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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