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I don’t like the word “hate.” It’s a harsh term that really should be relegated to legitimate things to actually hate, not a video game, movie, or an undercooked burrito. Initially I was going to say “How I came to hate Final Fantasy.” But I don’t hate it. I should, but I don’t. Instead, I’ve come to resent it: a far more fitting descriptor because in one word you address a disdain in a way that simultaneously shows you may still have feelings about a significant other that cheated on you. That and “apathy,” perhaps, but with apathy that implies I don’t care. I do care, hence the resentment of Final Fantasy trying damn hard to make me hate it.
On top of that, it’s not even so much Final Fantasy that I’ve grown disappointed and resentful towards as much as its developer Square Enix, formerly Squaresoft, formerly a good company and formerly my favorite videogame company. I can’t hate them either, but again, I should. Why?
Square hasn’t been my favorite developer for at least a decade. I knew I couldn’t defend them any longer despite my desire to years ago on message boards and carrying the torch as an apologist the moment they started planning sequels making Final Fantasy titles sound like an algebra equation. Even after the development issues of countless games, talent leaving the company left and right and an overall lack of understanding their sense of superiority was clouding their judgment, I still tried to stick by them and the franchise that I grew up with. But it stopped. It had to. I couldn’t go through it anymore. There was no longer a firm ground to stand on because that ground turned in to a sinkhole made by Square Enix itself.
On occasion, Square Enix does a good job of cropping up in to view and showing what they’re working on and doing, kind of like a parent who’ll give you a call to talk about what’s going on with the family and some distant cousin you barely remember. What I see is them cropping up and just reminding me how much I used to love Final Fantasy and what that name used to actually mean.
Well, that certainly answers the “why?” The problem is, that should have never happened in the first place.
LOVE AT SECOND SIGHT
It’s easy to forget just how dominant of a game developer Squaresoft once was. For a time there, they were putting out a huge quantity of games and damn-near every one of them good to great titles. Hell, even the games I personally didn’t like were so well polished that it’s still hard to deny their quality, at least on a creative and artistic level.
I first played Final Fantasy on the NES briefly in the late 1980s. I preferred Dragon Warrior at the time, and I preferred platformers over all of that, but it stuck with me as the soft-glow from the TV bouncing across a dark bedroom is still a vivid memory. For some reason I thought having all warriors made sense because I had no idea what a “mage” was…what can I say I was nine.
It wasn’t until Final Fantasy II on the Super Nintendo that I began to really take notice of those types games, though. I had an idea what they were, lots of numbers and waiting and story were all I could use to classify them, but never really sat down to get in to these new types of games. That’s going to be a continuing trend here: age. The older I got, the more I began to get in to different things…and eventually lose my love for them.
Final Fantasy II happened a bit randomly. I was looking to “change up” what I was playing and happened to really start getting in to the Legend of Zelda style games, Secret of Mana also being a part of that transition at the time. With that door opened, Final Fantasy II came in and was the kick-off of everything from that point forward. Anything Squaresoft put out on the Super Nintendo, I bought, played, loved and cherished. Final Fantasy II had already shown me a great sense of “epic” storytelling, Final Fantasy III expanded that and added in an emotional level I certainly had never seen before in a videogame and Chrono Trigger was so completely fresh and new that it changed my expectations of what a video game could and could not do. I educated myself on these games, these “Japanese Role Playing Games (JRPGS)” and began to do my own reading and research well before the luxury of a Wikipedia on what these games were and who made them. I saved my allowances, hunted down copies all around town or rented excessively every one I could find if I couldn’t find it to buy, or in some cases convince a store owner to sell me the rental copy. I did it for years. I did it without question.
I still do cherish a lot of those games. They’re a reminder of how easy it is to really fall in love with something, in some cases make a personal connection to, and how even easier it is we take them for granted. We think they are things like them will be around forever, but that’s never the case.
The PlayStation was even more prolific for Square. I made my console purchasing decision solely on the fact that that Final Fantasy VII was not going to be on a Nintendo system, again all that reading and research helped. That’s how much they had me in their pocket: to make me give up the “other” videogame brand I loved and going with an unknown console in favor of them. It also showed how damn good they were, because I wasn’t the only one that took notice when a major brand was suddenly having a “PlayStation” logo appear at the end of its commercials. It was everywhere during that era, and the fact that Nintendo having “lost” Final Fantasy being well known in those dial-up days, being “everywhere” was a big deal. Final Fantasy and Square were at the top of the heap. You knew you were going to get something special and something that would take you to a great new place with characters and stories you could fall in love with. Square expanded their brand even further, throwing out other games like Bushido Blade and Final Fantasy Tactics and Xenogears and Vagrant Story. They kept their franchises alive and well and still had the talent and resources to do even more on the PlayStation.
But that was the last we really heard of them in that “idol-worshipping” idea. When people think of “greatness” in the video game world, the mid to late 1990s Squaresoft is probably the first thing that comes in to their minds. I know it does mine, not just because I was such a fan but because enough time has passed and the books are written at this point: they were good…once.
When I think of Square, I think of that time. They were a developer that could do just about anything it wanted and do it well. Everything after that is painful. Agonizing, actually. It’s like finding out your favorite sports hero was on steroids the whole time, had to be forced off it and now is mopping up his career in the minor leagues. It’s easy to assume it’s just nostalgia. “Oh, you just like the old games, your nostalgia’s blinding you.”
Listen, if you actually think that the business model of Square Enix today is better than what they were ten to fifteen years ago, then I don’t know what to tell you. You probably think that losing a figurehead like Hironobu Sakaguchi is a good thing as well when, in reality, it’s obvious Square has had a lack of leadership ever since. Their stock continually drops along with their net profit and they just restructured their company, yet again mind you, this past year because even they know they’re slowly prepping a noose. That’s not nostalgia. That’s fact. That’s reflective of a floundering company that only released four internally developed, original console titles in the longest generation of gaming: Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy XIII-2 (alongside Tri-Ace), Final Fantasy XIV, The Last Remnant and Final Fantasy Lightning Returns soon coming.
But when did it really start? Was this resentment like a pot waiting to boil over? I think everyone has their own personal realization that their once-favorite thing was no more. This was mine.
It all kind of started around the release of Final Fantasy X. After I fell in (eventually grew to) love Final Fantasy IX, the next Final Fantasy was something I couldn’t wait to see on a new console. If it was anything like the leap Final Fantasy II, which we now called IV by this point, was on the Super Nintendo and Final Fantasy VII was on the Playstation, it’s easy to be in such anticipation.
“Anticipation” – wow, there’s a word I haven’t associated with Square in a long time. Remember when you would flip through a gaming magazine and salivate at new screenshots of what Square was working on next?
Anyways, Final Fantasy X came out, did great numbers, and the game itself was fine. I didn’t love. I didn’t hate it. It was just fine, but I started to notice a trend. It was really a trend that Japanese RPGs were going towards for a while. They either wanted to A) Be like Final Fantasy VII with the dark melodrama and brooding (late-90s term for “cool”) or B) Be like Japanese Animation. The unfiltered storytelling. More cinematic. More action. Less plot. Standard archetypal characters we’ve seen dozen of times over.
In other words, instead of trying to “find themselves” and evolve the genre, they plucked other ideas from other sources because at the time those were the popular things. Even with Final Fantasy X I started to notice that developers were less concerned about progressing and innovating and writing and more about trying to take elements of past games and anime and incorporate it more in to the medium. On one hand, I understand it: it’s Japan. It’s their culture. Of course they’ll emulate a popular style. On the other hand, the characters and plot had been the same types of characters and plot I had already seen because they’re pretty stock characters and plot in Japanese movies and games. While Japanese RPG developers eventually hit the inevitable wall of stagnation, because plucking other ideas can take you only so far, Western RPG developers took the route of trying new things and, even if a little bit, pushing the boundaries of what’s expected of their game design.
With Final Fantasy X, I no longer saw Square setting the trend, I saw them merely emulating other trends. I began to slowly move away.
The love-hate relationship began from that point on. Final Fantasy X and X-2 did nothing for me. It didn’t spark my imagination or show me a company that led the way in their field. It was kind of…well it was all kind of generic. It was stalled creativity and that was just the beginning because, within the next few years, some of Square’s biggest talent and names behind games like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy itself left to form their own companies, they restructured their game development teams and eventually merged with Enix in a publishing deal. If you want to call that a merger, at least, and if you want to call people leaving the company left and right something that “every company deals with” (something I once did in my apologist state), then you’re kidding yourself. You’re like me ten or so years ago: still trying to hold on.
A few blips came up here and there from Square Enix, though. They still managed a few mobile games on phones and handhelds, kind of like how a dying person in a hospital still manages to swallow his tapioca pudding, and even I can’t deny the popularity of Kingdom Hearts. But still, something was “off.” Something didn’t feel right. Square, or Square Enix now, seemed mostly dormant. A prolific decade of a perfect storm turned in to a minor shower. No wonder I sat on that apologist chair, I just hadn’t realized it yet.
They took one risk during this time, though, with Final Fantasy XII, arguably the most ambitious undertaking they attempted during the past decade. But even with that they still couldn’t see it to the end and we ended up with a game 75% complete and probably a hollow shell of what it might have actually been. That was the last time I ‘noticed’ Final Fantasy. I saw a bold, daring change in what the series was known for, a different approach to story, characters, plot and world that I hadn’t seen in years. But even then they managed to screw it up and we have a good game that falls short.
From that, they did nothing on the development side. Decent success with an MMORPG, four console releases on current generation of gaming, now in its twilight, and nothing but talk. Lots of talk. Lots of hype. Lots of telling us that something good will happen. Just be patient and “please be excited.” They did a few things right, don’t get me wrong, though it was more to make up for lack of internally developed games than anything, by picking up a few games to publish instead of develop.
And by a “few” I mean tons. Square Enix wasn’t a developer anymore, they were more of a publisher and not too bad at it either. Fair enough. They’ve put more emphasis on franchising and merchandising. That’s good too. They’re doing great in many respects in both areas. But during all this time, they’ve neglected the entire reason why people loved them in the first place.
THIS IS HOW LOVE DIES
Around 2008, after no Final Fantasy games for a while, little coming up from my once-favorite developer and nothing but hype-speak from Square Enix, I sat down and played a few classics. New consoles were out, I was in no rush to buy them, so I just pulled out my old consoles and popped a few older JRPGs and Final Fantasy games in. I was suddenly transported back in time when I was a teenager new to this world of Japanese RPGs. I was captivated yet again by these games and these stories and these characters. It wasn’t because I was older and “grown out” of Japanese RPGs, it’s because the older games are different. It’s because they’re better.
It wasn’t nostalgia. I’m not some cantankerous old man on a porch with a shotgun yelling at kids on my lawn because I don’t accept change. I was in my late 20s and I was being tested by the solid writing and characters in these games. After a few weeks of chugging through some classics, I realized that my memories weren’t clouded or my glasses rose-tinted. The same company that made us think about morality in time travel, move us with the death of a close friend, explored the purpose of existence through the eyes of a child, loathe pure evil and nonexistence, take us to the opera and find romance, commented on the place of religion and past lives, political strife, heroes to save the day, friends to remember forever…was the same company that was scrounging around to get a game out. The company now in its place was more concerned about hitting “bigness” and being “grand” than really trying to write or create something meaningful, much less memorable.
Square turned from storytellers to take us to impossible places, no matter how clichéd they might have been, and now just want to put pretty things on pretty things and shove it off the docks like a Viking funeral. Have I grown past what JRPGs offer anymore, like an old man stuck in the past, sits on the porch and talks about how hard it was to walk to school?
No…and what it comes down to is that loving, even liking something shouldn’t be a chore. I shouldn’t have to scramble to find a reason to still have a connection, nor should I be an apologist and, deep down, know I’m only making excuses for bad games and bad business decisions. Square Enix is in the wrong because I did nothing but search for the right. The right never emerged.
As the years went on, I bought the new consoles. I bought new Japanese RPGs, including Square Enix’s which I still can’t force myself to fully finish. Why? Because other developers have surpassed Square Enix – disgustingly so. That’s a hard, bitter truth for any fan to accept: nobody wants to realize that their favorite thing is not only not what it once was, but that it’s been passed by things that are far better at it. Last year the wonderful Ni No Kuni (miraculously) made it out of Japan and it’s beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. It wears its heart on its sleeve and has more charm than a dump truck of charm bracelets dumped in to a pool of Lucky Charms. “Heart” and “Charm” dissipated from Square Enix a long, long time ago – probably around that time when I noted something felt “off” about Square, not coincidentally the same time much of its best talent departed. Ni No Kuni may not have tried to re-invent the wheel, but Japanese RPG fans don’t want that wheel re-invented anyways. They just want the road that wheel is to be smooth and not full of potholes.
Square Enix, Squaresoft, Square…all those different names were like nicknames that you would call an old pet. That pet isn’t quite as rambunctious as it used to be. He’s always been your companion ever since you were young and found him. Now he drags itself along, manages to lick your palm once in a while, but his days are nearing their end. He has to be put down and all you can do is give a slight not to the vet and then just deal with the silence that comes after
No. I don’t “hate” that dog. Like I said, “hate” is probably too strong a word. It’s more a sense of sadness and disappointment. It’s that silence that kills me. I resent the silence.
FLOWERS ON THE GRAVE
But not as much as I resent this:
Well there it is. As if the cash-in of a Cloud costume wasn’t bad enough, this recent picture was the cherry on top of the ice cream sundae that began with three scoops of mediocre vanilla, whipped cream of unapologetic fan service and finally the cherry of no-shame. (“Cherry of No-shame” Copyright 2013).
I took one look at it, and saw it wasn’t for me. As if trying to con fans of Final Fantasy VII Cloud fans (http://youtu.be/ppvcqxfmPOE) to buy the thing wasn’t bad enough, they wanted to make sure they over-sexualize it to the masses because, I guess, that says something about the human condition or something.
No thanks. Give me non-human Red XIII finding his father or Cyan chasing after a train to the underworld to spite death any day. Those connections matter, not breasts popping out and sexy winks to the camera (also see Final Fantasy X-2). Those aren’t moments that are trying to always “one up” the previous scene, they’re just well written scenes with well-defined characters – two things that Final Fantasy used to stake its claim on. The plots have always been absurd, but the devil was always in the details and the presentation second to none.
But this is it. This is what Square is now: style over substance. The image of Lightning’s breasts hanging out and cool Yankis reenacting a scene from Reservoir Dogs where when I truly realized I didn’t recognize Final Fantasy anymore. Not only that, they were the images that showed how disassociated I had become from the franchise and company that, at one point, I made my entire long-term gaming-purchasing choices on. I realized that I had been holding on to something; thinking that Final Fantasy would turn a corner and I could call myself a fan without second-guessing those words. But instead of turning right, it turned left. Right was the road that games like Ni No Kuni or Xenoblade Chronicles were down: not a twisty-turning road but a smooth one that’s great to drive down. People like those, if not love them. That’s the direction of good game design and fan satisfaction, it’s not that complicated. Left was the path that Square Enix took: bumpy, twisty and doesn’t quite have an end but you hope it’s around the next forced-curve. I didn’t want to go down that. It just wasn’t a road that I recognized anymore.
But maybe I will go down it – just one final time. Since that old dog is gone and put down, there’s really only one thing left to do.
At the end of that road is a graveyard.. It’s on top of a hill surrounded by wrought-iron, and on the stone-arched entryway reads “The Once-Great-Things Cemetery.” As you pass by the graves of Atari, Mega Man and Sega you find the open grave and a tombstone that reads “Final Fantasy 1987-2013.” Probably sooner on that date of passing, depending on who you ask. For me, it was years ago. For you, probably the same though you may not have realized it yet.
You stare at that date, and you realize that you feel nothing. Final Fantasy was dead to you long ago when you put it down and didn’t even realize that you put it down. You just put off visiting that grave. That’s the end-game there. That’s the affirmation. You worry you don’t want to accept it.
But the thing is, you hadn’t seen it in years. It didn’t die in your arms, it just slowly faded away because it made you keep your distance. It became a fact. A statistic. No longer that thing you had a personal connection with. It’s that moment you become angry because you loved that personal connection as much as you loved Final Fantasy itself. You grow even angrier because you realize that you can’t even have the closure to it all. It’s still out there, teasing you as though it’ll rise from the dead. It won’t. Accept it. It’s been a decade now. All you have is the memories and you resent it for not even trying to reconnect with you. All you can do is stare at the tombstone, shovel in hand, and wait to start piling on the dirt.
You may not hate it, it did too much good for you to hate it. I know it did me, and hating it is too strong of a word. I can’t bring myself to hate Final Fantasy. I no longer have that love for it either. All I can feel is resentment.