20 Years is a long time. Things change a lot over the course of two decades and Final Fantasy, the series I began following in previews of gaming magazines in early 1990, has hanged quite a bit since its American debut on the Nintendo Entertainment System and I have been there every step of the way. I don't tell you that to imply that my love of the franchise is any more than yours, nor is it to imply that I know every little nugget and detail of the series but rather just to give you a point of reference for things I will say.
My first experience with the series dates back to my time in the sixth grade and leaching off of Mike Flannigan for any sliver of gaming news, who had a subscription to Nintendo Power. The two of us had similar tastes, mostly sword and sorcery type stuff, and we both latched onto what, at the the time, we thought was going to be the coolest gaming experience ever, Final Fantasy. The game had been out in Japan for a couple years by that time but we had no idea about imports (or how to read Japanese) so instead we waited for its release, sometimes not so patiently. I remember quite clearly that the game was still not out yet but we took our bicycles to the local Toys 'R Us and pestered the clerk who would go back and get the games from the back for a good long hour about it until management finally threw us out under threat of calling our parents.
Of course being in sixth grade meant that we had a serious cash flow problem and we would need to come up with a way to secure the money for it once it came out. Mike had an easy way of securing money because he had a lawn and as a result owned a lawn mower however I had no such luck and I was going to be seriously short on funds when this game came out and I would be missing out on it. Turned out that Mike was somewhat short on funds when it released as well and as a compromise to allow us both to get it, I ponied up half the money (which turned out to be $35) for the game under the stipulation that I got to take it home first.
What I got when I opened the package was pure magic. Inside my box was the game cart, a fold out map/bestiary, a fold out dungeon map/magic chart, and an 80 page Explorer's Handbook. Games just don't release with the flair they had back then. Tossing all the cool stuff to the side though, I popped the cart into my NES and started up an experience that I still cherish to this day. I played the game for hours on end, stopping only to answer my mother's call of dinner. My parents politely asked me to go to bed, and then not so politely after I ignored them, and I paused the game, turned out the lights and pretended to go to sleep until I was able to sneak out of bed, grab the controller and play the game in the dark.
To keep this long story from getting longer, I loved it and it remains, to this day, one of my all time favorite games. Some people that have come into the series later believe that the game does not hold up well. I disagree, especially if you are playing the game on the PSP or the recently released iPhone version as the ability to save anywhere and the mobility of those platforms plays well into the level grinding gameplay that it requires. But I digress. I like it. Some don't. End of story.
Square continued to work on the series and I continued to stand behind it. Little did I know that my Final Fantasy II was actually Final Fantasy IV and my Final Fantasy III was actually Final Fantasy VI. Imagine my shock when I finally got the internet and found out that I had missed out on half of what I considered to be my favorite series.
I needed to play these games somehow. Enter emulation and fan translations. I scoured the seedy parts of the internet for emulators and ROMs, eventually finding fan translated versions of the games. To this day I think the fan translation of Final Fantasy II and III were actually better than the official translations Square has provided to English speaking fans. I also fell in love with Final Fantasy V and the gameplay changes the title brought to the series, the story maybe not so much but that is a tale for another day. By the time I was done with my “catching” up on the series Final Fantasy VII was getting hype in North America and I was all aboard that train.
Final Fantasy VII was something different, at least on the surface. It was something shiny and new and everyone, including those that had never played an RPG before, wanted a piece of it. I would be lying if I said that I did not act like a bit of a Final Fantasy snob when VII was released. Of course after VII everything changed and the genre became a cultural phenomenon that not only giant geeks like me loved but seemingly everyone did. Looking back Final Fantasy VII gets an awful lot of shit for not being such a “great” game. Honestly, it is all in the eye of the beholder and no one can dispute what Final Fantasy VII did for the Sony Playstation and the JRPG genre of games.
With the release of VIII, I finally ran into a core game in the series that I did not love. VIII had a lot of quirks that just did not stick with me at the time. I hated the draw system. I hated Squall. I hated the pseudo-political goings on in the game. And despite spending an awful lot of time with the game, getting all the way up until the final disc, I ended up hating the game for the fact that my memory card glitched as I was nearing the end. As I have matured Squall still annoys me but I do appreciate the story more and the draw system is not quite as bad as I remember it being so I may one day through my PSP go back and finish it all the way.
My disappointment in VIII was completely turned around by what I consider to be the best entry in the series on the PSOne, Final Fantasy IX. IX was a throw back to all the old games in the series. I loved the characters, particularly Vivi in his black mage outfit I loved the art style. I loved the fact that the game revolved around crystals for the first time in a long time. I tend to believe that if you don't love Final Fantasy IX, you don't really love Final Fantasy because it combines everything that was great about thee previous eight entries in the series and delivers one fantastic title. (By the way Square and Sony, where is FF IX on the PSN?)
Final Fantasy IX marked a distinct end to an era of the Final Fantasy games though because since then, nothing in the series has been anywhere near as playful. In fact I feel the spirit of the series has been adopted by the Kingdom Hearts franchise but I'm getting off track. Don't get me wrong I enjoyed Final Fantasy X immensely but there was something different about it. It just didn't have the same magic for me.
After X, I started to drift away from games. It was not a long hiatus but it was a hiatus and as such I missed out on the release of XI and X-2. XI held no interest for me because it was online and I wasn't really equipped to set it up. X-2 was a game featuring characters from X that I did not really care much about. Something drew me back though, possibly the impending release of XII but I don't think so and I did eventually play X-2.
A lot of people hate on X-2 and say it is not a real RPG. I contend that argument could be made about a lot of JRPGs but no one ever seems to want to listen. Anyway, I did not hate X-2. Sure it was silly and the story made little sense but I found the battle system to be fun in a weird I like to play with Barbie's kind of way.
Then XII came out and I was pumped for it. XII was to take place in one of my favorite video game worlds ever, Ivalice. I do not love Ivalice because of the wonderful tactical strategy game, Final Fantasy Tactics but rather because of a little title known as Vagrant Story. Being as I loved the setting and the idea of a more mature and somewhat political Final Fantasy I was all set to love the hell out of this game. I made it two hours and set it down for nearly three and a half years. I am enjoying it more on this current playthrough but I still don't love it, especially this back half that I am currently in.
In between FF XII's release and now I played through Crisis Core, the DS versions of Final Fantasy III and IV, watched the strange Advent Children film, thought about playing Dirge of Cerberus and bought Dissidia. I have mixed feelings about that lot but that is for another post.
All of this of course brings me to this week. Final Fantasy XIII. Excited is not really the proper term for what I am. It transcends excitement and enters into a whole different realm. My history with the title grants that to me. Its like seeing a loved one for the first time in a long time. You know they've changed but you can't help but smile when they come down the runway.
That is not to say that I am looking upon Final Fantasy XIII with blind faith though. You may still love that loved one that you haven't seen in a long time but maybe you don't love them in the same way anymore. The early reviews are not great, although they are not exactly in bad or mediocre territory either, so we will see what happens when I get my hands on it myself. (It gets delivered Tuesday but it may wait for me to finish XII first)