Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Final Fantasy Adventures: Final Fantasy

What I've decided to do is play through each and every numbered Final Fantasy game, starting with the first and ending with XIII, excluding XI and XIV because they don't count. So really it'll only be twelve games. Twelve games that average 30 hours each. This is the first installment, where I talk about the first game in the series.

Play time: 18:03 from approx. 7/26/11 to 8/1/11

My experience with the very first Final Fantasy game began frustrated, as I had to re-purchase a game I already owned. My copy of Final Fantasy I & II: Dawn of Souls was functioning completely normally, except whenever and wherever I tried to create a save, it said "Save Failed." The save function was, well, nonfunctional, thus rendering the game completely useless. It's not like I was going to power through 15-20 hours of one game in one sitting. Nine hours, maybe (according to my Wii activity report, I spent 9 hours at once playing Majora's Mask, but I think I might have left it idle for some of those hours), but certainly not 20. Anyway, because it was non-functional, I was forced to buy the over-priced iOS version of the game, which is $8.99. EIGHT FUCKING DOLLARS AND 99 FUCKING CENTS. Not only that, but I have to pay ANOTHER $8.99 for the next installment. To encourage attention, I won't be buying it until I finish this one anyway, so I won't really need to worry about money just yet. What I'll really worry about is the price of the iOS version of Final Fantasy III: SIXTEEN-FUCKING-NINETY-NINE!!!

Alright, to be fair, this is technically a slightly touch-tweaked version of the PSP remake of the game, with gorgeous graphics and perhaps more legible text, which is itself probably cheaper than trying to find the game on the PSP. Still, $8.99 for a game that's almost twenty-five years old is a little bit much for my taste. Now, the Wii Virtual Console has the original version of the first Final Fantasy (oxy moron?) for 500 Wii points, which is just $5 as opposed to $9 for the iOS version, just without the pretty graphics and music. However, one can only buy Wii points in $10 increments, which STILL makes it more expensive than the iOS version, and copies of Final Fantasy I & II also go for more than the combined cost of both iOS games. I also don't own a PSP, which means that really, I've made the best and cheapest decision. Still, money-hogging corporations make me angry from time to time.

I booted the software up after it finished downloading and I was greeted with a serenade of a solo harp performance of the traditional Final Fantasy prelude (to date one of the most beautiful pieces of video game music). [This next part happened when I played it on the GBA the first time] I selected the only option, New Game, and already the baffling began. Though I knew one could name their characters whatever they wanted, and having never played the first Final Fantasy, I was used to each character having their own default name. These names were picked by the creative staff and I always chose these over custom names; I felt like choosing more common names for characters, like "Jeff" or "Jacob," would break the mood (imagine Squall with a name like "Mike" or "Jim"). I was surprised when I was greeted with default character names as nice as "??????", which is of course not a name but a space to input one's own names. Another interesting aspect to me was picking their classes as well, but that wasn't a hard decision; I knew I needed a warrior, and I didn't want to deal with the compromises a Red Mage had to deal with (picking 3 out of 4 spells per magic level was hard enough), so a separate Black Mage and White Mage was necessary. All that was left was the Thief, and since there was no steal function, as everyone had exactly the same set of commands, I didn't think there was much use for one, so I went with the Monk instead. Naming wasn't really that hard either: in the end I just went with the first and best name that came to mind when I came to that character. I ended up with four Warriors of Light: Jeffry the Warrior (Sir Jeffry when he became a Knight, obviously), Malice the Monk, Androm (short for Andromeda) the White Mage, and Yaxley the Black Mage (inadvertently named after Yaxley the Death Eater from Harry Potter).

Satisfied with my choices of name and class, I moved on to the next screen. "Yep," I thought, "This is an NES game." The problem I've had with NES games, even NES game remakes, is that I've never really been able to properly finish them (with the exception of Metroid: Zero Mission). Not a single one (Metroid: Zero Mission). No NES game I've picked up have I finished off (MZM). The game plops you right on the world map to begin, right in front of a town. I'm sure the original game manual might have had a nice little hint that told the player to walk into the castle and see the King, but no, not here. Because it's not obvious at all that it's your first destination. One of the reasons why I sometimes find it hard to get into games as old as the NES is that the game design seems to be totally bipolar: the game either has only one direction ever, making for a totally boring and linear experience (Super Mario Bros., but that isn't boring), or the world is totally, completely open and the game puts you right in the middle of it with little to no instruction or direction: it's made so you have to figure out everything for yourself, which means most of the time you spend playing the game is spent dicking around, trying to figure out what to do and where to go (Metroid is a good example of this, but also not boring). In this case, there's no world map so there isn't really much of a way to keep track of where you are (really, what true hero goes on an adventure without a map?). I suppose I'm just more used to the later Final Fantasy games' slightly more linear approach to game progress. I also realize that technology was limited back then and keeping a mini world map on the screen at all times would have proved challenging, but this is a remake, and to be honest I expected better. As I progressed through exploration (and the help of an online map) I realized more and more that this game expects me to figure out what to do next and where to go, which gives the game an added level of challenge. Good thing there are internet guides for when I get stuck (which is a lot).

Just like all Final Fantasy games that I have played, the game starts out slow and boring. I have to tell myself to play or to keep playing because I know it will get better. I know that once I get a better scope of what's going on in the story, as well as when I have a better idea of what I'm doing as far as playing the game goes, I get more excited, more hooked, and eventually I can't put it down. It took me until after the assault of Midgar before I got more pleased with Final Fantasy VII. It took me until Blank's petrifaction in Final Fantasy IX before I really got into that game. But there was a problem with this game. It was my fifth hour of playing, around a third or fourth of the game, and I still felt like I was telling myself to play, even though I was having good fun while actually playing. Five hours, and I had only just escaped my circular oceanic prison within the southern continent. Astos was defeated (I got a kick out of pronouncing his name "Ass-Dose"), the Elvin prince was brought back from his sleep and the Mystic Key was clutched in my hands alongside the four crystals. The problem was that none of the crystals had actually lit up yet. I consulted a guide to find that the next four sections pretty much entail getting each of the four crystals bright and shiny, and then the last section for the final boss. It was nice to know that I would soon be reviving the Earth stone (a quick look at the map also revealed this). This got me a bit more excited about the game, and the knowledge that I won't be getting to any richer experiences until I finish this one was on its own enough to provide me with the determination to press on.

There's also something completely game changing about playing silent characters whom you named and classed. The fact that the protagonists are silent means that there is a special connection between the player and the character; their triumphs are not truly their triumphs: they're yours instead. Their losses are your losses. Their emotions are replaced by yours and they become you just as much as you become them. The benefit of having silent, emotionless characters is the special connection the player forms with them in an attempt to replace their coldness with him/herself. Another surprising tradeoff from other Final Fantasy games is naming and classing the characters yourself: because they are who you want them to be in name and job, they become your creations. There comes from this a new level of satisfaction, with the knowledge that your creations, your choices and combinations are working in the game's system, and selecting names for your creations is just like icing on the cake, solidifying the illusion that these characters really are like the children of your mind.

Playing the game on the iPod nets some pretty nice bonuses from the other versions of the game: primarily being the PSP version of the game, the graphics are splendidly gorgeous, which is only enhanced by the retina display; the touch controls make menu navigating even faster; and once I discovered that one could save anywhere and be able to pick up right where you left off, it was possible to pick it up and play for a few minutes wherever and whenever I wanted (and since I carry my iPod with me wherever I go, it's like taking a deep RPG experience with me without sacrificing pocket real estate). Ultimately, though, I wished I was playing on a DS or PSP. The biggest and most prominent problem throughout the game is not the anything the actual game makes, but it is instead the iPod's battery life. Machines built for gaming have better batteries that can stand up to the device's power-mongering, but when one tries to play a game so demanding on a device which possesses a battery built to take not much more than music and web browsing, one has a problem. It becomes impossible to play for hours on end without being tethered to a computer or a power outlet, which is made worse when the cord that comes with the device is only four feet. I don't think Final Fantasy II will be much more of a hog for power, though it may be longer, but I know for a fact Final Fantasy III is both longer and more graphically advanced. Still, if it means I can get a price discount, I can probably live with it, and the tethering at least means I can lie back on my bed while I play.

One of the greatest parts of the game, nay the entire Final Fantasy series, is the music. Uematsu-San was very limited in the beginning when making this game, and porting this game really means updating old music instead of introducing new tracks. As I played I was really surprised at the depth and diversity of the music, from the opening solo harp performance, to the soothing town music to let you know you're safe, to the frantic boss fight BGM. I found myself playing the game more in the comfort of my home so I could listen to the music without disturbing anyone else, finding out which new track would represent each new location, each new action. One other drawback to playing the game on an iPod device is the quality-lacking speaker. This is fixed easily by wearing headphones, but another problem is presented in my use of actual headphones as opposed to ear buds. As I have vowed never to willingly use ear buds for anything at all, I can't comfortably lay my head down on a pillow, one of my favorite ways to play handheld games.

I persevered through the game despite my slight lack of enjoyment and enthusiasm for it. It wasn't long after breaking away from the first continent that I really started to like the game. It grew on me as I ventured through the cavern or Earth and defeat the Vampire waiting for me at the end only to find out that he was not the one responsible for blocking the Earth Crystal's light. I returned and murdered the Lich out of pure anger for making me traverse his dungeon not once, but twice. I set out for Crescent Lake to find a smaller boat that would take me through the river maze to Mt. Gulg.  I descended into the depths of the volcano's lava-soaked cavern, defeated Maralith and took back the Fire Crystal's light. I found the levistone and took it to a particular desert, where I discovered my very own airship. Now it wouldn't be such a pain to travel from continent to continent. Or was it? Since a good deal of every continent's ground is forest or otherwise, it was difficult to find a landing zone for all the places I needed to go. Nevertheless, I sucked it up and continued. I climbed the Citadel of Trials to retrieve a token of my courage. I visited the friendly dragons on my way to seek out Bahamut, King of Wyrms. I showed my courage and he gave me strength. I was now Sir Jeffry the Knight, Master Malice, White Wizard Andromeda and Black Wizard Yaxley. There were many hardships on my way to kill the Kraken (who himself was rather a pushover), and even more as I approached the lair of Tiamat. With all four crystals restored, I set out to destroy the true enemy: Chaos.

It was a long and tough battle, but once I reached him I struck down Chaos. It was glorious.

All in all, Final Fantasy is a great game, even if it's just a distraction to play on your iPod or a fully-fledged game to which one must devote himself. With improved graphics, musical quality and bonus content, the PSP has the definitive version. The story is not exactly deep, but of course that's to be expected from games as old as this one. I'm not sure I expect much better from Final Fantasy II, except there is apparently better character interaction and a strange new leveling system. 'Till then.

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