When I was six, my best friend was a boy named Mike went to my elementary school. We’d spend every afternoon together holed up in his mom’s basement playing Super Nintendo. I loved Super Mario World and Pilotwings, but the game I always wanted to play was a weird little ditty called Final Fantasy IV. (Which we knew as Final Fantasy II, because numbers are weird.)
I was awful at it – I remember dying needlessly because I didn’t realize you had to use a potion to heal – but I didn’t care. There was something about the lush, colorful world, the complex and captivating characters, and the fantastical story that lit a fire in my young mind. I had never seen anything like it, and I couldn’t get enough.
If you’re into video games, you probably know the story of Final Fantasy: how a young, impoverished developer named Hironobu Sakaguchi had to make one more game before his company, Square, went under, and how that final fantasy (get it?) launched the most popular and influential RPG series in history. It’s unlikely success story, something that could be straight out of a video game itself. And it spawned a series that’s shaped my childhood memories, memories I still come back to two decades later. (Yes, I’m old- shut it!)
It’s hard to explain what Final Fantasy is about, because every game in the main series has a different story, cast of characters, setting, and even gameplay. What brings the games together is a style, a feeling. Final Fantasy is a series about swords, magic, crystals, steampunk technology, ragtag bands of misfits, evil empires, troubled heroes, Nietzschean villains, princesses with untold magical powers, and adorable yellow ostriches called Chocobos. It’s a weird and wonderful blend of fantasy, sci-fi, Greek drama, and, of course, anime. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The first Final Fantasy on the NES is pretty barebones compared to later games, but it was groundbreaking for the time – an open map where every direction led to adventure and mystery. Later games on the SNES built on these foundations with a speedier battle system and more complex stories and characters. It was the first time games were about more than getting to the end of the level or racking up a high score. Final Fantasy proved that games could tell tales of war, love, loss, and hope, that were as beautiful and meaningful as anything in a book or a film.
The peak of the series’ 2D era, in my opinion, is Final Fantasy VI. It ditched the medieval fantasy setting for a gritty steampunk-inspired world, and was the first game to feature a female protagonist, Terra. It also has my favorite scene in all of Final Fantasy, when the badass female general Celes moonlights as an opera singer and moves everyone to 16-bit digital tears:
Speaking of music, can I take a second to gush about the musical goddamn genius of Nobou Uematsu? This man composed the music for almost every game in the series, and it’s impossible to talk about Final Fantasy without mentioning him. His melodies are instantly recognizable and can stir your heartstrings like nothing else. I grew up playing classical piano as a kid, and I learned a lot about music by teaching myself to play Final Fantasy songs by ear. It helped me appreciate the craft of composition and inspired me to eventually write my own songs. I would say Uematsu is one of my top 10 favorite musicians of all time, and I’m forever grateful for the gift of inspiration that his music has given me.
Final Fantasy VII changed everything. It was the first 3D FF game, and its animation sequences were downright jaw-dropping in 1997. High fantasy was out – now you were in the dystopian city of Midgar, fighting a corrupt energy corporation to save the environment. (It’s almost like in the real world… wait…) All the characters are unforgettable and have their own unique story to tell. The story is dark and psychological, containing some of the most devastating plot twists in video game history. But it can also be fun, goofy, and, sometimes, achingly beautiful. FFVII is the definitive RPG, in my opinion, and Square has been trying to recapture that lightning in a bottle moment ever since.
That’s not to say the games that game after aren’t great, though. I feel FFVIII is a bit hit-or-miss personally, but I love the incredible music and the game’s sheer ambition. FFIX is like a Greatest Hits of the series as a whole – it won back the old-school fans with its retro fantasy aesthetic, but it still has as much story and character depth as FFVI, VII, and VIII. And with Final Fantasy X on the PS2, Square shook things up again, with a gorgeous South Pacific-inspired setting and a story about finding your own ideals in a world corrupted by politics and religion.
Unfortunately, after FFX, many of the original team left Square (now Square Enix) to work on other projects, and the series hasn’t quite been the same since. I did play a little bit of Final Fantasy XII, but found the combat system too unintuitive to really get into. FFXIII was critically panned for its linearity and incoherent storyline. And while FFXV won back some longtime fans, it didn’t get the same unanimous praise as earlier games in the series. It felt like Square Enix was just going through the motions, hoping that name recognition and nostalgia alone would keep Final Fantasy relevant for modern gamers.
But, hopefully, that will change very soon. With the Final Fantasy VII Remake coming out April 10, the world is waiting to see if this timeless story will blow everyone’s minds again in HD. I don’t own a PS4 myself, but I’m still psyched to see all the awesome gameplay videos and reactions from the community. I’m sure the game will keep the spirit of FFVII intact and be just as great as the original – but hey, even if it sucks, we’ll still have the classics to fall back on.
Final Fantasy has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, and I love these games to pieces. And since we’ve all been stuck at home for the foreseeable future, it’s the perfect time for me to revisit some of these classic RPGs and feel like a kid again. If you haven’t played any of the classic FF games – or even if you have, but it’s been a while – why not give them a shot? Each one is a world unto itself, where the only limit is the disk space and the creative team’s boundless imagination.
So I wanted to put this in the post, but, well… I have so much I want to say about Final Fantasy that one post is not enough to put it all down! I’ve been thinking of doing a retrospective of some of the games individually. Not all of them, that would take forever, but at least a couple of my favorites. What do you think? Would you enjoy something like this, and what games would you want me to cover? I have a few other posts planned so it might take a bit, but with the remake coming out I’m sure I’ll want to talk about FFVII again soon. Let me know 🙂
FF VI is my favorite in the series, the way music is used how character themes have several versions to depict how they felt. The fact that all the focussed on character vanish and becomw option was amazing and bringing locke and Celes back together felt so rewarding.
The Opera scene was so strong, the text reflecting her.. I saw it preformed live once and I kinda cried.. but I also cried when they played Aerith theme and out of no where they began to play Sephiroth theme trough it..cutting it off Sephiroths theme going stronger as Aeriths one faded away.
Final Fantasy I loved up to XIII which I really hated, loved 14 again but not much of mmo player. FF XV really was meh to me too. Could not get into that story or the characters at all. 😦
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Wow, that sounds beautiful! I would love to hear FF music from a live orchestra.
I do agree the series hasn’t been as good with the most recent entries, but maybe the FFVII remake will give Square Enix the juice to make some great new games again. The rumor is that they want FFXVI to be more of a throwback to the high fantasy settings of the original games, like FFIX was. We can only hope…