Video Games

Final Fantasy Retrospective Part 9: Nostalgia Dies Hard

Honestly I think finding a good follow-up to your mega-hit is even harder than devising a mega-hit in the first place.  Square had this one game, Final Fantasy VII, that managed to eclipse even its highly successful and acclaimed predecessors and made their biggest franchise define an entire genre for a new generation of gamers.  So do they keep on the horse at the risk of being accused of letting the series turn stale?  Or do they make another gamble?  Or somehow strike a balance?  Well, the answer ended up being the Final Fantasy VIII we’re discussing today, and it wasn’t exactly the right one – if a right answer was possible.

Depending on who you ask, VIII was flawed but was even more polished than VII, or it was (and still is) the entire series’ blackest sheep.  Whatever they think of the game itself, fans do tend to agree that, despite being the best-selling game in the series up to that point, it ultimately marked the end of the franchise’s “Golden Age,” which began with the sound of a growing chorus pronouncing the franchise’s (if not the entire genre’s) terminal decline.  At least VIII also ushered in the era of creepy Final Fantasy erotic cosplayers and slash fic…

Like a lot of Americans when VIII hit our shores in 1999, I was taken in by the hype and the cinematic visuals.  This was a time when video games that looked like movies were still a rarity, and just the opening cinematic of the protagonist Squall and his rival Seifer having a sword duel while feathers flew around and a pompous chorus belted out Latin verses enthralled us.  Sure, it had almost nothing significant to do with the game’s actual plot and it was ludicrously if gloriously overblown, but at the time it was one hell of a sales pitch.  VIII really did show Square’s hubris in relying on overawing players with million dollar cut scenes, which even we gushing fans had to admit when we had to sit through our first two minute Guardian Force scene (or, to use series’ logo, the first monster summoning animation). Still, there was a game there, and it wasn’t a bad one, but is it one that deserves to be remembered as something other than the misstep that killed the Golden Age?

VIII does have its features that even its fans are eager to forget about.  One of them was the card game, Triple Triad, although to be honest I kind of liked it, at least until the first time I found out that that rules could horribly change later in the game depending on who you play with.  Another was the battle system.  Good God, the battle system…to try to put something horribly convoluted in simple terms, you have to absorb spells from monsters (apparently spells in this game’s universe are quantifiable like pennies) and “junction” them to your weapons.  The game throws about 30 minutes of tutorials at you to explain it and it ends up consuming more time than plain old level grinding.  Plus I never figured out if the game wants you to just switch out the junctioned spells with the characters from your party, and if so why the game forces you to use three randomly selected characters in the final boss fight.  Finally, there’s the issue of the plot.  Learning well from VII, VIII promises and delivers on a character driven plot, centered around the love story of outsider Squall’s love for the extroverted and eccentric Rinoa.  The fantasy elements of the plot, however, could have used some more patchwork along with the plot holes, one of which was large enough to literally pilot a spaceship through.  It doesn’t help that in the final chapter of the game we learn that a sorceress in the future Ultimecia wants to “collapse time” – an interesting scheme, but we never find out why or what that will accomplish.  Also the game’s conceit that Squall has a mysterious connection to a soldier named Laguna ends up being treated like an afterthought.

The biggest disappointment for me was just how…unfantastic the world was.  Okay, VI and VII played with blurring together traditional fantasy elements and a more modern, realistic, and technologically-shaped world.  Unfortunately, the world of VIII went too far with this trend, giving us locales as exotic and strange as the street you drive, bike, or walk down on your way to work.  One really had no choice but to wonder where the fantasy was when early in the game your party rents a car to arrive at a destination.

And yet…even with hindsight I can’t really write off this game.  It would have been too easy – and more importantly too safe – for Square to just rehash VII for their next series installment.  And while there are similarities to VII, there were enough risks being made with this sequel too, mainly by selling a game that emphasized the tale of an embittered outsider learning to trust his comrades and how to love over any grand quest narrative.  Still, it’s not surprising that Square decided for the next installment to play up the nostalgia factor, turning a game that was originally meant to be a spin-off into a main series installment…

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Yes This Really Happened

Yes, This Really Happened: The Decepticons Discover Atlantis, The Autobots Blow It Up (Kind Of)

Recently a friend of mine argued that while Hollywood has been getting dumber in its insane quest for the PG-13 audience, especially when it comes to making horror for the barely teen crowd, television cartoons marketed mostly toward kids have been getting smarter.  At least they’ve been taking on more of the tropes that we take for granted with more adult-targeted programming, little things like multi-episode story arcs, character development, and having more than just one core group of antagonists.  Probably the quintessential example of this is something along the lines of Avatar: The Last Airbender, but you also saw it with the recent remakes of a lot of ’80s and ’90s fare, like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Transformers, and even freaking He-Man.   As hard as it may be to believe for people whose cultural awareness doesn’t stretch back to the ’80s, there was a time when these things were quite foreign to the Saturday morning ghetto.  You could rely on the same small band of villains showing up week after week.  Maybe a secondary antagonist for the designated villains and the heroes to team up against might pop up for an episode, but they definitely wouldn’t be sticking around in the heroes’ otherwise tiny rogues gallery.  Story arcs?  Well, in my day we had two-part episodes, and the show’s status quo might change in the next season, but you’d have to watch the special movie released in theaters or on VHS to see why.  Does that count?  As for character development and character arcs…well, no.

It was, depending on your point of view, a more innocent or a more primitive time.  Personally I think that era had its pluses, especially when it led to gloriously surreal things like this episode.

Like pretty much every Transformers episode from the early seasons, it’s all about the Decepticons trying to dig up lots of energy, usually by means of blowing things up.  This time Soundwave happens to discover massive amounts of energy being harnessed and processed at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.    Before you think there might actually be a fantastic, thinly-veiled Namor the Sub-Mariner versus the Transformers crossover there, it turns out it’s not really Atlantis, but “Sublantica,” which is populated by ugly amphibian people only the most devout of Furries could find attractive.  Oh, and they’re telepathic too.  In another unexpected plot twist, the sound of their telepathy is just their normal voices given the Alvin the Chipmunk-treatment.

Sorry ladies and gay gents, this ain’t no Namor.

Lost civilizations in ’80s children’s cartoons came in only two styles:  Complete Innocents Free from the Corruption of Modern Human Civilization, and Total Assholes.  N’rgil, the king of Sublantica, at least completely fits the latter category.  He really wants to conquer the  surface world, but he can’t because…to be honest, I watched the scene three times, and there’s only a throwaway line about how Sublantica and its people have to stay rooted because of their energy resources.  It doesn’t make any sense, and you can practically hear the overworked screenwriter rolling their eyes and saying, “Screw it, they’re just there because they’re there.”

Anyway, even though the Decepticons are completely unaffected by the physics of being underwater…

The Decepticons are so evil they break every law of hydrophysics.

…Sublantican technology beats them to a standstill of sorts.  Megatron and N’rgil form an uneasy alliance;  in exchange for the Decepticons’ help in harvesting energy from the ocean floor (which frees N’rgil up to lead his armies to the surface because the screenwriter needs to get to the bar in time for happy hour), N’rgil will launch an invasion of Washington DC.  Of course, Starscream, since he knows a thing or two about betrayal, correctly suspects that N’rgil has been scheming against the Decepticons from the beginning.  However, Starscream, still being Starscream, isn’t really able to change anything.  It’s the eternal fate of characters like Starscream to, even when they’re actually right, always be wrong, if that makes sense.

Naturally, the Autobots get involved when the Decepticons’ energy producing methods place Sublantica on the map.  A team of Autobots trace the energy signatures straight to Sublantica.  True, the Autobots also have the power to act as if they’re not submerged in seventeen quadrillion gallons of water, but it’s the second act, so not only are the Autobots and their human pet…I mean, ally, Spike are defeated and driven off, but Wheeljack is captured and subjected to experiments by the Sublanticans.   This in of itself could lead to some really dark turns, but as it is it just means N’rgil is now armed with a weapon that can stun Transformers.  With that, we go from an underwater adventure story to the Decepticons and the Sublanticans flat-out invading DC, as we see with a couple of quick scenes showing terrified civilians.

That woman’s massive hat remains my favorite thing about this episode. Hopefully it comes back in a future episode as a Transformer.

Now probably in one of today’s series this would have been at least the set-up for the next episode, or the beginning of a story arc about N’rgil and the Sublanteans and the implications of them having the ability to paralyze Transformers with a subplot about the Autobots  or Spike meeting more benevolent representatives of Sublantean civilization.  Not here!  The Decepticons and Sublanteans take DC in just a few rushed scenes, capped off with this:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hey, if a 200-ton robot that can miraculously turn into a gun an average human can hold shouldn’t be our lord and master, who should?

The Autobots really don’t make a good showing against the invaders of DC, although to their credit they do advise each other not to destroy any history, which lets them show more courtesy than their Michael Bay counterparts.  Still, all of the Autobots are taken out by N’rgil’s anti-Transformer device, forcing the Autobots to call in the reserves:  Grimlock and the Dinobots.  You might remember Grimlock from the movie as the one who gets to delight the kids by making the immortal battle-cry, “Me Grimlock kick butt!”  In the show, he was a bit of a jerk, constantly telling Optimus Prime he was too much of a wimp to lead the Autobots.  In my generation’s terms, it’s like some guy telling Santa Claus, Jesus Christ, and your granddad that they’re all stupid pricks.

 

In the end, the assholes (the Dinobots) save the day by (somewhat accidentally) destroying N’rgil’s device.  N’rgil and the Decepticons retreat back to Sublantica, where N’rgil, proving to be the ultimate sore loser, vows to destroy Sublantica by blowing up its energy reserves (…somehow) rather than see it conquered by the Transformers.  Although the Autobots figure out what N’rgil is up to, they fail spectacularly to stop him.  Luckily, we the audience never got to see any Sublanticans other than N’rgil and some of his soldiers, so nobody (not even the characters for the most part) gets bummed that an entire species and civilization was just blown up.

Optimus Prime is especially bummed because this is the fourth legendary isolated civilization he personally saw violently destroyed since coming to Earth.

And all this, folks, happened in a less than thirty minute episode.  That’s how it’s done;  just stuff as many ideas as you can into an half-hour all while laughing in the face of reality and sanity.

 

 

 

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The Forsaken

The Forsaken: Life With Lucy

The first two Forsaken installments were about things I really like, so I think it’s past time that I focus on something that isn’t all that good, and arguably deserves to be known as truly Forsaken.  I’m talking about…

…the Lucille Ball sitcom you may not have heard of, Life with Lucy from 1986!

I Love Lucy is usually the go-to reference for anyone wanting to invoke television’s “golden age.” It’s also a testimony to the enduring power of Lucille Ball;  in ironic contrast to the retrograde gender politics of I Love Lucy and the very fact that the premise was centered around a woman who just can’t break into entertainment, Lucille Ball exercised a degree of clout in the industry that’s unimaginable for any woman even today.  And that influence came in no small part from Lucille’s own fantastic instincts for what audiences would like.  While today she is mostly known for  I Love Lucy, Lucille Ball’s production company Desilu also helped bring Star Trek, Mission: Impossible, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and The Andy Griffith Show to the small screen.  Besides her behind-the-scenes victories, Lucille also headed a couple of pretty successful sitcoms post-I Love Lucy:  The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy.  By any standard, she had a great run, but that perfect record was spoiled by her last project, Life with Lucy.  

Generic ’80s Sitcom Family Life with Lucy

Now you’re probably already comparing it with other projects made by celebrities at the end of their careers:  Bette Davis in Wicked Stepmother, Mae West in Sextette, and – hell, let’s not be sexist – Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull.  Luckily for Lucille Ball, Life with Lucy is nowhere near the tragicomical catastrophe that Sextette was.  At least Lucille Ball didn’t have to be guided around the set by stage hands like the mostly blind Mae West.  But one can’t really get away with honestly describing Life with Lucy as a misunderstood triumph either…

Problem#1 is that the entire show is really not even a standard-issue Reagan era family sitcom with Lucille Ball injected into it;  it’s just Lucille Ball with a flimsy standard-issue Reagan era family sitcom built around her.  The entire premise is that Lucy has inherited co-ownership of a hardware store from her late husband.  Since her co-owner Curtis (played by Gale Gordon, who was Lucy’s co-star in her last two sitcoms) happens to also be the father of her daughter’s husband,  they all end up moving in together with their children and grandchildren.  Naturally, the uptight Curtis quickly gets frustrated with Lucy’s well-meaning but inept attempts to run the store.  So basically it is just like I Love Lucy, but with a hardware store instead of a band.  Intrigued?!

You can already hear the “harrumph harrumph.”

The characters – or maybe I should say “characters” – drag an already lackluster premise further down.  Granted I am talking mostly about the pilot, but you never get the sense that the family is anything more than set-pieces for Lucy and Gale Gordon to act around and occasionally react to.  The father’s entire personality is Constantly Mildly Befuddled and the mother’s characteristics are as much of a mystery as Atlantis with just about as much of a chance of being discovered.  Worst of all, the show gives us not one, but two obnoxious cute kids who apart from their genders are completely interchangeable.  Sure, we’re still not anywhere near toxic Full House levels, but it’s still a lot to cope with from a pre-Michelle Tanner sitcom.

Even the name of the actor playing the dad is generic!

Problem #2:  You know the “hip grandparent who’s more with what the kids are doing than the boring middle-aged parents” cliche?  Depending on your age, probably not, because The Simpsons mocked that trope so brutally with the mere presence of Abe Simpson that it collapsed into a quantum singularity and vanished from pop culture existence (well, more or less, maybe).   Well, it’s in full force here, culminating in Lucy, sporting jogging gear and a brick-sized mid-’80s headset, breaking out into a dance for no reason aside from a possible “mixing booze with pills” situation.

“I’m hauling ass to Lollapalooza!”

And that brings up to problem #3.   I said before Lucille Ball really isn’t as badly aged as Mae West in Sextette, and I meant that.  Plus  Betty White among others have, of course, shown once and for all that someone in their 80s can still hold up to the demands of being in a TV show’s regular cast, but the type of physical comedy that Lucy still obviously wants to make the centerpiece of this show…well, it’s not painful to watch her go through the motions by any stretch, but it doesn’t exactly come across as well-advised for Lucille Ball personally either.  Even then, that’s nothing compared to another issue coming out of Lucille Ball’s physical characteristics at the time this show was filmed.  See, a lifetime of smoking had made Lucille Ball’s voice sound like this…

On the show, one of Lucy’s characteristics is that she’s a health nut – between the jogging and the health drinks (which, of course, taste bad and is the set-up for something like five minutes of jokes) – and she strongly objects to other people smoking.  Now maybe it was deliberate, an attempt by the real-life Lucille Ball to atone for her lifestyle, which is possible considering that Lucille Ball was given massive creative control over this show, but even if it was it comes off as more than a tad disconcerting, hearing a woman with a voice so raspy it would take decades to perfect lecture her employer on the evils of smoking.

Admittedly, once we’re introduced to the set pieces and Lucy gets to show off a character trait here and there, the show does pick up a bit, but it does so by just giving us I Love Lucy:  Lucy Goes to a Hardware Store.  It doesn’t help that Lucy and Bob get into a lengthy exposition fest over a giant fire extinguisher…

If you were raised in a bio-dome you may not have seen this joke coming…

For all the poor writing and the rather desperate attempt to call down the spirit of I Love Lucy, Life with Lucy isn’t…terrible, mostly because even in less than optimal conditions first-rate talents like Lucille Ball and Gale Gordon can still shine through.  Still, in its own way it’s as tragic as other doomed comeback attempts by talents in the twilight of their careers.  After decades of starring in hits, this show proved to be Lucille’s only major flop, getting cancelled before the first season was even finished, which devastated her and depending on who you ask contributed to her death three years later.

It’s especially tragic because Lucille Ball may actually have had one more hit in her.  With the Reagan era family sitcom already slipping away into the cultural void and the way being paved for the late 80s/early 90s sitcom revolution, perhaps her fourth sitcom would have made more of an impression if it had a more daring – or even just a slightly more distinctive – premise.  After all, that very thing worked for Bea Arthur and Betty White just one year before with the Golden Girls.  As it turned out, however, even the all-mighty power of nostalgia couldn’t save Lucy and her legendary entertainment instincts from the slow death of a decrepit genre.

 

 

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