Since we've got a little bit of a gap in big RPG releases at the moment, I've spent the last couple of weeks playing catch-up. A couple of games I missed when they came out recently. One... quite a bit older. Final Fantasy IX was one of those games that slipped past me at the time, not because I wasn't aware of it, but because I didn't have a Playstation at the time, and by the time I bought a cheap PS2, a double-whammy of Final Fantasy X and X-2 made it tough to go back to the previous generation. Square's recent rush of re-releases finally offered a good chance to catch-up. But I'm not really planning to talk about that specifically. Instead, I was pondering the sad fate of that most cursed of Final Fantasy fans... those of us who came to them on PC. Brrr.
I do think of myself as a Final Fantasy fan, though it's nowhere near my love for, say, Ultima (take a shot) and I freely admit that my fond memories only really start with 6. Prior to that there wasn't the degree of plot I needed to get past the bits of the JRPG genre that I've never much been a fan of, like random encounters and a love of grinding. Also, none of them in my opinion comes close to Chrono Trigger - another game I sorely wish I'd been able to play at the time. Surprising as it might seem, these games just weren't released in Europe at the time. It was of course possible to mod your console and import them, but that wasn't really on the table for a couple of reasons - there wasn't a chance in Hell that my parents would have let me hand over my expensive SNES to some guy so they could do it, and I don't remember JRPGs being all that prominent in my guide to the wonderful world of imported stuff, UK magazine Super Play. They tended to be more interested in the arcade stuff or anime.
I'm not saying they never covered Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger, I'd be amazed if they didn't, just that at the time neither of them particularly caught in my head. I wasn't really aware of the series until Final Fantasy VII smashed through the world on its mako-powered hype-train, and even then, it was just another game on a console I didn't have and wasn't likely to at any point in the future. And indeed, never did. At that point, my mental image of the JRPG was, well, Zelda, mixed with a few others that I'd seen in passing like Faxanadu and Castlevania 2: Simon's Quest, which wasn't a JRPG, but still had something of the same mindspace. Seemed to, at least. At the time. The main thing I knew about the series was why it had such a strange name - because it was secretly a totally different game, Doki-Doki Panic, rebranded in a hurry to capitalise on Sega failing to run spellcheck when it released Phantasy Star and so leaving the word 'Fantasy' open for anyone to grab. Or something like that, anyway.
In short, yes, I am the absolute worst kind of Final Fantasy fan, who came to it only when it was cool, and who hasn't played half of the games for more than a few minutes. I have also never played a single Dragon Quest game, but I have completed three different Pokemon journeys. To make matters worse, the first of them was Pokemon Yellow. So, yes. In JRPG, we're looking at the job class 'hipster', at best.
But screw that. What I like about Final Fantasy and JRPGs that I have played in general still stands - how much I appreciate their general view that fantasy should actually be fantastical, rather than simply remixing the same few tropes like wizards and warriors. In many cases that does admittedly just mean mixing different tropes, but I'll take that, and it's still often JRPGs that will land a genuinely brilliant hit like the courtroom scene of Chrono Trigger, in which your actions in a seemingly innocuous setting earlier in the game suddenly take on a whole new level when used as a character trial, or just a premise like Final Fantasy X's Sin - not so much the backstory as the basic concept of a beautiful world where death could hit at any time courtesy of an aquatic manifestation of mankind's evils. (At least until you find out the truth behind the whole thing, which is much stupider, even for a game whose basic plot to that point can about be summed up as 'find God and try to beat him up with a basketball'.)
After years of very straight-laced RPGs, Final Fantasy VII in particular was a revelation. I'd seen many a hero take up arms against an unstoppable evil. I don't think I'd ever seen one don a dress and wig earned by doing squats in order to try and seduce a local gangster in a part of a futuristic/fantasy town where the houses sometimes decided they wanted a piece of you. In retrospect, I think the game's mostly a bit of a mess - sorry - but that first playthrough was amazing. It had to be for me to continue, because Final Fantasy VII is the single worst port I have ever had the misfortune of playing. Whether it's the ghastly MIDI music or the fact that it only actually loaded one time out of five, the whole thing felt like Square actively punishing PC owners for playing on the wrong system. Final Fantasy VIII wasn't that much better, but at least the stability was upgraded from a one-legged clown trying to tightrope-walk over a chasm to a one-legged clown trying to tightrope-walk over a chasm with a tightrope.
The main problem with VII is that I knew most of what was going to happen long before it actually did. With VIII, which looked stunning at the time, I was able to go into the game and experience it at its own rate, without too many existing spoilers or expectations. Even with limited knowledge of JRPGs it was obvious that the story went to hell at the midpoint, but the whole experience still stands out as a very warm memory - the characters, yes, including Squall, especially after his speech on why he keeps himself to himself, the big dramatic sequences, plot elements actually affecting the characters, the split storyline between the main gang and flashbacks to the far cooler Laguna and pals in the past, and some interesting mechanics, like a late game boost to the difficulty by sprinkling far tougher monsters into the world after their release from an orbital prison. It had a coherency that Final Fantasy VII generally lacked, not least because that game's obsession with throwing literally everything into the pot rarely seemed tempered by what the story actually needed... seriously, bloody Cait Sith... and a focus on character that we now take for granted in Western RPGs, but which hadn't yet really bedded in. There'd be occasional examples of it, like the same year's Planescape Torment, but they too still stood out as something special, or occasionally unusual enough for it to be seen as a problem. (I remember at least one Torment review for instance dinging it for not having as many NPCs as Baldur's Gate, never mind their huge difference in complexity and narrative depth.)
Despite liking these games though, it wasn't until reaching for a SNES emulator that I really began appreciating the series - Final Fantasy VI's music alone made it a game I had to play, much like hearing the Zelda theme back in the day did more to create the image of a sprawling, epic world than even the SNES' amazing graphics were able to create. Even now, it's depressing that this is the only way to play them properly, thanks to Square's terrible mobile ports (and subsequent PC ports) seeming to go out of their way to make them look crap. I'd love to see them port Chrono Trigger, but only if it was a 1-1 graphical port like the Nintendo DS version that finally let me play the thing to completion and realise that it is indeed as good as everyone claims. I can only imagine having had the chance to play it back when it came out. I'm surprised it didn't start at least one world religion back in 1995. The First And Last Church Of Lavos, perhaps.
Aside from Chrono Trigger, obviously, I still hold FF6 as my favourite. The sheer variety of it. The mid-game twist. The mix of magic and technology that later games would double-down on, but often in the name of creating pretty looking but nonsensical stuff like FFX's Blitzball arena instead of things that actually feel like they could fit and be part of a wider world. I actually liked Final Fantasy X a lot, ignoring the tedious temples and Seymour being one of the least convincing threats to the world ever... oh, that can-opener hair. The pilgrimage plot was perfectly suited for the genre's linearity, and oh... the sheer joy of an RPG being set in the sun. Beaches! Beautiful oceans! I get so tired of dark dungeons and miserable medieval worlds. Okay, so X-2 took things too far with its fan-service and story that revelled in its own pointlessness, but you know what? I'll still take it. Even heroes need a holiday now and again. And a good laugh.
Unfortunately, the relationship with the series was pretty fleeting. Final Fantasy X was the last one I had a working Playstation for, and so I soon drifted away. I played the online only XI for a while, since that at least was on PC, but it sparked no new embers. Until writing this and thinking "Wait, what happened to XII?" I'd apparently missed that there even was one. It seems to be the most forgotten game this side of Leisure Suit Larry 4. And after that, well, we all know what happened after that. Final Fantasy XIII. The linearity. Lightning. The uninteresting worlds. Lightning. The final triumph of stories designed to fill 50 hours regardless of whether they're worth 50 hours. Lightning. You may see something of a pattern here. But with XIV and reports of the new XV, I'm actually in the mood for the series again. As I've mentioned before, XIV is a surprisingly good MMO... second time around... not least because it's one of the few that actually bothers teaching new players how to play MMOs. XV offers a more open world approach in a world fairly similar to Earth, give or take the monsters, and I really hope that Square's current push to port the games means that we'll see it without having to wait a decade for once. It actually looks exciting in a way the series hasn't for quite a long time - in terms of tech and possibility, not just movie rendering quality.
But, there are worse ways to wait than Final Fantasy IX. I doubt I'll actually finish it, though it's already pretty obvious why it's a game people like but don't generally bring up first in conversation compared to the more immediately impressive earlier Playstation games, but often go on to mention in a "But my favourite was always..." kind of way. Still, it's been fun to finally sit down and fill in a missing chapter of the story while waiting for the next big adventure to hit, and good that Square has finally worked out that there is in fact a market for these games. Working copies, even. Now, if only more Japanese companies would take notice. There's a whole beautiful world of JRPGs and adventures out there that either never made it across or never got their due back in the day, and this is the perfect time to dig them out of the archives and give them a quick polish, a new audience, and the now expected features to take the sting out of grinding and particularly painful bosses. Sure, there's emulation, but if the last few years have shown anything, it's that if something is available legitimately, people will pay for it. If we can play bloody Bubsy as penance for sins committed, we really should be able to play Chrono Trigger on demand. That's games as a service for you, especially as I suspect Steam will be around quite a bit longer than the current incarnations of Nintendo's Virtual Console.
Unless a meteor happens to be on the way to kill us, of course.
Just to be sure, better take good care of your local florist.