froot Loops. FF1 is the most broken videogame this side of Action 52 or E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial.
You pick up a weapon called the “Dragon Sword”. All logic tells you this sword will work well against dragons, but it doesn’t. Nor does the Were Sword work against werewolves, nor the Giant Axe against giants. In fact, the Ice Sword doesn’t seem to do well against fire monsters either! Every last one of these weapon attributes is bugged and broken, see. They’re supposed to work. They just don’t.
So okay, a weapon is only as good as its attack rating. You’ve learned that lesson. But what about these new weapons you’re getting at the end of the game? Vorpal Sword, eh? Surely that’s worth equipping. It sure would be, if the calculation that checks for critical hits weren’t busted! Instead of looking at a weapon’s crit chance (which would make the Vorpal awesome indeed), it simply looks at its index. The lower on the list a weapon is, the more crits you’ll get with it, making lots and lots of would-be-great weapons simply mediocre.
That’s all weird, nitty-gritty stuff, though; you’re more in it for the big flashy spells. But you’re screwed there too — some of FF1’s spells are useless. I mean literally useless. As in you cast them, you expend the spell charge, your little dude makes with an animation… but the game state doesn’t change at all. You might as well have a “do nothing” button. These are actual spells you can spend actual money on! The “useful” ones aren’t much better, though, since your mage’s stats in no way reflect spell effectiveness. That INTELLIGENCE stat? Meaningless.
FF1 is such a buggy mess that four out of the six classes are essentially crippled right out of the gate. If you’ve ever put anything but a FIGHTER or a RedMAGE on your team, know that you were making things needlessly difficult on yourself.
Now that I think about it, E.T. merely sucks. From a pure coding standpoint it’s got FF1 licked. For any game/player interaction in FF1, there is about a 45% chance that it either won’t work, or won’t work the way you’re expecting.
Final Fantasy XI: Subjobs and Sub-subjobs
To unlock subjobs in FF11 you have to kill skeleton monsters until one of them drops its magic skull. That’s not why it made this list, though.
The main difference between the jobs in Final Fantasy XI and the classes in, say, World of Warcraft is that you can change whenever you like without having to switch characters. Not only that, but you can actually set a secondary job, gaining attributes and abilities from that job. If you were so inclined you could set yourself up as a Warrior/Black Mage. Why not? Customization is fun, and so is exploring game systems. How could they flub this up?
Well, we all know where the logical endpoint of customization is in an MMO: there are 300 options, 299 of which are incorrect. This is a team-based game, which means you’re competing with a hundred other Warriors for precious party space. Gotta get that EXP, you know? But you’re not getting invites. Instead, you’re getting a long stream of whispers picking on you and your stupid Black Mage support job. And here’s something you probably didn’t guess: those are the nice ones. Everyone else is just checking you out, snickering behind your back, and ignoring you completely.
And there’s the rub: in a game which is scrutinized and torn apart as much as your typical MMO, there simply is no room for inefficiency. Having a subjob is no longer a bonus, but a requirement. Your subjob is capped at half your main job, so if you’re level 20, you had better have your class’s ideal subjob leveled to 10. If you’re level 40, your subjob is high enough that it, itself, requires a subjob. A sub-subjob! Used to be that’s as far as it needed to go, but then they went and raised the level cap to 99. That means L49 subjobs and L24 sub-subjobs. Maybe you’ll get lucky, and your sub-sub-subjob can just be something you already have leveled up.
What finally did me in and made me decide to quit playing FF11? Well, I wanted to be a healer. A white Mage, see. I liked the supporting role, I liked focusing on my party rather than on monsters. In order to keep that playstyle up, though, I had to level Black Mage. That was the subjob that would grant me the best stat bonuses. For every hour spent playing the way I wanted to play, the game would have required thirty minutes playing the exact opposite of what I wanted to play. The mind boggles.
This one isn’t entirely the game’s fault; the playerbase has a lot to do with it as well. Intolerance of sub-optimal builds is just part of MMO culture. On the other hand, I played a sub-optimal warlock build for years and nobody ever bothered me about it, because of — you know what? I changed my mind. It’s the game’s fault.
Final Fantasy II: Monster Closets
Complaining about Final Fantasy II‘s monster closets is extremely petty, especially considered alongside some of the other garbage on this list. Objectively speaking, a monster closet is just an enemy encounter; the logical equivalent of taking a few too many steps down a dead-end path in any other RPG dungeon you’ve ever explored. My goodness do I hate them though. Irrationally hate them, I mean. Completely out of proportion of the actual harm they’ve done me. The sheer audacity of monster closets! The unbelievable cheek!
A monster closet is just a door. The door leads to an empty room. The same empty room, every time: rectangular, totally featureless. For some reason stepping into this room causes you to be several squares away from the door. In walking back towards the door, you get into a fight. You can run from this fight if you want, or complete it; the game doesn’t care. They’re just the same bad guys the rest of the dungeon has. But you must trigger it in order to exit the room.
Every single dungeon in FF2 has these rooms. Lots of them. In many cases you will be faced with a wall full of doors. One contains treasure. One contains the staircase to the next floor. The other seven contain despair. There have been times, playing FF2, where I simply had to save the game and walk away. The thought of going through yet another row of identical doors and empty, square rooms was simply too much to bear.
The only conceivable reason for monster closets to exist is to make dungeon navigation more tedious. This, in a game which is already defined by its tedium. At least all the other broken annoying horseshit in FF2 can be exploited to the player’s advantage. Dealing with monster closets is very much like dealing with an annoying younger sibling that comes into the room to unplug your controller every four or five minutes.
Final Fantasy XII: Quickening Chains
I’m simply going to describe how Quickening Chains work, and hope their status as Wallbangers is self-evident.
Each of Final Fantasy XII‘s six PCs has three Quickenings. In essence these are super-attacks. The little one requires one-third of an MP bar, the middle one requires two-thirds, and the big awesome one requires the entire thing. When you start a Quickening Chain, combat pauses until it’s done, so it’s a great way to rack up a lot of damage in a short amount of real-time. (Which is important, because bosses in FF12 have a habit of getting nasty once you get them to the last 10% of their health.)
Each Quickening animation is about 15-20 seconds long, and has a flashy name like “Ruin Impendent” or “Resplendence”. While it’s being displayed, there’s a timer onscreen, and the game assigns each of your three current party members his or her own button. Press a character’s button before the timer runs out, and they’ll use their Quickening once the current one is complete. You can keep doing this as long as your party has MP to fund their attacks.
Ah, but what happens when you run out of MP? One of your shoulder buttons shuffles the available Quickenings, see, and it will randomly give someone the ability to “Mist Charge”. This completely refills that character’s MP, giving them the opportunity to get back in the Chain with more Quickenings.
So there you go: you get to watch the same canned animations, over and over, while completely at the whim of a random number generator. If you’re lucky, you’ll be rewarded with tens of thousands of damage after you spend five minutes charging and chaining. If not, well, at least all your guys are completely out of MP so you can’t try again!
Final Fantasy X: Sphere Grid
It does seem a little… untoward to include the entire backbone of a game’s skill system on the Wallbanger list. But man… what were they thinking? Before Final Fantasy X came along the FF series was pretty evenly split between characters with static roles and characters who could be customized. Some entries, like FF6, did you a solid by splitting the difference… although that’s another can of worms we’ll get to later in the list. Anyway, it was usually evident within an hour or two what kind of characters you were playing with: you had the linear, static progression of games like FF4 or FF9… or you had the blank slates of FF5 or FF8 you could do with what you pleased.
There are drawbacks to each of these systems. Static characters developed under the hood, so to speak; with their path pre-ordained, the player could expect them to get all their abilities without having to worry too much about it. Rydia will learn Fira eventually; Vivi will get it from some new gear in the next town. Dynamic characters require a little more finesse. Since anyone can have anything, you spend a lot more time in your menu moving pieces around, managing resources and juggling numbers. The payoff, though, is a party that does exactly what you want it to do, in the way you want it done.
FF10’s Sphere Grid combines the low points of both these systems without the benefits of either one. Your party’s progression is set in stone; Lulu is a black mage, Rikku is a thief, and that’s just the way of things. But you still have to go into the menu and teach them their abilities, fiddle with their stats, and flip all their switches. You have to customize them, but there’s never more than one viable option at a time.
Now, there are ways to game the system a bit, and on a long enough timeline you can give anything to anyone. These options are few and far between throughout most of the game, though, and if you take them too early you end up shooting yourself in the foot. Even if you had the means to teach Lulu a bit of white magic, you’ll be in trouble down the road when you need her next set of elemental attacks. She doesn’t have access to them, now, because she’s halfway across the grid. Why did she need white magic in the first place? You already have a white mage! That’s Yuna’s job!
I think the main reason this one irks me so badly is it would have been so, so easy to fix: offer an auto-sphere button. Let the game take care of all my bookkeeping, and I’ll just pretend I’m playing a fruitier version of FF9.
Final Fantasy III: Capacity
Sometimes even the customization-focused games get it wrong, though. Specifically, when there is a penalty for experimentation. I mean, how are you ever supposed to know what options are good unless you’re allowed to play around with all of them? FF3 came out years before some asshole party leader in Qufim was available to lecture you on which builds to use!
The only customization option in FF3 is changing jobs. To change jobs you must spend a resource called Capacity. If you don’t have enough Capacity to change jobs, you’re stuck until you earn more.
By fighting, of course. It’s always fighting.
On the surface this doesn’t sound too bad. It takes a few battles to figure out whether a new job is worth using, right? And during that time you’ll build up enough Capacity to switch back if you don’t like it, and in practice that’s usually how it plays out. The system is designed to prevent things like switching your Warrior over to White Mage long enough to heal yourself up, then switch back.
But isn’t that just the game getting in your way for no good reason? Why shouldn’t I be allowed to put that Warrior’s otherwise useless spell charges to good use? What’s the point of having thirty jobs if I can’t change them as often as I want?
The DS remake was the perfect opportunity to screw things up even worse, and they didn’t miss the boat. Capacity is gone, but in its place is a kind of “job sickness”, which manifests as temporary stat loss. The less experienced your guy is in a job, the more battles he has to fight before his stats creep back up to normal. So instead of fighting X battles before you can switch and try something out, you get to switch then fight X battles so you can try something out. Brilliant!
Final Fantasy VIII: SeeD Written Tests
Final Fantasy VIII has a lot of numbers, stats, options, functions, affinities, resistances and facets to play with. Oh yes, this game has facets, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. If the developer saw a way to tweak the game this way or that to make it stand apart from other RPGs of the era, he took it, and never thought twice. As a result, FF8 juggles a lot of weird quirks the player never really notices or has to pay attention to.
That player does need money, though. I lied to you in the previous section; it’s not always fighting. No amount of fighting will earn you any gil in FF8. Your party is employed by a military organization, see, so they earn a salary. As you wander around the game world you will automatically receive deposits in your account. In order to increase the amount of money you get, you have to increase your pay grade. You do this by completing written exams in true/false format.
Quit laughing. That wasn’t a joke. You really go into the menu and do homework. The more tests you pass, the more money you make. The questions are all about FF8, of course… and I mean really specific stuff. All those little factoids and tidbits you’ve been ignoring because they don’t matter? You can either learn them, or you can live on a 500 gil budget for the rest of the game. Oh, and many of the questions were written by someone with a head wound:
- Higher Vitality reduces physical damage.
- You can steal Steel Pipe from a Wendigo.
- When you junction with a GF who learned Elem-Def-J and Elem-Defx2, you can junction 3 magic to Elem-Def slots.
- Holy is the only Holy elemental magic.
- If you receive 800 HP damage while summoning a GF with 500 HP, the difference of 300 HP are received by the summoner.
There are ten questions per test, thirty tests total, and anything under 100% is a failing grade. Fortunately a visit to GameFAQs is more efficient than any cheat sheet.
Final Fantasy IX: Trance
By the time Final Fantasy IX came out, players were used to broken characters. FF5 and FF6 both had methods of dealing tens of thousands of damage for virtually no cost, bit you had to finagle the systems a little bit to get them to work. FF7 made you complete a subquest to get the uber-spell that could one-shot anything in the game. By the time FF8 rolled around, shit had just plain gotten out of hand.
So I can appreciate what FF9 was trying to do with its nerfs. Nobody could hit more than once per round, max damage never exceeded 9999, and even that was limited to a choice few attacks. The focus is more on balancing your party and budgeting your skill points wisely than reaching to the top shelf for your giant bottle of overkillsauce. Personally, I think the game is better for it.
Just… a lighter touch on Trances would have been good. Trance, which is to say FF9’s version of Limit Breaks, are so weak they’re essentially useless. There’s no way to interact with a character’s Trance meter at all — it fills up slowly over the course of a few dozen battles, and you can’t prevent it from triggering when you don’t want to. The result: you pretty much only get to Trance in pissant random encounters versus some half-dead mook who would have gone down in another attack or two anyway.
Most characters get stat boosts when they Trance. A few get new abilities, although since a character might Trance five or six times over the course of the game, you will never get a chance to play with any of these. It’s not a useful gameplay element, nor a powerful addition to a character’s skillset… it’s just some weird thing that happens once in a while. What a waste.
Final Fantasy VII: Lost-Forevers
We now depart from the Realm of Abject Aggravation and enter the Land of Mild Annoyances. Pretty much all the really, really bad stuff is behind us now.
Oh, hey! It’s Bahamut ZERO! Pretty cool, huh? I mean, this game has three Bahamut summons. Can’t beat that, can you? Unless, of course, you missed one of them. Because you can’t go back for them, you know. Better luck next playthrough.
A Lost-Forever is an item the player only has one shot at getting. Miss it, and there’s no chance of getting another — it is truly lost forever. Every game in the series has a couple of these, in some form or fashion, but nine times out of ten it doesn’t affect anyone but the hardcore OCD collect-a-thon crowd. Final Fantasy VII, however, has an unusually high amount of Lost-Forevers… and a lot of it is really good stuff. The kind of stuff which, if a regular non-ODC player were to miss it, said player would be sad.
The heart of FF7 is the materia system, so it certainly doesn’t help that a lot of really cool materia is a one-shot deal. This is the only game in the series where you can rig a Fire spell to steal from a monster — but only if you didn’t miss the purple Steal as Well materia. Several iconic summons such as Ifrit and Bahamut can be passed up without any recourse. Heck, the entire second disc is made up of quests with permanent failure states, each of which lock you out of phat lewt. FF7 was the first game to really play up the idea of each character having a unique ultimate weapon… it doesn’t help that the player can inadvertantly screw himself out of a couple of these.
But don’t worry; I’m sure you knew to keep Barrett in your party for a particular part of a particular dungeon so an otherwise-not-there treasure box would make itself available. I mean, it only stands to reason.
Final Fantasy IV: Unbelievably Rare Drops
One could just about forgive Final Fantasy XI‘s abysmal drop rates. It’s an MMO, after all; gotta keep that monthly account fee a-rollin’ in. The question is, what on earth is a single-player RPG doing with battles that have a 0.004% drop rate?
To keep things in perspective: there is never a time where the player needs any of these drops. Most of them are super helpful if you manage to luck into them, such as getting a weapon ten hours before you’re supposed to have it. Or finding an endgame weapon marginally better than the one you got from killing the guardian miniboss.
I have to object, though, when the game hides reasonably important stuff behind hours of grinding and crossing fingers. None of Rydia’s hidden summons are very good, but they’re unique spells. (And actually, nerts to that. Bomb is quite good… if you can get it.) Calling up an impotent goblin to deal 1 damage to some monster… that’s a good chuckle every player should have the opportunity to have.
Then you have the Flan Princesses. (Or, if you’re playing a really old version, Pink Puffs.) The chance of even finding this monster is so unbelievably low that you can play the game start to finish a dozen times and never see one. I know this, because I played the game start to finish a dozen times and never saw one. And if you do find some, they will drop an item you can trade for the game’s best armor one-out-of-two-hundred-fifty-six times. This is the one thing in the game that can actually help Rydia survive the final boss battle without untold hours of powerleveling… but by the time you’ve farmed enough Flans to get a hit she’ll be L99 and won’t need it anymore.
I’ve lied to you again, as it turns out: playing the random drop game is vitally important if you want to finish the central sidequest of the DS version… which is why nobody I know has ever finished it. Edited 4/19: I do know at least one person stupid enough to finish it. Happy grinding!
Final Fantasy XIII: Weapon/Accessory Upgrades
So now we exit the Land of Mild Annooyances and enter… whatever you call the place where one really must grasp at straws to come up with honest-to-goodness Wallbangers. These last few entries are the types of things that will make people say “so what?”
Equipment upgrades in Final Fantasy XIII are like that. Here’s how the system works: you use an item on a weapon or accessory, and it gains EXP. Once it gains enough EXP it levels up and gets more powerful. There are organic EXP items and synthetic EXP items. Organics increase the equipment’s multiplier, but synthetics give much larger boosts. So: use organics on your gear until its multiplier is maxed, then use synthetics to watch its EXP skyrocket.
That’s it. That’s the whole system. But you’d never know that just by playing the game.
There are about fifty or sixty different EXP items of each type, and they have distinct names like “Abominable Wing,” “Ring Joint” and “Synthetic Muscle.” Is a “Begrimed Claw” different from a “Bestial Claw”? What are the distinguishing properties of “Paraffin Oil” versus “Silicone Oil”?
“Turboprop” or “Turbojet“? Can I use the wrong thing? Will this break something? Am I doing this right? Could I be more efficient?
The answer is no. Throw items at your equipment until they level up, and you win. Ding ding! Why the game hides the simplicity of this system behind a veil of false complexity and dozens upon dozens of EXP items is, as far as I can tell, nothing but a dick move. The difference, I guess, is that the player only feels like he’s screwing himself, instead of actually screwing himself. Which, hey, you know… I’ll take it.
Final Fantasy VI: A Cast of Thousands
Revisiting the topic of static vs. dynamic characters… Final Fantasy VI is right about in the middle. Each character has a unique ability, his or her own equipment list, and a different curve of stat growth. They all, however, draw from the same pool of Espers and Relics, and so have access to a very large set of common spells and abilities. The static and dynamic aspects of FF6’s cast actually work rather well together. You can teach Sabin high-level magic, and you can give Relm an Offering… but your party will be much better if you were to reverse those strategies.
The whole game is full of little quirks like that. Which, I should be clear, is one of its greatest strengths! But… yeesh. Fourteen characters. It’s somewhat daunting. In some ways, this is FF6’s biggest weakness as well.
Even leaving aside how much time it takes to just learn the ins and outs of each character, they all develop independantly. If Edgar and Cyan spend half the game chillin’ on your airship, they’re going to be sixteen levels and dozens of magic spells behind everyone else. Understand, the second half of the game is immense and nonlinear. There’s never really indication of what order you should tackle the quests in, or who you should assign to your away team when you go. The game is balanced so that nobody re-joins the team underleveled, but if you have everyone take shifts while you’re out and about you might end up that way before the end.
I’m… reaching. I know. FF6 is a grand slam when it comes to gameplay. With six games to refine the core package, and three to focus on Active Time Battles in particular, it had better well be. If too many options is the worst thing that can be said about the game, that’s more a ringing endorsement than anything.
Final Fantasy V: The Plot
FF5 has the same problem FF6 does: too many options. Except, those options don’t develop independently. Your party doesn’t change, see. All you have to do is slap on a new job and go. No penalty, no drawback — and with a bit of playing around you will immediately know if you want your other three characters to level that same job.
The whole system works so well, I literally could not think of anything bad about it. When I hunkered down and tried really really hard I came up with something like “Blue Magic is too obscure”. Then, when I broadened that out a bit, it looked more like “Some jobs are only secretly awesome instead of obviously awesome.”
That’s a bad thing? A job system which works well for lazy players, but super double-plus crazy well for observant ones? No way I’m marking it down for that.
So then I asked some people, and the best thing they could come up with is the easily-farmed grind spots making the job system trivial. But you know? Any other game in this series I would kill for an easy grind spot. Have you ever tried to legitimately master high-end red materia in FF7? Two hours of that and you’ll be begging for a pack of Object d’Art.
No, the only thing I can think of that would sour a body on FF5 is its silly, nonsensical plot. So there you have it: the worst thing about FF5’s gameplay is everything other than the gameplay. Mechanically speaking the game could not be more sound; the only question is whether or not you like it’s coat of paint.
I dunno gang… three weeks of positive traits followed by one week of negatives. I think that’s a fairly good balance for a series that is pretty amazing about 75% of the time. What do you say?